Wanna see his birthday pics?
The message seemed innocent enough. What Jake couldn’t get over was the packaging, a white envelope shoved under the slit of their hotel room door where it conjoined to the next room.
Jake and Jan didn’t know the people in the next room; knew nothing about them at all, except that they were probably old. If last night’s live jazz meet-and-greet in the hotel lounge was any indicator, most of the mid-week Groupon crowd at the Cambria Vines Wine Lodge was well past the age of retirement. Oh, and whoever the octo-or-nonagenarian person (or persons) in the next room were, they were huge. Heavy, lumbering footsteps had woken Jake up the previous night more than once, to the point where he’d been tempted to bang on the wall and shout for them to be quiet.
Wanna see his birthday pics? WHOSE birthday pics? Jake wondered, reading the note again. Maybe I shouldn’t have cheaped out on a joined room. Who the hell slips a note under the door, anyway?
“What’s that?” Jan said, putting down the self-published crime novel she was reading on her Kindle and leaving the over-hard leather armchair by the fireplace to join him. She was always reading that crap. Jake didn’t understand why she couldn’t just read real books. His fiancée kissed him as she reached around to hug his shoulders. “Someone leave us a note?”
Jake shoved a finger over his mouth.
“Oh, calm your nuts,” Jan said. She squinted to read the childish chicken scratch. “Birthday pics? Whose?”
“That’s what I said,” Jake whispered.
“Let’s just ask,” Jan said, reaching to knock on the neighbor’s’ door. Jake stopped her. Jan shrugged, mouthed sorry, then, pointing to the envelope, open it.
The envelope was empty. There was only a website link to an online photo album scrawled on the back in the same childish handwriting. “It’s a website,” Jake said.
Jan patted him. “I know.” She reached for her phone.
Jan stared at him. “Dude, you are freaking out right now.”
“Babe, you don’t think this is weird? We don’t know those people,” he said.
“Yeah. It is. That’s why I wanna look.”
“Baby, I think it’s a joke, some old people trying to take the piss out of the young couple they saw staying next door. Creepy old people. Like that couple who were staring at you for drinking whiskey last night. This is probably their revenge for having to listen to us bang.”
“Then… why can’t I open it?”
“Well, what if?”
“What if what? Also, since when do you say taking the piss?”
“You’re moving to Scotland for grad school,” he reminded her.
Jan sighed. “All right. Whatever. I’m gonna go swim.”
Jake tried to forget about the weird note all afternoon, while they were poolside, and then when they went to town to taste wine and look at the cute little shops where Jan stopped to ooh and omigod at the wine racks fashioned like baby goats and bottle stoppers shaped like naked women. But the envelope and its eldritch link wouldn’t leave his brain. He and Jan were only staying until tomorrow morning – they had an early checkout – but a lot could happen in one night. Wasn’t it better to know?
What if it wasn’t just a dumb joke?
When they got back to the room, Jake gave in and tapped the strenuously long link into his phone’s web browser. The album, titled Birthday Pics, was semi-private. Only those with the link could view it. Jan floated over his shoulder as the pictures stubbornly resisted loading. “The Wi-Fi here sucks.”
“Babe, use data.”
When they finally loaded, the pictures were surprisingly… normal. At first, anyway. Jake’s inner little kid, who’d been reared on Stephen King novels and Goosebumps books, breathed a huge (secret) sigh of relief as he scrolled through the first dozen or so images, all of them depicting the same elderly couple walking around the hotel’s decadently forested rural grounds, or sipping wine in the fireside lounge, or shamelessly side-hugging on a stark, white sand beach somewhere up the California Coast (the hotel was less than a twenty-minute drive from the beach; in fact, the beach was about the only thing within a twenty-minute drive).
The old man in the pictures was handsome for an old guy. He wore a collared shirt with the sleeves rolled up to reveal thick, muscular forearms full of white hair, varicose veins and huge, boxer’s wrists. He was lanky and had a grin that would’ve been at home at the horse racing track, and those big, flappy ears old men get that reminded Jake of parachutes. His wife – Jake assumed they were married – was smiley and egg-shaped, with a pink wool sweater, a tall grey beehive of hair, and big, bifocal glasses.
“Only two selfies,” Jan said, impressed. “Surest sign of the generation gap.” She took the phone and continued scrolling. “Wonder who the girl is?”
“What girl?” Jake said.
“Her.” Jan pointed to the ragged, black-haired shape lingering in the background of several of the pictures. The girl wore ratty clothes and her sneakers were filled with holes. She couldn’t have been older than ten or twelve.
“She looks homeless.”
“Huh. Maybe their granddaughter?” Jan said. “She doesn’t look too happy to be here. Look at this one.”
It was another selfie, snapped at the same pool where Jake and Jan had gone swimming a few hours ago.
“You know any preteens who like hanging out with their grandparents?” Jake said.
A snort echoed from the neighbors’ room.
Jake shielded his mouth with his hand. “Jan. I’m not saying this to scare you, but I don’t think the people in these pictures are the ones staying next-door.”
Jan lowered her voice. “You think she…?”
Jake shrugged. “I mean, whoever’s over there sounds big. And that weird snorting. I heard it last night, too. I think you were asleep. I mean, I know old people snore, but…”
“Then who are they?” Jan said. She didn’t wait for him to answer before she continued scrolling.
“That’s why I don’t think knocking on their door is a good idea. Hoax or not… it’s weird,” Jake finished.
But the comment was lost in a claustrophobic silence as Jan’s finger slid to a halt. They both stared at the image for a hanging infinity before Jan swallowed hard and said, “That’s a hog-tied child.”
It was the same little girl from the other pictures, bound at the wrists and ankles with bungee cord and shoved haphazardly into a hotel room closet. She looked unharmed – thank God – but her face was streaked with tears.
Jake’s guts knotted.
“Still think this is a joke?” Jan said in a tiny, distant voice.
Jake took the phone and scrolled forward. He cringed as the screen filled with red. “Christ. That is a lot of blood.”
The next picture showed floral-printed hotel room wallpaper wearing a fresh, Pollack-esque splattering of crimson. The room was identical to Jake and Jan’s. The same fireplace and hard leather armchair lingered in the shadows. In the foreground, the flash had captured a hand grasping for empty air. The hand was attached to a muscular forearm, with big, varicose veins, white arm hair, and the barely visible edges of a rolled-up sleeve.
Christ. This was next door.
Birthday pics. I get it.
“Jake…” Jan said.
Another muffled snort came from the conjoining room, then a few thunderous footsteps and a hiss. The footsteps quieted. Jan and Jake’s eyes met, then slowly returned to the pictures.
They only got worse from there.
The elderly couple had been brutally murdered. The dozen or so pictures that filled the rest of the Birthday Pics album showed blood splattered in on the floor and walls; a ragged mouth open in mid-scream; torn-out hair and teeth littering the floor like candy; the telltale pinkish white of torn, bitten flesh.
Jake kept scrolling long after Jan went to the bathroom to cry. Jan didn’t share his probably unhealthy habit of occasionally trawling the darkest corners of the internet. He’d seen the darkest stuff imaginable, pictures of dead babies and train track suicides and once even a female pedestrian who’d been cut in half by a wayward motorcycle on some horrible gore website that Jan would lose her lunch if she saw. Jake had become pretty hardened to it, though, and he thought he had a good eye to differentiate real gore pictures from the “Faces of Death” kind – that is, the obvious fakes – but if these images were fake, they’d been crafted by a Hollywood special effects wunderkind.
Jan returned from the bathroom, collected herself, and said, “Babe, I want to leave.”
Slowly, Jake returned the phone to his pocket and nodded. “Yeah. Let’s get out the hell out of here.”
It took them all of ten minutes to pack and load the car. Their little rental car was filled to brimming with shopping bags and suitcases for their three-day road trip up the California Coast. Highway One had too many gorgeous places to stop and take pictures of the funky old remnants of the hippy era (such as this hotel) not to take it slow and space out the typically eight-hour drive over a couple of days.
Jake regretted that decision. There’d been some talk about stopping to hike in Big Sur on their last day of the drive – technically tomorrow – but Jake knew that was definitely not going to happen now. If he knew Jan, the status of the little girl in the pictures was currently the only thing on her mind, and would be for the rest of the drive, even if – as he all but prayed – it was just some sick joke.
They barely said a word to each other while the car was being loaded, a quick “Got everything?” and an “Mm-hmm” and then finally, a “Let me go double-check.”
When Jake stepped back inside, there was a little girl crying in the room next-door.
The sound was soft at first, sad, barely audible little sobs slipping like terrified Morse code under the door. Jake prayed that Jan would stay outside with the car. If she came back and heard what he thought he was hearing, it would all be over. They’d have to knock on the door, and if there was no answer, Jan would call the police, and then they’d have to stick around all day waiting to be interviewed while blue suits pulled bodies out of a room twelve feet from where he and his girlfriend had woken up that very morning.
What the hell kind of rabbit hole had he fallen into where that was the better option?
Jake rubbed his eyes with trembling fingers, focused on steadying his breath, and wondered if he should just call the cops. But some part of him, however dwindling, still wanted to believe it was a hoax. And how stupid would he look if he got trolled by some idiot kid who was bored out of her ears being on vacation with her grandparents, and the old dirt bags had played along? His stunned, stupid-looking face would be posted ad nauseam on every website that reveled in that kind of thing from 4chan to… 8chan.
Jake made his final round, looked under the bed, checked for any errant socks or forgotten underwear. A sharp sob cut the air as he turned the bathroom fan off, not so muffled this time. No. He was going to ignore it. They were going to make like a tree and get the fuck out, he’d say he was having second thoughts and call the police as soon as they were far enough away not to have to turn around, they’d salvage whatever they could of their time together, and he was never, ever going to tell the love of his life that he’d heard a possibly-endangered little girl quietly bawling her eyes out the moment they were leaving.
But when he tried to leave, he couldn’t. Didn’t he always think those bystanders in the horrible scenes of death and sorrow he saw online should be doing more to help the victims? What kind of person was he if he didn’t? And he couldn’t do anything without Jan. They were tying the knot in less than a month. For better or worse, in sickness and in health, they were a team.
“Hey!” Jan called from the car. “What’s up?”
Jake waved her over, gesturing for her to be quiet. Jan crept back to the room and a slow seizure washed over her face as she realized why. “Omigod,” she said under her breath. “I knew it. Babe, someone kidnapped her after murdering her legal guardians. The girl in those pictures couldn’t have been more than twelve years old. She’s alone. She sent us those pictures as a cry for help. I’m opening the door. You call the cops – on the room phone. A call from a landline is easier to source.”
“Jan, that’s reinforced steel. Unless you want to break in through the window, we’re going to have to knock. That’s what they want us to do anyway, right? Hear me out. There’s no way I’m letting you go in that room alone…”
“This is not the time to be a macho asshole, Jake.”
He took a deep breath, washing his face through his hands. “I’m not being a macho asshole. I weigh a hundred pounds more than you. I might take longer to overpower if something really bad happens, which might give you – and more importantly her –time to escape.”
“I don’t want to think about that,” Jan said.
“We have to.”
The girl’s muffled sobs ceased. Jake held his breath. Did she hear us talking? Or did…
He mouthed the words get the phone to Jan, and headed for the shared door.
Jan stopped him. “No. I’m coming too. Two adults are harder to overpower than one.”
“Okay, then call the cops.”
“Jacob, this town has three hundred people. We’re in the middle of nowhere. The nearest police department is in Morro Bay. We don’t have twenty minutes to wait around for them to get here. That’s probably why the killer picked this place.”
“Then what about the front desk?”
Jan sighed like he was an idiot. “Trust me. He’s probably not in the room. That’s why she’s crying. He probably stepped out for a minute to get ice or fresh towels or something. And if we call the front desk and he’s there, that’s just gonna tip him off. We have literal seconds to do this.”
No, Jan. This isn’t a self-published crime novel, Jake wanted to say, but that actually sounded somewhat plausible.
Resolution reshaped Jan’s features. “We need weapons.”
Before Jake could stop her, she ran back to the car and returned with a wine bottle and corkscrew. “The blinds are shut over there, but I saw her peeking out. I’m ninety-nine percent sure she’s alone, and the killer left to go do something. These are just a precaution.”
She handed him the bottle, then opened the corkscrew and held it between her fingers like a push knife. Jake would’ve preferred a shotgun, or even just a crowbar – you could do some real damage to someone’s head with one of those – he’d never seen any wine bottle murders on the gore sites. But the bottle was damned heavy, and if it shattered on the first strike, it could still be used to stab or slice.
Jan got in a fighting stance and motioned for him to knock. Jake gave five soft, friendly little raps.
The door clicked and swung inward.
The room on the other side was dark and smelled like hotel rooms ought to smell. No instant wafts of death or human suffering. The windows were covered and all the lights were off.
Jake squinted. He took a step forward, paused, brandished the bottle and paused midway through the door.
“H-Hello?” Jake said.
Jan pushed him into the room. It took a moment for Jake’s eyes to fully adjust to the darkness.
There was a little girl of perhaps twelve years old, the same girl from the pictures, sitting on the edge of the bed with her hair over her eyes, black, natty hair that looked like it hadn’t been washed in weeks. Her clothes were similarly destroyed: dirty jeans that had more rips than fabric, a crusty black Iron Maiden t-shirt, and a pair of Chuck Taylors that had gaping open mouths where the rubber soles no longer met canvas.
The girl didn’t look up. In a cried-out, mousy voice, she whispered, “I thought I ruined his birthday. Can you come in, please?”
Jake’s hand trembled. Something was wrong. This child didn’t seem like a victim of a kidnapping, or any other crime. She’d been waiting for them. And wait – if she’s over there, who opened the-
A towering shadow passed behind Jake’s and Jan’s, blocking the light that spilled in from their room.
A cold thing twisted in Jake’s gut. He slowly turned around.
He didn’t know what the thing blocking the door was, only that it was huge – at eight or nine feet tall, like a bear standing on its hind legs, and of similar thickness. Its knees, if you could call them that, were nobby and gnarled, and the top of its head still scraped on the ceiling. Its hair was long, matted and wet, the fuliginous not-color of a moonless night, and…
Oh, god, are those teeth?
Its spiral mouth clicked and slathered hungrily, a thousand tiny, razor-sharp blades pinching and grinding as endless rings of gums whirred into motion.
Jake heard the wine bottle smash on the floor and a wet splash patter his legs. He hadn’t felt it leave his hands.
“J-J-Jake,” Jan said.
“Stay, Percy. No bite,” the little girl commanded. The thing in the doorway stilled.
Somehow Jake tore his eyes from the abomination in front of him and turned around. The girl was looking up now and smiling. Her face was like any other preteen girl’s; a few missing teeth, but there was nothing obviously wrong with her; no bruises or scrapes or any other signs of abuse, only a vacant look in her eyes that Jake knew well. It was the same look the bystanders had in the gore pictures where the person had been dead a while, the look that came after the shock wore off, a disconnected resignation to the fact that life is only the thing that moves the meat: defenseless, temporary, altogether worthless.
“I thought I ruined the surprise,” the girl in the dark room said.
Jake steadied himself in his boots. “Wh-what surprise? Wh-where are your grandparents?”
The girl wiped her eyes dry on the ruined sleeve of her shirt. “It’s Percy’s birthday. I thought I ruined it when I saw you leaving. You were supposed to be a surprise. I’m Charlotte, by the way. Percy doesn’t like old people that much, especially the pushy, helpful ones.” She made air quotes when she said the word helpful. “He says they’re too chewy. And he always gets hungry after his bath…”
It was then Jake saw what else was in the room with them. Stuffed in the corner behind the hard leather armchair and the flat screen TV were two disassembled skeleton-piles picked perfectly clean. The bones bore deep, spiraling marks from being bitten and bitten again. Even in the near-total darkness, they gleamed white, like they’d been spit-polished.
The girl was still talking. Calm. Practiced. She raised her voice over the clucking sound of Jan’s sobs. “I’m sorry I tricked you. That one with the ropes was especially hard. I want you to know that I don’t do it for myself. I have to, for Percy. I found him. He’s my responsibility. You both seem like nice people. But don’t worry. He eats quick.” She gave a little whistle with her bottom lip. “Happy birthday, boy! Dinner, Percy! Dinner!”
The spiral-toothed thing in the doorway mmmmmed.
Adam Vine’s previous Trigger Warning stories “The Swell and “The Offering” can be accessed on our site. He’s made a pro short fiction sale to Abyss & Apex Magazine and his 2016 debut novel Lurk is available on Audible.