The sun was starting to rise as Aaron reached the motel, skulking in the treeline behind the building as he approached, keeping to the diminishing shadows; the gauges in his arms were crusted red now, their limited bleeding having congealed promptly after exiting the train, but he still looked like he’d been attacked by a wild animal and didn’t want to draw unnecessary attention to himself. He knew he still had to confront Elvis though, and question him about the whereabouts of his wife and daughter. His feet slipped on fallen leaves made slick by the night’s rain as he made his way down the hill to the rear of the motel, and he had to steady himself against the tree trunks and overhanging branches as he picked his way down, choosing between slick leaves or loosened topsoil underfoot. The last few feet of the hill levelled out but had collected much of the rainwater as it abutted the rear wall of the motel, and Aaron found himself gathering speed as he struggled to keep his footing; he dug his heels into the mud trying to slow himself but the saturated soil gave way too easily, leaving tracks like a skier would in the snow as his momentum took him crashing into the wall. He managed to put his arms out in front of him but they were too emaciated to prevent his face impacting weightily against the grey stone render with a sickening crunch, like someone biting into a spring roll filled with raw steak. Aaron put a hand to his face, he’d felt no pain during the collision but that sound made it clear that something had been broken; he felt bulging, pulsating vessels beneath his skin along his jaw and forehead, his eyes sunken, his cheekbones sticking out like gnarls in the bark of an old tree, and that was all. He felt for his nose but his touch found only an indentation where it should have been, his fingers sweeping over sagging skin that felt so thin that it might split open under the slightest pressure. Perturbed by the injury to his nose, but focussed once more on the quest to locate his family, Aaron continued to the corner of the L-shaped motel, peeking around it to ensure no one would see him before stepping into the open and making his way along the shortest appendage of the building; he kept his back to the wall and his arms out beside him, feeling his way along the knobbly rendering, eyes alert and searching for a passing car or pedestrian until his leading hand found the front of the structure, his fingertips feeling smooth, warm Perspex in lieu of the sharp wrinkles of the stone. He rounded the corner and found Elvis perched on his seat, head down reading an issue of Country Music Magazine, greasy fingers thumbed the paper as he aimlessly perused the articles in the magazine’s back pages. Aaron knocked gently on the glass, startling Elvis and causing him to drop the magazine from his lap, it landed open, face down and as Aaron stood to attention to greet his customer he stepped onto it, tearing several pages from the spine.
“Dang it! Oh I’m sorry Mr Stokes, didn’t mean to curse. Was there something you nee-“
Elvis’ sentence trailed off as he lifted his head to greet his guest; upon seeing the deathly pale skin, black eyes, swollen jaw and forehead, gauged skin and sunken nose he took a step back, his own eyes now wide with disbelief at what he saw, his mouth hanging open exposing his own poor dentition. When he saw the writhing beneath Aaron’s skin, Elvis spun on his heel and darted for the staff room, terrified by what stood before him and desperate for sanctuary even though he knew the door to his booth was locked; the man in front of him looked so horrific that he was worried that he could catch whatever disease this guy had just by looking at him.
Aaron’s words came between deep, sighing breaths as though he’d just run a marathon. The motel attendant stopped in his tracks in the doorway to the staffroom.
“I’m not going to hurt you”
Another deep, exhausted breath as Elvis began to turn around, squinting his eyes as if to protect them from the horrifying image in front of them.
“I need……..to ask you…….about my family.”
Elvis hesitantly edged forward towards the screen, stopping when he was at arm’s length from his counter, extending his arm and laying his fingertips gingerly on the surface as if ready to flee at any moment.
“Mr Stokes, I don’t know what you mean. You told me about your family already.”
“Wh- what do you mean, I told you?”
Aaron was leant up against the glass now, just as he had been the previous night, each sentence fogging the Perspex, his white palms even more pale as they pressed against the surface.
“I asked you when you checked in. I asked if you were on your own or if you were expecting company, and you said you’d taken care of your wife and kid so they wouldn’t be joining you.”
Aaron’s stare finally left Elvis, his eyes lowering and darting side to side as he searched for any memory of this. His swollen brow creased as he frowned, thinking.
“Taken care of? What do you mean taken care of?”
“I dunno sir, you said it. I didn’t like to pry, it never pays to pry sir.”
Elvis was now visibly shaking, his eyes were wide and fixed on Aaron as if he could attack at any moment, and he began to slowly back away towards the staffroom, trying to move his legs so slightly that their movement wouldn’t be perceived and he could make a dart for safety when close enough to do so.
“What do you mean taken care of!?”
Aaron, now shouting, slammed a palm against the Perspex causing it to judder in its frame, the slam from his blow echoing inside the booth. Elvis turned and ran into the staff room, nearly banging his head on the doorframe as he clumsily ducked through it, and locked the door. Aaron, defeated, turned to return to his room, head hung in despair; maybe Evita could shed some light on what was going on. As he raised his head to begin walking, he saw a car parked in the forecourt; a black Mercedes parked in front of room 112. He made his way across the car park, limping awkwardly like his legs and hips had argued among themselves and now refused to work together. He quickened his pace as he passed the new resident’s room, but the door swung open and Aaron heard a man’s voice behind him.
“Hi there, you’re staying here too?”
Aaron stopped, sighed and turned around to face the man; he was middle aged, with thinning black hair and a dated handlebar moustache. He wore a cheap, ill-fitting black suit, the top buttons of his stained white shirt were undone and his black necktie hung loosened around his neck like a dreary hangman’s noose. His shoes, once black, were worn and grey, dusted with dirt. The man was clearly taken aback by Aaron’s appearance, a look of concern adorning his prematurely wrinkled face as he took a step backwards. His moustache danced haphazardly around his mouth as he spoke.
“Woah, are you OK man?”
“I’m fine, just been a rough couple of nights y’know. Yes I’m in 114, pretty nice place right? Kind of fancy for a motel.”
Aaron was doing his best to appear normal despite his deformed appearance.
“Are you kidding? This place is a dive! Looks like it hasn’t been cleaned in forty years, let alone decorated; wall paper peeling, carpets stained, and don’t even get me started on the smell! Still, it sure is handy for the Tucson gash. Know what I mean? I’m Mark by the way, Mark Robinson.”
The man was seemingly warming to the conversation, politely ignoring Aaron’s disfiguration, though he refrained from offering a handshake. Aaron was confused by Mark’s perception of the motel; it was nicer than most hotels he’d stayed in.
“Aaron Stokes, pleased to meet you. You should ask to change rooms; mine is clean, bright and doesn’t smell at all. There’s a woman in the room between us too, and she hasn’t had any complaints.”
“Well you must have the one room in this shithole that ain’t falling apart Stokes, I checked out a few before I chose this one and let me tell you if I worked for health and safety, I’d knock this place down! Hahahahaha!”
His laugh was high-pitched and raspy, and by the stains on his fingers he was clearly a smoker. Aaron offered a courteous smile in return as Mark continued.
“Anyway what are you talking about ‘woman in between us’? I looked at that room and there’s no one staying there, I don’t think anyone could stay in there it’s so run down. Besides, the guy Elvis told me you’ve been the only person here for the last week.”
“But I- are you sure?”
“Sure as eggs is eggs Stokey. Listen, I’m heading into the city later on a fuck hunt. Wanna team up?”
Mark’s eager expression and lewd smile sickened Aaron, and his disrespect for women was intolerable, but he was sure Evita was real; he’d met her. He turned away from the offensive businessman and made for his room.
“I have to go now, Mark.”
“Ok Stokes, think about our expedition. I’ll give you a knock when I’m heading out.”
Aaron closed the door to room 114 and leaned his back against its interior. He sighed, exasperated by confusion; had he killed those two people on the train? Who was Evita? Where were Mel and Jemima? One thing was certain judging by the reactions of Elvis and Mark when they’d laid eyes on him; he could no longer blend in, he was too mutilated to exist in common society without drawing attention to himself and, if he was culpable for the massacre on the train, the last thing he needed was to be noticed. He’d have to track down his family, that was his priority, and then he could rest and let his body heal with a little help from a potent tapeworm killing prescription. He stood leaning against the door to his room for hours, pondering where to start; he’d obviously have to leave the motel if he was going to remain secluded, so he’d start by finding somewhere to sleep. Then he’d restart his search for Mel and Jemima, but were would he start? No one had seen them and his memory was lost. His eyes were drawn to the picture of the church over the bed; it seemed familiar, like he’d been there before, but neither he nor his family had ever been religious and never regularly attended church. He stood motionless wondering why he felt so accustomed to the building in the picture, and contemplating where to search next.
You could always pray for them.
His mother’s voice addressing him inside his head seemed to be mocking him; she was the one in his family who was most against faith and religion. Why would she suggest prayer as a solution to his predicament? Aaron dismissed her voice and continued to stare at the painting until night fell, when he slunk out of room 114 leaving the door blowing open in the wind as he went in search of a new dwelling.
Mark left his room reeking of cheap aftershave, his sparse black hair was slicked back against his head, tight to the shape of his skull, and shone in the moonlight. He still wore his black suit but had changed into a new, cleaner white shirt and had swapped his ragged day-to-day shoes with polished brogues. He’d attached his room key to his car keys, and they jangled together as he spun them around his index finger. The door clacked shut behind him as the lock engaged, and he whistled the theme to Saturday Night Fever as he strutted two doors down to see if his new motel buddy was game for a night of seduction with the local ladies. As he approached room 114 he could see the door was open, and he smiled to himself imagining that Aaron had decided to accompany him; he’d be the perfect wingman, being so disfigured he would make a great talking point but would be so repellent that all the women would flock to Mark like bees around a hive. The lights weren’t on inside Aaron’s room, and Mark couldn’t see inside clearly.
“Hey, Stokes. You ready? It’s gonna be a wild night!”
No answer from within the room, and nothing stirring inside as if making toward the door to join him. Flies buzzed in and out of the open doorway but otherwise the darkness was completely still, the only other sounds were the wind hissing through the trees behind the motel, and the door gently knocking against the wall. There was a smell like a vomit and excrement cocktail wafting from the room, catching Mark’s nostrils before washing away on the breeze. He cautiously took a step closer to the open doorway, his brogues crunching crisply on a layer of frost covering the concrete.
“Hello? Aaron? It’s your wingman.”
The exuberance had drained from Mark’s voice, his words now escaping more timidly as he put his weight on his front foot and leant into the entrance. He had to pull the lapel of his suit jacket over his nose to fend off the stench from inside the room, replacing it with the woody accents of his cologne that burned in his nose at such close proximity. His other hand found the wall and fumbled along it in search of the light switch. He realised his hands were shaking so he steadied himself and, upon locating the switch, flicked on the light; harsh illumination flooded the room, blinding Mark for a second as his eyes adjusted to the sudden illumination. He held his free hand in a peak over his startled eyes and, as he refocused, he saw the same peeling green wallpaper that adorned the walls in his own room, and the same tobacco stained ceiling with its paint falling away in great chunks. Aaron’s room was slightly bigger than his but it wasn’t clean, and it certainly wasn’t fancy. Mark withdrew his five-fingered eye shade and saw more of the room; to his left, taped over the windows, were huge sheets of cardboard and directly in front of him was the bed. Blood had pooled and crusted on the sheets, which looked heavy and saturated with it as they lay askew on the mattress, itself splattered with crimson and sagging in the middle under the weight of the huge pool of tacky gore that had amassed there. There were sprays of blood all over the wall, some thick and reaching to the ceiling while others were weak and barely made a congruent arc. On the floor next to the bed was a rotting pile of exposed flesh and bowel, the latter had decomposed to a point where it had become perforated and oozed partially processed faeces, smearing the hardened leather skin either side of the open wound. The rest of the flesh was starting to blacken and fester, and it had been thrown over the top half of the pile, obscuring the body’s identity. Next to the mound of flesh, two severed arms were leant neatly against the bed, hands upward like they were reaching for the pillow, dried streams of blood snaking down from their fingertips to their stumps. At the edge of the heap closest to Mark, sticking out from what appeared to be a sagging vagina, was a head, tilted in such a way that the eyes, consumed by cloudiness, seemed to be staring pleadingly up at him. A stream of faeces and blood had trickled from the intestines of the first body, flowing down the creases of the rather large woman’s groin, and dripped into the mouth of the second, which hung open as if in permanent toothless agony. Mark spun on his heels, racing out of the room where he bent over and vomited against the wall. After several large exoduses from his stomach, and once the ensuing dry retching had stopped, he returned to the doorway of the room, wiping his mouth on his sleeve and leaving a trail of bilious saliva. His eyes were watery from the vomiting, his throat burned and his stomach ached from the force of its contraction, but he wanted to check for survivors; he stood in the doorway, bracing himself on both sides, and scanned the room, fighting the urge to heave again. He didn’t see any signs of life but did notice a trail of blood which led to one corner of the room before abruptly stopping. Where the trail finished there were scratches in the warped linoleum floor, these led straight to the where he stood as if something large had been dragged out of the room. There was also an old painting in a tatty frame hanging over the bed, he couldn’t make out what it depicted through the covering of blood and entrails but just looking at the picture hanging there made Mark feel uneasy. He backed out of the doorway and made purposefully for the attendant’s booth, striding determinedly as he pulled his cell phone from his trouser pocket and dialled 911.