Christmas at Hotel Parq Central
A Short Story by Carol Schaffer
Cinnamon colored landscape smudged behind swollen drops of water on the passenger side window, mesmerizing Chloe as the black Escalade slipped and swayed under the loose gravel and sand on the lonely New Mexico road.
Julian and Chloe were half way through day one of a two day road trip to the Hotel Parq Central in Albuquerque New Mexico. When Julian’s sister, Felina pitched the idea of a family Christmas in what she called, “a neutral location,” Chloe’s first instinct was to make up an excuse that was fairly believable, and get out of dodge. She hatched a plan to hide out with her handsome fiancé; in the small apartment they had just rented in the Hills of Hollywood. But in the days following Felina’s initial invitation, Chloe came to the realization that she would not be spending Christmas Eve in a fort made of pillows drinking egg nog, blissfully tangled with her love, in their new place. As Christmas grew near, Felina became intensely committed to getting everyone on board with her plan. She made car rental arrangements. She booked the best rooms at the resort. Each day Chloe woke up to a new group email, outlining additional details of the upcoming family Christmas retreat. Chloe had to hand it to Felina, the girl was tenacious. And by the looks of the hotel’s face book page, she also had good taste. Chloe remained resolved to spend Christmas in a fort made out of pillows with Julian, but thanks to Felina, the pillow cases would be fifteen hundred thread count, and they would all be in New Mexico.
Life in California was rushed and abbreviated for the newly engaged couple. There didn’t seem be enough time to connect intimately, much less have a deep and meaningful conversation. Chloe knew that she and Julian were long overdue for a heart to heart about why he stayed away from his family for most of his adult life. She could feel that he was hiding something from her. Whatever it was, it would now have to wait until after they spent Christmas with them. She just hoped it wasn’t too awkward. She reasoned that it could be just what was needed to break the ice after all this time. The reality was, they now lived only a few miles away from Julian’s mother and sister. This was all the family he had, and at times, Chloe sensed a heavy sorrow surrounding her husband to be, when it came to his background. She was curious about it, and pissed that he wouldn’t let her in. In the weeks since Felina reached out to them, she felt like things were coming to head, and that it wouldn’t be long before she knew exactly what had happened to separate Julian from the women that should have been the most important to him; until she came along that is. She just wished she was more prepared for what she might find out. But she knew she had little room to complain, so she didn’t dare. She was the one who wanted to move to Hollywood, back to the lair.
When Chloe first met Julian, he told her that it had been over twenty years since he last spoke with Felina; maybe even longer since last speaking with his mother Ruth. Even back then, Chloe hadn’t detected any indication that anything would change when it came to his family. Less than two weeks after she and Julian were engaged, Chloe was offered a job she had applied for over a year before meeting Julian. She wanted with all of her heart to accept the job offer and move back to Los Angeles. She reluctantly brought up the topic over dinner one night. Julian didn’t say much but promised they would talk about it soon. A couple of days later he surprised her with the deed to the tiny apartment with the gorgeous view that Chloe had fallen in love with during a recent visit.
Before she knew it, she and Julian were moved into their new place and loving every minute of it. They hadn’t fully settled in yet, when a call came in from a private caller on Julian’s cell phone. After a minute or two, Julian wrote Felina’s name on a napkin, letting Chloe know who was on the other end. Even more surprising to Chloe, was how easy Julian was on phone with Felina. He didn’t miss a beat while talking with her. It was like they had been talking every day. After about ten minutes the call ended. Julian didn’t offer an explanation, and Chloe didn’t ask. At least not yet.
Chloe blinked hard several times forcing the blurred lines of the burnt orange and coppery red landscape to become sharp and defined. She quietly focused on resetting her thoughts and gently pulling her mind to a calm quiet place where things always move in ways to please her. This trip was not one she wanted to take, but she gingerly agreed to the road trip, and they were soon headed to a place she had never heard of. She gave in easily to Julian’s playful demand that they go along with his sister’s wish for a family holiday. Julian had a lot to explain, but she gave in to what he wanted for now, in return she was rewarded with his oh so sexy boyish smile that spread across his smooth tan face whenever he got his way. She hoped with all of her heart that spending Christmas with Julian’s family would start to chip away at the wall she felt growing between them since they had moved back to Los Angeles. She wasn’t sure what was going on. She just knew that she wanted to make it better. Her relationship with Julian was the one non-negotiable in her life. And she was ready to fight for it. The combination of heavy thoughts and the warm car heater air blowing in her face, made Chloe suddenly feel very tired. She reluctantly allowed her sleepy eyes to shut. Just as she slipped into the dark room of her first nightmare, glassy flakes of snow began to fall.
Felina carefully pointed her left foot outside the driver’s side door of her new Mercedes Benz. With a slight swivel of her hip, the petite attractive thirty-year-old found herself balancing precariously on the six- inch heel of the most festive gold sandals she could find in her closet. Her left hand quickly grabbed the frame of the open window as she brought her right foot down. Felina tugged at the hem of her dress and looked up. She was staring at The Hotel Parq Central. It was a monstrous building with sharp edges and square shaped appendages that wrapped around the entire structure.
From what Felina remembered, she had read that this very building had stood tall and stark against the pastel colors and rounded mountain ranges of the New Mexico landscape since 1926. The five-star resort opened its renovated doors in 2010. It was well known for its rooftop cocktail lounge overlooking miles of Albuquerque city lights. Travelers and tourists are easily infatuated by the luxury of this grand hotel. What Felina didn’t know, is that it wouldn’t take long at all, for their infatuation to turn to cold terror if one of them were to take a closer look at the background of the historic landmark. As a matter of fact, they would hardly consider spending the night enclosed and tucked away in what was once home to some of the most tragically haunted souls ever collected in one place.
Felina felt a cold chill as she stood beside her car. She looked up in surprise when snow began to collect on the bridge of her nose. She hadn’t noticed the snow until that very moment and now was feeling every bit of the cold in her bones. She wondered if the navigation in her new Benz was working properly when there weren’t two or three valets vying for the chance to drive her new Maybach. She got back into her car and circled for a minute until she found a secluded parking spot. Felina pulled on her leather gloves and opened her door, bracing herself for the cold bitter air that she knew would be there to meet her, as soon as she stepped out. The sky had grown dark, and she hesitated. There was no trace of the pink and purple desert pallet she had envisioned when she set out for the family get-together. Felina grew suddenly still and she felt very confused. Her mind tried to trace the events and conversations that led them all to agree on The Hotel Parq Central for their first family Christmas celebration in many years. As hard as she tried, she couldn’t remember why it had been so important to come together here of all places. She could taste the fear in her mouth and it was making her ill. She leaned her head back to try and collect her thoughts, when she caught a glimpse of herself in the rearview mirror. She was shocked to see that there were black tears streaming down her cheeks. Felina realized that she was sobbing uncontrollably, but not making a sound.
“Oh there’s no place like home for the holidays. Cause no matter how far away you roam.” Ruth sang along to her favorite Christmas song, her hands firmly fixed at the ten o’clock and two o’clock positions on the steering wheel. She carefully released the grip of her right hand to feel around for the windshield wiper controls. She quietly scolded herself for not allowing the rental agent to show her where everything was. For as many years as she had been driving, she wasn’t a fan of going long distances. Open highways and freeways had never been favorites of hers either. Yet, that is exactly what she was doing now. She wondered what had possessed her to make this drive alone. She could kick herself, but she thought it best not to entertain negative thoughts. At least not while there was still a long lonely way to go. There would be plenty of time for that later. For now, she knew that she needed to keep her eyes on the road, and her mind on happy thoughts.
As determined as Ruth was, to get herself in the Christmas spirit, negative angry thoughts showed up seemingly even more determined to take over. There was no mistaking the sense of doom that had moved in and was now riding shotgun. The festive thoughts brought forth by the Christmas music, were now completely replaced in Ruth’s head, by unspeakable images of death and torture. As her anxiety grew more intense, so did the new snow fall that was beginning to blanket her windshield. As she fumbled with the wipers to get them set up just right, she drove passed what looked like a big black blur on the shoulder of the road. She was able to take a long enough look to determine that it was a large vehicle, maybe an SUV. By now, steady snow fall had made it impossible for her to see if there was anyone inside it. She quickly moved her gaze back to the road. Ruth suddenly took a sharp unexpected breath. The next breath to come was a little deeper, but still not relaxed. She recognized that she was beginning to manifest physical symptoms in response to the painful knot taking root in the pit of her belly. Before now, she had allowed herself to believe that what she was feeling, was excitement mixed with a touch of nerves. If she had only allowed herself to think about it long enough, her instincts may have had enough time to warn her that something had been off since she left Los Angeles. Hundreds of miles later, she was feeling outright stalked by the feeling of dread.
When Ruth stepped out of her house that first morning, there was a surprise chill in the air. She flipped on the car’s heater, as she sat stopped in the bumper to bumper traffic that her beloved ‘City of Angels,’ was well known for. Winter had finally made its way to southern California. It was only natural for her body to need some time to adjust to the change in temperature. Once out of the traffic and on the mostly deserted road, the chill intensified. This made no real sense to Ruth since she had the car’s heater cranked to keep it at a comfortable seventy degrees.
She got to the first night’s accommodations, a budget motel, after driving over ten hours. Her nerves were shot, and her emotions uncharacteristically raw. She checked in and walked across the parking lot of the motel, to the over-decorated, but warm and inviting dive bar. All she could think was that it was whispering her name. The thought lifted her mood and she looked forward to the hot sting of whiskey doing its magic to lift her spirits.
Ruth ungracefully plopped down on the only empty bar stool she saw. Once she figured a safe place for her purse, and neatly arranged her black leggings and oversized bright red Christmas sweater, she took a look around. It was obvious to Ruth, that she wasn’t the only sixty-something in the room. As a matter of fact, she would have bet, that she was one of, if not the youngest person there. This didn’t bother her in the least bit. She was there to eat enough to cancel out her hunger, and to drink enough to erase the terrifying images that came to her while she drove the last ten miles to the motel. She wasn’t sure that there was enough whiskey in the bar to help her with the tricks her mind played on her. But she was desperate to try.
As Felina slowly opened her eyes, she found that she was once again looking at herself in the rearview mirror. It began to register that she heard Julian’s voice calling out to her a moment before opening her eyes. She felt out of sorts, frantically grasping to get up to speed on what the hell was going on. She blinked and could feel the tight sensation of dried tears in the corners of her eyes. She leaned forward just enough to have a better look at herself, and instantly she felt her body stiffen. Jet-black mascara was caked on her cheeks, forming a bizarre stripped pattern down the front of her face. Her eyes were swollen and red, and her hair was matted as if she had been sick and in bed for days. Before she could think one thought, she flung open the door, and jumped out of the sedan in a singular motion. She had not dared even take a breath, before her arms were wrapped tightly around her tall muscular brother. Her mind reassured her that she was safe now.
Julian was two years older than Felina, and was about a foot taller. He had jet black hair to match hers, and the square jawline of a roman warrior. He had been his sister’s protector, and best friend since the day she was born. Knowing he was there with her helped to put things in perspective for Felina. She felt the fear, that just moments before held her captive, suddenly dissipate. Her body relaxed in his embrace as she breathed in the scent of his expensive cologne. Felina allowed herself to be comforted by her big brother. She had missed him so very much in the last twenty years. She longed to hear his voice, especially his laughter.
Felina leaned in closer to Julian, resting her full weight against him now, she turned her head slightly towards the hotel. For the first time she noticed thousands of Christmas lights strung up from one end of the hotel to the other. The entire building was lit with strings of warm white lights giving the illusion that some unknown creatures where crawling up and down the walls, making them glow and vibrate. To each side of every door, and along the enormous balconies, sat extra-large cement planters holding huge crimson poinsettias. The large plants cascaded down from their branches in such a way that it looked like blood was running down the outer walls of the building, ending in a splash where the wall met the stamped cement below. If only the festive décor wasn’t causing such confusion in Felina’s already fragile mind. She knew if she could find a way to break free from the despair that was closing in around her throat, she could get a grip on herself. She felt somehow gutted to her core. She wasn’t sure where the pain was coming from, but it was close to taking over every nerve ending in her body. Something was missing. Hurried enthusiastic holiday conversations were missing. The people were missing. There were no cars, no traffic. There was nothing but dead silence. She needed to see her brother’s reassuring smile.
Felina positioned her left foot to move behind her so that she could put arms distance between her and Julian. She was ready to face him after all this time. As she stepped back, she felt a familiar sensation grip her calves. It was the feeling of free falling backwards. She remembered the feeling from dreams where she fell off a cliff or a tall building. In her dreams she always managed to wake up before she hit the bottom. She wasn’t so sure she wouldn’t hit the bottom this time. As she turned her head to face Julian, she heard the scream of a child. A pre-teen boy possibly, she thought. He sounded familiar. The boys scream sounded very much like Julian, like that one time when they were kids and something very bad and scary happened. Suddenly, a sharp stabbing paid shot through her chest causing her to bow over. The pain was unbearable for a moment and then she was numb.
Felina was lying as still as a ten-year-old could manage, under the circumstances. She was trying her best to fall asleep quickly so Santa would come put everything she had asked for, under their tree. She was dozing off when she heard Chloe’s piercing screams. She didn’t think too much of it at first. Chloe cried a lot. Ruth patiently explained to Felina that babies cry, and her sister was no different. After another outburst by Chloe, the house went silent. Felina closed her eyes and relaxed. As she slowly drifted to sleep, she was jolted to attention by a loud shriek that didn’t sound human. It was the most sickening heart-wrenching scream she had ever heard. Felina believed that only a mother could bring forth such concentrated misery from her body. Then she heard her father yell for Julian. He was calling his name, but she didn’t hear Julian answer. Julian always answered when their dad called. He wouldn’t dare not, until this night. Her dad’s calls for Julian became so loud and distorted, she decided to get up.
She walked to the back bathroom since it seemed that is where all of the noise and commotion was coming from. As she approached, she could hear her father on the phone. He was giving someone their address. Felina carefully made her way to the door way of the bathroom she shared with Julian. She noticed that the room had taken on a festive red glow. She hadn’t remembered Ruth hanging red Christmas lights in their bathroom. She was sure her mom hadn’t dared put any lights in there because their neighbor put the fear of God in her about electrocution and accidents in the home. As she came to the end of the carpet, and the start of the linoleum, she saw splashes of red paint on every surface in the tiny bathroom. Her mom’s screams now made perfect sense. Julian had finger painted all over the bathroom walls. And on Christmas Eve of all nights. Surely, he made it on the naughty list this year. As Felina turned to head back to bed, she caught sight of what she thought was one of her dolls. But it wasn’t. She knew it wasn’t, no matter how badly she wanted it to be just one of her broken dolls that she had neglected to pick up and put away. She didn’t even mind ending up on the naughty list right along with Julian this year. Anything for it not to be what her eyes were telling her she was seeing. Chloe was in her mother’s arms, still and silent. They were both soaked in blood. Just as Felina summoned the courage to look at her sister’s face, she was lifted off the ground and taken back to her room.
Julian was committed to Memorial Psychiatric Hospital for Children and Teens. It just so happened that a couple years before the bad thing happened, their dad had worked on the crew that helped transition The Santa Fe Hospital into the psychiatric hospital. The rest of the family moved to Albuquerque the following month. Felina moved back to Los Angeles a year after Julian was admitted to the hospital.
Every Christmas Eve, Felina has the same nightmare. She is standing in front of the hospital that Julian died in. Only it’s not a hospital anymore. It’s a hotel and it’s decorated so beautifully for Christmas. In her dream, Felina invites Julian and his beautiful fiancé to meet her and their mother at the hotel. They drive up in a big black car fit for a king and queen. Even their mom agrees to make the drive from Los Angeles so they can all celebrate Christmas together. Each year, Felina prays that her dream will have a different outcome. But each year, at the same point in the dream, dread washes over her as the sky turns an ashy grey. Each year, when Felina looks up at Julian, she sees that his face is twisted and contorted by screams that no one can hear. His entire face is covered in scratches with unexplained origins, just like it was when he was a patient there. And when Felina turns away from her brother’s tortured face, she can see Ruth, swinging from the second story window, a bedsheet wrapped tightly around her neck, looking just as she did on the night of her death, when Julian swears, he saw a man push her out of his bedroom window. The man was never found.
I was born and raised in Los Angeles, and stayed there until after I was married and had my first baby in 1989. I have lived in Riverside California for almost thirty years now, and I am still surprised by how small it feels. I have been in sales for a long time, and I love it. I consider what I do an art form. I am a gifted writer of stories, poems, speeches. The time finally feels right to share my writing with the world, or other interested parties. I adore the ocean, and the forest. I have a son and two daughters who I love to the moon. I once had a close encounter with a real werewolf.