Authors: J.D. Lawrence
Trees in the distance swayed back and forth steadily, their branches raising and falling with each passing eruption of wind. The thick grey clouds rolled in, arriving slowly, entombing the sky with their silky murkiness, where they stayed, full and hateful. The rain fell lightly at first, nothing but a gentle splutter caught up in the swirling, nimble flow of the breeze. The hollow howl whistled a ghoulish tale through the trees and then it fell, tumbling majestically from the heavens.
The rain hammered down, attacking the vehicle with an unforgiving, brute force. A slight curvature in the middle of the road collected the descending drops with a magnetic ease, and small puddles started to form near the split and balding tyres. The erratic gusts would have made it almost impossible to hold a conversation without shouting. But for her, the night was passing silently.
A crescent moon hanging high in the blackened sky kept the indistinct specks of stars company, casting the only visible light, forcing it through the thick gloom of night time. The temperature was slowly dropping and within the hour it would fall to just below freezing. Every so often, when the wind blew hard enough and the ever-growing pools of water rippled in the right direction, the fading road markings revealed themselves, hinting that this deserted flood plane was not the edge of the earth.
The ground trembled and the sky split, sending shimmering blue sparks to light the shadows that the night had brought.
A storm was gathering.
The ageing, pastel-blue car sat solitary at the side of the submerged road. Its lonely tears streaming down the outside of its steamed up windows, rendering any effort to peek inside hopeless.
She was slumped almost comfortably in the driver’s seat, her seatbelt resting graciously across her midsection, her flowing blonde hair seductively flirting with the material. With eyes shut tightly, her mouth ajar, and her hands placed neatly in her lap, she resembled something of a sleeping angel.
The inside of the car seemed untouched, empty, save for a locked leather satchel inhabiting the left section of the back seat, not noticeable from the reflection cast by the rear view mirror.
Dangling from the ignition, a set of keys. Three keys in total. One, a life source for the engine. The other two, John Does. Whether the key would start the car was unknown.
In the foreground, sheet lightning blanketed the deadly-looking sky. A thunderous roar sent a light hum through the metal body of the car. Several more flashes and roars tore up the endless darkness and ripped the silence from the world. Marilyn's eyes shot open, empty, not realising what they were seeing. They looked into the nothing, the pupils adjusting to the light and surroundings, her face draining of all colour and emotion. Panic engulfed her nervous system, spreading and burning through her veins with the ferocity of an uncontrollable house fire. Shards of broken memories pierced her mind, terrifying her. Her eyes seemed to slip away and die, but only for a second. She leapt forward with a gasping breath, crushing her ribs in a collision with the seat belt.
Fumbling, she glanced around, noticing the lone satchel. Marilyn unclipped the seat belt with her shivering fingers and glowered at the strap as it slowly ascended to the top of the seat with a hypnotic buzz. She looked down at her clothes, they were hers. Blue jeans and a white floral blouse masked the slim, whimpering body. Even in her state of hysteria, her beauty was unrivalled. The Grace Kelly of our time. Free, Marilyn leaned over and glared at herself in the rear view, blinking in a rhythmic fashion. She did not like what peered back, a bleak and tortured sculpture crafted at the hands of a dejected, heartbroken artist. She brought her hand to her face, stroking, as if to check she was real, to see if she would shatter. Nothing did, but she could feel the goose bumps that littered her cheeks, a tear ran over an unpolished fingernail.
The rain continued to pelt the car with an intense wildness, making it impossible to think. It beat at the roof and windows and doors like a frightening stranger with a grudge. It was lighter than before, but showed no sign of stopping, it was there for the long haul. Night was at its darkest, in a couple of hours the sun would begin to rise and bring with it a fresh wave of terror, well, at least for Marilyn.
Wiping the condensation from the windscreen with her clammy palm, Marilyn exposed the blackness that had set over her. The dread and confusion sunk itself deeper into her core, crushing her lungs, each breath waterlogged, heavy and unsteady. An explosion of recollection sent a shock wave hurtling straight through her, cracking her wanting mind with an internal earthquake of falling thoughts. It all came together piece by piece in a split second. She watched herself in the mirror as the tears erupted, leaving a salty, wet trail of misery down her cheeks, her bright blue eyes becoming dark pools of despair. She let out a throaty gargle that seemed to stick at the top of her windpipe.
Marilyn screamed, not holding back, she fumbled for the door handle, her quivering fingers pulling at it with all the might her body could produce, her feet kicking and scuffing at the floor mats. It would not budge. Taking a moment to come to her senses, she flicked the lock up and earned her right to freedom. Pulling once again at the handle, Marilyn managed to swing her cage door open. The cold air swept in making her feel light-headed and queasy, bullets of rain flew close behind, followed by the overpowering force of the wind that bellowed through car. She leapt from the car with outstretched arms, and unsteady feet, gasping with the full capacity of her lungs.
‘JACK… JACK, WHERE ARE YOU? OH MY GOD, JACK... JACK... SOMEBODY, PLEASE HELP ME.’
The rain punished her face, mixing with her tears, leaving the sweet taste of self-pity in her mouth. She fell hard to her knees with a wet, splashing thump that would surely leave them scraped and bruised. Her head dropped and she collapsed, lying on the floor. The wind blew at her, callously. She wept under the unrelenting gloom of an eternal midnight, her futile cries carried away into obscurity.
Seconds later, succumbing to the concrete reality, Marilyn collected herself and got to her feet. Soaked and ravaged, she stood her ground in the middle of the road, the puddles spilling up and over the bottoms of her shoes.
'JACK… JACK, PLEASE ANSWER ME.'
She whirled around, looking in all directions.
'JACK,' she screamed. 'HELP ME, PLEASE, SOMEBODY.'
Marilyn composed herself. Determined, she took a few shallow wheezes of the suffocating horror and fled towards the car, her white slip-on shoes soaking up the icy, sloshing water as she moved. The torrent of rain showed no mercy as it beat at her crumbling body.
At the door she clasped the handle and let herself in, slamming it behind her. She reached into the back seats and gripped her satchel. It was well loved, the brown leather was patchy and cracked. Unhooking the straps, she reached inside, her hand feeling for something that was not there. Discarding the satchel, Marilyn pulled down the glove box with her soaking hands, it was full of napkins and sachets of sauce. They had stopped at a drive-thru, Jack had eaten chicken nuggets and fries, what did she have? She couldn't remember. She slammed the glove box closed.
The tears still fell. Remembering that the keys were in the ignition, Marilyn snapped out of her sorrowful trance and twisted the keys. The engine let out a deathly shriek, making her recoil in unease. She twisted again and the car cried itself to life, spluttering out the mucus of a broken slumber. Marilyn switched on the lights, allowing her concentration to get captured by the dizzying allure of the swirling rain. She revved the sleepy car, each rev bringing with it more life, and started the wipers at full speed.
Marilyn sat alone in the middle of the storm, Jack was missing, her memory and senses failing her. She looked behind out of the back window; 'Where are you, Jack?' and pulled off, heading straight forward, not looking back again. The rain spiralled violently in the beam of the tenacious headlights, while the windscreen wipers worked overtime to create a distinguishable path. With a shudder, they vanished into the untold wilderness.
At sixty-seven, Elwood's days were fading fast, at least they felt that way. He sat slouched at his desk, a place where he spent most of his time, with a curious expression carved into the contours of his ashen face, reading a hardback mystery novel under the comforting glow of a golden touch lamp. He had taken the paper cover off to keep it from creasing. He had always loved mystery stories for as long as he could remember, even deciding to try and write one, once. That didn't go as planned, when June fell ill, he put everything on hold. His eighty-eight pages lay underneath his bed sheets in the bottom drawer of his bedside cabinet.
The study walls were bare, with just shoddy, bland paper covering them up, the edges frayed and patchy. Four empty picture hooks dotted themselves around the room in no kind of formation, revealing the original, shiny wall paper in all its fine glory.
He licked his fingers, flipping the page over to start a new chapter, and stuffed his chilly feet inside his favourite leather slippers.
Elwood's hair was slicked back, his glasses resting on the tip of his cold, red nose, and even for his age he still looked stylish. Freeing a yawn, Elwood rolled up the sleeve of his shirt and focused his eyes on his watch. 3:28am. He slipped his rumpled bookmark between his pages and closed the book, fought back another yawn and took his glasses off. He rubbed his eyes with his thumbs, relieving the tension and bringing sensation back to his nose.
He placed his book on a shelf housed by the vintage five-drawer Sheesham wood desk, used both arms to push himself out of the matching chair and walked across the rustic, straw-coloured woven carpet to the window, and twisted the blinds open. The neon lights blazed back at him, still noticeable even in the belly of the storm. Passers-by were able to see it from over five hundred yards, storm or no storm. Bailey's Motel was the only motel around in over eighty miles. It had seen better days, it wasn't much to look at, it never had been, but it still gave off the impression of comfort and warmth.
Elwood exhaled, releasing a feeble, pitiful sigh. He strolled back over to his desk, reached into a side cupboard, took out his medicine and measuring glass. Easily unscrewing the top off a rather expensive looking single malt whiskey, he blindly poured a double shot into his decorative, gold-rimmed glass and swirled it around, watching and inhaling the harmful aroma admiringly. He shot it back and slammed the empty glass onto the stained, wooden counter with a professional ease, accompanied by a satisfied teeth-baring smile. He swallowed hard and contorted his face into a confused state of painful pleasure. He robotically repeated the motions, screwed the top back onto the bottle and sent it home, his nightly ritual over.
He walked to his desk, smiled at the four photos that were lined across the surface and turned the lamp off, still licking and savouring the taste from his cracked lips. Elwood headed for bed, where he knew he wouldn't get much sleep, he never did. Taking one last look at the motel sign, he closed the study door and retreated to his quarters.
The car was in desperate need of attention. Discarded food wrappers and drinks bottles cluttered the floors and seats. The putrid stench of mouldering fast food and take-out made it difficult to breathe. Two worthless air fresheners dangled from the hand grip above the driver’s door, tied in childlike double knots. One citrus, the other a peach flavour. A banquet of clothes and bags was spread across the back seats like a disorganised office desk. The stuffing from the seats poked and spilled through the rips and burns in the fabric. This was a home, not a vehicle.
The man watched with a keen eye as the boy slept to his side. A sudden coughed wracked the young body, flinching in a comfortless seat. The boy squirmed and wriggled like a drug addict denied his fix. His closed eyes flickered and a cry clogged in the sticky phlegm deep inside his throat, trapped. He coughed a closing chord and turned his troubled head toward the opaque window, seeming to relax.
The man extended his arm and pressed the back of his grubby hand against the boy’s forehead, checking for signs of a temperature. Feeling no indication of a fever, he removed his hand and clasped the steering wheel. The boy was fine, as fine as could be expected. No need to worry.
The man centralised his attention back on to the demanding road. The rain was intensifying, and unable to see more than four feet in front of him, the man had to slow the car down to a crawl. He was never going to get anywhere at this rate. He released a take-away coke from the hugging drinks holder, and slurped loudly, although it was only melted ice and the dregs of a flat cola, it was still rather cool and refreshing. He swallowed a couple of times and let out a rude, bellowing belch, not seeming to worry if it woke up the boy. He smiled with the grin of a child who had just heard a rude joke for the first time.
A neon sign slumbered from the watery night. 'Bailey’s Motel'. A sly grin replaced the smirk and he moved forward, closer to the windscreen and erased the mist from the glass with the same filthy hand that had scrutinized the boy’s wellbeing. There it stood, a symbol from the heavens piercing his foul visual field, he was only a minute or two away. He stayed hunched at the wheel all the way there, his grin expanding the closer he got. The man allowed his eyes one last gaze at the boy, making sure he was still asleep. He patted him on the head, ruffling his hair with his infected touch.
He turned into the entrance of the motel, it was nothing more than a deserted gravel patch, the water-logged stones sounding subdued under the tyres. Darkness eclipsed the old buildings, only the subtle glow from potted, battery-run lights outlined a path that led to the main office building. The man followed it precisely.
The main office was a muddy, brown excuse for a structure, a not so welcoming welcome mat was placed next to the door. The brickwork was antique, but sturdy, built in a style that is rarely seen any more.
The man pulled up a few feet from the door, so the passenger side of the car was fully hidden away from any prying eyes. He silenced the engine with a twist of the key, and listened as it spluttered the joyous sound of appreciation before signing off. He watched himself in the mirror, enjoying what he saw. He was beginning to feel like his old self again. This is what he had been waiting for, for two long years. He still blamed himself for what had happened, but maybe that would pass in time, he hoped.
Fixing his hair and feeling that he looked suitable, he unfastened his seatbelt, readying himself to embrace Mother Nature’s calamity. He unfastened the boy’s belt and laid him down across the seats between the handbrake, tucking his knees into his chest. The boy continued his perpetual sleep, undisturbed by the man's physical actions.
With both car doors locked, the man ran to the shelter of the porch, using the top of his torn, unwashed jacket for protection. He shook himself off and brought his hands and face to the murky door window, squinting his eyes. The man double-checked the car, investigating. The boy could not be seen. He took a few moments and readied himself, preparing for interaction with whomever was revealed from behind the poor, tattered door.
BANG, BANG, BANG.
The wood shuddered, feeling violated. The sound wandered through the bare hallways, failing to reach its desired destination.
This time it was harder, louder.
BANG, BANG, BANG, BANG.
This time it did not fail, reaching its target with military precision. Elwood jumped, his heart slamming in his fragile chest, with all the subtly of a bowling ball thrown through a single-paned window. He ripped the covers off himself and slid out of bed into his leather slippers, throwing a navy blue dressing gown around himself before grasping a small bat from against the wall. He tightened his hand, turning his knuckles white, and moved, bleary-eyed, from his bedroom, making his way to the front door. Elwood stayed in the shadows, switching the bat to his other hand, removing it from view. He flicked on a light switch, but said nothing. A silhouette formed through the glass, a person below average height, a woman, maybe. He thought about this and shifted the bat behind his back. The door was locked and chained, but even that couldn't have withstood a kick or two from your average teenager.
The man saw a light flicked out though the dripping wet glass of the door. A few moments later a figure shuffled in the gloom. There was a rattling of a chain and a turn of a key before the door swung open. A slim man, riddled with stubble, dressed in a robe, and wearing glasses that were clearly too big emerged from the yellow light.
'Can I help you?' Elwood asked, holding onto the door firmly.
The man inched closer, smelling the stale taste of liquor on Elwood's breath.
'Hello, I'm really sorry to bother you, even more so at this hour, but I've been travelling for hours now, I'm tired, and this storm seems to be getting worse by the minute.' He rubbed at his head, wiping the drips before they trickled into his eyes. 'I saw the vacancy sign, and well, I was wondering if you had a room until the morning?'
'You've only got a few hours left until morning, son.' Elwood considered. 'I'm going to have to charge you full price, I hope you don't mind? Business isn't so good, and...'
'That’ll be fine.'
The old man’s lips pursed and he forged an awkward expression as he removed the chain from its holster. 'Come on in,' he chirped, moving aside for his unknown guest.
The man stepped over the lip of the frame and stamped his boots on the rug, throwing bits of gravel and mud across the unpolished floor.
'Jesus, I haven't seen it like this in years.'
'I know, pretty bad. Had you been knocking long? Couldn't hear anything with this blasted wind.'
'Only a minute or so, not long. Just glad you answered.' An honest, friendly look consumed his freezing face, his cheeks reddening in the warmth. His face looked broken down. Worn out. His hair was greying around the sides.
'Come on through, I'll sign you in.' The old man smiled in return. 'Would you like a hot drink, tea? Maybe a hot chocolate? It'll help you sleep.'
'No, I'm OK, thanks. Just a room will be fine.'
'You sure? It's no bother, honestly.'
'I told you, no,' the man snapped abruptly.
There was a moment of silence as the two men gazed at each other.
'I'm sorry, it’s been a long day. I'm tired and wet and just want to get my head down for a few hours. Night driving really takes it out of you, I hope I haven't offended you!'
'No… not at all.
sorry,' the old man apologised. 'It's been a little while since I've seen anyone, gets kinda lonely around here sometimes, ya know? But I know how you feel, used to drive the lorries back in my day. Driving in the dark is a killer,' he admitted. 'Are you travelling alone?'
The man waited a second.
The two men paced through the hallway, listening to the smooth and rough sounds of the slippers and boots scrape and tap the wooden floor. The old man lifted up the hinged, wooden side of the desk and stepped though. 'What will it be, son? Double bed?'
'Sure, why not?'
'Like I said, I'll have to charge you for the full night.'
'That's no problem, how much will it be?'
The old man thought about it, squinting his eyes.
'One double room, one night, that'll be sixty-five dollars fifty-five for the room and ten deposit for the keys.'
'That'll be fine, cash OK?'
The old man pulled out his signing-in register with a smile, and dropped it on the counter, the noise shattering the silence with an ear-crunching slam. He licked his fingers out of habit and flipped through the pages. The man dug out his wallet from the back pocket of his worn out jeans, being careful not to display his driver’s licence. He licked his fingers and proceeded to count through his notes. He pulled out the sixty-five and returned his wallet back into the same pocket.
'Twenty, forty, sixty, sixty-five. There you go.' He counted the money onto the unit and double tapped it down for good measure.
Elwood smiled, swiping it up as naturally as he could manage. 'Would you mind signing this for me, please?'
The old man handed him a once popular, but now neglected fountain pen missing the small chain attachment that connected it to the desk, and pushed the book across to the man. The man whirled it around, scanning his finger across the page, searching for a suitable place to autograph.
He returned the pen and slid the book back across the smooth surface. They exchanged a long and uncomfortable silence. The old man dragged his tired body across the room to a wall-mounted cabinet. Inside there hung six sets of keys, a set for each room, at the bottom stood two flashlights and spare batteries. He unhooked set of keys Number 5 and shuffled back to the man.
'Here you go, Number 5.' He slid the keys across the counter. 'It's the nicest double room I have here, it's two rooms down to the left as you leave here.'
'That's very kind of you, thank you.'
'Not a problem, it's nice to see a face to be truthful, even if it is at this ungodly hour, in this shit weather.'
'Much obliged, didn't think I would find anywhere to stay, you're a life saver.'
The pair smiled at each other.
'My name's Elwood.’ He held out his hand but when the man didn’t shake it he let it drop to his side casually. ‘Care to join me?' the old man asked.
Elwood disappeared, reaching into a side cabinet and reappeared with old faithful and two identical glasses.
'Join me in a midnight tipple? Sharing is caring, right?' He laughed.
He removed the lid and began pouring two drinks without waiting for conformation. He handed the man the glass.
'What the hell, I suppose it'll help me sleep, right?' He accepted.
They raised their glasses.
'Cheers,' they uttered together.
Both men shot the drinks, leaving nothing at the bottom. They snarled at the taste, swilling it around their mouths, temporarily, then swallowing. In unison, they slammed the glasses on the counter.
'Damn, that's fine!' Elwood boasted.
'Damn straight,' the man nodded in agreement, relaxing a little. 'Hey, you're pretty lucky you've still got power here, the storm seems to have taken most things out.'
'Don't you believe it, son,' laughed Elwood, rubbing the stubble on his chin. 'It got taken out about an hour ago, got this place running on generators. Fuckin' things are noisy as hell.'
'Well, that explains it,' the man expressed with an easy smile. 'I better be hitting the sack. It's been a long night. Thanks for the drink.'
'My pleasure, that stuff will put hairs on your chest, that's for sure,' Elwood remarked, hitting his chest twice with his clenched fist. 'Right, do you need a hand moving anything from the car?' he asked, politely.
'No, no, I'm fine. I travel light. Just have a few things on the back seat, nothing I can't manage,' he said, wearing his awkward smile upon his face.
Elwood returned the facial expression. 'That's good to hear. I'll walk you to the door.’ He lifted the counter top and gestured at the hallway. The man, relieved, spun on his heels and made his way out of the office, a small spring in his step.
'Now, don't go expecting the Ritz.' Elwood chuckled, amused by his own joke. 'It's all clean and there's a shower, there's also a T.V., but you're not going to be able to pick up any channels in this weather. There's a phone, too, but the lines are down, the storm took those out a few hours ago, but it's warm and dry. I hope that's OK?'
'Yeah, that's fine. Just looking to get my head down for a couple of hours,' the man answered, honestly.
The two men zigzagged through the hallway, reaching the front door. The man pulled it open before retreating in shock as the storm sprayed its fury through the gap, soaking them both. He thanked Elwood and sent a salute his way. Elwood nodded in return. 'Breakfast will be served by nine, nine-thirty, you want me to wake you, son?'
'Oh, I'll be gone by then.' He raised his hand, pointing at the sky. 'Like I said, just want to get my head down for a few hours and let this pass.'