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  • Writer's pictureAnais Sobrier

Red Winter

Style: Short story.

Statement: "Red Winter" is a short story, in which I experimented with sensory images, repetition, and symbolism to evoke the building itch of anticipation that movies and literature use to grip me. I also experimented with overlapping two horror clichés: dying and being trapped in a haunted building. Having restricted myself to two characters, I focused on their interactions, both verbal and nonverbal, to develop the tone and plot.

The snow gradually padded the ground until all was white, except for his red car passing through the mountain road to Lake Tahoe. The car radio lost signal hours ago, and so he was accompanied only by the static sound of a snow storm. After the monotonous hours of driving, all he could smell was the faint scent of his college dormitory, yet he was left with little recollection of that place. Everything up until his suspension became a knotted string of half-memories.

The car wheeled to a stop onto a raised surface off the road, where he was greeted by a hotel shooting above the evergreen trees. From his spot, he was looking at the building from the same angle as the picture taken for that newspaper article. The hotel was the infamous location where a woman had been murdered a few decades ago by someone who staged it as a drowning. The suspected killer, reported to have been the victim’s roommate, disappeared and was never caught.

The driver had not booked a reservation at the hotel out of sick curiosity, rather because he fell upon its low prices when looking for somewhere near to stay. He grabbed his hiking backpack from the passenger seat and shut the car door. Trudging through the deep snow, his red boots sunk through, leaving heavy footprints on an empty landscape. A propulsion of wind screamed shrilly, cutting through the trees and attacking his ears. The air felt too cold to breathe, sharp and icy from nature’s inexorable power. Right when he was an arm’s length away from the large entrance doors—just one motion away—the hotel opened. Hit by the sudden embrace of heat, he let his chest expand and experience the warmth overflow his nose and mouth.

“Good afternoon.” The greeting came from a slender man in a red bellhop uniform with icicle-sharp features on his slim face, who stood ramrod straight with one hand behind his torso and another by his side. Both men stood looking at each other, remarking that they must both be in their early twenties. The bellhop’s lips were slightly pursed together in a flat smile. The hotel guest tried to return the friendliness, but his face, still thawing from the chill, did not oblige.

The guest assumed the bellhop was waiting for a response. “Um, I have a reservation.”

“Oh, yes, yes. Mr. Allen?” The bellhop’s sharp features seemed to soften all of a sudden.

“Mhm,” Allen replied, breaking eye contact to scan the palatial lobby.

“Up this way, sir.”

Before Allen could take a step toward the red-carpeted stairs, the bellhop placed a hand on Allen’s backpack strap, halting him. For a fleeting moment, Allen and the bellhop were motionless. Nothing in the hotel moved.

“Let me take your bag for you.”

“Ah, um,” Allen fidgeted away after catching a whiff of rotten water from the bellhop’s clothes. “I’m good.”

“Oh, no, no, allow me, please,” the bellhop affirmed, pulling the backpack off Allen’s back. “I had almost forgotten my manners,” he chuckled clumsily, like a late reaction to a joke.

“It’s fine.”

“It’s been a while since I’ve had a guest,” he explained. “The hotel really does need more, seeing as I’ve nearly lost the habit.”

Allen felt the pressure to respond, to say something, anything to keep the conversation going. He collected his words into an innocent question instead. “It’s just you here?”

“No, no,” he denied, waving both hands. “There’s the hotel manager, the cleaning ladies, and all the others of course.”

“Oh.” Allen pretended to think about the bellhop’s reply. “The weather’s been slowing business?”

The bellhop’s lips flattened into an uncomfortable smile as he exhaled through his nose. “Well, a bit.” The two reached the second floor and continued through a hallway.

“What are you here for, if I may ask, Mr. Allen?”

The stranger’s curiosity towards Allen was unfamiliar. When he was suspended from university, he doubted anyone noticed. If anyone did, they must have not cared to react. “A break from school” was all Allen managed to explain to the bellhop.

“Hm,” the bellhop responded with attentive eyes and eyebrows raised nearly to his hairline.

The bellhop stopped in front of a door with two pairs of stacked 0s on top of one another, forming an eighty-eight at the center. “Here,” he voiced, handing Allen a small key and the backpack. A sudden wave of cold raced through Allen’s veins when the bellhop’s fingers skimmed his skin. Allen thought it was impossible for someone standing on two legs to hold such warm vibrancy despite being so utterly frigid to the touch.

“Thanks.” Allen walked through the doorway. He then looked back at the entrance, where the bellhop still stood. For an uncomfortable second, the bellhop looked back silently with his mouth open as though he were about to speak.

“My name is Alfred Moore,” he sputtered out. “Please do come down to the lobby for anything.” Before Allen could react, the bellhop left.

Allen thought no more of it and confirmed the click of the lock before falling onto the bed and cradling himself to one side. The bed was inviting—so much so that Allen could sink into it, but it was much too spacious for him alone. Had the previous guest been alone in here? Or rather, when was the last time there was a guest in here? Since the room’s price was so cheap, Allen did not regard the question with concern. Instead, he turned his head to face the window. Unlike the air outside, the air inside the hotel was so motionless that he could not feel himself breathe. The ceiling lights blazed on, penetrating his heavy eyelids, illuminating the room as if it were day. Allen’s chest tightened and his stomach stirred with each drawn-out breath, every one of them so long and subtle as though nothing was entering nor exiting. A wave of drowsiness was luring, dulling, and pulling his head, urging him to sleep away any feeling in his body.

When Allen awoke, there was white stuck to the muntins of the window, but the light seeped through and spread itself through the room. As he planted his feet to the ground, he felt an unfamiliar lightness in his movements, possibly because he was not used to sleeping on a bed that was not from his dorm. He headed over to the bathroom and turned the sink’s faucet to splash water onto his face.

Allen tossed his clothes to the floor and stepped in the shower, bending over to turn the knobs. Liquid hit his back. Looking down at his feet, He saw something horribly wrong—horribly, horribly wrong. The water was blood-red. His eyes shot up to be confronted with a sharp color coming out of the showerhead. He stood in the tub, expecting his eyes to readjust and see clear liquid, but when the metallic taste hit his mouth, panic gripped his throat with a blazing hand. It was red. Red.

He rushed to turn the showerhead off. With all the red drops scattered in the tub, he could not deny what happened. With shock running through his head and limbs, he dried himself sparingly in the only manner his panic allowed, then jumped into his clothes. He had to find someone, just someone. He ran out the room and down the stairs, his eyes hunting for any sign of the red-uniformed bellhop. Catching his breath, standing in the middle of the spacious lobby floor, he listened for hope. Allen’s expectations were traumatized by a bullet of screams shooting from above.

A woman’s horrific yells punched through the halls above him, shaking the walls and his shoulders. He sprinted up the stairs with legs struck with a feverish adrenaline, his head darting around to locate the sound. He flung himself down the closest hallway, and his shoulder hit the wall as he took sharp turns. While he glanced at each door with frantic eyes touched by a hint of wilderness, the screams suddenly stopped. Only the ringing in his ears was left. The door creaked open. A red uniform stepped out. Its silhouette turned around. It had a sharp face that flashed Allen’s pupils.

“Mi—ster—Mo—ore,” Allen panted, hands on his knees as he arched his back forward.

His lips quickly pursed into an awkward smile as his eyes lifted into narrow shapes.

“What,” he gasped, “what was—that?”

“The miss in there was startled, that’s all. She needs some peace and calm, peace and calm.” The bellhop lifted his eyes to the red ceiling. “Mm,” he hummed lightly, “and space. It would be best to leave this hallway alone and give the miss some silence.”

“That’s all?”

“Yes,” Moore replied, his eyebrows raising in a way that made Allen question what he heard.

“And my shower—my room’s shower,” Allen blurted in a hushed voice. “The water, uh,” he hesitated, and in a whisper now, “was, um, red.”

The bellhop looked at Allen with thin, downturned lips and shallow eyes, his face completely frozen. Just looking at the bellhop’s stoic features made Allen rethink everything he said. The water was indeed red, wasn’t it?

“Uh, red? Well,” the bellhop started in a slow voice, “the water here is perfectly good. Any issue should be resolved when the plumber comes.” The corners of his mouth quivered, sending a ripple of apprehension in his face.

Allen was going to ask about the plumber, but the bellhop had already walked away. Allen quickly took himself back to his room to check the shower water. When he turned on the showerhead, clear water trickled from the faucet. Holding his breath, he turned the water off and on again. Still clear. He turned the water on and off, on and off, on and off, on and off, on and off, on and off, on and off.

There was no more to see and no more to check, and yet Allen felt no reassurance. His mind ran through channels of memories, back to the charged mornings of university blurred with late-night library stays, spilled coffees over the dorm desk, and quick backpack-grabbings minutes before midterm exams. Everything was slow in this hotel. This disturbed him. There was no urgency that pushed Allen through years of schooling. Wherever the punishing hands of his suspension’s consequences were, they were too far to catch him here.

Then suddenly the showerhead let out a gushing sound. Red, red, red poured out and hit the tub. Overwhelmed by the urge to leave the hotel, Allen thrust open the bathroom door and grabbed his jacket. He hastily picked up belongings, his only reminder of the parents who insisted for a decade of his life that university would be fun, that university would be exciting, that university would be his best years, and ultimately left him to sign papers alone when he failed himself, which violently demolished the entire future his parents envisioned.

Allen flung his full backpack onto his shoulder, ran out the room, and flew down the stairs. He marched outside through the snow. In his car, he turned the key in the ignition lock cylinder. No engine sound. He turned the key again only to be confronted by a belligerent silence.

He slapped his forehead and groaned. He left his backpack in the car then marched back into the hotel, hoping there was an external starter for cars. When he arrived at the front desk, shrieking erupted. Shrieking, shrieking, shrieking from upstairs. The high-pitched echo spun in his body, yelling at him to run, run, run.

Allen turned to the hotel door for refuge, but a weight on his arm stopped him. The voice asking “Are you leaving?” bored through Allen’s ears.

Another question hit Allen mercilessly. “Did you try to leave?”

The command in the voice ripped out a desperate attempt at explanation from Allen’s gut, but a sudden, simultaneous sound of water faucets turning on at extremely high water pressures assaulted his hearing before he could speak. Waves of red liquid started dropping from the second story, crashing on the lobby floor and hitting the men’s legs up to their thighs. A flood of red continuously spilled from the floor above, filling the lobby in vicious bursts. Panic drowned Allen’s breath as he waded against the aggressive currents and toward the exit, all while the shrieks continued to project.

When Allen placed his hand upon the door knob, he jerked it from side to side, desperately panting as burning fear overwhelmed his jittering arms. In a wild fury, he threw his body into the door again, again, again, and again. Allen’s final attempt of force coincided with a forceful wave, which sent the knob spinning, opening the grand doors. As red water flew out the hotel, it polluted the pure snow, turning it into a disgustingly dark maroon. The ocean had left the hotel, and so had the shrieking.

The bellhop stood in the doorway, eyes widened by savageness. “The lady upstairs was disturbed,” he told Allen, “and then you disturbed the whole place when you opened the door.”

“What is she?” Allen cried.

“Dead.”

The word penetrated the air and stabbed Allen’s chest.

“Her roommate placed her in the bathtub and left the water running after suffocating her,” the bellhop whispered in a confession. “That was back in the—40s, 50s—when the hotel had too many guests. Only one of them had to stay here,” he explained, his voice so soft the wind nearly carried it away. “So one of them made a decision.” The bellhop lowered his eyes to his shoes. “It’s been twenty years since then, and the hotel—the hotel is starving now.” His eyes then moved up to meet with Allen’s. “It’s ravenous.”

Allen’s vision was blurring the red carpet, the red floor, and the bellhop’s red uniform so that all he saw was one big, ugly blob of red.

“Stop,” Allen gasped, his throat closing. “Stop saying that.”

“You didn’t know?” He took a slow step forward. “Did you leave the hotel?”

“I tried. I tried. I tried starting my car.” Allen’s breath was now so unsteady that his speech was fragmented.

The bellhop shook his head. “You can walk outside, but go any further and the hotel will bring you back. It has its ways with blizzards and storms.”

Allen gurgled a forced laugh and took another step away, sinking into the night snow.

“I’ve gone outside, too,” the bellhop mumbled.

“But you’re—”

“Also stuck here.” He curled his lips inwards so that they were not visible. “The hotel needs guests to survive. People stay here. That is simply—simply how the hotel survives.”

“And the others? The others?”

“They left before they were trapped. I was stuck here due to a blizzard. I saw the walls rumble. Plates smashed the ground. The hotel was angry.”

There was a boiling anger in Allen’s abdomen. It was boiling and boiling, and it had to come out before it erupted in a wildfire. “Why didn’t you tell me to leave?”

“The hotel,” he said, straining his voice to be softer, “doesn’t allow me to.”

“No,” Allen trembled. He was so anxious his stomach churned and he thought he might vomit. “What do you mean?”

The bellhop’s head tilted towards him in an agonizingly slow manner. “I didn’t want to stay here as a bellhop for so long. This was merely supposed to be a temporary position. This wasn’t supposed to be…”

“Be what?” There was a twinge in Allen’s voice that begged for explanations.

“Be so permanent. I just wanted the money for school…” His eyes turned glassy. “I can’t—I still can’t believe the hotel has been keeping me alive.”

“Keeping you alive?”

“Yes. No one brings food up here anymore.”

“How?”

The bellhop clasped his hands together. “I haven’t aged since I first started working here, well, about twenty years ago.”

“Why?” That was the only word Allen could say. “Why was the water—red?”

“The bathwater turned red from the murdered lady’s blood, and the hotel’s water never completely recovered since.”

Allen’s eyes shook themselves towards the sky, and he exhaled so deeply his knees collapsed to the snow. “Oh, oh,” he whimpered to himself in a pathetic attempt at self-consolement. His jaw and eyes were twitching now. There was nothing under his control. Not even a body.

“You’ll be staying here,” the bellhop told him with a hint of wavering guilt.

Allen compelled all his strength to push himself farther from the hotel, further outside in the scorching wind. With each slow step that dove his boots deeper into the snow, he lost more and more of himself until the cold engulfed him and his eyes were sweating.

Out of the corner of his eye, Allen saw a red figure approach, towering over him.

“Come back,” he said. “It’s warm inside.”

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