The Guest in 22B
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. 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 the rooms weren’t clean. It was her job to clean them.
But that morning Reggie had stopped by for the first time in weeks to take a look at the place and bring Jolie her paycheck, five days late. “It’s no use if we can’t get more customers,” he told her.
“I put someone in 22B last night.”
Reggie’s Chief’s jersey had clearly been slept in and he smelled of Pine air freshener and bitter resignation. “Good work, kiddo.”
It was all so depressing that she decided to post the motel on AirBNB. Maybe some extra customers would help. After snapping a few photos, she spent her smoke break using Instagram presets to edit them.
Jolie stood under the glaring sun, a cigarette sizzling between her fingers, and scrolled back through the photos. Somehow she’d made the motel look worse. How did people do this? The window units of the rooms at her back created 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. A rolling stone from the look of him, passing through on the way to find work. He caught her gaze and walked over.
She took one look at his slick black hair and watery eyes and stepped 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 much?”
Jolie ground her cigarette into the sidewalk with the toe of her shoe. “Sure. Who cares?” Retreating to the office, she took a deep breath and let the icy cold air wash over her. Jolie decided to give up on the photos and instead opened up her Notes to write a description of the motel for the listing. “Bohemian, trendy studio apartment.” “Kitschy and cute watering hole.” “Private and cozy getaway.” “Middle of nowhere dump ripe for murder.” Slamming her phone on the counter, Jolie walked to the window and peered through the dusty curtains. 22B was still out in the sun, a dark stain spreading across his back, peering at the house with the fight.
Later that afternoon, Jolie pushed the rattling cleaning cart 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, Jolie found that the surrounding trees afforded a little shade and she guessed that she wouldn’t mind a break. Searching her pockets for a lighter, she looked up just as the woman from next door slipped out of her back gate and into the privacy of the back lot. The woman was young, barely more than a girl, with long, black hair tangled in a bun on top of her head.
From across the parking lot she spotted Jolie watching her and froze.
Jolie held out her pack of cigarettes.
After a moment, the girl shrugged and crossed the lot.
They shared the lighter, then took a seat on the curb. A breeze whispered past, lifting the hair off their necks. Jolie noticed they were wearing the same white sneakers. 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.
Despite the heat, Jolie shivered. She picked up her phone and stared at it. What do you do with a creeper? She could call 911, but what would she tell them? She caught an old guy looking at a girl? This kind of thing couldn’t ever be stopped before the damage was done. Her finger hovered over the Twitter app, but she didn’t think 22B would care if he was canceled by an internet rage mob.
Finally, the curtain fell back over the window and his face was gone.
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. Her boyfriend, outside the cab, had his hand buried in the black knot on top of her head. It was Jolie’s first real sight of him, a tall plank 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. “Get off me!”
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 realized that she was still staring, 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 the hell? Was he robbing them? Had he heard the fight and seen a chance to get to Amy when she was defenseless and hurt? Would someone do that? Jolie couldn’t help but imagine Amy in the house, whimpering and alone, surrounded by danger from every side and unable to escape.
Jolie’s thoughts pooled 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 honoring Amy’s choice.
She sprinted 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 gasped, “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 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.
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. There was a great crack and the whole room twitched.
Instinctively, Jolie ducked. A stillness and a lurking silence filled the room. Jolie found herself face to face with the old man, crumpled on his side, with a tangled, bloody wound in his abdomen. Amy wailed on the ground beside him, and she was saying something.
Finally, Jolie made it out.
“Papa. Papa,” Amy cried.
“No,” Jolie whispered.
Trevor backed away, his hard eyes fixed on the drawn face of the man on the ground, and he tucked the gun away. In another moment he had fled out the door and into the waiting pickup.
Jolie dialed 911, and then sank against the wall 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. “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. “Mija.”
“Yes, Papa. I’m here. What can I do?”
His eyes found her once again. “Mija. Come home.”
(Photo by Andrew Karn on Unsplash)