He took the two-lane desert road, too tired, he told himself, to deal with the Interstate traffic. But he knew the truth lay on some deeper plane. Donna would say (and had said) that every move he made proved he was an introvert, a hermit, a hater of society. He didn’t believe he was that bad. Besides, Donna never knew him, not really. She had always been too quick to judge him; she never looked for or even wanted to see his good traits. A very negative person, Donna. If she had been a little more understanding, a little more perceptive, he might have kept her, but who needed a wife with built in hostility? Not Bernard Slinkman, that was for damn sure.
He reached to lower the sun visor. If he weren’t careful, the evening sun would put him to sleep and he would end up off the road. He let up on the gas, settling down to sixty miles per hour. He thought about using the cruise control, but decided against it, thinking maybe the sameness of the highway would become even more boring. He was headed due west with no prospect of a curve or direction change for more miles than he wanted to contemplate.
In the distance, a vehicle approached, shimmering in the glare of sunlight on his dirty windshield. A pickup truck. As he met and passed it, he gestured obscenely at the driver, and only then did he realize he had become angry. He had deliberately avoided the busier roads. This one was his, and the pickup was an invasion.
That was just stupid. He glanced in the rearview mirror at the receding truck, as if to apologize.
Maybe Donna was right.
No. She had never been right about anything. He was just tired, that’s all. Didn’t most people get cranky when they were tired? He ought to stop for the night.
A sign. The LastStop Motel. Color TV and a View of the Mountains.
Color TV? The dry desert air had been good to the paint on that sign; it must be fifty years old. What a dumb-ass the proprietor must be to not have changed the wording. How the hell did he think people reacted when they read it? “Oh boy! Color TV! I’m stopping there for sure.” Bernard slammed his fist into the center of his steering wheel.
Again he thought of Donna. He remembered her bruised face and how she always cried when he hit her. She never fought back. She never sought help. She just took it. Stupid bitch. He was better off without her.
Bernard dozed, jerked awake, and barely got the Ford under control without going into the sand on the left side of the road. Lord. That could have ended badly if there had been oncoming traffic. He really needed to stop.
He drove another four miles before the LastStop came into view on the right side of the highway. He slowed. He should take a look before pulling in. No cars in the parking area. That was good—no people to deal with. He parked where a sign told him the office was.
The motel was indeed old. A one-level arrangement of rooms, each with a numbered door and a large front window. The building wanted paint badly and the parking area needed resurfaced. He saw where the caulk of the office window had fallen away. The glass in the office door was cracked. What a dump. Adjacent to that door sat a gray cat too old to be alive, warming itself in the day’s last rays of sunlight.
“At least I’ll have color television,” Bernard said as he exited the car.
The cat followed him in to the office. No one behind the counter. No bell.
The cat answered him with a sickly noise that might have been a plea for mercy. He pushed at the scraggly animal with his foot.
“You’ve got a customer!” He was yelling now, his anger rising.
No response. Even the cat had disappeared. Damn. The next town, Lawson, was forty-odd miles further west according to the last road sign he’d passed. Lawson might be nothing more than a widening of the road with a few desert deadbeats hanging around. Probably no motel at all. He could make do here. All he needed was a bed.
On a pegboard behind the counter hung the room keys. Half of them were missing. Against the wall to his left was a brochure rack holding two brochures. Desolation Caverns and Poison Springs. Somehow that seemed to fit.
He yelled again and got a response—a door slamming somewhere in the gloom behind the counter. An impossibly thin gray-haired fellow came into view. He instantly reminded Bernard of the cat. As the odd man approached, Bernard noted that he was carrying an axe handle. He had it down by his right leg. The stout hickory handle was curved artistically at one end. Is this how he greeted all his customers?
“I’d like a room, please. One person, one night.”
Lord. What kind of room goes for fifteen dollars? He laid a twenty on the counter and waited. A bony hand took the bill. Eyes with no light in them at all stared back at him.
Bernard waited. He seethed. How he would love to backhand this guy. Wake him up and get him moving. Eventually, the hand with the twenty retrieved a key from the pegboard. The man said nothing; just placed the key on the counter and turned to go back from where he’d appeared. The door slammed again.
“Where’s my change?”
He picked up the key. “You owe me five bucks!”
Bernard’s hate for humankind was rekindled. “You thieving bastard,” he said, but not loud enough to be heard. He stomped outside and stopped to look at the key. Room number 150. Right. Like this dilapidated cesspit had that many rooms. There were a dozen at the most.
The sun had gone by the time he entered. It was worse than he imagined. The bed leaned distinctly to one side and sagged in the middle. The tiles of the uncarpeted floor that weren’t broken were completely missing. A straight back chair and a small pine table with a lamp on it were the only other furnishings. The window looked out upon his car, the parking lot, the highway, and the desert. No mountains. To see them, to have a “view of the mountains,” he would need to go outside and walk to the back of the building.
There was no television, color or otherwise.
* * *
Bernard Slinkman woke in the night to a sound that may have been in his head. A whimpering. He had heard exactly that pitiful sound from Donna on too many occasions. His guilt didn’t usually follow him for this long after the deed. Anyway, hadn’t she deserved it? Was she not the very reason he had to leave home? If not for Donna, he’d be in is own bed and not lying in this filthy rat’s nest in the Texas desert. He closed his eyes and consoled himself that at least he was shed of Donna. She wouldn’t be tormenting him again into fits of exasperation. She knew how to provoke him and she knew the result. It was her fault.
A second time the whimpering disturbed him. He had not dozed. The sound was real. But it was not coming from this room. It couldn’t be. The door was locked with deadbolt and chain. The afflicted individual had to be in an adjacent room. Someone must have checked in since he had fallen asleep. What time was it anyway? The luminous dial of his watch told him he had been on the stained and stinking bed for less than two hours.
The whimpering became louder. More like a sniveling and whining now. He banged the wall at his head with his fist. “Shut the hell up over there,” he yelled. “Don’t make me call the manager.”
As if the “manager” might respond to a complaint. Well, what kind of privacy had he expected for fifteen dollars? No, twenty dollars.
The crying stopped. Bernard slept.
When next he woke it was because he was cold. The desert temperature dropped drastically sometimes, he knew that. But to crawl beneath the covers was not an option. He had lain down fully dressed to keep the abominable bedcovers from touching his skin. No way would he put those covers over him. He should have gone on to Lawson.
Maybe he would. He might as well be driving as lying here awake. He sat up and looked toward the curtained window. Donna sat at the pine table, her face down and hidden within her folded arms that rested on the table. He didn’t need to see her face to know it was Donna. He knew every line and curve of her slight form. Her mousy hair fell about her slender shoulders. She still wore the flowery print dress she had on when last he saw her.
But Donna couldn’t be here. That was impossible.
She whimpered, low and pitiful.
Surely he was dreaming. The stagnant stink of this disgusting room had fused with his guilt and made him see what could not be here. Donna was dead. He had hit her harder than ever before, and she had fallen. Hard. Her head caught the corner of the oak desk. Her skull had cracked like an egg. He saw that part of her brain that had spilled onto the floor.
She whimpered again and raised her head. Turned and looked at him. He saw the same terror in her eyes that he’d seen a hundred times before.
He had to get out of here. He stood.
Donna watched him in that same fearful manner. She stood now, and backed away a step. How many times had he seen her do that?
But she was dead! He had sealed her in heavy landscaping plastic to retard the odor that emanated from the dead. He had transported her to public land in southern Oregon, and he had buried her.
Donna could not be here now. And she certainly could not be standing. He had broken both of her legs to fit her into the hole he had dug. Donna was a good three feet underground, her body broken, her skull crushed. She was not here.
Yet, he saw her and he heard her. It was Donna, or it was Donna’s ghost. As he rushed past her headed for the door, she stepped back again and put an arm up as if to fend off an attack.
He worked frantically at the deadbolt. Then the chain. Now he was outside, his sole intent being to get to his car.
But an axe handle met his forehead with a crushing impact. He fell onto his back in front of the Ford. Blood filled his eyes, but still he could see the gray-haired motel keeper standing over him, raising the hickory handle for another blow. He tried to roll away, but managed only to get onto his stomach. The second strike broke his skull at the back of his head. Now his right cheek rested on the broken pavement. His vision blurred.
Bernard’s consciousness almost escaped him. Through a haze of pain and confusion he felt the skinny man’s bony fingers digging through his clothing. He heard the plop of his empty wallet as it was dropped beside him.
Warm blood drained across the pavement, and he recognized it as his own. He saw also a smattering of gray tissue, and he knew that for what it was. As Bernard Slinkman expired, his eyes found Donna at the window. The slightest trace of a smile parted her lips.