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Authors: Simone St. James

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BOOK: The Sun Down Motel
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Jesus. Now I really did toss the wallet, dropping it to the floor the way he had done with me. “Well, someone could have told me instead of scaring the shit out of me,” I said. “It would have been nice. I can see why you’re staying here alone. Have a nice night.”

I turned, but he called after me. “Let me give you a word of advice, New Night Clerk. If you think you hear the doors up here, don’t come up and fix it. Stay in the office and don’t come out. In fact, don’t come out of the office for anything. Just close the door and sit there until your time’s up. Okay?”

I turned back to tell him he was rude, that it was uncalled-for, that he shouldn’t treat people that way. But for a second I could see past him into his room. The words stopped in my throat. I just stared.

He didn’t notice. “Okay, go,” he said to me. “Go.”

I turned and walked back to the stairs, my numb hands gripping the rail so I wouldn’t stumble on the way down. My eyes were watering with cold, my blood racing in my veins.

Two things kept moving through my brain as I walked back toward the office.

One, he knew about the doors. He knew.

And two, when I’d seen past him into his room, I’d seen a bed, a TV, a lit lamp. The bed was made, but the pillow had an indent, as if he’d been lying there.

And on the nightstand next to the bed was a gun, gleaming in the lamplight. As if someone had just put it down. As if he’d been holding it before he opened the door.

Fell, New York

November 2017

CARLY

Wait a minute. Back up,” Heather said. “Tell me that last part again.”

I took another bite of my peanut butter toast. It was the next day, after I’d come home from my first shift at the Sun Down and fallen into bed, dead asleep for nine straight hours. Now I was in pajama pants and my favorite T-shirt, a baby blue one that read
EAT CAKE FOR BREAKFAST
on the front. I would have liked to eat cake for breakfast, except that I only had toast and it was five o’clock in the afternoon. “I know,” I said. “Maybe he was a cop or something.”

“Carly.” Heather glared at me, a little like Nick had. She was wearing her black poncho, and we were sitting across from each other at the apartment’s small kitchen table, Heather with her laptop in front of her where she was listlessly working on an essay that wasn’t due for another six days. “No cop is staying at the Sun Down Motel for weeks on end. Dead girls, remember? The goal is that you are
not one
. Men with guns are the first thing to steer clear of. You should have Maced him.”

“I don’t think he would have hurt me,” I said. “I didn’t need the Mace. I went back to the office and I sat there, like he told me to.”

“All night?”

I dropped my toast crust onto my plate. I didn’t quite want to admit that I’d been too scared to venture out of the office after that encounter. The doors, that rustle of fabric and whiff of perfume, Nick Harkness—it had been too much. I’d been in a fog of fear, vague and unfocused, like I knew something was going to happen and I didn’t know what. It was a piercing, lonely feeling, one I’d never had before. “I found an old computer in a cabinet in the office,” I told Heather. “I spent a few hours trying to boot it up and make it work. I answered the phone three times. One was a wrong number, and two others were heavy breathing.” I looked up at her. “Who makes heavy-breathing phone calls in 2017?”

Heather winced. “No one good. Did you get the computer to work?”

I shook my head and took a sip of my coffee. It had felt strange at first to eat breakfast when everyone else ate dinner, but I almost liked it. “Chris, the owner, said they tried a computer booking system, but the motel has an electronics problem. I got it hooked up to a monitor, but it wouldn’t actually turn on. Then I found an old copy of
Firestarter
under a shelf, so I read that for a while until it was time to go home.”

“Hmm,” Heather said, clicking away at her laptop. “Maybe tonight will be more eventful.”

I stared at her across the table. “Did you miss the part where the doors opened on their own? Several of them?”

“I told you the motel was haunted,” she said matter-of-factly. “I guess the rumors are true. How many people do you think have died in a place like that? There must be plenty. Like the person who died in the pool.”

“We have no evidence anyone died in the pool.”

“I’m right. You’ll see.”

I took my glasses off and set them on the table. Then I rubbed my eyes slowly, pressing my fingertips into my eye sockets. The world went pleasantly blurry, and I didn’t have to see the details anymore.

I had to go back there tonight. I couldn’t let a few opening doors defeat me. I had to think of Viv, maybe lying in a grave somewhere for
thirty-five years, with no gravestone and no one to care. I could find some of the answers at the Sun Down—I felt it.

No, the creepiness and the boredom were not going to keep me away. I’d had some sleep. I was going to win.

“If that guy is a cop, maybe he’ll help me,” I said, unable to quite stop thinking about Nick Harkness. Ice blue eyes. I’d never met a guy with ice blue eyes.

“He definitely isn’t a cop,” Heather said.

I dropped my hands and looked at her. She was a blond blur until I put my glasses back on. “How do you know that?”

“I Googled him,” she said, turning her laptop so I could see the screen. “He’s from Fell. Except he doesn’t live here anymore, because fifteen years ago his father shot Nick’s brother to death, and after his father went to prison, he left town.”

•   •   •

There was no one in the motel office when I got there at eleven. The lights were on, the door unlocked, but there was no one behind the desk. It looked like whoever was working had just stepped out the door, but there was no coat on the hook in the corner and I already knew there was no car parked in front of the office door. There was no car in the lot at all except for mine and a truck I recognized from the night before. Nick Harkness’s truck, I now guessed.

I pulled off my messenger bag and shrugged off my jacket. “Hello?” I said into the quiet.

No answer. I caught a whiff of cigarette smoke—maybe whoever I was relieving was having a smoke somewhere. But I hadn’t seen anyone outside.

I poked my head back out of the office door and looked left and right. “Hello?”

A whiff of smoke again, and then nothing.

I pulled back into the office and walked back to the desk. I checked the guest registry—someone named James March had checked in. He
was the only new guest since last night. It was written next to his name that he was in room 103. So, just down the corridor. Maybe it was James March who was having a cigarette, even though we had a yellowed sign over the office door that said
NO SMOKING IN MOTEL
.

I sat at the desk and pulled out a sheaf of printouts from my messenger bag. Before coming to work, I’d spent a few hours on the Internet, using up the precious toner on Heather’s small printer. I’d added to my collection of articles about Fell—the few I’d been able to find before coming here. And I’d added articles about Nick Harkness. There were plenty of those.

According to the articles, Nick was twenty-nine. His mother had died in a swimming accident when he was young, and he’d lived with his father and older brother, Eli. His father was a lawyer, well known in Fell.

“He’d become erratic,” Martin Harkness’s partner at the firm said afterward. “He was angry, sometimes forgetful. We didn’t know what was wrong with him, but he wasn’t himself. I don’t know how we could have stopped it.”

One day, Martin came home from work carrying a handgun. Eli was in the living room, and Nick—who was fourteen—was upstairs in his room, playing video games. From what the police could piece together, Martin shot Eli twice point-blank in the chest. Upstairs, Nick opened the door to the Juliet balcony, swung down to the ground, and ran to a neighbor’s to get help.

When asked why he’d run, Nick had replied, “I heard the gunshots, and then I heard Eli screaming and Dad coming up the stairs.”

When the cops came to the Harkness house, they found seventeen-year-old Eli dead on the living room floor and Martin in the kitchen, drinking a glass of water, the gun on the counter next to him. “Where’s Nick?” he said.

Since Martin was well known in town, there was a frenzy in the local media.
PROMINENT LAWYER SNAPS
, headlines read.
WHY DID HE KILL HIS OWN SON?
No one had any answers. “It needed to be over,” was the only comment Martin ever made about the murder. “All of it
needed to be over.” He pleaded guilty, leaving no new revelations to report. After a few weeks, the papers moved on to other things.

I read through the pages again, looking at the photos. There was a school picture of fourteen-year-old Nick, with the blue eyes and the cheekbones I recognized.
The family’s only surviving son
, the caption read. He’d lived with relatives in town for a few years, then had left at eighteen. What was Nick doing back in Fell, staying at the Sun Down Motel alone for weeks? Why was he here? What did he want?

The lights flickered, went out, then on again, the fluorescents overhead making a zapping buzz. I stood and walked to the door, peeking out the window at the motel sign. It was on—and then it flickered off, then on again.

Shit. A power problem? I grabbed my coat and put it back on, pulling the office door open and stepping out. Behind me, the lights flickered again as if we were in the middle of a thunderstorm, even though the air was cold and still. From down the hall came a rhythmic thumping, a metallic clunking sound that I couldn’t quite place. It sounded mechanical, accompanied by a high-pitched, motorized
whirr
. I stepped out and realized it came from behind a door labeled
AMENITIES
. It was probably an ice machine, malfunctioning with the power problem.

The wind slapped me in the face, and I pulled my coat closed. There was another whiff of cigarette smoke, and something brushed by me—actually
touched
me, knocked me back a step. In the yawning, empty darkness, a man’s voice said, “Goddamn bitch.”

I stumbled back another step.
Goddamn bitch.
I’d heard that—really heard it. A strangled sound came from my throat, and I turned to look back at the motel.

The lights were going out. Starting at the end of the L, the corridor lights were blinking out like a row of dominoes. The darkness sat heavier and heavier, gained more and more weight.
A fuse problem
, I tried to tell myself, though I’d never seen a fuse in my life. The darkness marched down one side of the L, then straight up the other, step by step, ending at
the office. The light over the door blinked out, and then the sign. I was alone. There was no sound.

That was when I saw the boy.

He was around eight or nine, on the second level. He was sitting on the walkway floor, cross-legged in the dark, looking at me with a pale face through the latticed bars of the panel beneath the railing. He was wearing shorts and a T-shirt with colors splashed brightly on it, as if he were heading for the beach. As I watched, he put his hand on the panel and leaned forward.

“Hey!” I shouted at him in surprise. There weren’t any kids staying here according to the guest book, certainly none who were underdressed for the cold. I took a step toward the staircase. “Hey! Hello?”

The boy stood, turned, and bolted, running lightly down the corridor away from me. I heard his small, even footsteps on the stairs. I forgot about the smoke and the disembodied swearing and the rest of it and jogged down the length of the motel, hoping to catch the boy as he descended.

The boy hit the bottom step and vanished around the corner, toward the nothingness of the dark woods. “Hey!” I shouted again, as if I could make him turn around. I had a shiver up my back, along the back of my neck.
Was that real? It looked real. What if it was a real boy?

I was at the bottom of the stairs now, and from above me I heard a familiar
click
. The same click from last night when the doors opened. I stepped back, tilting my head back and looking up through the slats of the railing. It was a single
click
this time, followed by the other sound I’d heard that night—the rustle of fabric. There was a footstep, the double-
click
of a woman’s heeled shoe. Then another.

I took another step back, looking up. The light from above the door to room 216 was out, but I could vaguely see. The door was open, like it had been last night. As I watched, a woman walked out into the corridor.

She was bathed in shadows, but I could see enough. She wore a dark, knee-length, long-sleeved dress. It looked purple, or maybe blue, with a
flower pattern. On her feet she wore low heels with modest closed toes. She was slender, her calves slim beneath the hem of the dress, her arms pale and graceful. Her hair was curly and spilled over her shoulders. She put her hands on the rail and looked down at me, and for a second I could see the dark liner around her almond-shaped eyes, the pale oval of her face. She looked like any one of a million women in family photographs a generation ago, except that she was looking at me, and she was not real.

Her eyes were white-hot, harsh, angry, and incredibly sad. She was looking at me, and
she was not real
.

She opened her mouth to speak.

I made a terrified sound in my throat, and then a hand grabbed my arm—a big, strong,
real
hand. I spun and saw Nick Harkness standing there, staring at me, his blue eyes blazing.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he shouted.

I gaped at him. “I—” I looked up, but the woman was gone. I felt panic and unspeakable relief. “Did you see that?” I said to Nick.

He didn’t answer. His hand was still on my arm. I heard the
snick
of a door opening overhead, then another. Then another. The doors were opening one by one.

“Come on,” Nick said, tugging me toward the parking lot.

“Where are we going?” I managed.

“We’re leaving. I don’t know what’s going on, but I’m not sticking around for it. Are you?”

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