The motel on the corner of Cedar and Broadway had been a decent stopping point between Memphis and Tulsa on Route 66. Once there had been a fresh coat of paint and nights when the blinking “No Vacancy” sign lit up the neighborhood. But now the salmon pink exterior was nothing but an eyesore and a crumbling memorial to bad family vacations. Jolie Richards, who managed the front desk, thought it was cool in an ugly kind of way. Maybe she would post it on AirBnb. She could see influencers taking selfies in front of the neon sign, going crazy about the color palette, or whatever. They’d love it—that is, until they had to spend a night in one of the rooms with the stale cigarette smell and nubby polyester bedspreads. And Jolie knew those rooms weren’t clean; it was her job to clean them.
It was thoughts like these she used to distract herself when she took her smoke breaks. Standing under the glaring sun, she scrolled on her phone, the window units of the rooms at her back creating a dull roar that almost drowned out the noise of the neighbors on their third fight of the week. Almost.
A few doors down, the guest in 22B walked out and squinted into the bright light. He had arrived late in the night, an old guy in tattered jeans and cowboy boots. An illegal from the look of him, passing through on the way to find work. He caught her looking at him and moved toward her. His black hair was slicked back over watery eyes and unconsciously Jolie took a step back, closer to the office door.
Nodding toward the sound of yelling and a banging door in the house on the other side of the parking lot, he spoke in a thick accent. “They do this often?”
Jolie ground her cigarette into the sidewalk with the toe of her shoe. “Sure. Who cares?” And then she stepped back into the office, letting the icy cold air wash over her with a shiver. But after a few minutes, Jolie left the front desk and looked through the dusty curtains to find that the old man was still out in the sun, a dark stain spreading across his back, peering at the house with the fight.
Later that afternoon, the cleaning cart rattled as Jolie pushed it down the walkway to turn over one of the rooms. Once she had finished, Jolie swung two garbage bags over her back and trudged to the dumpster behind the motel, the heat magnifying the stench from the bags. As she neared the dumpster she spotted the woman from next door, apparently looking for some solace in the privacy of the back lot. At the sight of Jolie she froze, but then forced a smile and nodded at the cigarettes in Jolie’s shirt pocket. “You mind?”
Jolie found that the surrounding trees afforded a little shade and she guessed that she wouldn’t mind a break. After sharing the lighter, they both took a seat on the curb. A breeze whispered past, lifting the hair off their necks. The woman was young, barely more than a girl and she had long, black hair tangled in a bun on top of her head. Jolie noticed they were wearing the same white tennies. The girl was also wearing a shiny green bruise on her left temple.
“Nice shoes,” Jolie said.
The girl glanced down and chuckled. Smoke came dancing out of her mouth. “I’m Amy,” she said. “I seen you over here. You the manager or something?”
“Something like that.”
The cicadas hummed in the trees behind them, singing their summer symphony, alone in their love of the heat.
“Well,” Amy rose, “Thanks for the smoke.”
Jolie nodded and watched Amy walk away, her black hair glistening in the light. Suddenly, the curtain of 22B pulled back to reveal the guest’s old, wrinkled face outlined in the dingy glass. Even from this distance, she could see his gaze fixed on Amy with a shameless intensity. It felt like the seconds dragged on as Amy slowly crossed the parking lot into her own grassy yard and inside her house. Finally, the curtain fell back over the window and his face was gone.
Even in the heat, Jolie shivered.
A few days later, Amy and her boyfriend had a fight so bad Jolie could hear it from inside the office. A scream lashed the summer air, shrill and long and desperate. Jolie sprang from her chair and threw open the door to find Amy dangling out the cab of a pickup, gripping the steering wheel while her boyfriend had his hand buried in the black knot on top of her head. It was Jolie’s first real sight of him, a tall slab of a man with curly dark hair and tight, black jeans. The thin t-shirt he wore hung on his bony shoulders like a limp towel on a rack.
“Stop it, Trevor!” Amy cried. “No!”
With one hand he pulled Amy by her hair out of the truck, nearly off her feet and up the path, up the stairs and through the door. Eventually her screams subsided and a strange stillness fell on the neighborhood. Even the cicadas held their breath.
Jolie suddenly realized that she was still watching, but before she could disappear into the office, two things happened. First, the screen door banged and Trevor walked out, pulling a lawn chair from the corner of the porch and seating himself in front of the door, bouncing his leg nervously. Second, something flashed and Jolie glanced to the back of their house just as the guest from 22B slipped through the gate and into their backyard.
What was going on? Was he robbing them? Had he heard the fight as well and seen a chance to get to Amy when she was defenseless and hurt? Was that possible? Jolie couldn’t help but imagine Amy in the house, whimpering and alone, surrounded by danger from every side and unable to escape.
Time slowed as Jolie’s thoughts gathered and crystallized. She would do something to help Amy. But what? Where was the greater danger—in the backyard or on the front porch? At some point, Amy had linked up with her boyfriend and stayed with him. She’d chosen him, dangerous or not, and so Jolie made her bet on that choice.
She took off at a dead run toward the house. Trevor jumped to his feet, but Jolie pressed her finger to her lips savagely, motioning for silence. At the top of the steps she stopped, gasping, “Someone’s in your backyard. He’s been creeping on Amy all week.”
Trevor towered over her, skinny as he was, and angry red scratches lined his arms. His eyes darted back and forth as the information sunk in, grimacing with lips stretched over brown, rotting teeth. A tweaker.
Jolie hesitated, but it was too late. She’d made her bet. As Trevor spun on his heels, Jolie saw a handgun tucked into his jeans, the black handle vivid against the pale skin of his back. With a sinking feeling, she followed him into a dimly lit living room.
The old man was already in the house and they found him with Amy in the kitchen, her arms stretched in front of her body, shielding herself.
“Get away from her,” Trevor spoke quietly, and aimed the gun at the man’s chest.
But the old man stood planted in the doorway, grizzled and stubborn as a tree. His eyes were fixed on Amy, and he peered at her with the longing of the ocean for the moon, a moth for the flame, a miser for one silver coin.
Amy turned to Trevor, the whites of her eyes wild with fear. She was begging. “Go away! Please just go away.” She tried to step in front of the gun, but the old man lunged for her and then there was a great roar, smoke and the stench of gunpowder. Jolie was frozen in place, her ears ringing and a white cloud in her mind.
There on the ground lay the man, crumpled on his side, with a tangled, bloody wound in his abdomen. Amy was wailing, on the ground beside him, and she was saying something. Finally Jolie made it out. “Papa. Papa,” she cried.
“Oh no,” Jolie whispered.
Trevor backed away, his eyes fixed on the drawn face of the man on the ground. In another moment he had fled out the door and into the waiting pickup.
Jolie dialed 911, and then sank onto her heels and waited. Still Amy cried and moaned, her hands smeared with blood. The paramedics arrived and took over, peeling Amy away as they straightened his body, plugged the wound, felt for a pulse. A burly paramedic began to pound on the old man’s chest, savagely, too hard. Blood flooded the floor and the other paramedics hovered over him, shouting instructions. Then, from the kitchen doorway, the two women watched as someone gently placed an oxygen mask over Amy’s father’s mouth. A lacy wisp of breath fogged up the mask. And then another.
The paramedic looked up, heaving a sigh. “He’s alive.”
Amy never stopped holding her father’s hand as they transferred him to a stretcher and prepared to take him away in a waiting ambulance. As they eased him up, his eyelids fluttered open and he called for her.
“Yes, Papa. I’m here.”
“Yes. What can I do?”
His eyes found her once again. “Mija. Come home.”