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The Lost, Page 2

Sarah Beth Durst

  The night air is warm but the breeze is nice. It tickles my neck and whispers in my ear. I imagine that it’s whispering warnings, such as “This place has bed lice. Also, zombies.” But I am here, and I have already parked. And I’m not ready to go home yet, lice or not.

  I click the car locked and head across the parking lot toward the motel lobby. The parking lot is littered with soda cans and beer cans that roll and clatter in the breeze. I step over a soiled sweatshirt. There’s a wallet lying on the curb. I pick it up and flip it open to see a driver’s license and an array of credit cards. I’ll hand it in at the lobby.

  I find a second wallet outside the lobby door. And a third in the cacti. I pick them up as well and wonder what sort of party involved flinging wallets and empty cans around a parking lot. I hope it’s quieter tonight.

  Chimes tinkle over the door as I enter the lobby. A teenage girl lies on the counter. Her legs are crossed. She’s wearing ’80s leg warmers up to her knees and has enough hairspray in her hair to counteract gravity—even lying down, her hair doesn’t budge from the halo around her face. She’s wearing bright blue eye shadow and yellow nail polish. She doesn’t look at me or react to the door chime in any way. Instead, she tosses a tennis ball toward the ceiling.

  “Hi,” I say.

  The girl tosses the tennis ball again.

  “Um, I’d like a room, please.”

  “I’d like world peace, sunshine, and apple pie. Oh, and I also want to kill myself.” The girl tosses the ball a third time. She wears thick rings on each of her fingers. One is a mood ring. It’s gray. “I think I will step in front of a train.”

  She says it so casually. “I wouldn’t recommend it,” I tell her. “You could be tossed from the tracks, break your bones, and be in horrible pain hooked up to tubes in the hospital for the rest of your life. Besides, there are no tracks here. No tracks, no train.”

  “Of course there’s a train. Everyone always misses the train.” She swings her legs to the side and sits up. Her name tag says she’s Tiffany and she’s happy to help me. “Catch.” She throws the ball.

  I catch it, barely.

  “You’re new to town,” Tiffany says. “Lucky you.” Her tone implies that I should step in front of the train now and save myself the horror that is to come. But perhaps I am reading into the situation too much. My mother says I do that. A lot.

  “I’m only passing through,” I say. “I’d like a room for the night.” As soon as the words are out of my mouth, I know I should take them back. I should find a gas station and drive home right now. But then that’s sooner that I’ll have to face Mom and the future. This town is a temporary escape, and I know it and I’m taking it even though I know it.

  Tiffany waves at a wall of keys. “Your choice. Just not twelve. It’s rented long-term. Also steer clear of two, five, six, and fifteen. And twenty-three smells like skunk piss.”

  “Charming.” It’s just like a bed-and-breakfast in the mountains, except not at all. “How much?” I fish for my wallet and then remember the three I found. “Oh, these were in the parking lot.” I lay them on the counter, along with the tennis ball I’d caught. A wastebasket full of tennis balls is behind the counter, as well as a box of keys.

  “Anything good inside?” Tiffany asks.

  “Do you really work here?” Despite her name tag, she does not seem to possess that certain air of professionalism that actual employees of such fine establishments...though given the state of the place, she could be the only employee.

  “Hmm...define work.” She fetches another tennis ball and tosses it against the wall. It smacks into a velvety painting of a flower, knocking it askew.

  I have many definitions, most not appropriate for polite company, even though I like my job. It’s an ordinary young urban professional kind of job—I’m a project manager at a consulting firm in L.A.—with reasonable hours, decent coffee in the kitchen, and free access to nice pens. I even like my coworkers, mostly, though I don’t see them outside of work and we have never talked about anything deeper than which lunch place has the best panini. (Tigerlily’s. Their goat cheese and fig panini are bliss.) As a rule, though, you aren’t supposed to like your job. Anyone who says they do is lying. Or lucky.

  I am not lucky. I always pick the longest checkout line, the one where the woman at the front of the line has fifty expired coupons and intends to argue each one. I always lose the receipt for the appliance that breaks (but find the one for the stereo I ditched five years ago). Traffic lights turn red when I approach. Supermarkets run out of milk. Cars splash through puddles the moment I walk past their part of the sidewalk. One day, I’m certain a meteor will crash through the atmosphere and land on my apartment... Or maybe, as Mom says, it’s only that I am a little bit disorganized and a little bit paranoid. To which I remind her, it’s not paranoia if the meteors really are out to get you.

  But Tiffany is waiting for a response. “Work is the daily activity that sucks your soul but pays your bills,” I say. “It’s the path your feet walked down while your head was stuck in the clouds.”

  Tiffany blinks at me. “Yeah, you’ll fit right in here. I’d take room eight. Nicest view of the pool. Don’t try to swim in it, though. Leeches.”

  “You’re joking.”

  “I am a perpetual teenager, and I have no sense of humor.” Tiffany plucks the key to room eight off the wall and hands it to me. She then smiles brightly, a false cheerful full-teeth smile. “Welcome to Lost.”

  “Uh, thanks.” As I take the key, I note that her mood ring is still gray. Probably broken, since those haven’t been in style since the ’70s, and I don’t think they worked then, either. Still, though... “Listen, if you meant what you said before...about the train...I mean...there are phone numbers to call. People who can help.” I feel my cheeks heat as I fumble the words. Christ, I’m not good at this. I’m better with people in my own familiar environment: my apartment, or my office—my bubble-tower-matrix-fishtank, where I can pretend everything is under control, at least on days without new test results.

  Tiffany rolls her eyes like a quintessential teenager faced with an over-the-hill twentysomething. “Need anything else, or are we done?” Her tone is that perfect mix of derisive and bored. I remember using that tone with my mother more than once. I should apologize. To my mother, not Tiffany.

  I have no idea how I am going to apologize for coming here.

  I’ll figure it out later.

  “Actually, I do need something else.” Toothpaste, certainly. Deodorant would be nice. Brush. Soap. Razor. Fresh underwear. Change of clothes. A spare bank account with enough money to cover all the hospital bills. “I, uh, forgot a few toiletries.”

  Tiffany hops off the counter and throws open a door behind her. “Take whatever you need. Free of charge...this time.” She smirks, and then she lies down on the counter again in the same position she’d been in when I’d entered the lobby.

  I scoot around the counter and into the supply closet. It’s crammed with toiletries, tons of travel-size three-ounce containers of shampoo, conditioner, and gel, plus minitubes of toothpaste. People must have left these behind after they stayed here. I weed through them and select a few that look unopened. I also find a brush without too much hair on it, a travel toothbrush that looks unused, and a still-sealed deodorant. Triumphant, I emerge from the closet with my trophies.

  Tiffany hasn’t moved. The three lost wallets still lie beside her on the counter, untouched.

  “Thanks.” I lift the toiletries into the air to indicate that I found what I needed. “This is perfect.”

  Tiffany waves one hand in the air, an acknowledgment or a goodbye or just a twitch, as I leave the lobby. The chimes jingle behind me.

  Outside, the air has cooled, and I wish I’d checked the closet for a coat. There are sweatshirts and jeans and other clothes strewn throu
ghout the parking lot, but they’ve been ground into the filth. I could return for a second dip into the closet...but then I’d have to have another discussion with the living stereotype of teenagerhood. I’d rather shiver coatless.

  I pass by other rooms on the way to eight. A few seem occupied, though there are no cars other than mine in the parking lot. All the shades are drawn, but I see the silhouette of a man in room twelve. Low voices emanate from room six.

  Room eight is dark. I stick the key into the lock. I haven’t been to a motel with actual keys instead of magnetized cards in years. Leaning against the door, I push it open. A wave of musty air whooshes over me, and I hop backward in case a herd of rodents decides to stampede out. When no rodents attack, I turn on the light.

  Yellow fluorescents flicker on overhead and illuminate a bed that’s piled high with twenty or so garish throw pillows: striped square pillows, round polka-dot pillows, a few plaids, others with prints or birds or flowers or elephants. Some have fringe. One is paisley with velvet trim. It looks as though a rogue seamstress stole upholstery from several dozen old ladies’ living rooms and then stitched them into pillows. She then went on to decorate her orange prison jumpsuit with flower appliqués.

  I kick the door shut behind me and carry my collection of three-ounce toiletries to the bathroom. All the fixtures are 1950s lime-green. I dump the toiletries beside a shell-shaped green sink and try not to notice the circle of mold around the taps.

  I know it’s too much to hope for a minifridge. Even if there were one, I bet its contents would be a decade past their sell-by date, and I’d spend the night with food poisoning, vomiting on the hideous throw pillows—which couldn’t hurt their appearance but would hurt their odor. I check the motel room drawers and cabinets anyway and find a Gideon Bible, one gold earring, and a white sock. Everything I touch is coated with a layer of dust. The carpet is sticky. One very short night, I tell myself. I’ll leave as soon as it’s light out again.

  First, though, I need food before I’m tempted to gnaw on the throw pillow that features an embroidered still life of a fruit bowl.

  And then I’ll call Mom.

  Leaving the room, I lock the door to protect my precious toiletries. A man combs through the parking lot, kicking at the piles of discarded clothes and poking in the bushes. I hurry past him, and I slip my hand into my pocket and relock my car doors. Twice. Mine is the sole car under the streetlamp. It looks on display, a shiny please-steal-me exhibit. But obsessively locking and relocking it is the best I can do.

  I leave the car to its fate when I see there’s a diner across the street, the Moonlight Diner. It’s lit up with every holiday decoration possible: plastic blinking Santas, jack-’o-lanterns, American flags with neon fireworks. I trot across the street toward the gleaming beacon that promises French fries, pancakes, and milkshakes in a veneer of kitsch. Also a point in its favor: Moonlight isn’t spelled Moonlite. There are still no cars moving in either direction, though a few pickup trucks, Cadillacs, and old station wagons are parked by meters—all expired.

  The diner looks open. I can see a few figures through the window, hunched over their coffee mugs and dinners. It reminds me of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, except with a lot more neon.

  I open the door and walk inside. The bell over the door rings. Every person in the diner turns his or her head to look at me. A man who’d been stirring his coffee freezes midstir. All conversation ceases. Only the diner’s jukebox churns out any noise, a tinny drumbeat and a singer wailing out a song that I don’t recognize. I feel like a deer caught in neon headlights, and I freeze, too.

  “Table for one, or do you want to make a new friend?”

  A woman in a waitress uniform crosses the diner toward me. She plucks a menu out of the hands of another customer. She looks more like she belongs in a business suit than the checkered Dorothy Gale dress with apron that she’s wearing. Her black hair is slicked back, model-like, and her makeup was expertly applied to highlight her almond eyes. Her rich brown skin is so perfect that she looks poreless. Her voice is smooth, almost mocking, with a hint of a New York accent. I feel rumpled in comparison.

  “One, thanks,” I say.

  “Anywhere you want.” She waves at the tables and hands me the purloined menu.

  I pick a booth by the window, away from the stares of a trucker guy who is halfway through a greasy cheeseburger, a kid who has three sundaes in front of him, a woman in a pink tracksuit who doodles on her place mat, and a man in a thick winter parka who huddles by the air conditioner. I open the diner menu in front of me both to read and to block their view of me. All the dishes are named after cosmological objects: the eclipse éclair, the solar flare flounder, the meteor meatloaf. They’re printed in the curve of a crescent moon.

  Despite my menu shield, a woman slides into my booth. “Welcome to Lost!”

  I am not in the mood to make pleasant conversation with random overly friendly strangers. Not that I ever am. I don’t want to hear about which relatives are visiting, what the weather will be like tomorrow, or why I’d look much better if I didn’t dye one strip of hair white.

  For the record, it isn’t white; it’s colorless. I am keeping it stripped of all color until I decide whether to dye it blue, pink, or purple.

  Or maybe it’s merely cowardice, not indecision. I know my office won’t approve of blue, pink, or purple hair. Clients come in, and we are told repeatedly that we represent the professional face of Daybreak Consulting Services. But they can’t object to white hair, or they’d have to censure our CEO.

  Regardless, whatever this woman wants to chat about, all I want is food and sleep—and a decent excuse not to call Mom until morning. “I don’t mean to be rude, but...” I begin.

  “That’s what people say when they’re about to be stunningly rude.” The woman smiles to soften her words. “Just came over to offer you a little advice.”

  I have to concentrate on not rolling my eyes like Tiffany.

  The woman is older, about sixty, with a face that’s unmemorable. Not pretty, not ugly, just pleasant. She has laugh lines around her brown eyes, and she wears tasteful gold earrings. She looks like the kind of woman who has raised two children and both have turned out well-adjusted. She leans over the table, as if to impart confidential information. “Order the pie. You’ll like it. They have an assortment of last slices.”

  This isn’t what I expected her to say. I touch the white stripe in my hair and twist it around my finger, a nervous tic that I haven’t bothered to stop. “Last slices?”

  “You know, the slice that’s always left behind because no one wants to take it,” the woman said. “Victoria, slice of the rhubarb!”

  “Girl wants to be alone, Merry,” Victoria calls back. “And she needs protein. It’s important to keep your strength up when you’re in a new place.”

  “You never worry about my strength, Victoria,” the trucker says mournfully.

  “Can you still lift your ass out of that chair?” Victoria asks.

  He demonstrates.

  Victoria applauds sarcastically. “Eat your food and quit complaining.” She picks up a coffeepot. “Decaf tonight. Raise your mugs if you want some.” Several customers raise their mugs. The diner seems to have relaxed again. Still, no other conversations have started up.

  It’s probably my mood, but it all feels a little off, as if the banter were staged for my benefit, as if they’d normally sit in silence.

  “I’m Meredith,” the woman across from me says. “Folks here call me Merry. It’s on account of the fact that I like to smile. Also, it’s the first two syllables of my name.” She smiles again, and I think she must be sitting in an odd patch of light. She has glints of light on her arms and a soft haze around her hair.

  “I’m just passing through,” I say. The kid at the counter continues to stare at me. And the trucker is shootin
g me looks between bites of his cheeseburger. Grease clings to his beard.

  “Ahh, staying at the Pine Barrens. You’ll want to avoid room twelve.”

  I nod in mock seriousness. “Dead bodies?”

  Merry laughs and then sobers. “Just stay out of twelve.”

  The waitress Victoria swings past and drops a plate of steak and mashed potatoes in front of me. “But I haven’t ordered...” I begin to say.

  Merry leans across the table again and says in a stage whisper, “Don’t argue with Victoria. She knows what your body needs. Besides, that’s New York strip steak. You won’t see that here every day.”

  I am going to say that I’d wanted a soup or a simple sandwich, but my stomach yawns and I don’t have the energy to argue anyway. A steak in a diner can’t cost that much. This isn’t L.A. I cut a piece and put it in my mouth. My eyes instantly water as pepper fills my sinuses and tickles my throat. I swallow and cough.

  “Guess it didn’t need that additional seasoning,” Victoria observes.

  “Told you,” a man says from the kitchen. “Came preseasoned. If you’d let me taste it earlier, I could have told you what seasonings.”

  “You’re not licking uncooked beef.” Victoria swings a finger over everyone in the diner. “And none of you are listening to this conversation.”

  “No, ma’am,” the trucker says. He focuses on his food with intensity.

  Merry reaches across the table and pats my hand. “You finish your dinner, honey. We’ll talk more later, when you’re ready.” She slides out of the booth and saunters toward the back of the diner. I watch her disappear down a hall and think I see the odd haze of light following her, but then I decide that I must have imagined it.