April 22nd , 2024



2 months ago


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Author's Note: This story was originally written and submitted for the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge 2024. The genre/subject/character assignments were horror/a reservation/a banker.

Two hundred and eighty-four.

Clarence Willoughby was two hundred and eighty-four miles from the comfort of his own home. Living on the Upper East Side in New York City, the stale city air, and the ceaseless cacophony outside his window on the street below had become stifling. His view of Central Park from his ninth-floor apartment had instilled his need for the quiet wilderness, even in the dead of winter. He needed to get out of the city, away from the noise and stress of his job at the bank.

But now, Clarence was starting to feel like this weekend away had been a mistake.

The taxi driver creeped up a steep hill lined with evergreens standing like loyal sentries along the path, tires crunching through gravel covered in melting slush from the late January snowstorm that ripped through upstate New York just a few days before. Clarence’s heart rate accelerated as the taxi ascended the approached a rusty wrought iron gate left open to swing at the mercy of the harsh winter wind. The taxi came to a stop at the top of the hill.

Clarence stared out the window at the old colonial-style building, its chipped white paint flaking off like the dead skin of sunburn, battered shingles hanging on an angle and disintegrating like rotting teeth. His stomach churned with wariness. Was this really the Bed and Breakfast he made reservations for just the week before? The pictures on the website had featured a restored colonial with a fresh coat of paint and a new welcome sign at the entrance. The letters on the sign were now faded, and the sign was one gust of wind away from becoming detached.

“Are you sure this is the right address?” Clarence asked the taxi driver, gripping the handle of his duffel bag in a tight fist.

“Yup,” the taxi driver confirmed with a grunt. He tapped impatiently on the steering wheel, glancing at Clarence in the rear-view mirror.

“Right.” Clarence hesitated, looking at the house and then back at the taxi driver. “Okay, thanks.”

He paid the driver and reluctantly stepped out of the cab. The instant the door closed, the driver pounded on the gas and the cab lurched and skid in the slushed snow before disappearing into the steamed fog. The damp, muggy air started to melt the snow, lifting the moisture from the soggy ground.

“You must be Mr. Willoughby!”

Clarence jumped at the deep, raspy voice behind him. He turned to face an elderly couple, arms linked, with unsettling smiles plastered across their wrinkled faces. They stood at the top of the stairs, on the warped wooden boards of the porch straining under their weight.

“You’re right on time for your three o’clock check-in!” The woman exclaimed, her pale lips forming a thin smile. Her icy blue eyes glossed over with a vacant stare that hit Clarence deep in his chest. The damaged strands of her white hair frizzed outwards in chaos. “We were so glad to see your reservation.”

Clarence pulled at the sleeve of his coat with his free hand and offered a weak smile to the couple as he approached the porch, his boots sloshing through the softened snow.

When he reached the porch steps, the woman offered her gloved hand. “My name is Marion Darkwood, and this is my husband, Eugene.”

Clarence cleared his throat, shaking off the apprehension in his voice. “Nice to meet you both,” he said, gently shaking Marion’s frail hand, feeling her gnarled joints. Clarence then extended his hand to Eugene, who stood rigid with a toothy grin, his obsidian eyes boring into him. Clarence shifted uncomfortably as he avoided Eugene’s intense gaze and instead focused on the old man’s teeth, which were crooked and jagged, like bony fingers protruding from his inflamed gums. Eugene’s scalp was shiny and devoid of any hair.

“Let’s get you settled in!” Marion said.

Clarence nodded, against his better judgement. “Sounds great.”

Eugene remained silent as the couple opened the door to the foyer. Clarence followed them inside and was immediately struck with the dank and musty stench of mold and decomposing wood. Decay clung to the walls like peeling wallpaper. Floorboards groaned as the three of them made their way through the hall and into the front sitting room. The windows creaked in the wind and the lighting flickered in a dull yellow glow from aging bulbs. Stepping into the house was like being transported backwards in time. The furniture, the appliances, and the colour scheme were all dated. This house lived in the past.

“Can I get you some tea?” Marion asked as she removed her gloves and coat.

“Yes, please,” Clarence said. “Thank you.”

“Of course, Mr. Willoughby. Please have a seat and make yourself at home.” Marion smiled politely, but the hair stood on the back of Clarence’s neck as Marion disappeared into the kitchen.

Standing awkwardly in the middle of the sitting room, Clarence felt as though he was standing in a dim cave. The walls were covered in a crimson velvet accented with a chipped mahogany chair railing. An aging grand piano stood in the corner, its tarnished wood finish and discolored keys covered in a thick layer of dust. A chill slithered down Clarence’s spine as his eyes landed on the large moose head displayed above the crumbling brick fireplace. The dust gave the moose a ghost-like appearance and Clarence shivered. The fire crackling in the hearth was not enough to chase out the cold that had settled in his bones.

Lost in observation, Clarence flinched as Eugene approached and gestured to Clarence’s duffel bag.

“May I take your bag and your coat?” Eugene asked, his voice strained as he hunched next to Clarence. Clarence stifled a gag as he got a whiff of the old man’s stale breath.

“Sure, thank you,” Clarence managed as he removed his coat. He handed both his coat and his duffle bag to Eugene.

“I’ll place these in your room upstairs. You’ll be staying in the first room on the left at the top of the stairs,” Eugene said, motioning to the hall. The old man turned and shuffled his feet across the scuffed hardwood. Clarence wondered how a man Eugene’s age climbed all those stairs.

Clarence eased himself onto the sofa, the cushions unforgiving. The deep brown fabric was tattered and torn, as if something with sharp claws had ripped apart the upholstery. Clarence absentmindedly ran his fingers over the loose threads, staring at the exposed stuffing.

“Here you are.”

His head snapped up at Marion’s voice as she approached with his tea. Clarence blinked. “Thank you,” he said, taking the small porcelain teacup from Marion.

The looming moose cast a shadow over him as he sat on the sofa, the teacup trembling in his hands while he gulped his tea. The caffeine would not ease his nerves, which were wrapped in tiny snares, strangling any sense of calm.

Marion sat in the small armchair across from the sofa, watching Clarence with her hollow eyes. “So, what brings you here to Darkwood Manor, Mr. Willoughby?”

Clarence swallowed a sip of tea, letting it scald the back of his throat. “Please, call me Clarence,” he said. Marion waited for him to continue. “I needed to get out of the city and go somewhere quiet.” He didn’t know how else to respond.

“Ah,” she replied. “You’re a big city boy? I should have guessed by your neatly pressed pants and shiny loafers.” She grinned and Clarence’s face flushed. He was far from being a boy. He was in his mid-forties with graying hair and a bald spot growing on top of his head. “What do you do in the city?”

Clarence shifted in his seat, unsettled by the questions. He figured Marion was just making conversation, but the way she watched him expectantly made his stomach churn. “I’m a banker at First Republic Bank in Manhattan.”

“Oh! You must be so intelligent, working with numbers all the time. I’m no good with numbers.” The grin didn’t leave Marion’s face.

He just smiled over the edge of his teacup as Marion stared at him, her knobbed hands clasped in her lap. Clarence flinched as the thundering toll of the grandfather clock announced that it was four o’clock.

As if summoned, Marion rose from her seat. “Well, I better get started on your dinner.”

Clarence’s eyes wandered around the room, as if other guests would pop out from behind the walls and the furniture. “Am I…Am I the only guest?”

Marion’s smile morphed into a toothy grin as she nodded. “You’re our guest of honour this weekend!”

Clarence sat rigid on the sofa, his hands squeezing the porcelain teacup so tightly he expected it to shatter. All he could do was feign a smile.

“Now, feel free to explore the grounds if you feel like adventuring outdoors before the storm hits. We’ve been lucky with the warmer weather, but it won’t last.” She winked. “I’ll call when dinner is ready.”

As Marion headed into the kitchen, an unexplained fear circled and settled on Clarence’s skin. He took a deep breath as the walls closed in, trapping him, sucking the air out of his lungs. He placed his teacup on the splintered coffee table and headed into the hallway where he found his coat hanging on a metal hook. Claustrophobia pushed him out the front door.

Clarence wrapped his coat around him as a fierce wind whipped frigid air against his face. The temperature plunged along with his sense of safety.

He looked towards the back of the property, towards the small lake. A dense fog smothered the lake, wisps drifting upwards into the warmer air that was cooling quickly. The snow crunched beneath his feet as he walked to the edge of the lake, feeling drawn to the water.

Clarence slowed as the fog cleared to reveal a black mass a few yards away. The cold fingers of fear wrapped around the back of his neck. His breath caught as the black mass became a murder of crows picking and poking at a carcass, blood seeping into the snow as flesh and bone were pulled apart and strewn across the ground.

The white now stained with red.

His stomach clenched as he stared at the crows, at the blood-stained snow. As much as he tried, Clarence could not tear his eyes away. He stood there unblinking, watching the carnage until the gut-wrenching screech of a barn owl pulled him back. Seconds later, Marion called him. His dinner was ready.


Marion had prepared an elaborate dinner of roasted chicken with green beans and rosemary potatoes. The delicious aroma of the food was almost enough to mask the acrid odors of the house. Clarence was grateful that Marion and Eugene left him to enjoy his dinner on his own at the dining room table, although Clarence could feel the glare of the moose from its position in the adjacent sitting room.

As Clarence finished his meal, his limbs fatigued, and he hit a wall of exhaustion. His mind fogged as he stood, and he steadied himself against the table. How had he become so tired so suddenly?

With no sign of Marion or Eugene, he stumbled towards the stairs and climbed up to his room, each wooden step groaning under his feet. He paused at the top of the stairs, glancing down the dark hallway. The doors to the other five rooms were shut, the blue glow of the moonlight escaping through the slits under each of the doors. Clarence turned to his room as a shudder rippled through his body. He closed his door and leaned against the wall.

The icy air in his room thickened and slowed the blood within his veins. Clarence contemplated lighting the furnace. He weighed his odds of dying from carbon monoxide poisoning. Maybe asphyxiation by carbon monoxide was still better than freezing to death. He considered how painless it could be in comparison. He shook his head to rid the thoughts from his disoriented mind.

A heavy presence lingered, thick like smoke. He felt the light being pulled from his eyes and his eyelids became leaded. Clarence staggered into the adjoining bathroom and braced himself against the pedestal sink. He slowly lifted his head, his bloodshot eyes and sunken cheeks reflected in a haze in the warped mirror on the wall. His hands fumbled with the faucet, but his legs gave out from underneath him. His body slammed against the tile floor and his head pounded in pain.

Faint whispers floated through the air. Clarence was not alone.

Darkness encroached on the edges of his vision, and he could do nothing to fight it. He listened to the leaking faucet as his mind drifted into the unknown.





With a gasp of air, Clarence returned to consciousness. His lungs heaved as his eyes adjusted. He was standing in a doorway, at the top of a set of stairs. A dim light illuminated the stairway and a metallic smell rose from below, a smell so pungent Clarence could taste it on his tongue.

Confused, Clarence raised his arms to brace himself against the doorframe. As he did, a cold breath hit the back of his neck and his body pitched forward. Darkness descended as he crashed to the bottom of the stairs.


A blinding light pierced Clarence’s eyelids as his consciousness returned in a blur. He blinked and tried to move, but his muscles refused.

“Ah, you’re awake.”

His eyes darted frantically; his chest surged in panic. The image above him sharpened as his vision cleared. A man, his face covered in a surgical mask and plastic shield, hovered over him, his headlamp pointed directly at Clarence’s face.

“We’ll have to give you something a bit stronger, but not too strong,” the man cackled.

Clarence desperately fought to no avail. A thin, cold needle slipped under the skin in the crook of his arm. Gravity pulled a clear liquid down into his veins and ice traced through his arm, into his chest, and outwards, spreading to every cell of his body.

“Just relax. We will count backwards from ten,” the man said. “Ten, nine, eight, seven…”

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