They’d been driving for hours, headed up the Florida Peninsula. Tom liked the quaint back roads and took every chance to veer from the highway.
“Who knows what unexpected jewels one might find in small town America,” he told Jess, “These places are chock full of oddities. It’s no fun staying on the main path . . . I prefer the road less traveled.”
He said that last bit with all the bravado of a tenured English professor. Jess recognized the allusion to Robert Frost’s poem, but didn’t miss this chance for another ego boost. She hated that disappointed look in Tom’s eyes when she popped off a lit reference or beat him to the punch in any of the book categories on Jeopardy. As Tom steered, he rolled off a few scattered verses:
“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both . . .
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by . . .”
They had begun the day in North Key Largo and were headed North. They were hoping to make Crawfordville and their campsite in the Apalachicola National Forest before sundown. The trip should have been around ten hours if they stayed on the highways, but they had diverged so many times that at 8:00 pm they were only just rolling into Lake Wales, Florida.
They were cruising scenic highway 17, enjoying the miles of orange groves, when they came upon the charming town. The sign heralding their arrival had read “Welcome to Lake Wales. Stay a Spell.” As the car slowed to a crawl, Jess searched the cross streets for green street signs.
“Oh look,” she pointed left, “a historic downtown.”
Tom’s gaze followed her pointed finger and they hung a left onto Central. Tom slowed to see City Hall, an artful old building situated under a massive oak tree.
“That thing must be ancient,” Tom said.
“What? The City Hall? It’s definitely from another era.”
“Sure the building, but check out that old oak. Old and wise. It’s branches spread out over the entire building. A tree like that has roots reaching down into the earth. It has a history all its own, a memory older than this town, these people, maybe even older than memory itself.”
Jess focused her eyes on the tree and wondered what tales it would tell if it were able. They followed Central to First Street, slowly making their way through the sleepy town as the dusk faded. On the corner there was an old hotel. It looked in disrepair, but there was a large sign out front touting the renovation of The Royal Walesbilt Hotel. Tom slowed to peer at the boarded up windows and the sagging veranda that wrapped itself around the crumbling building. The headlights flashed on a brown sign. “Spook Hill” the sign read and pointed straight ahead.
“Oh Tom, let’s check it out. Spook Hill how charming.”
Tom followed the signs back to scenic highway 17 and eventually to North Wales Drive, where their Toyota strained to climb a hill. The car sputtered as they crested the hill and descended the other side. Just ahead, Tom could see a white line cutting across the road at the bottom of the hill and they passed another brown sign, but It was too dark to make out the writing. Tom squinted. Coming to the bottom of the hill, the Camry let out another sputter and then went dead. The car rolled a few feet to the white line and then Tom stepped on the brakes and put the car in park.
“What on earth, Tom? You had the car tuned up before we left didn’t you?”
“Of course,” Tom said, “The old girl was running like a dream when we left home.”
Tom turned the key. Nothing happened.
“Is it the gas?”
“No. Look at the meter.”
Jess leaned over and read the gauge. The needle was steady between the F and the three quarters mark.
“Well, we’ll have to walk back to the town and see if there’s a shop or a tow truck or something.” Jess said.
“We can’t leave the car in the middle of the road like this, Jess.”
He put the car in neutral and unfastened his seatbelt. He was just about to open the door when he felt the car begin to roll. Instead of rolling forward down what little incline was left of the hill, the car began to roll backwards up the hill.
Jess looked at Tom, the green lights from the dashboard reflecting in her wide eyes. His face mirrored her shock and the pair sat silently as their car rolled slowly up the hill, coming to a stop at the crest near another ancient tree.
When Jess finally worked up some courage to speak, she realized her fingernails where digging into the seat and her whole body was tensed to the point of pain.
“Did that really happen?”
Tom didn’t answer. He peeled his hand away from the steering wheel and reached for the key again. He took another try at turning the key. It started to click this time. Tom’s face turned into a grimace and he squeezed his eyebrows together as if he could will the ignition to turn over. After several unbearable seconds, the car stammered to life. Tom shifted the gear into reverse, put his right arm across Jess’s headrest, twisted his head around to see out the back window, and smashed down the gas pedal. The car jerked and began speeding backwards down the hill.
“What are you doing, Tom? Aren’t you even going to turn around? There was a sign next to that tree. We could read it and see what that was all about.”
“I’m not getting out of this car. Are you?”
Jess shook her head and decided it would be best to let Tom concentrate on maneuvering backwards down the hill. At the bottom was an old dirt road. Tom swerved into it a little too fast and a cloud of dirt and dust kicked up around them. He barely let the car stop before shifting the car into first and laying on the gas. The wheels spun in the dirt and then the car lurched forward fishtailing onto the paved road.
Tom drove straight back into town, eyes peeled on the road in front of him. There was no slowing down for a wandering glance at an antiquated home or an interesting tree. And Jess knew better than to ask for another divergence, even when her curiosity was peaked by a brown sign reading “Historic Bok Sanctuary.” After the initial excitement passed, she began to notice that ache in her lower back that told her it was time to get off the road and into a bed.
“Want to get a room? It looks like we won’t make the campground and I saw a sign for a hotel a few yards back.”
“You really want to stay here, Jess? Why don’t we head to the next town over.”
“Wow. You’re really spooked aren’t you?”
“And you aren’t. I saw the look in your eye when the car started rolling uphill.”
“Oh sure it surprised me.”
“Alright, let’s get a room. Which way?”
“Take a right back into the downtown area.”
Jess led them back to First Street, where one of the few buildings still lit up was the Royal Walesbilt Hotel. It was gorgeous. A magnificent display of a time gone by. Tom pulled the car into the circular drive and stopped near the wide steps leading up to the wrap around porch.
“Walesbilt? Why does that sound familiar? Did we see this earlier when we drove through town?”
“Surely we did. How could we miss it?” Jess answered.
Jess reached into the backseat to grab their overnight bag and the pair exited the car. As they climbed the steps to the entrance, the old wood creaked under their steps. A finely dressed old gentleman met them at the door.
“Welcome to the Walesbilt, friends. We were just about to close up shop. A room?” he said.
Tom and Jess followed him through the dark foyer and into the lobby. The room opened in the flickering light. Jess looked around and noticed the candlelight first. Every light fixture was lit with actual candles, even the crystal chandelier hanging above the ornately decorated sitting room. There were so many details to take in that she had trouble focusing on one specific thing and her eyes flitted from chair to rug to painting and so on as Tom spoke in a hushed tone with the gentleman at the front desk.
“Here we are, Jess.” Tom handed her the key, an actual key on a iron ring with a little metal tag that had 4A etched into it.
The gentleman guided the pair to the base of the staircase at the center of the room.
“Take a right at the fourth floor landing. You can’t miss it,” the gentleman said.
Jess handed the bag to her husband and started the climb up the carpeted stairwell. She ran her hand along the smooth banister. As she reached the first landing, she could feel that ache in her lower back screaming out for a nice, warm bed. The stairway continued to both the left and the right, circling the sitting room below. She headed to the left, Tom right behind her. They crisscrossed their way up the stairs, all the while watching the precisely-carved molding on the ceiling grow closer and closer.
At the fourth floor, she stopped to catch her breath before heading to the right. Tom was still a few steps behind her and she waited at the door to 4A while he caught up. Jess turned the key and opened the old door. It swung in with a creak. She fumbled for a light switch and then remembered the candles.
“Well, do you have a match? It’s pitch black in there.”
“Here,” Tom fished a small box out of his pocket and handed them to Jess. “Old Timer handed them to me at the desk.”
Jess lit a match and walked slowly into the room. She bumped up against a table and felt around for a candlestick. She grasped a cold metal stand just as the match was about to burn out. Jess shook out the flame and lit another. Once the candle was lit, she had a much better view of the room. It was small. Just a full size bed in an antiqued wood frame, the table, and a lovely upholstered chair in the corner. There was a small curtained window on the far wall, but no closet or restroom.
“I’m beat,” Jess said, “I’m going straight to bed.”
“Yeah, me too. Here’s the bag.” Tom dropped the overnight bag on the overstuffed duvet.
Jess and Tom silently dressed in the soft light of the candle and climbed into bed.
“Aren’t you going to blow out the candle?” Jess said.
“I thought you were.”
“C’mon Tom. The hardwood floor is cold and it’s all the way across the room.”
“Yep, Jessie, it’s all the way across this humongous room. How will you ever make it all the way over there with your cold feet and all?” Tom laughed and dug his fingers into Jess’s side. Jess squirmed and giggled.
“Okay. Fine.” Jess said.
She threw back the covers with a huff and climbed out of bed, making a point to let out a loud sigh. Tom laughed and flashed her a faux pout. Jess blew out the candle and stumbled back to the bed, knocking her knee against the side before climbing back in.
“Goodnight sweetheart,” Tom said. He snuggled up next to his wife and they were both asleep in a matter of minutes.
Jess awoke to a strange knocking sound and looked around in the dark. It took her a few seconds to remember where she was and to let her eyes adjust to the darkness. There was a small slant of moonlight streaming through the curtains. Just enough for her to find her way to the table and matches. Jess lit the candle and decided she would need to find that restroom soon.
She left Tom snoring away in the old bed. She walked slowly down the hall, moving the candle to show the numbers on each door. As she neared the end of the hall, she noticed the clunking sound was getting louder. A branch against the building, or maybe an old pipe, she thought. The last door on the right appeared to be the restroom and Jess hurried in and closed the door behind her.
As she was rinsing her hands, the clunking sound stopped and she heard a new sound. Is that music? Jess could just make out the faint sound of someone plunking away at an out of tune piano. She turned the knob on the sink until the water stopped running and picked up her candle. Going back out into the hall, she could hear that the music was coming from the door at the end of the hallway. She followed the music and raised the candle to read the words “attic” on the door.
She looked around to make sure she was the only guest up at this hour. Sure that she was alone, she slowly turned the knob. The door opened directly into a narrow, wooden stairway. Here the walls weren’t finished with the scrolling wallpaper and the steps weren’t covered in plush carpet. She started up the stairwell, running her hand along the rough wall. With each step, the music got a little louder and the stairwell brightened.
At the top of the stairs, Jess could see there were several lit candles around the crowded room. She picked her way around scarred wardrobes and broken chairs, past a rusting iron bird cage and a hatrack draped by spider webs. There in the far corner, she saw him. The man from the lobby sitting on a dusty warped bench and playing an old upright piano. It was horribly out of tune and Jess didn’t recognize the notes as anything she had ever heard before. She stopped and leaned up against an old roll top desk. When she did, it shifted and the roll top came slamming down, just missing her fingers.
Jess jumped back, knocking into the hatrack. She had to grasp through the spider webs to steady it before it tumbled. The old man stopped pecking away at the keys and looked up.
“What are you doing here?” He asked.
“Um . . .” Jess stammered for an answer.
“You shouldn’t be here,” He said.
The man rose from the piano and in the candlelight Jess could see that his fine suit was covered in dust and tattered at the seams. He slammed the cover down over the keys and a gust of wind blew across the attic dousing the candles. Jess was glad she had thought to stash the matches in the pocket of her robe. She struck one and relit her candle.
The man was gone. So was the piano and the roll top desk. In fact, all the marred furniture was gone. Jess was left standing on an unfinished wood floor in an empty attic. She hurried back to the stairwell and flew down the steps. She stepped out into the hall and closed the attic door behind her. She was in such a hurry to reach her room that she didn’t notice the debris on the floor until she tripped over a large piece of lumber. Jess caught herself on the wall, scraping her palm against the rough plywood. She was sure only moments before that this wall had been covered by a deep purple wallpaper and lined with paintings of landscapes and portraits.
Jess hurried back to her room, looking desperately for the gilded 4A on the door. She didn’t find it, but she did find the staircase they had used earlier and backtracked her way to what she thought was their room. She pushed through the door. There was no need for a key. It wasn’t closed, much less locked.
There she found Tom, snoring away on an uncovered mattress. There was no upholstered chair in the corner, no flowing curtains covering the boarded window, and no table to set the candle on. Instead, there was only a rusty, metal-frame bed holding her sleeping husband.
“Wake up, Tom,” Jess shouted.
She found their bag on the dirty floor and began pulling on her jeans and t-shirt from yesterday’s travel. Tom shifted in the bed and stopped snoring. Jess reached over and began tugging on his arm.
“Wake up, Tom, we have to go. Now!”
Tom rolled over and saw Jess fully dressed in the middle of the night, holding the candle in one hand and their bag in the other.
Tom rolled out of bed and looked around the room.
“What’s going on?” he said.
“I don’t know, but we’re getting out of here.”
Tom hurried into his clothes and they both left the room. They headed straight for the staircase that wrapped around the sitting room.
“It doesn’t look safe,” he said. Tom threw his arm out in front of Jess before she could step onto the stairs.
“Do you have a better idea?”
“No. At least let me go first.”
Jess handed Tom the candle and waited for him to step out onto the deteriorating stairs. It was easy to see how old they were, even in the dim light of just the moon and their small candle. They picked their way down past missing boards and over gaping holes. When they finally made it to the bottom, they could see that the elegant sitting room was just an empty hull scattered with the occasional rotted board and rusty nail.
The two went straight for the doorway, which they found boarded closed. Tom looked around for something to pry the boards loose. He found an old iron poker near the crumbling fireplace and went to work making an exit. Soon he had enough boards removed to allow them to climb through the opening. They stepped out into the light of the full moon and saw their car, still parked in front of the decrepit hotel.
They hurried to the car and once safe inside with doors locked they looked back up at the hotel. The windows and doors were securely boarded and that lovely porch was greyed out and sagging. Tom started the car and began to slowly pull forward. His headlights shone on a large sign that read, “Coming Soon to Lake Wales the Newly-Restored Grand Hotel. Formerly the Royal Walesbilt. This project made possible by the Lake Wales Historic Society.”
Tom pulled out onto First Street.
“Time to leave this town behind us, Jessie.”
“Fine by me.”
Jess looked down at her shaking hands. She reached her left hand over and placed it on her husband’s knee, leaned back in her seat, and closed her eyes.