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Everybody who is anybody in my small town could tell you about the disappearance of the Lechtler family. Some could probably write a book, more elegantly than me, because it’s just one of those stories, a mystery with more questions than answers. But I’ll do my best.

The year is 1994.

A man calls to reserve a room at the White Valley Hotel. He needs the reservation for the next night, and he will pay cash, only cash. If he can’t pay cash, he will speak to the owner, Billy, who is a known pushover and desperate for the money. The man is specific about the room. He needs number thirteen. No exceptions. No switches. He will require a king-size bed, two twins, and a bottle of brandy, wrapped in gift paper, ready to go on the dresser. He will also need towels and sheets for four.

The desk and service staff go about their preparations. The bellhop drives to the store and buys the brandy. The maids shuffle two extra beds into room thirteen. They clean, and clean, and clean again, because this is a new client, who offered to pay cash, no less, and business is bad. Business is always bad in White Valley.

The next day—the Lechtlers show up.

According to the bellhop, the father appears educated. He’s older. Middle-aged, with faded gray hair and a distinctive widow’s peak. He wears thick, horn-rimmed glasses, the type that look permanently indented over the ear, with a freshly ironed button-down shirt, brown, clashing with black slacks. The mother, decked out in a floral print dress, ushers the wailing children like braying sheep. The Lechtlers have one boy and one girl. Each are under ten years old, and the young boy appears to be sick, because his coughs and wheezes echo through the empty halls of the hotel as they approach the front desk.

Mr. Lechtler hands over an envelope. The sleeve is filled with money. What he doesn’t offer is an explanation, and the White Valley staff doesn’t ask for one, just as Billy instructed. The clerk confirms the booking. The bellhop leads the family to their room.

Number thirteen is nothing extraordinary. On the surface, it looks like any other hotel room. A large and complicated armoire stores everything from extra power outlets to a mini fridge. There is a bathroom at the back, with a stand-in shower, and a small coat closet beside it. An oak desk sits catty cornered against the wall, and the king bed is decorated with plush pillows, a fuzzy blanket, and prototypical cream-colored sheets and comforters. A small window, on the west side, looks out into the lake below. The atmosphere can actually feel pretty peaceful, considering the modern circumstances, if it catches you at the right time of day.

The Lechtlers thank the staff and say good night. When the bellhop leaves for the evening, Senior is perched at the desk with papers spread out in front and a fresh glass of liquor already at the ready. The bellhop assumes Mr. Lechtler is a doctor. The clerk swears he is a scientist. It really doesn’t matter at this point, because the end result is the same.

By morning, every single member of the Lechtler family is gone.

That’s it. Gone.

Nobody saw them go in, nobody saw them go out. The room is made up. The bags are missing. The papers are gone. The twin beds have small creases in the sheets, where the children must have sat momentarily, but the blankets themselves are completely disturbed. The shower in the bathroom is damp. Somebody must have used it. But the towels are dry.

They’re just…well, gone. Vanished without a trace.

The bellhop calls White Valley PD. Billy doesn’t want a fuss at first; he insists that the guests probably just went out for a hike. Maybe they would come back, and then wouldn’t they be furious, launching an investigation into something as simple as a breakfast trip?

But he caves by dinnertime. His employees are worried. The boy was sick. The woods are vast and foreboding. Anyone venturing out that late at night in the nineties risked something serious. The world was just a lot darker in those days.

So, they call the coppers.

The police search the hotel with a fine-tooth comb. Nothing turns up. They check the basement. Empty. They check the room. Nothing. They check the property; they check the woods; they check the lake—all a goose egg. They can’t even find the kid’s tissues for a DNA swab.

Then they look into the name Lechtler, which also turns up zilch, so the cops settle on the idea that it could be a pseudonym. Back to square one. Soon enough, the police are actually asking the town for help, ridiculously, instead of the other way around. You can imagine the type of response this generated. Stories about the family volley around town like a game of telephone. Some people said the Lechtlers were spies. Some people said they were in witness protection. Some said they weren’t human, and I don’t even know how that began at all.

But one story, perhaps the most disturbing of them all, the one that occupies the mind of every White Valley resident, is that the Lechtler family was murdered. They didn’t like to talk about it. But everyone knew it could be a possibility. They had to. Families don’t typically disappear on their own. Who could have done something like this? Who could have done it to children?

The small town starts to lock their doors at night.

A criminal investigation into Billy the owner begins a week later. The police trace Mr. Lechtler’s booking call. They know that it originated from Billy’s car phone. They know he advised his staff to accept the cash booking. Officers move to bring in their primary suspect for questioning.

But that night, a snowstorm slams the Valley.

Billy is out for an errand, allegedly to stock the kitchen, and doesn’t notice finely packed ice holding over a pothole. Bald tires spin helplessly for traction. The front of his station wagon catches a maple tree. The back half dips down a ravine. Folks say they could hear the impact from a mile away. Town ambulances rush to the scene. The police are hot on their tails. Both are too late.

Billy Walker dies from his injuries on the side of the highway.

And so goes the mystery of the Lechtler family.

Some people view the accident as an admission of guilt. He was running, right? He was a coward. He must have killed them. He probably dumped their bodies in the miles of wooded acreage that surrounded that creepy little hotel. The cops were just too incompetent to find them. Billy was a weird-looking guy. He made the perfect suspect. Call that discrimination or just plain distrust. Public opinion settles on its killer.

Time passes without any fresh leads.

The story sort of becomes local legend. They say that every small town has its secrets, and if that’s true, none fits the bill better than the Lechtlers. The police close ranks and withhold information. The details warp over time. Some say Mr. Lechtler was an astronaut. Some say he worked for the CIA. Nobody knows for sure, of course; it’s all conjecture. The bellhop and clerk are both dead by now. They leave behind their own family who add their own details. The truth rarely gets in the way of a good story. Certainly not in White Valley.

Fast forward to today.

The hotel still stands, obviously under different owners. A nice older couple bought the property at the start of the decade. The Abbots loved the historical beauty of the old building. The hotel has its own stories, they insist, a rich and complicated history completely outside the Lechtlers. The grounds were used by abolitionists, after all, and if it was good for them, it should be damn good for the brats of White Valley.

The Abbots hire college kids and high school students. They pay us like shit. There are a few guests, here and there, but business is just as dead now as it must have been back in the day.

I worked the front desk on the night our little mystery finally got its answer.

That evening, Mr. and Mrs. Abbot had some business to take care of out of town. Normally they would trust the night shift to an older guy named Jed, but Jed was sick, and the options for his replacement were few and far between. They settled on me. Begrudgingly.

We had four sets of guests staying with us for the night. Mr. Sloan was visiting his mother on Mott Street, but she only had one bed, so he elected to use ours instead. The Petersons were on a cross-country road trip, the Hinkies lost power in the recent storm, and Tommy and Sarah Measler, teenage newlyweds, were looking to stay in the only allegedly haunted spot in town.

Number thirteen.

I know what you might be thinking. Why didn’t the Abbots board it up? Why did they still rent it out? The reason is really not that interesting. They needed the money. Any tourism is good tourism. Tom and Sarah were not the first to ask to stay in that room. Over the years, dozens of ghost hunters, psychics, or paranormal whatevers asked to rent room thirteen for the night. They came in with their cameras, EMF readers, and bundles of money at the ready. They left disappointed but undeterred. Just the way we like ’em.

On the night of my overnight watch, I posted up in the lobby with a big book and a rum-filled Thermos. I knew the hours would pass slowly. But I never expected to be so goddamn bored.

I walked around the property and double checked all my tasks.

I took in the drifting snowstorm from the lobby.

I hopped to every one of the guests’ requests on the dime, because it gave me something to do, but the calls died down entirely around midnight.

And then it was silent.

I kept myself awake by thumbing through an old short story collection by Stephen King. There was one in there about an upper-class woman who found a secret shortcut through the woods in Maine. Each time she arrived earlier than her gardener expected, and each time, she refused to tell him the exact route. The author goes on to describe a night where they finally made the journey together. The route is winding. Trees and branches and roots are leaning across the road, making the course narrower and wilder. A creature jumps out, stranger than any the gardener has ever seen, and he swears they hit it. He claims to see it, stuck to the grill, but when he asks the woman, she just keeps laughing, and driving, and smiling mysteriously his way. Like it didn’t happen. Like she didn’t have another care in the world besides that ride.

The phone rang.

Have you ever been so captivated by a story that the fringes of reality disappear around you? I stared blankly at the receiver for a moment. I looked back into the snow. I couldn’t stop thinking about the shortcut. Where did they go? What did they hit? Could such a place really exist? A place that gets you from here to there faster than ever before?

The phone rang again. I answered it. The shrill panic of Tommy Measler’s whiny little voice assaulted my eardrums.

“You have to come up here,” he whispered. “Really, man. Quick. Something smells like death.”

I chuckled. Sometimes the pipes in our old hotel backed up. Tommy would not be the first to complain about it. I grabbed a plunger and waltzed down the hall with the story still fresh in my mind. I wondered if the Valley had a shortcut. Maybe there was a path through the woods to Follaton. People always used to get lost back there.  

I knocked on the door. Sarah opened it up immediately. She had a blanket wrapped around her face. Tom was in the corner with his head sticking out of an open window. I wanted to ask what happened, but a moment later, the smell hit me. And then I didn’t have to ask.

I can’t use enough adjectives to describe this stench. It smelled like body odor and sweat rolled into a disgusting tortilla of old meat and beans. Have you ever left a piece of chicken or steak out of the freezer for too long? Until the maggots tear it apart? Take that stink and add a thick layer of something inexplicably sweet on top of it. I couldn’t get it out of my nostrils. It invaded my lungs. I turned to gag, and even then, the rancid stench still stayed with me.

“We noticed it after check-in,” Sarah started. “We thought maybe just old pipes…but now…”

I nodded and proceeded cautiously to the bathroom, plunger out in front, brandished like a Katana. Sarah paced behind me nervously. Then she shook her head.

“Not over there,” she murmured. “Here.”

She pointed to the closet.

“I’m scared to get my jacket.”

A lot of uncomfortable thoughts went through my head. My mouth felt dry and my throat spasmed uncontrollably. I walked over to the closet and thrust open the door dramatically.

It was empty.

Tommy shouted that they tried that before a fresh symphony of vomiting shook his frail little frame. I looked around and found the single lightbulb in the closet. Tom’s bulky North Face sat parked next to Sarah’s fashionable Patagonia. I moved them aside to search for something, anything, that could be the source of that horrible, gut-wrenching odor. It had to be nearby. The sweetness seemed to get worse inside the closet.

My fingers caught a break in the paneling. I pulled back, expecting it to stay in place, and fell on my ass once the entire wall came crashing down.

Standing still as scarecrows were a mother and two children. A thousand wires were sewn into their skin and connected to batteries in the back. I looked down at my hand and saw a sticky, gooey substance, and I couldn’t figure out why. It was only when Sarah screamed that I noticed the horrible ball of wax sitting beside the children. Entrails and blood were mixed together in a misshapen little pile of blood encased by a dusty pair of slacks and a faded button-down shirt.

Sitting on top of the ensemble was a distinct pair of horn-rimmed glasses.

I couldn’t stop staring. Tommy couldn’t stop screaming. A thick liquid leaked out into the closet and puddled by my feet. I turned to get the mop, absurdly, before Sarah’s cold hand caught my shoulder.

“They’re breathing,” she whispered. “Look.”

I focused on the woman’s floral dress. For a moment, she stayed still. Then her chest inflated. Her eyes fluttered. And she exhaled.

I don’t remember running from the room. I don’t remember the phone call to the police. The only thing I can picture clearly is standing outside in the snow with Tommy, Sarah, Mr. Sloan, the Petersons, and the Hinkies. We were desperate for answers. We needed answers. But those are hard to come by in the Valley.

Mr. and Mrs. Abbot were devastated when the government seized the hotel. The suits called it eminent domain, and they gave a fair price, but it was barely enough to cover retirement. The poor folks had to move in with their grandson.

For months, White Valley was swarmed by paneled vans and guys with sunglasses. The locals begged for answers in coffee shops and grocery stores around town. But the G-men stayed quiet.

To date, no official explanation has been given for the disappearance and reappearance of the Lechtler family, and no one truly knows what happened to the surviving family members.

Not even me.

But a small town will always have its rumors.

Some say that Mr. Lechtler must have been a scientist. Some say he could have been involved in cryogenics. Maybe the procedure had a shelf life. He was the oldest of them, after all, and the first to rot. Billy must have known about the plot to some degree. Maybe somebody killed Billy. Wouldn’t that be a twist? You can bet there will be a book about it somewhere.

But it’s not the mystery itself that haunts me. Not exactly. When I’m sitting up in bed, praying for sleep, fighting the smell still stuck in my nostrils, I think about the children. Those poor fucking children. Were they awake? Were they aware of what was happening? For all those years?

Because if they were…

I cannot imagine any worse fate than being trapped in a closet, completely helpless, while the rotting pieces of your father drip listlessly onto your shoulder.