Contest #209 shortlist ⭐️

Directions to the Motel

Submitted into Contest #209 in response to: Start your story with someone walking into a gas station.... view prompt

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Fiction

There are two kinds of story: “person goes on journey” and “a stranger comes to town.”

Not, thought Marley as he did inventory on the shelves, that the gas station where he worked counted as a town. Redirection point, more like. Nine out of ten strangers who came in during his night shift were looking for directions to the motel advertised on the freeway. “I’m just so terrible with directions,” they’d say, laughing, or sometimes, “These Midwest towns have such shitty roads.” And Marley would invariably smile and respond, “It’s three miles back the way you came, little road right off the freeway, very easy to miss, especially at night. Look for a Toyota sitting on the grass and it’s right next to that.” A stranger came in and Marley sent them on a journey. 

Chex Mix — 12. Goldfish — 8. Flavor-blasted goldfish — 6. 

End of that aisle. Marley sighed and looked out the large windows at six abandoned gas filling stations, concrete glinting in the weird underwater light of the sign. He was twenty-three, and wanted to be out partying, or at the very least sleeping. There were job applications to be filled out, parents’ houses to be getting out of. 

Adventures to be had—strangers on journeys to meet.

Lays Classic — 2. He wrote a memo to the manager that they would have to restock. He was pretty sure the main consumer of the Lays Classics was himself. 

The one out of ten strangers that didn’t need directions was mostly there to create room on Marley’s probability model. Sure, they happened, about as often as a supermoon. Usually they came in to buy a pack of gum, or to use the restroom. Then they got in their car and Marley watched them roll away, and the station returned to its air-conditioned humming quiet.  

Lays Barbecue — 15. Lays Limon — 18. 

The little bell over the door rang, and a stranger came in. “Hello?” she called, which is how Marley knew she needed directions. He ducked out of the aisle to meet her, a blond chick younger than 99% of the ten strangers he had accounted for. Heart-shaped face, blond hair oddly and unevenly shorn around her ears, eyebags for days—that last, at least, was common of those who wandered in here. Her clothes were baggy to the point where it was clear they weren’t intended for her. Hand-me-downs, Marley surmised, or the varsity jacket could be her boyfriend’s, if she had one. 

“Motel?” Marley asked her. He shot a look at her car, which was grayish, probably blue in normal lighting, and shitty-looking. It sat next to a filling station, empty of other passengers as far as he could see. No boyfriend so far.

“Yeah,” she said, sheepish. She was unavoidably pretty; Marley wondered what she was doing all the way out here. “I’m pretty sure I missed it?”

“You did,” he said. “It’s three miles back the way you came, right off the freeway. There’s a Toyota sitting in the grass right by the path you have to take.” He hesitated—this was usually the end of the dialogue. “Are you traveling?” he asked, feeling clumsy about the superfluous conversation.

“Yeah,” she said. She didn’t offer up anything else, much to Marley’s disappointment, and besides, she was distracted, looking out the window. “HEY!” she yelled suddenly, louder than anything Marley was expecting on his dead night shift. She spun on her heel and pushed her way out of the station, bell jingling, still yelling. Marley, jarred awake, hurriedly ran behind the counter to open the window so he could listen. The girl was running over to her car. A man stood by her trunk, his posture vaguely guilty, but mostly confused. 

“Don’t touch my car!” the girl yelled distinctly, slowing her pace as he backed away from her shitty-looking car, and then they were having an actual conversation and Marley couldn’t hear any of it. After a minute or so, the girl pushed the trunk down, said one last thing to the man, got in her car, and drove off. Bye, thought Marley.

The man was with his wife, two kids, dog, the whole nuclear family. As they got out to stretch, the wife—a short brunette whose lovely braid reminded Marley of the girl’s odd hair—filled the car up and the man walked in with child of about ten. “Restroom,” he said, and Marley pointed, and the kid ran off. The man stayed, bought a pack of gum. While Marley was scanning it he said, “Her trunk was open.”

Beep went the scanner. “What?” said Marley in his slow voice that accompanied any statement of his that wasn’t scripted, i.e. anything that wasn’t the directions to the motel. 

“That girl. Came out yelling at me, just now. I was near her car because her trunk was open, I wasn’t trying to steal anything.”

“Huh,” said Marley, giving the man his receipt. “She was odd.”

“She was crazy,” the man insisted. “You try to do one nice thing, right?” 

And because Marley didn’t like his tone, he said, “I mean, she could have had everything she owned in that car. Then her reaction would be justified, huh?” 

The man scoffed, collected his gum, receipt, kid with the still-wet hands. “Whatever,” he said stiffly. “Have a nice night.” He left and the nuclear car drove out, probably to get back on the interstate. Marley returned to his clipboard and the counting of goods. 

Chex Mix — 12. Goldfish — 8.

The bell jingled. Again? thought Marley. He glanced at his teal plastic digital wristwatch, which read 3:08 a.m.—not even five minutes had passed since the man left. “Hello?” the newcomer called, something about the cadence eerily familiar.

Marley poked his head out of the aisle and saw her again, the same heart-face odd-haircut baggy jacket jeans girl. Marley blinked, once, twice. “What happened?” he asked in a thick and sluggish voice of surprise.

“I took your directions,” she said. “And I came right back here. I’m looking for the motel?” 

Marley blinked a third time, slowly. “Three miles back?” he said, uncertainty lifting the end of his sentence. “Toyota on the—”

“Yes, I saw the Toyota,” the girl said impatiently, looking around, probably for someone a little more competent. “I—” She had looked over at the window. “Goddamnit,” she said, and then she was off and running, storming over to a man standing by her car, this time in the parking space right by the door. The car was even shitter-looking this close, and vaguely bug-eyed. Marley rushed to the window. “Just leave it!” he could hear her saying in response to the man’s indignant explanations. “It’s not any of your goddamn business!” 

She pushed down firmly on the trunk of the car and came back. “Look, I found the little pathway I had missed the first time, and I took it, and then I ended up back here. Is this some kind of game? Or a—” she faltered. “A business tactic?”

Before Marley could formulate a response, the door swung outward, bell rung, and the scolded good Samaritan came in with kid in tow. “Restroom,” he said, and Marley pointed, and kid ran off. The girl glared at the man, who thankfully took enough notice to plunge into the aisle, giving her room. We need to restock the Lays, Marley thought.

The girl made an exasperated little sound. “My car is a little old.” Marley gave the most surreptitious glance he could at the shitty car. “So the trunk sometimes pops open on its own.” She was speaking a little loudly, for the benefit of the man.

Marley could see him hovering at the edge of the aisle, pack of something or other surely in hand. He said, “The motel. Three miles back and left on the little pathway. You probably missed it.” She looked skeptical, but he was sure—wasn’t this after all the bulk of his job, the directions to that motel? “Go slowly around here, there’s not that many streetlights,” he said, beckoning the man forward. The bell jingled with her exit as he scanned the gum. 

“You try to do one nice thing, huh?” said the man sympathetically. Marley handed him a receipt. Like clockwork, the kid came running out of the restroom, wet hands splattering the monotonous tile floor. They left, bell jingling, nuclear car pulling away.

Marley rubbed at his eyes and gave a great yawn. He convinced himself to do a stretching routine. He believed strongly in false statistical gods, so he was pretty sure he wasn’t going to get any more customers for the rest of his shift. He drank some water, opened a bag of Lays Classics and lay it on the counter. Picked up the clipboard and went back to inventory. 3:22 a.m., according to his watch.

Chex Mix — 12. Goldfish — 8. Flavor-blasted goldfish — 6. Lays Classics — 1. He started to write a note to the manager about that, then remembered he already had.

Lays Barbecue —

“Hello?” 

Marley went out to meet her. She looked exhausted, clothes hanging heavy all over her frame. “I went back and I drove down the pathway and I ended up here and I went back and I drove onto the freeway and got off it and got back on and got off on this exit and I drove at ten miles per fucking hour and I saw the Toyota car and I took the little easy-to-miss pathway—” She took a breath. “And now I’m here.” She stared at Marley, who stared back. There was a man standing by the trunk of her shitty-looking bluish car, Marley was sure, and sure enough they both turned to watch him through the window. The girl’s posture was all stress and panic as the man looked around, and then, seeing no one, pressed down on the trunk. The click as it latched was strangely loud through the open window.

The girl unwound with relief. “I just want a place to sleep,” she said, a crack of fatigue evident in her voice. She ran a hand through her hair, and let it drop awkwardly when the hair ran out. 

Marley thought hard, driven to the effort through sympathy. “Wait here,” he said, and he thought the whole time he helped the nuclear man buy gum, and he thought the whole time the kid used the restroom. Stranger came to town, looking for motel, and Marley always gave them the same spiel. He was like an NPC in a video game—his lines didn’t alter, his choices didn’t matter. And besides, he thought, handing over a receipt, none of the nine other strangers ever came back demanding he tell the truth this time. 

The bell jingled, the kid ran out, and the nuclear car pulled away. Marley looked at the girl, who was staring unblinking at the candy aisle. “I’ll come with you to find it,” he said, drawing her out of her daze. “And then you can drop me back off here.”

The girl glanced around the gas station, Marley’s charge and office. “Aren’t you needed here?”

“Nah,” said Marley. “Law of probability. Probably won’t get any more customers.”

They went out. The shitty-looking car was indeed very shitty, complete with random sticky stains and flickering radio, but it at least felt like the girl all over, her odd fashion choices and her no-bullshit attitude. Marley got in the passenger seat and shut the door very politely. It hung open like a mouth ajar at his lack of strength. “You have to slam it,” said the girl, slamming hers to demonstrate. Marley slammed the door just to show it who’s boss. 

They pulled out of the gas station, and Marley watched it melt away, fully lit and abandoned, as they edged to the freeway. “Where are you traveling to?” Marley asked.

“The Pacific Ocean,” the girl said. An odd destination, to Marley at least. Didn’t people usually travel to cities? Not that he would know, having never been out of this state. They edged up to the freeway entrance on this side, pushing the edges of on-ramp until—

“Toyota!” Marley said triumphantly, because he saw the old Camry the motel owners left out as a marker of sorts. A red light popped up on the girl’s dashboard, shining right into their faces—her trunk was open. This struck Marley in the mood of affectionate humor, as if the girl’s misbehaving trunk was a running joke between them. “I’ll get it,” he said.

“No— wait,” said the girl, scrambling to put the car in park as Marley climbed out. His footsteps fell silently as he walked to the back of the car, shivering from the cold of desert at night. Marley reached out and pushed the trunk down, expecting it to latch. But of course it didn’t—like the door, it hung open, a mouth ajar. He would have to slam it.

“Don’t!” the girl said, reaching him just as he lifted the trunk up in order to properly push it down. To Marley’s extraordinary surprise, an arm toppled out and hung between them, pale and creepy in the streetlight. He looked at it, the obviously dead thing obviously still attached to something probably deader. Then he looked up at the girl, who was staring at him, waiting for his reaction. All was silent except for the loud whooshing breaths of the freeway running parallel to them. Marley shivered and waited.

“I told you to just leave it,” the girl said finally, stepping forward. Marley wondered for a second if he was about to die—but no, she merely tucked the arm back in, closed the trunk with the appropriate slam, and walked away. Marley waited, breathless. The door on the driver’s side slammed next, and then the engine was running, and then the girl was driving, quite a lot faster than the ten-mile-per-hour crawl they had just performed, and then she was actually on the on-ramp to the freeway, and then she was gone. 

Marley stood shivering in the road until the cold truly got his attention. Then he looked at the Toyota. He had never actually been to Willow Motel, despite the number of times a night he had to give directions to it, but he was making the trip now, stumbling along the little pathway in the cold of 3:48 a.m. There would be a phone at the motel, he reasoned, which he could use to report the girl to 911. He felt brave, a little, mostly cold but the bravery was there too. 

Marley walked for a long time. There were bugs and crickets all over the place, and stars scattered all over the sky above him. For a while he walked with his head tilted back, and he found that the longer he stared at one patch of sky, the more stars he could pick out there. He walked watching the sky until the bright neon glow of nighttime business sign caught his attention, and then he looked back down. His neck ached. He was at the gas station, on the sidewalk, looking across the filling stations at his very own charge and office. 

“What,” Marley breathed in surprise, because he was pretty certain this was not how things were supposed to turn out. He ran over the map of this area in his mind, looked around him a little, Marley wasn’t made for investigation, and he soon gave up thinking on it. He picked his way across the lot, into the regulated temperature of the gas station store, where he could reasonably guess no one had stolen anything. Once he did the inventory, of course, he would know for sure. Then he remembered the girl, and the arm, and he picked up the telephone. Dialed 9. 1. A man walked in and Marley set the phone down on the receiver, glad to be interrupted.

“Restroom,” the man said, and Marley pointed, and a child ran at his direction. Person goes on journey, Marley thought, pretty sure he preferred the other type of story. He had to quit this job.

August 04, 2023 20:48

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3 comments

Amanda Lieser
03:39 Sep 13, 2023

Hi Shiva! Welcome, welcome and big congratulations to you! I loved that this was a night shift story because it made me reminiscent of my time working the night shift at a hotel. It’s a whole different world in the evening and I think that you kept that beautifully. I loved the mystery of the piece, and I thought that the characters had such incredible depth for a short story. Nice work!!

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Philip Ebuluofor
17:58 Aug 13, 2023

Funny creepy work. Congrats.

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Mary Bendickson
17:26 Aug 11, 2023

Eerie Congrats on shortlist.

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