You are in a room in a long-neglected motel on a long-neglected highway. It is late at night, but you are unsure of the time because the clock on the bedside table has been blinking 12:00 since you got there. You can’t change it because there are no other clocks and your phone is … you don’t know where your phone is right now if you’re being honest with yourself.
The motel has no recognizable or memorable name and you know that, for reasons that require no articulation, that is the point. The sign bearing whatever its name is should probably be expected to be on at this time. But often it isn’t. When it is it doesn’t really work. You don’t know if it is supposed to be blinking but you know it’s probably not supposed to be blinking in the way that it is—twitching rather than pulsating. The spasms of light shine into your room from the slit in the closed curtains, which are made in a rough fabric patterned in zigzagging stripes of brown, orange, and red. If you sit up against the wall on the end of the farthest bed, your face will be dappled in the sign’s rose-colored glow every few seconds.
You are not sitting up tonight, though. You are lying on the floor, staring up at the stucco ceiling. You’ve lost track of how long you’ve been staying in that room, which is numbered 2F. It’s easy to lose track when you are virtually the only long-term customer in the place. Sometimes, during the day, you will see families of no more than four, passing by for a night or two, debating whether or not to go into the pool, which is the same shade of sickly green no matter what time of day it is.
But your sense of time passing has lately become more noticeable since room 2E became occupied by, you suspect, two people. Your suspicion is well founded because you can hear the sounds of them having sex through your side of the wall. To put it more pointedly, they are fucking, ceaselessly. It is almost impressive that it is only slightly muffled by your earplugs. But even if you do doze off you wake back up to it virtually unfazed. Maybe it’s the TV, you think. You try your own but find nothing. The sign outside just said “TV available,” which is true. There is not much else on offer. The Facts of Life on one channel, I Dream of Jeannie on the next, Dan Rather on the news.
You go out to get ice—because getting ice is what people do in motels. Plus the most recent stock of ice you piled up in the bathroom sink has almost melted and you will feel empty when it drains out completely. The ice box is at the other end of the motel. You walk past scores of empty rooms, all darkened except one that is inexplicably on. The patter of your shoeless feet echoes all the way down your balcony. You reach the office which is closed and just as lightless. A rectangular box sits outside the office displaying a large aluminum can labeled BEER in blue letters and pouring a stream of suds over the slender fingers with red-painted nails holding it. You have given up to six dollars in coins in hopes that it will work this time. Now there is also no ice.
You walk back iceless to your room. You come up on 2E and the noise of its occupants. You find that the door is not only unlocked by slightly ajar, white light flickering through the crack. A DO NOT DISTURB sign dangles from the handle, a mixed message if there ever was one. You think for a moment. They are disturbing me. I will disturb them, you conclude. You open the door after working up your self-righteousness into a froth. There is no light in the room besides the static-flashing TV. It illuminates the beds. On one sits a reel-to-reel tape player omitting the sex sounds. Your wasted self-righteousness melts into nervousness as you lower the volume of the tape. Your rights extend no further than that, you think. The tape will run itself silent on its own volition. Soon, you hope.
You feel something on your foot. Looking down you see a centipede, a pretty big one made bigger still be the shadow caused by the TV static. Crawling over your toes, its spikey sediments wave like two tiny flags. You kick it off and bolt out of the room. It’s quieter now. You scan the layout of the complex from the railing of your balcony. The pool lights are on exposing strange black shapes, almost like sentient holes, spoiling the green water. The parking lot is empty besides a single Oldsmobile from the 1980s at the far end by rooms 1B and 2B. How exactly did you get here anyway?
You suspect that it is overcast tonight because no stars are visible on the horizon. Across the adjacent highway is a flat field of rough yellow grass.
The sign stops twitching for the moment. You hear a car approach to your right on the highway. Its lights shine brighter on the blacktop as it approaches. It gets closer, and louder, it passes going well above the 55 mph speed limit. It disappears.
You go back to your room only to find it locked from inside. You don’t remember it ever working that way, but anyway your keys and your shoes and everything else except the clothes you have on and the empty ice bucket are on the other side of the locked door. You sigh. You think about going to the pool and seeing how things play out from there. It is a nice night, mild with a slight breeze. But you remember that the pool chairs are those rubbery kinds that make the peeling sound on the skin of sunbathers every time they flip themselves over. They also have those metal armrests that are either searing hot or freezing cold. You did leave the door open in 2E, however. You conclude that they more or less live with you now and what’s theirs through some creative logic is yours.
You go into the room, turn on the lights, and turn off the TV. A velvet painting of a heard of elks with reddish fur galloping over a field is hanging just above it. You leave the tape on because you are accustomed to it now. You lay on the bed rather than the floor; it seems dirtier than yours. The beds are almost certainly more comfortable than yours. You look over and notice a coin deposit labeled MAGIC FINGERS.
“The fuck? I don’t have this in my room,” you say. Below that it says 25 cents will get you two and a half minutes.
You open the drawer. There are three quarters on top of the Bible. You think two and a half minutes is sufficient and put one quarter into the slot. Once the bed reaches its peak vibration you realize you are right. The tape on the neighboring bed is still going. You start to feel nauseous, but not too nauseous. Then you are too nauseous and you can’t move. The whole room begins to blur into a golden-beige fog, except the elks in the painting, which are as clear as ever; they are galloping faster, getting closer. The possibility of being trampled to death is not what you had planned on feeling. Vomiting all over yourself now seems like a quaint alternative. Then the tape stops suddenly, and you feel better. Then it starts again but sped up, then it slows down. The tape is unspooling from the reels, flowing from the player like shining lava. Now you don’t know what to feel.
The bed finally gets still. Everything is silent. The silence rushes over you and overcomes you like you’ve never heard silence before in your life. You rush to the bathroom. Turning the lights on you see the sink filled with a pile of ice. A sense of calm tingles on your skin. You approach it slowly, respectfully. The urge to dig your hands into it or plant your face upon it is real and acute. But you hold back—what’s yours is also theirs.
The tape is now a gelatinous mountain on the bed. You pick up the strands and hold them to light as if there is a message just for you. Be back soon. Make your self at home! Or something.
The tape gets caught on your finger, the more you try to get free of it the more it gets tangled around you. You find yourself spinning in place trying to free yourself but it keeps latching on until the tape is wrapped around your midsection. The tape spreads like malicious vines down to your shins and up to your collarbone. You fall onto the floor and become still starring back up at the stucco ceiling.
“Do your worst,” you mutter to the cockroaches and centipedes and whatever else is down here with you.
At some point, you think, you will have to plot your escape. Today is not the day that will happen.