Fiction by Steph Post
The sign flickered in the twilight, the letters electric-Elvis blue against the fading sky. The U and the O were out, mere wire skeletons, but David could make out the name of the motel. The Blue Diamond. He slowed his Oldsmobile to a crawl and read the approaching marquee: Last St p Before Utah. Che p Rates. Fre HBO.
“Either these people are damn illiterates or just plain lazy,” David mumbled to himself, as he pulled into the empty dirt parking lot. He parked next to the only other vehicle, a battered Ford pickup with peeling white paint. The truck’s right front tire was completely flat, sand piled around the sunken rubber. It hadn’t been driven in a while. David looked behind him, as the lightness disappeared below the horizon. It would be desert dark in about five minutes, and the Blue Diamond sign was the only light he could see. He didn’t want to stop, but his head was aching, and his eyes were burning. He had left Las Vegas that afternoon, when the housekeeper wouldn’t quit pounding on his door, and he hadn’t slept the night before. He hadn’t slept in over 36 hours. Just stared at the wall in the Lucky 7 Inn and then, at the winding highway. He couldn’t remember driving the last two hours.
David rubbed his eyes and cut off the engine. He was exhausted, and the car was overheated. He would get a room for a few hours and be on his way, back on the road before dawn. He was out of Las Vegas; he could sleep here. David got out and made sure all four doors were locked, even though there was no one around, and there was nothing inside of the car. He didn’t check the trunk; he knew that was locked, and swinging his keys in his hand, he walked up to the motel office.
David let the glass door swing shut behind him. A jingle bell on a red ribbon tied to the door handle crashed into the glass and tinkled discordantly. A gaudy garland of red tinsel ran along the office desk and dragged to the floor at one end. A cardboard Santa Claus wished him a Merry Christmas from its Scotch-taped position on the side of the desk. It was September. David stood on the welcome mat inside the front door and eyed the office. The festive desk with its wall of key hooks behind it and a Lance cracker machine in the corner were the only occupants. Until David looked up.
“Holy shit …”
“Can I help you?”
But David couldn’t take his eyes off the upper walls. All along the perimeter of the room were animal heads. David had seen mounted deer heads before and even a moose once in a hunting lodge restaurant, but nothing like this. This was bizarre. A coyote, with its taxidermy tongue lolling out, was the only local animal he recognized. There was a white tiger head, a gazelle head, and a giraffe head. The head of a moray eel was mounted directly above him. There was a sloth head and a lion head and the head of a small elephant with more red tinsel hung between its tusks. The red glinted off of the elephant’s frozen glass eyes. The garland made it almost appear to smile.
“I said, ‘Can I help you?’”
David dragged his eyes away from the elephant head and focused on a short man who had appeared behind the desk. The man wore a sweat-stained white undershirt and a Cleveland Indians baseball cap pulled down low over his shaggy, blond hair. His neck and face were sunburned and creased with desert sand. His small mouth held a homemade cigarette. David approached the desk, glancing at the mounted chimpanzee head above the little man.
“I’m sorry, were you here when I walked in? I didn’t see anyone.”
“Would you like a room?”
The man spoke with a raspy drawl David couldn’t place. He wished the man would take off his baseball cap so that David could see his eyes. For a second, David was afraid they might be made of glass. A beat of panic rose in his chest, but then, he sighed and let it go. He chalked it up to being tired. So the room was creepy and the little man was creepy. David was only staying for a few hours anyway. Just until he was rested. He dropped his keys on the desk and fumbled in his pants pocket for his wallet.
“Um … yes. Just one room. Just for tonight. I’ve got a long drive ahead of me, you see.”
“It’s a long road out there. No telling where it goes.”
“Yes, well …”
“I need your driver’s license and $49.99. Cash only. I don’t got a credit card machine.”
David cracked open his wallet and pulled out three twenties.
“That’s the cheapest room you’ve got? It’s only for one night.”
“It’s the only room available.”
David glanced back out the glass office door. His Oldsmobile and the broken truck were still the only cars in the parking lot. The eerie light from the Blue Diamond sign reflected off the truck’s windshield. The night had gone black.
“I don’t got no change, neither.”
“Why not, if you’re so booked up you only have one room left?” David sneered.
“Oh, they pay me in other ways, you know.”
David ran his hands through his short, dark hair and grimaced. His skull felt like it was trying to break through his forehead. He wished the office had one of those little machines that dispensed aspirin and TUMS, but there were only Lance crackers. Most of the racks inside of it were empty, anyway.
“Whatever. Keep the change. Just give me the key.”
The little man wrote down some numbers and then gave David back his license. He slid a key — with a blue, diamond-shaped keychain printed with the number 227 — across the desk.
“Just go right down the hall. It’s the last door on the left. I hope you don’t mind horses.”
“It’s the horse room. You know, horse decorum and all. When my wife was alive, she liked to decorate all of the rooms differently. The old Indians ’round here used to say that a horse was the one creature that could see right through your soul.”
“I don’t care how the room looks, as long as it’s got a decent bed.”
“It should treat you right fine.”
David raised his eyebrows and grunted a short laugh at the man. Stupid hick, he thought. It didn’t matter, though. It was just for a little while. He just needed to close his eyes for a little while. David put his car keys and wallet away and picked up the key with the blue tag on it. He shook the key and grinned sarcastically at the little man, but the guy wasn’t looking. He was shuffling a pile of papers around on the desk, and David couldn’t even see his face for that damned baseball cap. His jest ignored, David turned and headed down the lone hallway. All he wanted was sleep.
David closed the room door behind him, felt blindly for the light switch and, upon finding it, found himself eye to glass eye with the mounted head of a horse.
“Jesus, he wasn’t kidding.”
There were three horse heads, all positioned so as to be looking at the lopsided double bed in the middle of the room. David went to sit down, still keeping his eye on the first horse he had run into.
“These people must be lunatics out here.”
He sat down on the paisley comforter and felt for the bedsprings. He could feel them. He looked at the other horse heads on the wall, all chestnut brown like the first one with glittering black eyes. He almost wanted to touch one, to see if it was truly real, but he didn’t have to. He knew they were real. So were the heads out in the office. He knew.
“I am never coming back to this god-awful state,” he said, and then caught himself. Why was he talking out loud? There was no one else here. Was he talking to the horses? For another second, he felt that same wave of panic, but then suppressed it. This is ridiculous, he thought, making sure he didn’t say it out loud. I’m just tired. I’m so tired I’m becoming delirious. Who cares what these crazy people hang on their walls?
There was a small clock radio on the one bedside table, and David set it for 3 a.m. He told himself he wasn’t afraid, only that he didn’t intend to stay there any longer than he had to. When he turned on the radio to test the volume, Patsy Cline blared obscenely loud at him and he jumped. He immediately looked at the horses. Their dead eyes stared back at him.
“Stupid radio,” he muttered, not realizing he was talking out loud again. “Some jackass must have left the volume full blast. Some joke.”
He readjusted the volume and turned the radio off. There was a narrow door that must have led to the bathroom, but David didn’t want to open it. He told himself he wasn’t afraid, he just didn’t need to. He hadn’t brought a toothbrush, and he had urinated on his front tire half an hour before he found the motel.
“Besides,” he said, addressing the first horse head, “wouldn’t want to disturb any of your brothers hanging up in there. Best to just leave them alone, right?”
The horse head didn’t answer. David got up to turn the light off but stopped. He would have to walk past the first horse to get to the light switch.
“Probably safer to just leave the light on. In case somebody tries to break in or something. Who knows what kind of hooligans might be staying here. With their nonexistent cars.”
He laughed to himself but kept the light on. He looked down at the ugly paisley comforter and decided to keep that on, too. And his clothes. He lay down on top of the bed and closed his eyes. He opened them and looked at the horse heads. They were looking right at him. He looked at the first one for a long time, then threw his arm over his eyes. He was asleep instantly.
He had a dreamless sleep, and when Hank Williams crooned him awake at 3 in the morning, he didn’t want to open his eyes. He slapped blindly at the radio and fell back on the pillow in silence. But something was wrong. He opened his eyes and stared at the wall. The horse heads were gone. David sat up with his heart racing. They were gone. He jumped up and touched the wall where they had been hanging. Not even a nail hole. Then, he realized that his door was open.
“Hey!” he shouted. “What the …?”
He looked out down the hallway and saw no one. The office light was turned off at the end of the hall. A faint blue light crept in from the motel sign. David turned back to the wall. Could the little man have come in while David was sleeping and removed the horse heads? But why? And how could there be no nail holes? No marks on the wall of any kind?
“I know they were there when I fell asleep,” he said, talking to himself again. “I know it. I’m not crazy.”
He couldn’t stop staring at the blank wall. He had finally made up his mind to go, to get as far away from the Blue Diamond as he possibly could. In fact, he had decided that he would run, run to his Oldsmobile and step on the gas and go as fast as he could as soon as he could tear his eyes from the blank wall … when he heard a voice. He heard his name.
He turned, but there was no one there. He stepped nervously out into the dark hallway and heard the voice again, louder. He couldn’t tell where it was coming from, though. And it wasn’t just any voice. He knew that voice. Very well. He ran.
David bolted down the hallway toward the office, but something else was wrong. The blue light was gone. He had a split second to think that maybe the sign had blown its fuse before he got to the glass office door. Still running, he shouldered the door open and heard the jingle bell smack against the glass. He stopped when he realized that he was right back at the end of the hallway where his room was.
“This is impossible.”
He looked behind him for the door that he had just come through, but there was only the dark wall. Light shone from his own motel room. He heard the voice call his name again, and he ran. This time, he stopped in front of the glass office door and looked out. There was no neon sign, no parking lot, no white truck, no Oldsmobile. He looked through the glass and saw only the motel hallway. Like a mirror. Except that he didn’t see the office reflected back at him; he saw the other end of the hallway. Where his room was. He frantically looked around the office, half expecting the little man to pop out of nowhere like he did before. But David was alone. And the voice was getting louder. He opened the office door and stepped through it again. He was back at the end of the hall. He started to go back into his room, to sit on the bed and think. To get away from the awful voice, but he stopped in his tracks. The horse heads were back.
They were different horse heads now. The chestnut horses were gone, and in their place were white ones. He walked slowly up to the first horse head. It was a different color, but he had a strange feeling that it was somehow the same horse. He got to within a foot of it, all the while staring straight into its eye. He got a little closer. The eye blinked.
David screamed and backed out of the room. He slammed the door shut and was left in complete darkness. He could still hear the voice.
“What do you want from me!?” he called out. He ran tripping down the hallway feeling for the doorknobs and ripping open every door he came to. “Where are you?! Do you hear me, you crazy bitch?! I give up! I give up …”
David leaned against the hallway wall, panting. He felt a wetness on his face and realized he must be crying. The voice was still calling his name. He turned his head, pressing his wet face against the wallpaper, and saw a faint blue light. The sign. The sign was back! David stumbled down the hallway, toward the light, and was relieved to see that outside the glass door was the parking lot. He pushed open the door, and the jingle bell tinkled; he was back out in the dirt lot. He didn’t waste any time. He was running toward his car, when he heard the voice again. This time, he knew she was right behind him.
He slowly turned around to see her standing there, lit up by the Blue Diamond sign as if it were a halo. She was still wearing the white dress he had married her in. He could see the small tear in the dress, over her heart, where the bullet had entered. He could also, faintly, read the motel marquee through her. Fre HBO. He tried to scream, but it came out more like a gurgle. She moved toward him.
He backed away, holding his car keys in his hand as if to protect himself with them. He kept backing up until he ran into the hood of his Oldsmobile. “What do you want?”
Her face turned pouty, her lips pressed together like a child’s. Her long, blond hair was lit blue around the edges. She put her hands on her hips. “David, where are you going?”
“No-no-nowhere.” He tried to breathe. This wasn’t real. That motel wasn’t real. She couldn’t be real.
“David, don’t lie to me. You know I hate it when you lie to me.”
She moved closer to him. Blood began to dribble out of the bullet hole and down her dress. She seemed not to notice. David edged along the side of the car, feeling for the door handle. He couldn’t believe he was talking to her.
“Look, Jenny. I, uh … You’re dead. I don’t know if you know that or not. Maybe you didn’t get the memo, or however it works, but you’re dead. So, uh, it’s been nice talking to you, and I guess I’ll, uh …”
He jammed the key in the car door lock and twisted. He turned to pull the door open, but the locks slammed down. He twisted the key again, and the locks popped up, then down again. Frantic, he punched the window, but only hurt his hand. He turned back around. She was closer.
“And why, David, am I dead?”
“Because I shot you! Because I killed you! Now what do you want?! What do you want from me?”
Her lips pursed even more. She looked like a child who doesn’t understand why the answer is no. “And why did you kill me?”
He had tried to block the last month, especially the last 48 hours, out of his head, but it all came rushing back. It was almost as if she were forcing him to remember every detail, all at once. It flashed before him in a second. He had seduced her, fifteen years her senior. He had told her he loved her. She trusted him. She broke into her father’s safe. She carried away all $150,000 in her Louis Vuitton suitcase. They were going to start a new life together somewhere. He would invest all the money. He told her he would make her happy. They drove together from Los Angeles in his Oldsmobile. He had taken her to Las Vegas. She wanted to be married right away. They drove through the Merry Bells Chapel on Fremont Street. She in her white sundress, he in the same black pants and white dress shirt he was wearing now. They were pronounced husband and wife in the front seat. She was so happy. They drove out into the wilderness. He said he wanted to take her picture against the red canyons. She was so beautiful. He said he had found a spot. She got out of the car and walked a little ways in her sundress. She asked, Is this good? She spread her arms wide, like an angel, smiled, and turned around. He shot her through the heart. Her smile collapsed. He threw the pistol in the opposite direction and left her there. He drove away.
David gasped as the memory finished. It had felt like a streak of lightning coursing through his head, and now it was over. He was sure she had made him remember it all. And now, she was coming closer.
“Why did you kill me, David? I want to know why.”
Suddenly David sprang up and scrambled to the back of his car. He punched the key in the lock, and this time it worked. The trunk popped open. He snatched the heavy leather suitcase and held it out to her with both hands. Her expression did not change.
“Here, take it. I don’t want it anymore. It’s yours. Take it all.”
He dropped the suitcase and zipped it open. He reached in and pulled out handfuls of hundred dollar bills, then threw the money at her. Some of it went through her. He dumped the bag onto the dirt and pushed the stacks of bills toward her.
“Take it, take it. Please.”
He was on his knees now, holding the money out to her. She ignored the bills fluttering around her.
“I don’t want it,” she said.
David looked around the dirt parking lot as if trying to find something else he could offer her. His face was wet. He could smell a rank odor and was vaguely aware that he had pissed himself. He looked up into her eyes. They were dead. He didn’t know what else he could give her.
“Then what do you want?”
She laughed. An empty, crackling laugh. He had never heard her sound like that before.
“Why, sweetheart, I thought it was obvious. I want you.”
David jumped to his feet and tried the door handle again. This time, it opened. He grabbed his keys out of the dirt and looked at Jenny. She was still laughing. He slid into the car seat and slammed his key into the ignition. His foot pressed on the gas, and he jolted out of the parking lot without even closing the car door. It banged closed, as he jerked around the corner. He looked in his rearview mirror. Her head was turned, following him down the road, but she hadn’t moved. He watched for her in the mirror until the Blue Diamond disappeared around a curve.
David drove with his foot mashing the gas pedal to the floor until he finally caught his breath. Both hands still gripped the steering wheel, but his heartbeat was slowing down. He pulled onto the side of the road and turned the car off. He sat in the darkness for a while, not thinking, just breathing. He had gotten away. All his money was lost, but he had gotten away. He sat in the driver’s seat and listened to his own breathing. Then, he heard a voice. The little man’s voice.
“The old Indians ’round here used to say that a horse was the one creature that could see right through your soul.”
David started and switched on the overhead light. No one else was in the car with him. Only a white horse’s head sitting in the passenger seat. Blood dripped down out of the horse’s eye, and then, it blinked.
The little man standing outside of the Blue Diamond motel, smoking a homemade cigarette under the neon blue light, was the only person who heard David scream.
Steph Post is the author of the novels Lightwood and A Tree Born Crooked and her short fiction has most recently appeared in Haunted Waters: From the Depths, Nonbinary Review and the anthology Stephen King’s Contemporary Classics. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and a Rhysling Award and was a semifinalist for The Big Moose Prize. She is currently the writing coach at Howard W. Blake High School in Tampa, Florida.
Story originally published on Go Read Your Lunch on 7/8/13.