Note: In order to avoid potentially identifying this Airbnb, I've left out the name of the town, opted to use a gender-neutral singular "they" when referring to the host, and paraphrased our conversations to avoid revealing tics of speech. Felicia and I agree that the Airbnb in question is fundamentally sound and a good value, and the host is quick to incorporate guests' feedback. We had an uncanny and frustrating experience that we think makes for an entertaining story, that's all. Enjoy.
This happened in an Airbnb that my sister Felicia and I stayed in, in a town that will go unnamed.
We’d secured a cheap room near the city centre and were due to check in at 1pm. The host was travelling for work, so we would pick up the keys directly from the previous guest. If we missed each other, said the host, the previous guest would leave the keys under the doormat (note: not the actual hiding place of the keys).
At 12:45pm, we were already outside and waiting. The host had described the building as “vintage”: some of the fixtures dated back to the 19th century, but everything worked. The building was four or five storeys tall, with one apartment per floor. The room we’d rented was on the ground floor. There was no activity inside the building whatsoever.
We waited, and waited, and got a little nervous. The clock ticked past 12:55pm.
At exactly 1:00pm, the door edged open, and a short young German man with neatly-slicked hair wearing a grey leather pea coat stepped out. He wrapped his pea coat tightly around himself. We eyed each other. He looked like he’d just stepped out of the 1930s and was rather surprised to find himself in the present.
“Are you the Airbnb guest?” I asked.
“Umm, yes,” he replied. “Here are the keys,” he said.
“Thank you,” I said.
We paused. I looked at the keys. There were two of them.
“Which key is for which door?” I asked.
He showed us the key to open the front door, and the key to open the apartment door. The apartment was small, and its layout seemed straightforward at first glance. The space we were standing in wasn’t quite a corridor, since it was a square, but it was too tiny to be properly called a hall. The kitchen was on the right. In front of us, there were two closed doors; we’d rented the room on the right, and the living room was behind the door on the left. To our left, there was an open door. The German man gestured to it.
“This is your room,” he said.
I was confused, but we went in anyway. The room held two beds, a chest of drawers, an empty desk, and a large brown leather sofa. One bed wasn’t made, but that was to be expected: since the host wasn’t in town, they had warned us that we would be expected to wash the bed linens and make our own beds.
The German guest stuck his head around the door and pointed at the door handle. Under it, a large, long key stuck out of an ancient keyhole. “There’s a key inside if you want to lock the room door,” he said. I wondered who we were supposed to keep out.
We stepped out of the room. I gestured vaguely at the two closed doors. “And this is the toilet?” I asked, like a college student who hasn’t fully understood their readings but still wants their participation points.
The German guest wordlessly swung open a door behind me that I hadn’t seen, revealing a bathroom too small to fall down in.
“Do you have any more questions?” he asked. I extracted the wi-fi password from him, then let him go.
Felicia and I walked into our new room for the night. We set our bags down on the desk, and set about studying our surroundings. There was a musty smell, as if the room hadn’t been inhabited for years. In the corner closest to the door, there was a vintage electric heater. It was a box of thin metal about waist high with charred vents lining the top, making it seem like an overused cooking grill. The chao-tah vents, as Felicia called them (Singlish for “overcooked”), silently spewed warm air.
The brown leather sofa took up the entire length of one wall. It was nearly as wide as a single bed, and had impressively big back cushions that were each the size of a checked suitcase. The surface of the leather had the supple creases of a thrift-store find. Behind the sofa was a door that we never opened, and clearly, neither did the host.
There were two old headboards made of a dark wood attached to the opposite wall. Under them were two beds, one made and the other stripped to the mattress. Each bed was covered with a duvet in a duvet cover. The two duvet covers were identical: a printed landscape of a lake with a swan in it, in washed-out pastel pink and blue.
I would have called this tableau a faded still life painting, except for the fact that the desk in one corner was an entirely modern creation, a faux-wood Formica top on painted steel T-legs. That, and the fact that next to the beds was the classic IKEA MALM 4-drawer chest in oak veneer.
On top of the drawers, we found some bed linens.
“Here’s the stuff we need to make the bed,” I said to Felicia.
We took stock. There were three pillows on the two beds, and one needed a pillowcase. The mattress needed either a flat or fitted bottom sheet.
The bed linens on top of the drawers consisted of two pillow cases, and two undersheets. The pillow cases, which were standard German squares, were way too wide and just a bit too short for the long and narrow uncased standard Spanish pillow. We stuffed the long pillow in the square pillowcase anyway, folding over the excess cloth and leaving some pillow exposed.
Now: where was the bottom sheet for the mattress?
I reviewed the host’s Airbnb house manual. When we checked in, we would find the bed linens on top of the chest of drawers next to the bed, it said. “Please tell me if they aren’t there,” it said (paraphrased). After making the bed, we were to go to the washing machine in the kitchen and wash the linens already in the washing machine, then dry them on the laundry rack “in the living room”, it said. Before we left, said the house manual, we were to strip our beds, put our bed linens in the washing machine, and take the bed linens off the laundry rack and put them on the chest of drawers next to the bed.
In the washing machine we found a duvet, a duvet cover, a pillowcase and a fitted sheet. So the German guest, he had used a fitted sheet, and when he’d arrived at this place, he’d probably washed the previous guest’s sheets and hung them out to dry — probably on the laundry rack in the living room.
I walked out of our room and gingerly knocked on the left door before turning the handle. It was locked.
I stepped away from the door and wondered if the host might have confused the rooms in their own apartment.
I walked up to the door on the right and hesitated, then knocked, turned the handle, and opened the door a crack. The room was dark, so I pushed the door open. Enough light was streaming in through the curtains in the windows for me to see a double bed, unmade and with clothes strewn all over, and in front of it, a laundry rack with a shirt and jeans on it.
This wasn’t a living room. This was somebody’s bedroom, and it was very much lived in. It looked like its owner had left in a hurry.
I felt around for a light switch by the door, but couldn’t find one, so I shut the door and returned to our room.
“There’s a laundry rack in the other room, but I didn’t see any sheets on it. I think it’s the host’s room,” I told Felicia.
Taking the German guest’s bedsheets out of the washing machine and reusing it wasn’t particularly palatable to either of us, so Felicia offered to sleep on the sofa. It didn’t look like a bad place to sleep. The sofa was certainly long enough, and if we removed the back cushions, it would be wide enough to sleep comfortably. I pulled out one of the massive back cushions, and found a broad stripe of dust running along the back edge of the sofa seat.
“Umm, I don’t think you should sleep here,” I said.
We were still stuck. Felicia looked at the unmade bed.
“I can be a burrito in the blanket,” she said.
“You sure?” I didn’t like the idea, but what else were we going to do?
“Yeah, I’m sure,” Felicia said.
We washed the German guest’s bed linens in the washing machine, and ran a spin-dry cycle as the house manual instructed. I hoped, unrealistically, that they would be dry enough to use after the spin-dry cycle, but of course they weren’t. That also meant that we’d have to use the laundry rack in the other room, removing the clothes on it and dumping them unceremoniously on the host’s bed. That laundry rack I’d seen was the only one we’d found in the apartment.
“Ready?” I asked Felicia as we stood outside the other room, the host’s bedroom. Even though I knew that there was no one inside, I was still nervous. It felt like a transgressive thing to do.
Felicia nodded. I opened the door. “I couldn’t find the light switch,” I said, as I inched forward in the dark.
The lights came on.
“I found it,” said Felicia, pointing at a light switch halfway across the room from the door.
The light was an aged incandescent that took some time to warm up to its full brightness, so the room acquired the look of a dimly-lit pub. Besides the double bed, we could see a cupboard, an antique storage chest big enough to fit a dead body, a clothes rack, and a wheeled suitcase. Something about the storage chest seemed very familiar.
“Yeah, I think it’s their room,” I said. Our host had said they travelled for work often, and the clothes on the clothes rack jived with their stated profession.
I turned my attention to the laundry rack.
“Oh my God,” I said.
“Argh,” said Felicia.
On the far side of the laundry rack hung a single fitted sheet.
“I feel like we’re in an escape room trying to solve the puzzles that someone’s set for us,” said Felicia.
We took the fitted sheet off the rack and tried to fit it on the bare mattress in our room, but the sheet was strangely squarish. It was a tight fit for the bed lengthwise, but the sides of the sheet flopped over the long edges of the mattress. I had a sneaking suspicion that the sheet was meant for the double bed in the host’s room. Afterwards, we took the clothes off the laundry rack, put them on the bed, and arrayed the German guest’s wet bed linens on the thin collapsible rack.
Something about the weirdness of the room arrangement — the whole “living room on the left, your room on the right” thing — prompted me to re-read the room listing on Airbnb. Oddly enough, Airbnb informed me that “this listing ha[d] been removed.” I could still see the listing in my Trips tab, but the host’s profile listed a different room, with a different set of pictures: pictures of the room we were staying in.
Looking at the room listing we’d booked, I noticed something odd in the picture: an old storage chest. It was the one we’d seen in the other room, in exactly the same spot. Scrolling through the listing, I realized that the listing described the other room: it listed a double bed, and the arches of the windows were different from our room’s, but matched the other room’s.
“Ahh... I think I’ve got it,” I said to Felicia. “They were renting out the other room. I booked the other room two months ago. Then they switched rooms, and now that’s their room, and they’re renting this room out instead, but we’re still listed as having booked the other room!”
I was annoyed that the host had not told us about this, but we still had to sleep in their apartment, so I wrote them a calm and detailed message explaining what we’d found when we arrived and that we’d laid out the laundered bed linens on the laundry rack, casually mentioning that we were’t staying in the room we’d booked. I didn’t want them to know we’d used the laundry rack in their room or moved their clothes, so I elided any mention of their room. They replied quickly, explaining that a guest had complained about the other room, so they’d switched rooms; they were sorry for the missing fitted sheet, and everything we’d done to make the bed and wash the sheets was fine.
Relieved, we headed out for the afternoon and had a good time in the city.
We returned to the apartment at night. Unlocking the door, we found the laundry rack in the tiny hall.
“Did you move the laundry rack outside?” I asked Felicia. I wondered if I’d had some kind of brain fart and forgotten, or if I was hallucinating.
“No, it was definitely inside the room when we left,” Felicia said.
We retreated into our room and shut the door.
“Maybe they had a friend come over and take a look around,” I said. “But then why wouldn’t they tell us in advance, or get the friend to help check us in? Or maybe the host dropped in themselves and moved the rack out? But then why would they be renting the place out, if they were travelling close by enough to drop in?”
“Maybe it’s a ghost,” said Felicia, only half-joking.
The “helpful friend” explanation, however unsatisfactory, made the most sense. Now we knew that there was someone out there who had the keys to this apartment.
“I need to go to the toilet,” Felicia said.
“Okay,” I replied, still trying to figure out the Mystery of the Teleporting Laundry Rack.
“Come with me and stand outside the door,” Felicia said.
I had barely made it out of the room when Felicia opened the bathroom door, looked in, then backed out quickly.
“Someone took a shower!”
I might have burst out laughing out of fear and incredulity, I don’t know for sure.
“Look — the mirror is fogged and the shower stall is wet!”
I looked, and sure enough, there was fresh condensation on the mirror, and water pooled in a corner of the tiny shower cubicle.
“I don’t want to use the toilet any more,” said Felicia, only half-joking.
We scurried back to our room and messaged the host, asking if anyone else had the keys to the apartment.
“I think we should look the door tonight,” said Felicia.
We turned the antique key in its antique lock and tested it. It held fast.
For the next hour or so we sat on our beds messaging our friends while we waited for a reply from the host. My friends responded with variations on the theme “Oh my God, I hope you’re safe!” Felicia’s friends said, “Is it a ghost?”
At one point I heard the noise of a movie being played. It sounded uncomfortably close. At another point I thought I heard muffled footsteps nearby, but Felicia rationalised that it must have been from someone upstairs.
If there’s someone in the Other Room, I thought, they clearly don’t mind us being here — but why not? Who are they? How would we explain that we were Airbnb guests? Were they supposed to be here? If they weren’t, what were we supposed to do?
... the creak of a door swinging open. It was close, so close that it could only have come from inside the apartment.
We sat up.
Then a door handle turning, another door whining itself open.
Felicia and I looked at each other.
“You go,” she said.
“I’ll wait,” I said.
I put my ear to our room’s door and listened. The toilet flushed. A door. Two footsteps. I unlocked our door and nudged it open. There, silhouetted against the yellow light of the Other Room, was a tall woman in fluffy bedroom slippers.
“Hello,” I said.
“Hello,” she replied, disappearing into the room and shutting the door behind her.
We were completely, utterly confused.
The good news was, the woman clearly expected us to be here and was unfazed by our presence, even though we’d moved her clothes, possibly taken her fitted sheet, and dumped wet bed linens all over her laundry rack. The bad news was, we still didn’t know who she was.
I was scouring the Airbnb listing — both Airbnb listings — for any mention of a roommate, or a subletter, or a second tenant, when the host responded to our message (paraphrased):
“I have a roommate and she’s probably in her room.”
Ten and a half hours after unwittingly being cast into this escape-room mystery, we’d finally figured it out. Well, we’d figured most of it out. We didn’t know why the “living room” door was locked. We didn’t know why none of the pillowcases fit. We didn’t even know if we’d taken the roommate’s fitted sheet, but both of us were happy to leave that question unanswered.
Actually, both of us were happy to leave, period.
The next morning, I found another message from the host, which I read aloud to Felicia (paraphrased):
“Nobody’s checking in today, so you can check out at any time. If you want, you can even stay tonight.”
“No,” said Felicia.
We put our bed linens in the washing machine, hid the keys under the doormat, and left.