For Some Must Watch: Literary Suspense Short Fiction By Barclay Blankenship
Barclay Ann Blankenship, author of For Some Must Watch, is from North Carolina and received her B.A. in English from Appalachian State University. In 2020, she was awarded Appalachian State’s David Hodgin Writing Award for poetry.
Alice watched the river flow by, waiting to see the body flow with it. She gripped at the book in her lap with white knuckles. It was still morning. The body drifted closer, closer, closer, until it was not a body. Larger than a child, smaller than a man, the driftwood was large enough to still deceive a paranoid mind and poor eyesight.
Looking down at the book’s dark cover, she swelled with the urge to throw it into the river and let it join the remnants of her imagination.
Chest taut, she let out a breath once seeing that it was only a log, not realizing that she had forgotten to breathe the entire time she had watched the log dip below the current and towards the edge of the riverbank. It looked remarkably like a human figure from a distance, but the log was knobby and more obvious the closer it got to her. Only driftwood.
She closed the book in her lap, laughing to herself and shaking her head, trying to justify her thinking. Looking down at the book’s dark cover, she swelled with the urge to throw it into the river and let it join the remnants of her imagination. She looked up again at the driftwood and thought that it didn’t look like something worth a scare at all.
If you unfocused your eyes a little, and thought about it almost not at all, it looked so much like sleeping; a drift into oblivion, and, in a way, she thought that was peaceful. Floating was peaceful- floating in water, floating in consciousness.
Having settled her nerves, Alice reluctantly admitted to herself that her husband may have been right to tell her to lay off the crime novels and ghost stories. She’d dismissed it as some nice, dutiful husbandly concern, but it’s much harder to find the peaceful parts of floating when absorbed by those kinds of stories.
Get a grip, Alice, she thought to herself, You’re on vacation.
She started making her way back to the inn, shedding her misinterpretation with the trees and their leaves, dropping heavy in the early autumn. A low fog covers the tar streets in blankets, still glossy in the overcast light from last night’s rain and newly paved for tourist season. The town was still sleepy on the last morning of her stay.
Traffic lights changed for ghost cars of the morning. Far past the low hanging trees, heavy with death, and the old, mortared homes, she could see the mountains, just barely. They sat so quiet and serene, watching through the clouds. It made their already hazy blues and greens appear even more like a happy mirage. Whatever direction she turned, there they were, encapsulating the town in a bell jar of blue ridge.
She could see the inn now, Victorian, the color of bricks, and the end of the sidewalk. The inn was at the edge of town, perched at the end of the sidewalk atop of a slight hill, peering down at the small shops and mountains. They seemed farther away from the view at the sidewalks edge.
Alice could see her husband sitting on the porch steps. She framed the scene, putting her fingers up in L-shapes, before reaching into her jacket pocket to pull out her disposable camera, but only felt the stray strings of fabric of the empty pocket. Simon glanced over, the consistent breeze making his blonde hair whip around his face. He waved her over.
“Been waiting for me long?” Alice called out as she walked closer.
He shrugged and said, “Not really. Just enough time to get ready while you were out. You look kind of shaken up. You alright?”
She laughed a little, gesturing to the book in her hand, “Yeah, I just got a little nervous sitting alone. You know how my mind works sometimes when I get really into what I’m reading.”
“Gotcha,” he sighed, knowing well her jitters.
Alice nodded, “I totally spaced and forgot my camera though, so I’m going to run in and grab it from the room real quick,” Simon made a sarcastic sound of annoyance and rolled his eyes. Alice reached and held his hands, making sure to look very apologetic, “I’ll just be a second. I promise.”
Simon smiled, nodded, and said “Ha, alright, go.”
She walked briskly up the stairs and into the lobby. Dimly lit and hushed, the old inn lingered in its own perfume; damp and thick from the great magnolias outside, dying sleepily. It smelled of worn wooden floorboards and small secrets, overcast daylight and fumes from old wicks. There was an unmistakable ache to the place, like it was still discovering the best way to settle its bones comfortably among the foundation. Restless and languid, all at once.
She walked briskly up the stairs and into the lobby. Dimly lit and hushed, the old inn lingered in its own perfume; damp and thick from the great magnolias outside, dying sleepily.
She glanced at the inn owner as she passed the concierge desk. Mrs. Sopor was busy dusting a bookshelf behind the desk. Her short salt and pepper hair was pinned back from her face on both sides, a small bun at the nape of her neck that looked thin and fragile enough to come undone at the slightest breeze.
Once up to the second floor, she reached the room, labeled with a bronze 3 that stuck to the door with a single screw. She reached for the knob instinctually, forgetting that she hadn’t asked Simon for the key before coming back inside, but quickly remembered when the door was able to be pushed open. Simon must have forgotten to lock it.
The door creaked indifferently, giving homage to the rest of the home’s antiquity. A musky smell lingered in the room as Alice walked in. The room was spacious. Alice’s eyes traced the room perimeter; dark wood flooring, with darker colored carpets overtop and furniture with floral patterns that could be found in the living room of many grandmothers. She spotted the little yellow and black disposable camera sitting on the end table next to the four-post bed, right where she had left every evening after their days of walking, eating, and picture-taking. She strode over to it and turned out of the room quickly.
Down the small chestnut colored staircase that opened up into the first floor, a song she didn’t recognize played faintly in the room. It sounded like a piano. From across the room, as Alice walked by the fireplace and stiff maroon-colored armchairs, she saw Mrs. Sopor again, but could also see what she was dutifully keeping clean.
Not the desk, or shelf rows themselves, but a long row of large books. They resembled something like a scrapbook or yearbook, but Alice guessed they were documented guest comments from her quick glance, a trend growing in popularity to leave a nice bound journal out for guests to scrawl away their praises for other guests to ogle. So often, Mrs. Sopor seemed to be attending to that section of the concierge area. Not a speck of dust. Alice had seen her cleaning it on multiple occasions since they had been staying there.
“Got it!” Alice said, causing Simon to turn around from his seated position on the steps. She held the camera up to her eye with hopes of capturing his candid movement.
Simon smiled seeing her but was followed by exchanged looks of confusion. “Where was the flash?”
“I don’t know,” Alice responded, turning the camera in her hands like there would be some kind of fingerprint evidence covering it. She tried to push down on the camera button once more, but it was stuck in the stiff way that indicated that the roll of film inside had all been used up. She stared at it, pushing the button down over and over, rolling the film knob a couple of times and then pushing the button again. Nothing.
“I… I guess I took all the pictures already?”
The rest of the day, Alice thought of her camera, feeling its weight in her jacket pocket as it bobbed against her waist when she walked. Only a couple days into their trip, she wondered how she had managed to go through all of the film in the camera so quickly. She had kept track. Two or three pictures should have been left, but she dismissed her considerations in an attempt to enjoy the afternoon. Her busy hands were missing the action though.
Every time she and Simon passed another overlook or sat for coffee at a cafe with perfect afternoon light, she wished for one more picture. Her phone camera satisfied her for most of the afternoon but felt less tangible and spontaneous.
She decided to go back to the inn and find a place in town where she could buy another camera. Simon walked with her until one last small store caught his eye. Alice insisted he go in. She’d meet him back at the inn. He promised he’d only be a few minutes behind her, so they parted ways as she continued down the wide sidewalk.
Strangers smiled as she walked by. She couldn’t tell the difference between the tourists and the locals and wasn’t sure whether to consider that a good or bad thing. Perhaps it was neither and it was easy to fit into this town. It was becoming a gray afternoon and the town was murmuring along the streets. To her right, cars rolled along past every-
She turned a corner, nearly colliding with Mrs. Sopor. “Oh! I’m so sorry!”
They spoke over each other, both beginning to sputter out some startled apologies. Alice kept her face lowered, apologizing again quietly, hoping to brush easily past the interaction. She began walking again, relieved that she hadn’t been recognized, until she felt a gaunt grip on her arm.
“You’re staying at the inn! Right? I knew I recognized you.” Mrs. Sopor held Alice’s arm as she stammered, searching for a way to keep the approaching conversation brief so she could just get back to the inn. She hated small talk.
“Uh, yes. I am. With my husband. Who I’m actually on my way to meet, if you’ll excuse me-”
“Ah, both enjoying the town, are you?” She was overly chipper and smiled with yellowed, crooked teeth that revealed her age more than any other feature. “It’s so lovely this time of the year. Especially in the evening,” she continued, “One starts to truly appreciate the quiet.”
Alice nodded and smiled, strained with a politeness. The woman looked at her so eagerly for a response, eyes wide and unblinking. Alice couldn’t turn away from her, but very much wanted to. “I suppose you’re right.”
The old woman just stared, faintly smiling still. Alice wondered if she had spoken too quietly and began to notice how she could feel the woman’s breath standing so close.
“I really do need to go now. I’m sure we’ll see you again during our stay, but my husband is waiting for me.”
Mrs. Sopor let out an uneven laugh, internal and nasally. “Of course, dear, of course. I’m always around to keep an eye on my guests. And you look so peaceful when you’re rested. No bad dreams last night, dear?”
Alice blinked at her, struck with confusion, “What?”
“Ah, well, best be off!” Mrs. Sopor exclaimed with sudden energy. She held Alice’s hands, patted them, and said nothing more. She turned to walk away, leaving Alice wringing her wrist like a damp cloth. She had held Alice’s arm with white knuckles, not letting go until the end.
Alice continued the rest of her walk quickly, pumping her legs with an unbroken gaze down at her boots as they slammed down against the concrete. The rhythm was calming the unsettled feeling growing in the pit of her stomach; heavy, heavy, heavy. She reached the end of the sidewalk and then there it was, as large and dark as before.
The porch lights of the inn had turned on, glowing lazy and amber. Not unlike an old lantern, they shone in an orangish fade that competed against the milky evening dimming around her. She felt creepy the longer she stayed outside, watching the inn and its windows like eyes, two large and rectangular on each side of a second story bay window. Maybe she was paranoid.
She got restless and started packing back in their room. They were meant to be done with this vacation soon anyway and sooner seemed like a more enticing option than ever before. Alice didn’t hesitate to ask questions once Simon finally walked into their room.
“That was more than a couple of minutes. Did you get lost?”
“Just looking around for a spot to eat for dinner on the walk back. And I found this place a couple blocks over-”
“I think we should leave.”
“What? Why? It’s our last day.”
“I-I don’t like it. The owner, Mrs. Sopor, doesn’t she seem a little off to you?”
“The little old lady? I don’t see anything wrong with her. Did something happen?”
“Something just feels wrong. I ran into her on my walk back and she was… strange. She asked me weird things, like about how I slept and-”
“Well, that’s relatively normal for an inn owner to ask their guests, I think.”
“I guess, but it was the way she asked. Like there was some inside joke going on in her head; something she knew that I didn’t.”
She trailed off as Simon reassured her, “It’s been a busy trip. Maybe you’re right and we should cut the trip short.” He reached out to her, but she stepped back.
“You don’t believe me.” She crossed her arms.
He let out a deep sigh, seeing the frustration on her face. “You can just be so distrusting of people sometimes… Look, I’m not saying I don’t believe you; I’m just saying that I know you. I know part of you wants your own mystery to chase, but not everyone is out to get each other like in the books you read. Not everything is something to solve.”
“You’re kidding me. I’m not making this up for fun! Something is off, I’m telling you. Won’t you just trust me on this?”
“I think it’s time for us to go home.”
It had been a month gone since the trip. Alice had made a stack of her mystery novels in the corner of their bedroom as she worked on convincing herself that it all had been some illusioned specter. They were collecting dust slowly, taunting her with temptation every now and then like a haunting.
On an uneventful afternoon, Alice walked to the local drugstore. They developed film for those few who still spent money on disposable cameras, like Alice. Once the store clerk handed her the stack, she waited until she got home to sit and look through all the pictures, one by one, to appreciate each moment.
The top of the stack was a cheerful combination of shots of she, Simon, and the autumn tinted town. Near the bottom was the picture of Simon sitting on the inns front porch steps. A comforting last glimpse before that last day began to get a little hazy.
She moved on to the next picture in the stack when her breath caught in her chest, constricting her tightly inside. The picture was of her, lying in bed, apparently asleep. She pulled the picture closer to her face, looking to see if maybe she had rolled onto the camera during a deep sleep and accidentally snapped a picture of herself. But the angle was wrong. Too far. It looked like a more similar distance to where she had left the camera on the dresser after returning to the hotel each evening.
Simon must have taken it.
She sighed a little at the thought. Simon must have sweetly taken the picture. It was the obvious conclusion. Until she looked closer. There was a shadowy figure behind her in bed. The flash from the camera had illuminated mostly her in the picture, making Simon’s sleeping body next to her barely visible except for the top of his head and the faint outline of his body. Simon could not have taken the picture if he was in the picture.
Alice’s stomach dropped and her throat felt thick, difficult to swallow. She understood.
In the same moment, in a much different place, Mrs. Sopor was dusting behind the concierge desk once again, thinking of her guests. The inn was quiet that day, few people passing through, and she decidedly pulled the glossiest scrapbook from the shelf, duster still gripped in her right hand. She looked around the lobby and, upon seeing no one wandering or creeping down the stairs, she laid the scrapbook out on the waist high desk, opening it to one of the last pages.
Some of the clear plastic slots were filled with pictures, but there were two slots empty with last month’s date and the initials A and S written in the left corner. She touched the spot with wrinkled, wavering fingers and sighed. She wondered how she could have ever possibly misplaced the disposable camera she had bought for these guests. She had never lost a camera before, each with a dedication.
She had always been good at watching, so quiet in a room and light of step as a child that she could slip in and out of classrooms unnoticed. Same applied to bedrooms. It made her a marvelous inn owner. Guests liked to be left alone, to feel as though they are unbothered in their privacy, and Mrs. Sopor illusioned that desire so masterfully.
But she wasn’t so careful anymore. She was getting old, and with it, less careful. Her skin and limbs sagged, weighing down her light steps to unmistakable shuffles. Her memory was clouding in the center like a dirty, disturbed pond, getting murkier the more she agitated its stagnancy. Yet, she could not stop.
The cameras were an intimate connection, a distinguishing vessel to see the most vulnerable and defenseless parts of her guests. Her people. Hers. To truly see a person, to understand them at their core, she believed their sleeping state was the most exposure you could get to witnessing their subconscious.
She flipped through the plastic coverings, pausing every now and then to reminisce on other soundless faces, remembering how their bodies looked from the doorway. No matter the person, man, woman, or occasionally, child, their labored breathing rolled from the top of their heads to the pit of their stomachs and souls until it was them living. Maybe she had been mistaken and it was their delicate existence that made her so curious.
Maybe she had been mistaken. Maybe she had not bought a camera at all for this month’s guests. She simply could not remember.
A family came in through the front door of the inn, talking quietly and rubbing their chapped winter hands together for warmth. Mrs. Sopor’s thoughts were interrupted.
The couple had two children and she was grateful for it. A boy and a girl. It had been ages since she had a child added to her collection.
“Good afternoon, all,” Sopor cheerfully greeted them, closing the scrapbook discretely and turning to return it with the others on the bookshelf. “Here to check in?”
“Yes,” the woman approached the desk first while the children wandered around with their father, “We’re staying for the weekend.”
“Oh, how wonderful! It’s so rare these days to see young families truly taking time to be together. You will have a lot to do in my quaint town.”
“I don’t doubt it. We’ve had a long day traveling though. Some relaxation, and maybe a nap for the kids, will be much needed.” The kids sat in the maroon chairs, legs swinging. The dad pulled his phone out of one of his bags and pointed it at them. The flash went off.
“I’m sure, I’m sure. Well, no guest ever slept as good as they do here. I’m sure you and your family will feel similarly.”
Sopor reached under the desk for one of the remaining room keys hanging underneath. She slid it towards the woman, scraping across the wood. The little girl looked up at the noise.
The boy played with a toy from his backpack. The dad stared down at his phone. The woman smiled a very distant smile, a polite, but rushed look. There was so much she missed with that disposition. Didn’t they all? Mrs. Sopor smiled back, a smile that, if you looked closely, could only be seen at the corner of her lips, and none of it in the eyes. She smiled at them all.
If you’ve enjoyed For Some Must Watch, you can visit our free digital archive of flash fiction here. Additionally, premium short fiction published by Mystery Tribune on a quarterly basis is available digitally here.