The Boy in the LotRonald Malfi
Eleven-year-old Mark Davis took one look at the rundown motel and thought it perfectly suited his mood. It was a crumbling saltbox against the backdrop of a black hillside forest, the windows bleak, lidded with colorless plastic shades, the entranceway about as welcoming and cheerful as the gates of a cemetery. An uneven slip of potholed blacktop—the motel’s parking lot—stood as a barrier between the ruinous building and the curve of U.S. Route 40.
As Mark’s dad turned the car into the parking lot, the chassis roller-coastering across the irregular blacktop, Mark surveyed the place. Beside him in the backseat, Tim—short for Timbuktu—panted, his hot dog breath steaming up the car’s windows. Mark petted the old dog and watched as a clear rope of saliva depended from the dog’s mouth and pattered to the car seat.
“Really, Will?” said Mark’s mother from the passenger seat.
Will Davis pulled the car into a parking space and geared it into Park. “I’m starting to fall asleep at the wheel,” he said. “Unless you want to keep driving, we’re stopping for the night.”
Mark’s mother quickly rolled up her window. “It looks like Armageddon came and went.”
“Quit being so dramatic.”
“We passed a perfectly good Holiday Inn half an hour ago.”
“Forget it. I’m not backtracking. This’ll be fine for the night.” His father turned around in the driver’s seat and smiled wearily at Mark. “This work for you, bud?”
Mark shrugged. Compared to his mood, the motel was a brightly lit amusement park.
“I’ll go in and grab us a room,” his father said, popping open his door. “You guys wait here.”
Tim whined as the door slammed shut. Mark continued petting the old dog. He watched his dad hustle across the poorly lit parking lot until he disappeared beneath the entrance portico. Stenciling on the lighted front window said OFFICE.
“You okay?” his mother asked from up front. Unlike his father, she didn’t turn around and look at him.
“Whatever,” he said.
She sighed. She was normally a pleasant-looking woman, but the stress of the move—and no doubt the stress of dealing with Mark lately—had caused her to look weary and strung-out. “Don’t you think you’ve sulked about this long enough?”
He folded his arms and glanced out the window. Lights were on in some of the rooms, rimming the rectangular shades in milky light. “No,” he said.
“Grandpa Mike was in the military,” she reminded him, “and I had moved five times by the time I was your age.”
Good for you, Mark thought, but didn’t dare say aloud.
“You know,” his mother continued, “your father and I have been talking. Seeing how you’re leaving all your friends behind, we thought it might be okay for you to finally get that cell phone.”
Mark brightened. “Really?” He had been asking for a cell phone for the better part of the past year. All his friends had one, yet his parents had been adamant that an eleven-year-old boy didn’t need to carry around his own personal cell phone.
“Your dad and I will lay down some ground rules,” she said, “but yes, we think that if you can be responsible with it, we’re willing to get it for you. Do you think you can be responsible with it?”
“You bet,” he said.
His mother sighed contentedly in the passenger seat. “Good boy,” she said.
A shape exited the motel’s front office and moved like a shadow across the parking lot. As the shape passed beneath an arc sodium light, Mark saw that it was his father. Will Davis opened the driver’s door and poked his head inside.
“Lovely,” grumbled Mark’s mother.
Mark got out of the car and held the door open for Tim, who bounded out after the boy. The dog went immediately to one of the potholes filled with rain and began lapping up the black water.
Holy crap, a cell phone! Wait till I tell the guys! Of course, this excitement was blanketed by the same black pall that had hung above his head like a thundercloud since he had been told by his parents that they would be moving. His father had gotten a new job in a different state, and that meant leaving all of Mark’s friends behind. A cell phone was a grand thing—it would be his own little slice of independence—but what good was a cell phone if you couldn’t call up your friends and make plans? Sure, he could call them and they could joke over the phone…but in the end, he would just have to hang up again, and continue being friendless in their new neighborhood.
Timbuktu looked up at him. As was often the case, Mark discerned a deep intelligence in the old dog’s eyes.
“You’re my friend, aren’t you, boy?” he said to the dog, once more stroking the silken gold fur along the dog’s back. “You aren’t going anywhere.”
His father swung a few duffel bags over one shoulder then slammed the car’s trunk. He whistled as he joined Mark’s mother, who looked up at the sagging motel roof and fizzing neon VACANCY sign with barefaced displeasure, on the curb. “We’re in Room 104,” he said cheerily enough.
Inwardly, Mark groaned. His father was always in a good mood when faced with adversity. He wondered if the man actually relished the little daily confrontations—switching jobs, moving from one city to another, spending the night in some horror movie motel in rural Maryland. Not for the first time, Mark secretly wished his dad would get fired, just like what happened to Davey Hannah’s dad back in Spring Grove, only without ending in his parents getting a divorce, which is what happened to Davey’s parents. Davey was Mark’s best friend back in Spring Grove. They had gone all through grade school together, not to mention the Boy Scouts, and had even been on the same Little League team two years in a row. People even said they looked the same—they were both slender, tow-headed, freckled, cheerful—and once, in third grade, they had told everyone they were twin brothers, and had even managed to convince a few of their classmates. Mark figured they would have also convinced their teacher, Mrs. Treble, had she not seen their last names on her class roster.
An eighteen-wheeler, all roaring tires and spaceship headlamps, blasted along the curl of highway on the far side of the parking lot. Tim barked at the truck while Mark watched it cruise past, its taillights glowing like demonic eyes before being swallowed up by the darkness.
Mark looped two fingers beneath Tim’s collar. “Come on, boy. Let’s get inside.”
He turned and followed his parents along the motel curb, Tim bounded obediently beside him. He passed lighted windows, their shades drawn, and for seemingly the first time noticed the other cars scattered about the parking lot. It truly was a miserable place; his mother had every right to balk at the accommodations, particularly since they had driven past several nice-looking hotels coming out of the last city. To Mark, this looked like the kind of place bank robbers would hole up.
The room was only slightly better than the outside of the place. Drab walls, worn carpeting the color of sawdust, two twin beds laid out like coffins in the center of the claustrophobic little room. There was a TV atop a nicked and scarred dresser, though it wasn’t even a flat screen. Similarly, the telephone that sat on the nightstand between the two beds looked like something salvaged from an antiques shop.
Tim emitted a high keening—a sentiment Mark could certainly relate to.
So could Mark’s mother, it seemed. She stood with her arms folded while her eyes volleyed from one bed to the other. “They didn’t have anything larger than twin beds?”
“Not it we wanted to all stay in the same room,” said his father, dumping their duffel bags on top of the bed farthest from the door.
“Terrific.” His mother turned and peered at the partially open bathroom door. “I’m afraid to go in there.”
“Cut it out, Sharon, will y
Tim padded across the room and settled down on the floor between the two beds. The old retriever rested his muzzle down on his front paws while his eyebrows triggered back and forth, back and forth. Mark smiled warmly at the dog then went to the one duffel bag his father had set on the bed that he knew contained his belongings. He unzipped the bag and pulled out a few comic books, along with a plastic baggie which contained a few of Tim’s favorite dog treats. Mark opened the bag and withdrew one of the treats. It was a greasy brown pipette that reminded him of a Slim Jim, though they tasted—and Mark knew this from experience, having been bested one afternoon by curiosity—like mint.
Tim’s head lifted up off his paws. A beggar’s whine filled the small motel room.
“Come get it,” Mark said, extending the treat toward the dog.
Tim rose, padded over to Mark, sniffed the greasy thin cylinder pinched between Mark’s fingers, then quickly gobbled it up. This made Mark smile, though there was a distant sadness in him now. He recognized that old Timbuktu wasn’t the young pup he’d once been—that there was gray in his muzzle and something called arthritis in his joints, which made him move more slowly and cautiously than he had in his earlier years. There would come a time in the not-too-distant future that Tim would no longer be with him. It would be a separation worse than leaving his friends behind in the old neighborhood, Mark knew. But each time he thought of it, the notion struck him with such grief that he forced the thought away before it could fully form. He didn’t like to think about a world with Timbuktu not in it.
Mark’s mother looked around the bathroom then returned to the room, an unreadable expression on her face. His father was taking off his wristwatch while peering out the singular window that looked out on the parking lot.
“Maybe I should bring the car in closer,” his father muttered, more to himself than to them.
“Maybe you should pull that shade so no one can see in here,” Mark’s mother suggested.
His father pulled the shade down then tossed his wristwatch on the bedspread. He met Mark’s eyes and winked. Despite the cheerfulness of his father’s demeanor, the old guy looked bushed.
“I’m going to attempt to shower,” said his mother, digging some fresh bedclothes and toiletries out of her own duffel bag. “The quicker I get to bed the quicker morning will be here and we can move along.”
Mark saw the tired smile on his father’s face falter, albeit for just a brief moment. When the bathroom door shut, his father sat down on the edge of the bed and kicked off his shoes.
“I’m gonna hibernate tonight, Mark-o,” he said. Then he reclined on the mattress, lacing his hands behind his head.
Tim whined and went to the door.
“I think he’s gotta go out, Dad.”
“We just came in,” his father said, staring at the ceiling.
“I’ll take him.”
“Don’t go far,” said his father.
Mark flipped open one of his comic books and found the postcard he’d purchased for seventy-five cents at the last rest stop. The card depicted a grouchy cartoon crab, a pouty frown in its face. The caption read WE’RE ALL A LITTLE CRABBY IN MARYLAND. He promised to send Davey a postcard from the road, and this was the coolest one he could find. A stretch, to be sure, but what could he do about it?
He stuffed the postcard in the back pocket of his jeans then went to the motel room door. He toed Tim aside so he could open the door.
“Be careful,” his father admonished from the bed. He sounded like he was halfway asleep already.
“I will,” Mark said, snatching Tim up by his collar again. “Come, Tim.” He led the dog out onto the curb then shut the motel door behind him. Glancing around, he saw nothing but the parking lot stretched out before him. Beyond that, the little white reflectors along the highway glowed in the moonlight. He looked to the right, where the parking lot concluded in a black plume of foliage, and thought that might be the best bet.
Mark tugged Tim’s collar along the curb toward the trees. Overhead, thunder rumbled, causing him to freeze. Even Tim froze. The air was cool. From his years in the Scouts, he learned to smell a storm in the air. There was definitely a storm coming. A big one.
“Hurry up,” Mark said, and gently swatted at Tim’s backside.
The dog loped forward then slowed to a concentrative trot. When Tim reached the edge of the curb, he sniffed around while walking in circles, until he hopped down and wended through the underbrush.
Lightning exploded overhead. Mark gasped and looked up in time to see the resonating bluish lights leeching from a bulwark of angry black clouds. The moon looked like a face that was slowly retreating into a darkened room.
“Come on, Tim!” he shouted into the darkness. He waited several seconds but the dog did not reappear from the trees. A scraping sound caught his attention. Mark looked up and saw barren tree branches scudding against the motel roof, blown by the wind.
He stepped down off the curb and peered through the dark trees. Movement—a whitish blur—caught his eyes. “Tim!” But whatever it had been faded back into the darkness. It wasn’t like Tim to be disobedient.
What if it’s not Tim? Mark thought. What if it’s something else?
The thought frightened him. Yet it was stupid. What else could it possibly be? He didn’t believe in monsters. Bears, maybe…or wildcats…but not some monster…
Then Davey Hannah stepped out from behind a large tree. The boy’s pale white face seemed to radiate with an incandescent light. A smile was half-cocked on the boy’s face, his wide black eyes shimmering out at Mark.
It took Mark a second to find his voice. “Davey? Is that…is that you?”
Almost imperceptibly, Davey’s head turned first to the right then to the left.
“What are you doing here?” Mark asked.
Davey’s smile widened. He turned and glanced at something behind the tree—the tree from behind which he had come—then looked back at Mark. Yet before Mark could utter another word, Davey stepped back behind the tree, filling his void with absolute darkness.
“Davey, wait,” Mark said, and pushed toward his friend through the thicket. When he reached the tree, he peered behind it…but Davey was not there.
Something came up behind him. Something larger than Davey Hannah.
Mark turned around and saw it.
Something flashed over Mark’s eyes. A moment after that, he felt an unforgiving constriction around his chest, cutting off his airway. He tried to scream but couldn’t. When he felt something hot and sharp pierce the flesh at the base of his spine, he tried to thrash and pull himself free, but it was a futile attempt.
Mark’s vision faded. He gasped for air but could harness none. His body went numb, numb.
Only a few yards away, Timbuktu barked. Then the old dog turned around and ran off through the woods. A motorist would find the dog hours later, wandering up Route 40 in the direction of a rural little Maryland hamlet called Stillwater.
About the Author
Ronald Malfi is the award-winning author of eleven novels, to include The Narrows, Floating Staircase, The Ascent, Snow, Cradle Lake, and many others. His novel Floating Staircase won a Gold Independent Publisher Book Award for Best Horror Novel of 2011, and it was also nominated for a Stoker Award for best novel of 2011 by the Horror Writers Association. Most recognized for his haunting, literary style and memorable characters, Malfi’s dark fiction has gained acceptance among readers of all genres. He currently lives in Maryland, with his wife and daughter, where he is at work on his next novel. He can be contacted online at www.ronmalfi.com.
Look for these titles by Ronald Malfi
The Fall of Never
“Malfi constructs a panoramic narrative in which the despair of individuals sharpens the s
ense of horror overwhelming the town. This smartly written novel succeeds as both an allegory of smalltown life and a tale of visceral horror.”
–Publishers Weekly on The Narrows
The town of Stillwater has a very unwelcome resident.
© 2012 Ronald Malfi
The town of Stillwater has been dying—the long and painful death of a town ravaged by floods and haunted by the ghosts of all who had lived there. Yet this most recent flood has brought something with it—a creature that nests among the good folks of Stillwater...and feeds off them. The children who haven't disappeared whisper the same word—“vampire.” But they’re wrong. What has come to Stillwater is something much more horrific.
Enjoy the following excerpt for The Narrows:
In the half-light, Matthew listened to the house creak and moan—house-speak, his father had called it on the nights when Matthew was younger, afraid to sleep alone in his room with all the noises of the house surrounding him. Just house-speak: talking to the wind, the moon, the stars. Nothing at all to be afraid of. As it often did, this memory caused his face to turn hot and his eyes to sting. Matthew hadn’t seen his father in over a year, and he’d spoken with him on the phone less than a half-dozen times. He was living now in someplace that had a strange and unfamiliar name. And while no one had ever directly confirmed this bit of information, he had surmised that he was living there with another woman. The few times he had summoned the courage to ask his mother for more details about his father’s disappearance, one look at Wendy Crawly’s worn and beaten face would cause him to change his mind. He did not want to talk about those things with his mother. She had cried enough on the porch by herself in the beginning, just barely within earshot, and that had been bad enough. Matthew didn’t think he could take it if she broke down in front of him. Or because of him. So he never asked questions.
He flipped the sweaty sheet off his body then climbed out of bed. Without turning on the bedroom light, he found the mound of his clothes at the foot of his bed. Snatching his shorts up off the floor, he carried them over to his small desk where his Superman lunchbox sat. He felt around in the pockets of his shorts for the money Dwight had given him, his panic rising when he found both pockets empty. He rechecked them, pulling them inside out, but there was no money in there.