Short Stories

Motel1Things Men Do When They Are Alone

In her twelve years, she could not remember a summer this hot. On the highway, the tyres of passing cars and trucks shrieked like they were sticking to the road. The white, shouting glare, all day long pushing at her eyeballs, made her long for evening.

Guests rarely stayed longer than overnight. She knew the regulars. Sometimes they gave her a sample of whatever they were hawking that week. Sometimes, they would invite her in to play cards or just talk. She heard about their families: the wife who got drunk every afternoon; the enlisted son posted overseas; the father who could not forgive his daughter for quitting college to get married. They talked about the moments when you realise you're standing

at a fork in the road, about the hard choices and afterwards the regrets. Their stories only confirmed what Dad often said: if you think you deserve happiness, then you’re in big trouble.

She began her chores while it was still cool. If she cleaned six rooms, her mum would pay her five bucks. The rest of the day was hers. She liked drawing faces in the dust on cars or throwing sticks for Benji, who still liked to fetch.

She didn’t welcome company, especially Cousin Lucy who was dull as Sunday, who actually liked school and babbled excitedly if she saw a cloud that looked like a cat. Show me a cat that looks like a cloud and I might be impressed.

Behind the motel, a footpath led to a stand of trees too small to have a name. There, with the world a thousand miles distant, she liked to sit, arms around knees, listening to the murmur of infinity.

Today, it felt too hot to stay long. At the motel entrance, a hedgehog sat motionless by the kerb. It must be her hedgehog, the one she had been feeding all summer. Gently she rolled it over with her plimsoll and almost gagged. A boiling cradle of maggots had replaced her creature’s innards.

Blessed darkness. If Dad ever found out, she’d be busted forever; nevertheless, most evenings she climbed the big sycamore in the courtyard. From there she could look down into the rooms, to watch what men do when they are alone. Some men worked on their laptops; some drank beer and lay on their bed to watch TV; some looked at a magazine and did that thing men do for which she didn’t have a name.

This man wasn’t doing any of those things. He sat motionless, his head hung forward, his hand resting on the thing on the desk. For a million years, she watched.

Then, calamity. Toppling backwards, she fell. A branch snagged her dungaree strap and she swung, helpless. She could solve this, given time, but there was no time, just this moment, right here, right now. Consequences would arise, whichever path she chose. The forking road, the sharp jab of time’s arrow.