The Guest is a Goner
Copyright 2021 by Carly Winter
All Rights Reserved
Home Sweet Home.
After a long flight and drive, that’s what I looked forward to, but that’s not what I received. It felt good to exit the shuttle, stretch my legs and study my house, Bernadette’s Bed and Breakfast, nestled in the beautiful Red Rock mountain town of Sedona, Arizona. The summer was almost upon us, and the sun shone brightly in the sky, warming my face. I sighed with contentment as I dragged my suitcase behind me up the walk. When I entered, I found my best friend, Darla Darling, who owned Darling’s Diner here in town, waiting for me.
“Hey!” she called, standing from the sofa and setting down the magazine she’d been reading. “I’m so glad you’re home!”
“Me, too,” I said as she hugged me while I studied the living room.
Not a speck of dust on the fireplace mantle or side tables, and not a cushion out of place on the two high-back flowered sofas facing each other, placed in front of the fireplace. She’d taken care of my house while I’d been out of town at my cousin’s wedding in Louisiana.
“Everything has gone great,” she said, tucking a lock of blonde hair behind her ear. She glanced over me as a mother would—head-to-toe. “You’ve got one guy up in room two, but other than that, it’s been pretty quiet.”
“Sounds good.” I fell onto one of the sofas. “When did he check in?”
Darla took her spot on the other couch. “This morning. I haven’t seen him at all. He’s been very quiet. I think his name is Gonzalez.”
I nodded, liking him without even meeting him. The last thing I wanted was a needy customer, and I actually appreciated the other two suites weren’t taken. Yes, I needed the money, but right then, a bath and twelve hours in my own bed outweighed everything.
“Are you feeling okay, Bernie?”
I sat up and sighed. “I feel fine. It’s like it never happened.”
The ‘it’ I referred to was being struck by lightning. Honestly, I probably deserved it. While out of town for my cousin’s wedding, they’d had a Voodoo priestess come out to release the soul of the caterer who had been killed right after the alligator ruined the ceremony. That’s Louisiana for you. My daddy had told me not to attend the Voodoo ritual because horrible things could have happened, and he’d been right. A bolt of lightning came out of the sky and zapped me good. Thankfully, I didn’t suffer any injuries, but they insisted on keeping me in the hospital for two days for observation.
“I can’t believe that happened to you,” Darla said, shaking her head. “It’s just so scary.”
To put it mildly.
“It was, but I can put it behind me. I don’t have anything wrong with me.” I yawned loudly, hoping she’d take the hint. I loved my friend, but I wanted to be left alone. “Where’s my cat?”
“She’s pouting in your room.”
The moody feline, Elvira, hated when I left her. The last time I’d been gone a few days, she’d torn one of my blouses—well, my only blouse—to shreds. Thankfully, we kept things pretty casual in Sedona and jeans and T-shirts were the norm, so I hadn’t even been that upset. However, if she’d ruined one of my vintage eighties shirts, we would have had some issues. No one messed with my Back to the Future or Breakfast Club shirts.
“Elvira is weird, Bernie. This morning she sat on the couch and looked like she was tracking something. At first I thought it was a fly, but there wasn’t anything there. It’s like she was watching someone walk around. She gave me the creeps.”
“I’ve seen her do the same thing,” I replied. I found it unsettling as well, but most of the time it was easy to ignore her.
“You did have one problem while you were gone,” Darla said. “I told one couple that the house was haunted, as you told me to, and they didn’t believe me. The next morning, during breakfast, they said they smelled marijuana, and they didn’t appreciate me blowing smoke through the vents to try to get them high and hallucinate.”
Despite my exhaustion, I burst out laughing. The thought of Darla smoking weed was almost as funny as me doing the same. We were both pretty straight-laced and the worst thing we did was have a glass of wine on Friday nights. Working out daily, practicing meditation and yoga, and eating well were our rules to live by. You wouldn’t catch me dead polluting my body with marijuana, and certainly not Darla.
“Oh, for goodness’ sake,” I said, wiping my eyes. The strange odors that seemed to waft out of nowhere had never been explained, but being accused of something so ludicrous… well, that was a first.
“Yes. I couldn’t roll my eyes hard enough,” Darla said with a giggle.
“So what else has been going on?” I asked, standing and stretching my arms over my head. “Do you want some tea?”
Yes, I was tired, but Darla wouldn’t leave until she spilled on everything I’d missed. Might as well enjoy some peppermint tea while we were at it.
“Sure. I’ll come help you.”
As I fired up the stove and put on the kettle, she told me about a desert Jeep tour that had gone particularly bad. “The whole family was in the Jeep while Jack was giving the tour.”
“Where were they?” I asked. “Still on city streets or up in the mountains?”
“Completely off road. Anyway, Jack was giving his spiel and didn’t hear the family ask him to stop. The kid, who was about six, threw up down the back of his shirt.”
“I know. It was awful. He ended the tour early and pulled into the parking area, ran to the back of the building, and began hosing himself down. To make matters worse, the family then decided to come into the diner and eat. That poor kid was green until he curled up in the booth and went to sleep.”
With Sedona being a tourist town, the business owners kept in touch and also scrutinized the comings and goings of the visitors. Darla knew that since her diner sat next door to the parking lot of Jumping Jack Jeep Tours, chances were good they’d stop into her place if they finished their tour close to lunch or dinner. She and Jack often compared notes on his reservations so she knew how many people to staff in the coming days.
When I had customers interested in Jeep Tours, I always suggested they book through Jack, and he gave me a small percentage for the referral. I also highly recommended they eat at Darla’s, especially if they raved over breakfast. The tourists didn’t know it, but Darla provided my establishment with the morning meal every single day because I couldn’t cook to save my life. If they liked her bacon, eggs, croissants and blueberry muffins, they’d certainly enjoy her tuna melt or roast beef sub. We were a close-knit community.
I grabbed some mugs from the cabinet and set them on the counter. The kettle whistled, and I poured the hot water over the peppermint tea bags. “Let’s go back into the living room.”
“Did your cousin ever end up getting married?” Darla asked, sipping her tea as we sat down.
“Yes. We talked on my way home from the airport, and they tied the knot last night.”
“That’s a crazy story, Bernie. I’ve never heard of an alligator ruining a wedding before.”
“I know. The chaos was really something else.”
We chatted a few more minutes, then my phone dinged, letting me know someone had made a reservation. I picked up the device and noted Mr. and Mrs. Thompson would be checking in later in the day.
“Are the other rooms ready?” I asked, hitting a button to confirm their booking.
Darla shook her head. “I didn’t have time. I came here first thing in the morning for breakfast and checkouts, then ran over to the diner, and back here again. When you walked in, it was the first time I’d sat down in three days.”
“Oh, jeez,” I said, grimacing. “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you keeping me afloat here while I was gone.”
“Of course. However, you do need to clean those rooms. The guy who checked in today took the last clean one.”
“I better get up there and start scrubbing,” I said, wishing I could simply crawl into bed.
“No rest for the weary.”
“None. Do you think the new guy has any interest in sunset yoga?”
“I’m positive he doesn’t,” Darla said. “He’s middle aged, a little on the heavy side, and came in with one of the smoothies from Sarah’s topped with whipped cream.”
A seriously broad generalization of who would like yoga and who wouldn’t, but I was so tired, I was going to assume she was correct.
Sarah’s Sensational Smoothies catered to every taste. I preferred the lemongrass and blueberry smoothies with extra probiotics, but she also offered the ones loaded with sugar, fat and flavoring, or as Jack called them, nectar of the gods. “Probably not a downward dog guy, then.”
“I’m going to say no on that one..”
Sunset yoga was something I offered my guests during the spring and summer months if they requested it. Laying out yoga mats on the balcony facing east, I ran them through a forty-five-minute session. It wasn’t something I advertised, but they were notified of the option upon check-in.
“I’ll let you get to your rooms,” Darla said. “I have to get back to the diner and make sure the dinner meal prep is going smoothly.”
We stood and hugged once again, and I walked her to the front door. “Thanks again, Darla. Really.”
“You owe me big time,” she called as she waved over her shoulder.
And I did. It would be a tough repayment as well. She’d gone above and beyond what I could have hoped for.
After shutting the door, I listened to the silence of the house. I’d inherited the building when my grandmother died three years ago. It hadn’t been a B&B then, but I quickly realized if I wanted to keep it and live in Sedona, I’d need to generate some income because I wasn’t exactly bathing in cash being a yoga instructor. With three bedrooms upstairs, each with their own bathroom, and a master bedroom downstairs, I hung out my B&B shingle and began a little online advertising. To my utter surprise, I did quite well.
A small part of me wanted to sell the house, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. My grandmother had been beautifully crazy and I had many fond memories of her that made me smile. I wasn’t quite ready to say goodbye.
I dragged my suitcase through the living room and down the hall to my private residence. After opening the door fully—I always left it cracked in case Elvira wanted to escape the main house—I glanced around. The sunny yellow comforter hung on the bed with precision, while the yellow and green throw pillows lined up across the headboard like perfect little soldiers. A wooden rocking chair sat in the corner next to the dresser, adjacent to a window. Curling up in the white blanket and sitting in the chair while reading was one of my favorite things to do in the winter, especially when it snowed. Matching yellow curtains kept the room bright and sunny, even during those miserable months.
“Elvira?” I called. “I’m home.” Nothing. She was probably hiding under the bed. “When you’re done being upset with me, come out. I’d love a good cuddle with you.”
After dumping everything in my suitcase into the dirty clothes basket, I returned to the living room and headed up the staircase, noting the banister needed a good oiling and the third stair squeaked. I’d have to call in a someone to fix that.
I pulled some sheets from the hallway closet and hurried into the first bedroom suite. Done in ocean blue, it was my favorite room, besides my own. The previous guests had been neat, and clean-up was over quickly. After scrubbing the bathroom, dusting the dresser, making the bed and vacuuming, I picked up the dirty sheets and towels and glanced around critically, searching for anything out of place. All my reviews online mentioned the cleanliness of my establishment, and I worked hard to maintain that reputation.
“Thank goodness you’re finally home,” a voice from the hallway called. “Where the heck have you been?”
My spine stiffened and goosebumps prickled over my skin. I knew that voice.
“I know you won’t answer me, you never do, but I’m glad to see you. It’s been as boring as watching grass grow around here, Bernie. I wish you’d find more interesting friends than that Darla Darling. She’s nice and all, but sheesh! What a snoozer she is. Her name certainly doesn’t do her justice.”
The faint smell of marijuana met my nose as I slowly turned around… and came face-to-face with my dead grandmother.
A scream stuck in my throat as I slapped my hand over my mouth and stared at her standing in the doorway, a purple mumu covering her thin frame. Her long gray hair was parted down the middle and pulled into a ponytail at her nape. “With a name like Darla Darling, you’d think she’d be a stripper or something,” she continued. “I do have to admit, the breakfast she brings in looks delicious though. If I could actually eat one of those blueberry muffins, maybe she wouldn’t irritate me so much.” She narrowed her blue gaze on me. “You can see me, can’t you?”
I nodded, then shut my eyes, rubbed them, and opened them again. Still there. My vision became blurry as a buzzing sound sounded from within my head. I dropped the laundry and grabbed the doorframe.
“Woohoo!” my grandma yelled as she danced a little jig in the hallway. “Finally, someone besides the dang cat knows I’m here!”
Okay, I was having hallucinations. Horrible, terrible hallucinations. Obviously I should have stayed in the hospital a few more days after being hit by lightning. Something in my brain had short-circuited and I was crazy. Certifiable. Completely and utterly bonkers.
I was seeing dead people.
My knees gave out and I sank to the ground as my grandmother, or Ruby, as she liked to be called, continued her dance, her bare feet seeming to float over the carpet.
“What are you doing down there?” she asked. “Get up and let’s celebrate! Do you know how long I’ve gone talking to people and no one answers?”
Perhaps I should call 9-1-1 on myself and request they send me to a psychiatric ward.
She flopped down on the floor in front of me, sitting cross-legged. “What are you doing? Some of that meditation mumbo-jumbo?”
I stared at Ruby, willing her away. “There are no such things as ghosts,” I whispered, and she rolled her blue eyes.
“Of course there are, dingbat. I’m sitting right here!”
The apparition looked like my grandma, talked like my grandma, and the faint smell of marijuana and lavender soap lingered in the air, just like it had when she was alive. Yet, I could see right through her to the door on the other side of the hallway.
“Look, I’ve been stuck in this place for three years with no one to talk to,” she continued. “You and I have so much catching up to do!”
My mother, Ruby’s daughter, had described her as a ‘loose cannon,’ a ‘troublemaker,’ and ‘one who lived by her own rules.’ I’d also heard ‘selfish,’ ‘horrible mother,’ and ‘drug addict.’ She wasn’t the run-of-the-mill grandma. She’d never baked a cookie in her life, so when I visited every summer, we’d have dance parties instead where she’d decorate the living room downstairs in a particular theme. Sometimes it was disco. Other times it was the swinging twenties, or the fifties. She’d pull out trunks of old clothes and we’d dress for the particular era, put on some music, and have our party.
I couldn’t recall ever curling up on her lap and reading a book. Instead, I remembered flying through the streets of Sedona and into the mountains on her ATV and holding onto her for dear life as she whooped and hollered. As I got older, she’d pull out the Ouija Board, and swore she was in contact with Frank Sinatra. She let me watch R-rated movies, eat ice cream for breakfast, and stay up past midnight.
She had no idea who my grandfather was, and she never married. So I understood when my mother claimed she played by her own set of rules, because no truer statement had ever been uttered, especially for a woman who grew up in the sixties.
When Ruby had died three years ago while in bed with the handyman, I’d been heartbroken. The woman represented everything in life I would never be, and I found consolation with the fact she’d gone doing something she loved.
“The nice thing about being dead is my joints don’t snap and crack when I get up from the floor,” she said as she stood.
“This isn’t real,” I muttered, also rising while grabbing the dirty laundry. “Just ignore it. I need medical help. Go away.”
“So tell me where you’ve been,” Ruby said as I walked right through her. “You were gone… what… a week? I tend to lose track of time. Boredom does that to me.”
I dropped the soiled sheets in the hallway, grabbed some clean sheets and towels from the closet, and headed to the next bedroom, making sure to tread lightly over the carpet so I didn’t disturb my guest. Ruby trailed behind me and never stopped talking.
“You saw me for a second, Bernie. Your face gave that away. Just admit that you’re talking to a ghost.”
After taking a deep breath, I opened the door to the guestroom that still needed cleaning. They hadn’t been nearly as tidy and I groaned in frustration as I surveyed the mess. Beer cans lay on the nightstands and on top of the dresser.
Peals of laughter sounded from behind me. “Oh, wow! I wish I had dropped in on this party!”
I meandered into the bathroom and found my white towels stained with red lipstick. “Who wipes their lipstick off with a towel?” I mumbled while studying the spot and wondering if I’d be able to remove it.
“Someone who had no regard for a good lipstick,” Ruby said over my shoulder. “Everyone knows lipstick should be taken off while kissing, not rubbing it on a towel.”
Glancing into the mirror, I saw nothing except my own reflection, yet I felt her behind me, just as if she were alive. A brief memory of me visiting her during the summer when I was seventeen came to mind. It had been so hot, and we’d decided a day trip to Slide Rock, a natural swimming pool, would be the perfect way to cool off.
When we arrived, Ruby dropped our chairs in the middle of a group of college kids and started up a conversation. Before I knew it, my outgoing grandmother became the center of attention as she flirted with the boys and gave advice to the girls. Someone put a beer in my hand while music started to play. Ruby stripped down to her bikini and yelled, “Dance Party!”
I watched from my chair, wishing I could be as outgoing and social as she was, but it wasn’t in my nature. Instead, I tended to be shy and reserved, preferring to watch from the sidelines.
“Your mom is great!” one of the girls said.
With a grin, I nodded and sipped my beer, not bothering to tell her she was actually my grandmother. She’d had my mother early in her twenties and didn’t look a day over forty.
I’ll never forget the sight of Ruby coming down the rock slide with a beer in one hand and a joint in the other while screaming in delight.
She’d always encouraged me to live and push boundaries, while my own mother preferred the straight and narrow path. Ruby’s behavior that day would have horrified her, and she’d have probably said something to the effect that Ruby needed to act her age.
But back to the ghost and my stained towels.
“I know you know I’m here, Bernie. You keep looking at me. So why aren’t you talking to me?”
With a sigh, I grabbed the towels, stripped the bed, and tossed the beer cans into a large trash bag. I even found a few empties under the desk, as well as a spot on the carpet where someone had spilled a beverage. With a curse, I went to get the carpet cleaner and debated whether or not to return their deposit.
“You can’t keep ignoring me forever,” Ruby said. “I won’t let you.” I glanced over at her as she stretched out on the bed I’d just made, a huge smile tugging at her mouth, her blue eyes dancing with mischief. “I tried to get your attention for months after you moved in and you never noticed me. I know you see me now.”
“You aren’t real,” I said, staring at her. “Go away. You are a product of my injury. I’m going to see a doctor and you’ll eventually disappear.”
Ruby laughed, a sound that had always made everyone in the room join in. It wasn’t a delicate little sound, but an unapologetic loud guffaw that came directly from the gut, and I couldn’t help but smile. Admittedly, I was enjoying my brief brush with insanity.
“First, I’ll try meditation, to focus my mind,” I continued. “If that doesn’t work, I’ll head to the doctor.”
“You aren’t going to be able to concentrate me away,” Ruby said as she rose from the bed and stood directly in front of me. “And you don’t need a doctor, Bernie. I’m dead, and I’m here.”
I stared into her eyes and for a brief moment, I believed her. Maybe I wasn’t crazy. What if the lightning had opened up some type of connection to the dead? Oh, my gosh. Would I start seeing ghosts wherever I went?
No. I didn’t believe in the paranormal. I’d been hit by lightning and something in my brain had short-circuited. That was the only logical excuse. Heck, maybe I just needed some rest.
“I’m finishing up this room, and then I’m going to take a nap. When I get up, you’ll be gone.”
“You go ahead and believe that, but I’ll still be around. You do look tired, though. Did you go on a bender and not invite me?”
“I don’t do benders,” I muttered as I straightened the pillows on the bed. “I was back in Louisiana for Tilly’s wedding.”
“How was it?”
I began to tell her about the disaster I’d witnessed, but then remembered I was talking to my own imagination. “You aren’t real,” I whispered.
“Okay, you believe what you want,” Ruby said with a sigh. “You’re absolutely no fun, Bernie.”
She strode from the room, leaving behind the scent of marijuana and lavender soap. I stared at the doorway for a long moment and then shook my head. “See? She’s gone. A figment of your imagination.”
I gathered my cleaning supplies, the dirty linens, and glanced over the room one last time with a critical eye. Much better than when I’d walked in.
After hurrying down the stairs, I started the laundry then went into my own bedroom, falling across the bed. I glanced around the space, which used to be Ruby’s, and didn’t find any sign of her. Nothing. “Thank goodness,” I whispered as I pulled a pillow under my head and curled up on my side.
My cat, Elvira, came out from under the bed and snuggled up next to me. “I’m so happy to see you,” I whispered as I stroked her head. “I missed you.”
She glanced over at me, then shut her eyes, which seemed like a really good idea, so I followed suit.
I didn’t know how long I’d been out when I was jerked awake by Ruby’s voice.
“Bernie!” she yelled. “Get up!”
Shooting to my feet, my breath sawed as my hands shook. “What?! What’s wrong?!” I found her sitting in my rocking chair. Elvira tore from the room, obviously as upset as I was that our nap had been disturbed.
“Jeez, Bernie. You still sleep like you’re dead.”
“Oh my gosh! Why are you doing this?” I yelled as I grabbed my head. “Why are you hassling me?”
“Don’t be such a drama queen,” Ruby said. “And I woke you because you need to call the police.”
I stared at the ghostly image of my grandmother and wanted to throttle her, but then I realized what she’d said. “Why do I need to call the police?”
“Your guest upstairs? He’s a goner.”
“What does that mean?” I asked, rubbing my tired eyes. “Are you saying he left already?”
Ruby sighed and shook her head. “He’s dead, Bernie.”
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