Read The Sun Down Motel Online
Authors: Simone St. James
Fell, New York
Greville Street was barely three blocks long, a street of low-rise apartments ending in a dead end covered by a warped chain-link fence. The buildings looked like they were made from children’s blocks stacked on angles, a boxy style in concrete and vinyl siding that had gone out of favor sometime around 1971. I drove slowly past the short, squat driveways to each building, looking for number twenty-seven.
I parked next to a dusky gray Volvo with a rounded rear and balding tires, feeling a little like a time traveler. I’d come here to see where my aunt had lived, maybe get a glimpse into what her life had been, but I hadn’t expected to stand on a street that looked almost unchanged from 1982. If the address was correct, she’d stood exactly where I did now, looking at the same landscape.
There was no one around except for two kids riding bikes up and down the street, ringing the bells on their handlebars and laughing. I walked to the front door of number twenty-seven and found that it was unlocked, so I went in.
There was a short hallway lined with tenants’ mailboxes and a set of stairs. The mailbox to apartment C said
. I had poked my head
around the edge of the stairwell, looking up and wondering how not to look like a stalker, when a girl appeared in the upstairs hallway.
She was about my age, with a slight, firm build and dark blond hair that fell straight to her chin. She had taken the front hank of her hair and pinned it back from her forehead in a single bobby pin, and she looked at me with eyes that were clear and intelligent in an expressive face. She was wearing a large knitted poncho, basically a square placed over her shoulders with a hole for the head.
“Are you here for the ad?” she asked me.
“There’s only one person coming,” she said. “The roommate for apartment C.”
That gave me pause. “Apartment C?”
“Sure. Come on up.”
I didn’t even think of turning around.
Instead I followed Poncho Girl up another set of stairs and through a door. The apartment inside was surprisingly big, with a linoleum-floored kitchen, a TV room, and two bedroom doors opening from opposite ends.
“I’m Heather,” the poncho girl said as she closed the door behind me. She stuck out her hand from beneath the folds of wool. It was a slender hand, porcelain white, and when I shook it, it gave my skin a little chill.
“Carly,” I said.
“I’ll give you a tour.”
The next thing I knew it was ten minutes later and I had seen every room. I knew that the hot water was fussy and the Wi-Fi reception was unreliable and the rent was two hundred per month. I also knew I was a bit of a jerk, because I still hadn’t told Heather the truth.
“Two hundred a month isn’t very much money,” I pointed out.
Heather rubbed a hand on the back of her neck. She had faint purple circles beneath her eyes, as if she were very tired, but she still gave off a tight vitality that was hard to look away from. “Okay, I can’t lie,” she said,
the words in a rush. “I don’t really need the money. My father pays for this place while I’m at Fell.”
“Fell College,” she said. “It’s weird, I know. A local girl going to a local college, moved out into an apartment paid for by her parents. Right?” She tilted her chin like she wanted me to answer, but she kept talking without giving me the chance. “I needed the experience, or so the parental units tell me. To feed myself and fend for myself, something like that. And I like it, I do. But I’m alone all the time, and this apartment makes noises. And there’s no one to talk to. I’m a night owl and I don’t sleep at night. I think I posted the ad for a roommate just so I can have someone here. It isn’t the money really. You know?”
“Okay,” I said, because she seemed really nice. “I’ve never heard of Fell College.”
“No one has,” Heather said, shrugging her thin shoulders beneath her poncho. “It’s a local place. Not a college in the usual sense, really. It’s obscure, and we locals go there. Makes us feel like we’re going to college without leaving town.”
“Isn’t the point of college to leave town?”
“The point of college is to go to college,” Heather said with utter logic. “And I’m surprised you aren’t one of us. I took you for a fellow student.”
I looked down at myself: worn jeans, old boots that laced up the ankles, black T-shirt that said
BOOKS ARE MY LIFE
beneath a stretched-out hoodie, messenger bag. Add my dark-rimmed glasses and ponytail and I was pretty much a cliché. “I am a student, actually. But not at Fell College. I’m . . .” I looked around, cleared my throat. “Okay, I can’t lie, either. I didn’t actually come here about the roommate thing. You just assumed.”
Heather’s eyes widened. “Then why are you here?”
“Um, because I like grim Soviet Bloc architecture?”
She clapped her hands once, the motion making the poncho ripple. Her eyes sparkled. “I like you! Okay, then! Tell me why you’re really here. The details.” She closed her eyes tight, then opened them again. “You’re
mooning over an ex-boyfriend. There’s a guy who lived in B who wasn’t bad, but he moved out last week.”
“No,” I said. “No mooning.”
“Curses. Okay. You’re an archaeology student, and on a dig you found a map that led you here and you want to know why.”
I stared at her. “That’s actually sort of close, but my reason is weirder.”
“I live for weird,” Heather said.
I stared at her again, because she meant it. No one in Illinois lived for weird. No one I’d met, anyway.
“My aunt lived here, I think,” I told her. “She disappeared in 1982. My mother died and never told me about her, and I left school, and I’m here to find out what happened.” It didn’t sound stupid. In this apartment, telling this particular girl, it didn’t sound stupid at all.
Heather didn’t even blink. “Um, 1982,” she said, thinking. “What was her name?”
She shook her head. “It doesn’t ring a bell. But then again, there are so many.”
“So many what?”
“Dead girls. There are lots. But you said she wasn’t dead, right? She disappeared.”
“And she lived here, in this apartment?” Heather looked around at the apartment, as if picturing it like I was.
“Yes, I think she did.”
“Have you found the tenant records?”
“Do you think I could?”
Heather looked thoughtful. “The landlord is a friend of my dad’s. I could probably ask him if he has any records from 1982. And the archives in the Fell Central Library might have something. Nothing is digitized here. We’re stuck in a time warp.”
“I’m looking for people who might have known my aunt,” I said. “I
have her roommate’s name. According to Google, she might still live in town. I want to find her and talk to her. And my aunt worked at the Sun Down Motel. Maybe someone there remembers her.”
Heather nodded, as if all of this were not at all strange. “I can help you. I’ve lived in Fell all my life. True crime is kind of a hobby of mine.”
I couldn’t believe I was hearing this. “Me, too.”
Her smile wasn’t exactly even, but I still liked it. “Gosh, that settles it. Don’t you think?”
“I think you should stay here,” she said. “It’s fate. Come stay here for as long as you need to, and I’ll help you look for your aunt.”
Fell, New York
Heather, it turned out, wasn’t lying when she said she knew a lot about Fell. “My dad is a dork,” she told me plainly. “His idea of a vacation is to drive to Americana Village and walk around. He’s a nerd about history, so I grew up learning a lot about the history of this place. Being a dork runs in the family.”
It was hours later and we were back in apartment C. I’d retrieved my things from the hotel and put them in the second bedroom. We’d ordered pizza, and night was starting to fall, even though it was only dinnertime. I was sitting on the sofa and Heather was lying on her back on the floor, still swathed in the poncho. She’d had a bicycling accident two years ago, she said, that gave her daily back pain. “One vertebra is smushing down into the one below it,” was her explanation. “They say I have to have surgery, but I can’t do it. I’m too neurotic.” Since I’d seen the shelf of prescription pills in the bathroom when I dumped my things, I didn’t ask questions.
“I’m talking about 1982,” I reminded her now, dropping a crust back into the pizza box. “I don’t need to know about old forts and cannons.”
“Ha ha,” Heather said from the floor. She had her knees bent and her feet flat, her pale hands resting on her stomach as she stared at the
ceiling. “Fell doesn’t have any forts or cannons. It’s a strange place. Sort of morbid, like me.”
“I read a few things online. This place has some unsolved murders.”
“We have plenty of them. It isn’t just the unsolved murders. It’s the solved ones, too. I don’t know the stats, but with our small population we’re probably some kind of per capita murder capital of the country. Or at least of New York.” She lifted a hand and I placed a pizza slice into it. “I can’t explain it. It’s just a weird place, that’s all. Tell me about your aunt.”
I told her about Viv, about her disappearance in the middle of the night from the Sun Down. I gave her my two newspaper articles.
“Hmm,” Heather said, leafing through them. “No boyfriend, no drugs. ‘Pretty and vivacious.’ Ugh. We can find the roommate in the phone book if she’s still in Fell.” She handed the articles back to me and lay staring at the ceiling again. “So she worked a night shift and disappeared. You’d be amazed how many people do that—disappear as if into thin air. They leave doors open behind them, food on the counter, their shoes by the door. It doesn’t seem possible, but it is.”
“I know,” I said. “Do you think the cops will let me look at their records?”
“I have no idea, but anything’s possible with a case that old, I guess. A few of the Internet sleuths have tried to get records from the Fell PD and not gotten anywhere, but this is different. You’re the victim’s family.”
“Are you training to be a detective?” I asked, putting my folder away.
Heather laughed. “Hardly. My anxiety couldn’t handle it. No, I’m taking medieval literature. That’s more my style.”
“They teach medieval literature at the college in Fell?”
they teach. The school’s full name is Fell College of Classical Education. Greek literature, Latin, classic art and sculpture, Russian literature, that sort of thing. It’s a small, private college started a hundred years ago as a vanity project by the richest man in town. We only have three hundred students. I’ve never had a class that had more than ten people in it.”
“Are you getting a degree?”
“Pray tell,” Heather said in an amused voice, “what exactly can one do with a degree in medieval literature? Usefulness is not exactly Fell College’s forte. You should apply. I like it there.”
“I was taking business studies,” I told her.
” Her voice was shocked, like I’d said I was taking porn star classes. “You can’t take business studies. You’re a Fell girl. I know it already.”
I handed her another slice. She was small under that poncho, but she could pack pizza away. “Town history, remember?”
“Okay,” she said, lowering the slice. “The Sun Down Motel. Let me think. There was a time in the early seventies when people thought Fell would be a tourist destination, even though we don’t have lakes or mountains or anything to see. There were plans for a big amusement park that would bring thousands of people a year, so businesses got built—the Sun Down, a few other motels, some ice cream shops and restaurants. Then the amusement park plan fell through and none of it happened. Most of those old businesses are gone, but the Sun Down is still there.”
“It didn’t go out of business?”
“It’s pretty dodgy,” she admitted. “Maybe it gets by taking in drug dealers and such. I wouldn’t know. A few kids in high school liked to go there on weekends to drink, but my parents are prudes and never let me go.”
I pulled my laptop toward me on the sofa and opened it, my mind working.
“They say it’s haunted,” Heather said.
“Really?” I asked in surprise.
“Well, sure,” Heather said. “Isn’t every hotel haunted since
? People have probably died there, I bet.”
I looked at my Google Map of Fell, with a pin in the spot where the Sun Down was. If it was built in the 1970s, then it was still relatively new in 1982. Had it been unsavory then? Had it been haunted?
Aside from Graham’s stupid stories and the odd scary movie, I’d never really thought about ghosts, whether they were real. But sitting in Viv’s
apartment, living where she’d lived before she disappeared . . . I thought about it. I thought about ghosts and whether she was here somewhere, looking through the window or trapped in a doorway, watching us. If she’d been killed, would she come back? Would she come to this place or somewhere else? If every person who disappeared came back, wouldn’t the world be full of ghosts?
I scratched my nose under my glasses and said, “Heather, are you tired?”
On the floor, she sighed. “I’m never tired. I told you, I have insomnia.”
“Don’t you have to study or something?”
“I’ve read my textbook twice. One has to read
I smiled. “Well, since one doesn’t have to study, would one like to go to the Sun Down Motel with me?”
Her head appeared above the rim of the vintage coffee table. “Really?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know what I’ll find, but I’ve come this far. I may as well go, and now is as good a time as ever.”
She lit up, like I’d suspected she would. “One would be delighted.”
I closed my laptop. “Let’s go.”
Fell, New York
to stay in Fell, exactly, yet somehow she did. She worked another shift at the Sun Down, and another. Janice paid her some money, and Viv found an apartment on Greville Street that had cheap rent and a roommate named Jenny. Jenny was a night shift nurse at a local nursing home, working the same hours as Viv. She was tired, single after a bad breakup, and not in the least curious. The two girls came and went, slept all day and worked all night.
“I don’t get it,” Jenny said one evening. She was preparing to iron a blouse, fiddling with the knobs on the iron as it heated up. “You were on your way to New York City. Why didn’t you go?”
Viv turned the page of the
magazine she was reading, leaning against the kitchen counter. “That’s just something I told my mother,” she said. “I didn’t really want to go. I just wanted to leave home.”
“I get that,” Jenny said. She had ash blond hair, cut in feathered layers like Heather Locklear. She licked the pad of her finger and lightly touched the face of the iron to see if it was hot enough yet. “But this is Fell. No one wants to be here. I mean, come on. People leave.”
“You haven’t left,” Viv pointed out.
“Only because this job is good. But trust me, I’m going.” She licked her
finger again and touched the iron. This time there was a sizzling sound and she jerked her finger away. “I’m going to meet a rich, gorgeous guy and marry him the first chance I get. The women’s libbers say it’s wrong, but I still think it’s the best thing a girl can do.”
“That’s it?” Viv asked her. “Get married?”
“Why not?” Jenny shrugged and tugged the blouse onto the ironing board, started to work on it.
Viv didn’t want to get married. She’d dated boys, made out with them. She’d even let Matthew Reardon put his hand down her pants. But she’d only done that because they were on their third date, and he expected it. His fingers smelled like cigarettes, and she hadn’t liked it much. Her entire life in Illinois had been about doing what other people expected, never what she actually wanted.
“Don’t you want to do something with your life? Something big?” she asked Jenny.
Jenny didn’t look impressed. “If you wanted to do something big, you should have gone to New York, don’t you think?”
Maybe. It was stupid to think you had some kind of destiny in life. It was extra stupid to think that Fell, New York, was somewhere you wanted to be. But Grisham belonged to Viv’s family, and New York City belonged to everyone else. Fell, in its shadowy way, was hers.
She bought a car, a used Cavalier, the first car she’d ever owned herself. She took two hundred dollars out of her bank account to buy it, and she didn’t feel the panic she thought she would.
There was a movie theater downtown, a hole in the wall called the Royal that showed second-run movies for a dollar. Viv went to the early show before her shift sometimes, sitting in the half-empty theater. She watched
An Officer and a Gentleman
and, on one memorable night,
. She ate sandwiches from the Famous Fell Deli, down the street from the theater, and sometimes she got a milkshake from the Milkshake Palace, around the corner, for fifty cents. She cut her hair, which she’d worn long like all of the other girls in Grisham.
don’t have short hair
, her mother always said. Viv cut her light brown hair to shoulder length and teased the top and the sides with hair spray.
She called her mother, who was furious even though Viv hadn’t ended up in the den of sin that was New York City. “I’m not sending you money,” her mother told her. “You’ll just spend it on drugs or something. I guess you’ll see what it’s like to be a grown-up now. Why can’t you be like Debby?”
Debby, Viv’s little sister, the good daughter. At eighteen, Debby wanted to be a teacher; she wanted to stay in Grisham, work in Grisham, get married in Grisham, and most likely die in Grisham. She looked at Viv’s angry restlessness as something alien. “I’m working extra shifts at the ice cream shop and saving for college,” Debby said when she got on the phone. “I think you’re crazy.”
“You can be as perfect as you want,” Viv told her. “Dad still isn’t coming back. And he still doesn’t care.”
“That’s mean,” Debby said. “He’s going to call. He is.”
“No, he isn’t,” Viv told her. “He has a new wife, and his new wife is going to have new kids. I’m not waiting around for life to go back to the way it was, and neither should you.”
Debby said something else, but Viv didn’t hear it. She took the phone from her ear and made herself hang up, listening to the click it made in the cradle as it disconnected.
The world was different at night. Not just dark, not just quiet, but
. Sounds and smells were different. Number Six Road had an eerie light, greenish under the empty expanse of sky. Viv’s body got cold, then damp with unpleasant sweat; she was hungry, then queasy. She wasn’t tired after the first few nights, but there were times she felt like there was sand under her eyelids, blurring her vision as her temples pounded. Three o’clock in the morning was the worst time, almost delirious, when she could half believe anything could happen—ghosts, elves, time travel, every
episode she’d ever seen.
And she sort of liked it.
Night people were not the same as day people. The good people of Fell, whoever they were, were sound asleep at three a.m. Those people never saw the people Viv saw: the cheating couples having affairs, the truckers strung out on whatever they took to stay awake, the women with blackened eyes who checked out at five a.m. to futilely go home again. These weren’t people suburban Viv Delaney would ever have seen in a hundred years. They weren’t people she would ever have talked to. There was an edge to them, a hard collision with life, that she hadn’t known was possible in her soft cocoon. It wasn’t romantic, but something about it drew her. It fascinated her. She didn’t want to look away.
And it was in the depths of night that the Sun Down itself seemed alive. The candy machine made a deep whirring noise in the middle of the night, and the ice machine next to it clattered from time to time like someone was shaking it. The leaves swirled in the pool, which was empty of water and fenced in, even though it was the last month of summer. The pipes in the walls groaned, and when one of the buttons on the phone in front of her lit up—indicating someone in one of the rooms was making a call—it made a featherlight
sound, audible only in the perfect, silent hush of night.
The smell of cigarette smoke came back again and again when she was in the front office. Always the sting of fresh smoke, never old. At first she thought it must be coming through the vents from one of the rooms, so she took a folding chair and moved it around the room, standing on it beneath each vent so she could close her eyes and inhale. Nothing.
She stood next to the office door for an hour one night, staying still, nostrils flaring, waiting for the smoke to come. When it did she rotated, left then right, trying to figure out the direction it came from. She had gotten nowhere when the front desk phone rang and interrupted her, the sound shrill in the night air.
She picked up the phone, her voice almost cracking with disuse. “Sun Down Motel, can I help you?”
Nothing. Just the faint sound of breathing.
She hung up and stared at the phone for a minute. She’d had a similar
call before, and she wasn’t quite sure what to do about it. Who called a motel in the middle of the night and breathed into the phone?
The next night found her standing in front of the office door again, waiting for the smoke. If someone had asked her in that moment, she could not have told them what she was looking for. A man? A malfunction in the duct system? An illusion in her own mind? It wasn’t clear, but the smoke bothered her. It was eerie, but it also made her feel less alone. If she had to put it into words, perhaps she’d say that she wanted to know who was keeping her company.
She was interrupted that night by someone actually coming through the office door—a real person, one not smoking a cigarette. He was a trucker getting a room to catch a few hours’ sleep before continuing south. Viv took his thirty dollars and he inked his name into the guest book. After him came another man, also solo, wearing a suit and trench coat, carrying a suitcase and a briefcase. He, too, paid thirty dollars and wrote his name in the guest book: Michael Ennis. He might stay an extra night, he explained, because he was waiting for a phone call to tell him where to travel next, and he might not get it tomorrow.
“Sounds exciting,” Viv said absently as she opened the key drawer and took out the key to room 211. She was putting him several doors away from the trucker; she always gave people their space. Night people didn’t like to have neighbors too close.
He didn’t reply, so she raised her gaze and saw him looking at her. His look was calm and polite, but it was fixed on her nonetheless. “Not really,” he said, in reply to her comment. “I’m a salesman. I go where my bosses tell me to go.”
She nodded and gave him the key. She did not ask what he sold, because it was none of her business. When he left, she could not have said what he looked like.
The next night, she tried a different tactic: She stood outside the office door, her back to the wall, and waited for the smell of smoke. She
suspected it came from outside the door now, not through the vents, so she moved closer to the supposed source. It was a beautiful night, silent and warm, the breeze just enough to lift her hair from her neck and fan her sweaty cheeks.
It took less than twenty minutes this time: The tang of fresh cigarette smoke came to her nostrils. Jackpot. She shuffled down the walkway, following it slowly away from the direction of the rooms and around the other side of the building, toward the empty pool. She lost the smell twice and stood still both times, waiting for it to come back. Silently tracking her prey.
She edged out toward the drained and emptied pool, stopping next to the fence that had been around it all summer for reasons unknown. She looked around in the dark, seeing nothing and no one. Maddeningly, the smell came and went, as if whoever created it was moving. “Hello?” she said into the blackness, the concrete and the empty pool and the trees beyond, the deserted highway far to her left past the parking lot. “Hello?”
There was no answer, but the hair prickled on the back of her neck. Her throat went tight, and she had a moment of panic, hard and nauseating. She hooked her fingers through the pool’s chain-link fence to hold on and closed her eyes until it passed.
She smelled smoke, and someone walked past her, behind her back, in five evenly paced steps. A man’s heavy footsteps. And then there was silence again.
Her breath was frozen, her hands cold. That had been someone,
. Something real, but not a real person. The steps had started and stopped, like a figure crossing an open doorway.
Viv had heard ghost stories. Everyone has. But she had never thought she’d be standing holding a chain-link fence, trying not to vomit in fear as her knuckles went white and something
crossed behind her back. It was crazy. It was the kind of story you told years later while your listeners rolled their eyes, because they had no idea how the terror felt on the back of your neck.
Behind Viv’s shoulder, the motel sign went dark.
The garish light vanished, she heard a sad
as the bulbs gave up, and she turned to see the sign dark, the words
no longer lit up, the words
VACANCY. CABLE TV!
flickering out beneath them. She walked toward the sign, unthinking, a hard beat of panic in her chest. She had no idea where the switch to the sign was, whether someone could turn it off. She had never had to turn the sign on or off in her weeks here—the evening clerk always turned it on, and the morning clerk always turned it off. The loss of its bright, ugly light was like an alarm going off up her spine.
She turned the corner, opening up her view of the interior of the motel’s L. She stopped and cried out, because the lights were going out.
At the end of the short leg of the L—room 130 and the one above it, room 230—the lights on the walkway in front blinked out. Then the lights in front of rooms 129 and 229, and on, and on. As if someone were flicking out a row of switches one by one, leaving the entire motel in darkness.
Viv stood frozen, unable to do anything but watch as the Sun Down Motel went dark. The last lights to go out were the office, closest to her at the end of the long row of the L, followed by the neon sign that said
. And then she was standing in front of a black hole on the edge of the road, without a sound or a shuffle of feet, without another soul for miles.
She could hear her breath sawing in and out of her throat.
What the hell is going on?
Her mind didn’t go to mundane explanations, like an electrical malfunction or even a blackout; it was three o’clock in the morning, the sodium lights on Number Six Road were still lit, and she’d just heard the smoking man’s footsteps behind her. No, this was no malfunction, and something told her it was just starting.
And now a muted clicking sound came from the motel.
Viv peered through the dark to see one of the motel doors drift open, then another. The doors were opening on their own, each revealing a strip of deeper darkness of the room inside, as if inviting her.
Come in to this one. This one. This one . . .
Her panicked gaze went to her car. She could get in, go to the nearest pay phone. Call—who? The police, maybe. Or go to an all-night diner and sit there until whatever this was went away. The problem was that her purse, with her keys in it, was in the office.
The wind was soft and cool in her hair, making her shiver. The doors had finished clicking open and were quiet. There was not a single sound from Number Six Road behind her.