To dismiss the story I’m about to describe as one of mere paranoia would be to do a disservice to the eeriness of the world. A superstitious man would suggest unholy agents had been at work. I’m not superstitious, but the memory of it all still raises hairs on my neck 13 years later. It was as if I’d walked into a crooked little stitch in time that occupied the same space of the building to which I had to bring a pizza.
I remember quite clearly pulling my car up to the middle of the block diagonally across from the Grover Cleveland Hotel. I’d delivered to nearly every hotel in the downtown Richmond grid, but it was my first time to this one, another presidentially appointed relic of early 19th century amenity. It was around seven on a late summer night. Earlier in the day I’d gone to my classes and now I was working, running between downtown and The Fan slinging cheese pies. This was the last of a 5 order run, the previous four having all been to residential addresses. With longer circuits I had the luxury of taking my time if I wanted, but I needed money and was hustling to get back to the restaurant.
The area surrounding the hotel wasn’t a busy part of town. A few parked cars punctuated the otherwise empty streets, the lights of a barbershop here, a diner there. A warm wind blew through my windows as I killed the engine, finishing out the last two minutes of the Fear Factory track that was playing. A city bus slowed for a vacant stop at the end of the block and then continued on, passing the front of the hotel before it disappeared.
From the backseat I grabbed the pizza bag, its red surface stained with dark grease spots. Inside was a single pie, a flat bread Mediterranean with goat cheese, olives and pepperchinos. It wasn’t my favorite on the menu but it had its merit. Walking to the hotel I noticed it was under some kind of construction, with bits of scaffolding along the side of it going up several stories. From the 6th story up the building was dark. It looked like a giant black stone had been sat on top of the glowing lower floors, its mass threatening to crush the 5th story at any moment.
Unlike every other hotel I’d ever delivered to in the former Confederate capital, the entrance of this one was entirely empty. A low light illuminated the front desk, but nobody stood behind it. Clusters of musty green leather chairs sat situated around heavy round wooden tables, all unoccupied. There was no concierge standing at his post, no guests wheeling about suitcases. The fountain in the middle of the vast atrium was dry. High above it a multi-tiered chandelier glowed dimly as if its control dial had been turned back to the lowest setting. The automatic doors closed behind me with a faint murmur and I stood still, looking for signs of life. As I stepped further inside, I looked around the massive granite pillars for any hint of activity, but there was none to be found. The white order slip I held did indeed say Grover Cleveland Hotel – Rm. 446.
Crossing the shadowy carpet toward the back where I assumed the elevators were, it occurred to me that there was little more light inside than outside. Had I owned a cellphone to check the contact number scrawled on the paper, I would’ve used it at this point.
They must be running on minimal operations, I reasoned, timidly padding into the deeper into the interior. Lights for the bathrooms, the snack bar, the restaurant were all dark. Just a few fixtures above me on the pillars lit my path. Even the elevator lights were dark. But the doors parted when I pressed the arrow and so, despite a growing inclination to turn and abandon the job, I was compelled to carry on. A light blinked on as entered, shabby pink carpet below my feet. The button board’s tarnished brass plating warped my reflection, making me look grubby and grotesque.
Buttons 6 through 13 were dark, confirming what the building’s exterior had intimated: the top of the building was closed. I pressed 4 and the weights lurched, jerking the elevator upwards. As it moved up the shaft the ghostly sound of air being displaced whispered above me. On the 4th floor I got out and checked the room number – 446. The floor diagram on the wall showed it to be on the opposite side of the building’s wide square layout. The hallway was reminiscent of the Overlook Hotel, minus the warmth of a grand mountain lodge. Naked light bulbs flickered every 10 feet or so. No artwork on the walls, no tables with fake plants in the corners. I listened for voices, TV noise, any indication that somebody else was on the floor, but there were none. Turning left at the corner I kept counting the rooms as I went, past 415, 421, 430. I turned another left and continued until I reached the middle of the hallway.
The door to room 446 was the same as every other, an olive green rectangle with a dull brushed-metal knob. I put my ear to it and listened, thrilled to hear the faint sound of a TV and knocked hard three times. It annoyed me to knock incessantly for countless minutes before people got around to answering their doors. My new policy was knock hard if there wasn’t a doorbell, and wait a minute. If that didn’t bring them, I reckoned a swift kick at the baseplate wasn’t out of order.
On the other side of the door a bed creaked and a body shuffled about. The deadbolt snapped back, but when the door opened the chain was still done. Half of an old woman’s face looked me up and down through the crack. She closed it, undid the chain and opened the door partway. I was given a nod, but she said nothing. Her hair was a blizzard of misaligned strands and she wore what looked to be some kind of pajamas suit with an old knit jacket over it. I told her the price and she counted money out of a pocket purse.
As I took the money and handed her the pizza, I noticed a little girl behind her, looking at me from around the corner. She couldn’t have been older than 6 or 7. In her hand was a ratty blue blanket that she held close to her bone white, almost translucent face. The older woman was her grandmother I guessed and she smiled when she saw me looking at the little girl, turning back to her with the pizza box outstretched for her to take. The girl walked forward, accepted the box and disappeared out of sight.
I thanked them and the door closed without her having said a single word. My job complete, I wanted nothing more than to get the fuck out of the hotel. There was another elevator just two doors down behind me and I took that instead of returning the way I’d come. Inside I saw buttons I hadn’t noticed before. There were the 5 numbered floors, as well as Mezzanine, Lobby, Ground Floor, B1 and B2. I pressed Lobby and when I stepped out of the elevator not half a minute later the room I entered was not the one I’d originally come through. It was faintly lit and had a long bar on the right side that disappeared into shadows. It was, as the entire hotel seemed to be, devoid of people.
I knew I was on the backside of the hotel and got back in the elevator and pressed 1st floor, thinking to go back to the familiar layout of the hallways and walk back around to the front side elevator. This was more sensible than trying to navigate the dark labyrinth of an entire floor. Back on the first floor, as I made my way down the hallway, I caught myself walking unnecessarily fast and tried to slow my pace. But long empty hallways in dark forsaken hotels will have that effect and I continued at a fast clip. To get back to the shop, I told myself. After turning several corners the other elevator failed to materialize. Had I passed it? No, that was impossible.
Just then a door to a stairwell appealed itself to me and I took it, remembering that stairs often provided a direct exit to a building. I went down two flights without seeing another door and then down two more. The walls were cinderblock painted hospital blue, the metal stairs a sickly yellow. My footsteps echoed above and below me as I descended.
Still no exit.
I turned on the next landing and saw a sign, or rather a mark, painted directly onto the wall. In what looked like red spray-paint were the words Basement 1. A kind of template had been used to frame the lettering but whoever the writer had been had sprayed too closely for the paint had dripped, looking much like the bloody scribbles of a lunatic.
My pace quickened and I skipped stairs down to the next landing. A door! I tugged on its latch several times but it was locked. You’re fucking kidding me… Just at that moment, far above me was the sound of a door slamming, or something like furniture being thrown about. I couldn’t be sure. It was violent and abrupt. Then all was quiet.
I continued down the stairs in growing desperation for an exit. The sweat of my hand mingled with the pizza bag’s grease and made me feel queasy so I switched it to my other hand. A matching sign was painted on the landing 4 flights lower. It felt like I’d gone down 10 floors now, far below street level. If there was access to the lower basement, what chance was there that it would lead to outside? I didn’t care. I just wanted out.
Two more flights and then the staircase came to an end. There was another door, also locked. An icy primeval fear spread from the base of my neck, numbing me. I listened, standing absolutely still. The only sounds I heard were my own panting and the beating of my heart. With nowhere else to go I began to climb the stairs again, ears tuned upwards. Again, I passed the bloody signs, their drips looking longer than before. As much as possible I kept my footsteps soft. For a moment I thought to take off my shoes, but didn’t. Up I went, uncertain of how many flights I’d gone. A second crash came, this time from below. From the bottom door? I froze, not allowing a single muscle to twitch. Was this some kind of TV prank? If so, it was going to be a smash fucking success. Dread tightened its hold on me, my legs weak and wobbly.
Feeling quite the child, I hurried up to the 1st floor door and cracked it open, peering through. It was the same hallway as before. I strode towards the elevators, struggling to remain composed. Surely there were others in the building. Some staff had to be working tonight. It was inconceivable that the only other people in the hotel besides me were the old woman and the child.
Back in the elevator I pressed the button for the Mezzanine, not even sure what the word meant. Even with a watch I wouldn’t have been able to tell you how long it was before the doors opened. Five seconds? Five minutes? When they did a great long balcony stretched before me off to my left and right. Below the balcony was a fountain, the same as the one I’d first seen. I walked down the right side to the end looking for a staircase down but there wasn’t one. I tried to look across the inky expanse of the atrium to see if there was one on the other side and saw nothing.
I just had to go down one floor. One floor and I was out. I looked over the railing and fought temptation. It was too far too jump safely. In the elevator, I went to press Lobby, but hesitated. The last time it took me to the bar. But that was on the hotel’s back side, I reminded myself. I pressed it and when the doors opened this time, the fountain I’d just been looking down on was nowhere to be seen. It was the same room as before, the same bar. I stepped out into the room a few feet. My eyes adjusted a bit and in the far left corner across abyss of the room I could see the slightest crack of light coming through an open door. Did it connect to the lobby, then?
All of a sudden the elevator doors closed behind me, before I had time to get back in. Above, a small orange 4 glowed among the other blank digits. Steeling myself to the task I half walked, half jogged into the darkness, keeping my eyes on the light of the door. Jet-black shadows, chairs and tables I assumed, appeared before and beside me and I bumped into a few as I went. Something momentarily snagged my bag, almost ripping it from my hand. Nearing the door, I heard the elevator doors ding as they opened behind me. I looked back and could just make out the silhouette of the old woman standing inside, the little girl’s body in her arms.
My heart lodged in my throat and I wiped tears from my eyes as I burst out into the lobby. I ran, past the columns and the gushing fountain, past the mustached men at reception desk, past the guests laughing in the green leather chairs, past the concierge as he lunged for me.
In my car I fumbled with my keys. When I turned the corner, I took one last look at the Grover Cleveland Hotel in my rearview mirror. It was as dark as the night sky.