Read The Sun Down Motel Online

Authors: Simone St. James

The Sun Down Motel (5 page)

Fell, New York

September 1982


A week after the night the motel went dark, Viv had to call the police for the first time in her career at the Sun Down.

She’d thought about quitting after that terrible night. She’d thought of packing her bags and going back to Illinois. But what would she say when she got there?
I saw a ghost, so I ran home?

She was twenty years old.
What would you do if you ever saw real trouble?
her mother had said. Going back to her old bedroom, to working at the popcorn stand at the drive-in, was out of the question.

Besides, part of her wondered who the woman in the flowered dress was. Something about the woman’s anger, her obvious anguish, spoke to her.

So she went back to work at the Sun Down.

The night of the police, she brought a bologna sandwich with her to work—Wonder Bread, bologna, one Kraft single, a dab of mustard. The best meal you could have in the middle of the night when you made three dollars per hour. It usually sufficed just fine, but tonight the bologna didn’t cut it. She found herself thinking about the candy machine.

The candy machine was behind a door marked
, on the first level next to room 104, in a tiny room it shared with the ice machine. The candy machine worked, and it had candy in it; Viv figured it must be
refilled during the daylight hours. It carried Snickers, and they were twenty cents, and Viv had two dimes in her pocket.

She took her jacket from the hook and put it on over her uniform vest. Pulling the zipper up, she stepped outside the office and turned the corner. The Sun Down actually had a few guests tonight, so she wasn’t entirely alone. There was a couple on their way to visit family in North Carolina; there was a young guy who looked dead on his feet, as if he’d been driving for days. There was a man who had taken a room alone with no luggage.

Still, she felt the low-level fear she always felt when she turned the corner and saw the long leg of the L stretching away from her, the rows of doors, the feeble beams from the overhead lightbulbs, some of them burned out like broken teeth. Her spine tightened and she remembered the feeling of the sign going out, the buzzing blinking into silence, the doors opening one by one. The footsteps, the voices, the smoke. And the woman.


She looked around the parking lot, at the building. She saw no sign of the woman now, but she imagined she could feel her. Maybe it was nothing; she didn’t know.
I can’t leave her
, she thought.

Viv had bought a spiral notebook and a pen at a stationery store after that night. At first she just thought about it, glancing at the book every once in a while, but eventually she started writing. She wrote down what had happened that night, what the woman looked like, what the voices had said. It got the thoughts out of her own head, made them real. The notebook became her only company on the long nights—that and a used copy of
The Hotel New Hampshire
, which she doggedly kept reading though she didn’t fully understand it.

She was thinking vaguely of the novel, of whether she’d take it out of her purse and try again, as she entered the
room for her Snickers bar. Summer had turned into early fall, the heat falling away, the nights getting cooler and breezier. She sidled into the tiny room, which was big enough for only one person, and contemplated the candy machine.

Outside, a new-looking Thunderbird pulled into the parking lot. A
woman got out, putting her keys in her purse. Viv peeked around the door and watched her. The woman was in her late twenties, wearing pale blue jeans and a white blouse with small red polka dots on it. A silver belt and ankle boots completed the outfit. Her dark hair was cut short and teased, sprayed back from her temples and away from her forehead. She had blue eyes under dark slashes of brows and a curl to her lip that was sensual and full of attitude. She looked like Pat Benatar’s not-so-cool sister—pretty and fashionable, rebellious but not quite rock-’n’-roll.

She didn’t head for the motel office to check in but instead walked to the door to room 121, the room Viv had given the man with no luggage.

Viv ducked behind the door and watched. The man in 121, she recalled, wasn’t bad-looking, but he was near forty. What was this girl doing meeting him at a motel? The hookers who came to the Sun Down were washed-out women with stringy hair and tight clothes, who spent a few hours in a room and paid in crumpled fives and tens. This woman looked nothing like that. She looked like she could have come from Viv’s suburb in Grisham. Viv watched as the woman knocked once on the door of room 121. The door was opened by the man Viv had checked in; he had taken off his coat and was wearing dress pants and a shirt unbuttoned at the throat, his shoes off. He smiled at the woman. “Helen,” he said.

The woman cocked her hip, giving the man a pose, though her smile was warm. “Robert.”

Robert held out his hand. “Come in.”

Behind Viv, the ice machine made a whirring noise and kicked to life, making Viv jump. She ducked back into the
room before they could see her looking. She scrambled for her two dimes and shoved them into the candy machine, and was just digging behind the machine’s flap for her Snickers bar when the door swung shut and she was suddenly in the dark.

Viv froze. She could see absolutely nothing—she tried waving her hand in front of her face but saw only blackness. She waved her arms in front of her, touching the front of the candy machine, feeling her way along it. The ice machine continued to click and whirr behind her like
it was speaking an ancient language, and ice cubes clicked into its plastic container with a chattering sound. Viv felt frantically for a light switch, her breath in her throat.

There was no light switch, just blank wall. She found the outline of the door beneath her fingertips and followed it to the doorknob, which she turned and pushed. A glimpse of parking lot, a rush of sweet cold air—and the door swung closed again.

“Hey,” Viv said aloud, her voice cracking. Then: “Hey,” a little bit louder. She found the doorknob again, grasped it. It wouldn’t turn.

The ice machine shut off abruptly, and now all she could hear was her own breath sawing in and out of her lungs. “Hey,” she said again, louder, though she didn’t know who she was talking to. She banged the side of her fist on the door once, wondering if anyone in any of the rooms would hear her. If they did, would they bother to come out?

She banged again and was shoved backward by a force against her chest. She stumbled, the hard bone of her shoulder blade hitting the edge of the candy machine, pain flaring upward. She flung her hands back and tried to scrabble for purchase.

, a voice said, a breath of wind, a hiss of air.

The door flung open, so hard it hit the wall behind it with a bang. Then it hung limply, creaking in the September wind.

Viv bolted out of the door and into the parking lot. She was gasping for breath, but one thing rang around and around in her mind, like an alarm going off without stopping:
Those were hands. Those were HANDS.
Two hands, two palms, their distinct shape against her rib cage as they shoved her. Viv stumbled, put her hands on her knees, trying not to throw up with fear.

That was when, through the panicked ringing in her ears, she finally heard the shouting.

•   •   •

The office was quiet and tidy, just as she’d left it. She came through the door on numb feet and dropped into the chair behind the desk, her hands shaking, looking for something Janice had pointed out on her first night.
She found it tacked to the wall next to the desk: a piece of paper labeled
In case anyone gets rowdy
, Janice had told her.
They know who we are.
Viv picked up the office phone.

There was no dial tone on the other end of the line. Instead, there was a man’s voice. “Helen, just tell me what’s going on.”

Viv went still.

“I have no idea.” The woman’s reply was calm, her voice low and sexy as whiskey. “Someone is arguing in the parking lot. Two men. They look like truckers. The night shift girl said she’d call the police.”

That was me
, Viv thought.
I said that.

“How late will you be?” the man said.

“I have no idea,” Helen replied. “I could be all night.”

Viv went very still, trying not to breathe and listening.
I have no idea how, but I’m hearing the phone line from room 121.

Then she thought,
I should hang up

“I just want you home safe,” the man said. “I’m waiting for you. I’ll stay up.”

“You know that isn’t a good idea,” Helen said, her voice tired. “I’ll call you when I’m free, okay?”

Viv listened as they said a few more words, then hung up. She felt a little bit sick.
I should have hung up
, she thought.
Why didn’t I hang up?
She pictured herself calling the man back—though she didn’t have a phone number—and saying,
Your wife is lying to you!

But of course she wouldn’t do that.

Instead she toggled the phone a few times to make sure the line was clear, then dialed the number for the Fell Police Department.

A bored, gravelly male voice answered. “Fell PD.”

“Hi,” Viv said. “I, um, I work at the Sun Down Motel. At reception.”


“There’s a fight going on in our parking lot. Two truckers. They’re, um, fighting.”

This didn’t impress him. “They armed?”

“I don’t think so?” she said, hating how she sounded like a stupid girl, which of course he assumed she was. She thought of the woman with the whiskey voice, how effortlessly dignified she was, and she made an effort to change her tone, sound more worldly. “I didn’t see any weapons. But they’re having a fistfight and punching each other right now.”

“’Kay,” the man said. “Hold tight. Chances are they’ll sort it out themselves, but we’ll send someone anyway.”

Ten minutes later, the fight was still happening. The guests had stayed in their rooms and Viv was standing by the office door, poking her head out and biting the hangnail on her thumb. Her shoulder throbbed. She caught a faint whiff of cigarette smoke.
Not now
, she pleaded silently to the smoking man,
Not now

A police cruiser pulled into the parking lot, silent, cherry lights off. It pulled up in front of the two trucks that were parked in the lot, next to the fighting men, and a cop got out. Viv breathed a sigh of relief, and then she realized the cop was too small, too slight, the hair tied up at the back of her neck. It was a woman.

She took another step out onto the walkway to see more closely. A woman cop? She’d never seen one except on
Cagney & Lacey.

But this cop was real. Unlike Cagney and Lacey she was wearing a uniform, dark blue polyester with a cap on her head. Her belt was heavy with a gun holster, a nightstick, and a radio, but it fit her hips snugly and she walked with a swagger that looked powerful and confident. As Viv watched, she walked straight to the fighting truckers and pulled one man off the other, breaking them up.

The truckers obeyed. They looked angry and one spit on the ground next to the cop’s feet, but they stopped fighting and stood still as the cop spoke to them. Viv watched her take out a notebook and pen and start writing down information, like she wasn’t at least fifty pounds lighter than each man.

When the cop finished writing, she took the radio from her belt and talked into it. Both truckers retreated to their trucks. The one who had
spit turned and added a second gob, aiming it so it hit close to the cop’s heel without hitting her. The cop didn’t seem to notice, or care.

She turned and saw Viv standing at the corner of the office. Caught gawking, Viv raised a hand in a shy hello. The cop nodded and started in her direction as Viv ducked back into the office.

“Crazy night,” the cop said as she followed Viv through the office door. Up close, Viv could see that the cop wasn’t more than thirty, with dark brown hair tied neatly back under her cap. She wasn’t precisely pretty, but she had high cheekbones, dark brown eyes, and a tired air of complete confidence. Viv retreated behind the desk and touched her teased hair, suddenly self-conscious about her white blouse on its third wear and her ugly uniform vest.

“Crazy,” Viv said, thinking,
You have no idea. No idea at all.
She pressed her shaking hands together and hid them under the desk. She could still feel the imprint of the two palms on her chest, shoving her backward. She worked hard to take a deep breath.

The cop yanked a chair from its spot against the wall next to the rack of ancient and wilted tourist brochures and plopped down in it, pulling out her notebook and crossing her legs. “It says here it was called in by one Vivian Delaney. Is that you?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Viv said.

The cop gave her an amused look. “I’m no more a ma’am than you are, honey. My name is Alma Trent. Officer Trent. Okay?”

“Yes, okay, Officer Trent,” Viv said. Why was it so comforting to have a cop around? It was an instinctive thing.
She can’t protect you from ghosts
, Viv reminded herself.
No one can.

Officer Trent tilted her head a degree, studying Viv. “How old are you, anyway?”


“Uh-huh,” Alma Trent said. She had a no-bones way of speaking, but her eyes weren’t unkind. Without knowing she was doing it, Viv glanced and saw she wore no wedding ring. “You from around here?” the cop asked.

“Huh?” Stupid, she sounded so stupid.

“Here.” The cop made a circle with her index finger. “Around here. Are you from it?”

“No, ma’am. Officer Trent. I’m from Illinois.” Viv closed her eyes. “I’m sorry I sound like this. It’s been a long night. I’ve never talked to a policeman—woman—before.”

“That’s a nice sort of person to be,” Officer Trent said, again not unkindly. “The kind who has never talked to the police, I mean. You’re the night girl, I take it?”

This time, she sounded slightly less idiotic. “Yes.”

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