By Andrew James Winch
Blackish fluid drained from beneath my mangled Camaro. Darkness had long overtaken the desert skyline, but heat from the sticky blacktop still hung in the air.
Sharp pain stabbed my side with each breath, and I tried to ignore the pulsing behind my right eye as I staggered toward a flame in the distance. The same flame I’d mistaken for an oncoming car just before I jerked my wheel sideways. The same flame that meant I’d have a place to stay for the night.
When my eyes adjusted to the darkness, ghostly-white stucco walls spread out from the flickering oil lamp and formed a looming sentinel in the desert. At the top of the main tower, a cross cut into the sky and tempted me with empty hope.
Still, a spark kindled in my gut as a church bell sang and a heavy wooden door moaned against rusted hinges.
A woman appeared in the main archway, her luminous white robe rustling despite the stagnant heat, and a delicate melody drifting from her lips. Her song hung in the air for a breath, then swirled around me like a cool wind. She tilted her head, waved one hand, and turned back into the darkness. Her song smelled like incense as it filled my lungs.
I climbed the worn steps and followed her inside.
The scent of flowers and earth hung heavy as her candle cast dancing shadows down the narrow corridor. For a moment, she seemed to dance with them, a shade caught somewhere between Heaven and Hell.But when she turned back toward me, the candle gave life to her eyes—icy blue gems set deep in flawless Latino skin framed by dark, flowing hair.
It came in a whisper, or a thought.
Not from her, but from the shadows. Other guests, perhaps. They were whispering about me. I could tell by the chills clawing down my spine.
We walked past a dozen rooms before she finally turned and led me out through another archway. This one opened into a well-lit courtyard lined with more lamps and arches than I cared to count.
In the light, my host took on a radiant quality. Her opalescent robe reflected colors I’d never imagined, and her inky hair seemed to pull them all into a swirling abyss. She flashed a smile and began dancing to the same tune that first beguiled me.
Her arms drifted over her head, and her hips swayed side-to-side. She moved with such grace that I almost didn’t notice the approaching crowd as they danced with her, flowing like waves from some great ship. Soon, my host faded into the party, and I was alone, just one of a hundred boys moving in her wake.
The mood took me despite my anxiety. I yielded to the stars and danced in the summer heat, then found the chief man set above the others. The evening’s excitement left my mouth dry and cracked, but when I asked him for a drink, he pointed to a great golden chalice and frowned.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “We’ve no spirit here to satisfy your thirst.”
Before I could ask his meaning, he turned his head and nodded toward one of the doors along the crumbling wall. “There, you may find some relief. She has certain ways,” he sighed, “of keeping men content.”
Desire and desperation pushed me through the crowd, but before I made it to the door, my heart faltered and I turned back to him. “How will I know if my way is—”
Just then, the song returned. It twisted around me and drew me forward. I shuffled through endless hallways, following that ghastly nocturne through the darkness until I met with a towering double-door banded in rusted iron.
As I pushed the door, the song took hold of me and pulled me into the master’s chambers. The ceilings were higher than any I’d seen so far, and heavy faded curtains decorated every wall.
Around the four-poster bed, half a dozen men gathered. They crouched with hunger in their eyes, looking ready to pounce on their prey. On the bed, my host reclined on a mound of pillows, her thin dress still dancing despite her stillness.
“What fire my friends have.” Her words flowed like her hair, like her song. “Remember, we’ve all chosen our place here.” Her smile never faded, even as the men all drew long, slender knives from their belts. “I’ve given you shelter from the desert, and in return…”
Their knives all fell as one. I raised my eyes away from them but, to my horror, a mirror above the bed reflected the truth. The butchers took the form of murderous corpses, clothing and skin hanging from bleached bones. And my host, from what I could see through flashing blades, was chief among the dead. Still, her skinless mouth seemed to be twisted into a smile as her prisoners tried in vain to end their misery.
I’m not sure when I turned and fled, or how I made it back to the front door, but the pain in my side shot fire through my body with each gasp. I doubled over at the top of the steps and looked out onto the highway. Sunlight peaked over the horizon and cast long shadows across the unending wasteland.
What remained of my ruined Camaro caught my eye. The dark fluid had dried into a reddish crust on the driver’s side. When I looked closer, I saw a head pinned under the car door with the right side of its skull crushed against the blacktop.
The air caught fire before me, turning the desert into a nightmare.
My right eye throbbed as the captain put his bony hand on my shoulder and spoke. “Relax. She can’t keep you here, but there are worse things than the Hotel Calypso.”