The sun was just peeking over the horizon as Annie Lavoie made her way into town. She had been driving all night, to avoid the scorching sun and daytime traffic, and aside from a few near misses with the eighteen-wheelers, it had been non-eventful.
Willow shifted in the back seat, her massive paws going ninety miles per hour in some intense squirrel hunt. A huff, and back to the light snoring. Annie could already feel her car warming as the sun continued to climb. In the distance, she saw a sign for La Quinta and decided that would be her best bet for a few hours of sleep.
It was a typical small town, but the view of the mountains was incredible. Earthy browns with scattered greens stretch for as far as the eye could see.
The lot was nearly empty, and she pulled in right up close to the lobby.
“I’ll be right back girl.”
Willow just snorted and adjusted, circling into a golden ball of fluff.
As she entered the hotel, a tall man in a Stetson tipped his hat as he passed. “Ma’am.”
Annie bit her lip and stifled a giggle. It's not that cowboys were funny, but he just fit the stereotype so beautifully.
The desk was empty, aside from a small bell. As she raised her hand to tap it, a woman stuck her head out of the office. “I’ll be right out, sweetie!”
Annie glanced into the parking lot at her car. Willow had woken and was having a friendly chat with Mr. Cowboy, trying her best to escape through the tiny crack in the window. Something about him looked really familiar. Then she realized the man could be Raylan Givens' twin. Strange.
“Alright then, how can I help?” The woman said while pulling her dark hair into a ponytail.
“I just need a room for the day, to get some sleep, going to be heading out this evening once the sun goes down.”
“Sure thing, sweetie. I can take care of you.”
“I know that check-in isn’t typically until four, but I can pay for an extra day if you need. And I have a dog if there is a pet fee.” Annie shifted, tugging at her braid. La Quinta’s allowed dogs, but the last place stayed hadn’t seemed friendly at all.
“Oh Darling, no trouble at all! Is that your pup out there? What a sweet thing! I’m just gonna wave that lil fee for ya, and I don’t see us fillin’ up. No need to charge you for two nights.”
A breath escaped Annie’s lips. Funds were getting a little tight, and she was grateful to save whatever she could. “Thank you so much.”
“Now, you just sign here, and here. I’ve got you on the first floor, right near the back entrance. There is a little potty area for the pups.”
“I could kiss you!” Annie replied. She shook her head, confused at the words that spilled out of her lips. She wasn’t one to be so outgoing.
Her eyes drooped, and she wavered a little.
“Why don’t you take care of your sweet dog and get some rest, darling. Breakfast service starts at 7 and runs until 10. I’ll grab you a bite if you don’t swing in before it closes up.”
The bed wrapped itself around her as she crawled under the covers. It seemed strange that a hotel bed could be this comfortable. Willow hopped up next to her and started chewing on a bully stick.
“You take that stinky thing to the floor if you want to chew it!”
Annie blinked. She hadn’t remembered getting one of those for Willow.
“Where’d you find that girl?”
She pulled the slimy treat from her dog's jaw, inspecting it. Had the last resident of the room left it under the bed or something? Annie’s mind wandered to the dog park by her home. She and Willow never went there anymore. Some jerk decided they hated dogs and would leave poisoned food lying around.
“Sorry girl, can’t risk it.” She tossed the treat in the bathroom's garbage can, and just before she closed the door, she swore it turned into an enormous rat. Ugh! Her imagination was running away from her. She needed to get some sleep. Annie’s stomach rumbled loudly, and she glanced at the clock. “Guess I may as well eat before I snooze. I’ll bring you back some bacon to make up for that!” She said, nodding her head at the door.
Annie arrived in the dining area thinking that it seemed crowded with the lack of cars in the lot. She grabbed a waffle with syrup and piled on some extra bacon for Willow. After scanning the area for an empty table, she slid into a booth in the corner.
“Hey! Mind if I sit with you?” A familiar voice sounded.
“Dad! What are you doing here?” Something shifted, and a wave of sorrow came over her. What was that about? Annie wrapped her arms around her dad and squeezed. “I miss you.”
“Meh- just felt like getting a bite for breakfast.” He winked. “Aww, you got me. I wanted to see you, of course. Check in on how you're doing!”
“I don’t understand. How can you be here?”
“Don’t think too hard,” he replied.
A little girl walked by, glaring at him. “You're going to ruin it for the rest of us.” she hissed, then turned to Annie. “I like your dog. Can I pet her?”
Annie walked down the street of the little town, Willow on the leash next to her. She knew she needed to be getting some sleep, but she wanted to walk off the restlessness. Mr. Cowboy was walking next to her, and he pointed to a shop. Paddywack.
“Oh!” she said, amused. “How creative. Knick knack paddy whack, give a dog a bone.” Her voice was out of tune, but she didn’t care.
The store had shelves and shelves of bully sticks, and Annie remembered the one she had taken away from Willow. “I should get her one,” she said, turning to Mr. Cowboy. He just nodded, smiling at her. She loved this man so much.
“Wait,” she asked him. “Where did my dad go?”
“Annie,” He replied, voice urgent. “Stay with me. Our lives depend on it.”
“Say what?” She could see the terror in his eyes. He grabbed her hand and yanked her out into the street. In the distance, a dark shadow was rolling in. Mr. Cowboy placed his hands on her cheeks, horror-struck.
“We need to run.”
She jogged next to him as the clouds pushed closer. The little girl that had petted her dog went racing by, tears streaming down her face in sheer horror. Further down the road stood the woman from the inn, paralyzed with fear.
Faster and faster they ran, and the darkness grew closer. Annie should be afraid. She should have felt terrified, but she didn't. The inky black closed around their feet. She could feel it tugging at Mr. Cowboy, and she kissed his forehead before being sucked away.
It was up to her neck now, slowly covering her face. She felt nothing as she let herself become immersed.
The night owl tone from Annie's phone woke her from a deep sleep. 5:30 am. She leaned over and nudged her husband.
He stifled a yawn. “Good morning to you. Sleep well?”
“Yeah. My Dad visited me in my dream,” she said, feeling tears well up. “I miss him. Wish I could somehow hold on to those moments, and talk longer.”
He pulled her in close, wrapping his arms around her. “I know.”