Headlights beamed on the sodden pavement as I walked along the strip of eroded shoulder. Eighteen wheelers passed and the gusts of militant air and water whipped my tunic as my open coat fluttered like a windsock. My jeans were unpleasantly plastered against my legs, which felt cold and clammy and numb; I knew from experience how much it would hurt when I finally got around to warming myself to the standard body temperature. I was at the point where my frame was doing all the work of putting one foot in front of the other, my exhausted brain was wandering from thought to thought in a dazed state that made absolute sense at the time. I continued walking and closed my eyes, opening them immediately as a spray of rain water hit me, catapulted from the wheels of a passing car. I stifled the urge to scream abuses after it. For one thing, at those speeds, I wouldn’t be heard; for another: I hadn’t used my voice since breakfast.
Just as I felt I could not take another step, the garish neon sign of a cheap hotel came into view. I hobbled along the rest of the off-ramp, crossed the pot-hole-riddled street and craned my neck to study the sign and evaluate whether or not a room would be within my budget. I took in the deserted parking lot, the gas station to the right, and the large industrial-sized windows on the ground floor, displaying the fast food booths which I imagined were busy in the daytime. In the upper levels of the building, heavy emerald green drapes were visible in the windows that had a light on. To me, heavy drapes signified comfortable sleepy rooms. I sighed, half-way between relief and self-loathing - I’ll explain that rather odd pairing of sentiments at another time - and made my way to the entrance.
I suppose it’s time I introduced myself? I am Cadillac Carter. I gather my parents had a twisted sense of humor, or my father liked automobiles. Well, no need to be stereotypical, maybe my mother liked automobiles. My Aunt Pen (Peninna, but nobody ever called her that) never told me about them. She didn’t even speak their names. I found out about Gloria and Francis from a dusty, crushed shoebox in an inaccessible nook of Aunt Pen’s closet. I suspect she disposed of the majority of the evidence of their existence, but didn’t have the heart to get rid of a photo with my Gran’s writing on the back of it: Gloria, Francis and baby Caddy, three weeks. My Gran was a lady. She is the only claim to sanity I have from my childhood. She was the only person that my Aunt Pen truly respected, or listened to. Had it not been for her, I would have turned out an even bigger mess than I already am.
Gran told me about the wayward children, the initiators of my life, once. She told me about the day they went missing. While most presumed they abandoned me, Gran was one of a handful who believed they must have perished and were never found. Even my beloved grandmother could not come up with a plausible explanation as to why both of them would have driven off in their car and left their two-month-old baby in her crib, alone in her mother’s mother’s house. They all used to live with Gran: Gloria, Francis and Pen. Pen was out shopping for groceries, one sunny day in June, and Gran was playing Bridge. I don’t even have to dip up a calendar from that year; I know it was a Tuesday. When she passed away, I was ten; it was a Tuesday and she was playing Bridge as she had every single week of my life.
The morning Gran last saw Gloria, I was asleep upstairs, my mother was sunbathing in the backyard, and around ten o’clock, my father got sacked from his job. He must have come straight home, because by the time Gran and Pen came home, at lunchtime, he and my mother had packed up all their most desirable belongings and vamoosed.
They called the police, and it turned the quiet little town upside down for a week or two, until one faction of busybodies decided they were long gone, living their irresponsible lives somewhere else, and another far outnumbered group of loyal friends of my grandmother decided there must be more to the story than we knew, and the poor lambs were at the bottom of some body of water somewhere. Dead or alive, they were somewhere far from the county, and everyone just stopped worrying about it. Pen took it as a personal affront that she was saddled with her pretty younger sister’s offspring. She could barely conceal her seething state of mind when Gran was in the room. When Gran died, Aunt Pen took her inheritance, sold the house as quickly as she could, and travelled. She dropped me off at a boarding school, sent the money to keep me there until graduation, and that was that. She never stopped in or dropped me a line. I lost track of her and I never put any effort in seeking her out.
I’m writing this story out on paper to evaluate a specific segment of my life and figure out whether it was good or bad, positive or negative, whether I should embrace it fully or try harder to delete it. This is my version of a pro con list. I don’t know whom I might allow to read it, but since it is in writing, it can be assumed that it will be read. At some point in the future some snoop is going to pry through my belongings, possibly after I’m dead. Whoever you are: I won’t expect you to like me. In fact, I won’t be surprised if you don’t. I’ll tell you right off that I’m brash, argumentative, overbearing, self-centered, careless and sometimes manipulative. For the first time in my life I have enough time to stop and take stock of my winding, pointless journeys and that is exactly what I’m going to do. Starting with a cheap hotel I decided to stay in for a night sixteen years ago.
As I ascended the steps which appeared spotless due to the pattern on the tiles but were in actual fact quite unpleasantly sandy, I tried to quell my inner snob. The grit under the soles of my hiking boots attacked my ears with a crunching and pinging equally unpleasant to the sound made by fingernails on a chalk board or the squeal of a steak knife across a plate. Only my inner snob had any fault to find. The seasoned traveler who considered buses a luxury was quite pleased with her surroundings, truthfully. Apart from the sneakily dirty stairs, it was clean. That right there was a ten out of ten in my book.
To my right was the desolate food court, with the swivel chairs anchored to the angled table legs that I had loved as a kid. A dim light here and there showcased the grills and fryers and, lo and behold, a forlorn greasy microwave. If I wanted to spend hard-earned money on microwaved food I would buy a frozen dinner at the supermarket for a few cents, not pay nearly $3 for a nuked burger that was prepared heaven only knew how long ago. All the same, the microwave was unabashedly in full view, as though its presence would in no way diminish sales. I shrugged and turned my attention to the hotel lobby. Where the uniform industrial tile ended and a rich red floor covering began, the barrier between daytime restaurants and round-the-clock hospitality was made clear. The carpet was thick enough that my feet already felt less sore as I stepped onto it.
I had to make my way through the hotel’s restaurant to reach the Reception desk. I would then have to hike back past every table in the place to ascend the stairs to my room on whichever floor it was located. With an end to my day-long trek in sight, this short distance suddenly seemed like an insurmountable hurdle. I wondered what time it was. It was dark, I was hungry, and so I estimated 7:00. It was a bit of a shock to see that it was in fact 10:00 at night, according to the reception desk’s timepiece.
The sound of a small bottle sliding across a hardwood surface drew my attention to the receptionist’s hands, trying to make a container of discount polish disappear underneath a messy stack of papers and notes. The tips of her fingers curved upwards as a woman’s hands do when she’s been painting wet sticky slop onto her nails. I grinned at her. She relaxed visibly.
I cleared my throat. “I’d like a room please.”
“Certainly; we have quite a few available. Will it be for tonight only?”
I considered for a minute. “We’ll see.”
She rang up the total, raised her eyebrows when I handed her a slightly soiled wad of cash, handed me my key and wished me a good night.
I swiped a local newspaper from one of the booths and made my way up the stairs. With no one in sight, it was tempting to plunk myself down on one of the steps. However I knew if I did that, I would not have the will-power to make it all the way up to the room which I had just paid for.
It was presentable. There were no disagreeable stains on the ceiling or floor, surfaces or linens. It felt snug yet cozy and was decorated with a theme of neutral tones ranging between camel, taupe and patches of dark brown. The effect was splotchy and evidently designed to appeal to the masses. I wondered if the absence of loud floral patterns and headache-inducing pastels was due to a man’s tastes. If so, I must remember to congratulate him for breaking away from the vogue of nauseatingly tacky decor.
I dumped my backpack onto the chair, quickly changing the angle so that in the middle of the night it wouldn’t look like a person was sitting there. I had terrified myself in this way on more than one occasion. I bent and tugged and picked at my sodden laces, slipping off my clunky boots at last. My feet thanked me for liberating them from their prison by reminding me that they were tenderized and sore.
I avoided eye contact with myself in the overbearing bathroom mirror until I was finished with the scalding shower that burned my feet but soothed and refreshed all the rest of me. When the time came to brush my teeth I finally acknowledged my reflection. The short hair, washed and dripping and smelling of courtesy shampoo, looked dark brown when wet but would revert to the maroon that I dyed it, maintaining my roots every few weeks with the cheapest box I could find at the drug store. I kept my body clean but didn’t exactly pamper it. My pewter nails were the most labor I put into my appearance.
I loved punk rock but didn’t consider myself a punk. I hedged from piercings and tattoos and excessive eyeliner, even though they would have provided an excellent defense and advertised my inner aggression effectively. I studied my face with dissatisfaction. Apart from a strong chin with a hint of a cleft, my features gave me the appearance of a wide-eyed babe. An involuntary shrug followed the thought. If people thought me innocent or immature, more fool them. I wasn’t going to worry about it. Abruptly switching off the light, I made sure that the heavy drapes wouldn’t let in so much as a sliver of light in the morning, stripped down to my bra and panties, and, sitting in between the two pillows, I stuck my toes between the sheets and sandwiched myself into the firmly tucked layers of bedding. Feeling safe and secure, I promptly fell asleep.
When I opened my eyes, I was disoriented and still too dozy to determine what had woken me. No morning light was trying to edge its way past the drapes and I was too somnolent for it to be my natural time to get up. I turned my head slightly to see the glowing red digits on the clock on the night stand. It read: 4:34. I raised my eyebrow in surprise. The faint rustling of a raccoon or a stray cat against the window must have disturbed me. I was only feeling a faint foreboding, the back of my mind trying to make me remember what floor I was on, when the sound of my closet door closing brought me to a lurching alertness. My heart slammed into me icily, a few beats of pure panic as I realized it was too dark to see a thing, I was alone in my underwear and there was someone in my room.
Not instinctively a victim, adrenaline replaced panic with rage and I irrationally pulled myself out of the cocoon I had been soundly sleeping in and took a few steps towards the intruder.
It’s odd what you remember. I can feel the thick fluffy carpet against my bare feet, I remember what the cool air felt like on my overheated cheeks, and I remember reaching out and feeling his jolt like a charge of nervous electricity as my fingers closed around his wrist. The moment I felt the width of the bone, some of the hair on the forearm, my brain shot out two descriptive thoughts: male, scrawny.
The scrawny male shoved me and scrambled to exit the way he had entered. I picked myself up and raced after him. He shut the door behind him and in the brief time it took for me to yank it open again, he had disappeared. I backed my scantily-clad frame behind the comfortingly solid plank of wood, my hand clutching the knob, and stuck my head out to peer first to the left and then to the right. My brain was incredulously seeking a rational explanation while my legs were beginning to shake. If he was heading to either staircase at either end, I should have seen him. I looked at the sconces on the wall, at the walls themselves, wild ideas about secret passages presenting themselves to my harried imagination, when my eyes fell on the perfectly spaced ingresses that lined both sides of the hallway. The little toad must be in one of the rooms. I slammed my own door with all my might, insensitive to any other guests there might be on the floor, stalked over to my back pack, reprioritized, and turned on a lamp. I stooped to look under the bed, opened the closet, and examined every corner of the room. I then opened the compartment that held my clothes, tugged on some jeans and a sweater, and, grabbing my key so I wouldn’t get locked out, stepped, still barefoot, into the hallway. I was standing in the center, arms folded, studying my surroundings, when a business man exited his room. He faced me for a few seconds, drinking in the madness I was exuding, and awkwardly and slowly turned to walk away.
Where were you a few minutes ago, I mentally derided him unreasonably. Deciding it was pointless to try and deduce where my unwelcome visitor had escaped to, I returned to my now spine-chilling temporary residence, absently scratching the back of my neck. The creepy-crawly itching spread to my arms and legs until I felt like a thousand invisible little insects were circulating over every inch of my skin.
I don’t know how long it took, but I must have fallen asleep again, because I distinctly remember waking up a little bit after 10:00. My eyes fell on the newspaper that I had intended to peruse that morning and a plan cemented in my brain.
I was low on spending money; I needed to find full time work quickly and a steady income for at least a few months. I had intended to press on, on foot, this close to the Quebec-Ontario border; because I had a personal rule about avoiding this province, the one that Aunt Pen was most likely to be in, like the plague. That issue seemed less important after my bedchamber had been invaded last night.
Asking for help is not exactly my strong suit. It didn’t occur to me to notify the receptionist or the police station about what had happened. I was – scratch that, I am –suspicious of people. As far as I was concerned everyone in the building was suspect. I had years of experience working in hotels, motels, inns and restaurants. I would simply apply for a position and search for the intruder myself. The timing was just right: all the student employees were back in school and that usually meant one or two people needed to be hired in autumn. I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.