The Natural Bridge Hotel- Exit 175
“Can’t we go to the Haunted Museum first?”
“We’ll do that later- first we’re going to see the Natural Bridge.” Jamie sighed and buried her head in her suitcase.
“It’s just a stupid rock with a hole,” she muttered.
“What did you say?” asked her mother.
“Brush your hair.”
“Fine. But can we at least go out to breakfast first?”
“No, we’re gonna let you starve. Of course.
‘I just wanted to make sure.”
“But you have to stop whining,” her father called from the bathroom.
It wasn’t Disneyworld, but going to Natural Bridge was better than no vacation at all. Dad was laid off and mom wanted to see Great Granny’s place off Lee Highway, just one more time before the Health Department condemned it. No Mickey Mouse ears this year. No zippity doo dah water slide. No pics with Chip n’ Dale. Nope. Just a big old funky rock with a hole in it. Whoopi.
“Oh, mom. I’m going to need to buy some Twilight books.”
Jamie sighed with resignation. Her father started singing in the bathroom as he dragged his electric razor across his beard. Jamie took off to the bathroom and saw her father standing in the warm mist with a white towel around his waist, his belly comfortably protruding over the top.
“Did you hear me, mom?”
“Yes, dear. Now if you’re determined to be miserable at least don’t spoil the trip for the rest of us, ok?”
“Ok. So where do we eat breakfast?”
“It’s up to your mother.” Lisa, a woman in her early thirties checked herself in the mirror and frowned. She wished she’d brought the looser jeans.
“Whenever your father gets done in the BATHROOM…, there’s a little place down the road- if it’s still there. We used to bike there after school for sodas. The Pink Cadillac.”
“Groovy….What’s a soda?” Jamie said, making a peace sign and rolling her eyes.
Lisa had grown up in Natural Bridge but had not been back since her grandmother’s funeral. It had been a somewhat depressing event. At 99, it wasn’t as though she hadn’t lived long enough, but rather the manner in which she passed: choking on a bone left in Irma Ray’s chicken salad after bible study. Naturally, the church folk were “careful” not to name names as to who authored what dish, although the many whispers that would ensue, pretty much ensured that woman’s future exile. The last thing Granny reportedly uttered was “too much celery.”
The ceremony was sweet and flower-filled, the hymns, lovingly selected: “There is a Balm in Gilead” and “Blessed Assurance.” The church had original stained glass windows and candle-lit sconces. The pews were built for the size of human beings one hundred years ago, and had stiff, straight polished oak backs to keep parishioners awake. The lovely church seated only seventy-five, and the casket, in front of the podium, was only three feet away from the kicking feet of impatient youngsters who came for the food. There was no basement, but a narrow rickety balcony for a small choir, assessable only by tiny steep stairs.
Granny was at her best. The undertaker even had her smiling which was unusual in itself. Perhaps she was just happy to get away from her friends and family. She wore a lovely lavender chiffon dress Auntie Grace had found in the town consignment shop. She even wore little matching purple clip earrings that came free with the dress. The coffin was a simple, white velvet lined affair. The white carnations worked nicely with the interior. The ladies in the front row were pleased. Granny would have been less than happy with matching lipstick in “mauve morning,” however, as she dislike lipstick of any kind.
After the simple and gracious ceremony, marred only by young Johnny Hofstedder proclaiming, “Lord, daddy- that only lady is stiff as a board!,” she was wheeled out into the back lot cemetery where the backhoe was waiting to complete the job. Next to the backhoe were the long awaited card tables full of potato salads, pasta salads, casseroles, cakes, pies, cookies, buns, barbeque, jello molds, baby back ribs, macaroni and cheese, but… only one person had forgotten and made-you guessed it-chicken salad. She would be dealt with later.
Jamie was only three, then, but she remembered the feel of Granny’s dress and the look of her tiny white hands clasped ever-so-softly toward Jesus in perfect symmetry with her peaceful demeanor. “Mommy? Why is Granny smiling? I’ve never seen Gran Gran smile before….” The corpse smelled faintly of snuff and Taboo cologne. Since then, Jamie’s mind had been filled with stories about Granny’s house and her mother’s childhood wanderings amid the creeks and woods of Rockbridge County. Especially, “The Haunted Monster Museum” had become legendary in her imagination; she’d even Googled it.
She imagined what it would be like to be married to Mark Klein, the man who fashioned the gruesomely realistic creatures. He was the same artist who had built “Foam Hedge,” a precise replica of the real Celtic monolith. She had even imagined herself married to the man. Maybe they would sleep in coffins during the day and wear creepy clothes in public. Who could possibly be more exciting than Professor Cline? Maybe he slept in a bed made to look like Godzilla’s mouth. He probably knew every ghost in Natural Bridge personally. He might even have coffins in his basement.
“Do we have to take all day at the Bridge, ma? I want plenty of time for the museum. Do you think he might actually be there?”
“What are you talking about now?”
“Professor Cline. Do you think we might get to meet him?”
“Now Jamie, we had this talk before. He’s NOT a real professor- that’s just a stage name to frighten the kids. I just don’t want you to be disappointed.”
“All right.” Jamie dug her elbows in her knees and sulked. “Is he EVER going to be done in the BATHROOM?”
“Oh, hold your horses. I’m almost done.”
“I don’t HAVE any horses…. Although I HAVE asked many times….”
“We have tomorrow and Sunday as well to go to the Museum. It’ll be rainy tomorrow, so that’s a better day to go to the museum, anyway.”
“MOM! You promised!” Her father peered out of the bathroom with his deodorant in one hand.
“That’s about enough, now!” he warned. “You’re almost twelve and I expect better behavior toward your mother.”
“I’m sorry…but you did….”
“Howard? Are you ALMOST done in there?”
“Five minutes, dear.” Jamie rolled her eyes at her mother.
“Can I at least go for a walk down the hall while I’m waiting?”
“Ok. But don’t go too far.”
“Like there’s really anywhere to go to….”
“Nothing.” The solid oak door shut decisively behind her.
Jamie walked down the carpeted hallway, feeling a sense of being watched- as if her behavior was on hidden camera. That’s the feeling she hated about hotels- perhaps she’d watched too many news shows about the hidden cameras in certain hotels- those behind mirrors and in lights.
The hallway was dimly lit. The carpeting was worn in such a way that her feet had the sensation of sinking down through the carpet. She could hear the muffled voices of patrons behind closed doors. She wondered how many of them had to go through the Natural Bridge today- and if they really wanted to. Jamie heard a toilet flush and felt for certain she was being watched. She looked behind her and began to worry she wouldn’t find her way back to the right room. “Psst!” Jamie stopped. “Over here!” a child’s voice said. A shadow appeared at the end of the hall and stepped into the light. “Whatcha doin’?” it asked.
“Um, I was looking for a Coke machine?” Jamie whispered. “Mainly just trying to get away from my lame parents. You?”
“Do ya wanna look around this place with me?” the child asked. She was Jamie’s age, but thinner and taller. Jamie looked around hesitantly. When she smiled, it was the broadest, most mischievous smile Jamie had seen in a long time.
“Sure! But I can’t be gone for long. My parents are going to breakfast soon. How long are you staying here?”
“I don’t know, they haven’t told me yet. So where are you doing today?” the child asked, looking around a bit nervously.
“I have to go see he dumb Natural Bridge thingie.”
“It’s kinda fun.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“It’s ok. I’ve been there a few times.”
“Yeah, well I want to go to the Monster Museum.” The girl smiled again excitedly.
“You’ll love that!”
“Is it really cool?”
“Oh yes. And scary, too!”
“Is that guy- you know- Professor Kline there?” The girl thought a moment.
“Sometimes he is,” she said positively. “Yep.”
“Have you seen the website?”
“Mmmm. I don’t think so.”
“He’s got a lot of cool stuff here,” Jamie told her.
“I’m Jamie, and you?”
“Ok. I ‘spose I better get back. Have you been to the Pink Cadillac? Is it any good?
“I haven’t been there yet.
“Cool. So, maybe we’ll meet up later somewhere.”
“I’ll be around,” Miranda said. “It’s nice to meet you!”
“If you don’t mind my asking, why on earth are you wearing a dress?” Miranda looked a bit confused and pursed her lips. Jamie felt bad for asking. “I’m sorry. It’s like your religion or something, right? I shouldn’t have asked.” Miranda smiled again.
“It’s ok. People wonder about that all the time.” Jamie turned and ran back down the hall. The hotel halls felt narrower and she recognized her room without a problem; the door had a certain scratch. Out of breath, she ran in and plopped down on the bed.
“Ready to go?” her mom asked, now in a much better mood, her hair disheveled.
“I’m hungry. I met this girl my age who’s staying here. She said the Natural Bridge thing isn’t that bad.”
“Well halleluiah. Let’s go.”
The line at the Pink Cadillac was impressive, but those waiting in line chatted happily. Jamie waited outside by the gigantic King Kong statue wielding a helpless airplane in his fist- another of Professor’s creations. The weather was warm for this time of the year, and Jamie tied her hoodie around her waist and laughed at the screaming toddlers who were too scared to get near Kong to have their pictures taken. “Stupid babies.”
She had a stack of pancakes and bacon and figured she could stroll around the bridge in gastronomical oblivion until her parents were bored or needed a nap. She’d behave well, and if her plan worked, she’d be at the Monster Museum, by 3pm. “Psst! Jamie!’ The lanky red-haired girl with the Cheshire grin was perched on a boulder above the walking path.
“Oh, hey-you made it! Where’s your folks?”
“Dad’s workin’ in the garden.”
“They don’t mind you comin’ alone?”
“No. Why should they? Hey, we can take off our shoes and wade in the water.Want to?”
“Sure, why not?” The girls removed their shoes and stuck their socks inside. Jaime noticed Miranda’s shoes were leather with shoelaces.
“Jaime? There’s crayfish in here you know….” Miranda said, grinning. Her face was like a glowing heart shape and in addition to her sparkling eyes, she had a button nose covered in freckles.
“I love catching crayfish! But we don’t have a bucket or a cup.”
“That’s ok. I can put them in my apron. Let’s catch a few and make ‘em race! Put yours in the right pocket and I’ll put mine in the left.”
“Sounds like you do this a lot!”
“I love it.” Miranda’s face became competitively serious as she searched the bottom of the river for crayfish, trolling with both hands. “Maybe after this I can show you my dolls in the basement.”
“What? Do you live in that hotel or something?”
“Mmm hmm. My dad takes care of the place. He calls it ‘his hotel.’ Got one! Look!” The brown mini-lobster flailed its antennae helplessly in her hand. “You better catch up, Jamie! I’ll give you a hint: look under the red rocks- they like those.”
“What’s it like living at a hotel? Do you like, get to change rooms? Do you get the restaurant food?” Jamie watched Miranda’s dress get wet as she knelt to scavenge the rocks. Her hair was brown like dark chestnuts, and gold at the tips. “Doesn’t that dress get to be a pain?”
“You have no idea. I hate it, but that’s who we are. Darn! He got away!”
“Don’t come over here- I got one crawling toward me….”
“Jamie,” she whispered. “Mind if I give you a hint? They swim backwards and disappear in the cloud their tail makes. Just put your hand in the water about a foot behind ‘em, and he’ll swim right in.”
“Ok… shhh…. “Got him! Oooo! He’s biting me!”
“Well, bring him here quick!” Jamie sloshed through the water and grabbed Miranda’s apron. It was worn and soft, like much-washed cotton. “Now I showed you how, so you’re on your own.”
“Exactly. How many more questions, Jamie? I have to concentrate!” Miranda took a bit of river weed and threw it in Jamie’s face.
“Careful, or you’re goin’ in, Miranda! Holy crap! I got a big frickin’ one!”
“Put him in my apron pocket- the left one!”
“Yeah, well just don’t forget he’s mine- and he’s in the LEFT pocket, girlfriend!”
Miranda laughed and threw her head back in the sun. Jamie thought she looked like an angel against the glint of the water. Why hadn’t she met anyone like this before? Most girls didn’t enjoy these kind of things, and Jamie always got in trouble playing with the boys, although she didn’t know why. It had something to do with “boys being nasty,” her mother said. Jaime didn’t have the slightest idea what she meant- she thought boys were awesome- in fact, she wanted to be one.
“Jamie!” her father called. “What are you doing down there?”
“Ok- hold on.” Miranda looked toward Jaime’s parents in the distance.
“I better get going, too, I need to help with raking. My father will be looking for me, too.”
“Catch you later, ok?”
“Yep. I’ll show you my doll collection if you want.”
By the time Jamie scooped her warm shoes off the walkway, Miranda was sprinting away back toward the entrance. “Silly Mennonite girl,” Jamie thought, watching Miranda’s skirt billow in the spring air. Jamie caught up with her parents.
“Where have you been? I hope not texting….”
“No, I was with Miranda- the girl from the hotel. We were catching crayfish”
“Crayfish?” her father said, “I can’t even get you to eat at a picnic table! Since when have you acquired an interest in nature?”
“It was fun. I’m open to new things. Man, I’m sure glad you aren’t religious freaks like my friend’s parents. Skirts and dresses are man’s invention to slow women down.”
“Well, everybody has their reasons to live as they choose,” said her father.
“Yeah, well, duh….. I just don’t see how that gives them a right to make their kids were ridiculous outfits. I mean, what’s that supposed to prove? I think it’s just to keep them out of the real world. Jaime’s mother stopped to adjust her wedgie and then sat on metal bench and fumbled for new batteries for her camera.
“Jamie,” her father spoke, “parents raise their children with the values they’ve grown to appreciate. I’m sure your friend’s parents are simply trying to set the best example they know for Miranda so that she will have a full and happy life.”
“Yeah, blah blah blah….”
“Jamie, one day you will have children of your own and you will understand what your father means.”
“Oh yeah, I’m sure. So what prototype do you intend me to be? “
“Jamie! Must you be so argumentative?” her mother snapped.
“OK, OK, what’s the fuss! Soooorrrrryyyyy! Oh, and it’ll be a cold day in hell when I have kids- so don’t count on it.” Jamie’s parents gave a knowing look to each other, tried not to smile, and shook their heads in disbelief. “When’s lunch?”
Mark Cline’s Monster Museum and Maze lived up to its reputation as one of the creepiest places Jamie had ever been. “Did you say this place was creepy or cheesy, dear?” Howard asked his wife, chuckling.
“That was amazing…,” swooned Jaime. “Do you think he lives around here?”
“You know, duh. Professor Cline. Miranda says he’s around some of the time.”
“Yes, unfortunately, I mean, yes, in my recollection he is sometimes here. BUT WE’RE NOT GOING TO SEE HIM.”
“Oh my God, I’m still going to pray….”
“DON’T get your HOPES up, Jamie! You’ll only be disappointed. You’ve wanted to come here all day so just SHUT UP!”
“Don’t yell at Jamie like that!” Lisa quipped.
“But… forget it. Just forget it”…, Her dad said, backing off .
The Haunted Ghost Museum was everything she’d dreamed it would be- sans Professor Cline. When she finally emerged, Miranda was standing at the entrance with her big grin. “Weeelll?”
“Oh my God, I loved it!” Jamie said, grabbing Miranda and dancing around.
“I knew you would!”
“Will you be back at the hotel, Randy?” Miranda looked confused.
“What did you call me?” she said, looking cautiously around.
“Randy- that’s your new nickname- if that’s OK….” Miranda thought about it, looking at the ground and then smiled back.
“OK. I like it! See you later James….” Miranda’s eyes twinkled as she ran back in the direction of the hotel.
“Tomorrow we see Granny’s place. It’s been a long day,” her father said, taking off his socks and going into the bathroom. Her mother sprung off the bed and interjectied,
“Honey- can I brush my teeth first?”
“Of course- come on in. “
“Jamie and I had hoped to take baths….”
“I won’t be long.”
“And the zoo tomorrow, too, right mom ?” Her mother yawned and stripped off her too-tight jeans.
“Man, that feels good…. Yes, and the zoo! Jamie? You are driving me CRAZY!” her mother laughed.
“That’s what kids are for, duh!”
“I’m taking you to the zoo and leaving you there!” Lisa grabbed two pillows and smashed them over Jamie’s head. A full-out pillow fight ensued.
Later that evening, Jamie brushed her teeth and stepped out into the hallway. There was much talking on the lower level, music, and the tinkling of glasses. Jamie hustled downstairs, feeling like she was sneaking out into the night. In the foyer, she met Miranda.
“Hey, Miranda. I didn’t see you in the dining room for dinner. Did you guys eat out?” Miranda was transfixed watching guests come in for a Dental conference. “Is there anything to do around this place at night?”
“Not a lot,” Miranda replied. “Mostly just watch people. But there is a room in the basement….”
“What kind of room?”
“Kind of a hide-out type of room- where they keep the Christmas decorations. I can show it to you if you want.”
“How’d you find out about it?”
“Mmm, you know, just lookin’ around…. I have to find stuff to do when my parents are busy. They don’t like me underfoot. So you wanna see it?”
“I don’t know, Ran, I have to be back by nine.”
“No problem.” Miranda ran down the hall past the desk clerk who didn’t even look up. A cool breeze followed her and Jaime tried to keep up. They stopped at a coatroom.”
“What’s in here?”
“This is it.”
“A door to the basement. I’ll show you. My dolls are down there.” Miranda pushed coats and a luggage rack aside and unhinged a small door by the baseboard.
“I don’t know…” Jamie said warily.
“I go down here all the time.”
“ It’s creepy.”
“It’s just for when I want to get away from… well, this and that.”
“This is kind of weird….” Jamie looked directly at Miranda’s face. Her eyes had taken on a far away gaze. Jamie asked softly, “why would you want to get away?” Miranda shrugged.
“Do you think you might come down with me tomorrow?” Miranda asked, not looking at Jamie.
“Yeah, maybe. In the daytime. But I still don’t understand….”
“What are you doing in here, miss?” the concierge’s voice asked sternly. His eyes darted around the closet as if looking for something. Jaime blushed hotly. Somehow Miranda had hidden.
“I’m sorry. I was looking for the ladies’ room.”
“Down the hall, first door on the right.” As she left, the concierge shut the coat closet door tightly. Jaime walked back to her parents room where they were getting ready for bed.
“You’re back early,”Lisa commented.
“Nothin’ really to do.”
“You didn’t meet your friend?”
“Yeah, but …she was busy.” Lisa turned around in bed.
“Is her family staying for long? Howard! You’re driving me crazy with that tv flicker!”
“I’m going to take a shower, mom.”
“Sounds good. Tomorrow will be fun, so you better get to bed soon. You sound tired. Everything all right, dear?”
Jamie took her new pajamas into the bathroom and started the shower. She used the sample shampoos and soaps until her entire body glowed red from scrubbing. She got into bed with her new Twilight book but fell into a fitful sleep.
At two a.m. she had to use the bathroom. Her parents were snoring soundly and she felt uncomfortable getting out of bed. Realizing she wouldn’t be able to wait until the morning, she walked between suitcases and clothes to the bathroom, passing the room door. She could see light coming through the bottom of the door from the hallway and looked through the peephole. Miranda was outside, darting nervously through the hallway, along with two smaller children dressed similarly. They disappeared down the corridor. It was the last time she saw Miranda and the last time she visited Natural Bridge. A handful of river rocks and a dried out crayfish were left in the hallway the next morning.
Note: According a national ghost hunters website, Shadowlands, the original owner of the old Natural Bridge Hotel was said to have gone crazy and killed his wife and children. They still roam the grounds. According to sources, several guest rooms are not bookable.
Mark Cline, famous artist and Monster Museum creator and curator, at one time rented two rooms for entertaining tourists with “mock sceances.” Whether true or not, some participants claim they experienced being ‘ touched’ by spirits. Was this no more than the power of suggestion? Mark neither believes nor disbelieves….