My entry into the first round of NYC Midnight's 2022 Short Story Challenge. I had a week to come up with a 2,500 word story based on their prompts: Ghost Story, housekeeping, and a drugstore cowboy. After a day or so of marinating on my idea, here's what I came up with. I placed third in my group of 28 writers, so I moved onto the second round of the competition. Not bad, if I do say so myself. WARNING: Adult content and language. The feds are probably still tracking me for the internet research I did for this one, lol.
Cowboy Cody, per his screen name on YouTube, was startled from a deep slumber to three sharp knocks on the door.
“Housekeeping!” shouted a voice on the other side.
Cody came to, fully clothed, on a king-sized bed in a hotel room strewn with wet clothes and his video equipment. His trusty Apple laptop, which he named “Silver”, was safely tucked away in its dry case, but he had no doubt that online, he was accumulating views by the hundreds of thousands.
He rose and plodded his way to the door.
“Front desk says you need more towels?”
“Yeah, sorry,” Cody mumbled. “I was out in the storm over the last two days, and literally everything I have is wet.”
“You were out in that storm? Child, you must be some sort of damn fool!”
Cody grinned and gave the housekeeper the abridged backstory, about his endeavor to become an internet celebrity, but failing at his efforts to make the #NoSleepChallenge and #IceCreamDietChallenge go viral. Finally, seeing Hurricane Freida approach the Louisiana coast, he came up with the idea of the #Cat3Challenge, whereby he would camp on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain during the storm. Suddenly, his number of subscribers skyrocketed from a measly 50 thousand to more than a million.
The housekeeper stared at Cody as if he had lost his mind. “Uh-huh.”
“So anyway, while I was out there, one of my subs commented that I should check out the La Paix Reposante Inn while I was in New Orleans. Said it’s the scariest, most haunted hotel in the whole country, if not the world. So now, I’m doing the #HauntedHotelChallenge. I’m gonna be as big as Mr. Beast!”
“Never mind. So, is this place really as haunted as they say?”
“I don’t know ‘bout that. People get a piece of dust on a camera lens, they call it a ghost. People have bad nightmares, they call ‘em spirits. People wake up in strange places, they call it demon possession. I can’t rightly say.”
Cody slipped into his online fake cowboy accent. “Well, I reckon I’ll find out.”
The housekeeper gave him a sideways glance. “I reckon you will. My name’s Lillian, if’n you need anything else.”
“Thank you kindly, ma’am.”
Cody closed the door and used the new towels to continue his futile attempts to get dry. He could not seem to shake the water out of his ear canals, and worse, his hair was still damp despite the hours that had passed since he’d checked in. At least he thought it had been hours. The digital alarm clock on the nightstand continuously blinked twelve o’clock, and his iPhone had gotten soaked in the storm. All Cody knew was that it was dark and he was tired. He stripped down to his boxers, laid on the bed, and passed out almost immediately.
“Wake up, cowboy.”
Cody awoke to find a scantily clad redhead straddled over him on the bed, whispering in his ear.
“They told me they had Cowboy Cody in Room 23, but I had to see for myself. Hope you don’t mind if I let myself in. You really oughta keep your door locked in this place.”
The woman smiled. “My name’s Lucinda, I’m in room 14, down the hall. I came over here from Dallas for a little fun. And who better to do it with than a real-life cowboy?”
“Actually, I’m from Long Island.”
“Oh, so you’re one of those fake drugstore cowboys, eh? I don’t care, you’re a YouTube star, after that #Cat3Challenge. That was ballsy. What was it like out there?”
Cody wasn’t sure what to make of all this, but there was a half-naked woman in his hotel room bed who wanted to party with an internet celebrity. Who was he to refuse?
“I’ll admit, it was scary. There were times I wasn’t sure I was gonna make it. I don’t think I’ll do it again.”
“Oh, honey, I wanna hear all about it. But let me get us some beers first.”
Lucinda hopped off the bed and strode to the mini fridge, showing off a shapely back side that featured a tattoo of a colorful Mexican calavera encircled by the words “Die Young, Stay Pretty.”
“Nice tat,” Cody remarked.
Lucinda’s smile faded slightly as she handed him an open can of Lone Star beer. “Words to live by, right? I mean really, what’s the point of going on after everything gets sad and boring and you just get wrinkled and fat?”
From there, the night became a blur to Cody. He told his story of the #Cat3Challenge, embellishing it slightly for dramatic effect. There was more Lone Star. There was a bit of armchair psychoanalysis. Finally, there was emotional, tantric fucking, although Cody had some trouble keeping it up near the end. It was a night he could never have imagined as Cody Feldman, the awkward Jewish kid from Islip.
Afterwards, Lucinda leaned up on one elbow and ran her fingers down his chest. “Want to take a bath, cowboy?” She walked into the bathroom and began running the water.
Cody grinned and sat up, but as he took his first steps toward the tub, he had difficulty finding his feet. This didn’t feel like a normal beer buzz. Shit, is this what it’s like to be roofied?
He stumbled into the bathroom to see two empty prescription bottles in the sink. Lucinda sat on the edge of the nearly full tub, running her hand through the lukewarm water. But she was no longer the attractive redhead he’d just had sex with. She was ghostly and sullen and sad, diluted mascara trickling from both eyes. Or was this just a rohypnol-induced hallucination?
“We’ve both hit our peaks, Cowboy Cody,” Lucinda said in a soft monotone. “You’re never going to get more famous than you are now, and I’m not ever going to be younger or prettier or happier. Life isn’t going to get any better. Die young, stay pretty, right? Let’s take ourselves out together.”
Cody’s instinct was to run, but his muscles weren’t cooperating. Lucinda grabbed him around the neck and threw him into the bathwater, face down. He struggled but could only manage a couple of gargled screams. If there was anyone in the next room, they’d probably think it was more sex.
It was no use. In his weakened state he couldn’t overcome Lucinda’s full body weight on top of him. As his lungs filled with water and his consciousness slipped away, he felt her collapse on top of him. Cody’s last coherent thought was about what his mother would think when they told her they found him like this.
The housekeeper’s startled voice brought him back.
“Sir! Sir! Are you alright? Lordy, what happened here?”
Cody was still naked, still face down. And while the tub was bone dry, there was an inch of water on the bathroom floor.
“I… uh… some girl was in here…”
“Sir, your door was locked from the inside. I had to use my skeleton key to get in here,” Lillian said sternly as she tried to glance away. “And please, cover yourself up!”
Cody, blushing, took the towel from her hand.
“Now do you want me to clean this room, or should I come back? Lordy, I’m gonna have to get a mop to get all this water off the floor.”
“Yeah, give me a sec. I’ll throw some clothes on and get out of your hair.”
“Just give me half an hour and I’ll be done. Lordy!”
Cody sheepishly strolled out of the bathroom and put on jeans and a still-damp t-shirt.
“My, my, Mister Cody, those are some mighty fancy boots you’ve got there!”
Cody turned to where Lillian was pointing, and sure enough, his “good” cowboy boots - full-quill brown ostrich leather Techovas he’d bought with his first royalty check from YouTube - were sitting next to his suitcase.
But he didn’t remember packing them for this trip. In fact, there’s no way he’d bring a $400 pair of cowboy boots to ride out a hurricane. They were for special occasions. Weddings and fancy parties and such. He planned to wear them when he received his one million subscriber plaque.
“Yeah, I guess,” he muttered as he slipped the boots over his socked feet and left the housekeeper to do her work. At first, he aimlessly ambled down the dark and musty hall. Then he began to walk with a purpose.
He needed to see what was in Room 14.
As the numbers on the doors got smaller, Cody could feel the heat and humidity of the hallway turn cold, as if someone had maxxed out the A/C. He stepped cautiously toward the door marked 14 and noticed it was very slightly open.
He drew a breath and stepped inside.
There was no one here, and, in fact, no indication that anyone had been here for quite some time. Not even Lillian, because the dust on the nightstand was thick enough to write in.
Then he saw the wastebasket.
At least six empty cans of Lone Star poked out over the top, along with two empty prescription bottles. He picked one up and read the label: Triazolam. For Lucinda Sanders.
Shit, she’s real. It wasn’t a dream. La Paix Reposante is actually haunted!
Cody backed out of the room. He had to get his camera. He had no idea what was going on, but he knew it would be a fantastic frightening story for the #HauntedHotelChallenge.
He stumbled back the way he came, but the hallway now seemed darker, hotter, longer, and the strong stench of cat urine seemed to be everywhere. Cody stopped at the open door of Room 20 where he saw an unkempt young man unconscious on the bed, struggling to breathe.
“Hey, man, are you alright?”
“Dude! You OK?”
Still not getting a response, Cody went against his better judgment and entered the room. Clearly, this was where the cat piss smell was coming from, and inside the room the fetid odor was overwhelming. The man, shirtless in dirty torn jeans and ripped up Converse sneakers, was out of it. On the hotel room desk were empty bottles of cold medicine, an assortment of plastic jugs, and a hot plate with a large Dutch oven pouring out black, acrid smoke. Cody had seen enough episodes of Breaking Bad to know that this was a meth lab. Fuck!
Cody dashed to the bed and grabbed the man by both shoulders, shaking him wildly.
“You’ve got to wake up!”
Flames began cresting the top of the pot, perilously close to the window curtains. Smoke was starting to fill the room.
Cody slapped the unconscious man hard. He was slowly coming to but kept fading in and back out of consciousness. They were running out of time.
Cody gathered all his strength and began to lift the man over his shoulder. Suddenly, the man woke with a violent outburst. Falling into a seated position on the bed, the man extended both arms with so much force that Cody fell back into the open closet amongst more plastic jugs and bottles of acetone and drain cleaner.
The man’s eyes darted back and forth wildly, and then fixed their gaze on Cody.
“You’re a cop!” he screamed. “Go away!”
He hurtled toward the closet and slammed the door shut, leaning up against it to trap Cody inside.
“Die cop die!”
The man began to cough as the smoke spread. Soon, Cody was coughing too, pounding and kicking at the door, screaming for help from anyone who could hear. Pounding, kicking, screaming and coughing until the closet door finally opened to reveal a startled Lillian.
“Lordy, Mister Cody, you gave me quite a fright. I was in here cleaning your room, minding my own business, and you start a-hollering and making a racket from inside the closet! I just about had a heart attack. Are you tryin’ to make me believe all those ghost stories or something?”
Cody panted as he tried to catch his breath.
“Wait. MY room?”
“Well, yes, Mister Cody, where did you think you were?”
“I… uh… I don’t know. I think it was one of those bad dreams you were telling me about.”
“Uh-huh. Well, you look like you haven’t slept in a week if you ask me. I’m done here, so I’ll just get out of your way. Try to get some rest. You don’t look so good.”
“I will. Thank you.”
“Oh, and the manager says they’re reconnecting the electric lines down the road after the storm, so the power may go off for a little bit tonight. But don’t worry, it should only be an hour or two.”
It wasn’t until Lillian left that Cody realized he was still standing in the closet. He grabbed the blue collared shirt he left hanging there and put it on. He fished his camera and tripod out of their dry boxes, set it up to face him, and hit “record” as he tried to muster the unbridled enthusiasm of his online persona.
“Howdy, all my subscribers out there in YouTube land. This is Cowboy Cody here in New Orleans at the La Pais Reposante Inn, and LadySiren98, you are soooooooo right. This place is as dangummed haunted as it gets! The stories I could tell already! This place is like The Shining and The Conjuring all rolled into one! In fact, my very first night here, I…”
Suddenly, everything went black.
Shit. They couldn’t have waited another ten minutes?
Cody sighed and laid down on the bed.
Lillian’s right. I need the rest.
Cody’s eyes opened to more pitch darkness. But now, he had the sensation that he couldn’t move and couldn’t speak. In fact, it felt like his lips were sealed shut from the inside with some sort of string or maybe a tack.
A door opened above him and there was Lillian, but she wasn’t dressed like a hotel housekeeper. She had glasses on a string around her neck, wearing what looked like a blue lab coat and carrying a clipboard.
“This is that internet cowboy guy they dragged out of Lake Pontchartrain a few days ago after the storm,” she said. That means the suicide is in drawer 14 and the meth lab accident is in 20.”
“Got it,” replied a nearby voice.
“And how many times have I told you to make sure the eyes are closed before the service? Nobody wants to see a dead loved one staring back at them!”
As she reached over to close Cody’s eyes for the last time, he read the name badge on the lapel beneath her lab coat: Lillian Blanchet, La Paix Reposante Funeral Services.
Lillian looked over the body as she closed the coffin lid.
“My, my, those are some mighty fancy boots.”