Read The Sun Down Motel Online

Authors: Simone St. James

The Sun Down Motel (2 page)

Fell, New York

November 2017

CARLY

This place was unfamiliar.

I opened my eyes and stared into the darkness, panicked. Strange bed, strange light through the window, strange room. I had a minute of free fall, frightening and exhilarating at the same time.

Then I remembered: I was in Fell, New York.

My name was Carly Kirk, I was twenty years old, and I wasn’t supposed to be here.

I checked my phone on the nightstand; it was four o’clock in the morning, only the light from streetlamps and the twenty-four-hour Denny’s shining through the sheer drapes on the hotel room window and making a hazy square on the wall.

I wasn’t getting back to sleep now. I swung my legs over the side of the bed and picked up my glasses from the nightstand, putting them on. I’d driven from Illinois yesterday, a long drive that left me tired enough to sleep like the dead in this bland chain hotel in downtown Fell.

It wasn’t that impressive a place; Google Earth had told me that much. Downtown was a grid of cafés, laundromats, junky antique stores, apartment rental buildings, and used-book stores, nestled reverently around a grocery store and a CVS. The street I was on, with the chain hotel and
the Denny’s, passed straight through town, as if a lot of people got to Fell and simply kept driving without making the turnoff into the rest of the town. The
WELCOME TO FELL
sign I’d passed last night had been vandalized by a wit who had used spray paint to add the words
TURN BACK
.

I didn’t turn back.

With my glasses on, I picked up my phone again and scrolled through the emails and texts that had come in while I slept.

The first email was from my family’s lawyer.
The remainder of funds has been deposited into your account. Please see breakdown attached.

I flipped past it without reading the rest, without opening the attachment. I didn’t need to see it: I already knew I’d inherited some of Mom’s money, split with my brother, Graham. I knew it wasn’t riches, but it was enough to keep me in food and shelter for a little while. I didn’t want numbers, and I couldn’t look at them. Losing your mother to cancer—she was only fifty-one—made things like money look petty and stupid.

In fact, it made you rethink everything in your life. Which in my crazy way, after fourteen months in a fog of grief, I was doing. And I couldn’t stop.

There was a string of texts from Graham.
What do you think you’re doing, Carly? Leaving college? For how long? You think you can keep up? Whatever. If all that tuition is down the drain, you’re on your own. You know that, right? Whatever you’re doing, good luck with it. Try not to get killed.

I hit Reply and typed,
Hey, drama queen. It’s only for a few days, and I’m acing everything. This is just a side trip, because I’m curious. So sue me. I’ll be fine. No plans to get killed, but thanks for checking.

Actually, I was hoping to be here for longer than a few days. Since losing Mom, staying in college for my business degree seemed pointless. When I’d started college, I’d thought I had all the time in the world to figure out what I wanted to do. But Mom’s death showed me that life wasn’t as long as you thought it was. And I had questions I wanted answers to. It was time to find them.

Hailey, Graham’s fiancée, had sent me her own text.
Hey! You OK??
Worried about you. I’m here to talk if you want. Maybe you need another grief counselor? I can find you one! OK? XO!

God, she was so
nice
. I’d already done grief counseling. Therapy. Spirit circles. Yoga. Meditation. Self-care. In doing all of that, what I’d discovered was that I didn’t need another therapy session right now. What I really needed, at long last, was answers.

I put down my phone and opened my laptop, tapping it awake. I opened the file on my desktop, scrolling through it. I picked out a scan of a newspaper from 1982, with the headline
POLICE SEARCHING FOR MISSING LOCAL WOMAN
. Beneath the headline was a photo of a young woman, clipped from a snapshot. She was beautiful, vivacious, smiling at the camera, her hair teased, her bangs sprayed in place up from her forehead as the rest of her hair hung down in a classic eighties look. Her skin was clear and her eyes sparkled, even in black and white. The caption below the photo said:
Twenty-year-old Vivian Delaney has not been seen since the night of November 29. Anyone who has seen her is asked to call the police.

This.
This
was the answer I needed.

I’d been a nerd all my life, my nose buried in a book. Except that once I graduated from reading
The Black Stallion
, the books I read were the dark kind—about scary things like disappearances and murders, especially the true ones. While other kids read J. K. Rowling, I read Stephen King. While other kids did history reports about the Civil War, I read about Lizzie Borden. The report I wrote about that one—complete with details about exactly where the axe hit Lizzie’s father and stepmother—got my teacher to call my mother with concern.
Is Carly all right?
My mother had brushed it off, because by then she knew how dark her daughter was.
She’s fine. She just likes to read about murder, that’s all.

What my mother didn’t mention—what she hated to talk about at all—was that I came by it naturally. There was an unsolved murder in my family, and I’d been obsessed with it for as long as I could remember.

I looked at the newspaper clipping again. Viv Delaney, the girl in the
photograph, was my mother’s sister. In 1982, she disappeared while working the night shift at the Sun Down Motel and was never found.

It was the huge, gaping hole in my family, the thing that everyone knew about but no one spoke of. Viv’s disappearance was a loss like a missing tooth.
Never ask your mother about that
, my father told me the year before he left us all for good.
It upsets her.
Even my brother, the eternal pain in the ass, was sensitive about it.
Mom’s sister was killed
, he told me.
Someone took her and murdered her, like that guy with the hook. It creeps me out. No wonder Mom doesn’t talk about it.

Thirty-five years my aunt Viv had been missing. My grandparents—Mom and Viv’s parents—were dead. There were no pictures of Viv in our house, no mementos of her. The year before Mom died, when I was home for the summer, I’d found a story online and seen Viv’s face for the first time. I’d thought maybe enough time had passed. I’d printed the clipping out and gone downstairs to show it to her. “Look what I found,” I said.

Mom was sitting on the sofa in the living room, watching TV after dinner. She took the clipping from me and read it. Then she stared at it for a long time, her gaze fixed on the photograph.

When she looked back up at me, she had a strange look on her face that I’d never seen before and would never see again. Pain, maybe. Exhaustion, and some kind of old, rotted-over, carved-out fear. In that moment I had no idea that she had cancer, that I would lose her within a year. Maybe she knew then and didn’t tell me, but I didn’t think so. That look on her face, that fear, was all about Vivian.

Her voice, when she finally spoke, was flat, without inflection. “Vivian is dead,” she said. She put down the clipping and got up and left the room.

I never asked Mom about it again.

•   •   •

It was only after Mom died that I got mad. Not at Mom, really—she was a teenager when Viv disappeared, and there wasn’t much she could have done. But what about everyone else? The cops? The locals? Viv’s parents?
Why hadn’t there been a statewide search? Why had Viv been allowed to vanish into nothingness with barely a ripple?

The first person I asked was Graham, who was older and remembered more than I did. “Grandma and Granddad were divorced by then,” Graham said. “When Viv disappeared, Grandma was a single mother.”

“So? That meant she didn’t look for her daughter? Granddad, either?”

Graham shrugged. “Grandma didn’t have much money. And Mom told me that she and Viv used to fight all the time. They didn’t get along at all.”

I’d stared at him, shocked. We were sitting in my mother’s rental apartment, in the middle of boxing up her things. We were taking a break and eating takeout. “Mom told you that? She never told me that.”

My brother shrugged again, leaning back on a box and scrolling through his phone. “They didn’t have the Internet back then, or DNA. If you wanted to find a missing person, you had to get in your car and go driving around looking for them. Grandma couldn’t take time off work and go to Fell. And Granddad was already remarried. I don’t think he cared about any of them all that much.”

It was true. Mom hadn’t had a good relationship with her father, who had left their family to sink or swim. She hadn’t even gone to his funeral. “What about the cops, though?” I said.

Graham put his phone down briefly and thought it over. “Well, Viv had already left home, and she was twenty,” he said. “I guess they thought she’d just taken off somewhere.” He looked at me. “You’re really into this, aren’t you?”

“Yes, I’m really into this. They didn’t even find a body. It isn’t 1982 anymore. We have the Internet and DNA now. Maybe something can be done.”

“By you?”

Yes, by me. There didn’t seem to be anyone else. And now that Mom was gone, I could ask all the questions I wanted without hurting her
feelings. Mom had taken all of her memories of Viv with her when she died, and I’d never hear them. My anger at that was helpless, something that the therapists and counselors said I needed to work through. But my anger at everyone else, my outrage that my aunt’s likely abduction and death were written off as just something that happened—I could work through that by coming to Fell and getting my own answers.

I clicked the other scanned article I had on my computer. It was headlined simply
MISSING GIRL STILL NOT FOUND
. The details were sketchy: Viv was twenty; she had been in Fell for three months; she worked at the Sun Down Motel on the night shift. She’d gone to work and disappeared sometime in the middle of her shift, leaving behind her car, her purse, and her belongings. Her roommate, a girl named Jenny Summers, said Viv was “a nice person, easy to get along with.” She was also described—by who was not cited—as “pretty and vivacious.” She had no boyfriend that anyone knew of. She was not into drugs, alcohol, or prostitution that anyone could tell. Her mother—my grandmother—was quoted as being “worried sick.”

She was a beautiful girl, gone.

On foot. Without any money.

Vivian is dead.

Viv’s case hadn’t received national or even statewide media attention. The local Fell newspapers weren’t digitized—they were still physically archived in the Fell library. When I started digging, all I found were true-crime blogs and Reddit threads by armchair detectives. None of the blogs or threads were about Vivian, but a lot of them were about Fell. Because Fell, it turned out, had more than one unsolved murder. For such a small place, it was a true-crime buff’s paradise.

The second article was in Mom’s belongings. I’d found it when I’d gone through her dresser after she died, tucked in an envelope in the back of a drawer. The envelope was white, crisp, brand-new. Written on the back, in Mom’s lovely handwriting, was:
27 Greville Street, apartment C.

Viv’s address, maybe? The piece of newsprint inside the envelope
was nearly disintegrating, so I’d scanned it and added it to the first one I found.

Vivian is dead.

Mom had wanted no memories of her sister, no discussion of her, and yet she’d kept this article for thirty-five years, along with the address. She’d even put it in a new envelope sometime recently, recopied the address, which meant she’d at least pulled the article out of the old envelope, maybe read it again.

Viv was real. She wasn’t a spooky tale or a ghost story. She had been real, she had been Mom’s sister—and somehow, looking at that crisp white envelope, I knew she had mattered to Mom, a lot, in a way I had lost my chance to understand.

This was all I had: two newspaper articles and a memory of grief. Except now I had more than that. I had a little money and I had a very clear map from Illinois to Fell, New York. I had an address for Viv’s apartment, maybe, and the Sun Down Motel. I had no boyfriend and a college career I had no passion for. I had a car and so few belongings that they fit into the back seat. I was twenty, and I still hadn’t started my life yet. Just like Viv hadn’t.

So I’d left school—Graham really was blowing this out of proportion—and got in my car for a road trip. And here I was. I’d look around town and dig up the local articles in the library. I’d go see the Sun Down for myself, since my Internet search said it was still in business. Maybe someone who lived here had known Viv, remembered her, could tell me about her. Maybe I could make her more than a fading piece of newsprint hidden in my mother’s drawer. Her disappearance was the big mystery of my family—I wanted to see it firsthand, and all it would cost was a few days out of school.

Try not to get killed.
That was my big brother, trying to scare me. It wasn’t going to work. I didn’t scare easily.

Still, I closed my laptop and tried not to think about someone hurting the girl I’d seen in the photo, someone grabbing her, taking her
somewhere, doing something to her, killing her. Dumping her somewhere lonely, where maybe she still was. Maybe she was only bones now. Maybe that person, whoever they were, was dead now, or in prison. Maybe they weren’t.

Vivian is dead.

It wasn’t fair that Vivian was forgotten, reduced to a few pieces of newsprint and nothing else. It wasn’t fair that Mom had died and taken her memories and her grief with her. It wasn’t fair that Viv didn’t matter to anyone but me.

I was in Fell. I didn’t belong here. I had no idea what I was doing.

And still I waited, without sleeping, for the sun to come up again.

Fell, New York

August 1982

VIV

Coming here was an accident. A detour sent her bus into Pennsylvania, and from there she hitched, trying to save cash. The first ride was only going to Binghamton. The second ride told her he was going to New York, but an hour later she realized he was driving the wrong way.

“We’re not going to New York,” Viv said to the man. “We’re driving upstate.”

“Well,” the man said. He was in his forties, wearing a pale yellow collared shirt and dress pants. He was clean-shaven and wore rimless glasses. “You should have been more clear. When you said New York, I thought you meant upstate.”

She’d been clear. She knew she had. She looked out the window at the setting sun, wondering where he was taking her, her heart starting to accelerate in panic. She didn’t want to be rude. Maybe she should be nice about it. “It’s okay,” she said. “You can let me out here.”

“Don’t be silly,” the man said. “I’ll bring you to Rochester, where I can at least get you a meal. You can get a bus from there.”

Viv gave him a smile, like he was doing her a favor, driving her away from where she wanted to be. “Oh, you don’t need to do that.”

“Sure I do.”

They were on a two-lane stretch of road, and she saw the sign for a motel ahead. “I need to stop for the night anyway,” she said. “I’ll just stay here.”

“That place? Looks sketchy to me.”

“I’m sure it’s fine.” When he didn’t speak, she said, “I don’t mean to be a bother.”

Her throat went dry as the man pulled over. She thought she might throw up. She couldn’t have said what she was afraid of, what made her so relieved that he did as she asked.
What else would he have done?
she chided herself. He was probably a nice man and she was being ridiculous. It came from being on the road alone.

Still, once he stopped the car she opened the door, putting one foot on the roadside gravel. Only then did she turn and get her bag from the back seat. The entire time she had her back to him, she held her breath.

When she had finished wrestling the bag into her lap, she felt something warm on her thigh. She looked down and saw the man’s hand resting there.

“You don’t have to,” he said.

Viv’s mind went blank. She mumbled something, pulled out from under his hand, got out of the car, and slammed the door. The only words she could manage—spoken as the car pulled away, when the man couldn’t hear her—were “Thank you” and “Sorry.” She didn’t know why she said them. She only knew that she stood at the side of an empty road, in front of an empty motel, her heart pounding so hard it felt like it was squeezing her chest.

Back in Grisham, Illinois, Viv was the problem daughter. After her parents’ divorce five years earlier, she couldn’t seem to do anything right. While her younger sister obeyed the rules, Viv did everything she wasn’t supposed to: skipping school, staying out late, lying to her mother, cheating on tests. She didn’t even know why she did it; she didn’t want to do half of those things. It sometimes felt like she was in someone else’s body, one that was angry and exhausted in turns.

But she did all the things that made her bad, that made her mother furious and embarrassed. One night, after she’d been caught coming home at two in the morning, her panicked mother had nearly slapped her.
You think you’re so damned smart
, her mother had shouted in her face.
What would you do if you ever saw real trouble?

Now, standing on the side of a lonely road far from home, with the man’s taillights vanishing in the distance, those words came back.
What would you do if you ever saw real trouble?

The August sky was turning red, the lowering sun stinging her eyes. She wore a sleeveless turquoise top, jeans with a white and silver belt, and tennis shoes. She hefted her bag on her shoulder and looked up at the motel sign. It was blue and yellow, the words
SUN DOWN
in the classic old-style kind of letters you saw from the fifties and sixties. Underneath that were neon letters that probably lit up at night:
VACANCY. CABLE TV!

Behind the sign was a motel laid out in an L shape, the main thrust leading away from the road, the foot of the L running parallel to it. It had an overhang and a concrete walkway, the room doors lined up in the open air. An unremarkable place decorated in dark brown and dirty cream, the kind of place people drove by unless they were desperate to sleep. At the joint of the L was a set of stairs leading to the upper level. There was only one car in the parking lot, parked next to the door nearest the road that said
OFFICE
.

Viv wiped her forehead. The adrenaline spike from getting away from the man in the car was fading, and she was tired, her back and shoulders aching. Sweat dampened her armpits.

She had twenty dollars or so—all the cash she had left. She had a bank account with savings from her job back home at the popcorn stand at the drive-in, plus her small earnings from modeling for a local catalog. She’d stood in front of a camera for an afternoon wearing high-waisted acid-wash jeans and a bright purple button-down blouse, placing her fingertips into the pockets of the jeans and smiling.

Her entire savings totaled four hundred eighty-five dollars. It was
supposed to be New York money, the money that would send her to her new life. She wasn’t supposed to spend it before she even got anywhere. Yet like everything else about this trip so far, she seemed to have miscalculated.

This didn’t look like an expensive place. Maybe twenty dollars would get her a bed and a shower. If not, maybe there was a way to sneak into one of the rooms. It didn’t look like anyone would see.

Viv approached the office door and put her hand on the cold doorknob. Somewhere far off in the trees, a bird cried. There was no traffic on the road.
If the guy on the other side of this door looks like Norman Bates
, she told herself,
I’m turning around and running
. She took a deep breath and swung the door open.

The man inside did not look like Norman Bates—it wasn’t a man at all. It was a woman sitting on a chair behind an old desk. She was about thirty, lean and vital, with brown hair in a ponytail and a face that had hard lines. She was wearing a baggy gray sweatshirt, loose-fit jeans, and heavy brown boots, which Viv could see because she had them propped right up on the desk. She was reading a magazine but looked up when the door opened.

“Help you?” the woman said without moving her feet off the desk.

Viv put her shoulders back and gave the woman her catalog-model smile. “Hi,” she said. “I’d like a room, but I only have twenty dollars in cash. How much is it, please?”

“Usually thirty,” the woman said without missing a beat or changing her pose. The magazine was still at chin height. “But I’m the owner and there’s no one else here, so I’m not going to turn down twenty bucks.”

Feeling a rush of triumph, Viv put her twenty-dollar bill down on the desk. And waited.

The woman still didn’t move. She didn’t put down her magazine, and she didn’t take the twenty. Instead her gaze moved over Viv. “You passing through, honey?” she said.

It seemed a safe enough question. “Yes.”

“Is that so? I didn’t hear a car.”

Viv shrugged, trying for vacant and harmless. Most people fell for it.

The woman finally closed the magazine and put it on her jean-clad lap. “Were you hitching on Number Six?”

“Number Six?” Viv said, confused.

“Number Six Road.” The woman’s eyebrows lowered. “If I was your mother, I would tan your hide. Hitching on that road is dangerous for lone girls.”

“I didn’t. My ride just dropped me off here. He picked me up outside Binghamton. I was heading for New York.”

“Well, honey, this isn’t New York. This is Fell. You’re going the wrong way.”

“I know.” Viv wished the woman would just give her a room. She needed to put her heavy bag down. She needed a shower. She needed something to eat, though without the twenty she didn’t know how she would pay for it. She pointed to the big book sitting open on the desk, obviously a guest registry. “Should I write my name in there?” Then, her suburban Illinois good-girl training coming through: “I can pay you the thirty if I can just get to a bank tomorrow. But they’re all closed now.”

The woman snorted. She tossed the magazine—Viv saw that it was
People
, with Tom Selleck on the cover—onto the desk and finally swung her feet down. “I have a better idea,” she said. “My night guy just quit. Cover the desk tonight and keep your twenty bucks.”

“Cover the desk?”

“Sit here, answer the phone. If someone comes in, take their money and give them a key. Keys are here.” She opened the desk drawer at her right hand. “Have them sign the book. That’s it. You think you can do that?”

“You don’t have anyone else to do it?”

“I just said my guy quit, didn’t I? I’m the owner, so I should know. Either you sit at this desk all night or I do. I already know which one I’d rather it be.”

Viv blew out a breath. The work itself didn’t bother her; she’d worked plenty of service jobs back in Illinois. But the idea of staying awake all night didn’t sound very fun.

Still, if she did it she held on to her twenty. Which meant she could eat something.

She glanced around the office, looking for a signal that there was a catch, but all she saw was bland walls, a desk, a few shelves, and the window on the office door. There was the muffled sound of a car going by on the road, and the sky was getting darker. Surprisingly, Viv smelled the faint tang of cigarette smoke from somewhere. It was sharp and burning, not the old-smoke smell that could come from the woman’s clothes. Someone was smoking a cigarette nearby.

For some reason, that made her feel a little better. There was obviously
someone
in this place, even if she couldn’t see them.

“Sure,” she told the woman. “I’ll work the night shift.”

“Good,” the woman said, opening the desk drawer and tossing a key on the desk. “Room one-oh-four is yours. Wash up, have a nap, and come see me at eleven. What’s your name?”

That smell of smoke again, like whoever it was had just taken a drag and exhaled. “Vivian Delaney. Viv.”

“Well, Viv,” the woman said, “I’m Janice. This is the Sun Down. Looks like you’ve found yourself somewhere to stay.”

“Thank you,” Viv said, but Janice had already gone back to Tom Selleck, putting her boots on the desk again.

She picked up the key and her twenty and left, pushing open the office door and stepping onto the walkway. She expected to see the smoker somewhere out here, maybe a guest having a smoke in the evening air, but there was no one. She walked out onto the gravel lot, turned in a circle, looking. In the lowering light of dusk the motel looked shuttered, no light coming from any of the rooms. The trees behind the place made a hushing sound in the wind. There was the soft sound of a shoe scraping on the gravel in the unlit corner of the lot.

“Hello?” Viv called, thinking of the man who’d put his hand on her leg.

Nothing.

She stood in the lowering darkness, listening to the wind and her own breathing.

Then she went to room 104, took a hot shower, and lay on the bed, wrapped in a towel, staring at the blank ceiling, feeling the rough comforter against the skin of her shoulders. She listened for the sounds you usually heard in hotels—footsteps coming and going, strangers’ voices passing outside your door. Human sounds. There were none. There was no sound at all.

What kind of motel was this? If it was this deserted, how did it stay open? And why did they need a night clerk at all? At the movie theater, the manager had sent everyone home at ten because he didn’t want to pay them after that.

She wasn’t getting paid, not exactly. But it would still be easier for Janice to turn the lights out, lock the office door, and go home instead of trying to find someone to sit there all night.

Her feet ached, and her body relaxed slowly into the bed. Lonely or not, this was still better than hitching on that dark highway, hoping for another stranger to pick her up. She started to hope there was a vending machine somewhere in the Sun Down, preferably one with a Snickers bar in it.

The man in the yellow collared shirt had put his hand on her thigh like it belonged, like they had an agreement because she was in his car. He’d curled his fingers gently toward the inside of her thigh before she pulled away. She felt that jolt in her gut again, the fear. She’d never felt fear like that before. Anger, yes. And she’d slept a lot since her parents’ divorce, sometimes until one or two in the afternoon, another thing that made her mother yell at her.

But the fear she’d felt today had been deep and sudden, almost like a numbing blow. For the first time in her life, it occurred to her how
erasable she was. How it could all be over in an instant. Vivian Delaney could vanish. She would simply be gone.

I’m afraid
, she thought.

Then:
This seems like the right place for it.

She was asleep before she could think anything else.

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