Darling’s Budget Motel
Jordan and I don’t always take Briar Road home. There’s a quicker route if you go down Monroe Street. Only Monroe Street is louder, busier. More laborers from the steel mills on their way home. Soot caked onto their cheeks and dark circles weighing down their eyes. Rush hour traffic piled up on the largest road in Wensel, Ohio. Tires screeching, horns honking. If you closed your eyes and listened, you might think you weren’t in such a dinky town. Maybe somewhere bigger like New York or Chicago where there’s always a hustle and bustle. People speed walking down the sidewalk to go to their important jobs. Meeting their friends for expensive dinners.
Not Briar though. Briar is quiet. Only the sound of your steps crunching on dirt and gravel. The howl of a daytime drunk leaving Marley’s Bar and throwing his beer can across the parking lot. An old car accelerating by, blasting country music, a dust cloud trailing behind.
Jordan always convinces me to walk down Briar on Tuesdays and Thursdays after basketball practice. He says he likes it because there is always a perfect view of the sunset over the horizon. I know that’s a lie though, because he forces us to take it even on days like today. The sun blanketed by heavy, dark clouds emanating in the distance. The wind picking up speed as it billows our t-shirts around our torsos, getting dirt in our eyes.
“Man, look at those clouds,” Jordan says as we turn onto Briar. I look up at the sky, my hands tucked under the straps of my backpack. It almost looks like smoke dissipating in the distance. Big, dark puffs inching their way closer. My grip tightens and I quickly look down, focusing on the ground. The air is thick and warm after a month of spring rain. The humidity coating our skin like a blanket. The temperatures have been shifting everyday as if the atmosphere can’t decide whether it wants to be winter or summer. Forty-five degrees yesterday, seventy-two today.
“Your parents ever tell you about that tornado in 1985?” I ask.
Jordan stumbles ahead, his feet kicking small stones in his path. “Of course. It’s one of the only interesting stories this town has to tell,” Jordan laughs.
Mom was driving home from her job at Stonewood Mall. They shut everything down early because the wind gust had built up so much speed. Mom says the sky was the weirdest shade of green. Like the way a person looks right before they’re going to be sick. After all the color has drained from their cheeks.
The wind kept pushing her small hatchback side to side. Her hand gripping the wheel, palms sweaty. She says that her windshield wipers were gliding across the glass so fast she thought they would rip off and fly away. The road was deserted. Everyone was already home, hiding in their basements, the taste of disaster on their tongues.
Then she saw it. The gray funnel over the horizon, spinning and twisting its body like a contortionist. Picking up everything in its path. She slammed her foot on the gas in a panic knowing she’d never make it home before the tornado caught up with her.
Up ahead, as if by some miracle, she saw a blue car pulled over on the side of the road. Relieved that she wasn’t alone, she pulled up behind the car, got out, and found my father crouched under his car, his hands over the back of his head. He waved for her to squat down next to him. The two of them sat there, nuzzled against each other, alone. The siren blared in their ears as the tornado ripped across town a mile ahead. Peeling away rooftops, knocking down trees, crushing buildings in its path.
Mom always finishes the story with her hands on her chest, her eyes fluttering. “That night,” she’ll gleam, “your father was my hero.”
A gust of air blows the dirt into our lungs. I cough heavily and rub my eyes. “Remind me again why we take this stupid road,” I groan. When my vision clears, I see Jordan’s silhouette a couple feet away. He is stopped dead in his tracks, his body positioned toward the old motel several yards ahead. Darling’s Budget Motel. It’s a two story building with peeling, pale yellow paint, green paneling, and light blue doors. Its guests a mixed bag of truckers and hitchhikers passing through. Families on welfare shoving themselves in a queen sized bed for the night. The police make their rounds everyday, knocking on doors and peeking through the crooked blinds in the windows. Jordan’s hand reaches behind his head and he rubs his neck. I sprint to catch up with him. He points to the second floor.
“What’s all that piled up there?” Jordan asks. My eyes tense as I try to make out the blob of white in the distance. I shrug my shoulders. The wind pushes against our backs. “C’mon,” he says, “Let’s find out.”
“I don’t think we should go over there, Jordan!” I yell. He can’t hear me. He has already run past Marley’s Bar, his body becoming smaller and smaller as he comes closer to reaching the motel. I kick the small stones in my path. Hesitate for a moment. He always does this to me, never taking into account how I feel. What I think. He leads, and I follow.
A few years ago, Jordan’s dad got laid off in the midst of the recession. It wasn’t bad at first. His parents were secretive about it, never discussing finances with him.
“They tell me to just worry about being a kid,” Jordan told me as we were walking home from practice, the first time we took Briar Road home. He approached the fence lining the road and leaned against it. His eyes focused on the horizon. The sun slowly melting like liquid gold. Pinks and oranges warming the cool blue darkening above. “How am I not supposed to worry?” he said, “I may be a kid, but I know what’s going on.”
I dug my shoes in the dirt and stared at the ground. I wanted to tell him about how hard things got when dad passed. How mom had to start working overtime at the hospital just to keep us afloat. I couldn’t do it though. All I could muster was a weak, “I’m sorry.”
Jordan shook his head. His gaze still focused on the sun. I swear I could see his dark eyes glazing over with tears. He never shed one. He just bit his lip and stared.
“Damn,” he said, “that sunset is beautiful.”
When we got to my house I hugged him. He pushed me away, didn’t look at me. Just gazed at the sidewalk. For a moment I felt frustrated. Upset that he would think that I would never be able to understand what he was feeling. I can tell him, I kept thinking to myself. I was too scared though. Scared that he’d think I was trying to one up him, make his problems seem invalid. He didn’t need to hear about me. He just needed someone to vent to. I went inside and watched him leave from the front window. He didn’t go forward, toward his home. He turned around and headed back in the direction we had come from.
When I catch up to him he is folded over with his hands on his knees, panting. We’re directly in front of the entrance to the office. The neon vacancy sign is turned off. Dust is coated on the edges of the windows. There isn’t a single car in the parking lot.
“Man, when did they shut this place down?” I ask. Jordan catches his breath and stands up. He looks to the second floor and begins to laugh.
“Oh god,” he says as he points to what was the white blob we had seen in the distance, “They’re toilets.”
There must be eight or ten of them. All crowded together in an unorganized clump. Some whiter than others. A few missing their tank cover. Rusted levers and yellow stains.
“Gross. They’re really gutting this place.” For a moment I catch myself thinking about all the families that stayed here night after night. Mom used to point to the building as we drove past and say, “Be thankful we don’t have to endure that.” When she said this, all I thought was that it was probably better to live there than nowhere at all. I look to my left and right as if I’ll see those families standing there, waiting to have a home again.
“Let’s check it out,” Jordan says with a slap on my back. He heads toward the metal stairs. The daylight is dim. Everything looks like it has been painted over with a shade of gray. The black clouds growing bigger and closer.
“Dude, I am not about to get caught in this storm. We don’t have time for this.” Jordan is halfway up the stairs. He leans over the railing and looks at me.
“It’s just rain,” he says.
It was pouring. I was sitting in my bedroom, staring out the window as the rain crashed into the glass like tiny bullets. I couldn’t see anything. Just blackness. Mom was pacing in the room next door, dialing dad’s phone number over and over again. She must have left a hundred voice mails. At first they were nothing. Just a sweet, “Hi honey, the news says that the roads are really bad so be careful driving home.” Then she came into my room and tried to distract me from the thunder vibrating the house. She snuggled next to me, ran her fingers through my hair. We were reading Spiderman comics together. I didn’t listen to the storyline much though. I was too busy admiring the bright colors, the action sequences, and Spiderman jumping from building to building.
Every time we finished a chapter, I’d look up at her and tell her that I wanted to move to New York City and become a superhero just like Spiderman. She kissed my forehead, shook her head and said,
“How will you be able to come save me if you’re all the way in New York City?”
The more chapters we finished the more her voice began to shake as she read. Her hands got cold. She escaped into the living room more often, turning on the news as the weatherman stood in a puddle up to his ankles, talking about a flash flood. Another voicemail to dad. More pacing back and forth and telling me to stay in my room.
Then the doorbell rang.
I peered my head around the corner and saw him there. His blue uniform soaking wet. His eyes heavy. Mom clutching the doorknob as if she were about to slam the door in his face. He told her that dad was driving too fast down an incline. His tires lost grip and the car hydroplaned for several feet. He lost control, the car plummeting into a tree.
I picked up my comic books and ran into the bathroom. Locked the door, sat on the toilet, and cried. The comics clutched against my chest. My eyes shut tight, imagining Spiderman breaking through the window, putting me on his back, and the two of us soaring from building to building, on our way to rescue dad.
Mom softly knocked at the door repeating my name through muffled sobs, “Tommy. Tommy. Tommy.”
Jordan paces the small walkway of space where the toilets aren’t blocking his path. He scrunches his nose and pokes at the base of one. “This is disgusting,” he says. I’m standing at the top of the stairs. I can’t stop thinking about the clouds. The longer I stare at them, the more I can see them creeping closer, inch by inch.
Briar is deserted. The only noise coming from Jordan wriggling the doorknob of every room. The rustle of the leaves in the trees, their branches bending. Just us and the clouds hovering above. I swear they’re going to reach out and grab me. Pull me into the atmosphere.
“Man they’re all locked!” Jordan shouts.
“Isn’t this trespassing?” I yell back. Our voices carried away by the wind. Jordan makes his way down the long hall of doors, trying his luck in hopes of one of them being open. I can’t figure out what is compelling him to waste our time like this. He’s never been spontaneous, a troublemaker. Both of us have learned that the best way to go through life is to follow the rules, do what is expected of us. It’s the only way for us to make it out of here and go somewhere better.
I walk down the corridor, passing the crowd of toilets. The floorboards creak under my feet. I make my way over to Jordan who has stopped abruptly at the very last door. Room 32.
Last week, we were sitting on the bleachers before practice when Coach told us about the college recruiters that were going to be coming to our games. Jordan and I immediately perked up, lifting our heads and straightening our backs from the drowsy position we had been in moments before.
“This could be your chance to get a scholarship,” Coach said, “Or maybe if you work hard enough, and really show them what you got, a full ride.”
Mom had just broken the news to me that she wasn’t going to be able to afford my college tuition. As the words came out of her mouth, I stared at dad’s master’s degree from NYU hanging on the wall behind her head. I envisioned New York City. All the skyscrapers, the busy streets. The crowded sidewalks and loud traffic. And then I saw every single building begin to crumble and crash into the ground. A massive cloud of dust rising above the rubble.
As Coach spoke, Jordan’s eyes sparkled, his eyebrows lifted. I could only imagine that he was thinking the same thing I was. This is my chance. This could get me out of here. He turned to look at me, the same hope mirroring each other’s gazes. Then his face slowly tightened. It became stern and serious. His eyebrows furrowing. We weren’t on the same team anymore.
The number two is falling over crooked, missing its top screw. The powder blue paint is scratched and chipped on the doors surface. The silver doorknob is worn and loose.
Jordan places his palm against the door and stares at his feet. He stands like this for a long while. A droplet of cool rain hits the back of my neck. I shiver. The wind whistles, whipping our backs. His hand melts down to the doorknob. He grasps it gently and wiggles it back and forth, slowly. Like every other door he’s tried, it’s locked.
“We should get going,” I say as I look up at the sky once again. The clouds have finally made their way directly overhead. There arms are reaching toward me, big and bulging. They will grab me any minute. His face becomes hard, constricted. He lifts his gaze and focuses intently on the number 32.
“It didn’t always have scratches all over the door like this,” he says, “And the two wasn’t falling over.”
I turn my head trying to make sense of what he is telling me. His hand curls into a fist and he bangs it against the door. At first it is just a soft knock, as if he is expecting someone to open it from the other side and invite him in. The rain begins to drizzle. I can her the soft echo of thunder. His pounding grows louder, stronger. His hand begins to turn red. A droplet of water runs down his cheek. I can’t tell if it’s his own tear or a drop of rain.
I grab his wrist.
“What are you doing?” I ask. He looks at me. His eyes heavy. His mouth twisting into a frown. I know that look. The same look that the officer gave my mother. And suddenly I understand. This is why we walk down Briar every week. This is why we’re at the motel. My chest tightens, and I can hear my mother telling me to be thankful.
He shakes his hand from my grip aggressively and turns around. He leans over the railing. There is a dirty old mattress lying below. A brown stain in one of its corners. Leaves and twigs scattered over its surface.
“I’m going to jump,” he says.
I yank on his backpack, pulling him away from the rail. He nudges my shoulder, and I fall back a step.
“Why are you so scared all the time?” His voice loud, growling. A flash of lightening strikes behind him. I take another step back. He turns around again and looks at the mattress.
“Are you crazy?” A light drizzle begins to fall from the sky.
He shakes his head and digs his phone out of his backpack. “You have to record it so we can show all the guys.”
“Jordan, you are not doing this.” He shoves the phone into my palm and glares at me. Drops his bag, and marches over to the toilets. He steps on top of one of them. His chest out, hands placed on his hips. He looks like a superhero. He shouts over the sound of the wind. His hair is rustling in every direction. I can’t make out what he is saying. His hands are clenched into fists.
“What about the scholarship!” I yell.
He jumps off the toilet and makes a run for it.
Every time his foot hits the ground it sounds like thunder. He races past me, reaches the rail, grips it. His body projects forward, he lifts his legs, begins to fall. The clouds aren’t reaching for me anymore. They’re wrapping themselves around him. Picking him up. Letting him escape into the atmosphere. His limbs flail slowly as if he is a bird with a broken wing. For a moment I catch myself smiling.
And then the clouds let go. The rain starts to pour.
He misses the mattress and crashes against the Earth. His body skids across the dirt, the hot gravel burning his skin as he glides a few feet.
He folds into a ball and shrieks. I wipe the grin from my face and run down the stairs.
“My leg!” His arms hug his shin close to his chest. His elbows bloody and cracked. Rain is pelting his face, the dirt below him turning into mud.
His eyes are scrunched shut, mixing tears with rainwater flowing down his cheeks. He bites his lip and slowly rocks back and forth. His skin is scratched and red. I pull out my phone and dial 911. It doesn’t ring.
“Shit,” I say, “I don’t have any service.”
His eyes flutter open. He looks past me, up to the sky. “Did you record it?”
“The storm must have knocked it out.” I look around at the nothing that surrounds us. The dirt road flooding into mush. The sky growing darker as the heavy clouds envelop what was left of the sun. A gush of wind pushes against my back, throwing me off balance.
“We have to get out of here, Jordan,” I say. I put my hand beneath his head to help him up. I grab his arms and wrap them around my neck and shift my body around so he is straddling my back. My legs wobble as I stand. He moans into my shoulder.
“Where did they go, Tommy?”
I begin to make our way down Briar Road. I walk as fast as I can with his weight pressing upon me. The wind pushing us forward, the rain rinsing the blood from his skin. At the end of the road I look both directions. We could turn right, away from the storm. Knock on a stranger’s door and ask for help. Or we could turn left, toward home. Toward the storm blowing in the distance. I take a deep breath. Tighten my grip on Jordan.
We turn the corner. The siren begins to wail.
About the Author
Madeleine Gebacz is a writer based in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She graduated with a BA in English from Middle Tennessee State University in 2018. This is her first publication.