Hotel Del Lago
Mollie L. Burleson
Mollie L. Burleson’s fiction and poetry has appeared in such magazines as Lore, Crypt of Cthulhu, and Midnight Echo, and numerous anthologies, including 100 Vicious Little Vampire Stories, 100 Wicked Little Witch Stories, 100 Creepy Little Creature Stories, Horror for the Holidays, Black Wings, and Horrors! 365 Scary Stories. Her literary criticism has appeared in Lovecraft Studies and Studies in Weird Fiction. She lives in Roswell, New Mexico, with her writer husband Don and five cats.
Joe Hull was driving in southeastern New Mexico and was growing very tired, as mile after mile of black ribbon roads stretched out before him. He had gotten off the main drag somehow, and he was nowhere on the map as far as he could tell. That’ll teach you to pay more attention, he said to himself.
Up ahead he saw a sign proclaiming the town of Ambrose. Might be a place there to stay for the night. Just a few hours’ sleep would enable him to drive on at first light. He entered the town. A few structures, the hotel, and a gas station. Population 68, very small. He didn’t see a soul on the streets. It’s not all that late, he thought.
A big building rose on his right: Hotel del Lago. Strange-looking place, squat and oddly cubic in structure with something approximating a smokestack sticking out of the roof, or more nearly like an upturned funnel. Weird, Joe thought. The hotel and the few buildings surrounding it reminded him of a desert landscape, cacti poking their spines out of the sand. What a peculiar name for a hotel, a building lying like a squashed beetle on the ground in this arid wilderness of rocks and mesquite.
He parked on the semicircle driveway, got out, and approached the building. He could find no door at first and circled the place, searching for an entry. He peered into a window: a room dimly lit and spartan, but neat and orderly. He made another circuit, and as he passed a glass-fronted door it automatically whooshed open.
He entered what he guessed to be the lobby. A large check-in desk, some uncomfortable-looking chairs and sofas, and a black and silent television. The furniture was placed precisely and immovable, uninviting. He walked upon the cold, uncongenial tile floor, his footsteps echoing hollowly.
He hated those stereotypical motels, where kids ran around screaming, TVs blared, everything was plastic, and an occasional drunk reeled by. A dog would bark and sleep was usually broken. But this was no usual motel. The place seemed quiet. Good.
“May I help you?”
Joe turned and looked upon a woman with a pale, pasty face. Her mouth twitched in what could have been taken for a smile.
“Yes,” he answered. “I’d like a room for the night. I’m tired and it’s too late to go further.”
“We happen to have quite a few vacancies,” she responded. Her voice was oddly raspy and liquid-sounding. Her colorless hair, scrunched up in a bun, loosened with her movements, and a few damp strands fell on her wan, unhealthy-looking cheeks. Her eyes bulged in a pop-eyed, questioning glance. Not the greatest looker, thought Joe.
“That’s great. I’m exhausted. Have a long way to drive tomorrow.”
He wondered how old she was. She looked youngish, but her neck was wrinkled and crepey. Probably hasn’t heard about facelifts or special treatments for it in this hick town, he observed.
“Anything much to do around here on a Saturday night?”
“Oh, we find things to do here at times.” She smiled.
“Well, I guess I’m not really looking for things to do. Too tired.”
“As you wish. If you’re as tired as you say, you’ll enjoy it here. A very quiet place. No noise to disturb you. At least none that would bother you. Sign here.” She indicated the ledger. “Credit card or cash?”
“Cash.” Joe signed the register and took the key she proffered. Room 101. Close by.
As he left the lobby he glimpsed two men standing by the front door in quiet conversation. As Joe passed, they turned toward him and their dark looks tended to give him the creeps. Further along the hallway he thought he saw a few women in long dresses walking by outside; one of them bore a marked resemblance to the desk clerk. So there were other guests? Well, what had he expected? It was a hotel, after all.
He opened the door to his room and passed into a long L-shaped chamber. His first thought was how dreary it was—high-ceilinged, dim, and again, like the lobby, the furniture uninviting.
He sat on one of the chairs and tried to relax before sleep. Nope, it wasn’t working. Wait a minute, hadn’t he seen a bar on the way to the room? Just what he needed to relax, a nice, cool whiskey and soda. Or maybe just a beer.
He left his room and headed for what he thought might be the bar. It was. Dark and dank, smelling of beer and something else. There was a lone customer sitting on a stool, and Joe decided to sit down next to the old man. A bartender hovered just out of the glow of the one neon light in the bar and asked him what he wanted.
The old man turned to Joe and nodded. He seemed to be having a mixed drink.
“Hi,” Joe said, nodding in like manner. “You live around here?”
The man nodded and mumbled, “I wasn’t born here, though.”
“So this is the local watering hole, I gather?”
“Nothing much to do here except have a drink once in a while,” the old man said. “Passes the time.”
He looked to be in his sixties, heavyset with grizzled gray hair and the look of a lush about him. Joe took a swig of beer. Although the man didn’t seem to want to talk much, Joe drew him out and asked about the town.
“Why did they name this place after a lake? No lake around here that I can see. Strange.”
The old man inched his shoulders up and down.
“Well,” Joe added, “if you live here you would know.”
The man didn’t reply and kept his face buried in his drink. They sat in silence for a while and then the man croaked in his gin-soaked voice, “It’s more than the name is strange.”
“What do you mean? The town? The people? What?”
“Look around. You’ll see.”
The old man leaned toward Joe and started to speak further, but a sound came from a back room and the man sucked up the last of his drink, slumped off the stool and limped out the door, looking back at Joe one last time.
Joe returned to his room, undressed, and got into bed. The sheets were clean and the mattress not too hard, but, tired as he was, he couldn’t seem to fall asleep. Though the ceilings were high, he felt claustrophobic and had a vague sense of repulsion. Nothing he could put his finger on, but something wasn’t quite right.
Time passed. He looked at the bedside clock. 2:30 a.m. Did I sleep? Growing even more restless he arose and went to the window. What the old man said or half hinted at was disturbing him and he couldn’t quite figure out why.
He lifted up a corner of the curtain and peered out. Dark, very dark, yet a gibbous moon imparted a wan light to the scene. In the distance he thought he saw movement, and he peered even more closely. It was movement, of a sort. The town’s villagers? The ones he saw by the door or out on the path, perhaps? But why the gathering? Surely not one of those religious cults?
He hurriedly dressed, slipped out of the room quietly, and headed for the back exit. He hoped no alarm would sound as he pushed open the door. No—it was quiet. Good. He walked down a gravel path and headed for what he thought he’d seen from his room. There were a couple of shacks behind the hotel, and it was toward there that he guided his footsteps. He reached one of the buildings and pressed himself tightly against the wall and peered around the edge. He couldn’t believe his eyes. A body of water lay nearby and before it stood vague forms, swaying and moving their hands in prayer-like supplication. The townspeople? For what purpose?
The water was black, and he thought he saw ripples upon its surface. But there was no wind. Odd. The movements increased rapidly and the waves in the water grew larger. Something was headed for the shore. Good Lord, what was happening? A strange chant rose from the tossing figures, weird sounds oddly like the word ruyeh. What did it all mean?
Then, a woman—could it be the clerk?—threw something into the roiling waters, something that gleamed from the wan light of the moon.
The thing in the water neared the shore and headed for the object.
It was then that Joe dashed away from the shack and fled in blind terror to the hotel. He ran into his room, grabbed his suitcase and car keys, and rushed out the front door, never looking back. He tossed his things onto the front seat, turned the key in the ignition, and without one backward glance sped away from the horrid place.
He drove like a soul possessed and didn’t stop until he could see the sky in the east turn a lighter shade of gray. Seeing a sign for a town up ahead, he pulled off the road and drove around until he found a state police barracks. He banged through the doors and went up to the desk.
The sergeant looked up. “Hey mister, you look all shook up? What’s the matter?”
“It’s that damn town up the road, you know, Ambrose.”
“Ambrose? You mean that place about fifty miles north of here?”
“Yeah, the town with the lake.”
“Lake? There’s no lake anywhere near here. It’s the desert, ya know.”
“That’s what I thought too. But I stayed at the Hotel del Lago last night and saw weird goings on”
“Boy, I’m glad I didn’t stay there. Nothin’ there but old ramshackle buildings and mesquite and tumbleweeds and rattlesnakes. What in hell are you saying?”
“But I did stay there. I did see people dancing by the lake. And some thing crawling out of it.”
“Mister, what were you drinking?”
“I wasn’t drinking!”
“Then you’re nuts!”
Joe and the sergeant kept on arguing back and forth until Joe finally admitted that maybe he had been seeing things. He figured that since the sergeant was so sure, maybe they’d put him in the lockup overnight if he kept on arguing.
The day was well established when Joe said goodbye to the officer got into his car and headed north, back to Ambrose.
In a short while he neared the town. He stopped the car and got out. Hotel del Lago was gone. All that remained were bricks and wood and sand. He walked back to where he remembered the shacks, but they no longer existed. Crumbled to debris.
And the lake? Dry as a bone out there. Not even damp soil. Nothing.
Nothing except for one thing. At what he had thought had been the shore, one footprint remained, and—something else.
Something bright and shiny and golden. Inscribed on its surface were rune-like characters, with an image of some creature also etched upon it. The creature from the lake. It had been there, had been swimming in that black water, for not only the object lay on the stones, but the thing’s impression was there, too, fossil-like in the sand. It was long and bloated and rugose, and it had no place in this world.