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We had a mouse problem at the Pink Ridge Inn. A set of double doors to the boiler room were pretty warped and banged up, so there were plenty of spots that mice could come wriggling inside from the small soybean field that stretched north from the rear parking lot of the hotel. I had just started at the Pink Ridge Inn a few weeks ago at this time and was still working the 3:00 pm to 11:00 pm evening shift. This was late November, so the Indiana winter was settling in rapidly.

We had a long-term check in on a Thursday night: the Crockers. The Crockers were a bit odd. The mother was a portlier woman–not fat, but robust and saggy from the stress of raising a family on her own. There was no Mr. Crocker present. She had two children. The older of the two was her son Michael. I gauge he was around 15 or 16 and in the grips of teenage angst. He had his ears pierced with black rubber studs, he had the remnants of black polish chipping off of his nails, his hair was heavily gelled and fashioned into twisted spikes. Michael had all the signs of troubled youth, but I may be quick to judge. He could hardly be bothered to look up from his smart phone and muttered something about “how stupid” it was to be living at a hotel for the next four months.

Mrs. Crocker's other child was a girl, about the age of 7 or 8. She wore a pink faux-princess dress and slippers dotted with gaudy rhinestone. Her short, black hair was pushed back by a headband that had two furry kitten ears poking up from her head. It looked like she had scrawled whiskers on her cheeks with markers and Mrs. Crocker had subsequently tried to wipe them away, but only managed to leave faint lines and a lot of black smudging. Her daughter's name was Audey. Audey had the sort of glazed over eyes and frozen, tepid expression of someone on a lot of prescription drugs. I assumed Ritalin or Adderall. It was 2013, a lot of kids these days are pumped full of pills and lumber around like zombies. “I do have a pet,” Mrs. Crocker said.

“No problem,” I replied. “We allow pets, but there is a pet fee. $25 a night, but we only charge up to five nights, so you will only pay $125 total.”

She sighed and massaged the bridge of her nose between her eyes. She was flustered, but she agreed to pay the fee. I got her all checked in, handed her the keys, and sent her on her way. Mrs. Crocker, her son Michael, her somnolent daughter Audey, and a cat.

A few days passed and the calendar turned over to December. That's when the snow started, and once it started, it had no plans to stop. It seemed like every morning I woke up to fresh powder on my car.

One night was particularly bad. I was working the front desk and I was the only employee at the hotel. Usually after about 5:00 or 6:00, there's only a lone Front Desk agent left to tend to the whole building. The wind was driving huge snowflakes down from the sky so hard that I couldn't see further than ten feet out the window. The whole world outside the Pink Ridge Inn was whited out to me. No one was coming to check in in a storm like this, so the night was pretty slow. At 9:00 pm, the phone rang. It was Justin, my manager.

“How's it going up there?” he asked.

“Slow. Real slow,” I said.

“That's not always a bad thing. Make sure you print out all the reports you need tonight in case the power goes out,” he advised.

“Already done.”

“Cool. I need you to do something for me. It's supposed to get cold as balls out tonight, so that means it's pipe freezing season. If we don't keep the pipes on the perimeter of the building warm, we'll have a ton of floods on our hands.” He paused and I could hear as he dragged from a cigarette and sighed out the smoke. “First I need you to go to all of the corner rooms that are vacant and turn on the heat. Those corner rooms have two walls exposed to the outside, so they're most likely to freeze. Then you'll have to go out back of the hotel to that little room where all the Grunau pumps and valves are. There's a heater in there that will keep the whole sprinkler system from freezing up.”

I told him it was no problem and made my way through the halls. The Pink Ridge Inn has four floors and is shaped like a big, boxy horseshoe, meaning there were 24 corner rooms total. I went from floor to floor, and though I knew that over 80% of our rooms were occupied, I never saw a single person in the halls. I didn't hear anything coming from their rooms. That is, until I passed room 214.

In 214, the Crockers were lively. Michael was blaring some tinny nu metal from the speakers of his iPhone and Mrs. Crocker was shouting at him to turn it down. I could hear Audey's voice, flat and inflectionless, repeating over and over “Mommy, I'm clean now. Mommy, I want out. Mommy, can I stop brushing my teeth now?” The TV was on too, and loud. Maybe I should have stopped and told them to quiet down, but I had better things to do.

I went back to the ground floor and went out the back exit. The snow was blowing nearly horizontal across the parking lot and I stopped for a moment to watch the stream of white flakes streak through the yellow carona cast by the parking lot lights. I pulled my coat tight around me and headed for the Sprinkler Room, but after about ten feet, there was a huge flash off to the west, followed by a boom like a cannon. The lights shut off. I froze in my tracks and stood in the night–a darkness painted white by blizzard. After thirty seconds or so, the backup generator kicked on and I watched as the lights in the windows flickered back to life. The parking lot lights were still off, however, as the generators were not connected to the exterior lighting.

I shrugged and leaned into the blizzard, cursing the snow and the wind as I neared the Sprinkler Room. I felt the snow compacting under my boots, but it seemed strangely… crunchy. Crunchier, at least, than I was to snow being. I thought nothing of it as I reached the Sprinkler Room doors and flung them open. It wasn't a room so much as a closet really, filled with rusted pipes with chipped red paint and awash with gauges and valves and tubing. In the corner was a small heater which we turned on each winter. I flicked it on, lingered a minute to make sure it was working, then closed up the Sprinkler Room. I turned around and as I began to trudge back to the office, the parking lot lights sparked and twinkled on. The vast, open space of the parking lot was cast in a yellow glow that made the snow on the ground glisten like a field of gemstones. But I gasped when I saw what it was that I had been crunching underfoot. Strewn across the snowy lot by the dozens were mice. Dead mice. Not just dead mice, but bloody, eviscerated mice. The little brown creatures lay on their sides, as if curling into the fetal position, their pink guts exhumed from their bellies and frozen to the concrete. I bent down to examine a few: they had bite marks and the fur and flesh was shredded, as if by claws. Winter is hard for strays, I thought. Maybe the cats around the area were starting to band together and hunt mice in hordes. I shuddered at the sight of all the mousy carnage (or maybe it was the cold that made me shudder) and retreated back to the warmth of the office.

The next few nights were just as cold. I actually ended up staying at the hotel on Sunday night because the weather was too rough for me to drive home. I programmed a key card for room 210 and sealed myself away after 11:00. Most of the night I just surfed through the channels, but around 2:00 in the morning, I thought I heard scratching at my door. I muted the television and sat up in bed. I heard a meow. Throwing the comforter aside, I rubbed my tired eyes and walked to the door. I cracked it open and looked both ways down the hall: there were no cats. I shrugged it off and went to bed. But when I woke the next morning and headed down stairs for breakfast, I was greeted by a mutilated mouse carcass set just outside my door. Damn cats, I scoffed.

I went downstairs. In the breakfast lobby, there were only a handful of people awake. The Crockers were there and Mrs. Crocker was juggling between trying to stop Michael from making a mess with his food and trying to make Audey eat hers.

“I'm full, mommy,” Audey crowed, in her even tone.

“What do you mean you're full?” Mrs. Crocker groaned, “you haven't eaten a thing.”

“I'm not hungry,” Audey protested.

I got a coffee and an orange and disappeared into the office; I didn't work again until 3:00, and I didn't plan on spending my morning among the guests. Justin was in the office checking his email when I sat down at his desk.

“Morning, sunshine,” he greeted. “Thanks for getting that heat turned on last night.”

“Yeah, no problem,” I said. “Hey, did you see all those dead mice out in the parking lot?”

“I did. Now that's a health code violation waiting to happen.”

“Mhmm,” I mumbled as I dug my nails in the orange rind.

“It's 214. She's got all those damn cats up there,” Justin complained.

“Cats? She told me she just had one,” I said, a bit surprised. “We only allow one pet per room, right?”

“Yep. She's got three of them up there. Which is why I told Mrs. Crocker this morning that she needs to either get rid of the cats or find a new hotel.”

I frowned a bit because I noticed that Audey was wearing her kittens' ears headband again this morning. She must really be fond of her cats. I peaked my head out from the office just as the Crockers were leaving and Audey was being dragged along by her mother who had a tight grip on her wrist.

“But I don't want to get rid of my kitties,” Audey whined, near tears. My heart sank. Michael, his arms crossed, noticed me peeking and glared at me with a harsh scowl. His predatory eyes made me wither.

I worked that night. And once again, I had to go outside to fix a problem. It was about 8:00 pm and the snow was steadily falling. I got calls from a couple rooms on the first floor saying that their toilets wouldn't flush. In fact, they were slowly starting to back up. I called Justin and he told me I would have to go out the side door to the edge of the parking lot to the pump systems that kept the massive amounts of sewage moving through the hotel. The pumps were in the ground under a 10-foot circle of concrete. There was a pair of steel doors in the center of the circle, which you could lift open and stare down into a deep, black hole that must have gone down at least 50 or 60 feet into the ground. Since one of the pumps had malfunctioned, the hole was pretty full with a murky, putrid water. I gagged at the smell of it when I opened the hatch to look down into the muck. It steamed in the sub-freezing air. There was a small electrical box nearby which I opened and I found the red lever I needed to trip. I hit the switch and a horrible grinding noise came from deep down, followed by a screech and the sound of something tearing. The system struggled for a few seconds, then there was a gurgling sound from the hole and the pumps began to churn normally. I pulled out my flashlight and shined it down into the sewage-filled hole. The water was starting to recede down. A few bubbles rose, and then something pushed up to the surface–something big. Whatever it was, it must have been what was clogging the pump. I shined my light on it and grabbed a stick nearby. I carefully leaned down and tried to roll the thing over for a better look. It bobbed in the fetid water, then finally turned over. Instantly, I vomited on the concrete.

It was a cat.

I swung the doors closed over the hole and ran back inside. My nerves were quaking as I charged down the hall towards the office. When I reached the lobby, my eyes caught movement in the corner, in the planter of one of the fake ficus trees: a mouse, its hind legs gnawed off, but still alive, trying to claw its way down into the artificial tangles of dried grass. I had to call Justin, the police, somebody.

I pinned in the code to get into the office and stepped into the laundry room. All of the laundry machines were spinning: there were towels in both of the washers and a comforter in one of the dryers. But the dryer on the far wall was making a thumping sound. I sighed. Why did this shit happen to me? Why did everything break down on my shift? I was disgusted and overwhelmed. I marched over to the dryer and leaned in to see what was drying. Tumbling round and round in the perforated steel drum, its fur singed and its limbs battered, was another cat.

“Meow,” I heard behind me.

I yelped and shot straight up.

“Mommy says we can only have one kitty,” it was the slow, lifeless voice of Audey.

I turned.

The little girl was lying on top of the large employees' refrigerator, her arms crossed at the wrists in front of her. She licked at the back of her hand softly. She had drawn three whiskers on each of her cheeks in black marker. Her lips were stained a bright red, wet with blood. Cat's ears protruded up from the tangles of her black hair.

“I'm mommy's favorite kitty,” she said, as if it were a simple fact. Then she got up on all fours and arched her back. Her bloodied mouth parted and her eyes shined bright in the light. She hissed at me.

“Reeeooow,” she screeched and pounced off the refrigerator to the tile floor. I darted across the room, slipped out the heavy metal door, and frantically pushed it shut behind me. I sat on the carpet with my back against the door and panted heavily, my shivering fingers reaching for my phone. I was trembling so badly that I could hardly find Justin's number in my contacts list.

“Hello?” he answered.

“Justin. It's about, its, god, fuck, it's about the Crockers,” I spat the words out in a jumble.

“Calm down, man, calm down. What about them? Did they get rid of their cats?” Nails were scratching at the door just behind my head. “Yes,” I said. “They got rid of the fucking cats.”

Fiction


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