The 2018 Winter Short Story Award was our toughest contest in recent memory. Judge Aimee Bender had ten excellent stories to decide between. Today, we’re publishing her honorable mention selection: “At This Late Hour” by Rebecca Turkewitz. About the story, Bender said, “This story shows such inhabited psychological insight— the sentences themselves feel lived in, clear and unfussy while still beautiful. It circles around our histories, our self-destructivenesses— through the story of a ghost, and a love affair, and a friendship, and does this with a clear-eyed awareness and a steady hand. The whole story could be characterized by its solidness, like something made with care, of a fine, layered wood. And, the author takes surprising and fresh turns throughout, keeping the reader surprised. It will stay with me.”
Especially susceptible young women might see Emily’s form floating in the ocean, blue and shivering, beckoning for them to leap in and join her. The legend implies but does not say: Don’t ever join her. The legend implies but does not say: Watch your daughters closely.
I’ve been working the front desk of the Leavitt Hotel for three years, but booking rooms and greeting guests is only part of my job. It took some persuading, but William, the owner, lets me haunt the place. When William hired me, the Leavitt was already considered one of the most haunted spots in New England. At first, William dismissed the spooky stories and the ghost-hunters’ claims. He’s a history buff, and he’s been meticulously restoring the two-hundred-year-old mansion to as close to its original state as he can possibly make it. He couldn’t see that hauntings and history are really just two sides of the same coin, just different ways of using what came before us to make sense of our lives. After a few months of gathering visitors’ and staff members’ accounts, I went to William with my proposal: I wanted to play up the haunted history. I told him it could attract business, especially in the off-season when the summer beach-goers and the fall tourists have deserted us. I assured him I could draw in a crowd that would appreciate the original fireplace he had restored in the lobby and the antique light fixtures he was buying for the dining room.
To test the waters, William let me add a few eerie touches to the hotel’s website: a picture of the small graveyard on the northern side of the property and a black-and-white photo of the building with all the windows dark, save one. I left a few false reviews online, added some stories to ghost-hunting websites, and dimmed the lobby lights in the evening. When business picked up and guests started asking about the Leavitt family tree hanging on the lobby wall, William relented completely. Together, we installed new locks on the doors so I could present each guest with a heavy brass skeleton key. Once a month I give a ghost tour of the property, pointing out the spot in the yard where no grass grows, the empty stone well hidden behind a stand of birch trees, the unlit coal room in the basement, and the study where Samuel Leavitt supposedly died at his desk, still tallying the debts others owed him.
I’ve learned that the best way to cultivate spookiness is to only hint at it, letting the stories stand for themselves while I express my doubts. I tell people on my tours that I’m only the reporter. The last guest just told me the craziest story as he was checking out, I say as I hand over maps of bike riding trails. Every now and then, when I’m feeling anxious or bored or the urge to pack up and move, I slip into empty rooms and leave handprints on the windows and mirrors or scurry noisily through the halls at night, rapping on the walls. At first, I didn’t tell William about these last flourishes. But William spends hours trying to recover old tax records and photos of the house, tracing the Leavitt-Johnson family tree, and scouring antique stores for rugs and furniture that match the original designs of the house. He understands fascination with strange and particular things.