Henry had been driving for fifteen hours straight when the neon sign lured him off the interstate. He’d long been past the point of tiredness, and exhaustion had begun to seep into his bones. That might have been why the dilapidated motel, slung low and half-hidden by the overpass, looked so inviting. Or maybe it was what the sign said:
“Sleep EZ Motor Lodge. From $29.99/Night.”
Henry had planned to pull over at a rest stop and pass the early morning hours in his car, but his increasingly heavy eyelids and clammy skin begged for the civility of a bed and shower. Thirty bucks, thought Henry, I can do that.
Henry blinked against the garish florescent light that bounced off the water-stained walls of the motel office. The desk was empty, unsurprisingly so at this time of night, but it irritated Henry just the same. He tapped his knuckle on the small brass bell and waited. A round-faced man with beady eyes stuck his head out from the back room.
“Just a sec,” he yelled, ducking his head back into the room.
He emerged, shutting the door behind him carefully.
“What can I do for you?”
“A room,” Henry said. “Single, one night.”
“A room? Well, you’re in luck ‘cause that’s our business.” The round-faced man grinned at Henry, oblivious to his stony expression. “What’s your first and last name?”
“Oh, quite right! We’ve been expecting you, and we’ve already got number four made up for you. Here’s your key, and let me know if you need anything.” The man passed the brass key to Henry. Its fob was made of worn leather and stamped with the number four.
“Don’t you need my money or information or anything?”
The man smiled. “No, sir. You’re all set.”
Henry was about to argue when the man turned and walked into the back room, shutting the door behind him. Henry stood a moment longer at the desk, listening to the hum of the box fan in the window. When no one opened the door, he shrugged and picked up his duffel bag. He was too tired to care much, and figured he could square up in the morning. Henry Clifton was a common enough name, and if he had stolen some other guy’s room it would be easy to explain.
Any guilt Henry felt about the situation dissipated when he opened the door to room four. A heavy coating of dust blanketed the room, like it hadn’t been cleaned in years. The musty odor of mold and stale cigarette smoke added to the effect. Any other time, Henry might have complained. But in this case his exhaustion and the fact that he had gotten the room seemingly for free made him complacent. He pulled a stiff towel from the bathroom without turning on the light. He preferred not to look. A barely perceptible puff of dust rose from the faded floral comforter when he laid the towel down. Henry ignored it and curled up on top of the towel. He didn’t take his shoes off.
Henry slept deeply, and when the sun came pouring in to his open window, he awoke refreshed. He had hoped that the motel room would look better in the light, but he found the opposite to be true. The carpet was stained a rusty color around the walls and mold wove in delicate patterns along the ceiling. Hair gathered in balls in the corners of the bathroom. Henry felt like he was going to be sick if he stayed any longer.
He grabbed his duffel and walked to the office. It was brighter and seemed smaller in the mid-morning sun, and Henry shuffled uncomfortably from one foot to the other. He didn’t know why he felt so nervous, but he had the distinct sense that he had gotten away with something.
The round-faced man beamed at him from behind the counter.
“Was everything to your liking, sir?”
Henry grunted. “Not really. Would it kill you to hire a housekeeper at this dump?”
This made the man frown. “I’m sorry that you found your accommodations unsatisfactory, sir. But you do get what you pay for.”
“Yeah, about that. I think you gave me someone else’s room.”
“No, sir. That room was meant for you and you alone.”
“But I didn’t pay.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” the man replied. “Will you be returning your key, or will you be joining us for another night?”
Henry cleared his throat and laid the key on the counter. “I’m leaving. But thanks.”
Henry winced at the bright light as he walked into the nearly empty parking lot. Three cars were parked there; none of them looked familiar. Henry thought back to the car he was driving, the car he had owned for years, but couldn’t picture it. He was unsure of the color, make, or year. He shook his head. How could he have forgotten which car was his?
He walked past the three vehicles. Each had a license plate from a different state. Which state had he come from? Where did he live? Henry couldn’t remember. He fumbled for the key in his pocket, but came up empty.
A creeping panic prickled the back of his neck. He turned back to the office. The round-faced man was looking at him expectantly as he opened the door.
“You…you don’t happen to remember the car I was driving when I came in here last night, do you?”
The man furrowed his brow. “Is everything okay, sir? Is your vehicle missing? Should we alert the authorities?”
“No, or at least I don’t think so. It’s just…I’m not quite sure which is mine. Do you have a security camera or anything?”
“No, sir. Unfortunately we’re barely above water as it is. Technology like that is a bit above our capacity. If you’d like to stay here longer, feel free. You might remember shortly.”
Henry shook his head and walked back into the parking lot. He squinted at each car in turn, but felt no recognition. He walked past each one, leaning forward to look in the driver’s window. Had he gotten some food on his trip? Was there anything that looked familiar? Nothing looked right, and he couldn’t make himself focus.
He walked over to the side of the motel and lit a cigarette, hoping to clear his head. He smoked in silence, listening for any signs of life in the hotel. Other than the round-faced man, he hadn’t seen anyone coming or going. There must have been at least two others, though, what with the cars outside.
The absolute quiet unnerved Henry. He tossed his cigarette butt to the ground, not bothering to stamp it out. He walked along the edge of the parking lot to where the overpass jutted up from the road. Below him was the interstate, stretching as far as he could see in both directions. Not a vehicle moved along it. To his left was a county road that took off into the desert. It, too, was empty.
Henry watched the roads before him until he was satisfied that there was no traffic. It had seemed like a few minutes, but when he turned back toward the motel, the sun was sinking below the horizon. Henry turned on his heel, checking behind him. Sure enough, the shadows of early evening stretched out over the road.
Henry shook his head back and forth. Nothing made sense. He walked back to the office. The round-faced man was there.
“Jesus, don’t you ever take a break?”
“We’re a small family-owned business, sir. No time for breaks, I’m afraid.”
“Okay, well, I guess I need to stay another night. I can’t think straight, and even if I could find my car, I wouldn’t feel right driving.”
“Absolutely, sir. Room four is made up and waiting for you.” The man passed the brass key across to Henry, who took it with a huff and left the office, slamming the door behind him.
The room was indeed made up, in that the towel had been removed from the bed. Henry grabbed it and placed it back before laying down. He didn’t know what he planned to do, but he hoped another night’s sleep would clear the cobwebs out of his head. He felt uneasy, but exhaustion soon won over.
Henry awoke to the sound of crying. It was sometime early in the morning, and Henry’s head felt heavy. Through his grogginess he could tell that the crying was coming from the next room over. It was a shrill, high sound: a baby wailing at the top of its lungs. He punched his pillow, coughing at the eruption of dust, and put it over his ears.
He laid like that for what felt like hours, the high-pitched keening never stopping or quieting. Part of him felt relieved to no longer be alone, but that part was drowned out by the need for sleep.
Sighing, Henry pulled himself to his feet and walked out to the office. The lights were off inside, but the sickly yellow street lamp illuminated enough for Henry to see that the round-faced man was standing at the counter.
He pushed the door open and walked purposefully inside. “I need another room.”
“Why certainly, sir. Is something the matter with your current accommodation?”
Henry snarled. “Too many things to mention. But right now, that baby next door won’t stop crying, and I need to sleep.”
The round-faced man just smiled.
“So, can you move me or what? It’s not like you’re sold out.”
“I’m sorry, sir, but room four is your room.”
“Well, make room five my room. Or room six. What’s the problem?”
“There’s no problem, sir. It’s just…there’s no one in the room next to you, so I’m afraid switching rooms won’t solve anything.”
Henry leapt toward the man, grabbing his collar in his fists.
The round-faced man cocked his head to the side and smiled. “I’m sorry sir, but rules are rules.”
Henry tightened his grip on the man’s collar, pulling him closer over the formica counter. “What is going on here? Tell me!”
The round-faced man opened his mouth. Sound poured from his unmoving lips.
“Henry! Henry, what have you done?!” Henry recognized that voice. It was his wife’s.
Images came flooding into Henry’s mind. The crib. The mobile swaying above it. The look of horror on his wife’s face.
He loosened his grip on the man’s shirt, setting him back down.
“No. No. I didn’t. I mean, I didn’t want to. She wouldn’t stop crying. Please, she wouldn’t stop crying.” Tears streamed down Henry’s face.
More images now. The duffle bag. The slamming door. The pulsing blue and red lights in the distance. The highway. The tears. The skid. The swerve. The blackness.
Henry looked around. The round-faced man was smiling and nodding.
“You get it now, don’t you? We’ve been expecting you,” he said.
Henry clutched the sides of his head. “What’s going to happen to me?”
A flash of sympathy crossed the man’s face. “Nothing you don’t deserve.”