Authors: Simone St. James
She was cornered. “Vivian,” she said, unwilling to ask him to call her Viv.
“Vivian,” the salesman said. He tipped an invisible hat to her, then picked up his cases and left the room.
Viv stood in the silence, her temples pounding. When he had gone she peeked out the office window, watched him climb the stairs to the upper level.
Helen’s car was gone, and so was the car in the back of the parking lot. Damn it—she’d missed it. The only piece of excitement promised for the rest of the night.
She walked back to the desk and looked at the guest register. The salesman had written his name in big, bold letters:
She flipped back in the book, remembering back to the night with the smoke and the voices. She paged back and back until she saw that same bold, black handwriting.
, he’d written.
No one here tells the truth
, Viv thought.
Fell, New York
Nick had a black pickup truck, a big machine that made a lot of noise and smelled a little of aftershave. Even in my panicked, half-delirious state, the testosterone was like a bong hit. I crouched in the huge leather-upholstered seat as we roared off down Number Six Road. It was comforting and unsettling at the same time. I wasn’t alone anymore. There was a man taking care of things now. And yet.
We pulled into the parking lot of an all-night Denny’s. I had no idea what direction we’d driven or how long we’d traveled. It felt like minutes and hours at the same time. “Wait here,” Nick said, and got out.
I watched him walk toward the restaurant. My hands were shaking, my back cold with half-dried sweat. He moved with an ease that made my stomach swirl and made me tense at the same time.
You don’t know this man
, my hopped-up instincts told me.
The last time you saw him, he had a gun. His father is a murderer. You’re alone in his car in the middle of the night.
I’d left my messenger bag at the motel, with my cell phone and the Mace Heather had given me. I put my hand on the passenger door handle, pressing it experimentally. Of course it gave. I wasn’t locked in. There was no such thing as locking someone in your truck.
Then again, there was no such thing as little boys who vanished or the woman in 216.
I gulped breaths in the quiet of the truck, trying not to let panic overtake me. I could get out, go ask for help in the restaurant. But what kind of help did I want? The police? Did I just want to get out of here? To go home?
Where was home? In that moment, I couldn’t even picture Illinois. I had no idea what it looked like. The only thing I could picture was my apartment with Heather and the Sun Down Motel. Should I call Heather? Would it panic her if I did?
The driver’s door cracked open and I jumped. I hadn’t even seen Nick come back. He swung into the truck, but he didn’t touch the ignition. Instead he handed me a take-out cup and kept one for himself.
I inhaled. It was hot chocolate. I peeked through the gap in the lid and saw there was whipped cream on the top of the drink. I stared for a second, so surprised I didn’t even sip it.
“I didn’t know if you liked coffee,” Nick said. I turned to see him watching me stare at my drink. “I forgot to ask. I figured chocolate was a safe bet.”
“Thank you,” I said, my voice rusty.
He looked at me for another long minute. The harsh light from the restaurant was dimmed by distance and the shadows of the truck’s cab. It made his face look half lit, half sliced with darkness. It was hard to figure out how old he was in this light, even though I knew his age from the newspaper stories—he was twenty-nine. He looked handsome and jaded and a little bit crazy. I probably looked crazy myself, and I’d bet the light glinting off my glasses wasn’t very flattering.
“What’s your name?” he asked, his voice harsh.
I blinked, surprised. I realized I’d never told him. Well, if he was a serial-killer-slash-date-rapist who specialized in women who had just seen ghosts, it was too late now. I’d just throw my hot drink at him and run. “Carly,” I said, sipping my chocolate. It was heavenly, the whipped cream melting into the hot drink and making it teeth-achingly sweet.
“Carly,” Nick said, “tell me you just saw what I saw.”
“I saw it,” I said. “I saw that little boy. And I saw that . . . woman.” She was a woman, yet she wasn’t. She was something else.
“Jesus.” He rubbed a hand over his face, and I heard the rasp of his beard. He was wearing a dark blue plaid flannel shirt over a T-shirt, and once again no jacket. I realized he must have run straight out of his room when the commotion started.
“You’ve been staying at the motel for weeks,” I said. “Has anything like that happened before?”
“No.” He dropped his hand, stared ahead out the windshield. “There are noises. Always noises, even when the place is empty. There are strange smells, and the door thing. You saw what the doors do. That happens a lot. The lights go on and off. And one night, that woman was on my bed. Sitting on the foot of the bed. I woke up and she was just there, looking at me. The bed didn’t sag or anything—she had no weight. She was there, and then I blinked and she was gone. I could smell her perfume, and something bad. Coppery, like blood. That was about two weeks ago.”
My heart was thumping again just listening. I couldn’t imagine being so close to that woman, so close to whatever she was. “And you stayed?” I asked him, incredulous. “After you saw that, you still stayed?”
“I know. But I have my reasons.”
“Your reasons are crazy, whatever they are,” I said.
But he shook his head. “They’re not.” His voice had the slightest ragged edge to it—you could only hear it if you were listening closely. Whatever his reasons were, he believed in them. “You shouldn’t talk about crazy,” he said. “You know damn well we’re going back there as soon as we finish this drink.”
I opened my mouth, the words ready to go.
No way. I’m never going back there again. Forget about my wallet and all my stuff, and forget about the job. Forget about Viv. No freaking way.
But I didn’t say any of it, because he was right. Whatever had gone on at the Sun Down, we’d run away in the middle of it. And damn it, I wanted to know how it had ended.
I wanted to know what the Sun Down looked like right now. Were the ghosts gone?
I tilted my cup and swallowed down some hot chocolate. The whipped cream was like soft, sweet comfort in my throat. I couldn’t reconcile the man next to me with whipped cream. I wiped my mouth and said, “I Googled you.”
He didn’t speak, but I felt him tense in the air between us.
“I had to,” I said. “You’re staying at the motel where I work. At night. You stay off the books. And you had a gun on your bedside table.”
“I keep that for protection.” He opened his free hand. “Some good it did. I didn’t even grab it when I left the room. I don’t have it right now.” He glanced at me. “I’ve been gone a long time. You don’t know what it’s like to have unresolved shit in your past, shit that weighs you down and draws you back to a certain place.”
Oh, he was wrong. So wrong.
“I do,” he continued. “I guess you know what happened to me. Some people can get past something like that, eventually move on. I never could. I’ve been an open wound all these years. Drugs, alcohol—nothing helped. So I thought I’d come back, see this place as a grown man. Face my past. I checked into the Sun Down for one night—one night. And do you know what happened?”
“I slept.” He gave me half a smile, and for a second I could see the high school kid I’d seen in the newspaper stories, the kid who had been good-looking and decent and ready to take life on. “I mean, I really
. It’s been years since that happened. I’m a night person. I’ve had insomnia for so long I don’t even remember when it started. And I checked into the Sun Down and slept for eleven straight hours. Just like that.” He snapped his fingers, the sound loud in the truck.
“In Fell, though?” I asked. “The place where it all happened? It’s the only place you can sleep?”
“I can’t explain it, either.” He looked out the window. “Eli is buried
here. My mother is buried here. I sure as hell never made a home anywhere else. Maybe this fucked-up place is as close to home as I’m ever going to get.”
I was quiet, thinking about Heather saying,
Some of us like the dark. It’s what we know.
“So I stayed,” Nick said. “I paid Chris a stack of money, and he left me alone once he saw I wasn’t dealing or doing any other shit. Just sleeping. Every time I lie down in that place, day or night, I fall asleep. You want to know what I’ve been doing for most of the past month? Catching up on a decade’s worth of sleep.”
“And when you woke up one night, the woman was on your bed.”
“She was,” Nick agreed. “And after that, I fell asleep again. It’s a weird thing to do, but I did. That’s what that place does to me, and I’ll take it. I don’t care about sounds or smells or strange women. I’m going back to the Sun Down tonight, because it’s the only place I’ve found in the world where I can sleep.”
I bit my lip. In the upside-down night world, it made a crazy kind of sense. “I’m not leaving, either,” I said. “I do have shit from my past that brings me here, as it happens. My aunt disappeared from the Sun Down in 1982, and no one ever found her body. I want to know what happened to her. That’s why I’m there.”
It was a testament to the strangeness of the night that Nick didn’t seem fazed. “Was she working there when she disappeared? Like you?”
“Yes. I came to Fell to find out what happened to her, because it looks like no one else ever bothered to. And they had this job available at the motel. So I took it.”
He nodded, like that wasn’t weird. “Was that her? In the dress?”
I shook my head. I was ninety-nine percent sure, but it had happened so fast. “I don’t think so. The clothes were all wrong, and her hair was the wrong color and style. I don’t think that was Viv.”
“I saw the dress when she was in my room,” Nick said. “It’s like a 1970s thing. At least, that’s what it looks like to me. It makes her too old to be
your aunt.” A muscle in his jaw twitched. “But she’s someone. That much I know for sure. She’s
I stared ahead of me out the windshield at the ugly parking lot. I had seen things tonight that everyone I knew would say were impossible. But in the dark cab of this truck, they were real. Not only real, but understandable. Possibly even solvable. My eyes burned and my chest was tight. I felt like the night wouldn’t be long enough, that I wouldn’t have enough hours. That I certainly wouldn’t sleep. I felt like I’d never be tired again.
“We can start with the dress,” I said. “We can find out what era dresses like that are from. We can look at the local newspaper archives. She died, we know that much. Right? There aren’t ghosts of living people.” I glanced at him.
Nick was watching me. He took a sip of coffee and shrugged. “I have no idea, but my guess is no.”
“So she died in the seventies, maybe. At the motel. That would be in the news. If she was local, there might be family still here. We could talk to them.” I glanced at him again. “I could talk to them if you don’t want to. The boy, too—he must have died at the motel. I didn’t see what he was wearing, but if a kid died at the Sun Down, it must have been in the news.”
“I thought you wanted to look for your aunt.” Nick’s voice was almost gentle.
Acid burned down my throat. “I do,” I said. “That’s what this is. I’m looking for her. Because I think . . .” I took a breath. “I think that whatever got the woman and the boy could have gotten Viv that night back in 1982. Which means she could be there with them.” I leaned back against the passenger seat. My eyes were still burning, but they were dry. “I might see her next,” I said. There was no way around it, but it was hard to contemplate: seeing the face from the newspaper clippings, those pretty eyes and that wide smile, coming out of one of the doors at the Sun Down. Hearing Viv’s steps like I’d heard the woman’s. Seeing her sitting on the end of a bed.
The thought was terrifying. And yet.
This was what I was here for, wasn’t it?
I was in the right place. And now it was time to go back to it.
It wasn’t until we pulled into the parking lot that I remembered about the motel’s other guest. James March, whose name was written in the guest book.
The lights were back on at the Sun Down, including the sign, sending its message out over Number Six Road. The corridor lights were back on, feeble and pale in the darkness. My phone said it was 1:23 a.m.
Nick and I got out of the truck and stood in the parking lot. The Sun Down looked like any normal motel, but we both knew it wasn’t. It was just . . . sleeping, maybe. Napping.
Come on in
, the building seemed to say with its jagged up-and-down lights, its blue and yellow neon cheeriness.
Get some sleep. Take it easy until the sun comes up again. And if you see someone sitting at the end of your bed, pay them no mind. That’s just one of my secrets. And I’m not going to tell.
The rooms were all dark. The sign over the office door was lit, and the light was back on inside, but that was the only light in the building.
“Room one-oh-three,” I said to Nick.
He came around the truck, hunched a little into his flannel shirt. I remembered again that he didn’t have a coat. “What?” he said to me.
“There’s a guest in room one-oh-three,” I told him. “A man. Or at least there was before all the commotion started.”
Nick followed my gaze toward room 103, which was dark like the others. “Hmm,” he said, and strode across the parking lot toward the door.
“We shouldn’t disturb him in the middle of the night,” I said, hurrying to follow him.
“If he heard any of that shit earlier, he’s already been disturbed,” Nick replied.
“Do you think he slept through it?” I asked.
“I have no idea,” Nick said. “I’ll ask him.”
But there was no answer to a knock on the door to the room. There was no light on, either. Instead, when Nick pounded harder on the door, it drifted open, as if it had been barely latched shut.
I looked at Nick as we stood in the dark, open doorway. He frowned at me, said, “Stay here,” and slowly walked inside. “Hello?” I heard him call.
A minute later, he came out again. “There’s no one in there. It doesn’t look like anyone’s been there, either. The bed isn’t touched, and neither is anything else.”
“His name is in the register,” I said. “Maybe he left.”
Nick came out to the corridor and looked over the parking lot, which held only my car and his truck. “What car was he driving?”
I thought back. There was a car. There had to have been a car. But I remembered pulling up to the motel office, finding it empty with the lights on. I’d thought that was strange at the time. I’d looked out to the parking lot and seen my own car, plus Nick’s truck. Like I was seeing right now.