Millie’s hands shook as she sat on the bed in the outdated motel room. She flexed her fingers trying to calm down, but she gave up and pressed her palms into the faded floral bedspread beneath her as she waited for her mom to call her back. She had left a frantic message for her mom on the drive out of town. The old air conditioner in the room rattled to life and frightened her with its monotonous, ominous hum.
A message popped up on her phone, which sat haphazardly on the nightstand next to her. She leaned over so that the facial recognition would pop open the notification. Normally, she’d be excited to receive a group text from one of her girlfriends back at Princeton, but this wasn’t normal. Not even close. She typed a quick response and put the phone back on the nightstand.
The Highway Motel had been the first place she had found after leaving Musk. It sat along the lumbering, rural two-lane road that shot north out of Musk toward Connor, a town about 45 minutes away. Connor wasn’t much more than Musk, but it got her away from the house she rented. She doubted she’d ever be able to go back there, not after what had just happened. It seemed surreal to her, like a story she had read online instead of something that affected her.
The Sheriff had offered to post an officer outside the house until they found the culprit who had broken into her home, but she had refused because she knew she couldn’t stay there even though one of the deputies had summarily dismissed the incident as a sick prank. After they had exhausted their investigation and had done their best to console her, she left, watching their lights flash in her rear view mirror until she turned onto the road that led to Connor.
She stood up and went to the only window in the room. The floral curtains matched the ugly bedspread and they smelled musty, old, reminding her of a ramshackle general store she had visited once when she first moved to Musk. She exhaled and pushed aside the curtain so that she could see outside. Her truck sat alone on the tattered asphalt parking lot in the fading light of the evening. A freight truck roared past the motel on the road. The window vibrated. She let the curtain fall back into place and returned to the bed.
Suddenly, her phone blasted some techno-beat music. She accepted the call without looking at the screen.
“Mom?” she answered.
“Millie, it’s Carl.”
“Carl? What’s…what’s going on?”
“Are you okay?”
Millie felt confused, disoriented. Carl had never called her before outside of work hours. Some words stumbled out of her mouth as she recounted what had happened. She wasn’t sure she was coherent.
“You’re welcome to stay with us. I can come get you.”
“I can’t ask you to do that.”
“It’s not a problem.”
“What about your kids and your wife?”
“They’ll understand. Besides, my kids could use someone else to talk to.” Carl laughed into the phone. It sounded forced and unnatural for him. Something in his voice didn’t sound right, but Millie let it pass amid the awkwardness. She mostly wanted to end the call.
“I appreciate the offer, but I’m going to stay here.”
“I can come check on you, bring you some food if you’re afraid to go out.”
“I’m not hungry. I couldn’t eat anyway. Thank you though.”
“Call me if you need anything. I can be there quickly.”
“Okay. Thank you.”
She ended the call, and glared at her screen as if she could will her mom to call her at that very moment. When nothing came through, she put the phone back on the nightstand. She lay back on the bed, the musty smell of the bedspread repulsed her, but exhaustion kept her pinned onto the springy mattress. She closed her eyes and drifted off.
Something, a sharp, sudden noise, woke her. She shot up from the bed and gasped as if she expected someone to be coming toward her. She gaped at the darkness that engulfed the room. The sun had set leaving the room dark behind the heavy curtains save for the ambient street light that leaked from the edges of the window. The bedside alarm clock, which seemed so much brighter in the dark, flashed 1:17. She had slept for several hours.
She stood up, her eyes now fully adjusted to the sparse light, and stepped toward the window. She pushed the curtain aside and scanned the dimly-lit parking lot. Her truck gleamed under the street light. Another truck had parked beside hers despite the empty lot. She examined the interloper as best she could from her second-story window. In the darkness, the unknown truck looked threatening. She wondered why the owner had parked right next to her. A shiver of fear crept up her spine.
She glanced up and down the walkway outside her room as far as she could see from the window. Empty. She grabbed her phone from the nightstand. Other than another text from her girlfriend, nothing had happened while she slept. It was too late to call her mother again. She’d have to wait until the morning.
The battery icon on her phone had turned red. She flipped on the beside lamp and ruffled through her bag looking for her charger as her eyes adjusted to the tepid light. Then, she did the same with her backpack. No charger. She couldn’t remember where she last saw it. Maybe it was in her truck. Losing her phone connection scared her, but walking outside at that moment scared her more. It’d have to wait until the morning.
She put the thoughts out of her mind as she brushed her teeth and washed her face. She needed more sleep. She needed to figure out what to do. Tomorrow…today was Saturday. She could figure it out once she got some more sleep. She peeled back the tacky bedspread and slid into the cool layer of sheets. At least the sheets smelled and felt clean she thought as she drifted back to sleep.
A steady rumble woke her. It took her a moment to remember where she was and what was happening. She bolted upright in the bed, but she slumped back into the pillow once the freight truck had passed on the road outside. Ripples of light fluttered across the ceiling as the old AC unit fanned the curtain making the ambient light dance around the room.
Millie rolled over and grabbed her phone. She poked the screen, but it did not respond. She poked harder, but it stayed dark. The battery had finally died. She felt like she was stranded in the middle of the ocean alone. She slammed her phone down on the nightstand so hard that she feared she had broken the screen.
She stared at the clock by the bed and watched it flipped over to 5:53. She hadn’t slept much, and she felt it in her bones, but she couldn’t go back to sleep. All of her thoughts rushed into her consciousness leaving her hyped up on confusion and worry. She had to find her charger. She had to find a better place to stay. She had to get away from whoever was stalking her.
She got up and stepped toward the window. The morning had yet to yield to dawn. It seemed even darker than when she had peered out the night before. Below, the strange truck still parked next to hers, but it had moved. The owner had backed the truck into the spot. She wondered if she was just imagining things. A panic rose up her spine, but she tamped it down as an irrational response to something that was likely coincidental. The hairs on her neck tingled.
The AC hacked like an old man as it sputtered to a pause. A silence fell upon the room heightening her senses. She thought she heard footsteps outside along the walkway, but then they stopped. She listened. Suddenly, a knock at the door shattered the silence. She jumped and let out a gasp, remaining frozen in place.
The voice sounded familiar, but it took a moment for Millie to recognize it. “Carl?”
“Millie, it’s Carl. Are you okay?” The cheap door muffled his voice.
She hesitated for a moment, and then she stepped toward the door to get a look through the peep hole. Carl’s large frame filled the dim view onto the walkway outside her door. She flipped the chain off the rail and turned the deadbolt.
She held the door close to her as she greeted him. “Carl…what are you doing here?” She could feel the tremble in her voice.
“I couldn’t reach you on your phone this morning and I was worried. Are you okay?”
“My phone’s dead. Yes, I’m fine. It’s not even six o’clock.”
Carl stood there looking at her expectantly. “I’m sorry. I was worried. You should come stay with me. This place is not safe.” He stepped back a little and looked up and down the walkway. “Not to mention, it’s nasty.”
“It’s better than that house I rent.”
“Come on. Get your things and I’ll take you back to my house.”
“I can’t ask you to do that, Carl.”
“It’s not a problem. Come on.” He waved his hand as if he were encouraging her to take her first steps.
Something felt off in his demeanor. The whole interaction struck Millie as awkward and out of character for Carl. It took her a moment, but then, she realized something.
“How did you know where I was?”
Carl stopped talking. “What do you mean? You told me.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Yes, you did. Last night, when I talked to you, you said you were staying at this motel.”
Millie tried to remember their conversation last night, but a fog settled over her brain. She didn’t remember saying anything about the Highway Motel.
“But how did you know which room I’m in?”
“I…you…said you were on the second floor. I just guessed since your truck is right there. There aren’t exactly many guests here, Millie.”
The hairs on her neck tingled again. “Carl, thank you for checking on me, but I need to get more rest. I’ll let you know if I need anything. Have a good weekend.”
She started to push the door shut, but it wouldn’t budge. She looked down to see Carl’s big foot wedged against the bottom of the door.
“I don’t think you understand,” he began. “You’re coming with me.”