The man spoke with the proper diction of a trained actor. He checked his reflection through the grainy black patina on the mirror near the door, behind where Hailey sat. He had chiseled cheekbones and hollowed cheeks, a square jaw; hair parted neatly down the center of his head and combed back over his ears with gleaming hair cream. The white collar of his shirt folded upward at a strange angle with a fine silk tie knotted at his throat, and he carried a top hat in his hands as if he were preparing to go out. Overhead, an old-fashioned Edison light bulb hummed at the center of a frosted glass light fixture, its filament heart glowing with golden electricity.
The child abandoned his play voice and switched to whining with the stomp of a foot. Although his height and build suggested he was only seven or eight years old, the pitch of his voice and phrasing of his response suggested he was at least ten. “I could accompany you to the theater, and then you wouldn’t have to worry about all the noise I make at night.”
I became keenly aware that we were neither sitting on Hailey’s orange rug nor the blue Berber carpeting beneath it. We sat on heavily waxed hardwood, the building’s original flooring. The smell of fresh floor wax, pungent as kerosene, filled my nostrils.
The man smoothed the sides of his hair back over his ears again before delicately positioning his hat upon his head and adjusting its brim. “How can I trust you to conduct yourself like a gentleman at the theater when you can’t be trusted to quietly read a book and turn in for the night without disturbing the other guests of the hotel?”
Billy’s eyes returned to the tin soldier in his hand. “It isn’t fair that you get to go outside every night and I don’t. Mother wouldn’t be very pleased with you for keeping me locked up in here like a prisoner.”
The man near the door tilted back his head and barked a sarcastic laugh toward the ceiling. “Ha! How many boys your age would trade places with you in an instant? Sleeping in a comfortable bed, dining on chicken pudding for dinner? You seem to forget that my work at the theater pays for this terrible prison of yours. If your mother were still alive, she’d want you to mind the rules of this hotel for the rest of our time in Boston. Our future depends on the run of this play, William. We’ve discussed this. If you were to create a ruckus at the Colonial Theater, I could lose my part and then you know where we’ll end up.”
Sulking Billy kicked at his scuffed shoes. “Back in New York on the Bowery.”
“Exactly.” The man in the top hat removed an overcoat from the wooden rack next to the door and folded it over one arm. “Which is also where we’ll end up if Mrs. Saunders next door complains to the concierge again about you. Put the oil lamp out before you go to bed.” The man withdrew a silver flask from the pocket inside his suit coat and took a swig from it before returning it to its home.
Billy leaned against the bathroom doorframe while the man stepped out of the room, and all of us listened, petrified, as he locked the door from the outside with a key. After a moment of hesitation, the ghost of Billy walked through our small circle and pressed his ear to the door to listen.
“He’s locked in.” Leigh Anne spoke aloud, reminding all of us that we were observers.
Billy’s small hand jiggled the doorknob, which was indeed locked. He knocked twice softly on the door and called, “Papa?”
I felt air slowly escape from my lungs as Billy’s ghost gradually became so transparent that he disappeared against the black paint of the door. The five of us in the circle exchanged frowns; our fingers were still fixed to the Ouija board, and none of us had the courage to move a muscle. Around us, the hotel room was completely static. The hum of the old-fashioned light bulb over us hinted that Billy was still with us… had more to show us.
YOU ARE READING
It’s the middle of fall semester at Commonwealth University, and Cara Oliver is the resident assistant on the ninth floor of the Hynes Hall dormitory. Being an RA means she’s exempt from paying for her private room. Better yet, she earns a stipend i...