Kennedy's eyes grew heavier by the second until, at last, her head dipped forward, her hands fell heavily on the keys, and the computer let out an electronic squawk. This shook her awake, and she tried once again to focus on the Excel sheet in front of her. But the grids began to dance in front of her eyes—numbers jumping in her vision from row to row and column to column. Mr. Bowles paid her a little extra each week to balance the books, even though Kennedy had no training in that sort of thing. It wasn't exactly hard, but it was tedious—especially when she was running on three hours of sleep. Her main job here, acting as the second shift desk clerk at the Paper Moon Bay Motel, was equally as easy. Particularly through the weekdays.
The motel was old, built sometime in the late 60s when the old highway saw a lot more business than it did now. It hadn't been maintained well enough to be a cute-and-trendy destination, and Mr. Bowles refused to invest any money to get it there. That meant it was a motel for diehards who found its decay charming, people who didn’t want to pay a lot for a room, or for the people who were visiting the nearby state park. Kennedy's eyes were feeling very heavy again when the old phone on the desk rang. Kennedy hated this phone. It was made of an off-putting peachy-flesh color better reserved for prosthetics. Oh, and usually when it rang it was a customer complaining.
“What’s up bitch?” Teri yelled as soon as Kennedy picked up the receiver.
“Me, unfortunately,” grumbled Kennedy. “Can you please not shout.”
"Poor girl, you must really be feeling those shots. They went down so smooth, but damn, they could mess a person up,” Teri said.
“How are you so… not dead?”
“I haven’t gone to sleep! That’s the secret. Just keep going until you can sleep for the next day. Speaking of which, want to come by my place tonight? Keith and Shawn are going to swing by.”
“No! No, that sounds like the absolute worst idea. Aren’t you going to crash before then?” asked Kennedy, although she already knew the answer. She’d been friends with Teri since college, and she was fun. But she was a Chicago suburbs trust-fund baby through and through, and had no clue about how life in the real world operated. Kennedy was equally judgmental and jealous about this fact.
"No way," Teri said, shaking a bottle of pills near the phone. "I get tired when I want to get tired, and I stay awake when I want to stay awake." Kennedy involuntarily yawned so hard the muscles in the lower part of her jaw cramped painfully. A small, older woman entered the motel office at that exact moment, thrusting the door open with such force the small entrance bell clacked tunelessly.
"I'll talk to you later," Kennedy said quickly before hanging up the phone. The woman was halfway through the door and gave Kennedy a quick smile before suddenly turning around and poking her head back through the door.
“Do you two want something to drink? Maybe a fruit juice? Sure, Grammy can do that," the woman said before turning her attention back toward Kennedy. She closed the door behind her gently. "Sorry about that, my grandkids are darlings, but they never seem to stop needing food and drinks! Do you have any fruit juice?"
“Sure, over there in the case. I mean, it's Snapple, but I think that still counts,” Kennedy said, pointing toward an old, refrigerated unit that kept the bottles inside a few degrees colder than the air outside of it. The woman tottered over toward the case. She was very short–under five feet tall—with fluffy white hair and a thick middle. She wore a blouse with a delicate pink and green floral pattern and light blue jeans worn high on her hips. A loose-knit shawl in light blue draped around her shoulders and hung down her back and at her sides, almost to her knees. She completed the look with a large purse slung over her neck, its strap bisecting her breasts. Kennedy knew that Teri would find her hilarious, so she pulled out her new flip-phone and took a quick snap while the woman deliberated between two flavors of Snapple. Almost the instant after she took the shot, the older woman whipped around, a smile on her face and two different flavors of juice in her hand.
“These’ll do! Little George likes strawberries, and Addison usually likes this fruit punch flavor, I think,” said the woman.
“Will that be all? Or did you want a room?” Kennedy asked. For some reason, the woman found this funny and laughed.
“Of course, dear! Why do you think I’m here?”
“Right, silly me," Kennedy said through a forced smile. She was too tired and had no patience for this. Plenty of people stopped in just to get food and drinks and head back out on the road since gas stations were in short supply on this stretch. “How many people will be staying in your room?”
“Oh, just myself, Georgy, and Addy," the woman said. Kennedy nodded and started typing information into the computer. And, since Mr. Bowles didn't want to invest in some software to manage the reservations and guests, it was just another Excel sheet.
“That’s fun. Taking the grandkids for a little vacation?” Kennedy asked, mustering as much enthusiasm for this obligatory banter as possible.
“Yes, I figured they wouldn’t want to spend their whole visit sitting around some old woman’s home. I haven’t seen them in years. My son lives with his wife on the East Coast. So, this is a special treat.”
“That’s nice of you to go through the trouble.”
"Oh, no trouble. We like to go on sightseeing trips. It's not too much money, but we get to take our pics in all sorts of interesting places! I've got a fancy new digital camera and tripod and everything," the woman said.
“Well, there’s a great view of the lake if you follow the signs in the park for the Outlook,” Kennedy said, trying to stifle another monster yawn building inside her.
“Oh, thank you, dear. I’ll do that.”
Kennedy kept forging ahead with the check-in process, and the woman said her name was Cecilia Ann Yates, but to just call her Grammy Yates. Everyone did. Kennedy nodded at this politely, and minutes later, Grammy Yates was heading out of the office with two Snapples in her right hand and the key to room six in her left hand.
"Now, you two settle down!” Grammy Yates said the moment she stepped out of the door. “Or you won’t get your fruit drinks!” The woman’s voice raised a few octaves when she said “fruit drinks” and Kennedy had to stifle a giggle. The door closed, and (to Kennedy’s relief) muffled whatever the woman said next. Kennedy waited a few more seconds, just to make sure the woman was gone, before picking her phone up again and texting Teri.
Kennedy: You have got to see the pic I took of this woman who just came in.
Teri: my data is sooooo low show me when I see you tonite
Kennedy: I am not coming tonight. And this is worth it.
Kennedy sent the picture. She needed something to keep her occupied so she wouldn't fall asleep. After all, she was only a couple of hours into her shift. And, gossiping about people with Teri was almost always fun.
Only one other person checked in all night, a man in his mid-forties with greasy hair and beads of sweat on his immense forehead. Kennedy checked him in as quickly as she could. Whatever he was up to, she was sure it wasn't anything she wanted to know about, and she figured efficiency on her part was all that he required. Somewhere around seven, she gave in to her exhaustion and nodded off, only waking up to the crunch of tires on gravel. She jolted upward, glanced at her watch, and was amazed to see it was past nine. Only two more hours, and she could get some sleep in an actual bed. Still, she figured she might as well get some of the other daily nonsense out of the way, like refilling the pop machines outside. She thought some of the cool night air might help her feel less groggy, too.
As soon as she opened the door, she realized her black short-sleeve Stone Temple Pilots t-shirt was not going to be enough. Not only was it cold outside, but the wind had picked up, sending an icy blast through the crack in the door. She ran back and got her thin hoodie and quickly put it on, and stepped outside. The pop machine, however, was forgotten as she was immediately drawn to a brown Oldsmobile parked in front of room number six. The back door on the driver’s side—the one facing her—was open, and yellow light spilled out from the small dome light of the car’s interior. No one was inside, and the door to room number six was also wide open.
This struck her as strange, but Kennedy shook the notion away immediately. Grammy Yates and her two grandchildren must just be in the middle of unloading the car and would be back out any moment. It must have been the tires of the Oldsmobile that had startled her awake. This seemed sensible, but Kennedy still found her gaze transfixed on the two open doors. The old woman, or one of her grandchildren, would come out and close the car door at any moment. How old were the woman's grandchildren? Young enough to sleep comfortably in one bed, Kennedy supposed, as there were just two twin beds in that room. Thirty seconds passed, and no one came out, so Kennedy wrapped her arms around herself, put the hood up on her sweater, and decided to take a closer look.
After glancing into the room, and seeing no one, she decided to check out the car first. The car was remarkably clean. Much cleaner than Kennedy managed on her own, let alone with two kids riding in the back. But there was a crumpled-up McDonald’s bag next to two Happy Meal boxes. The two bottles of Snapple were next to these. They looked full, though, so apparently, the children hadn't settled down enough to earn their treat. On the seat was a chain of paper dolls—a chain consisting of just two figures. Both were crudely drawn in crayon, one a boy and the other a girl. She picked up the paper dolls, although she didn’t really know why. Maybe it was her foggy head, but the piercing cold wind seemed to be running right through her. That same wind almost immediately blew the paper dolls out of Kennedy’s hand and up into the air.
"Shit," Kennedy muttered as she ran around the car and after a little cut-out piece of paper. It landed on the edge of a mud puddle from the previous days’ rain. The water quickly spread from the side that had been partially submerged in the water to the other. When Kennedy picked it up, the dolls drooped and tore slightly, already losing cohesion. Kennedy looked at the open door of room six again.
“Mrs. Yates?” Kennedy called out.
"Yes?" Grammy Yates called out. "Are you that girl from the front desk?" Kennedy's face lit up, and she shook her head at her stupidity. She'd gotten worked up for nothing.
"Yes, Ma'am," Kennedy said as she strode toward the open door.
“Oh, fantastic, I could use your help.”
"Sure," she said as she entered the room. Grammy Yates stepped into view, carrying a camera and tripod under her arm, and mashing the plastic buttons on the remote with her finger. She sat the tripod down, and attached the camera to a mass of cords jutting out from the back of the television.
“I’m trying to find that button that changes the mode thingy,” the woman said.
“I can help you with that. But, uh, where are your grandkids?”
"Playing in the car, I suspect. I meant just to get this set up quickly while they finished their Happy Meals in the car—I hate the stink of leftover fast food don’t you? —so we could all view the pictures we took today. But it's taken longer than I thought it would."
“I… I didn’t see them.”
“Don’t worry, I’m sure they’re just playing hide n’ seek. They like to do that sometimes,” said Grammy Yates. “Now you just figure out this remote, and you can see our pictures too!”
"I kind of hate to say this since I work here and all, but this isn't the kind of place where I'd let kids run around," Kennedy said as she took the remote in the hand that wasn't currently holding sopping-wet paper dolls. Two-button clicks later, an image popped up on the screen. What the picture was, Kennedy couldn't have guessed. It was just a peach-red blur.
“There we go!” Grammy Yates said, clicking the button again and again as she worked through several more similar pictures. “Oh, don’t look at those. That’s just my thumb when I was setting the timer up. Oh, here we go. Here’s me and the kids at the farmer’s stand a few blocks down the road. It’s so nice they stay open this late in the season. Now, here we are at that lake you mentioned. That spot was so nice, so thanks for the tip.”
Kennedy tried to speak, but she couldn’t. Twin sparks of fear and confusion rocketed through her, sending the hairs on her neck prickling. She felt like she’d been dumped into a tank of honey. She moved slower than she should. Even her brain was moving slower than it should. The pictures on the screen didn’t make sense. As Grammy Yates clicked through picture after picture, Kennedy’s dread only heightened. In every picture, Grammy Yates was alone, her smile beaming widely right toward the camera lens. And, always, she held the paper dolls—forever linked by crudely-cut paper arms—in front of her.
"George liked this spot," Grammy Yates said. Kennedy looked at the wet paper in her hand and then looked out at the car, the door still ajar with light spilling out into the night. The older woman must have realized that she was not responding, as Grammy Yates looked over at her just as Kennedy decided she had to leave, and quickly. But it was too late. Grammy Yates saw the look of fear in her eyes. And, upon seeing that, her eyes darted around until she saw the wet, nearly translucent paper dolls in Kennedy's hand.
“Oh no,” the older woman said, crumpling forward, bent over the hotel bed. “No, no, no.”
“Look, Mrs. Yates, I’m so sorry. I didn’t—I mean, it was—” Kennedy tried to find the words to comfort her, but the whole situation was too ridiculous, wasn’t it?
“What have you done?” Grammy Yates roared as she lunged from the bed straight at Kennedy. Kennedy held her hands up in fear, the sopping wet remains of “George” and “Addison” falling to the floor. She felt a sharp pain just under her ribs as she watched the older woman’s face—reddened and scrunched in fury, her teeth bared—loom right in front of her own. She looked down and saw a pair of pink-handled scissors sunk deep into her chest. Where had those come from? Had they been on the bed? Kennedy thought dully, unable to process what had just happened. There was a strange silence between them, with only the older woman's puffs of breath, in rhythm to the heaves rattling her small frame, making any sound.
“You’re insane,” Kennedy whispered as she grasped the woman's shoulders. She didn't say it with judgment. In fact, she was saying it more to herself than Grammy Yates, as her mind tried to break through her fear and confusion and put the fractured puzzle of what had just happened to her together.
"What have you done?" the woman yelled, spittle flying from her mouth and landing on Kennedy's face as she felt the scissors pulled from her body with a wet, squelching sound. Was she addressing Kennedy or herself? It didn’t matter, did it? Kennedy sank to her knees and then to her side. Darkness began to creep around the edges of her vision, and her head felt foggier than ever. She watched as Grammy Yates carefully picked up the wet pile of paper on the floor and tried to smooth it out onto the bed. The woman grabbed a ratty notepad next to the phone and used the scissors to cut into the paper. The sticky red blood on her scissors and hands wilted the paper even as she cut. Kennedy knew it was her blood, but she felt so far away from it now, her revulsion was oddly muted.
“Oh, my darlings. My darlings, I’m sorry,” Grammy Yates said. “Maybe if I can make you just the same as they—as you–did. Maybe you'll come back to me." The older woman's hands began to tremble with frantic fury as the blood-covered paper seemed to lose all shape in her hands. “Come back to me, come back to me.”
Kennedy wanted to cry out. Whether it was to cry out in frustration and fear that this had happened to her, to yell at the older woman, or maybe even to comfort her—she couldn't say. Because she was so far away now, she couldn't speak, and every thought seemed to drift away from her and into a dark, dark void.
Heartbreaking by Kevin MacLeod
Right Behind You by Kevin MacLeod
Children's Theme by Kevin MacLeod
Slow Burn by Kevin MacLeod