The single-story motel off a two-lane street pretending to be a highway had a banner over the office proclaiming it to be “under new management.” Its only neighbor was a gas station about a hundred yards away, sporting two ancient pumps. According to a green sign Kendrick passed, the two businesses consisted a town. Starlight, population: whoever happened to be working at the moment and thousands of trees. To Kendrick, the motel looked to be the place the first bedbug evolved, then set itself upon an unsuspecting world.
The motel manager did little to dissuade him of the idea. When Kendrick walked in the office, he could see the manager in a small room behind the counter, sleeping on a cot. Kendrick had to abuse the little bell on the counter to wake him. The manager rolled off the cot, his foot sent an empty bottle clanging into a corner. He rubbed his face and barked an obscenity to make Kendrick stop. He was short, chest barely making the countertop he stumbled against, then leaned on for support. No hair atop his head, an Indiana waterfall splashed against the top of a stained t-shirt, once white. The contents of the bottle carried on his breath, leaked from his pores.
“Yo, dawg,” said Kendrick. “Can I get a room?”
The manager rubbed at his face again. “Yeah, ‘dawg.” Kendrick heard the mockery in the man’s voice and ignored it. “Need to see an ID. Room is normally forty five a night, but since it’s after midnight, a late check-in is fifteen extra.”
From his wallet, Kendrick pulled a Kentucky driver’s license that claimed his name was “Tony Miles.” The real Tony Miles was from somewhere in Southern Indiana, killed in a deal in Louisville that went bad. Kendrick jacked his wallet, left the body in an abandoned lot. Louisville Metro never identified the body, no one back home cared enough to report Miles missing. The case went cold.
From the duffel bag on his shoulder that also carried a few dozen bags of bootscoot, Kendrick produced a wad of bills. He peeled off a c-note, laid it on the counter with the license. “You got weekly rates?”
“You going to stay a week?” the manager said. He took the ID. Made change.
“I dunno. Maybe. We’ll see.”
The manager shrugged. “Shit. I dunno. Two-eighty?” He handed the ID and money to Kendrick.
“Hold up, dawg. You shorted me,” said Kendrick. He held up the bills. “There’s only thirty here.”
“You’re paying cash. That’s extra,” the manager said. “Unless you got a credit card.”
“The fuck?” Kendrick said. “So if a white dude rolled in here with paper, you’d charge him extra too? Or that just for folk of a certain persuasion.”
“You carrying any plastic?”
“That ain’t the point, man.”
“If you’d like to find another place to stay, you’re welcome to.”
Kendrick sighed, threw his hands up in frustration. Four hours driving since Louisville, his eyes were fighting sleep. He thought about pulling off the side of the road, but he didn’t need a one-time giving him heat for sleeping-while-Black. If Carmona’s boys, were looking for him — and no doubt they were — he best be off the road.
In Florence, he ditched his car. A ridiculous water tower with “FLORENCE, Y’ALL” painted across it watching, he boosted an SUV. That SUV Kendrick parked a mile away from the motel, in the trees, to be safe. Eyes weighing down his legs, Kendrick did not want to walk back.
“It’s fine. Whatever, man,” he said.
The manager handed him a room key. “1820, around the back. No loud music, no loud TV. No smoking, cigarettes or anything else. No visitors after ten.”
Kendrick snatched the key from the manager’s hand. “Who’s going to be visiting me in Bumfuck, Nowhere?” he said as he walked out of the office.
The back of the motel was unlit. There were lamps over each door, none seemed to be work. The forest, thick, deep, pressed against the rear parking lot. Limbs stretched over the asphalt, reached at the motel. No lights leaked through the trees from beyond. Kendrick had to navigate by a gibbous moon, filtered through the trees. The night hummed. Low-pitched, it rose and fell in waves, a gentle beat against Kendrick’s chest and ears. It reminded him of the high-voltage lines that ran near his dad’s old apartment. Just outside his bedroom window, the wires sang a lullaby that helped Kendrick find sleep every night. He assumed the hotel had some sort of generator, though a quick glance of his surroundings did not reveal it.
The room numbering made no sense. Kendrick thought the owners had blindly grabbed a handful of faux-brass numbers and nailed them them to doors. There were definitely not enough rooms to justify their numbering going into the thousands.
Kendrick fumbled with the key when he found his room. Missed the lock, scraped the door knob. When he finally opened the door, an odor punched him in the face. Wet animal musk, stale sex, and sun-driven rot. Exhaustion fled him and his stomach tried to follow suit. “Shit.” He coughed.
Kendrick walked back to the office. “Hey, homie,” he said. “Can I get another room? The one you gave me stinks.” The manager shook his head. “All the rooms are full, ‘homie’.”
Only one key was missing from the shelf of hooks behind the manager. And Kendrick knew the parking lot was empty. “You kidding me, dawg?”
The manager yawned. “Like I said, if you want to find another place…”
“Shit, then. Alright,” said Kendrick. “Never met a man so desperate to avoid taking my money. Can I at least get an air-freshener or something?”
“All out,” said the manager.
Kendrick laughed, ran his hands over his hair. “You know if that gas station is open?”
The manager shrugged.
“Man, how bad was the previous management if they’re advertising you as an improvement?” asked Kendrick.
The gas station was open. Kendrick bought spray air fresheners, solid plug-ins, and rear view mirror car deodorizers. Fresh laundry, spring rain, and vanilla. He also picked up a razor, shaving cream and bottled water. Everything was stuffed in the duffel bag. The clerk at the gas station looked like she could be the motel manager’s sister and possessed just as much personality.
On the way back to the motel, Kendrick’s cell rang. Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight” was the only sound in the microscopic town and its empty night, echoed between the motel and gas station. It sounded as if the trees were singing. Pale cleavage, brown locks dipping into the picture, no face visible, and the name “Patricia” flashed on the screen.
“Hey baby,” Kendrick answered.
“Where you at?” asked Patricia.
“At some dirty-ass motel in Starlight, Kentucky.”
“What the fuck you doing at a motel?” Patricia screamed. “What’s the bitch’s name?”
“It ain’t like that.”
“Oh, what’s it like then?”
“I caught some beef,” Kendrick said. “Gotta lay low for a minute.”
“Who you catching beef with?” asked Patricia.
“Oh shit. Carmona?” Patricia was screaming again. Kendrick held his cell away from his ear. “Those Mexicans are fucking crazy. The fuck you thinking?”
“It’s all good, baby. Me and the crew made a lot of paper on this. And the stuff we boosted from those fools is gonna break bread for us for a long time. Just gotta lay low, is all.”
“They cut people’s heads off!”
“No they don’t. That shit’s made up just to scare people. This is Kentucky, not Tijuana.”
“Whatever. You sure you ain’t out there with some bitch?” asked Patricia. “You’re telling me the truth, right?”
“Yes, I’m sure.” said Kendrick. “And I ain’t telling you again. You gotta knock that jealousy shit out. Seriously. There are only three people in this town, counting me, and the two other folk may be related. And it wouldn’t be surprising if they was married to each other. They be trippin’ out here. I don’t think this town has seen a brother since the Civil War. It’s fucking lonely.”
“Okay, baby. I believe you,” Patricia said, though her voice held no sincerity. “You be careful out there.”
“I will,” Kendrick said. Then, “Maybe you could send me a few pics of what you got, so I don’t feel so lonely.”
“No, nuh-uh! Fuck you! I ain’t sending you pics so you can show them off to your friends. If you want to see ‘what I got’, you gonna have to come see it for yourself.” The phone disconnected.
Kendrick tilted his head back to the sky. “My woman is a crazy-ass bitch,” he sighed.
He noticed he had never seen a sky like the one above him then. In his twenty-five years he had not been under a star-filled night. The city colored the night orange, put a roof over everything. Here, the night was a wide, yawning pit. The maw of a great beast. There was a fear, a tiny insect crawling through the back of his mind, that gravity would forget him. Out here, it was possible to fall upward into the sky. The great beast, teeth of stars, could swallow him. Kendrick hurried back to the motel.
Shirt over his nose, he entered his room with air-freshener spray in hand, fought back the odor. The light flicked on. He did not see what was causing the stench. Sheets on the bed matched the manager’s discolored, stained shirt. A TV, a refugee from the middle of the previous century, sat on a particle board dresser missing drawers, sported coat hanger rabbit ears. A flimsy chair and table occupied a corner. There was no carpeting. Paint spots, scuffs and scratches replaced the finish on the bare floorboards. Several had holes in them. Nothing but black beneath, dark as the night around the stars outside.
Kendrick did not like the holes. They reminded him of a movie he saw when he was five. Staying with his grandmama, she didn’t care how late he stayed up or what he watched, as long as there were no bare breasts. A young woman gave birth to a killer mutant baby. At one point in the movie, the baby is trying to get at its mother through a closed door, tiny clawed hand shooting through the space between the door and the floor. Since watching that scene, cracked doors and any small hole inspired a tinge of fear in Kendrick. He avoided even looking at them, lest he see a tiny hand reach through. “That’s fucked up,” he said to one of the holes. For his entire stay, he swore he would not take off his shoes.
The odor was stronger than fresh laundry or spring rain. But the air-fresheners did manage to make the stench tolerable. It reminded Kendrick of the old urban legend of the dead hooker stuffed in a hotel box-spring. He removed the pistol hidden in the back of his pants, placed it on a nightstand beside the bed, lifted the mattress. There was no murdered prostitute underneath, only a composition school notebook. The kind with a marbleized black and white cover.
Kendrick flipped through the notebook. The handwriting was hard to decipher, but he picked out a phrase here and there.
“Lord Father-Mother of the Woods…Matriarch of Swarms…the Black Spiral Womb beneath us all…the ritual to summon…pregnant moon gives birth…red, God thirsts for red…must give him-her enough red…” Symbols he didn’t recognize, along with crude drawings of insects and goats, ran through the margins.
Kendrick tossed the notebook on the nightstand beside his gun. “These mother-fucking hicks need Jesus in their lives…hell, the shit I get myself into, I need Jesus too…”
He searched the rest of the room for the origin of the smell. Didn’t find anything. A bee crawled across a lamp on the nightstand beside the bed. With the composition notebook, Kendrick smashed it. The bug fell between the floorboards, giving one last defiant, dying buzz as it disappeared.
Against the door Kendrick wedged the flimsy table and chair. He carried the stained sheets and pillow to the bathroom, made a bed in the shower. The duffel bag he stuffed behind the toilet. He rolled a joint with the little bit of weed in his pocket and knew there was no way the manager could ever pick up the smell of weed over the stench. Lying in the bathtub, he smoked and played on his phone until he fell asleep.
It was not a restful sleep. His security blanket of car engines, sirens and trains was missing. The rural quiet was unsettling. It conspired with his paranoia to amplify the sound of every passing car, filled it with Carmona’s boys. He jerked awake, listened intently, hoping car doors didn’t slam, or that there wasn’t a knock, kick at his door. Over and over this happened.
In between the fits of waking, Kendrick dreamed of the hit on Carmona’s drug house. Kendrick and his crew got the drop on the Mexicans, shot them down, sitting, in their backs, no chance to grab their weapons. They died at the feet of their Santa Muerte altar. The dream twisted everything. Bullet wounds bled flies. Saint Death had the square pupils of a goat, thousands of them, in compound, diamond-glittering eyes. Carmona’s boys brayed in death. The coke Kendrick boosted, enough to break bread for months once they started moving it, was cut with blood. A fog, red mist and white haze, filled the house. Kendrick’s crew put the house to gasoline and lighter. The blaze hummed in tune with the sound of Starlight’s night.
He woke, stiff. Doubtful the water from the taps was capable of getting anything clean, he emptied the water bottles in the sink, filled it. Then, he set to shaving his face and scalp. He cursed himself for leaving his thick-rimmed glasses in the car ditched in Florence.
The razor bit at the back of his head. Fingers came away red when he touched the wound. Deep, he knew, from the warm, wet trail fast forming on his neck, shoulder, arm. It dripped from his fingers, hitting the floorboards with a tick, tick, tick. Tiny red rivulets formed in the grooves and scratches, ran down the knots.
Kendrick tore off a handful of toilet paper, smashed it against the back of his skull. Given the appearance of everything else in the motel, he doubted the towels hung in the shower would do anything but make his head rot off his shoulders. The mirror over the sink swung open when he tried it. No first-aid kit hid inside the cabinet.
The hum Kendrick heard the night before invaded the bathroom. Faint, as if the knots in the floor were sighing. But he felt it. It rose and fell over him, lifted the hair on his arms, blew them back down. Kendrick stared at a hole near the toe of his shoe.
“The generator must be down there,” he told himself, but knew that made no sense. Why would they be running a generator when the weather was nice? And from what he saw last night, it did not appear as if any bad storms had rolled through the town recently. He knew he was just trying to convince himself the generator was under his feet to fight back a fear.
One of those little monsters was, hidden by the dark below, staring back up at him. And around it, hundreds more, the hum, their heartbeats, their breathing.
The knothole drinking his blood seemed to gape, pulse. “The hell is that…?” Kendrick whispered, lest it hear him. Despite the irrational childhood terror run wild in his imagination, he bent at the waist to peer closer.
From the edge of the tub, Phil Collins sang. Kendrick’s heart clawed its way into his throat. He cursed, grabbed the phone, looked at the screen. No picture, but in white letters, “ABE,” part of the crew that rolled on Carmona with Kendrick.
Kendrick answered. “Yo, boy. What’s good with you?”
“Not a god damned thing,” said Abe. “Where you at?”
“Some po-dunk-ass town near Tennessee. Starlight or some shit.”
“Word,” Abe said. “You good? You ain’t catchin’ any heat?”
“Naw, man.” Kendrick replied. “No sign of Carmona. And I ain’t seen a one-time for a while.”
“Cool, cool. Your stuff good?”
Kendrick glanced at the duffel bag wedged behind the ancient, scum-ridden and scaled commode. He winced. “Yeah man, I got a place to stash the stuff until we’re ready to start moving it. Where you at?”
“Owensboro,” replied Abe with a laugh. “My shit’s good.”
“Cool,” said Kendrick. “I think I’m going to post up down here for a minute. I kinda stick out. But it’s isolated. Ain’t no one going to find me down here.”
“Word, I’m going to do the same thing down here. I talked to the rest of the crew. We’re all good. We sit tight, we’re gonna break a lot of bread.”
“Alright, boy,” Kendrick said. “Hit me up if you need me.”
Kendrick finished shaving, cleaned the blood and hair from himself, dressed. He stopped in the office, woke the manager again and paid him for a week. Duffel bag with him, he walked back to the SUV, drove to a truck stop a few miles outside of Starlight.
The stop was bigger than the town, in area and several times in population. Kendrick ate breakfast at a fast food chain attached to the stop, took a seat where he could keep the SUV and drugs in sight. The meal was scrambled eggs, one single buttery yellow mass, thin cardboard bacon and a dry biscuit. He finished, then paid for a shower and a small shovel. On the way back to the hotel, he ditched the SUV off the road again.
Back at the motel, he walked a straight line from his door into the forest. Brambles, vines clutched around his ankles, snaggled his shoes and pants. Gnats flew up from the underbrush with his every stomp. He had to swat them away from his nose, eyes and mouth. Hard-shelled bugs beamed themselves off his arms. He wondered why people ever went hiking.
Coming to a clearing, Kendrick decided he had fought the forest enough. No plants here, not even grass, just a square patch of dessicated dirt. It appeared as if some great force, the hand of God, came down and scoured all life away.
Kendrick went to his knees, dug. Every stab of the blade into the ground churned up black nightcrawlers and fat white grubs, all apparently having escaped the wrath of whatever force had strewn through here. The worms and bugs tore as he dug. Each piece of nightcrawler squirmed away. The grubs died. All bled black gunk. The din of the forest insects seemed to rise in anger at the deaths of their friend.
An hour later, Kendrick had a two-foot deep hole, just big enough. Money removed, in his pocket, the duffel bag went in. He covered the hole. Bootscoot buried, he broke a stick in two, shoved them in the now soft soil to mark the spot. He wished he hadn’t already wasted money on a shower.
For lunch and dinner, he avoided the truck stop. Sitting in one public place too long, too often just increased the chance Carmona’s boys might find him. Instead, he walked to Starlight’s gas station, had meals of burritos heated in the store microwave. He finished the burritos on the way back to the motel, washed them down with bottled water.
Kendrick spent the rest of the day reading magazines and stroke books bought from the gas station, tried to squeeze a signal out of the TV. Twice he tried calling Patricia. Both times her phone went to voice mail. The second time, he got pissed.
“You still tripping on that jealousy bullshit?” he asked the recorder. “Stop the silent treatment and hit me back.”
After the sun went down, he retrieved the SUV. A bee crawled on the rear view mirror. Its wings buzzed angry. Kendrick smashed it under a discarded receipt found on the passenger-seat floorboard. The bee dropped between the driver’s seat and console. Its stinger stabbed at the air as it fell between the driver’s seat and the console.
Then, Kendrick drove back to the truck stop, picked up a lot lizard.
“You got a place for us to go?” she asked as she sat down in the passenger seat. She could have been pretty, with a few pounds added, subtracting a few years, night-club complexion and the hair-style leftover from the nineteen nineties. Still, in the neon orange of the truck-stop, she wasn’t half-bad. And Kendrick wasn’t looking to fall in love.
“Yeah, girl. The motel in Starlight,” said Kendrick. “Sound good?”
She shook her head violently. “No. Fuck that. I ain’t going there.”
“The fuck?” said Kendrick. “Why not?”
“Man, that’s a bunch of bullshit,” said Kendrick. “I was there last night and all day today. Ain’t no ghosts there.”
“No, I heard. There was some weird church there,” the working girl said.
“What are you talking about?” asked Kendrick. “There’s a gas station and a hotel. That’s it.”
“They’s held church in the motel,” said the working girl. “They’s kidnapped people, back a few years ago. The church were planning to kill them. Thought the blood would let them talk to God. So, the FBI came down, put a right quick stop to all that. But the church people, they all ran into the woods and there was a big shoot out. There was a fire, too. Like in Waco. You remember that? It was just like that. And a bunch of people died. Those are the ghosts haunting it. And the FBI covered it all up.”
“That’s a bunch of nonsense,” said Kendrick.
“It’s true. I heard. That hotel just opened back up, been sitting for years ‘cause of all them ghosts.”
“Every hood got its ghost house. And every kid in every hood has heard stories about that ghost house. Don’t make it true,” said Kendrick. “We gonna do this? Ghosts or no ghosts, my paper is green either way.”
“I’ll do anything you pay for,” said the woman. “But I ain’t doing it at that motel.”
Kendrick paid her. In the darkest part of the truck stop’s neon twilight, she did her work.
Kendrick returned to the hotel room, tossed his keys, gun and cell on the bed. With left over bottled water, he washed the lot lizard away. As he made his bed in the bathtub, his phone beeped. An incoming message.
An icon in the corner of the screen said there was a picture message from Patricia. “Damn, woman.” Kendrick said. “You have a worst sense of timing.” He opened the message, found a picture of his room’s door.
“What the fuck?” He dialed Patricia’s number. It rang once, then picked up, silence on the other end. “Baby, you here?
What’s going on?” he asked.
The night exploded. Automatic gunfire shattered the window, splintered the door. Kendrick fell to the floor, crawled to the cinderblock front wall. Even as bullets ripped the air by his head, he hoped a tiny clawed hand wouldn’t reach through the holes in the floor, snag him. He pushed his back to the wall between the door and the window, fists against his ears.
“Carmona!” he shouted after the gunshots quieted. “What the fuck did you do to Patricia?”
There was no answer. The night had gone silent, but the gunfire still echoed on Kendrick’s eardrums. Through the receding din, he heard footsteps approaching his room. One person, running.
Kendrick dove to the bed. Fumbled for the gun. Grabbed it. Pushed himself back against the wall. A duffel bag fell through the window beside him. Kendrick threw a hand out the window, fired two blind shots. Outside, someone hit the ground hard, wheezed, gurgled.
“That’s one!” Kendrick shouted. “I’ll clap the rest of you fools too!”
The buzz from the night before, from that morning, returned. A soft sound, it beat against Kendrick’s legs.
The duffel bag reeked copper. The material looked wet. Kendrick reached out to touch it. Sticky. He pulled back the zipper.
Patricia’s face greeted him, pale skin drained to sick white. Her blue eyes bulged.
Kendrick vomited. He shook. The shaking built into a scream that turned into a roar.
He sprang up, weapon leveled out the window. Before he could fire, Kendrick saw a half dozen muzzle flashes in the dark, felt their heat in his chest, belly and shoulder. A reflex, pain and instinct, pulled the trigger of his gun as he fell. The bullets found only air.
Everything in him caught fire, snuffed out his lungs. It felt as if the flames were eating his legs, then nothing. He tried to move but his limbs refused. He heard himself wheezing. And he heard his blood spilling. Something beneath him gulped, thirsty.
And the buzz grew louder. It swelled, pulsed, pushed against the world harder and harder as the floorboards drank more of him. It was in the fire that consumed his insides. In the walls. In everything.
A black cloud belched out from between the floorboards, from the holes. The cloud filled the room, flowed out the window, swallowed the light. The exposed skin in places Kendrick still had feeling was bitten, stung. Bugs crawled down the bullet holes and every opening on his body. Forced themselves under his eyes.
Parts of Kendrick’s body lurched, without him, independent of each other. His dead legs kicked. A convulsion ran through him, sat him up. His skin wiggled. Joints dislocated as his limbs found new life and began to move him. The last sounds Kendrick heard before his ears choked closed with invaders were high-pitched screams and prayers begged in Spanish.
Bruce L. Priddy is a New Albany, Indiana based writer. His work has appeared in the Lovecraft eZine, the Stoker-nominated anthology Dark Tales of Lost Civilizations, and the western-horror anthology Edge of Sundown.