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Authors: Simone St. James

The Sun Down Motel (4 page)

BOOK: The Sun Down Motel
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Do it.
She could. Go to the office door, push it open. Her purse was next to the chair behind the reception desk. Four steps into the office, swoop down and grab the purse, then turn and leave.

She made her feet move. Her sneakers shuffled against the gravel again, and she found herself lifting her feet to move more quietly. As if whatever it was could be fooled into thinking she wasn’t coming. As if whatever it was couldn’t see her already.

Still, she found herself running toward the door, trying to keep her steps light.
In and out. Just in and out. I can do it quick and—

Her foot hit the step to the walkway, and something banged overhead. One of the room doors, banging open. Viv jumped and made a sound in her throat as footsteps pounded the walk above her, short and staccato, a full stomping run. The steps pounded down to the bottom of the L, then turned the corner. A voice rang out into the night air—a child’s.
I want to go in the pool!

Viv twisted the knob to the office door and ducked into the darkness. She stumbled through the office, her breath in whooping gasps, her hands flailing for her purse, her keys. Her eyes stung, and she realized it was because the smell of smoke was so strong, as if someone had been smoking in here for hours.

She had just found her purse in the dark, her hands clutching the bulge of dark purple fake leather, when she heard the voice. A man’s voice, crying out from the other side of the desk.

For God’s sake, call an ambulance!
the voice said, as close as if the man was standing there.
Someone call an ambulance!

Viv dropped her purse, the keys flying out and landing on the floor in a tinkle of metal. She gasped another breath, snatching them up and rising to run to the door. She ran to her Cavalier and wrenched open the driver’s door, launching herself inside. She threw her purse onto the passenger seat, got behind the wheel, and slammed the door.

The motel in front of her windshield was still dark as she turned the key and pumped the gas, her foot hitting the floorboard. Nothing happened; the car didn’t start. She pumped the gas and cranked the key again, a sound of panic in her throat, tears tracking down her cheeks, but still nothing.

She raised her gaze as a figure stepped in front of the car. It was a woman. She was young, thirty maybe, and had dark blond curly hair pulled back from her face and falling down her collarbones, dark eyes, a face of perfect oval. In the shock of the moment, Viv saw everything clearly: the woman’s slim shoulders, her long-sleeved dress in a pattern of large, dark purple flowers, the belt tied in a bow at her waist. She was staring through the windshield at Viv, and her eyes . . . her eyes . . .

Viv opened her mouth to scream, then froze. No sound came out. She inhaled a breath, fixed for a long moment in the woman’s gaze.

The woman wasn’t real, and yet—Viv saw her. Looked at her. And the woman looked back, her eyes blazing with some kind of ungodly emotion that made Viv want to scream and weep and throw up all at once.

She gripped the steering wheel, feeling her gorge rise.

There was a
bang
as the woman’s palms slammed the hood of the car—a real sound, hard and violent. The woman stood with her arms braced, staring through the windshield at Viv. Her mouth moved. Viv could hear no sound, or perhaps there was none. But it wasn’t hard to translate the single word.

Run.

Viv made a strangled sound and jerked the key again. The engine didn’t turn. She twisted the key and stomped the pedal, tears streaming down her face as a frustrated scream came out of her mouth. When she
dared to look up again the woman was gone, but the motel was still dark, the night around her even darker.

The engine was flooded. The car wouldn’t start. She had nowhere to go.

Viv pushed down the locks on her doors and crawled into the back seat, curling into as small a ball as she could, crouching behind the passenger seat so she couldn’t see through the windshield anymore. Like someone escaping the line of fire. She stayed there for a long time.

When the lights went on again and the sign lit up, she was still weeping.

Fell, New York

November 2017

CARLY

After all of my research, I wasn’t sure what I expected at the Sun Down. I’d seen an image of it on Google Earth, and it looked like an everyday roadside place: a strip of rooms, a sign. I knew full well that my family history, and my odd fixation, gave it a halo of importance in my mind. But to anyone else, I figured the Sun Down would be mundane.

The Sun Down was not mundane.

I stepped out onto the gravel lot and looked around. The building was shaped like an L, with doors facing an open-air walkway. It was full dark now, and the blue and yellow sign blinked down on us with its shrill message about cable TV and vacancy. There was a single car in the lot, an old Tercel parked in the shadows of the far corner. There were no other cars parked in front of the motel’s doorways, no sign of anyone at all.

Heather got out of the passenger side and we stood in a breath of silence. No traffic passed on the road behind us. Beyond the motel were only trees and darkness with a half-moon high in the sky. I zipped the collar of my coat up and stared at the building, transfixed, taking in the dim lights on the walkway, the uneven patterns they made, the blank reflections on the motel windows. For a place that was built for people to come to, it
had an air so deserted and quiet I felt for a minute like I was somewhere unearthly, like a graveyard or an Icelandic landscape.

Heather seemed to feel the same, because she stood next to me in silence. She had left the poncho behind and was now swathed in a black puffy coat, practically a parka. I had the idea that Heather was perpetually cold.

“Not creepy,” my roommate finally said, her voice low in the night air. “Not creepy at all.”

My gaze traveled to the
OFFICE
sign, which was lit up. In theory, someone must be inside, but I found I didn’t really want to know. “Let’s look around,” I said instead.

We circled the building, looking at the walkways and the closed doors. The walkways were dated, and the doors still had knobs with keyholes; it was practically the same place my aunt had seen thirty-five years ago. Around the other side of the building we found an empty pool, surrounded by a dilapidated chain-link fence. It was darker here, but even without the extra light I could see that the pool hadn’t just been closed for the season. The edges of the concrete were chipped and cracked, and the entire pool was filled with dirt and old leaves. The pool had closed years, maybe decades, ago and was never going to open again.

I made myself think past the creep factor, think past the clammy cold in my spine, and remember my aunt Viv.
If you were going to disappear from this place, where would you go?

The most obvious answer was the road. Viv had left her car behind, but someone could have shoved her into their car and driven away. But that opened up a new list of questions. How had the person done it? Had they knocked her unconscious? The newspaper reports didn’t mention any blood or sign of a struggle. Had the person lured Viv out of the front office somehow? Begged for emergency help, perhaps, or pretended to need her for something? Had the person planned to take Viv specifically, or was it done on the spur of the moment?

I walked away from the pool and started to circle back around the
front of the motel. I wished now I’d come in daylight, so I could see the landscape better. Maybe in daylight the motel wouldn’t loom quite so weird and sinister.

I was lucky, actually, that the Sun Down was still almost exactly as it was in 1982. If it had been bulldozed and replaced with a strip of big-box stores, I wouldn’t be able to map out where Viv could have gone. What if she hadn’t left by car? Could she have run somewhere on foot?

“Heather,” I said, “do you remember what’s around here? Say, if someone were walking?”

“Oh, God, let me think,” Heather said, following my footsteps. “I think it’s just woods and maybe farmland over that way, behind the motel. You’d have to go miles before you hit anything.”

“What about either way up the road?”

“You’d hit a gas station that way,” Heather said, pointing along Number Six Road in the direction out of Fell, “but again it’s a mile. And I don’t know if it was there in 1982. That way”—she pointed in the direction of Fell, the road we’d just driven up to get here—“there’s a turnoff toward Coopersville two miles up, and past that are a few old houses and a Value Mart before you hit the edge of town.”

“I wonder if I can find a 1982 map,” I said.

“Probably in the city library,” Heather agreed. “Someone died in that pool, by the way.”

I turned and looked at her. “What?”

“Seriously, Carly.” Her pale cheeks were reddened by the cold breeze, her blond hair tousling around its bobby pin. “I mean, come
on
. I’d bet a thousand dollars. Someone died, and they emptied it and closed it off and no one ever went there again.”

I pressed my lips together. “Maybe they closed it because they don’t have enough customers to keep opening it,” I said. “Like, none.”

“Duh,” Heather said, “they have no customers because someone died in the pool.”

I opened my mouth to answer her, but a voice called out, “Hey there! Can I help you?”

We turned and saw a man standing in front of the office. He was watching us, though he had not come off the walkway to get any closer. With the light from the sign over his shoulder, we could only see that he was tall, beefy, and somewhat young.

“Sorry!” I called out to him. “We’re just looking around.”

The man shifted his weight uneasily. “That isn’t a good idea,” he said. “No one is supposed to go near the old pool area.”

“Okay,” I said, trying to sound agreeable. I started toward him, Heather following behind me.

When we got closer, I could see he was about thirty, with dark hair cut close to his scalp. He was wearing a white shirt and a blue polyester uniform vest with dark dress pants. The vest had the words
Sun Down Motel
in yellow over the left breast. “Do you need a room?” he asked us.

“No,” I said. “Sorry, we’re just curious.”

That seemed to confuse him. “About what?”

“I like old motels,” I said, inspired. “You know, these midcentury ones. I think they’re neat. It’s sort of a hobby of mine.”

We stepped onto the walkway. The man’s gaze moved between me and Heather. “I’ve never heard of anyone with a hobby like that,” he said.

I looked at his uniform vest and felt my fascination ramping up. This was the place where Viv had worked for months before she disappeared. She’d likely stood in this exact spot. Had the vests been the same in 1982? I had the feeling of Viv nearby, looking over my shoulder, like I’d had in apartment C. I was so close, with just the thin shimmer of time between me and her. In Fell, that shimmer seemed to barely exist. “Can I see the office?” I asked him.

He looked even more confused, but Heather gave him a polite smile, and he shrugged. “I suppose.”

The office was dated, the walls dull brown, the reception desk large
and heavy. I stared in shocked awe at the big landline telephone with its plastic buttons for various lines, the leather book with handwritten guest entries, the worn office chair, the coat hook in the corner, even the space heater next to the desk that looked like a fire hazard with its yellowed cord. “Jesus. What is it with this place?” I asked myself in a murmur.

“What was that?” the man said.

“Nothing, sorry.” I tried giving him a smile. “Have you worked here long?”

“A few months, I guess.” Now the man’s look had turned a little sullen and curiously blank, as if he was rapidly becoming uninterested in us.

“Do you like it?” Heather asked.

“Not really.” He looked around, like someone might hear. “It’s okay, I guess,” he amended. “We don’t get very many customers.”

I tried to get more information from him, but it got harder and harder. His name was Oliver. Yes, it was very quiet out here. No, he had no idea how old the motel was. No, he didn’t think they’d ever renovated it, but he didn’t really know. Heather wandered to the office door, where she looked out the little window at the world outside while we talked.

By the time I’d given up on Oliver and we were driving back to town, the fascination and excitement had drained out of me, leaving only frustration. “I don’t know what I’m doing,” I admitted to Heather. “I mean, what did I think I would learn, going there, standing in that office? How did I think that would help me?”

“You wanted to feel closer to her,” Heather said, as if the answer were simple. “You wanted to see what her life was like.”

“Well, I guess I accomplished that, since nothing at that motel has changed since 1982.”

We were quiet for a minute, the dark road going by outside our window. Heather bit her lip.

“What?” I said.

“I’m not sure I should show you.”

“Well, now you have to show me. What is it?”

She hesitated, then took a piece of paper from her pocket and unfolded it.

Help wanted. Night shift desk clerk. Start immediately. Please inquire.
A phone number.

“No way,” I said, staring at it in disbelief. “No freaking way. They’re hiring for my aunt’s actual
shift
?”

“I know, it’s weird,” Heather said.

“Weird doesn’t even describe it.” I sighed, running a hand over my ponytail. “Why am I actually tempted to apply? Am I insane?”

“It would be creepy, right? But it would also be kind of cool.”

It was exactly what I was thinking. Spend my nights at the Sun Down? I was the kind of girl who would spend the night in a supposedly haunted house, just to see what would happen. That sounded like my ideal vacation. “Maybe they won’t hire me.”

“Um, I don’t think they’re exactly overrun with options.”

My heart was beating faster. Excitement, or fear? “We could stay in touch through the night. Do regular check-ins.”

“You can bring my Mace with you. I have extra.”

“Heather, my aunt vanished from that same spot. On the night shift.”

“Sure, but that was thirty-five years ago. Do you think whoever did it is still hanging around? He might not still be alive, and if he is, he’s old now.”

“I’m not supposed to be here very long. Yet I think I want to do this. I want to stay. Why?”

“Because you’re a Fell girl,” Heather said with a nod. “I called it when I met you.”

“This place is dark.”

“Some of us like the dark. It’s what we know.”

I made a turn next to an old theater called the Royal, which had boarded-up windows. The marquee still advertised a showing of
You’ve Got Mail
. “I could work a few shifts, find what there is to find, and bail,” I said. “I can do it for a few nights, right? Do whatever Viv did. See things through her eyes.”

“You’ve come this far,” she said. “Are you going to turn around now and go back to college? It doesn’t seem right, leaving your aunt in the lurch like that.”

Viv. Whatever I was afraid of, Viv had gone through worse. She’d gone through something awful, something terrifying, and in all this time, no one had ever solved it. No one had even found her body. I was the only one to do it. To do anything.

Which meant I needed to work nights at the Sun Down Motel.

“Okay,” I said. “I’ll do it. What could possibly go wrong?”

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