I don’t know how I ended up working there. It is all kind of a blur. But it was the last vestige of civilization before the darkness of the road that left it all behind. As I worked nights there, I could feel the bridge out there, just out of reach, but comfortably close. I think that is why I loved working at Best Western.
It was a part time gig. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights at 11, I would roll in and lock myself in until 7 in the morning. There was a long list of duties I had to perform. Vacuuming, stocking the candy bars, dusting, and when people came in, checking them into a room. I was in charge of taking reservations at night if someone called, but in my two years of working there, I never had to take one. I was in charge of putting out the breakfast every morning and keeping the lobby clean, but most of this took less than half an hour. The rest of my eight-hour shift, I sat there in an island of light right on the lip of Old 66, keeping watch over the sleeping guests and thinking about the darkness in my mind.
I still didn’t know. It would be many years before I would go to therapy, many years before I would learn of the horrors of my past that lived just below the surface of a quagmire in my soul. It stunk, this bubbling swamp, and every now and then, I would see the surface ripple with some dark memory that would bring on depression and rage. Night clerking at Best Western allowed much time for contemplation, much time for silence, much time for being alone with the bog in my mind.
I had one more duty on my nights at the motel that I have not talked about. I was to record the license plates and car models of the guests. It was a strange task. I had a clipboard in my hand, and a pen, and I wrote them all down, careful to get it all right, careful to make sure I did not fail. My dyslexic mind could write it all down wrong, and this duty was an important one. The cops needed a record of the guests’ cars. The cops needed to be able to check these numbers if a criminal had slept there. For that reason, this task sent a chill through me every time I performed it. While I scribbled down models and plates, I always wondered what crimes the drivers of those cars had committed. It was a creepy part of the job, and that night it scared me more than a little.
A car missing.
I had seen it when I came in earlier that night. It was not a car I would have forgotten. It was red as blood, accented with chrome, with a gleaming skull plate where the license plate should have been, and black tinted windows. It was a muscle car, and I had stared at it for a long time, wondering who could have brought it here. My mind painted a picture of a man, dark and vicious, who had plans, terrible plans. I feared I was a part of those plans.
I knew, when I saw it, that I would hear it if it left. A car like that makes itself known when it wakes, and a part of me was listening all night for the roar of the engine and the departing of the car that, I was beginning to think, was watching me. That night when I walked the parking lot to jot it all down, the car was gone. Where it had been was a slick pool of oil that gleamed pearlescent with rainbows of color hidden in its surface.
I looked at the spot where the car had been. I had not heard it leave. I had not seen sign of its gleaming paint as it passed under the lights in the lot. I had not heard its obnoxious throat. But at that moment, I could feel its eyes watching me.
Back in the motel, I watched movies, every now and then casting a glance outside to see if the beast of a car was back. I felt as though I had lost track of something dangerous, as if I had turned my back on a demon, or at least a demon’s ride.
That night passed slower than most. There were nights that passed like a breath and those that passed like a stone, and this one had been the stone. By the time the sun rose, I could feel the weight of my exhaustion. I waited patiently for my boss to relieve me.
I was looking out the glass front of the motel when another arrived. He walked in as if the air itself had spat him up. I had just been looking at the glass. There was no possibility of him being fast enough to sneak up on me, but there he was.
He was old, at least sixty, with white hair and a red, it seemed, wind burnt face. His skin was dull, ashy, as if it were comprised of chalk. He wore a massive winter coat, though it was April and there was no chill in the air. He stomped his boots and breathed into his palms as he rubbed them together. The man was freezing. I know not how.
“There is fresh coffee,” I said. I felt as though we were not alone in the room, as if something else had blown in with him, and now it was hovering over us, clinging to the wall. The sensation was so startling that I looked up to examine the ceiling. The man chuckled to himself and smiled.
“I don’t drink,” he said. His teeth were a shining yellow, his lips gray. “I don’t drink when I am here.” He walked into the lobby and sat down at the table where I had been sitting. I left him to it. I pulled up my stool at the front desk and fought to ignore him.
“Come,” he said, patting the chair beside him. “Come sit with me.”
There was a throb of my head, a pressing as if a great drum had sounded, and its reverberations were felt only in my head, and I blinked. And suddenly I was seated at the table, my chair turned so that I could look directly at him. He grinned. “You will do nicely, I think,” he said.
“What will I do?” I asked. I wanted to get up but felt compelled to stay, compelled beyond my ability to resist, to sit here and talk to this man. I looked at the door. When I saw the bolt sitting straight up-and-down, I realized it was locked.
“You will do only what you want. Nothing more.”
“Can I ask your name?” I said.
He nodded. He even opened his mouth to say it, and I knew it then, but I can’t remember it now. I can tell you it was long. I can tell you that the name and the way it was pronounced made the sound come from the chest like a growl. I think it was German in nature, but I can’t remember what it was. I knew it was not a good name, not a name I would want to remember. I called him by it. When I spoke the name, I tasted ash in my mouth.
“Do you read?” he asked. I looked at my backpack that even now held the book I had finished that night. Interview with a Vampire by Anne Rice sat nestled in my sack, and I nodded dumbly.
“When you read, do you consider it entertainment or research?”
I had no idea what he meant by that. “A writer needs to read to do his job. I am a writer; therefore, I guess the answer would be research.”
“You are not a writer, Jesse,” he said with a smile. Had I told him my name? A buzzing in my head told me that I would not have remembered if I had.
“I am a writer,” I whined. I felt like he had taken something from me, as if he had stolen a thing I could not get back.
“No, Jesse, you are a speaker.” He smiled. “A teller of tales. A leader. A man to stand above men and talk of things to come.”
“My mother thinks I am a man of God who will one day lead a church,” I said.
“What kind of church?” he said. “There are many kinds of churches. Many and varied are the lords of the sky and the masters of the realms below.” He seemed to draw closer. “Many and varied, and all of them are looking for men of charisma and verve. All of them are looking for their next prophet.”
The word struck me as odd, as if it belonged wrapped up in me, as if it belonged hung around my neck like a lodestone.
“Have you read the Bible?” he asked.
I looked up at the ceiling, feeling something looking down at me, and he looked up and scowled. “Now is not your time!” he snapped. I pulled back against his vigor. “You will have your turn.”
I was scared now. I backed the chair away and stepped away from the table.
“Stay with me,” he said. The chair turned out to allow me to retake my seat. Maybe he moved it with his foot. I had seen no movement.
I stepped away from the table, going to the counter of the lobby and gripping the stand where the bagels rested and waited for the morning breakfast crowd. They should be here now—not many, not a large crowd, but a few stragglers, a few souls seeking sustenance. I looked up, seeing the door jiggle, though there was no one there. The door was still locked, and I moved to open it. I was suddenly a breath away from the man, and he laid a hand on my shoulder and grinned.
“Can we finish our conversation?” he asked. But it was not a question. It was not a question at all, but a statement. I felt the air above me churn, but that air could not help me. “We will sit and talk of the books you must read. We will talk of the great things you will do and the impact you will have. You are perfect.”
He wrapped an arm over my shoulders, and I looked at his neck. Faint gray scales beginning behind his ear plunged down past his collar to his body. His ear was wrong. I know not how else to say it. I have been trying for years to speak on it or make sense of it. It is a thing beyond description, a thing I cannot talk about. But I do remember the ear was hard, not cartilage but bone, not skin but something else.
“I will make you a list to go along with my gift,” he said. “A list of other books you need to read.” He stuffed a crumpled piece of parchment into my pocket and smiled with his yellow teeth.
“Gift?” I asked.
“Yes, it will stay with you always, a guide in dark times, a shield against light.”
He sat me down and grinned at me. “Another will reach out for you, but the life he would ask you to live is calm and sedentary. The life I offer is more than that.”
I dropped down in my seat. I looked up at him and he was gone. I heard the roar of a terrible beast, the monster of a muscle car smearing away. I know that is not a good description for the way a car leaves a parking lot, but it is the only one I have. The car smeared away, and I never saw it again.
When I got home, I unpacked my bag and found a book within. It is called The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology. The name under the title is Robbins. It was published by a place called Crown. I have never opened it, never looked inside. I fear that a scrap of paper will fall out, that a picture may be tucked away within.
Twice I have traded this book to used book stores. I don’t remember picking it back up, but it lies right here. Several years later I lost a great number of books when one of my trunks got water damage. Every one of my books, save five, were destroyed. This book was in that trunk. It has no sign of water damage. When I throw it away, I find it has returned.
Often I go looking for it, ready to rip it to shreds, only to find it missing from my shelf. When I lose interest in the tome, it will come back. I will lose it for long periods of time, but always it will come back to me. I have no desire to read it or open it at all. The topic it promises does not beg for me to look into.
But here it sits. In my office. Waiting.
It will wait for a long time. I want nothing to do with it.