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Charles Grayson chugged cold coffee from his thermos, and now as he squinted though the cloudy windshield, he regretted his decision to drive straight through the night. He was dead-tired, and with the thick morning haze obscuring the winding country road, the drive was anything but enjoyable. But then the blurry Welcome to Collinsville sign appeared. After a 15-year absence, an unexpected pang of nostalgia flooded him as he recollected old-fashioned Thanksgivings when he and his family had sat around the fireplace, sharing childhood stories over his mother’s chestnut pie.
His first stop would be his Uncle Jerry’s farm, where he had spent childhood weekends flying kites and fishing. Still, it all felt strange. He had convinced himself that he had plenty of time to reconnect to family, but now he felt like a stranger in the small country town.
At half past eight, he wheeled into the gravel drive of the three-story clapboard farmhouse. A half dozen walnut trees shielded the house from the prying eyes of strangers and hid the top-story balcony. He sat and stared, wishing he could freeze time.
He flinched when the outside porch light flickered on, but he ran his hands through his tangled hair and climbed from his SUV. His pace hastened as he neared the rustic entrance.
A youngish woman holding a baby appeared. Her brow crinkled. “May I help you?”
“I’m Charles Grayson. I stopped by to see my Uncle Jerry.”
“Oh. Didn’t you know?”
A knot inched up into his chest. “Know what?”
“Your uncle’s dead and gone. He had a heart attack nearly three years ago. We bought the farm from his stepson.”
Charles didn’t move or speak at first. He’d been estranged for so long that no one had even bothered to notify him. “I didn’t know,” he eventually said. “I’m sorry to have bothered you.” Dazed, he shuffled back to his vehicle and backed out of the drive. He choked back a lump in his throat and thought of his uncle on his death bed, assuming he’d been abandoned by his only nephew. How many years had it been since he’d picked up the phone just to say hello?
Driving on autopilot, he soon found himself sitting in front of Sacred Hearts Cemetery for only the second time since his parent’s fatal auto accident. With no other visitors in sight, he tightened his jacket and removed the floral arrangements from his trunk. A carpet of golden leaves crunched under his loafers as he took purposeful steps. Sadly, the winged statue of the Virgin Mary had a broken arm and tangled brush partially obscured the walkway, a far cry from the pristine cemetery it had been when Mr. Grassley was the caretaker.
Charles was clearing weeds from his mother’s grave when he first noticed the inscription on the headstone next to hers. He stopped breathing. Only a foot away was his Aunt Millie’s grave. She’d died just last year. Now there’d be no surprising his favorite aunt today with a scrapbook of old family photos; no sitting around her large oak dining table while they enjoyed turkey and oyster dressing, followed by her award-winning chocolate bread pudding. Other than a handful of distant cousins, nothing remained of his family. His knees sank farther into the soggy ground. Far from the festive reunion he’d envisioned, he’d never felt more alone.
Flooded by disbelief, he circled around town searching for a familiar face; someone, anyone who’d remember him. Oddly, the town square looked as it had in old photos from the early 1900s, not as he had remembered it 15 years ago. Riley’s Soda Shop that had burned in the great fire now stood on the corner of Main, and the modern-day Walgreen’s pharmacy had been replaced by Walton’s Apothecary. Was this some renovation attempt to restore the town to its roots? Aside from his own, Charles saw no other cars.
He pulled in front of the Collinsville Diner on the corner of Main and Maple, where he’d gotten his first job as a busboy. He figured that old Mr. Gage must be in his mid-70s by now, and as he was known for being open every day of the year except Christmas, he might know something more about the circumstances of his uncle’s and aunt’s deaths. Charles entered the restaurant and was met by the smoky aroma of sizzling sage sausage. At the Formica counter, he locked eyes with the waitress. She had the pallid complexion of someone who had smoked for too many years.
“I’m visiting from out of town,” he said. “Is Mr. Gage around?”
The waitress shook her head. “No, hon. He’s dead and gone; died about five years ago.”
The knot that Charles had felt earlier now lodged in his throat, cutting off his air. “Oh, I didn’t know.”
She lifted a menu. “Breakfast for one?”
“No. I just wanted to visit Mr. Gage.” His earlier excitement about visiting friends and family had begun to evaporate. But what did he expect? He’d been gone over 15 years and had done little to stay in touch. He’d been so busy playing the hot shot French chef in the big city that he’d lost touch with his small-town roots. But still….
He ate a soggy egg biscuit from a fast-food joint on the outskirts of town, then drove toward his old neighborhood, yearning for the comradery of backyard cookouts and the long-gone satisfaction of helping his mom run errands for sick neighbors. Where had all the years gone?
On St. Martin Street, the old corner market had been replaced by a thrift shop. Still fresh in his mind were Saturdays when his mother would take him by the hand and walk to Deutsch’s Market where she’d purchase fresh meat and vegetables for Sunday dinner following church. Undoubtedly some big grocery chain with automated checkouts had bought out the homey neighborhood store and had relocated it elsewhere.
He clicked off the radio and drove in silence until he wheeled into the driveway of his old home. A basketball goal had been attached over the garage door, and the two bikes laid on the pavement gave the house a cluttered look. Charles shut his eyes and pictured his grandfather’s Model T Ford sitting in the dirt drive. He could almost remember Grandpa Chester taking him for long drives on curvy country roads past horse farms and creeks filled with cattails. But his grandpa had died years before Charles had been born. He shook off the thought and stared at the disheveled yard in front of him. His mother’s prize-winning rose bushes had been replaced by a tangled mass of weeds. For just a moment, he half-expected to see his mother standing on the porch in her housecoat, waiting as he returned home from a late night out with the boys. But both his parents had left the planet a long time ago.
Numb from a profound sense of loss, Charles drove from one end of town to the other until he found himself at the Collinsville Tavern and Inn. The oldest facility of its kind in the state, the inn dated back to 1810 and had hosted a wide range of well-known guests including Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, and multiple Presidents. He stared up at the ornate windows decorated with strands of white lights and wreaths swaddled in gold satin bows. He went cold and couldn’t shake an indistinguishable and yet familiar feeling that he’d spent a lifetime of holidays at the retreat.
He’d eat lunch at the tavern, renowned for serving a lavish Thanksgiving spread, and then he’d check into one of its vacant rooms. The next morning he’d pull out for the long drive home.
Inside, a blazing fire warmed the cozy sitting room with its cushy armchairs and handmade Afghans. The scent of potpourri took Charles back to a simpler time, when neighbors had time for leisurely visits; during the holidays they’d drop in for nothing more than a cup of eggnog and a slice of rum cake.
A distinguished man wearing a tweed suit looked up when Charles approached. “Happy Thanksgiving. Name?”
“Charles Grayson. I don’t have a reservation.”
“We’re all booked up, but if you don’t mind sitting at the bar?”
He liked the idea of nursing a double martini. “The bar’s fine.”
“Follow me.” The host lifted a menu and led Charles past families sharing memories and laughter.
A well of emptiness engulfed him. He hadn’t felt so empty since that first Thanksgiving away from home, when he’d arrived at training camp as a young Marine at Camp Hamer in West Union, Ohio. Overcome by a flashback, Charles, dressed in a blue uniform, lay helpless as cannons fired at him in a small Pennsylvanian town called Gettysburg. He felt weak at the image of a hole blown through his stomach. But what did it mean? Had he seen something similar in a book or dream? It felt so real.
Charles leaned against the doorframe to collect himself. When he continued, his legs felt heavy and his shoes sunk into the plush carpet as he made the short walk to the historic walnut bar with its high-back matching chairs. The rustic dining room had been renovated with new booths in the same dark walnut. Built-in bookshelves held the classics from years gone by, and over the refurbished fireplace hung a framed painting of the legendary meeting on horseback between Grant and Lee, at the war’s end.
20 minutes later, as Charles sipped a Bombay Sapphire martini and munched on shredded chicken and pimento cheese dip, he thought he heard live music just outside the tavern. He swiveled his chair around and looked out the large picture window.
In the distance, a marching band approached the quaint downtown. The members wore vintage uniforms with red and gold trim and played a tune that Charles strangely recognized from the 1800s. Had he played the same tune years ago? “When did you start having a Thanksgiving parade?” he asked Burt, the bartender.
Burt stopped drying a wine glass. “You must not be from around here. The parade’s been a tradition since the inn opened in 1810. Haven’t missed a year yet.”
Charles’ eyes formed tiny slits. “Really? I grew up in this town, and I’ve never heard of it before.”
The bartender shrugged. “You don’t know what you’ve been missing.”
Charles rose from his chair and moved closer to the window for a better view. An older man in the lead clashed cymbals and another clacked castanets. Behind the band, a group of townspeople followed, all dressed realistically in period costumes. He thought of all the famous people who’d stayed at the inn, sharing holiday meals inside this same dining room. For a moment, he imagined Mark Twain and General Grant discussing the War Between the States, or maybe Dickens had bantered with the bartender about his story idea for A Tale of Two Cities.
He smiled at the thought, but his smile vanished when he saw, right there in the line of townspeople, his Uncle Jerry and Aunt Millie, marching. But they were both dead and gone. Surely his eyes played tricks, probably from driving all night? He rubbed them and when he looked again, they’d drawn closer. He’d recognize them anywhere, his aunt with her hair arranged in an old-fashioned bun, and his uncle with his full grey beard. He exited through the heavy oak door and rushed into the street, waving his arms.
“Uncle Jerry! Aunt Millie!” When they kept marching, he raced up to them and grabbed his uncle’s arm.
When his uncle spun around, Charles pressed his hand over his mouth to muffle a scream. Dark, empty sockets where his uncle’s eyes had once been stared back. His Aunt Millie had the same empty sockets, and blowflies crawled from her mouth.
Charles moaned and backed away. Back inside the tavern, the dining room had grown dark and empty except for a handful of guests at the far end of the bar where a muted green light shone from below, giving it a surreal appearance.
In near panic, Charles darted up to Burt. “What’s going on?” He leaned in and whispered, not wanting to be overheard. “I just saw my aunt and uncle out there.”
Burt’s moustache turned downward. “And?”
“But they’re both dead.”
A bemused expression crossed Burt’s lips. “Life is eternal. You of all people should know that.”
“I’m serious, man. This is no joke.” Charles slumped against the bar and took a slug from the vintage martini glass.
Burt disappeared into the back and soon emerged clutching a rose-colored plate and a breadbasket which he placed in front of Charles. “Enjoy.”
Shaken from a day of bad news and the inexplicably horrific sights just outside the tavern, Charles had lost his appetite. He tossed his credit card down. “I’d like to cash out.” When Burt asked if he’d like to box up his meal, Charles shook his head. “No thanks.”
He retrieved his suitcase from his vehicle and went back inside to sign the guest register. What he needed was sleep.
The clerk dropped the key into his hand. “You’re in the Mark Twain room. Go to the third floor and second room on the right. If you need anything, just dial “0.”
The embers in the fireplace clung faintly to life, leaving the sitting area cold and damp. Charles lugged the heavy suitcase up two flights of stairs and then walked past the Martin Van Buren room, eager to climb under a handmade quilt and lay his head on a goose-feather pillow. When he reached the Twain room, the door was slightly ajar, so he pushed it open and went inside. He couldn’t locate the light switch, but in the muted late afternoon light streaming through the room, he spotted a lump lying under the bed covers. He double-checked the key just to make sure. Obviously, the clerk had already booked the room.
“Hello,” Charles softly called out. Was that a moan in response?
The body shifted, slightly.
Unnerved, Charles stepped into the hallway and clicked the door behind him. But several other doors also stood ajar. Inside the Dickens’ room, a similar lifeless lump lay underneath the covers, and inside the Ulysses Grant room, another motionless form lay all rolled up inside the blanket. A sickly-sweet order permeated the hallway, much like decaying flesh. He checked other rooms up and down the hall only to discover more and more bodies hidden under the covers. He couldn’t wrap his mind around what he saw and willed himself to wake up from this nightmare. At the end of the long hallway, he stopped and stared at The Charles Grayson Room. He placed his shaky hand on the doorknob and went inside.
“Hey, Chuck, snap out of it.”
Chuck looked up, feeling as if he’d been startled from a deep sleep.
His supervisor barked at him. “We’ve got a lot of hungry mouths to feed. We need more turkey.”
Chuck peeked through the swinging door, out into the dining hall of what had once been an elegant eatery, before the historical landmark had gone bankrupt. Now it housed Saint Mary’s Shelter, home to nearly 100 vagrant men. Rows and rows of flimsy card tables with folding metal chairs filled the room, and rowdy laughter drowned out the soft holiday music playing through the overhead speaker.
How, he wondered, had the once gracious Collinsville Inn come to this, transformed into substandard housing for the desperate? The entire building smelled of tobacco and urine. The once lavishly decorated bedrooms, where the likes of Twain and Poe had slept, now held rickety bunkbeds and worn-out dressers with broken knobs, all from the Salvation Army. Worse yet, the stately antiques in the sitting area had been replaced by cheap plastic sofas with duct tape masking the tears.
Chuck swiped the sweat from his forehead onto his soiled apron. He hated getting more turkey, but with his boss on his back, there wasn’t much else he could do. He lifted the axe and stepped into the back room where five adult turkeys were stuffed into a mercilessly small wire cage. An hour later he emerged, wiping his bloodied hands on his apron. He stuffed two more birds with giblet dressing and slid them into the gas oven. Then he plopped more mashed potatoes and green beans onto paper plates.
Later, an indistinguishable brown fluid leaked from the large garbage bag that he hoisted into the dumpster out back. Some Thanksgiving, he thought.
He lit a cigarette and searched his memory. He no longer knew the year. Decades had morphed into centuries. Elusive recollections of Thanksgivings past, spent with now-deceased relatives, tapped at his brain, as if he’d lived a dozen other lifetimes. He’d gotten his start as a dishwasher at the Collinsville Inn back when it had first opened. Ever diligent, he had worked his way up the ranks to become the most celebrated chef in the area, preparing such creations as braised beef and noodles and rhubarb pie for weary travelers who’d stop over for the night. Twain’s favorite was Chuck’s Yankee Pot Roast with new vegetables. And now to see it all go up in smoke, reduced to serving canned vegetables off paper plates. But this had been his home for a long, long time, his safe place where he’d always returned. He could think of nowhere else he’d rather be.
Later that night, Chuck cleaned the kitchen, trying to eliminate the smell of grease and blood, and then he retired to the empty dining hall where he reminisced and sipped a canned beer. Lights from street traffic slashed through the blinds and cast shadows on the plastered walls. Still fresh were memories of smoking cigars and having drinks with elite writers and politicians who frequented the tavern in the old days. Once, after he had prepared a particularly savory meal of roast duck and rutabagas for Dickens, the famed writer had invited Chuck to join him afterwards for a brandy, and they had discussed Dickens’s new novel. Maybe the inn could be restored someday to its former elegance, but somehow Chuck doubted it.
His boss stuck his head into the dining hall. “Good job today, Chuck. Why don’t you go visit your family? You’ve earned it.”
Chuck shook his head. “They’re all dead and gone.”
“Sorry to hear it. Good night.”
Weary, Chuck turned down the gas sconces and climbed the stairs to the third floor. At the rear of the hallway, he placed his hand on the knob of his bedroom door as he had done every night for as long as he could remember, The Charles Grayson Room.
Kelly Piner is a Clinical Psychologist who in her free time, tends to feral cats and searches for Bigfoot in nearby forests. Her writing is inspired by The Twilight Zone. Ms. Piner’s short stories have been featured in Weirdbook’s annual zombie issue, Scarlet Leaf Review’s anniversary issue, Storgy, The Literary Hatchet, Drunken Pen Writing, be-a-better-write and others. Her stories have also appeared in multiple anthologies, including Beautiful Darkness Anthology and Dark Academia. She just competed her first novel, FAT SANDS.