It was late, and I was nodding at the wheel as I traveled a rural highway somewhere between Cortland and Binghampton, New York. I’d planned to get out of my work meeting before ten, but it wasn’t until a quarter to midnight that I finally settled into the leather seat of my Cadillac ATS. I knew the dangerous game I was playing, taking the chance of falling asleep at the wheel. So it seemed like divine intervention when a dated, orange fluorescent sign appeared on the horizon.
I slowed as I passed McGirk’s Roadside Motel. It was a small motel, to say the least, with maybe 6-8 guest rooms. When I saw there was still ‘vacancy,’ I pulled into the parking lot, sluggishly got out of my car, and headed toward the office. I had no bag or toiletries, as this was an unplanned overnight.
When I entered the office, I was greeted by a greasy, uneasy looking motelier, who was sitting behind a tall desk. “Hey. Are you lost?”
“Uh, no… I’m tired. Is there a room available?”
The man behind the desk smiled broadly, which made me feel a little better about my choice to stop. I really didn’t want to sleep in my car in some farmer’s field or forested pull-off. “We have one more room available,” he said, distracted by something he’d spotted in his dimly lit parking lot. “Is that a Cadillac?”
“Yep,” I replied. “Can I have the room? I can pay with my card, or cash if you prefer.”
The motelier hesitated as he absentmindedly picked at his grimy, white t-shirt. “I don’t know if you’ll want this particular room.”
I waited for the man to continue, to offer some sort of explanation, but he didn’t. The overhead light flickered as I approached the desk. “So… What? You have at least six rooms here. Are there any others available?”
“No, sorry. All of the other rooms are occupied. I have just the one tonight.”
“My car is the only one out there…” I sighed. “Whatever.” I knew I probably wasn’t thinking all that clearly, due to my lack of sleep. “What? Does it have bedbugs, roaches, or something?”
The motelier visibly grimaced at my mention of vermin. “Of course not! It’s a perfectly clean room.”
“Then I’ll take it.” I dug for my wallet, then pulled out my ID. “Cash or credit? Here’s my license.”
The light flickered again, as the motelier wrote down my information. “Mr. Sellers, I feel obligated to warn you – some people believe that Room 7 is, uh, haunted…”
I couldn’t help but laugh. “Sure, buddy.”
The man handed me back my ID and credit card, and set a room key on the desk. The bronze key hung from a red, plastic identifier, which was embossed with a large, golden ‘7.’
“I’ve never seen a ghost. But it has been an issue for some of my guests, to say the least.”
I picked up the key, and was about to head straight for my room when my curiosity got the better of me. “What’d you mean, ‘an issue?’”
The awkward way in which the man fidgeted, before responding, made me uneasy.
“Some of our guests have insisted on changing rooms over it. And it has happened often enough that I don’t normally bother offering the room.”
“But you’re completely booked tonight – all, what, eight rooms?”
The motelier nodded. “Correct, Mr. Sellers. Now that you’ve joined us, we have no more vacancies.”
“So, enough people have been changing rooms due to ghosts – immaterial beings – that you only offer seven of your eight rooms?” I couldn’t help but chuckle. “You’d be surprised what kind of business marketing you could do with that online…Uh, are you McGirk?
“Yes, I’m the owner. Chester McGirk,” he replied. “And it’s not what they see that troubles them.” McGirk lowered his voice, as if he were afraid of being overheard. “It seems to be the things they hear.”
“Well, I don’t believe that ghosts can exist. So, I think I’ll be fine.”
McGirk didn’t press the issue; he wished me a good night, then I hurried to Room 7 to try and get some sleep. I had an incredibly important sales meeting in Binghampton the following morning, and would have to get up in less than six hours to have enough time to make my appointment.
When I opened the door to Room 7, I was taken aback by a wall of musty, stale air. It was as if the room had been sealed for years. There was a queen-sized bed with a nightstand, the typical TV setup opposite the bed, and a single chair. The bathroom was tiny; the toilet just barely fit between the sink and bathtub.
After a closer inspection, I decided the room was clean enough, and I couldn’t have cared less about its dated furnishings. My only aesthetic critique was that the main overhead light was a bare bulb. Sure, there were other covered, even decorative, wall lights. But the focal point of the room was certainly the unseemly, dangling abomination.
I knew I wouldn’t have to stare at it for too long, though, as it was pushing half-past midnight. So I undressed, flipped the switch near the door to turn off the overhead, and went to bed.
I gradually awoke to the specter of the illuminated, bare bulb above me. There was nothing sudden, or even startling, about my transition to consciousness. I turned to my side and saw that it was only 2:30. I grumbled, then calculated that I had only been asleep for two hours, and that I would have to get up in another three-and-a-half.
I didn’t immediately get out of bed and go shut off the light either. The switch was near the door, and even the five paces it would take to extinguish the light seemed an effort.
I considered trying to sleep with the light on, I was so fatigued, body and mind. I watched a few moths and a housefly dip around the bare bulb for a couple of minutes before I sat up. The fact that it attracted bugs was motivation enough for me to go and turn it off.
I swear, as soon as I flipped the switch to the ‘off’ position, the light in the bathroom turned on. “Some ghost,” I grumbled, laughing to myself as I lumbered into the bathroom, and then flipped that switch which, at first, didn’t respond. It took a few flips before the light bar above the bathroom mirror faded. When all was again dark, I hesitated, reminiscing about the Bloody Mary and Candyman games I used to play with my sister in front of dark mirrors. When no ghoul appeared in the glass – not that I actually chanted any names – I laughed to myself and returned to bed.
I was comfortable, back under the covers, when one of the light sconces above the bed came to life. “The hell?” I had to sit up to turn it off, and as soon as that light was extinguished, the other sconce flickered on. To get at that one, I had to move to the far side of the bed and strain in order to spin the small switch to the ‘off’ position.
“Ha! Jesus. I’m out of breath.” I collapsed to the bed, irritated, though slightly amused by it all. As soon as my head hit the pillow, the hanging bulb above once again illuminated. McGirk must be bored tonight, I thought. I was positive now that the motelier was the one manipulating the lights. That McGirk might be watching certainly bothered me, but the reason I began to fume was the thought that I, Richard Sellers, might seem like the sort of guy that could be messed with.
I tossed the blankets aside, put on my shoes, and stormed out of Room 7 in only my boxers and T-shirt. But when I barged into the motel office and up to the counter, I found McGirk asleep in his chair. I noisily cleared my throat, and the motelier startled awake.
“Oh! Christ! What’s wrong?!” McGirk quickly stood and looked me up and down.
I felt like a complete idiot. McGirk had certainly been asleep, and here I was confronting him in my underwear. “Sorry…sorry to bother you. I… um… I’m having a problem with my lights. They won’t stay off.”
McGirk’s eyes widened. “I see. Yes. It’s difficult to sleep with the lights on – this is certainly an issue.” McGirk looked around the room, as if he were searching for an easy answer. “I’m sorry, Mr. Sellers. We have had some problems. The building hasn’t been updated – as you’ve probably seen for yourself. Plumbers and electricians are difficult to get a hold of, especially all the way out here.” McGirk tapped his fingers wildly on the desk. “I can offer you a sleeping mask, or I can come take out the bulbs…”
I waved the motelier off while I backed toward the door, as I was now pretty embarrassed. “Forget it. I can manage. I’m sorry for bothering you over something so minor.”
“Think nothing of it,” said the motelier, as I hurried out of the office and back to my room.
Back in Room 7, the bare bulb shined brightly above my bed, with a few furry moths and a housefly orbiting it. I lay below, and buried my head beneath the comforter. It was quiet enough in the room; I knew I could still manage a few hours of sleep. Even the bugs periodically knocking against the glass of the hot bulb didn’t bother me. It was almost hypnotic.
But as I began to drift into the twilight of a shallow slumber, I was startled awake by the sound of a mechanical clanging. I tossed the covers from off my head and discovered the source of the noise. The ancient air conditioner beneath the room’s sole window had kicked on, and was certainly not working as intended.
It was a cool, October night. There was no reason for the AC to turn on. The clanging had grown even louder as I honed in on it. I was frightened by the sound, the intensity of it, the fact that it was escalating.
My attention was soon drawn back to the bulb above the bed. It was now flickering and swinging gently on its hanging wire.
Sure, the bugs could be responsible for the flickering and the swaying of the bulb, I thought, but what was causing the mechanical banging and grinding of the air conditioner?
I got out of the bed to investigate, creeping ever-so-gently across the dingy carpet toward the window, and the AC unit beneath it. I paused when the fan whirred to life inside the unit. And when I bent over to have a closer look, a flurry of flies swarmed around me from the old machine. I searched nearby for something to defend myself, while swatting at the flies that began landing on my face and in my hair.
“Fuckin’ flies!” I screamed, as I slapped at the bugs in the air around me. I spit out a few that had made it into my mouth, while I searched the nightstand next to the bed. I found a Gideon Bible and used it to defend myself, smacking the wall and the pests gathering on the headboard.
As I killed handfuls of the black houseflies with every swing, the two light sconces above the headboard came to life, and then, as quickly, sparked and blew out. I noted how blackened the tops of the bulbs had become. But I didn’t have much time to consider the blown wall lamps, as the bare bulb above me then unceremoniously shattered. Whether from the force of the flies colliding with it, or due to an errant swing of the Bible, I had no answer. My only sense was to gather my things in the infested room, swim through the flies that buzzed around my face, and leave behind the wild clanging and whirring of the mad air conditioner.
I fought the flies, and a few moths, as I fled the room and got into my Cadillac. The motel’s office was now dark, and I wasn’t about to make a fool of myself again in front of McGirk. I was too upset, and sickened, over what had occurred – but I really was dead tired, even after all the excitement, and was eventually able to fall asleep in my reclined seat.
It was well past dawn when I awoke in the lot at McGirk’s Roadside Motel. My back and neck were sore from sleeping in the car, though I noted that I did get a couple hours of deep, refreshing sleep. The car’s windows were fogged over, and it was especially chilly outside, and was quickly becoming uncomfortable.
I started the car, intending to warm it up and clear the windows for the rest of my drive home. I groaned at the thought of having to go find the key, which I’d dropped in the room during my escape. I definitely didn’t look forward to having to return the key to the motelier, and likely having to explain why I had slept in my car.
But I soon discovered that I would be saved from further embarrassment. As the windows defogged, the scene at McGirk’s gradually revealed itself. The motel was all but gone. In its place was a burnt-out husk, a whisp and dream of a building that I was forced to re-imagine. The motel office, which had the most structure to it, was merely a blackened slab of a partial rear wall, with some crumpled copper plumbing protruding from it. There was vegetation where Room 7 should have been; the foundation looked like it had been grown over for years.
I got out of my car and tentatively inspected the area. The motel wasn’t really even a shell of itself anymore. It was pretty obvious that a fire had occurred. There was char littered around the foundation, and I could make out various burnt debris scattered among the weeds. I walked the paved path that would have led from the office to the room where I had stayed the previous night, or, at least, where I believed I had stayed.
I was about to end my investigation and return to my car when I saw it, a few yards off among the weeds and bush. A red, plastic identifier on a key ring stuck out of the soil. I pulled it out and saw that the key ring still held its key. I turned over the plastic tab and saw that it was embossed with a large, golden ‘7.’ It was my room key, and it hadn’t decayed or been worn by the weather! I tossed the key and scrambled back to my car. It made no sense to me, and I was afraid of what I might uncover if I stuck around.
Not five minutes down the road, I came to a gas station. I saw a female attendant outside, adjusting the gas prices on the big overhead sign. So, I pulled in and the woman greeted me.
“Excuse me, ma’am. Do you know of any motels nearby?” I waited anxiously on her response, curious as to whether or not she’d refer me to McGirk’s Roadside Motel.
“Yeah, definitely. There’s the Deep Well in Harford Mills and The Sunrise in Richford.”
“Thanks. But wasn’t there one closer nearby?” My voice wavered, revealing my anxiety. “McGirk’s something or other Motel?”
The attendant didn’t immediately reply. She eyed me and my car for a few moments before responding: “You must’ve been by before McGirk’s Roadside burned down. I used to actually clean for Chester – the owner – part-time.”
“And how long ago was that?” I asked, my heart thumping in my ribcage.
“About ten years, I’d say. Chester was a cheapskate; God rest his soul.” The woman made the sign of the cross before continuing: “He got ticketed by the fire marshal, I don’t know how many times. But it was definitely an electrical fire. He had just about a full-house the night of the fire. Seven people died.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, ma’am. It’s too bad.”
“Yep, it was; and it’s all on Chester,” the woman replied, matter-of-factly. “Christ, I remember how the lights used to flicker off and on, and all sorts of things used to go haywire while I was cleaning the rooms. You’d think the place was haunted, or something!”
4 thoughts on “Switches (from CORPSE COLD: NEW AMERICAN FOLKLORE)”
Love the story! I came across your kickstarter via a Facebook sponsored post (good job on your paid advertising!) and clicked through to your site to read some of your sample work. This story (and the Coleman Funeral Services one) very much feel like the old Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Good work!
One note about this story, the town name is Binghamton (without a P). I live near there in Syracuse, NY!
I also have one question about the new anthology. Are the stories compilations of real local legends like the old Scary Stories? (I checked the FAQs on the kickstarter but haven’t fully explored your website, so I’m sorry if you describe this elsewhere) I loved how the notes in the back of the book told us more details about the origins of each legend. Just wondered if your stories are inspired by research of whisperings or are purely from your creative musings. Either way, great project!
Hi Kate. Thanks for reaching out, and we’re glad you like our stories!
We grew up in Binghamton and it’s a common joke that people often spell it with an added “p,” so we decided to name our fictional version of the town that way. We actually were just up in Syracuse last weekend for Scare A Con.
Our new book is heavily inspired by real folklore and local legends, just like Scary Stories. We will actually have a Notes section in the back of our book explaining the inspiration behind the stories.
Thanks so much for all of your kind words!
JUST READ YOUR about page and saw your location. So why the p here? 😀