I had driven as far as my exhausted mind would let me and I eased off the Interstate onto an exit for a town called Perkins. The sign that led me here boasted both a Motel 6 and a diner; the notion of either sounded like Heaven to me. Besides, not only was my personal fuel supply dwindling, but so was the gas in the old Buick I'd been piloting since Vicksburg. I braked at the four-way stop; the glowing red illuminating the surrounding black like a welcoming beacon. Turning right, I headed toward the motel following the sign: "Three miles ahead, left." I was almost shivering with anticipation.
The parking lot was as desolate as it was abandoned; dark, deafeningly silent, and just short of full-on frightening. I'd seen enough horror films in my near 40 years to know a creepy hotel car port when one was presented to me, and I had to chuckle in spite of myself. I parked by the dimly-lit office and sighed as I killed the engine and listened to the quiet broken only by the ticking of the cooling motor. I climbed out of the car with a groan loud enough to startle myself, arched my screaming back, and made my way to the door as I winced through knots and aches.
The door welcomed with one of those electronic chimes that sounds a bit like R2-D2. Sadly, not quite as 'small town' as I'd expected. The lobby was pretty standard for a mid-level motel: plastic potted plants in the corners, a long desk riddled with brochures for the surrounding attractions in a fifty-mile radius, two wing-back chairs that looked slightly over-used, and a wall full of artwork from people no one has ever heard of. I looked around, shrugged, and counted the paces to the front desk... a nervous habit.
Though the small room was meagerly lit with hazy globed lamps positioned in all four corners, there was a small desk light sitting on the counter next to the ledger. On the opposite side was a bell. Quaint. This was the kind of thing I was more accustomed to seeing in one of these off-the-main-drag inns. I smiled again, and raised my hand over it, readying it to strike, when out from the back -maybe ten feet behind the counter to my right- came a small man decked out in a weathered Izod shirt and thick-framed glasses. He wore long carpenter-style shorts, Chuck Tailor's, and continued to chew his late-night meal as he wiped his mouth on one of the motel's own finest linens. I couldn't help but stare at his impeccably honed bald scalp that reflected the white glow from the wall sconces. He grinned, nodded in a welcome, and swallowed his mouthful with an audible gulp.
"Sorry 'bout that, buddy. Dinner time, ya know... anyway, can I help you?"
I nodded in understanding and started to remove my wallet from my pocket. "Yes indeed. I would very much appreciate one of your fine rooms!"
"Mm-hmm... one of our fine rooms. Finest in all the land." He said sarcastically, likely at my expense. But if he was angry about it, he showed no signs of ire. "Well, we've got quite a slew to choose from, considering it's pretty dead in here and only eleven of our thirty-two are otherwise occupied... do you have a preference?"
I mulled it over for a second, "Yeah, I guess I'd like one with a view of the parking lot out front here." I wasn't sure why I said that, but it sounded as good an option as any.
He flipped open his reservation book and rifled to the midway point. "You're in luck, Mr.--"
"Miller." I finished.
"You're in luck Mr. Miller, room 27 is available and it just so happens to be the one just to the right as you exit the lobby."
A tinny bleep echoed through the front of the office as the door swung open behind me making me jump just a bit. I spun around and watched as a older man dressed in a tattered trench coat and poorly kept loafers trudged it. He sported a unkempt Fedora with a really odd disc-shaped medallion on the band and lugged an abused briefcase under one arm, upon which sat a long umbrella. Was it raining now? No, couldn't have been; the umbrella was closed and didn't look at all wet. I stared far another second as the man surveyed the room, and then I returned to the desk clerk. He had a cocked eyebrow and a irritated shake passed through his head.
He leaned over to me and whispered, "I know this dude. He comes in about twice a month on his business trips. Complete wing nut."
I raised my own eyebrows, smiled wanly, and nodded in mock understanding. The clerk, whom I now suddenly understood was named Ted (his name tag was pinned far lower on his shirt than I'm sure it ought to have been), slid the key to me and I signed in leaving a fifty-dollar deposit for any damages or stolen property. Thankfully a credit card wasn't required since I don't carry one. We exchanged pleasantries, I said, "Thanks, Ted", and made my way back across the lobby.
As I turned, I saw the man Ted knew standing in exactly the same disheveled pose in which he was standing after I looked him over a few minutes prior. He looked like one of those homeless person statue actors you see in bigger cities performing for handouts. I glanced; he didn't move an inch, so I pulled open the door and walked out to the parking lot. As it turned out, the 'wing nut' was probably just a little crazier than even I'd given him credit for: the night was full of stars and a slight crescent moon hung in the east.
I walked the distance of probably the width of a football field (what can I say: sports are a big part of my downtime) and found that, indeed, number 27 was sharing a common wall with the lobby. Probably the side at which there was a storage room or maybe even the office's restroom, since I didn't remember seeing it when I was in there. Despite the obvious attempts to keep the motel as Old-Time cozy as possible, the door locks were still updated to key cards. I still call them keys no matter where I am. Old habits die hard. I slid it in the electronic reader, waited a second for the lights to blink green, yanked it out and turned the knob. Immediately I was greeted by a not entirely pleasant blast of cleaning product; bleach, bathroom cleanser, and something floral hovering just above everything else. I winced and coughed as I flipped on the light, and shivered just a bit as the farthest of two wall lamps blew its bulb with a crackling pop. Delightful. I'd have to razz Ted a bit about that in the morning.
The bed spreads were completely reeking with 1970's charm, which is to say they were dark mauve with purple filigree patterns lilting about. And years of hotel visits had taught me a few things, up to and including stripping the bed cover and stashing it in a corner furthest from where one was to be sleeping. Apparently they can be riddled with human germs and... other, far more tasteless body fluids. I yanked it off the bed I'd be sleeping in, sat down heavily on the stark-white sheet, and sighed. I was even more tired than I'd imagined, but my stomach argued the point far more profoundly, so a trip to the diner was certainly going to happen soon.
But that thought was dashed quickly as I was startled by a definitely unexpected knock at the door.
I was a little unsure how to respond. Why would someone be knocking on this door? Was someone lost? Did I order pizza? That last thought was just to break the tension as I shook my head and got up from the bed.
Another knock, this time followed by a muffled male voice, "Mr. Miller?"
"Yes? Who is it?" I inquired sounding really silly to my own ears.
"Mr. Miller, you left your wallet at the front desk." Came the response.
I felt my front pocket, sure it had been there all along... and lo and behold: no wallet. Well, what do ya know? Now this was just getting funnier by the second. It seemed good old Ted had Boy Scouted himself a courteous deed for the day.
I laughed, said just a sec, and opened the door.
And there stood 'wing nut'.
For a second we just looked at each other. He, the poster child for the over-worked and society-whipped, and me, the epitome of hunger and exhaustion wanting nothing more than to find some hot food. It was a bizarre dichotomy to say the least. He just stood there, looking past me rather than at me. That was disconcerting. I tried to smile at him, despite the fact that he had a face that appeared almost exactly like something really surprising was happening just over my shoulder, and it made me rather uncomfortable.
"Uh... hello?" I said, questioning everything at that point.
"Yes. Hello, Mr. Miller. It seems you forgot your wallet back at the lobby. I took it upon myself to make sure it was returned to you. I told Theodore not to worry about it and that I'd make sure it was returned to you immediately. It seems we're sharing the same side of the building tonight, and since I was heading to 25 anyway... well, there you have it."
"Okay... well, that's great... and thanks!" I stammered, still sort of trying to grasp the absurdity of the situation. I still stared as the man just spouted his diatribe without so much as a flinch. His face belayed not a twitch and he looked almost like one of those animatronic robots from those old pizza arcades.
He lifted his hand and turned it over. His hand was incredibly big. Almost cartoonishly big, considering the rest of his frame, which was definitely not large by any stretch. Cupped neatly in his mitt-sized palm was my wallet, sure enough. I made a move to gingerly pluck it from his right when his left suddenly sprang out and curled around the circumference of my wrist with room for his spindly fingers to overlap his thumb. And my wrists aren't exactly bony. I stiffened visibly, and looked at him with a air of confusion and unpleasant surprise.
"Hey! What the Hell!" I managed to bark through my unexpectedly dry throat.
"Worry not, Mr. Miller, I mean you no harm. I promise. But I must insist on coming into your room before I return your wallet. There is something of the utmost importance I must share with you." The stranger said as he held fast to my wrist, though, surprisingly, not uncomfortably so.
"I-I-I... was actually just leaving... for a meal... dinner. At the diner... ha ha... so, why don't we just-"
"It is a pity, then, Mr. Miller. I am sorry to have inconvenienced you. However, I would like to return at a later time, for I need to give you -and of this you must trust me- the information I have." He said as he lightly placed the wallet in my hand while releasing my wrist. His touch left a frigid imprint on my goose-fleshed skin.
"S-sure. Ah... Okay. Sounds fine. I'll be back in an hour or so, I guess?" I said as I looked him over anew. His pallor was waxy and he appeared to be sweating under his hat.
"I shall make it two hours. No need to rush a meal, Mr. Miller." He said as he stood, "It's not good for the digestion, you know. Rushing a meal. Enjoy it. buy a paper. But please remember: this information is of vital importance."
And with that he mechanically turned on his heal and headed to his room.
I remained still as I watched him methodically plod away. What on Earth was this guy's problem? Why would a guy just randomly want to come into a person's motel room he'd never even met previously? What the Hell was going on? I turned back to the room, grabbed the key and my jacket, pocket my wallet, double checked that my car keys were in the other, and watched the door shut itself behind me. I was still starving, but before I headed to the diner I really needed to go grill Ted about this 'wing nut' and just exactly what his deal was.
The digital chime of the lobby door bleeped through the air as I made my way to the front desk. To my surprise, a petite, cute woman and what must have been her daughter were waiting. The younger lady sat in one of the worn chairs and glared intently at her phone while her mother chatted sing-songy with Ted. I hung back a little, not really wanting to hear what was happening, since not much more than renting a room was the likely conversation. I looked again at the young lady in the chair and watched as she tapped her phone screen, probably texting or updating her FaceBook status. She smiled and giggled at whatever it was going on from the other end of her chit-chat. As I looked back to the counter, Ted had just handed the woman a key card and indicated where to sign. Money was exchanged, and the woman turned toward me and her daughter. I smiled at her as a look of surprise spread across her face like a weird mask. She glanced at me as if she had something to ask; but didn't. Then she walked past her daughter (barely even registering her appearance) who, in turn, did little more than grunt an acknowledgement, and the two left the lobby with an eerie quickness.
"Mr. Miller!" Ted inquired, "I trust you received your wallet?"
"Yeah... and that's what I came here to talk to you about." I said as I rubbed my brow.
"Oh crap. What did Mr. Christopher do this time"
"Mister... his name is Mr. Christopher? Are you kidding me?" I asked with a laugh.
"Nope. Not kidding. That's his name. Oddly it escaped me when I mentioned him to you earlier. You'd think a name like that would stick with me... anyway, what happened?"
"Well, when he came by, he made to offer me my wallet, and then grabbed my wrist-"
"He did what? Did he hurt you? I can call the pol-" Ted sputtered as he grabbed the phone receiver.
"No no... nothing like that. It surprised me, that's all." I said as I motioned for him to relax. "It was what he said after that really caught me off guard. Ted, he asked to come into my room because he had something really important to tell me. Why would he do that?"
Ted didn't respond right away. In fact, he looked as though he had to find what he wanted to say before nearly a minute passed. "Um... here's the story on Mr. Christopher. First of all, he's really pretty harmless, as far as I've been told. I've only ever met the guy maybe four times over the past couple of months. He comes here looking identically to the last time, he buys a few nights in either room 25 or, well, room 27, oddly, and he more or less keeps to himself. That's about all I know."
"No, that isn't about all. You said 'first of all' which implies that you had a 'second of all' to follow." I said with a knowing sneer, "So spill it, man... what else is going on with this dude?"
Ted sniffed and looked around, obviously making sure he wasn't being watched by... who? No one else was in the room. "Okay, look. One time when he was a guest here... this was before I was brought on, another guest came up missing. No one said it was Mr. Christopher, though he was questioned, and the guy was never found. All of his stuff was just left in his room. The cops and the CSI guys or whatever spent a few days here, cleaned up his stuff, and nothing's happened since. Again, as far as I know. I only work nights on the weekends. But I guess I'd have been told if anything else had gone on. And there you have it."
I stood there for a minute absorbing what I'd just heard. "Was there any reason to believe Mr. Christopher had anything to do with the missing man? Or was it assumed because the guy is obviously bonkers?"
"I don't know. No one here told me anything else. Except to maybe be a little leery of the guy, ya know, just in case." Ted said as he nervously moved a pen around the desk.
"Ted, I appreciate the info, but my guess is there might be something else you're not really allowed to say, and I can dig that. Don't worry, I'll keep an eye out."
Ted looked like I'd caught him lying to his mother or something. But I left it at that, nodded to him, and left the lobby. By now I was famished.
I sat behind the wheel for a few minutes just kind of stewing over the experiences I'd been through over the past hour. What was going on? Why, of any number of potential motels, did I choose this one? I could have driven twenty miles further on and stopped at Strongsville; the city was big and had a half dozen places to stay. What drew me here? I was tired, true, but not falling asleep at the wheel. I just couldn't put two and two together. But what I did know was that I was really, really hungry. I started the Buick, backed out of the spot, and drove what proved to only be about a mile to the diner. And when I say diner, I mean just that: Diner.
It was small, but spread out. There wasn't a starkly visible sign anywhere. Just a placard on the front that read (in bold, blue letters on a dingy white background) 'Mom's Dive'. It was lit up- well, half of it was, and it pulsated with cheap fluorescent bulbs. The lot was actually pretty full; pick-ups, old beater cars, hard-driven minivans, and even a few motorcycles. I cruised in and parked next to the newest looking vehicle in the bunch: a Toyota hybrid. Obviously a traveler like me, judging by how it stuck out. I stepped out of the car and was immediately assailed by what was obviously cooking away in the kitchen; savory-sweet, toasted, roasted, and enough to make my mouth water. A rectangle of light lanced through the far right end of the building, proving that the back door was open and a man with a cigarette pressed into his mouth was leaning against it staring into the night. His white apron was mottled with any number of stains from various foodstuffs, adding to the fact that he was certainly one of the cooks. He didn't see me as I made for the glassed front doors and pushed my way in.
To say the place was far more bustling than it even appeared from the number of vehicles outside was an understatement. It was no wonder I smelled god things cooking, because the place was just that: cooking. The diner atmosphere was palpable: red Naugahyde booths, black-and-white checkered floor tiles, a long counter with a dozen spinning stools, a rather eclectic supply of whimsical crafts and artwork festooning the walls, a smog of coffee fumes and grease, and the cacophonic din of chitter-chatter. It felt cozy, homey, and just a little out of time... but mostly inviting. I stood by the entry way and the sign proclaiming: PLEASE WAIT TO BE SEATED. There was a little wooden island with a dingy cash register and a crooked spindle jammed with receipts. Gum, Life Savers, a March of Dimes collection can, and a tray of business cards surrounded the perimeter of the cash machine, and just behind, having trundled up from one of the tables, was quite possibly the most singularly cylindrical woman I had ever seen. She was plump, but packed into her strangling uniform like a blushing sausage. Her cheeks were rosy in a way to make Santa Claus jealous, and her tightly knit mass of curly reddish-gray hair balanced perfectly on her head, with only two wooden needles jutting out like Martian antennae. She was, in short, adorable. Her ample and equally compressed bosom help present a time-worn name tag on which was written in cutesy script: DARLA.
She offered me a genuinely appealing smile. "Howdy, there, buster! Can I get ya a table?"
I smiled back, doing all I could not to chuckle. "Absolutely, Darla! I'm about as hungry as I've ever been!"
She did laugh at that one. "Well you've wandered into the right place, then, haven't ya? C'mon, I got a booth with your name on it!"
"Actually, Darla, any chance I could get a table... somewhere in a corner maybe?"
She gave me a once over and realized that with my relatively large frame a booth was definitely uncomfortable, which was what I was hinting at in the first place. Darla nodded, grinned knowingly, and led me around to a small, two-seat table near the kitchen door. I told her it was perfect as she dropped a menu in front of me and expertly wheeled around to snatch a glass of water from the counter.
"Um... sure. Why not?" I replied, really wishing I had opted against, yet knowing full well sleep was a long way off.
"Definitely. Cream and sugar, if you don't mind."
"Not at all! Be right back."
And with that Darla sprang into action like a well-oiled machine. I sighed and began looking around. The faces were all in motion: eating, talking, laughing, drinking, yawning... it was alive with human emotion and activity. And it was then that I spotted her.
In a booth near the door was the very woman I'd seen not an hour ago with her daughter in the lobby of the hotel. And maybe it was the light -maybe the ambiance- but she was stunning. Nothing about her was visibly different. Apparently she and her daughter had checked into their room and left immediately for a meal. But, wow: she practically glowed with allure and femininity. I sat there and stared, and I suddenly realized I wasn't even trying to hide it. She caught my eye and I quickly switched my glance to Darla who had serendipitously returned with my coffee. We exchanged smiles and she asked if I'd had a chance to check out the menu.
"Ya know what, Darla, why don't you tell me what you recommend tonight."
"Tell ya something, sugar: I recommend the same thing every night! The chicken-fried steak. It's Norm's specialty. It comes slathered with sawmill gravy, a side of mashers, and corn. It's divine, if I do say so myself. And I'll clue ya, its really not complete without a piece of our peach cobbler to end it all, if you know what I mean... a' la mode, even."
"Sold." I said. It sounded more than divine. It sounded like Heaven.
Darla swished away and I returned my gaze to the woman from the lobby. She was engaged in conversation with someone, likely her distracted daughter. It seemed to be going about as pleasantly as one might expect: there was some obvious finger wagging, head shaking, eye rolling exaggerated enough to be seen from as far away as I was. I estimated they were maybe fifty paces away, but I was getting at least an amalgamated gist of what was likely going on. For the life of me I couldn't look away, and when Darla returned with my steaming plate -a thing of pure beauty and southern over-indulgence- I was startled out of my gaze.
"Sorry, suga', did I wake ya?"
"What? No... no... I was... well it's been an incredibly long day. Most of which I spent driving. So, ya know..."
Darla smiled wanly, "Well, I don't know about all that, but I do know I could almost feel the line of your gaze as I wandered over here with your meal. It's that sweet little thing by the window, ain't it?"
I choked on my first forkful. Tears immediately welled up in my eyes and I needed to take a few gulps of ice water before I could talk. "Who? How did you...?"
"Easy, stranger. I don't pass no judgement on anyone. I just call 'em as I see 'em. Besides: she's damn near the cutest young thing in here. I wasn't born last night, ya know. I can see when a fella gets googly eyes for a lass." She grinned again and I could tell there was something behind the warmth; something she wasn't telling me.
"Well, I'm just going eat my food now, so..." I said carving into another bite of quite possibly the best chicken-fried steak I'd ever laid mouth on.
Darla sighed and let her sassy stance fall apart. She dropped her arms to her sides and leaned in a bit with a look of concern on her face, "Confidentially, you might want to re-think your approach, especially considering the, uh... company she's keeping."
And with that she turned on her heel and trundled back to the counter.
Company she was keeping? What did that mean? Why was her daughter someone to be concerned with? Now I really was intrigued. Confused, but intrigued. As I tucked into the remainder of my meal I decided I needed a well scripted plan to meet this woman with whom I was suddenly infatuated.
Fifteen minutes passed. I cleaned my plate so thoroughly there might have been no need to actually wash it. And I was full. I sipped my third cup of coffee; I liked being at one of those places where they actually left the carafe right at the table because I hate having to signal for refills. As I sat back, relieving the pressure on my loaded gut, I returned my attention to the booth with the woman. She was looking out the window into the night, nodding along with what her daughter was telling her. I couldn't make out what it was as the noise level was still at a fevered pitch; as often as people left, the same number replaced them. It was a busy joint, no doubt about it. And in a way, it's popularity played to my benefit as I spent an inordinate amount of time taking this woman in with long, drawn-out stares. Finally I spied movement in the boot. A head popped up from the side that wasn't in my view, and the person who stood was most definitely not the woman's daughter. In fact, the Fedora with its remarkable amulet was a dead give away: Mr. Christopher.
To say I was shocked was to say I didn't nearly spill my coffee, and both of those things were instantly true. When did he get here? Was he here the entire time? I'd never dropped my sight from the woman for more than a few seconds at a time to eat and converse with Darla. What was going on? It suddenly occurred to me that this was was what my observant server was talking about when she said 'The company she was keeping'. Mr. Christopher rose to his full height, nodded at the woman, and turned to head out, dropping several bills on the table from his wallet. I diverted my gaze and turned my body to look down at the floor. I had no desire to let the man see me. I waited a full thirty-count and returned to a proper sitting position.
Mr. Christopher was sitting in the other chair directly across from me.
"Mr. Miller! How fortuitous!"
I swallowed and heard my throat click as it tightened, "Apparently."
I looked over the strange man's shoulder and saw Darla. She looked at me with wide-eyed surprise and set what was obviously my dessert back on the counter. She was visibly unnerved, and quickly turned away.
"Can I help you with something, Mr. Christopher?"
"Ah, but it is I who am prepared to help you... as you no doubt remember."
"I remember." I said flatly, "But I still don't understand. Not to mention the fact that you sat at my table without being invited. I'd suspect even you would understand how rude that is."
"Tut-tut... semantics. Besides, no one was using the chair, for one thing. And for another, I'll be but a moment of your time. A moment you can scarcely afford to dismiss."
I sighed and resigned myself to the fact that this man wasn't going to leave until he'd spoken his peace.
"Excellent. What I have for you is information, of that bit you have been previously regaled. But in actuality, it's a warning." He laced his fingers, nodded once, and sat still.
"A warning. And what makes you think I need a warning about anything? You don't even know me."
"Mmm... perhaps I don't know you directly, true. But I knew you were coming."
I looked at him side-long, "Yeah, it didn't take a magician to assume I was coming here, considering it's likely the only restaurant for miles in any direction."
He nodded yet again, and let a wry grin dance across his lips, "You misunderstand me, Mr. Miller. What I meant was that I knew you were coming here: the motel... this town."
I couldn't help but bark a rather loud laugh, "What? What kind of crap are you trying to feed me?"
"Eloquent. No.. (ahem) crap intended, Mr. Miller. Most certainly not. No, I only arrive at the motel when I am... shall we say, directed. Directed to do so. And as such, I was made privy to your eminent arrival."
Ignoring the obviously crazy man, I signaled to the newly interested Darla to bring my cobbler and ice cream. But she hesitated.
"Oh, Darla won't come here. She's... not too fond of me, I'm afraid."
"What? Why?" I asked suddenly not smiling anymore. In fact, this whole situation had gotten a little too bizarre.
"It matters not. What does matter is the warning I have yet to relay to you. You must listen, and hear me very well. Then I will be on my way."
I sipped my tepid coffee, scowled at it, and nodded for him to go on at the same time.
"Stay away from the woman."
"Uh... wha-what woman?" I stammered, knowing exactly whom he meant.
"Please, Mr. Miller. Let us not feign stupidity. You know about whom I refer. I reiterate: stay away from the woman. It is in your very best interest to do so."
And with that, he thumbed his hat with a nod, quickly and quietly rose, and left the building like some kind of ghastly wraith. I sat stunned and numb, and watched as though I were in another place, in another time -outside of my own body- as Darla returned to my table with dessert. She, too, looked unwell.
"He was the company she was keeping, I'm guessing." I said, barely hearing my own query through the sudden timpani of buzzing in my head.
"Yeah. He was. He's absolutely one of the most... frightening men I have ever met. I'm sorry I held up your cobbler."
"No, no apology necessary." I rubbed my temples and squeezed my eyes shut to force away the ringing in my ears. "What his deal, anyway?"
"He comes in here every time he's in town. But I guess that's not really the issue since we are the only rest'raunt for a few miles... it's just his, what's the word... demeanor? Is that right?"
I nodded and forced a smile, "I'd say that's just about perfect."
"When he first started coming by -maybe a year or so ago now- he pretty much kept to himself. But eventually, he sort of got nosy. Anyone who'd arrive while he was in town he'd... well, he'd scare the pants off of, that's what. Talking about information and warnings and crazy threats if folks didn't pay him mind. And people started staying out. He'd never bother the regulars -folks who live here- but he'd sure get under the skin of passers-by. I'd had enough one day, after he made a woman cry, and I told him he had to leave. He nodded politely enough, but his eyes looked daggers right through me. Since then... well, I can hardly stand to be around him." Darla explained as she looked off into the distance of the diner, and likely the distance of her past.
"Well, that answers that. He told me you'd never come to the table with him there." I said as I poured more coffee to warm up the room-temperature beverage in my mug.
"And I'm just saying, here... it might not be a bad idea to... uh, listen to him." She said, returning her gaze right to my eyes. It startled me a little; her face was ashen and pallid.
"What? I thought you just said..."
"I know. I know. The man is a kook without a doubt. But here's the thing: his warnings always come true. Or pan out... or whatever you want to say. Somehow... he just knows."
I looked at her and nodded. Was Darla serious? She must have seen the question in my eyes because she went on.
"About eight months ago... yeah, that would be April... he was in town on one of his regular visits. He came into the diner, and at this point I had now seen him about half-a-dozen times. Anyway, he came in and met with a fella much like yourself: a guy just moseying through on his way anywhere else. The fella seemed nice enough, so I chatted him up much as I'm doing with you. And then Mr. Christopher gave him his cock-and-bull story, but the man refused to listen. He flat out told me it was hooey and left. The next day he was gone. They found all his belongings up in his motel room, but the fella had just vanished."
I shivered so much goose-flesh erupted over my skin like a flurry of tiny pox. Didn't Ted tell me the exact same thing? The story of the man coming up missing and just leaving all of his stuff? I shuddered again and I must have looked like someone walked over my grave.
"Are you okay? I've never seen a man turn that white before!" Darla announced as she took a step back.
"Fine... fine. But I'm not hungry anymore. Thanks for the dessert, though."
Darla waved me off, "You look like you need to lie down. Let me pack that cobbler to go, I'll just scrape off the ice cream so it don't melt all over." She left and returned quickly with a foam clam shell.
I paid cash. Darla and I exchanged pleasantries and I said I'd be by for breakfast. She told me she was always there and looked forward to seeing me again. She also insisted I heed Mr. Christopher's urgency. In fact, she made me promise. I said I would, and left. The night was cold and I could see my breath puffing out in grey clouds. Just then the fact that I was exhausted slammed into me like a wall. It was definitely time for bed.
Before I could settle into the car, I saw the woman leave the diner; her features illuminated by the halo of the restaurant's lights. I'd then wondered where her daughter was? Did she leave her back at the motel? That didn't seem particularly safe to me considering she was likely only in her young teens, if even that. And why would she eat alone when she had her child with her? It didn't make sense, but then, none of this evening made a whole lot of sense. I watched for a minute more as she got into her vehicle, started it, and drove off. One final thought popped into my mind: what on Earth was Mr. Christopher talking to her about? Was he giving her a warning, too? And if so, was it about me, as mine was about her? I had no idea. And I had no idea what made me care so much. I was mentally drained and I really needed some sleep. I slid into the driver's seat, fired the engine, and left for the motel.
The knock came at 1:13 a.m. I had fallen asleep atop the bed covers, in both my clothes an my shoes. The TV was tuned to ESPN's SportCenter and it was on incredibly loud to my formerly-soundly sleeping ears. Another knock at 1:14.
"I-I'm coming... just a sec." I said groggily. I rolled over and allowed gravity to tug my weary frame to a sitting-leaning position.
It took a few seconds to wipe exhaustion from my eyes, but I managed to bring the waking world to focus and stood up. I peeked out the peep hole before opening the door, since my head hadn't completely cleared yet I pictured Ted in his pajamas carrying a peach cobbler... wait, what? But the image was of the woman. Alone.
I dropped the chain latch, unbolted the dead-lock, and opened the door, "Yes?" That was all I could manage.
"Uh... hi. I mean, hello, sir. Um, I'm sorry about the very late hour... but I need to... speak with you."
She was visibly upset, that was obvious from the streaked mascara that ran inky rivulets down her flushed cheeks. Her auburn hair was a tousled nest, and she stood there looking anxious as she wrung her hands. She was even pretty in her current bedraggled state: not too tall, not too short, beautiful eyes -despite their watery sorrow- and features a guy like me could definitely enjoy. I couldn't help staring, as I'd done at her the length of my stay at the diner hours previous And it made matters all the worse that I was still almost half asleep and my mind was hammering out thoughts of raciness and indelicacy. She wore a T-shirt maybe just her size and her ample breasts jutted out. It was then I noticed she wasn't wearing a bra, nor a coat, or shoes. Her feet must have been freezing. She looked anew at me with concern and abject worry. I leaned against the door and ushered her in without saying a word. She took the offer and stepped inside out of the cold. Warning be damned: this woman was in dire straights.
She sat at the little table that was positioned by the heat register near the only window. The curtains were down, but she stared through the little crack where they didn't quite fill the void. I went to the little coffee maker that sat in the bathroom, brought it out to the TV hutch and plugged it in while shutting off ESPN. She continued to gaze out at the parking lot through the gap in the fabric as I prepared the little coffee filters that came with the room; nothing spectacular, but enough to warm us up for what I was sure was about to be a lengthy stay. I poured water into the back and flipped the switch. Soon the smell of brewing Maxwell House filled the room.
"So... can I offer you a plastic mug full of second-rate coffee?" I comically inquired.
She turned to me with a face that looked like something out of a horror movie. Her eyes were huge, her face wan and colorless, and her lower lip quivered as she nodded an answer. I could do little more than look at her and feel terrible for whatever it was that had happened. I looked away as the crackling gurgle of the coffee maker signaled its complete brew cycle. I poured two mugs, walked the seven paces to the table, and joined her.
"Thank you. I'm, ah... Miss Bonny... well, that's what my kids call me. At my school. I'm a second-grade teacher at Woodhill..." She quickly sighed, brushed hair out of her eyes, and smiled soullessly. It was all too apparent that she had been through something.
"Hi, there... Miss Bonny. Nice to finally meet you."
"I saw you at the diner tonight." She said, not letting any irritation at my constant ogling show through.
Regardless, I flushed with a bit of embarrassment, "Yeah... the diner. Great food, wasn't it?"
"Sorry, I wouldn't know. I never ate."
I recoiled in sudden question, "Then why were you--"
She cut me off, "Because he asked me to meet him. Mr. Christopher. He asked me to meet him there."
I sat there dumbfounded. At some point between when I first saw Miss Bonny in the lobby and when I finally made my way to the diner, Mr. Christopher made his move on her, too. And by the looks of it, he'd frightened her out of her wits. But that was hours ago. And it was very evident that she'd been quite recently crying.
I decided to angle the line of questioning back to when I'd first seen her, "Who were you with when I saw you in the lobby?"
"What?" She asked with an overtly genuine raise in her voice.
"Yeah, you smiled at me -almost making me think you wanted to ask me something- anyway, you smiled at me, and left with who I assumed was your daughter."
She blinked twice. "I don't have any children."
It was my turn to sit in disquieting silence. "Wait... then who was that little girl who followed you out of the lobby? Your sister?"
"Sir- what do I call you, anyway?"
"Mr. Miller... since we're going by formalities for the time being... Miss Bonny." I said with an air of sarcasm.
"Mr. Miller... I don't know what or who you are talking about. I don't remember seeing a little girl. And I certainly don't remember acknowledging anyone else there... aside from you, that is."
"You're kidding! She was right there in the old chair in the lobby! Messing with a phone or something! Are you serious! She wasn't with you?" My inquisitiveness had reached an oddly fevered pitch.
She solemnly and slowly shook her head, "I saw no one. And as I said, I have no kids. In fact, I'm here alone on my way to a Teacher's Convention in New York. I could have flown, but I like to drive, so..."
I was flabbergasted and not a little bit dismayed. I saw the girl. I knew it. How could this woman possibly not have seen her? She walked right past her and the little girl followed her out the door. I shivered despite the warming heat of the coffee. Maybe she was just in a hurry. So what if it wasn't her kid, I guess it's possible that her gesture was just a coincidence... but maybe there wasn't a gesture. Maybe I just assumed there was because I also assumed she was her child.
"I'd like to tell you why I came here... Mr. Miller." Miss Bonny said breaking the uncomfortable silence.
"Of course. I'm sorry... go on."
She took a sip of the coffee, peered once again out the window, "When Mr. Christopher came to my room earlier this evening he petrified me. Look, I know I'm a young woman traveling alone without much concern for trouble... and I regret that, but I just felt I'd be safer stopping at this motel rather than one in a bigger city with more people... more strangers. Ya know? Anyway, when he came to my room I felt all of my latent fears bubble to the surface. Especially after he told me what he forcibly said he had to tell me."
I nodded. I understood how she felt. Mr. Christopher scared everyone, "I get it. I really do. Go on."
This time she merely looked at her cup, "He warned me I was being followed. He said to always check the shadows. Can you believe that? Who says that to someone? 'You're being followed! Check the shadows!' What is going on with this guy? He alarmed me so much I lost it and broke down right in front of him."
"And this was before you went to the diner?"
"Yes." She wiped the fresh tears from her face as I offered her a tissue, "I guess he felt bad for me because he invited me to dinner. I couldn't figure out any other reason why. Until I met him there."
I looked at here again. I didn't understand what she was getting at. "You mean he had more to tell you?"
"Yes." She took a long drink of her coffee, "As we sat there he asked me about myself and if I'd ever had any feelings of being followed... like, mysteriously so. I told him I didn't think so. He asked me if I ever felt that someone or something was 'there' when I was otherwise alone. I told him again that I didn't think so. He nodded, but he said nevertheless that I was, indeed, being followed by something... and he reiterated about checking the shadows. He went on to tell me about the waitress at the diner who was serving you and that situation. And he even explained about a very unlucky individual who chose not to heed his warning--" She trailed off and took a deep breath and looked once again out the window.
Tears welled up in her eyes and I could think of nothing else to do but take her hand. She turned to me and smiled.
"Funny thing is," I began as I laid my other hand on hers, "He told me to stay away from you. That was my warning."
"I know. When I first saw you in the lobby today, that's exactly what I was going to say... for some reason I was going to tell you to stay away from me. And now it makes sense why."
"You're kidding? You were going to tell me to stay away from you? Seriously?"
"I was. I had no idea why. It wasn't like you looked like a creep or anything... even if you were staring at me." She smiled.
"Well, you and the little girl in the--"
"Wait a minute." She said suddenly, "You don't suppose..."
We could do nothing more than look at each other. Tears trickled down her face and I had to do all I could not to literally scream. I don't scare easily; I love horror movies and the unknown, but this was just shy of completely and fully insane.
Little else was said the rest of the night. Few words were shared; she warmed up to allowing me to hold her as she silently sat and shivered in my arms. Nothing made sense anymore. I had been in town for literally just shy of a full twenty-four hours and I had somehow slid into a severely outlandish set of circumstances. I was at a loss as to where to go next, but my intuition said to pack up now and get the hell out. But what of Miss Bonny? A name that just tickled me as almost unreal. She obviously was unsafe. Whether or not it was because she was actually being followed, or from Mr. Christopher himself... I didn't know. But I was implausibly worried. As I sat there in the chair cradling a woman I didn't know in my arms, I found myself rocking her back and forth; I slowly pulled ribbons of her hair away from her tear-soaked face, staring intently at her shuddering form. A maelstrom of feelings and plots stormed through my head, not the least of which was, 'what am I going to do with her?'. She moaned a little, and pushed at me gently attempting to sit. I released my soft grip, and watched her as she raised from my arms.
"I think I have to leave." She said, matter-of-factly as she wiped her eyes on the wadded tissue in her hand.
"What? Are you sure? Are you okay?"
"No... I don't know. Maybe. But I know I have to go." She stood up and once again looked out of the slitted gap made from the too-small curtains.
I looked at here askance. "Are you... sure?"
She sighed, swiped her hair from her face leaving a thin trail of the remaining mascara that had run down her sodden cheeks, "No. I have no idea. It's been a... bad night."
I nodded. In both agreement and weariness; I was definitely tired, even if I was buzzing from the caffeine. But I was only feigning agreement, because deep inside I was scared for both of us. Rather than let her freeze on her way back to her room, I offered her a hooded sweatshirt I'd packed in my luggage. But she refused, and said her room was just number 30 (an answer to a question I realized I'd never gotten around to actually asking her). I opened the door, and through an obviously forced smile and a put-on facade of momentary alacrity, she thanked me, and followed with two words that would haunt me the rest of the night:
I stood there a heartbeat and watched as she quickly closed the short distance to her room. And I counted the steps: 32.
The door closed with its stuttering swish and click, and I stared at it half expecting Miss Bonny to return, while half expecting something -anything- else completely maddening to occur. In the few minutes it took me to realize how much I needed the bed, and to notice that it was pushing three a.m., nothing happened. I kicked off my shoes, shrugged out of my shirt and pants, and laid down. I flicked on ESPN again, but I was out before the fuzzy picture settled into clarity on the age old screen.
"... He knows..."
Fear sits on your chest and suffocates the life from your body. Fear comes in forms as innocent as a baby and as diabolical as a banshee. The fear I felt that night as I pitched and sprawled through three nearly broken hours of fitful sleep was as palpable as the cloying, wet sheet I was knotted up in. I awoke from a blissfully sporadic and short nightmare where Mr. Christopher was steadily burying me in dirt. I fought to claw my way free, but the relentless shovelfuls kept piling on the earth. I screamed for help and watched in terrified disbelief as Miss Bonny stood atop the open grave and just masked her face with her hands. The gaunt and sinister soothsayer continued his ceaseless scooping and flinging of dirt as he kept repeating the mantra, "He knows!" over and over. Yes, that night fear perched atop my petrified form like a poltergeist and supped on my wavering sanity. I woke, breathless and exhausted. I was drained and drenched with perspiration. I knew right then I had no choice but to leave. And soon.
I had to shower first. I was literally sopped with the night sweats and I had to get out of my sodden clothes. I stepped in to the steaming tub (the water pressure left a lot to be desired, but such was the bane of motel bathrooms) and let the hot spray rinse away as much of the previous night as it was able. Sadly, much of what I saw; what I felt and experienced, remained. What I couldn't seem to heat through was the chill that marched up and down my spine like icy fingers. I stayed under the warming cascade for a while and let my thoughts play out. Part of me already had my keys in the ignition and was nearly backing out of the parking lot... yet the other thought held me fast and told me I had enough unfinished business with the haunting and mysterious Miss Bonny. The shower's rapidly depleting water temperature did little to really sway me either way, and so as the mist turned tepid, I turned it off and stepped out onto the bathmat.
I glanced at the mirror. A habit, though I knew I wasn't as cleanly shaven as I would have otherwise preferred. Imprinted in the fogged glass were two hand prints. Child-sized hand prints. Condensation had just begun to pool and run little rivulets through the haze that coated the surface. I dropped my towel and listened. Someone had to be in the adjoining room.
My heart was thrumming in the back of my throat. I looked again at the prints; prints that had certainly not been made by me... or any adult, for that matter. I began to breathe in halting gasps as I reached over on instinct to touch the markings left on the vanity. But I stopped inches before I could. I was scared to even be in the same room with the ghostly figures, and why I thought I wanted to touch them suddenly seemed horrifying and disgusting. But I didn't want to leave the bathroom. I stood there and shivered unsure of what to do. Was someone still in my room? How did someone even get in? I knew I locked the door behind-- wait, did I? I shut the door, but I didn't chain it. No, that wasn't possible: motel room doors lock automatically when they're shut, or else you wouldn't need a key. Then how... who? I ran thoughts through my head all the while cocking my ear to the door in hopes of maybe catching the intruder... or rather, in hopes of not.
Minutes passed and I'd begun to feel foolish. What was I hoping to hear, exactly? I looked once again at the mirror and what I'd thought I'd seen moments before was nothing more than damp streaks and clearing spots where the cool glass had warded off the heat of the steam. I resigned myself to just being paranoid and overly tired, and opened the door to my room.
The ethereal girl on the bed turned to look at me; her stare both at me and through me, a gaze of both sheer terror and foreboding innocence... and then vanished into the emptiness.
I remember my knees buckling but once my head hit the bathroom door, the next half hour was nothing but a white flash.
As I came to, I found myself naked sprawled like a haphazardly tossed marionette: legs akimbo and uncomfortably twisted beneath me, my temple painfully pressed into the corner of the door jamb, and my arms numbly folded underneath me. I groaned and struggled to sit, breathing past the monotonous throb in my head. A welt was forming where I'd apparently struck the wood, and it was tender and raw. I wasn't out long, maybe thirty minutes; my hair was still wet as was the floor where I'd come to rest. I had seen the little girl, of that I was absolutely positive. I had seen moist hand prints on the bathroom, of that I was slightly less positive, but still almost sure.
The ringing phone stung my aching skull and raised me a shade more quickly from the floor.
"Mmmm... Hello." I moaned.
"Mr. Miller. It appears you haven chosen in error not to heed my warning." Came the gruff, sharp bray from the other end. It was doubtlessly Mr. Christopher.
I held the receiver away from my face and looked at it in mixed puzzlement and trepidation. The tinny voice from the ear-piece echoed from my grasp, "Mr. Miller, I know full well that you are on the other end of this conversation."
"What do you want." I croaked in a voice that was not my own, yet still from my mouth.
"Mr. Miller, I am not making this call to humor you. I provided you with a very simple set of instructions... instructions you chose to ignore. This decision of yours has sent ripples in motion. Ripples I may not be able to calm. Do you understand me?"
"Look, you bastard, she came to my door! She came to my room!" I barked into the phone.
"Regardless the circumstances, Mr. Miller, the outcome -the rapidly approaching repercussions- shall prove to be... dire."
"What was I supposed to do? Turn her away? You have literally scared the both of us to--"
Mr. Christopher abruptly cut me off, "To death? This outcome may be more poignant than you can possibly imagine. I can no longer offer my assistance or cautions, Mr. Miller. You have set the cogs in gear, and I can assure you that you and Miss. Bonny are ill prepared to deal with the aftermath. Good day."
The click from the phone was deafening. I returned the set to the cradle and looked at it in an amalgam of disgust and rage.
As I threw my meager belongings in the trunk of my car, I couldn't help but argue with myself of what to do next. Nearly taking over my decision process every time was self-preservation: fight or flight; getting the Hell out of Dodge as quickly as humanly possible. However, I wasn't a jerk, and I knew that caught in the mix was an innocent school teacher suffering the same mental anguish as I was. Chivalry might me dead, but I guess I never got the memo. I knew full well I couldn't leave Miss Bonny alone. And damn the consequences. I stood by my car and stared off into the distance where the welcoming sound of the highway could easily be heard through the crisp, late fall air. I sighed, wishing I were picking up speed on the entrance ramp and heading away... far away. But I'd kick myself for the rest of my life if I didn't know she was safe. This place was making me see things. I'd only once before in my life seen what I thought might have been a ghost, but it literally paled in comparison to the image that appeared on my motel room bed. I was still shaken, but I felt a lot better just being out of the room all together. And with that, I knew I had to make a stop at the lobby. I had a key to deliver, and a little something else.
"Ted!" I shouted as I purposefully marched to the counter, "Ted! Where ya hiding, buddy?"
The lobby was eerily quiet. The remnants of my voice echoed through the small office. I leaned over the counter and tried to peer a little further around the back corner into the rear of the room, but to no avail. I couldn't see much further than where the hall entered the back.
"Ted! Where are you, man! It's Mr. Miller!" Why hadn't I ever told him my first name? Oh well, it didn't matter, even as odd as my name sounded to my own ears without actually saying it.
I listened again, and it was then I heard a lowing emanating from somewhere further back into the office. I stood there for a second and listened a bit more intently, and sure enough the moaning continued. It sounded like someone was either hurt or in the process of being hurt. I couldn't just leave it alone. I turned the corner of the counter, quickly walked to the little hall way, and peered around the edge into the rear office.
Lord help me, I immediately wished I hadn't.
Ted was curled up in a ball on the floor. A deathly pallor hung over his face like a sheet. Tears streamed down his face, and he was visibly shaking. A few feet just above his ashen face was an ethereal, translucent form that -even from the distance and angle I stood- was unmistakably the same little girl I'd seen only an hour before. She glared at him; scowled and chastised. Ted was absolutely terrified, a fact made all the more apparent by the rapidly spreading wet spot at the front of his jeans. I stood in silent wonder as the form continued its malevolent lesson. But an audible click from my gaping mouth betrayed me.
The apparition turned, saw me, and I swear she smiled at precisely the same moment she seemed to fly directly at me... no, not 'at', through me. The feeling of sorrow and disillusionment was so palpable and real that I did all I could not to faint from the melancholia. I dropped to my knees and tried to catch my breath as I looked over at Ted. He was completely petrified with fear to the point that he appeared to be dead. I stood, walked over to him, and it turned out that appearances weren't always deceiving. Ted's breathing had ceased. I held his wrist and he had no pulse. I swallowed and immediately thought that I had to get to the phone.
Until a voice shook me to my core.
"Theodore refused to listen, too, Mr. Miller."
To Be Continued...