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Authors: Simone St. James

The Sun Down Motel (6 page)

BOOK: The Sun Down Motel
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“On shift every night?”

“Yes, though I get one night a week off.”

“Worked here long?” The questions were rapid-fire, probably to help Viv keep her thoughts straight. It was working.

“Four weeks,” Viv said, and then she realized she couldn’t remember the last time she’d looked at a calendar, taken note of what day it was. “Five, maybe.”

“You called us in before?”

“No.”

“First time, then.” It was conversational, but Officer Trent’s gaze didn’t leave Viv. “No disturbances until now?”

“No.” Unless you counted the lights going out, the ghosts coming out, and whatever had been lurking in the
AMENITIES
room.
Run.
Viv cleared her throat and tried not to shudder. “It’s usually quiet here.”

“Yeah, I’ll bet,” the cop said. “We sometimes get calls about hookers and dealers out here. You see anything like that?”

Was she supposed to tell on her employer? What if she got fired? She saw hookers and dealers every day; if Alma Trent didn’t know that, she wasn’t a very good cop. “I don’t know,” Viv said. “It kind of seems like none of my business.”

“A philosopher, I see,” Officer Trent said. “You’ll fit right in at the Sun Down.” She gave Viv a smile and leaned back in her chair. “I work nights, so it’s usually me who gets the call. Drug deals, drunk and disorderly,
fights, domestics, runaway teenagers. That’s the kind of thing that happens out here. If you’ve been here five weeks, I think you have the idea.”

Viv sat up in her chair. For a second, the ghosts were forgotten. “You work nights? Do you like it?”

Alma shrugged. “I’m the only woman at the station, so they put me on nights and they won’t take me off,” she said matter-of-factly. “They probably want me to quit, but I haven’t yet. Turns out I sort of like the night shift. To tell the truth, I barely remember what daytime looks like, and I don’t miss it.”

“I’m barely even tired anymore,” Viv said.

Alma nodded. “They say it’s bad for you, but then again, everything’s bad for you. Soda, cigarettes, you name it. If you don’t have a body like Olivia Newton-John’s, then you’re doing something wrong. Personally, I don’t buy it. I think it’s instructive to be awake in the middle of the night every once in a while. To really see what you’re missing while you’re usually sleeping.”

“Not everything you see is good,” Viv said.

“No, definitely not.” Alma smiled. “You seem like a nice girl. The Sun Down is a little rough for you, isn’t it?”

“The people aren’t so bad.”
The living ones, anyway.
She chose her words carefully. She didn’t even know Officer Trent, but it felt good to talk to someone, even for a few minutes. “I left home. I just wanted to be alone for a while, I guess.”

“Fell is a good place for that.” Alma stood up.

She had walked most of the way to the office door when Viv said, “Who died in the pool?”

Alma stopped, turned. Her mouth was set in a line. “What?”

Viv took a breath, smelled smoke again.
For God’s sake, call an ambulance!
The voice had been right here in this room, not two feet away. Alma Trent had to know. “Someone died in the pool, right? A kid.”

“Where did you hear that?” Alma’s voice was sharp, cautious.

Viv made herself shrug. “A rumor.”

There was a long beat of silence as Alma looked at her. Then she said, “You shouldn’t believe every rumor you hear. But yes, a boy died in the pool two years ago. Hit his head on the side of the pool, he went unconscious, and he never woke up. But I don’t know how you could have heard that, since Janice never talks about it and Henry can’t have told you.”

“Henry?” Viv asked.

“The man who worked here at the time,” Alma said. “He was the one who called it in. He had a heart attack six months later.” She pointed to Viv. “He was sitting in that very chair.”

Viv was silent. She thought she might be sick.

“Someday you’re going to tell me how you knew that,” Officer Trent said. “Those aren’t the worst things that have happened here. But I think you guessed that, too.” She nodded. “Have a nice night, Vivian Delaney. Call me if you need me again.”

Fell, New York

November 2017

CARLY

They hired me. There probably weren’t very many other applicants; maybe there weren’t any at all. But I found myself at eleven o’clock at night four days later, sitting in the Sun Down’s office with a miserable man named Chris, learning the job of night clerk. Chris was about fifty, and he said he was the son of the motel’s original owners. He wore a blue plaid flannel shirt and high-waisted jeans, and he was as unhappy as any guy I’d ever met, even in high school. Misery came off him like a smell.

“Keys are in here,” he said, opening the desk drawer. “We never changed to an electronic card system, because that costs a lot of money. We have problems with electronics in this place, anyway. We tried a booking computer for a while, but it never worked, and eventually it just stopped turning on. So we still use the book.” He gestured to the big leather book on the desk where guests wrote their names.

“Okay,” I said. My job as a barista had been way higher tech than this. “Landline, too, huh?” I gestured at the old phone.

Chris glanced at it. “You can use your cell out here if you get reception. We don’t have Wi-Fi unless you steal one of the local signals when the weather is right. Again, the electronics problem, and Wi-Fi costs money.
Nancy comes at noon every day to make up any rooms that have been used—you’ll never see her. Dirty laundry goes in the bin in the back. Laundry is picked up and dropped off every week, again during the day. You won’t see them, either.”

I was still stuck on the Internet thing. “There’s no Internet? None at all?”

That got me a look of disdain. “I guess that’s a problem for someone your age, right? I bet you’d like to get paid to stay up all night and Twitter.”

I gave him my best poker face. “Yes,” I said. “It’s a dream of mine to make minimum wage to sit in a motel office and Twitter. Like, totally. When I get extra ambitious, I Facebook.”

“This country is going to the shitter in a handbasket,” Chris said.

“It’s ‘hell in a handbasket,’ actually. The saying.”

“Whatever. Wear this.” He handed me a dark blue vest with the logo on the breast. “Honestly, I won’t know if you actually wear it, but you’re supposed to. We were going to update them, but—”

“That costs money,” I filled in for him.

I gave him a smile, but he just looked sad. “My parents paid a song for this place,” he said. “Dad bought the land off of some old farmer and had the motel built for cheap. The land was supposed to be the real investment, with the motel just a way to make money to pay the taxes. I guess they were going to sell when the value went up.” He sighed. “It never did, because they never built that damn amusement park. Now my parents are dead and the place is mine. I tried to sell it around 2000, but no takers. So here we are. The few thousand bucks a year it makes is cheaper than paying an agent to sell it.”

I took the polyester vest, feeling its thick plasticky texture between my fingers. “Then how do you make a living?” I asked.

“I sell car insurance. Always have. Stateline Auto in town. If you need insurance, call me.” He looked around, his eyes tired. “Frankly, I hate this
place. I come out here as little as possible. Every memory I have of this place is bad.”

I wanted to ask what that meant, but the expression on his face had shut down. So I said, “If you want to save money, why have a night clerk at all?”

“We tried going without one in the nineties, and frankly the hookers took over. They stayed here all night, did damage I had to fix, and took off without paying. Profits actually went
down
, if you can believe it. Turns out having someone here makes people behave, at least a little.” He pointed to a pinboard on the wall next to the desk with a note on it. “Call the cops if you need to. Most people are just jerks who back down when you tell them to knock it off. We’ve never had anyone get violent with a night clerk.”

“Except for the one who went missing,” I said.

Chris blinked at me. “What?”

“The night clerk who went missing in 1982.”

“How the hell did you hear about that?”

“It was in the papers,” I said, which wasn’t a lie.

“Oh, God,” he said, running a hand through his thinning hair. He seemed horrified. “Don’t bring that up, okay? I thought everyone had forgotten about that. That was in my parents’ time. You weren’t even born.”

“Did you know her?” I asked him.

“I was a kid, so no.”

“What do you think happened to her?”

“Who knows? It’s ancient history. Please don’t bring it up. We don’t need even fewer customers than we already have.”

That was the end of my interview with Chris about my aunt’s disappearance. Score zero for Nancy Drew.

When Chris left, I dropped the blue polyester vest on a chair and went to work. I started with the desk, opening all the drawers and rifling through them. Except for the room keys, each of which was on a ring on a leather tab with a number stamped on it, there was nothing interesting.

Next, I moved to the desktop. It was chipped wood with a Formica top. There was a blotter, pencils and pens, the old telephone with big square buttons across the bottom to open different lines. None of the buttons were lit at the moment. On the corner was the guest book, a large leather binder with pages inside. I hovered my hand over the guest book, then stopped.

For a crazy minute it seemed like time had folded in on itself, like there was no gap between 1982 and this moment. This was the desk Viv Delaney had sat at; this was the exact phone she had used. The blue polyester vest may have been the one she wore. She had sat in this chair, looked at this pinboard with the police phone number pinned to it.
What year is it?
a voice in the back of my mind asked.
Is it 1982 or 2017? Do you really know?

I picked up the guest book and opened it. There were four rooms occupied tonight: two men, a couple, and a woman. I didn’t recognize any of the names. I found an old notepad and a pen, scribbled them down, and pulled out my phone. I already knew there was no signal in here, but I put on my coat, slipped out the office door, and roamed the walkway, then the parking lot, looking at the screen to see if a signal would appear.

When I stood almost next to the sign (
VACANCY. CABLE TV!
) the signal icon popped up. I quickly tried to Google the names on my paper, but not even the first search would load. The signal was too weak.

I stuffed the paper into my pocket. I texted Heather, knowing she would be awake. We’d stayed awake the past two nights, watching movies and getting me prepared to take the night shift once I knew I had the job.

No files, no computer, no Internet, and my boss says not to ask him about Viv. I’m striking out so far
, I texted her.

Her reply was immediate.
Carly, it’s eleven thirty.

Right. I was just here to work a few shifts and find what I could find before quitting. I had plenty of time left in the night.
Carrying on
, I texted, and put the phone back in my pocket as the signal went dead again.

The wind sliced down my neck, and the sign made a weird electric
buzzing sound overhead. I moved away from it and walked to the parking lot, looking up at the motel. The rooms were dark except for two that had lamps on, the curtains drawn. The motel itself looked asleep in the darkness, yet it had that eerie vibe I’d felt when I first came here. I rubbed my hands together and wondered how I would spend the next seven and a half hours here. I wondered what the heck I thought I was doing.

On the second level, the door to one of the unoccupied rooms swung open, showing the darkness within.

I squinted. There was definitely no one staying in the room, no one in the doorway. Yet the door hung open now, banging gently in the wind.

The lock must be broken, or the knob. I crossed the parking lot and climbed the stairs, huddling deeper into my coat because it seemed colder up here. Late fall in upstate New York is no joke. My ears were stinging and my nose was starting to run.

I grabbed the knob to the room door—it was room 218—and pulled it closed. I tried turning the knob and found it was unlocked, and I had no key. I opened the door again and found it had a disc on the inside of the knob that locked it. I turned the disc and closed the door again.

Two doors down, room 216 opened.

That was it—just the soft squeak of the door opening, then nothing. The wind blew and the door creaked, waving.

Something inside my mind said,
This is not right
.

Still, I walked to the doorway and grabbed the knob, this time taking a second to sweep a glance through the dark room. Bed, dresser, TV, door to the bathroom. Nothing else there.

I turned the disc and shut the door, making sure to pull it all the way closed. It swung back open again, even though the knob didn’t turn. I grabbed it and banged it closed again, harder this time. It stayed shut for a stretch of maybe ten seconds, then creaked open again.

There was a faint sound from behind the door, as if someone were standing there. A rustle of cloth. The soft tap of a footstep. I caught a whiff of flowery perfume.

“Hey,” I said, and reached my hand out. Before I could touch the door it slammed shut, so hard the door frame nearly rattled.

My breath had stopped. My arm was still out, my hand up, my fingers cold. A wash of freezing air brushed into my face, down my neck. I couldn’t think.

While I stood frozen, the door to 210 opened.

My chest squeezed inside my coat. I made my feet move, bumped back against the railing. Dull pain thudded up my spine. My hands were like ice as I tried clumsily to turn my body, to back away. There were heavy footsteps.

A man stepped out of room 210 and into the corridor. He was a few years older than me, maybe. Brown hair, cropped short. Worn jeans and an old dark gray T-shirt. Stubble on his jaw. Laser blue eyes. His hair was sticking up, like he’d been sleeping.

I stared at him, dumbfounded. He was real, but I’d looked at the guest book, and he wasn’t supposed to be here. Room 210 was unoccupied. Which meant I had no idea who he was.

“Hey,” the man said to me as if he belonged here. “Who the fuck are you?”

•   •   •

I exhaled a breath that steamed in the cold. I took a step back. “Um,” I said, “I’m—”

“Banging doors in the middle of the night,” he finished. “I’m trying to sleep in here.”

That wasn’t me. At least, I don’t think so.
“You’re not supposed to be here,” I said to the man. I pointed to the doorway behind him. “In that room.”

He scowled at me. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“I’m calling the cops,” I said. I was impressed with how I sounded, considering I was terrified out of my mind. Too late, I remembered that the pepper spray Heather had given me was in my purse, back in the office. I moved my feet back again and turned to leave.

“Wait,” the man said after me. “I’m staying here. It’s legit. I have a key and everything.” There was a clinking sound, and I turned to see him hold up a familiar leather tab with a key dangling from it.

I paused. “What’s your name?”

“Nick Harkness.”

“You’re not in the guest book.”

“I never signed the guest book. It’s legit.” He put the key away and reached into his back pocket. “You want to check me out? Here.” He pulled out his wallet and tossed it to the ground between us, where it made a heavy sound against the concrete floor. “My ID, everything,” he said. “I didn’t mean to freak you out.”

I paused. Was it a mistake to bend down and pick up the wallet? Everyone knows a serial killer can get you in an unguarded moment. I toed the wallet toward me and grabbed it as fast as I could. His ID was in there, as advertised. He had sixty dollars, too.

“Okay,” I said, mostly to myself. I closed my eyes and massaged the bridge of my nose beneath my glasses. “Right, okay, fine. This is under control.”

Nick Harkness watched me, but he didn’t make a move. “You okay?” he asked.

“Sure, I’m great,” I said. “I’m just great. I’m the night clerk.”

Nick blinked his ice blue eyes in disbelief. I remembered that I was wearing my coat and I hadn’t put on the blue polyester vest. “
You’re
the night clerk,” he said. It wasn’t a question.

“Yeah, I am. Sorry about the noise. I didn’t realize you were sleeping.”

“You didn’t think you’d wake people up by banging doors in the middle of the night.”

His tone dripped with sarcasm, and I wanted to fling his stupid wallet at his head.
Something was opening and slamming the doors, you idiot, and I’ve had a shitty night.
But I couldn’t quite get mad as I looked at him again, standing there in the November cold in his T-shirt. Something about his face. It was a good-looking face. It was also edged with
exhaustion, as if he slept as little as I did. “You could try not to be a jerk,” I told him. “I was just doing my job.”

A muscle ticked in his jaw, and he looked away.

“The doors,” I said. “Have, um, have you noticed any problem with them?” When he still didn’t say anything, I said, “They were opening and closing, and I think . . . It was really strange.”

Now I sounded ditzy and lame at the same time, but he didn’t seem to notice. He still looked away and absently scratched his stomach. The motion made his shirt lift. Under the T-shirt, his stomach was very flat. “Christ,” he said, almost to himself.

“Right,” I said. “You were sleeping. Here’s your wallet back. I’ll go.”

“You new here?” he asked. He didn’t reach to take the wallet I held out.

“Sort of.” Yes.

“You’re new,” Nick Harkness said. He dropped his hand from his stomach, which made his shirt drop, unfortunately. “Jesus, I didn’t think they’d actually hire someone. The last guy left weeks ago, and Chris never even comes out here. I thought he’d given up.”

“It’s temporary. At least, I think so. Do you . . . You’ve been here for weeks?”

“Chris and I have an arrangement.”

“What arrangement?”

Nick gave me another glare—he was good at it—and said, “An arrangement where I stay here and call the cops if there’s trouble, and he leaves me the fuck alone. Is that enough detail for you?”

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