Formerly the Tampa Bay Hotel, the University of Tampa’s Plant Hall is the city’s most distinctive landmark overlooking the Hillsborough River, near where its black waters slide into Tampa Bay. It’s a beautiful old building with a rich history, and some say unexplainable things happen in its halls late at night. It’s a building full of stories, and it’s where writers meet twice a year for the University of Tampa’s Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing program residencies. Inspired by the spooky nature of the surroundings and the inherent weirdness of writers, the program director sponsors a bi-annual contest for the best spooky story, open to writers of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry pursuing UT’s Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing.
We students have been waiting to hear who won the competition, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who wanted to read the work. So, it’s my honor to share the two winning entries to the January 2015 Plant Hall Spooky Story Contest.
First, here are a few words from our director.
Please join me in congratulating Maggie Felisberto and Carolyn Eichhorn, who are the co-winners of the Plant Hall Spooky Story contest! There were a ton of good entries this time around, including some very impressive demonstrations of writerly ambition. We had poets writing stories, fiction writers trying poems, and nonfiction writers trying a little bit of everything.
—Steve Kistulentz, Director, University of Tampa MFA in Creative Writing
Without further adieu, here’s the first of our two spooky Plant Hall stories.
by Carolyn Eichhorn
I spend a lot of time in this stairwell. The tiny one tucked at the far end of Plant Hall that no one uses. It’s quiet here and I can easily duck staff until everyone has gone home. Everyone but me. I haven’t been home for a long time. During the day, I am another young face, eager to learn, to soak up knowledge. Sociology, Composition, Art History, French. At night, I tuck into a corner unnoticed until day again brings the crowd into which I disappear.
I suppose my things are still at my apartment, though I haven’t been there for some time now. I have what I need. Mostly, that’s quiet. Time to study, to understand all that is available to me here. This week, Dr. Demopoulos has been taking his class through the Renaissance. In halting English, he shares Florentine frescoes, their beauty visibly moving him, and by extension, his rapt students. When he pauses, searching for just the right word, his graying temples tilted in thought, I have to stop myself from suggesting what he might be trying to say. I won’t dare to presume that I could anticipate his insights, but I so want to help, to assist him. I wait with the rest of the class, breathlessly, and with a self-deprecating remark, a half smile, Dr. Demopoulos woos us all into his beautiful world of art, of enlightenment, his accent making every word sound like that a lover. After an impassioned discussion of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, the female students, making up eighty percent of the class, release an audible sigh.
I can tell which of the young students is his current favorite because he is careful not to acknowledge her, not to call on her, as if by ignoring her existence in the classroom, he is saving his special attention for their time later in the privacy of his small office. Her questions will come at the end of his posted office hours, late enough that traffic in the building is minimal, though few are ever down by the tiny stairwell at the far end of Plant Hall.
On a few occasions, the desperate beauty of line or color or theme translates to a passion less academic in nature, always followed by tearful declarations of affection mixed with apology, gentle caresses, and compliments crafted and delivered in accented English complete with dramatic pauses as he searches for just the right word. As I did, they always rush to help him, their empathy desperate, wholly engaging, generous with youth and inexperience. These transgressions in professorial professionalism occur several times over the course of any given semester only to wither in time for the lengthy and difficult final exam.
I watch this over and over with a mix of contempt and regret, as I understand only too well the intoxication of special attention from Dr. Demopoulos. I am obsessed and I cannot turn away each time, observing from the small stairway by his office. The small office where he once made me feel distinctive, worthy of his attention. Before the test results came back. Before his fear and his passionate nature made him wrap those long fingers around my throat and squeeze. Before he tucked me into this place, just off the small stairway at the end of Plant Hall.
You can find more of Carolyn’s writing at http://groundsforsuspicion.blogspot.com.
Next, we have…
The Bruja’s Gift to the Cat
by Maggie Felisberto
The first to wake was the rat at midnight. She uncurled a broken toe, twitched a half-tail, then arched her back to stretch the stiffening out of her spine. She had died that morning. Outside, the moon was new and the clouds were thick. No light eked through the slitted windows of the minaret.
The others came slowly—shrews and voles and salamanders and mice—they stitched themselves back together from their fallen and splintered pieces. A young pipistrelle pulled wings and feet and ribs from the pellet he’d become in death. Though his flesh was missing, he flapped and flew in silent glides, pinpointing each lifeless one to rise within the bell of the minaret with soundless squeaks and echoes. The dead don’t talk, but the pipistrelle didn’t notice his own silence. Two small sparrows flitted at his side. Some of the company, like the lady rat, still bore their skins and faces, but even more had been whittled down to bone.
The last to wake was the cat. She linked herself together, bone to bone to bone to bone until she was complete. Her pearl jaw opened in a silent shout, and the company paid their predator heed. With this witching night, they would meet with the other minarets’ companies—the ones led by the owl, the eagle and the opossum were waiting at the Rathskeller. Each minaret housed a small universe of the dead.
Cat and Rat and Bat pushed and swung the door together until the shrews and voles and salamanders and mice had all escaped the tower top. The sparrows sped through on silent wings, beckoning Bat to join. The pipistrelle broke from the door and followed. The lady rat slipped past next, still favoring her broken toe. The cat checked for any remnants left behind, then shut their home behind her.
The shrews and voles and salamanders and mice, the two sparrows, Bat and Rat stood silent and steady, watching Cat and waiting. It was their first witching, and only Cat could lead them. In life, cat had loved a bruja who had granted Cat seven lives, but who had forgotten seven hearts and seven pairs of lungs and seven skins. Cat had one life left, but had waited forty years as bones for this witching night, a night she could regain a heart, lungs and skin and leave the old hotel again. The bruja smelled of sweat and cigars in Cat’s memory, like the hotel once had as well. Now the hotel smelled of stress and books and old carpeting. Cat knew that it had become a school.
The owl, the eagle and the opossum were already waiting at the bar. The ghost of the bruja served them a sweet vermouth, the wine of the dead. Cat’s company of shrews and voles and salamanders and mice each drank when they were served, the cool red liquid disappearing under invisible tongues and into silent mouths. Cat drank, too—dipped one paw into the wine and licked it clean with a bristled tongue only she could feel. The lady rat and the pipistrelle flanked the old cat on either side. Each of them drank vermouth.
“You know,” the bruja’s ghost said to Rat, “This bar is called the rat’s cellar.” Rat squeaked an inaudible reply.
Once each in their companies had drunk their fill, the owl, the eagle and the opossum led their groups of bone and flesh back to their own minarets. Cat’s company was the last to leave. The bruja’s ghost scratched Cat behind the ears, fingers rubbing solid air where fur would have been. Cat loved the bruja again, but was glad she’d been a bruja of seven and not a witch of nine. Nine-lived cats never died, but after six whole lives, Cat was ready for one last life and then rest.
Cat and Rat and Bat led the shrews and voles and salamanders and mice, along with the two sparrows, back to their home minaret. Cat pushed open the door, and the small boned creatures scurried and fluttered through the door. Rat and Bat were the last to go through, each turning to Cat and beckoning her in. But Cat shook her head. The lady rat and pipistrelle passed through the door with silent sadness.
Then Cat closed the door. Outside, the sun began to rise, and Cat began to grow. Fur and skin, tooth and claw, heart and lungs and liver. Muscle and blood and tongue. The new cat turned her head and licked the fur of her haunches. In this life, she would be a tabby. When she had finished her grooming, she yawned with a loud pop of breath, arched her back in a stretch and darted through the old hotel to the main doors. Once they were open, she would live her last hurrah before returning to the minaret, her home.
Thank you, Maggie.
If you enjoyed that, click the hyperlink to pop over to Maggie’s blog and let her know.
The next Plant Hall Spooky Story Contest is in June, and I hope to post those winning stories as well.
Now go, all of you, and write something that scares the hell out of you.