The unexpected occupant in room 217.

I’ve delayed writing about an experience I had in the old hotel for too long. Already, some of the details of the event are slipping away. I can’t remember what night of the week it was, for example, or what the weather was like. I have no recollection of what else was going on my life at the time. I can’t forget, however, exactly what I saw, and heard, inside room 217.

Room 217.

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I know that I was working the overnight shift. The hotel was nearly full. It was late. A sixty-something gentleman came in, wanting a non-smoking room for two nights. This presented me with a dilemma. We did have one available non-smoking room, but I knew it was reserved for the following night. Hotel management would frown on me splitting the guest’s two-night stay into two different rooms.

(The hospitality industry hates to accommodate a guest’s consecutive-nights stay using more than one room because doing so raises housekeeping costs. When housekeeping cleans a room from start to finish, it takes about a half hour. When they do a stay-over, it takes about ten minutes.)

So, I lied. I told the gentleman we had only smoking rooms remaining. I also told him that the intensity of the smoke smell in any given room depends largely on how recently the carpets had been cleaned and how heavily the latest guest smoked. I suggested we go have a look at – or rather a sniff of – one of the available rooms, to see if it would work for him. He agreed to my suggestion. When I checked the computer for an empty smoking room, 215 came up.

While the gentleman and I climbed the stairs and walked along the hallway, he told me he was taking a road trip on his Harley, which he was enjoying immensely, but that he was missing his boxer dog. Already inclined to like this polite prospective guest, I warmed to the conversation. As I was telling him about my own dog, I kept an eye out for the room I wanted to show him. Still describing the boxery features of my cross-breed, I stopped in front of room 217. I rapped on the door – because hotel clerks are taught they must ALWAYS knock – then unlocked and opened it. I stepped into the room and reached for the light switch. My hand froze in mid-air.

All the lamps in the room were off, but – because the security light in the parking lot was glowing through the drapes – I could clearly see the bed closest to the window … and what I saw was not the smooth, made-up bed I expected. Instead, I saw the silhouette of a man who had just thrown back the covers. The room was shadowy enough that I couldn’t make out many details of his appearance. The figure was male, I determined, because its shoulders were broad and its hair was close-cropped. I remember thinking, Either his pajamas  are awfully snug or he’s naked. In the instant I saw him, he was sitting on the edge of the bed with his back to me, but he was using his arms to push himself up and off the mattress.

This photograph was taken several days later, in the afternoon.

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I gasped and stumbled backward, into the chest of the gentleman who was trying to follow me into the room. “Oh my God! I’m so sorry,” I said to the figure on the bed. I spun and pushed the prospective guest into the hallway. I pulled the door shut behind me, stopping just short of slamming it. My heart was hammering. I looked up into the surprised eyes of the gentleman and said, “There’s someone in there. I just walked in on a sleeping guest at two-thirty in the morning.”

I must have looked as panicky as I felt because he lightly grasped my arm and guided me away from the door. We stopped in front of room 215. “I thought you said we were going to room 215, but then I thought maybe I was miss-remembering when you walked past it,” he said. “I should have spoken up when I saw the sign on 217 that says it’s non-smoking.”

I believe I responded with, “I am so fired.”

“Maybe it won’t be so bad,” he said gently. “Maybe we didn’t even wake him up.”

“He was getting out of the bed. He must have heard the knock, and was coming to the door.”

“Well, he’s not coming out–” His words were cut off by the distinct sound of the guest in room 217 flipping the security lock to the engaged position. We both stood silently, staring at the door. After a few seconds, he resumed speaking. “See? He’s just going to go back to bed. Maybe he thinks he dreamed us coming in.”

I wanted, more than anything, to run downstairs to see who was in 217. I was hoping it was occupied by one of the construction crew guys. I imagined one of them would be most likely to forgive me, and to not complain to management. I still had to deal with the guest in front of me, however, so – after knocking and waiting a long time to ensure 215 was empty – I showed him the room. He found the scent inside acceptable and agreed to rent it. We headed toward the front desk.

When we came to the end of the hallway, I looked down into the lobby. A fully uniformed police officer was standing at the foot of the stairs. Of course, I immediately assumed the guest in room 217 had called the cops; I was only surprised by his quick response time. On shaky legs, I descended.

The cop nodded at the gentleman and me, then gestured toward the sofa in the lobby, where a young man was trying to sit up straight. “We can wait until you’re done,” he said.

As quickly as possible, I checked the gentleman into the hotel. The last thing he said to me, before heading upstairs was, “I’m sure it will be okay.”

The police officer beckoned the unsteady young man to the desk. He explained he’d found him passed out in the middle of a local bar’s parking lot. Because the young man had not attempted to drive – and seemed to have resources with which he could pay for lodging – the cop didn’t want to haul him all the way over to the drunk tank in the next town. He asked me if I minded renting him a room. I didn’t. Under the cop’s watchful eye, I guided the young man through the process of checking in. The officer then told me he’d escort the young man to the room, and see to it that he got settled in.

After they departed, I had a moment to check to see who was in room 217. I flipped through the file of room cards. The slot for room 217 was empty. I checked the computer. The register showed that room 217 was unoccupied and available for rent, but reserved for the following night. I realized, with shock, it was the same room that I’d lied about, the one I’d said we didn’t have. Incredibly, it took another moment for me to really parse that it was most definitely supposed to be vacant.

More than an hour passed before I summoned the courage to go back upstairs to check the room. The door yielded to my keycard. the room was empty. Both beds were immaculately made up. There was no sign anyone had been in it since it had last been cleaned.

I spent the rest of my shift trying to figure out what had happened. I contemplated the possibility that my own guilty conscience had betrayed me. I told myself I’d led the gentleman to that room because I’d felt bad about not offering it to him. I’d imagined a figure in the room because some part of my unconscious mind realized that I had been about to reveal my lie. I considered my own nature. I call myself the paranormalist, for God’s sake – It’s obvious that I want to see a ghost. Probably I’d just conjured one in my mind. Even after rationalizing the sighting, however, I couldn’t convince myself that the thing I saw was imaginary. It had been solid and it had acted realistically. At the time of the sighting, a paranormal entity couldn’t have been further from my mind. Most persuasively, I knew that I had not imagined the sharp, unambiguous sound of the security lock being engaged.

Days passed. I confessed what had happened to a coworker. I asked her if there were any stories associated with room 217. She said there were not – at least none to her knowledge – but that everyone got the creeps when they passed the weird stairwell that was directly across the hall from its door.

Fire exit stairwell, across from room 217.

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Finally, on a day off, I convinced my husband to come to the hotel with me, so that I could take the photographs you see in this post. Nothing strange showed up in any of the pictures.

By that time, I’d come around to believing I’d imagined the sighting. In order to convince myself, all I needed to do was replicate the sound of the security lock without actually engaging it. We tried to force the door to make the sound the gentleman and I had heard while we stood in the hallway that night. Repeatedly, we left the door just slightly unlatched, so that it might click into place under its own weight.

It didn’t work. The only way we could duplicate the noise was to have my husband stand inside the room with the door closed then flip the security lock.

It wasn’t long after that I was transferred to my new hotel. I haven’t had the chance to pick up a shift at the old place, but I intend to. Some winter’s night, when the hotel is all but empty, I want to unpack my ghost chasing tools and investigate room 217. As long as I’m at it, I’ll go after room 107 too.

I’ll let you know what happens.

WriMoProg: 12 +30 = 42/80 (updated – I’m at almost 10,000 words now)

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Even the most perfect town has secrets.

I feel I should tread carefully in this post, because I’ve just moved to this town. I don’t want to give non-natives the wrong impression of White Bear Lake. And I certainly don’t want to offend my new neighbors by taking a too-ghoulish approach to their local tragic stories – stories that may feel fresh and personal to residents here. Still, I am who I am. I notice things, then turn them over and over inside my head.

Tonight, on the news, there was a story about a woman who went missing from WBL back in 1997. The case has been reopened because new technology – ground penetrating radar – might reveal bones that were missed fifteen years ago.

As I understand it, the woman was last heard from when she emailed a friend, saying that her husband was about to come home to resume an argument. He was the main suspect in her disappearance (and presumed murder) but there was not enough evidence to charge him.

Sixteen months later, he was convicted of raping and torturing a girlfriend in the same house. He served seven years in prison. Now he lives somewhere in Anoka County. He is not listed among the level 3 sexual offenders living in Minnesota.

“This assessment is based on the type and severity of the crime the individual was convicted of, whether that crime involved violence, the prisoner’s general amenability to treatment, and overall psychological condition. Risk Level 1 represents low-risk (i.e., least likely to repeat offenses); Level 2 is medium risk; and Level 3 is most likely to repeate (sic) offenses.”

Yes. I do intend to find the property. After that? I don’t know. I can’t help but be intrigued, but I think I might be better served by continuing to comb White Bear Lake’s 19th century history as I search for the hidden haunts of this town.

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When my family decided we wanted to make a new life for ourselves, we chose to move forty minutes due south, to White Bear Lake in Ramsey County, because … well, because this little city has been seducing us for years. My husband and I first came here to have dinner with a pair of interesting writer-acquaintances we had met online. (A decade later, they are dear friends – and now, also our neighbors.) Six years ago, my son got involved with a loosely organized psudo-sword-fighting group which meets in a park here. (The group is still going strong.) A year or so after that, I decided I wanted to find a Unitarian church we could attend. Sure enough, the closest one was in WBL.

Before we knew it, we were traveling here at least twice a week. All those trips to the park and the church meant that I was driving around and through the town often. I found a real bakery, an independent bookstore, and a main street lined with other locally owned small businesses. With each discovery, I became more enamored. Last year, my son’s karate studio opened up a new branch … in White Bear Lake.

In February of 2012, when it was time to leave our old life behind and start over, we came home.

So far, we love it here, but – to be honest – White Bear Lake overwhelms me with its overt wholesomeness. The streets are free of litter; the yards are free of dandelions. Smooth bike paths and sidewalks run alongside lush parks and clean beaches – which are almost always populated by healthy-looking people of all ages and races, most of whom are accompanied by a polite dog or two. In the city proper, there are recycling cans as well as trash bins. There are benches scattered all over town. Hell, some of the businesses put out a clean bowl of water for passing dogs.

Walking the dog near Manitou Island.

If you were to suggest that it all sounds a little like Stepford, you would not be the first. It’s not like that though – I see a fair number of folks that would be considered weird anywhere else I’ve ever lived. Here, though, no one glares at the long-haired, gray-bearded guy who pedals along on his tricycle, not even when his giant American flag hits them in the face as it snaps in his wake. No one stares at out-of-the-norm attire, be it a biker’s dusty leathers or a woman’s jewel-spangled sari. No one looks askance at the strange lady who spends an awful lot of time prowling the local graveyards. (One handsome, fit, middle-aged, property owner helped me find my EMF reader when he discovered me searching for it in the snow. He figured it would be good practice for his trained sniffer dog.)

I was raised in Anoka, a town that should exude the same kind of small-town charm as WBL, because of its similar age and history. The atmosphere there, though, is different. The mood is more suspicious, more depressed. There’s more talk of haunted places and tragic tales. Nothing is quite so clean, no one seems quite so content. Now that I live here – in bright, shiny WBL – I see Anoka’s shadows more clearly.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Anoka too. I love that there is a grave in Oakwood Cemetery for an unknown child who was found at the depot in 1888. I love that the Doctors Kline established a sanitarium there in 1892. I love the fact that Anoka survived five major fires between 1855 and 1884. (And that – after the last, and worst of them – she was rebuilt from brick.)  I love that she considers herself the Halloween Capital of the World.  I love that she is sad, and tired and old and haunted.

But maybe I perceive a certain darkness in my hometown simply because I know her so well. Tonight I am wondering if I will find that White Bear lake, too, has a battered but resilient soul. I’m wondering if she is haunted. If she is, then I’ll be able to settle here.


Perfectionism is the enemy of productivity. Thus, you get a hummingbird moth post.

This is a hummingbird moth. Well, to be accurate, it’s a snowberry clearwing moth (Hemaris diffinis) which looks more like a very large bumblebee than a hummingbird.

Before I muse on my encounter with this insect, though, I want to explain the title of this post.

The Blog ~

Lately, I’ve been pretty consistent about adding a quick, nightly snippet to my Facebook page, even as I’ve let this blog mostly languish. Almost every evening, I think: This could be expanded into a full post. Then I decide that whatever I’m writing about isn’t quite right for the blog. It’s not creepy enough. Or clever enough. Or well-researched enough. Sometimes my thought is simply: No. I’m too tired to put that much time into writing tonight.

I write slow. Every line of text that makes it to the page has been rewritten a half-dozen times. (Curse the convenience of the backspace button.) Here’s a confession: those “quick” Facebook snippets of mine actually require an hour or more. Mostly because there’s always a slightly better way to express a thought.

Then there are the projects for the blog that never seen to come to completion – I’m embroiled in at least three which I intend to write about … as soon as I finish them.

An example? Back on April 17th, I set myself the task of reviewing, sorting and categorizing films based on the works of Stephen King. There’s a hell of a lot of them, however, and I’m having a problem figuring out where to draw the line. Do made-for-TV movies count? Well, they have to, thanks to The Stand, It and Bag of Bones – all of which I have strong opinions about. And what about the short films?

The Paranormal ~

When my daughter, Pooka, was home for a visit, she accidentally reminded me of what I meant to do back when I started this blog. Somehow – perhaps because I’ve since watched too many ghost hunter shows – I had become fixated on finding a reputedly haunted location to investigate in the customary manner, but that is not what I set out to do. In fact, I wanted to do the reverse – I wanted to closely observe places that inspire in me a sense of mystery, melancholy or dread, and write about that experience. The gadgets and tools were meant to be secondary, a way to quantify any phenomena (natural or supernatural) that contribute to an evocative atmosphere. It took my daughter’s insight to show me that I had gotten caught up in a strange set of ghost hunter rules that I felt ill-equipped to abide by. She helped me remember that I have always been less concerned with finding a ghost than with exploring the sensation of being haunted.

The Book ~

I haven’t been writing it. I haven’t been editing it. I haven’t even read any of it in more than a month. I can hardly remember what it felt like to really work with it. I know there were weeks at a time when I wrote fast and hard – come hell or typographical errors – while generating the bulk of my novel. Forcing myself forward felt awful, but pages chugged out of the printer and the manuscript stack thickened every day. Then I started editing the draft, even though I hadn’t finished writing the story. I think that’s when I first veered off the path.

The Whining ~

To be fair to myself, I did okay for a while even after I switched to editing. Then my life blew up (for the fifth or sixth time in the last four years) and I lost sight of the path entirely. But I digress.

The Solution ~

It’s time to renew my battle with perfectionism. I have to start writing again – not editing, writing. I don’t know exactly what that means yet, but I suspect that letting the blog posts come when they want to is part of it … even when my inner critic says, “No, that topic is not right enough.”

The Moth ~

Which brings me back to the hummingbird moth.

My children and I were visiting the nature center in my new hometown. It has the most amazing play area any of us has ever seen – in this case, a photograph will illustrate better than words:

Yes, there are manufactured caves and rocks to climb on. That muddy patch in the foreground hints at the center’s most brilliant feature: an artificial stream that allows children to slap a rock to make water gush forth and run along the bed. On this day, there were only a couple of preschoolers playing, so the stream wasn’t very full … until my children arrived. (They are 16 and 26, by the way.) They not only filled that stream, they also diverted its flow with a dam. (No, they did not interfere with the little ones; they used the empty end of the stream and dismantled the dam when they were done.)

As I watched them play, I saw ghosts of their child-selves in my mind. She’s always been the doer; he’s always been the observer.

Then we noticed an insect – something that looked like a giant bee – buzzing in a nearby flower patch. It didn’t take us long to rule out every species any of us had ever seen. We marveled. We snapped pictures. We moved on.

Later, after we used the internet to identify the insect as a hummingbird moth, and after everyone had gone to bed, I sat on the deck in the dark, listening to a lone alien amphibian calling from the pond below me. (I can identify at least six frogs and toads by their calls. This call was similar to an American Toad but different. Perhaps it was just a particularly large specimen, or one that had some sort of mutation.)

I’ve lived in Minnesota all my life, and spent countless hours outdoors. I’ve grown whole gardens to attract wildlife to observe. I’ve done nature studies in swamps, forests and meadows. I consider myself pretty well-informed about the native fauna of my region. How is it possible, then, that I encountered two unknown (to me) species, in one day, when I wasn’t even looking for them?

Granted, moths and toads are small creatures, which can easily escape notice. But they make me wonder what else is out there that I don’t know about. I keep thinking that all of my outdoor time has been spent in, or very near, well-settled areas.

Suddenly I find myself reconsidering what might be lurking in the Northern Minnesota woods.

*”In Minnesota there are approximately 16.3 million acres of forest land, of which 14.9 million acres are classified as “timberland” or lands capable of producing timber. A geographical depiction of forest land location can be seen on the map. An additional 960,000 acres are not included in productive timberland due to their inclusion in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness or other reserved land category.”

*Source: USDA Forest Service