Substitute

by Neil Shephard


This year Daniel resented guests more than ever. And yet when they left the next day, he envied them.

The same cycle of emotions began when through the office window he watched a van turn in under the motel sign. It arrived at an hour when the day had bled down to a crimson slit on the horizon. The back windows were curtained, the front ones sheathed in a film that rendered the inside invisible.

A couple got out and entered the office.

The man tottered up to the desk. His appearance worried Daniel. He had the drained look of someone racked by illness. Daniel wondered how he could reasonably discourage him. A guest’s death might be a legal complication for the motel.

In contrast, the woman who glided in behind him shimmered with health. Her creamy complexion gave a neon sheen to her red lips, sultry eyes, and jet hair.

“A room.” The request came in a weary drawl.

“We got cabins.”

“A cabin then.”

“Twenty-five a day. Check-out at ten a.m.”

While the man filled out the registration card, Daniel re-examined his companion. She met his stare with a half smile. Her beauty challenged as well as invited. Just to lock eyes with her was to spiral into lurid fantasies.

The man returned the card completed in a spidery scrawl. Arthur Westcott and Sybil. Nothing to indicate her relationship to him. Wife, sister, daughter, mistress? Daniel guessed the last. Her poise suggested dominance, not domestication. She hung in the background, watchful... waiting.

Instead of leaving, Westcott lingered. “Nice and quiet here,” he said.

“If you like quiet,” Daniel said in a bitter reply.

Bleak eyes regarded him. “You don’t?”

“I’ve had my fill.”

“Why don’t you leave?”

“Can’t. Obligations.”

Westcott continued to hold a questioning gaze on him.

Daniel elaborated. “After mom died, dad became obsessed with making the motel a success. I stayed to help him. But no matter what we did, the motel never did more than break even.”

Daniel gave a short, bitter laugh. “Obsession must run in the family. When he passed away I got the motel. I hate the place but I can’t bring myself to get rid of it.”

“It isn’t the motel that keeps you here,” Westcott said. “You loved your father. That love impales you. The motel has become your father’s shrine.”

“You’re probably right,” said Daniel, impressed by his deadened analysis. “Even so, I’m still stuck.”

“The truth doesn’t always set you free,” Westcott said. “Sometimes it is just knowledge, and nothing more.”

Noiselessly, Sybil closed in on Arthur. “It is time for us to go.”

She spoke with the precision of a foreigner. German or Slavic from the accent. The difference added to her erotic appeal.

Arthur’s mouth twitched. Without turning he said, “A little longer, please.”

She put her hand on his shoulder. Her knuckles sharpened with effort. Arthur winced and his knees buckled. “Now,” she repeated.

They left, he in front, yoked by her rigid arm.

Outside the motel sign blinked Vacancy. A vacuum existed in Daniel too. Daniel had lost count of the years he had been watching travelers come and go while he remained stuck.

Hours later Daniel set out for the end-of-day inspection of the premises. He paused a moment to stare at the motel sign. Beneath the motel’s name the word Vacancy throbbed in red. Until now he never thought of the word as a summary of his life.

The van bulked in front of the Westcott cabin, light from the interior bouncing off its hood. Still up? Curious, Daniel veered for a peek inside.

Arthur lay across the mattress, his head dangling over the edge. His upside down eyes gaped at him. Daniel wasn’t happy to see his premonition come true.

Daniel entered to check for breath and pulse. Neither was present. And where was Sybil?

When he straightened from his inspection, he found her behind him, her face distorted by ferocity.

Her hand leapt to his throat. He tried to wrench free but the crush of her fingers persisted. Enough air remained in his lungs for him to gasp, “Take... me.”

The demonic blaze in her eyes dimmed. Her lips closed over elongated canines. The pressure on his windpipe relaxed.

“And him?”

Daniel knew she meant more than Arthur’s disposal. She offered him as a token of his future with her. How many before him ended the same way? How many more after him? He didn’t care.

The same hand that throttled him now drew his head down to hers. Her kiss severed all his ties to the past.

* * *

The van’s lights punched through the darkness ahead. Sybil drove. Sitting beside her Daniel gazed at the side view mirror. Caught in the oblong glass the image of the burning motel dwindled as they sped away.

“Regrets?” Sybil asked.

“None,” Daniel said.

Her teeth gleamed in a momentary smile. Affection, Daniel wondered, or anticipation of a warm meal?


Copyright © 2007 by Neil Shephard

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