A short story written as part of the Summer Prose Competition 2011, Challenge 1 and 2.
The road was endless, winding out into the darkness beyond the touch of the streetlights’ forlorn glow. There were no other cars in sight, making the motorway tonight eerily empty. I clutch onto the driver’s wheel and will myself to stay conscious. Only thirty more miles to go, I tell myself. And then I’ll be home.
I fix my sight briefly on my car clock. 1:24am. Stifling a long suppressed yawn, I force my concentration back onto the road. If my radio had not broken earlier this afternoon I would have had rock music blasting through the speakers as an escape from this sleepy state. Now all I had to accompany me was the constant motorway breeze tearing past the side windows.
My eyes begin to feel heavier and heavier, the bags beneath them gaining pounds by the mile. It gets harder to focus on just the road for such a long time. I do not even notice my hands relaxing on the steering wheel or my tired feet resting on the accelerator...
I snap open my eyes in time to watch in horror as my car swings onto the hard shoulder and crashes straight through the iron barriers. Shocked, I don’t know what to think, but my instincts scream at me what to do. In a panicked frenzy I try desperately to re-gain control of the car.
There is a painful squeal from the tires as I stamp on the breaks. I am unsure which way to steer, nonetheless I rapidly spin the wheel this way and that through the opaque atmosphere. My heart is a wreck from fear’s strain and my lungs push out all the air I breathe in. That’s when I see an outline of trees ahead and swerve to avoid them.
The abruptness of the turn flips my car over. My seatbelt, worn with age, severs under the pressure and I swing forwards towards the windscreen.
Moments later I wake up, lying relatively unharmed on the sodden grass. I was not even showing any symptoms of the shock I had just endured. My car is only a few metres away, smashed up and shrouded in smoke. Cursing under my breath – this was going to cost me a fortune – I pulled my cell phone from my pocket and saw, much to my dismay, that I had no signal.
Not knowing what else to do, I start limping uphill back towards the motorway. Perhaps I would be able to get signal up there or a passing driver willing to help.
I reach the hard shoulder, entering through the split my car had made. Unfortunately, the road had not gotten any busier since I had left it and I could have sworn the streetlight’s orange glow had dimmed. I assure myself it was the absence of my car lights and begin to stagger on, hoping to find a glimpse of civilisation.
It is a struggle. The tedious ambience that had departed me recently after the crash begins to settle on me once more. My feet drag across the concrete and my posture sinks to conserve what little energy I have left.
At my right there is an exit. The sign post reads Mort’s Motel. Not something I would usually stay at, but...
“It’s either that or the roadside,” I mutter to myself, forgetting about my previous hitch-hiking idea and following the sign’s directions.
The motel’s dilapidated exterior confirms my prejudice suspicions. Its peeling front was smeared with some unidentifiable dirt and a few rotten windows had cracked from neglect long ago. There was not one door with a complete set of iron room numbers, for many had rusted over, eventually clattering to the floor and left there. I carried on through the abandoned car park and entered the main building.
Immediately, I am hit by the stale smell of alcohol. My nose crinkles from this foul assault of smell and I do not feel so exhausted any more.
“Excuse me,” I call out, pressing down impatiently on the broken bell at reception. “Excuse me! Anybody there? I would like a room, please.”
“I’m right ‘ere,” an irritated voice thick with a New Jersey accent replies from the empty space behind the splintered desk.
I blink and see, standing in plain sight before me, a tubby, balding man wearing a stained white vest top. How could I have missed that? I now knew where the appalling scent was coming from.
He listlessly lit a cigar with a filthy lighter. I could not help but stare at his nails as he did so. They were overgrown and tinged a yellow-y green like some sort of fungal infestation.
“Are you gonna tell me what ya want or are ya just gonna stand there gapin’?” He asks, blowing a cloud of ash into my face.
“C-can I, sir, h-have a single room in th-this place?” I splutter, choking on the smoke.
“Well it’s not like ya hav anywhere else ta stay,” he responds in a rude blunt manner.
I feel around in my pocket and realise half-relieved that I had left my wallet back in my car. I turn away for the vulgar, uncouth employee and start towards the increasingly welcoming exit.
“Where do ya think you’re going?” I hear him yell at me from behind.
His great beefy arm stretches over and he hauls me backwards. I clench my eyes shut in the apprehension of colliding with the desk in between us but I never feel any impact. I pass right through.
He whirls me around so that I am facing him.
“What is the meaning of this?” I expostulate, my cheeks heating red.
“You can’t leave.”
“And why not?”
He chuckles. A dark, foreboding sound that chilled my bones and sent shivers rolling down my spine. He puts the cigar to his chapped lips and produces another ash cloud. Inside it I see an image form. An image of me.
I was still in my ramshackle of a car, half way through my windscreen with a large gash across my forehead. The wound seemed to grin at me and dribbled my last drops of blood.
My hand instantly flew up to the place where it should have been on me, but though my skin was unnaturally cold, it was unblemished.
“Impossible,” I whispered.
“Not when you’re dead,” the receptionist hissed at me. “The rooms here I offer cost no money. The price is your life, of which you have already paid earlier this evening.”
Mort gave one last laugh as he handed me a key from a sweaty fist.
“You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”