The Sun Down Motel – Simone St. James

The night it all ended, Vivian was alone. That was fine with her. She preferred it. It was something she’d discovered, working the night shift at this place in the middle of nowhere: Being with people was easy, but being alone was hard. Especially being alone in the dark. The person who could be truly alone, in the company of no one but oneself and one’s own thoughts—that person was stronger than anyone else. More ready. More prepared. Still, she pulled into the parking lot of the Sun Down Motel in Fell, New York, and paused, feeling the familiar beat of fear. She sat in her beat-up Cavalier, the key in the ignition, the heat and the radio on, her coat huddled around her shoulders. She looked at the glowing blue and yellow sign, the two stories of rooms in two long stripes in the shape of an L, and thought, I don’t want to go in there. But I will. She was ready, but she was still afraid. It was 10:59 p.m.

She felt like crying. She felt like screaming. She felt sick. I don’t want to go in there. But I will. Because I always do. Outside, two drops of half-frozen rain hit the windshield. A truck droned by on the road in the rearview mirror. The clock ticked over to eleven o’clock, and the news came on the radio. Another minute and she’d be late, but she didn’t care.

No one would fire her. No one cared if she came to work. The Sun Down had few customers, none of whom would notice if the night girl was late. It was often so quiet that an observer would think that nothing ever happened here. Viv Delaney knew better. The Sun Down only looked empty. But it wasn’t. With cold fingers, she pulled down the driver’s-side visor. She touched her hair, which she’d had cut short, a sharp style that ended below her earlobes and was sprayed out for volume. She checked her eye makeup—not the frosty kind, like some girls wore, but a soft lavender purple.

It looked a little like bruises. You could streak it with yellow and orange to create a days-old-bruise effect, but she hadn’t bothered with that tonight. Just the purple on the delicate skin of her lids, meeting the darker line of her eyeliner and lashes. Why had she put makeup on at all? She couldn’t remember. On the radio, they talked about a body. A girl found in a ditch off Melborn Road, ten miles from here. Not that here was anywhere—just a motel on the side of a two-lane highway leading out of Fell and into the nothingness of upstate New York and eventually Canada. But if you took the two-lane for a mile and made a right at the single light dangling from an overhead wire, and followed that road to another and another, you’d be where the girl’s body was found. A girl named Tracy Waters, last seen leaving a friend’s house in a neighboring town. Eighteen years old, stripped naked and dumped in a ditch.

They’d found her body two days after her parents reported her missing. As she sat in her car, twenty-year-old Viv Delaney’s hands shook as she listened to the story. She thought about what it must be like to lie naked as the half-frozen rain pelted your helpless skin. How horribly cold that would be. How it was always girls who ended up stripped and dead like roadkill. How it didn’t matter how afraid or how careful you were—it could always be you. Especially here. It could always be you. Her gaze went to the motel, to the reflection of the gaudy lit-up blue and yellow sign blinking endlessly in the darkness. VACANCY.

CABLE TV! VACANCY. CABLE TV! Even after three months in this place, she could still be scared. Awfully, perfectly scared, her thoughts skittering up the back of her neck and around her brain in panic. I’m alone for the next eight hours, alone in the dark. Alone with her and the others. And despite herself, Viv turned the key so the heat and the radio—still talking about Tracy Waters—went off. Lifted her chin and pushed open the driver’s-side door. Stepped out into the cold. She hunched deeper into her nylon coat and started across the parking lot. She was wearing jeans and a pair of navy blue sneakers with white laces, the soles too thin for the cold and damp.

The rain wet her hair, and the wind pushed it out of place. She walked across the lot toward the door that said OFFICE. Inside the office, Johnny was standing behind the counter, zipping up his coat over his big stomach. He’d probably seen her from the window in the door. “Are you late?” he asked, though there was a clock on the wall behind him. “Five minutes,” Viv argued back, unzipping her own coat. Her stomach felt tight, queasy now that she was inside. I want to go home. But where was home? Fell wasn’t home. Neither was Illinois, where she was born.

When she left home for the last time, after the final screaming fight with her mother, she’d supposedly been headed to New York to become an actress. But that, like everything else in her life to that point, had been a part she was playing, a story. She had no idea how to become a New York actress—the story had enraged her mother, which had made it good enough. What Viv had wanted, more than anything, was to simply be in motion, to go. So she’d gone. And she’d ended up here. Fell would have to be home for now. “Mrs. Bailey is in room two-seventeen,” Johnny said, running down the motel’s few guests. “She already made a liquor run, so expect a phone call anytime.

” “Great,” Viv said. Mrs. Bailey came to the Sun Down to drink, probably because if she did it at home she’d get in some kind of trouble. She made drunken phone calls to the front desk to make demands she usually forgot about. “Anyone else?” “The couple on their way to Florida checked out,” Johnny said. “We’ve had two prank phone calls, both heavy breathing. Stupid teenagers. And I wrote a note to Janice about the door to number one-oh-three. There’s something wrong with it. It keeps blowing open in the wind, even when I lock it.

” “It always does that,” Viv said. “You told Janice about it a week ago.” Janice was the motel’s owner, and Viv hadn’t seen her in weeks. Months, maybe. She didn’t come to the motel if she didn’t have to, and she certainly didn’t come at night. She left Vivian’s paychecks in an envelope on the desk, and all communication was handled with notes. Even the motel’s owner didn’t spend time here if she could help it. “Well, she should fix the door,” Johnny said. “I mean, it’s strange, right? I locked it.” “Sure,” Viv said.

“It’s strange.” She was used to this. No one else who worked at the motel saw what she saw or experienced what she did. The things she saw only happened in the middle of the night. The day shift and the evening shift employees had no idea. “Hopefully no one else will check in,” Johnny said, pulling the hood of his jacket over his head. “Hopefully it’ll be quiet.” It’s never quiet, Viv thought, but she said, “Yes, hopefully.” Viv watched him walk out of the office, listened to his car start up and drive away. Johnny was thirty-six and lived with his mother.

Viv pictured him going home, maybe watching TV before going to bed. A guy who had never made much of himself, living a relatively normal life, free of the kind of fear Viv was feeling. A life in which he never thought about Tracy Waters, except to vaguely recall her name from the radio. Maybe it was just her who was going crazy. The quiet settled in, broken only by the occasional sound of the traffic on Number Six Road and the wind in the trees behind the motel. It was now 11:12. The clock on the wall behind the desk ticked over to 11:13. She hung her jacket on the hook in the corner. From another hook she took a navy blue polyester vest with the words Sun Down Motel embroidered on the left breast and shrugged it on over her white blouse. She pulled out the hard wooden chair behind the counter and sat in it.

She surveyed the scarred, stained desktop quickly: jar of pens and pencils, the black square that made a clacking sound when you dragged the handle back and forth over a credit card to make a carbon impression, puke-colored rotary phone. In the middle of the desk was a large, flat book, where guests were to write their information and sign their names when checking in. The guest book was open to November 1982. Pulling a notebook from her purse, Viv pulled a pen from between its pages, opened the notebook on the desk, and wrote. Nov. 29 Door to number 103 has begun to open again. Prank calls. No one here. Tracy Waters is dead. A sound came from outside, and she paused, her head half raised.

A bang, and then another one. Rhythmic and wild. The door to number 103 blowing open and hitting the wall in the wind. Again. For a second, Viv closed her eyes. The fear came over her in a wave, but she was too far in it now. She was already here. She had to be ready. The Sun Down had claimed her for the night. She lowered the pen again.

What if everything I’ve seen, everything I think, is true? Because I think it is. Her eyes glanced to the guest book, took in the names there. She paused as the clock on the wall behind her shoulder ticked on, then wrote again. The ghosts are awake tonight. They’re restless. I think this will be over soon. Her hand trembled, and she tried to keep it steady. I’m so sorry, Tracy. I’ve failed. A small sound escaped the back of her throat, but she bit it down into silence.

She put the pen down and rubbed her eyes, some of the pretty lavender eyeshadow coming off on her fingertips. It was November 29, 1982, 11:24 p.m. By three o’clock in the morning, Viv Delaney had vanished. That was the beginning. Fell, New York November 2017 CARLY This place was unfamiliar. I opened my eyes and stared into the darkness, panicked. Strange bed, strange light through the window, strange room. I had a minute of free fall, frightening and exhilarating at the same time. Then I remembered: I was in Fell, New York.

My name was Carly Kirk, I was twenty years old, and I wasn’t supposed to be here. I checked my phone on the nightstand; it was four o’clock in the morning, only the light from streetlamps and the twenty-four-hour Denny’s shining through the sheer drapes on the hotel room window and making a hazy square on the wall. I wasn’t getting back to sleep now. I swung my legs over the side of the bed and picked up my glasses from the nightstand, putting them on. I’d driven from Illinois yesterday, a long drive that left me tired enough to sleep like the dead in this bland chain hotel in downtown Fell. It wasn’t that impressive a place; Google Earth had told me that much. Downtown was a grid of cafés, laundromats, junky antique stores, apartment rental buildings, and usedbook stores, nestled reverently around a grocery store and a CVS. The street I was on, with the chain hotel and the Denny’s, passed straight through town, as if a lot of people got to Fell and simply kept driving without making the turnoff into the rest of the town. The WELCOME TO FELL sign I’d passed last night had been vandalized by a wit who had used spray paint to add the words TURN BACK. I didn’t turn back.

With my glasses on, I picked up my phone again and scrolled through the emails and texts that had come in while I slept. The first email was from my family’s lawyer. The remainder of funds has been deposited into your account. Please see breakdown attached. I flipped past it without reading the rest, without opening the attachment. I didn’t need to see it: I already knew I’d inherited some of Mom’s money, split with my brother, Graham. I knew it wasn’t riches, but it was enough to keep me in food and shelter for a little while. I didn’t want numbers, and I couldn’t look at them. Losing your mother to cancer—she was only fifty-one—made things like money look petty and stupid. In fact, it made you rethink everything in your life.

Which in my crazy way, after fourteen months in a fog of grief, I was doing. And I couldn’t stop. There was a string of texts from Graham. What do you think you’re doing, Carly? Leaving college? For how long? You think you can keep up? Whatever. If all that tuition is down the drain, you’re on your own. You know that, right? Whatever you’re doing, good luck with it. Try not to get killed. I hit Reply and typed, Hey, drama queen. It’s only for a few days, and I’m acing everything. This is just a side trip, because I’m curious.

So sue me. I’ll be fine. No plans to get killed, but thanks for checking. Actually, I was hoping to be here for longer than a few days. Since losing Mom, staying in college for my business degree seemed pointless. When I’d started college, I’d thought I had all the time in the world to figure out what I wanted to do. But Mom’s death showed me that life wasn’t as long as you thought it was. And I had questions I wanted answers to. It was time to find them. Hailey, Graham’s fiancée, had sent me her own text.

Hey! You OK?? Worried about you. I’m here to talk if you want. Maybe you need another grief counselor? I can find you one! OK? XO! God, she was so nice. I’d already done grief counseling. Therapy. Spirit circles. Yoga. Meditation. Self-care. In doing all of that, what I’d discovered was that I didn’t need another therapy session right now.

What I really needed, at long last, was answers. I put down my phone and opened my laptop, tapping it awake. I opened the file on my desktop, scrolling through it. I picked out a scan of a newspaper from 1982, with the headline POLICE SEARCHING FOR MISSING LOCAL WOMAN. Beneath the headline was a photo of a young woman, clipped from a snapshot. She was beautiful, vivacious, smiling at the camera, her hair teased, her bangs sprayed in place up from her forehead as the rest of her hair hung down in a classic eighties look. Her skin was clear and her eyes sparkled, even in black and white. The caption below the photo said: Twenty-year-old Vivian Delaney has not been seen since the night of November 29. Anyone who has seen her is asked to call the police. This.

This was the answer I needed. I’d been a nerd all my life, my nose buried in a book. Except that once I graduated from reading The Black Stallion, the books I read were the dark kind—about scary things like disappearances and murders, especially the true ones. While other kids read J. K. Rowling, I read Stephen King. While other kids did history reports about the Civil War, I read about Lizzie Borden. The report I wrote about that one—complete with details about exactly where the axe hit Lizzie’s father and stepmother—got my teacher to call my mother with concern. Is Carly all right? My mother had brushed it off, because by then she knew how dark her daughter was. She’s fine.

She just likes to read about murder, that’s all. What my mother didn’t mention—what she hated to talk about at all—was that I came by it naturally. There was an unsolved murder in my family, and I’d been obsessed with it for as long as I could remember. I looked at the newspaper clipping again. Viv Delaney, the girl in the photograph, was my mother’s sister. In 1982, she disappeared while working the night shift at the Sun Down Motel and was never found. It was the huge, gaping hole in my family, the thing that everyone knew about but no one spoke of. Viv’s disappearance was a loss like a missing tooth. Never ask your mother about that, my father told me the year before he left us all for good. It upsets her.

Even my brother, the eternal pain in the ass, was sensitive about it. Mom’s sister was killed, he told me. Someone took her and murdered her, like that guy with the hook. It creeps me out. No wonder Mom doesn’t talk about it. Thirty-five years my aunt Viv had been missing. My grandparents—Mom and Viv’s parents—were dead. There were no pictures of Viv in our house, no mementos of her. The year before Mom died, when I was home for the summer, I’d found a story online and seen Viv’s face for the first time. I’d thought maybe enough time had passed.

I’d printed the clipping out and gone downstairs to show it to her. “Look what I found,” I said. Mom was sitting on the sofa in the living room, watching TV after dinner. She took the clipping from me and read it. Then she stared at it for a long time, her gaze fixed on the photograph. When she looked back up at me, she had a strange look on her face that I’d never seen before and would never see again. Pain, maybe. Exhaustion, and some kind of old, rotted-over, carved-out fear. In that moment I had no idea that she had cancer, that I would lose her within a year. Maybe she knew then and didn’t tell me, but I didn’t think so.

That look on her face, that fear, was all about Vivian. Her voice, when she finally spoke, was flat, without inflection. “Vivian is dead,” she said. She put down the clipping and got up and left the room. I never asked Mom about it again. • • • It was only after Mom died that I got mad. Not at Mom, really—she was a teenager when Viv disappeared, and there wasn’t much she could have done. But what about everyone else? The cops? The locals? Viv’s parents? Why hadn’t there been a statewide search? Why had Viv been allowed to vanish into nothingness with barely a ripple? The first person I asked was Graham, who was older and remembered more than I did. “Grandma and Granddad were divorced by then,” Graham said. “When Viv disappeared, Grandma was a single mother.

” “So? That meant she didn’t look for her daughter? Granddad, either?” Graham shrugged. “Grandma didn’t have much money. And Mom told me that she and Viv used to fight all the time. They didn’t get along at all.” I’d stared at him, shocked. We were sitting in my mother’s rental apartment, in the middle of boxing up her things. We were taking a break and eating takeout. “Mom told you that? She never told me that.” My brother shrugged again, leaning back on a box and scrolling through his phone. “They didn’t have the Internet back then, or DNA.

If you wanted to find a missing person, you had to get in your car and go driving around looking for them. Grandma couldn’t take time off work and go to Fell. And Granddad was already remarried. I don’t think he cared about any of them all that much.” It was true. Mom hadn’t had a good relationship with her father, who had left their family to sink or swim. She hadn’t even gone to his funeral. “What about the cops, though?” I said. Graham put his phone down briefly and thought it over. “Well, Viv had already left home, and she was twenty,” he said.

“I guess they thought she’d just taken off somewhere.” He looked at me. “You’re really into this, aren’t you?” “Yes, I’m really into this. They didn’t even find a body. It isn’t 1982 anymore. We have the Internet and DNA now. Maybe something can be done.” “By you?” Yes, by me. There didn’t seem to be anyone else. And now that Mom was gone, I could ask all the questions I wanted without hurting her feelings.

Mom had taken all of her memories of Viv with her when she died, and I’d never hear them. My anger at that was helpless, something that the therapists and counselors said I needed to work through. But my anger at everyone else, my outrage that my aunt’s likely abduction and death were written off as just something that happened—I could work through that by coming to Fell and getting my own answers. I clicked the other scanned article I had on my computer. It was headlined simply MISSING GIRL STILL NOT FOUND. The details were sketchy: Viv was twenty; she had been in Fell for three months; she worked at the Sun Down Motel on the night shift. She’d gone to work and disappeared sometime in the middle of her shift, leaving behind her car, her purse, and her belongings. Her roommate, a girl named Jenny Summers, said Viv was “a nice person, easy to get along with.” She was also described—by who was not cited—as “pretty and vivacious.” She had no boyfriend that anyone knew of.

She was not into drugs, alcohol, or prostitution that anyone could tell. Her mother—my grandmother— was quoted as being “worried sick.” She was a beautiful girl, gone. On foot. Without any money. Vivian is dead. Viv’s case hadn’t received national or even statewide media attention. The local Fell newspapers weren’t digitized—they were still physically archived in the Fell library. When I started digging, all I found were true-crime blogs and Reddit threads by armchair detectives. None of the blogs or threads were about Vivian, but a lot of them were about Fell.

Because Fell, it turned out, had more than one unsolved murder. For such a small place, it was a true-crime buff’s paradise. The second article was in Mom’s belongings. I’d found it when I’d gone through her dresser after she died, tucked in an envelope in the back of a drawer. The envelope was white, crisp, brand-new. Written on the back, in Mom’s lovely handwriting, was: 27 Greville Street, apartment C. Viv’s address, maybe? The piece of newsprint inside the envelope was nearly disintegrating, so I’d scanned it and added it to the first one I found. Vivian is dead. Mom had wanted no memories of her sister, no discussion of her, and yet she’d kept this article for thirty-five years, along with the address. She’d even put it in a new envelope sometime recently, recopied the address, which meant she’d at least pulled the article out of the old envelope, maybe read it again.

Viv was real. She wasn’t a spooky tale or a ghost story. She had been real, she had been Mom’s sister—and somehow, looking at that crisp white envelope, I knew she had mattered to Mom, a lot, in a way I had lost my chance to understand. This was all I had: two newspaper articles and a memory of grief. Except now I had more than that. I had a little money and I had a very clear map from Illinois to Fell, New York. I had an address for Viv’s apartment, maybe, and the Sun Down Motel. I had no boyfriend and a college career I had no passion for. I had a car and so few belongings that they fit into the back seat. I was twenty, and I still hadn’t started my life yet.

Just like Viv hadn’t. So I’d left school—Graham really was blowing this out of proportion—and got in my car for a road trip. And here I was. I’d look around town and dig up the local articles in the library. I’d go see the Sun Down for myself, since my Internet search said it was still in business. Maybe someone who lived here had known Viv, remembered her, could tell me about her. Maybe I could make her more than a fading piece of newsprint hidden in my mother’s drawer. Her disappearance was the big mystery of my family—I wanted to see it firsthand, and all it would cost was a few days out of school. Try not to get killed. That was my big brother, trying to scare me.

It wasn’t going to work. I didn’t scare easily. Still, I closed my laptop and tried not to think about someone hurting the girl I’d seen in the photo, someone grabbing her, taking her somewhere, doing something to her, killing her. Dumping her somewhere lonely, where maybe she still was. Maybe she was only bones now. Maybe that person, whoever they were, was dead now, or in prison. Maybe they weren’t. Vivian is dead. It wasn’t fair that Vivian was forgotten, reduced to a few pieces of newsprint and nothing else. It wasn’t fair that Mom had died and taken her memories and her grief with her.

It wasn’t fair that Viv didn’t matter to anyone but me. I was in Fell. I didn’t belong here. I had no idea what I was doing. And still I waited, without sleeping, for the sun to come up again.

.

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