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The sign was there. Plainly taped above the money slot. Maybe he couldn’t read, Steph decided. Maybe that’s why he hadn’t seen the small print on the sign out front advertising thirty dollars a night. She had exact change and got Jim a diet, but she didn’t go right back. She stood with the sweating bottle in her hand and lit a cigarette. She leaned against the corner of the alley, situated so she could just see the room at the end of the row. She blew her smoke to the right so Jim wouldn’t catch sight of it—and so what if he did? This was her job, to look over the premises. To make note of anything funny. Not a glamorous job, but it was hers. And they were funny, weren’t they? The young couple? Something about them? If she turned on the news, she might find them pictured there, having done something awful. Though Steph didn’t like the news. She preferred monsters made of rubber.
But it wasn’t them, Steph thought. It was Angela from the beginning. Standing back at the door, pouting into the mirror of her sunglasses, beautiful and bored, making her lover answer questions, haggle, perform, drive her to the motel, drive her away, into the sunset. And he knows it—knew it when he sat down in the office and watched the movie with Steph. Angela had an idea, and once that idea faded, once she saw Rick Little for what he was, naked and ugly in that chair by the window…well, it was just easier, wasn’t it, to sit here in the office.
Steph watched the door and hoped Rick Little would come back out, sweaty from what they’d been doing, from how hard he’d been trying to keep her. Sweaty also because the air conditioning in their room was finicky. Maybe he’d come for another pop, or ice. Or maybe Angela would send him to do a load of laundry. Steph would tell him the dryer was acting up. There was a sign, but she’d tell him anyway. And she’d tell him she wished them luck—no, not them, him, and she’d tell him not to go back, to the room, to wherever they were from. And she’d tell him it was the bus, not her. The bus that closed its doors too soon and caught the drawstring on the girl’s jacket. The bus that didn’t wait, like it should have, for all the kids to cross into their yards, that folded its stop signs and threw itself into gear and barreled off with the girl still caught. The kids were screaming in the back, but they were always screaming, and even if she’d heard what they were saying, there was nothing Steph could have done. It wasn’t her. It wasn’t. She’d say all this to Rick Little without saying it. It would all be there beneath the “some night ain’t it” and the “just give the AC a good kick” and the “continental breakfast starts at seven” and without doing it, without even looking at her or saying thank you, he’d embrace her.
Steph threw her cigarette into the lot and turned back. So what if Mom sees fairies, she thought. So what if she’s making it all up. Let her. It’s her house. And Jimmy, you really could stand to believe in things a little more. She thought, for fun, that maybe she’d find Madison a fairy costume for Halloween this year. Then she remembered Madison was a grown woman and about to have a baby.
Jim was on his cell when she got back to the office. Steph stopped at the screen door. He didn’t see her there. He was standing with his back turned and his arm stretched to the TV, having just turned it off but still holding his arm out. “I know,” he said, his voice low, gravelly, and he managed a shake in it as well that Steph didn’t quite believe. “I know. I know.”
That’s when Steph heard the scream, and she knew she heard it, because Jim heard it too. He spun and looked right at her, panicked, as if to say, How? I turned it off. Steph turned and looked to the room at the end of the row whose door was now open, a block of lamplight cast out, and splitting the distance between Steph and the room was Angela, fuzzed in silhouette and still screaming, not a B-movie scream but long sliding wails, confused, animal, edged with hiccups and fuck yous. She held the sides of her head, her knuckles dug beneath her hair, and the shadows of moths busied her face. Above her a few guests stood staggered at the rail, and behind her Rick Little was running to the motorcycle. He had a helmet on now, so in a way, it didn’t have to be Rick Little, didn’t have to be his pockmarked face and twisted mouth behind the visor, but Steph caught the glint of his belt buckle, and further, for reasons she couldn’t in the moment or later explain, she wanted it to be him, and as he sped away, or rather, just before, just as his body lurched powerfully into the bike, Steph let herself wonder, in a flash of errant thought, and with the smallest internal tug, why he wasn’t taking her with him. By the time Steph managed to look back at Angela, she was sitting against one of the doors, collapsed, staring out at the cornfields and the kicked-up dust and holding her head.
Jim was behind her at the screen. “I’m calling,” he said. “Which way’d he go?” She couldn’t see it anymore, but she could still hear the buzz of the motorcycle, and she decided that, whatever had happened in that room, it was the bike that did it.