You Can Check Out Anytime You Like, But You Can Never Leave
“You mean, welcome to the Hotel California. All of these years and you still can’t get the greeting right.”
“Another one! Oooh, he’s cute!”
“Gorgeous. I wonder if we’ll be able to keep him…”
A chorus of quiet, ghostly voices followed him down the corridor, and he gulped. He wondered if he was just imagining it, if it was all just a figment of his overtired imagination.
If he hadn’t been almost out of gas, he wouldn’t have stopped. But he had been driving all night, and was in desperate need of rest. This hotel, a crumbling and regal remnant of an older time, had been the only open establishment for miles, its neon lights casting a rainbow of colors across the night-blackened sand.
The hallway seemed to elongate and stretch like taffy, making him wonder if perhaps he’d pushed it too far. He was certain that after some sleep and some food, everything would be better again. He frowned, scrubbing a hand across his eyes in irritation. It was nearly three in the morning, and he needed to get it together. The voices seemed to follow him, quiet but persistent. He reached the door and slipped the key into the lock; it was an old-school, legit key, not one of those electronic cards you’d get at a regular Marriott.
This place was so weird, he thought as he turned the key and opened the door. It was almost as if it was stuck in the period in which it had been made, a portal unto itself. This feeling was further cemented by the room he entered into: all rusty orange shag carpeting, cheesy, shiny red velvet wallpaper, ugly plaid comforters. It was like a very drunk and angry interior designer had brainstormed all of the ugliest things you could put in a hotel room and put it all together, an ugly kind of joke.
The whispering wouldn’t stop, but it had died down to the point that he barely heard it. And anyway, he was certain that it was just his mind playing tricks on him…
When he awoke again, there was a knock on the door; he’d fallen asleep right on top of the blankets, without even taking off his shoes. His throat was dry, and his tongue was stuck to the roof of his mouth. He would’ve given anything for a drink, anything to parch his throat. The knock sounded again, more insistent this time.
“Give me just a second! I… I’m not decent!” He dug through his duffel bag and pulled a shirt out of it, though it was wrinkled and dirty and smelled like the desert, wind and sand, then pulled it over his head. When he was sure that he looked okay, well, as well as he could, considering that he had just gotten up, he opened the door to a strange sight.
An old, wizened man stood at attention, like a soldier, next to a rolling cart, laden with covered dishes.
“Hello, sir. My employers felt that you might be hungry and insisted that you be brought food.” He smiled, and the guest had to resist the urge to shudder.
The Butler, as he had been dubbed in the guest’s mind, still tired and sluggish from his late night, was tall, and his skin was wrinkled and papery, with an unpleasant greenish tinge underneath. His teeth were sharp and pointed, as if they’d been filed that way. His clothes were years out of date, a suit complete with a red bow tie and sharp coattails. His fingers were long and spidery, with nails that had a bluish tint under them. He smelled of minty aftershave. But even with all that, his guest could help but back deeper into the room.
“I… That’s very kind of you. But I’m actually not hungry. And I couldn’t pay for all that. Thanks anyway.” He tried to close the door in The Butler’s face, but quicker than blinking, he caught the doorknob.
“Please, my employers insist you dine. After all, this is a hotel, and we wish to show you the best example of our hospitality.”
The guest frowned, and he sighed, rubbing a hand over his neck. He felt his jaw beginning to clench, but he stopped himself. He didn’t want to offend these people, not when he already had such a bad feeling about this place.
“Would it be all right if I showered and changed, and met you in the dining room? I was raised to eat at a table, even at such a… gorgeous establishment like this one.”
“Very well, sir. I’m sure that my employers would love to meet you in a more formal setting also.”
After he showered and put on some clean clothes, in the form of a pair of torn jeans, a gray muscle shirt, and a black leather jacket with colorful skulls embroidered on the back of it, completing the look with steel-toed boots, he dug through his bag and retrieved his switchblade; he wasn’t sure exactly why, but this place gave him the creeps.
He tucked the weapon into the cuff of his jacket, his spine tingling with unease. Sweat formed on his brow and dripped down his face, and he frowned. This heat seemed to seep into everything, stealing what little energy he had left. He wished that he hadn’t agreed to this meal; something in his gut told him that he’d just signed up for something huge, and he hadn’t yet seen the consequences.
At last, he reached what looked to be the old ballroom; the room was all bright gold wallpaper, adorned with summer fruit, and the floor tiles of the palest rose gold. In the center of it sat a long wooden table, set for many, surely more than there were in the hotel. But there was a couple sitting at the head of it, and The Butler hovered by the door. When he spotted his guest, he smiled, then turned to look back at his employers.
“Please, come sit,” He invited. “My employers are most eager to meet you. We haven’t had many guests recently.”
The man could hardly imagine why, haunted as the building seemed to be. Full of history and more than a few ghosts. He had already begun to regret stopping in this place. But those regrets evaporated almost instantly upon seeing his hosts.
They were obviously a couple, a man and woman seated side by side. They were a study in contrasts, and soon the man had forgotten about the meal, so consumed was he in studying them. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but there was something about this pair that set him on edge and begged closer inspection, all at the same time.
“We’ve heard much about you from our faithful servant, young man.” The woman spoke first, a seductive purr that sent chills skittering up and down his spine. She was lovely, exquisite, and under the table, he felt his fingers twitching with the urge to touch her. Her skin was smooth and dark, reminding him of the night sky, with a subtle glimmer like the stars, and her eyes were a warm, honeyed amber, lit with a fire that he couldn’t decide was malice or excitement.
“But you must be famished. Please, eat. And then you can answer our questions.”
Her companion, on the other hand, frowned, arms crossed, his chair pushed back from the table, his long legs on the table. His skin was so pale that it looked as if he were formed from moonlight itself, his eyes like two chips of ice, this skin adorned with colorful tattoos, even on his face, curling like smoke onto his cheeks and climbing up onto his forehead. His jaw was clenched, and his eyes darted between their guest and his companion, twitching as though he could barely stand to stay still.
As if by magic, food appeared on covered dishes, releasing the most enticing, mouthwatering scents. He was so very hungry. What was the harm in accepting? “I… I don’t feel comfortable eating in front of people,” He lied, his gut roiling with warning. “Why don’t my kind hosts join me?” He offered, though every instinct inside of him was screaming to abandon this meal, to turn tail and run while he still could. But he had a feeling that it was far too late for that now.“
We aren’t much for eating big meals,” The man countered, his voice gruff and angry. “We were kind enough to give you this feast. It would be rude to refuse.”“Don’t be rude to our guest.” The woman replied, and put a glass of wine in front of him, smiling. “You’ve nothing to fear. Not even my brother here. You were on the road all night, were you not? Even something small would help.”
Resigning himself to his fate, he lifted the cover to one of the dishes that had appeared in front of him. It was laden with bright, ripe peaches, and just the smell made his mouth water. He took one, and lifted the fruit to his lips, ignoring the way his stomach knotted up as he did so. He bit into it, the warm juice dripping down his chin.
The siblings smiled, first at each other, then at the man who had unwittingly become their prisoner.
“You’re ours now.”