Shadows And Charades

Entry by: Deedee

30th December 2016
Once, many years ago, there existed a place called Burden. It was located somewhere between Here and There – although, for the most part, it resided in the territory of Nowhere. Its dark capital crouched like a small, cancerous mass amid a populace ground down by discontent and bitterness. Its urban fingers sprawled briefly outwards, until they seemed to forget their purpose, gave up, and gave way to parched fields and spindly trees.

These hinterlands were known as Despair, and a half-hearted river crawled through them like a teardrop meandering down the grubby face of a starving child, carving out a feeble tributary that looked as though it might vanish, given the right climatic conditions.

It was into Burden that a man named Saul Ohio rode late one night. His horse, grown lame a number of miles back, had rallied, bringing him to the doors of a large, shabby hotel, before collapsing and exhaling its last breath into the dustbowl that was Main Street.

Saul took one parting look at his faithful nag, then pushed his way through the entranceway of Burden Bar & Hotel, where he approached the sullen, moustachioed clerk who was manning reception.

Although visitors to Burden were sporadic, the clerk displayed no excitement or even surprise to find a potentially paying guest stood before him. Indeed, he barely raised his eyes from the game of Solitaire he was playing, giving Ohio a quick up and under before mumbling, “How can I assist you?”

“I’d like a room for the night. Maybe two nights, if you have one going,” Saul said. From the look of the place, he reckoned he could have the run of the hotel for a year without encountering many other patrons.

The clerk made a show of checking his ledger, running a stubby finger across the lines of the book. “Could squeeze you in for one night. Not sure about two though.”

“Gets busy here, does it?” Saul asked, seeing nothing but blank space taking up the pages of the tome.

“Not busy in the way you might think,” the clerk replied, finally meeting Saul’s eye and holding his gaze.

“Busy how, then?”

“Ah, well you’d be surprised how things turn around here. One night nobody, next night nobody, and so on and so on. But then there are times when we enjoy a fair flurry of visitors. Might not look it, but we’re a popular stopping off point. Take your own self for example, Sir. Whatever the purpose of your visit to Burden, I’m willing to lay money on the fact that your business isn’t here, in this town. Maybe it’s a ways down the road. Maybe it’s in the next city. Whatever your agenda, I’m guessing you weren’t planning on stopping off here.”

Saul took a deep breath, feeling the weariness flood into his bones. “You’re right. I’ll own that this town was not my destination. Not tonight, Sir, nor any night. But my horse grew lame, and I was hoping to rest him up here awhile before continuing on.”

The clerk did a double take, and made a show of looking around. “So where is this fine, albeit lame, beast, Sir? We have a serviceable if shabby stables around back. I can call on our stable-hand to indulge your horse with enough hay and water to make him comfortable. Him being a horse, I’m sure he won’t mind that those equine premises have seen better days.”

Saul held up a hand. “That won’t be necessary. Unfortunately, your locale was a mile too much for my gelding. He collapsed outside. He is there now, nose to the dust. I expect I will need someone to come and take him to wherever it is you bury your departed steeds around here.”

The clerk, raising a finger, dabbed at the corner of both eyes, in a show of mock sadness. “Oh, sorry to hear that, Sir. Very sorry. And so it begins.”

“So what begins?” Saul asked, arching an eyebrow.

“Why, so begins your purpose in Burden.”

“I don’t follow. As I said, I have no purpose here, other than a stopover. I shall be gone in the morning – the next at the very latest.”

“Yes, I’m sure you expect that you will,” murmured the clerk. “Until then, here are your keys. Room six. Up the stairs, third door on the left. I hope all will be to your liking, but if it isn’t, please don’t feel that I’ll be able to do much about it. Good night, Sir. And good luck.”

As Saul ascended the stairs, he wondered at the strange turn the conversation had taken, and resolved to quiz the clerk further in the morning. For now, though, he concentrated on turning the key to room six which had become stuck and was refusing to cooperate. After a few more tweaks and shoves, the lock finally gave way, revealing a small, dour room that had nothing to recommend it in the slightest, apart from the fact that it was a room and provided some shelter at least.

A sagging, narrow bed sat in one corner, opposite a small washbasin that was chipped and cracked, its once-white surface rimmed with grime from others’ ministrations. A single wardrobe took up the other corner and, next to it, a decrepit chest of drawers.

It was a monk’s quarters, but without the requisite sense of peace. Quite the contrary. This room had a heavy, oppressive feel and, all at once, Saul felt a sense of doom descend upon him. He immediately set to whistling, but no tune, however jolly, could ease the creeping dread that layered itself thickly about his person and which grew more profound with each passing minute.

Shedding his clothes, down to his long johns, Saul crawled into the cold, uninviting bed, where he lay, passing the lengthy hours until dawn, trying to ward off the growing instinct that something was amiss inside the Burden Bar & Hotel.

The next morning, finding the front desk empty, Saul made his way towards the rear of the hotel in search of breakfast. There, he eventually stumbled across a small parlour. There were five tables, but only one was laid, so it was at this one he settled himself.

The silence within the room soon became something tangible and heavy. All the usual bustling, tinkling, clattering sounds of morning at a hotel were absent, and Saul was just about to retreat and hunt down breakfast elsewhere in Burden, when a waiter appeared, shuffling through a set of swing doors at the back of the room. It was the clerk from the previous night.

“Oh, so you wait too?” Saul said.

“Too? I don’t know what else I may be called upon to do here, Sir,” the clerk/waiter replied, “but if it should be anything more than waiting these tables, nobody has told me about it.”

“But I saw you last night. You were overseeing the reception desk.”

“No, not I.”

Saul could feel his temper rising. “You did indeed. We spoke about my horse – it had collapsed on the way into Burden.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, Sir. This is not uncommon. Most horses do expire in this manner.”

“What is this charade, man?” Saul yelled, thumping his fist on the table. “Tell me, do you have a twin?”

“Not that I know of,” the waiter replied, his moustache twitching.

“Well, a doppelganger of any sort?”

“I couldn’t say. But not here. Now, what may I bring you for breakfast? Our eggs are mainly scrambled, no matter how else you wish them to be, and our toast is invariably burnt, but things only get worse from here on in, so I’d make the most of them if I were you.”

The waiter made to retreat, but Saul stood quickly, his chair clattering to the floor, and he grabbed him by the arm. “I demand you explain what’s going on here. This hotel isn’t normal. Not by any stretch.”

“Very perceptive of you to notice, Sir.”

“No wonder nobody wants to stay here. It’s a shambles.”

“I wouldn’t say that. We’re full to capacity at the moment, Sir. Very popular if you ask me.”

Saul took a deep breath, attempting to steady his nerves. “But last night I saw your ledger. It was devoid of names. This hotel is quiet as the grave. There is nobody else here but I, it would seem. What game are you playing with me?”

“You are here, but not yet looking,” the waiter said, his lips rising in the semblance of a smile, his eyes as cold as a snake’s.

Instinctively, Saul raised his own eyes, letting them roam briefly around the room. As he did so, he caught a movement in his peripheral vision, a dark shadow in the region of the table next to his. Turning, he saw more shadows form, just out of his immediate sightline.

“Your companions,” said the waiter. “Can I get you some coffee while you wait?”

“I’m not waiting for anything. I’m done here,” Saul hissed.

Gritting his teeth, he strode out of the parlour, towards the lobby. The way wasn’t right though. At every turn, the passages confounded him, until he found himself come full circle, back outside the parlour.

The waiter was immediately before him, grinning wolfishly. “You’ll find there isn’t a way out of Burden, Sir. Not until it’s time for you to go on to Despair, at least. We’re just waiting for one more guest to join you and the others, then you can all head on over together.”

“Others?” Saul shouted, feeling tears course down his cheeks. His sight blurred, and he suddenly saw what he’d been unable to with full clarity of vision. There, at the other tables and chairs, the shadowy forms of people began to reveal themselves. A man and a woman at one were clutching hands and weeping. Next to them, a waitress poured coffee into two chipped, dirty mugs.

Across the room, a man was hugging himself, rocking to and fro.

“Your travelling companions, Sir,” the waiter said. “Each of you entered Burden last night, and soon you will leave. We are, as I’m sure you were told, just a stopping off point.”

“Goddamn my horse!” Saul snapped. “If that godforsaken beast hadn’t lamed itself then died, I could have passed by here and escaped these games.”

The waiter chuckled. “Oh, Sir, it’s not your horse that was godforsaken. Not a bit of it. Wasn’t just your horse that died either.”

Trembling, Saul fell to his knees. “You lie! You lie man! I am clearly very much alive. I’m as alive as you. I am. Here, I pinch myself and it hurts. I am flesh and blood, and you are toying with me in a most grotesque way.”

“Ah, Sir, it’s been a long time since I was alive,” the waiter murmured. “Here in Burden is my Purgatory. Look and see.”

Raising his eyes, Saul let out a choked gasp. Before him, the waiter had transformed into nothing more than smoke and shadow. “I must go now, there are more guests arriving soon,” it whispered, its voice now thin and insubstantial. “There are always more guests arriving at Burden. Always more.”

“Wait,” Saul gasped. “Don’t go. I need to know. Just one more thing. You said Burden is a stopping off point for us. A stopping off point for where?”

“Why, Hell, Sir" came the voice, fainter now, a mere memory of sound. "And once you see Despair, you’ll realise quite how lovely your stay here in Burden has been.”