I’m staying overnight in a motel when it waltzes in through the door. Coffee mug eyes and skin like pins, nudging the floor until its way is made. I can see its face. It’s just a man, but the air around him is wrong. It’s giving me that feeling, like an old stop motion picture, Harryhausen’s finest, and you like it but it’s not real, not there. Now I don’t like it because the reverse is upon me.
“Got it?” My visitor pulls a knife from a pack at his side. His eyes roll like teardrops on a dirty mirror, and I feel like I’m missing something, but his face is so clear I can’t be.
It’s a dream?
Life’s a dream; this isn’t. Dreams don’t make sense; this makes so much sense it hurts. So much sense that all the sense boils over and I’m left with too much. Understanding what shouldn’t be, understand?
The knife. It’s blistering blue and white, hotter than a thousand thousand star-clouds in the cradle of the world, and the handle is looking at me. It’s holding him backwards, and then it lunges backwards at me and plunges right into his left chest. I’m breathless. He breathes hard. Sweat runs up the walls and into my eyes, positioned over it all with gruesome clarity. Like sugar cubes they soak it all in and dissolve and now I’m crying it back down, redder-tinted. It’s flowing back into his wound.
Frantic needles try to stitch him up. He swats them away with a teaspoon and undoes their hard work. Frantic needles shrug. Frantic needles find another story.
He’s losing blood until my room loses him.
At first I don’t know what I’ve lost. I can feel his absence, and my lungs almost wish for him to be back so I am not alone with the thoughts he left in his wake. But soon again I can breathe. Night worlds are different than the day. Better, maybe, but calmer in that more tense way.
I don’t sleep until the sun comes up, and even then.
I don’t wake up. I get up. Memories of the night rot in my head like expired produce on a store shelf, but they don’t disappear.
By the motel sink sits a coffee maker, stained but not dirty. I shrug off thin blankets and thump over to it. Caffeine might not make everything better, but it certainly can wrap a tight bandage around my wounds long enough to get going. Long enough for me to forget about it until it falls off.
It’s not one of those new Keurig ones or anything like it, so I almost don’t remember what to do. I’m a city guy by heart, always embracing the latest and most innovative of Things, capital T. But I manage to get it going and pour myself a mug.
My tired eyes scan the surface of the mug. It makes me intensely uncomfortable. Something about the texture of it reminds me of two white globes in the dark, that too-clear experience still rotting away back there somewhere.
Printed on its surface is the motel’s logo, an out-of-place sun with some words I don’t feel like reading. Next to the logo stands a shitty clip-art parrot, bright colors and racist sombrero faded and warped to dull pastels. Its cheerful beak spits out a crude speech bubble – “enjoy you’re stay!” Its pupils are way too small, and the perspective on those eyes is godawful, even for a cartoon.
Eyes. I focus on the eyes of the cartoon and push all other eye-related memories away. Someone got paid to draw this, I force myself to think. Isn’t it awful? See, we’re having fun!
I throw the mug in the trash before I pack. I know some poor custodian is just gonna have to fish it out of there, but I feel like it’s worth it if maybe I get to punish the mug. It’s a stupid thought but it alleviates the ugliness of the night a tiny bit, so I don’t care.
As I’m checking out, the person at the desk starts yammering about the weather. I tap my fingers on the counter, not really caring if I come across as a bit rude, but they don’t seem to notice anyway.
“Alrighty then,” they finally come around to. “Let’s get you checked out.”
“Mhmm.” I hand them my debit card and resume tapping.
They swipe. “How was your stay?”
“Pretty shit, honestly.”
I think my frankness catches them off guard. Clearly everything is cheery skies and rainbow pancakes for this person, and they seem to expect the same, despite my obvious discomfort with everything around me. They finally blurt, “Why’s that?”
How do I address that? I dunno, I got assaulted by a ghost? That won’t work. Not only did the ghost never actually assault me, I have no way of knowing if it was even a ghost. All I know is that it was not a dream.
“Oh!” They interrupt my silent thought, nearly startling me. Their face has lost just the slightest shade of its cheer. “You met Ted.”
“Ted?” Who in the fuck was Ted?
“Yeah, old Ted Krakowski. Killed himself in room twenty-three a few years ago. He comes back all the time, but it’s not exactly something we advertise on the front page of our website, if you know what I mean.”
“All the time?” I can barely believe what I’m hearing.
“A bona fide paranormal experience, that’s for sure. Here, maybe you’ll recognize him.” I’m sweating as they pull up Google, type in a few words, and twist their ancient CRT monitor in my direction. “Have a gander.”
It’s an obituary and associated news article for the death of a man named Ted Krakowski. Everything is there – room twenty-three of the motel I’m checking out of, the suicide by hanging…
My eyes jump to the spot on the page they’ve been avoiding: a picture of his face. I remember the face of my strange assailant well, and my stomach twists when I realize:
This isn’t him.