Realizing it has been a long, long time since I did a random rejection, this week, I decided to fire up the old random number generator and reach into the old accordion file of denials (and the occasional acceptance). This time I was told to take the 26th rejection from the “D” folder, and so here we have this one, from Dark Regions magazine (which is still around, and is now the specialty book publisher Dark Regions Press), for my short story “The Last Vacancy”:
As you can see, even by the standards of rejection letters, this one is pretty boring; it was returned without comment because the magazine was overstocked. Yes, that’s right, kids: Once upon a time, before the Internet really took off, there was only a limited amount of publication space in the world, sort of like how there was only a limited amount of space in Mr. Creosote’s stomach.
This is what happens when you have too much content.
“The Last Vacancy”, which is the tale of a hotel you don’t want to stay at, was inspired by the hotel in Niagara Falls that hosted the 1997 World Horror Convention. I don’t remember exactly what was so terrible about that hotel except that I’m pretty sure the heat went out to most of the building while we were there. And maybe there was something wrong with the plumbing?
It was past midnight and George Hewitt was still driving. Past midnight: past the transition from one drizzly, useless day to another drizzly, useless day. The rain had been following him for five days now, like a stupid dog that didn’t know when to quit chasing a car. The incessant grey was infectious and depressing and he remembered that when he’d been a kid he had thought he’d be retired by the time he was this age. Retired, and living under the sun in a beach house in Florida.
But there he was instead, wipers thumping through the drizzle, trunk loaded up with samples of paper products, headlights showing him rain-slicked streets and deserted sidewalks and sodden lumps of garbage slowly melting on the curbs, boxes and papers and miscellaneous trash running together in a thick slurry that flowed slowly into the sewers. There he was, looking for a place to roost for the night, so that in the morning he could canvass the city for people who might be interested in changing office supply vendors. There he was, his beach house fantasy long since washed away by the rain.
He selected his lodgings entirely by accident; he took a wrong turn and came to a dead end instead of the bridge he’d been looking for. A rusty guardrail with a CAUTION sign on it blocked further motor vehicle progress. Beyond the barricade a dirty river ran through a shallow concrete sluice. He could see its black surface churning in the flickering reflection of the neon sign on the squat building to his left. The sign said Spillway Hotel in big blue letters and, in smaller red ones, Vacancy.
Hewitt sat in his car and watched the sign alternate between blurriness and clarity as the rain peppered his windshield and the wipers swept it off. After a little while he decided to chance it. He grabbed his bag and went inside.
The lobby was small, with walls like a cardboard box. Through a dim opening in the back wall, jukebox music carried the promise of anonymity and cheap liquor. Hewitt crossed to the front desk, walking on tile patched with ragged duct tape. A listless woman stood behind the counter. Her skin was milky pale, her eyes watery blue. Mousy yarn-like hair trickled from beneath her red cap.
“How much for a room?” Hewitt asked.
She stared at him briefly, wondering perhaps what storm had washed him up there. Her eyes seemed to float in their sockets, as if the pallid irises were nothing more than smoke. “Ten dollars a night.” Her voice was throaty, bubbly. Sickly.
The place was even cheaper than he’d expected. He handed over thirty dollars. The clerk reached under the desk with her flabby white hand and produced a tarnished brass key. She smiled as she slid it across to him. “Room one,” she said. “Our last vacancy.”
Hewitt got out his handkerchief and picked the key up with it, not wanting to contract whatever ailed her. As she put the money away, he nodded toward the open doorway in the back wall. “How late’s the bar open?”
“Oh … it never closes.”
Hewitt liked this place already.
His room was on the ground floor, down a length of shabby, ill-lit corridor. It looked out over the river. Hewitt stood at the window a little while, watching rain slither down the glass. The stream tumbled over the broken concrete of its channel in frothy abandon. He could see a storm sewer pipe jutting out from the opposite side, disgorging filthy street water into the flow.
Made him thirsty.
He wandered back to the lobby, where the clerk stood silently at her post, watery eyes surveying the room with the haughtiness of a queen overlooking her court. The strains of the jukebox tickled his ears as he entered the bar. He took a seat at the counter opposite the door. Nobody else was in the place. Odd. With the hotel supposedly full, he’d have thought there’d be somebody down here drinking. The bartender was looking at him, waiting for an order. “Whiskey sour,” Hewitt said, sending the man to work on his bottles like a medieval alchemist concocting some arcane brew. He brought the drink over a little later and Hewitt noticed that he was awfully pale, just like the clerk. Had the same weird eyes, too. He coughed stickily as he moved away. Something was going around. Hewitt looked at his drink and wondered if the glass was clean.
Well, the alcohol ought to kill any germs, right? He took a sip. Strong enough to strip paint. It would definitely make short work of bacteria. He knocked the drink back and ordered another. Then he smelled cheap perfume and, looking to his left, discovered that he wasn’t alone anymore; a woman stood at the bar beside him. She wore a short, tight, sleeveless green dress, cut low in front. “You look like you could use some company,” she said.
After recovering from the surprise of her sudden appearance, Hewitt said: “Maybe I could.”
Her candy-apple lips crumpled into a smile. “Yeah? Me too.” The tip of her tongue appeared, a paler shade of pink than the surrounding painted flesh. Her eyes flicked to his drink in an obvious request. Hewitt called the bartender over. The woman ordered a dry vermouth. The man nodded and returned to his bottles, doughy flesh jiggling.
“I’m Sherry,” she said.
“George,” Hewitt said.
“Here on business?”
“Business,” she said.
“You staying here?”
She shook her head. “I come and go.”
The bartender’s flabby hand placed a drink in front of her. Hewitt paid for it. Sherry drank it in a gulp, then ran her tongue around the rim of the glass, looking into his eyes as she did it.
“So, George,” she said, “you up for a little fun?”
She was on Hewitt as soon as the door to his room closed behind them, big breasts flattening against his chest, lips smearing his face with cherry gloss. She expertly undid his belt, opened the buttons of his shirt one-handed. She let him untie her dress and it dropped to the floor in front of her. She wasn’t wearing anything beneath.
He tugged her toward the bed but she resisted. “Shower,” she whispered, grasping his erection like a handle and pulling him into the bathroom. She turned on the water and stepped beneath it and invited him to come in behind her. He did, eagerly. She snapped the curtain shut.
“Pull out,” she said over her shoulder, as Hewitt entered her. He managed a grunt as he thrust. He hadn’t done this in a very long time and meant to enjoy it.
The shower drummed on his back. In front of him, Sherry clawed at the discolored tiles with painted nails, making faint scratching sounds. She had a big, bold, fresh hickey right at the base of her neck. He moved a little and water sprayed her, sluiced down her spine. Hewitt thrust harder. She pushed back against him. He couldn’t contain himself much longer.
“Pull … out,” Sherry gasped.
He felt the explosion building inside him, and let it loose. Sherry shrieked and shoved back against him, knocking him away from her. He slammed into the wall. The faucet knobs gouged him in the back. His legs buckled from the sudden sharp pain and he fell to his hands and knees as his pulsing member shot its pleasure into the tub. The swirling water carried it away, down the drain.
“I told you to pull out!” Sherry shouted. Hewitt tried to speak but didn’t have any air to manage it. He couldn’t stand. His lower back burned where the knobs had struck.
He heard the door slam.
By the time he managed to clamber out of the tub, Sherry was long gone. He checked his wallet. She had taken the fifty dollars he’d promised her, but left the rest of his money and his credit cards.
An honest prostitute, he thought, rubbing his sore back. What a fucking wonder.
The next evening, Hewitt dragged himself back to the hotel after an unproductive day pushing paper products to the meager businesses on the east side of town. He’d made only one sale, a small one, enough to cover the luxurious comfort of the Spillway Hotel but not his five minutes of passion with Sherry.
He stuck his head in the bar before going back to his room. Deserted. Sherry wasn’t around. He wouldn’t touch that whore again, anyway. Not after she had attacked him like that. Hewitt wondered what the big deal about pulling out was. Was she afraid of getting pregnant? She had to be on the pill, right? Right?
Well, it didn’t matter.
He went back to his room, kicked off his shoes, and entered the lavatory. He stepped on something hard, cold, and slimy; it shot out from under his foot and he grabbed the towel rack to keep from falling. His back wrenched; the spot where he’d struck the knobs flared up, dizzyingly painful. He delicately lowered himself to the floor. The thing he’d stepped on lay a few feet away. It was the grate to the shower drain, a corroded metal grille maybe five inches across, glistening with moisture. What was it doing on the floor?
Hewitt crawled to the tub and looked inside. The black hole of the drain beckoned. A bitter, bleachy smell rose out of it. He bent over and put his face closer to it. The sides of the pipe were coated with ancient gunk. He heard a faint, unpleasant bubbling from deep within the plumbing.
Using a length of toilet tissue, he picked up the grille and dropped it back into place. The screw that secured it was missing. He’d have to be careful when he stepped on it.
He pulled himself upright. His back still hurt but it wasn’t incapacitating anymore. He finished his bathroom business and went to his bed. It was rumpled and unmade. Well, for ten bucks a day, what sort of maid service could he expect? He sat down, then jumped up again with a cry of disgust. The bed was wet, and it stank like bleach.
He looked at it more closely and saw some kind of gunk on it, lacy ribbons of whitish goo swirled lengthwise along the mattress. The pillow had a dent in it as if from a head, and the stuff had pooled there in a thick, sludgy puddle. Hewitt fought down the urge to vomit. What the hell had been going on in his bed?
He clenched his fists as he suddenly imagined her there with a couple of clients. He pictured her urging them to pull out, their spewing cocks leaving him something to remember her by.
That was it. Had to be.
The smell was making him dizzy. He went to the window and opened it, letting in the sound of the river and a wet, fishy odor that wasn’t much of an improvement over the acrid stink he was trying to get rid of. The hotel hadn’t gone to the extravagance of a screen, so he stuck his head out and gulped a mouthful of cold, damp air. Four feet below his window, a narrow strip of crumbling cement separated the building from the channel. Hewitt put two and two together and realized Sherry must have come along the ledge and climbed in through the window, which hadn’t been locked. His own fault for not checking.
When the air had cleared a bit he closed the window and thumbed the latch and shut the drab curtains. Using a towel to protect his hands, he began pulling the soiled linens off the bed, bundling them up into something resembling Santa Claus’s sack. He dragged the sodden bedding to the front desk. The clerk watched him approaching, looking interested but not saying a word.
“I want new sheets,” Hewitt said.
She shrugged. “Fine.”
“And a new mattress.”
“I’ll have one brought to your room.”
Nonplussed by her easy acquiescence, Hewitt said, “Well, okay then.” She didn’t respond; after a moment he turned and shuffled back up the hallway, and by the time he got to his room there were already two big guys standing outside it with a mattress leaning up against the wall between them. Christ, but that was fast. The two men watched him with pale, watery eyes set in doughy faces. The place was clearly a family operation. A family of goons.
He opened the door and they wordlessly brought in the new bedding. They removed the old mattress and replaced it with the new one; then they surprised Hewitt by neatly fitting it with sheets and departing without waiting for a tip. Once they were gone he turned out the light and settled in beneath the fresh linens. The sick, bleachy smell still hung in the air, cloying but tolerable. Hewitt tried to sleep, but couldn’t. He kept going back to the image of Sherry’s naked body. He reached down and slowly began stroking his flaccid cock. After a while he got more serious about it; not wanting to make a mess in his bed, he went into the bathroom to finish the job. He ejaculated into the tub, the white dribbles standing out against the dark, streaky water stains.
Feeling a little more relaxed, he went back to bed.
As he was drifting off to sleep, he heard noises from the bathroom: gurgling, and then scraping, like metal against tile. Hewitt switched on the light beside the bed. Dim illumination filtered through the dusty beige lampshade. It showed him the door to his room at the end of the stubby hallway, still locked, still chained; it showed him the curtains hanging limp and still over the window despite the wind that howled outside, the rain that pelted the glass with bullet-like intensity.
What was in his bathroom?
And how had it gotten in?
It came to him after a moment: rats. Rats, climbing up the drain pipe and pushing the unsecured shower drain grille out of the way with their filthy, quivering, grime-encrusted noses, and padding around his bathroom with their sharp little feet.
Hewitt slipped out of bed. He picked up his shoe and held it by the toe. It was a good, heavy, solid shoe; nothing that got whacked with it would soon forget the experience. He went to the bathroom door, listened for a moment. The scraping sounds had stopped. He adjusted his grip on the shoe and flung open the door and flicked on the light.
He entered the lavatory and looked in the bathtub. The grille was partially dislodged. He nudged it back into place with his toe. He noticed that his semen was gone from the tub. Rats must’ve licked it up and left. The thought made him want to puke, and he pushed it away.
As he headed for the door he saw himself in the mirror, naked and puffy, drools of black hair running down his chest to puddle on his junk food belly, eyes shot with crimson from too little sleep and too much alcohol; and he thought: Would you buy paper products from this man?
Would you fuck this man for fifty bucks?
Would you remember this man thirty seconds after you saw him on the street?
Hewitt dropped the shoe and it clunked to the floor.
Look at him. Jesus, just look at him. What a wasted life. It didn’t have to be this way, did it? He still had time to change things, didn’t he?
Tomorrow. Tomorrow he would quit this nowhere job. He would go to the gym, get back in shape. He would go to college, get a degree. He would do anything, if only he never had to look in the mirror again and see a small, fat, frightened, ridiculous man looking back.
After a moment he turned out the bathroom light and crawled weepily into bed.
A few minutes later he reached into his bag, found the cool glass neck of a bottle, and pulled it in with him.
He awoke the next morning hung over and forgetful. He vaguely recalled making some sort of resolution the night before but couldn’t remember what it was. He had coffee and two sticky Danishes in a run-down café up the street, then went about town with his samples in a vain attempt to generate some interest. He returned to the hotel after dark. The desk clerk watched him pass by her station; the bartender glanced at him through the archway; one of the big guys who had brought his new mattress looked up from his vigorous scrubbing of the bandaged floor. Hewitt walked past all of them, taking no interest in their sodden blue gazes. He just wanted to fall into bed and forget the last few worthless days. The prospects on this route sucked and he would tell his boss so when the smug fat bastard asked why Hewitt’s sales figures had declined for the fifth straight month; he would tell his ex-wife so when the ungrateful shrew called screaming that her alimony was late again.
As he turned the corner to his room, he caught a flash of green entering the stairwell near his room.
He hurried to his door, unlocked it, threw it open. The stench of bleach and rot that washed out nearly bowled him over. His bed was an even worse mess than before; and it wasn’t just the bed this time, either. White goo was everywhere, hanging like crepe from the walls and fixtures, dribbling down the lampshades, depending like flypaper from the ceiling.
Jesus Christ, what had that bitch been doing?
Before he could think about it he was running down the hallway, into the stairwell. He hesitated on the landing. Which way? Up? Down?
From below, the sound of a door closing.
He took the stairs quickly, breath coming in gulps. It occurred to him suddenly that Sherry might be
armed—prostitutes often were—but it was too late to turn back. He’d have no hope of catching her if he went to his car for the tire iron. Besides, he could take care of himself. He outweighed her by a hundred pounds, easy.
One flight down, the stairs ended in a rusty steel door. He pushed it open and stepped into a barren concrete hallway. Water pipes and drains ran overhead. Empty laundry carts clogged the corridor to his left, stained canvas vats sagging from spindly metal frames. He turned right and passed through a swinging door into some kind of machine room. The air was moist and hot, like a bathroom after a shower, and it stank like the inside of a Clorox bottle. Steam hissed and billowed from pipes and boilers. He heard water trickling from somewhere to his left.
He moved warily through the forest of metal contraptions. The stench was overpowering. He pulled the neck of his shirt over his nose and mouth and smelled his own stale body odor instead. He ducked beneath a jet of vapor like warm breath, and then he was in a large round clear area against the back wall of the hotel. Through a barred opening near the ceiling he saw the night sky. Beneath it was a broad sheet-metal tub full of bubbling, steaming, off-white goo. It popped and gurgled like a witch’s brew. The drain pipes overhead had been torn open; they dripped steadily into the cauldron. As he stared, a rush of scummy liquid poured through one of the jagged ruptures and spattered into the morass beneath.
Hewitt felt his gorge rising in his throat as he thought of his own fluids flowing through those dark pipes and drooling down to seed this gunk. This was what Sherry had plastered around his room. This.
But what was it?
Sherry stepped out of the crevice between a massive iron boiler and the wall. She didn’t look at him. A ribbon of pulsing white slime trailed out behind her, attached to the back of her neck like some sort of diver’s lifeline. Attached to what he’d thought was a hickey.
“Your room is ready,” she said.
Addressing the vat.
Hewitt heard a noise behind him and whirled. The two big guys, the clerk, and the bartender were lined up there, slack faces looking past him, staring at the basin. Behind them in the drifting steam, other shapes hunched and quivered, gooey misshapen whitish lumps with watery blue eyes. A dozen of them; two dozen. They populated the openings between the machines, haunted the nooks and crevices of the room. Silent, watching.
Behind him, the sound of a large bubble popping. A powerful wash of fetid bleachy breath. He turned. A wad of foamy vanilla sludge had overflowed the side of the vat and detached itself from the rest to creep toward him across the concrete floor. He recoiled. Strong arms snaked around him and held him still.
Hot white tendrils curled around his shins. The stuff oozed up his body.
Hewitt began to scream.
He kept screaming until the salty, tangy, bleachy stuff clogged his throat, crawled inside his eyes and turned them blue.
Outside, the buzzing neon sign said No Vacancy.
“The Last Vacancy” was published in the ‘zine The Earwig Flesh Factory in December 1999. This magazine also published my story “Underground with the Mouthless Girl”, in which someone has an unfortunate run-in with a churel, which is a type of ghost you probably don’t want to meet.