Previously: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3
Some part of William assumed that the distance between the airport and The Saturn Inn was more an exaggeration than anything – words from a man whose shift was almost up and who was looking forward to a banquet of something that came in microwaveable cardboard and a plastic film that you have to puncture to let the steam escape.
In truth, the drive moved from the neon landscape near the airport and then past the dimming lights of scattered houses, clustered apartments, and rows of identical townhouses. Soon, it was a lonely gas station and a street lamp standing like some ill-begotten traveler who just didn’t have the heart to head on down the road or turn back and stumble home.
Eventually, lights were fewer and farther between. Little mile markers grinned at him with moonlit smiles while one random sign let him know that someplace called Roland Hill was eighty-seven miles away.
As the time stretched in equal measure with the road, he thought to break the silence – say something – strike up a conversation with the driver. Ask about the weather or how that one team that plays that one sport did at the thing at the place and who would’ve thought that they’d pull that out like they did…
Instead, he held his tongue while the night seemed to seep into the car and wrap around it like a fog. Along the road, he could see the almost vacuous darkness as the road slipped away and the shoulder became a knife’s edge of grass that bloomed into a tangled wall of trunk and limb and leaf that made the road feel like it was somehow closing in. Some long, empty tunnel with nothing but white dashes beneath them like scars that had sealed old wounds, now cursed to remain the wrong color – an echo of shit that went wrong and never healed quite right.
The driver never seemed to make a sound. He didn’t clear his throat. He didn’t ask any questions. He didn’t even turn on the fucking radio.
The world became flickers of white on black and the rushing sound of wind merging with the labor of wheels on pavement.
Finally, the silence, or the darkness, or just the continuous fear and trepidation in the back of his mind got to him and he cleared his throat and said, “Shit, you weren’t kidding…”
In his mind, he already knew the conversation, but he didn’t care. He just needed to get out of where his head was. The driver would say, “Told, buddy, there were closer places,” and then he’d reply, “Shoulda listened, for sure. Any idea how much farther it is?” and the driver would say something like, “Hell, probably another twenty minutes. Turn off is right past this little mom and pop gas station a ways out. Hard to believe those things even exist anymore, ya know?”
But the driver didn’t say that.
He didn’t say anything.
William nodded like he was going through the conversation that wasn’t happening and then like a man who was trying to figure out where it was heading instead. “About how much farther is it?” he asked.
But the driver didn’t say anything.
The sound is what William noticed first. The sound of wheels picking up speed. The sound of the wind at the side of the car rushing by faster and faster.
Soon, the dashes on the road looked like one continuous line with only the slightest breaks between them. The engine was screaming.
William clenched his teeth. He felt his heart racing, his stomach sinking, and his chest holding the pressure of an elephant that he couldn’t tell was trying to push its way in or out.
“Hey,” William said as though he had something resembling control of the situation, or that he wasn’t on the verge of a heart attack, “little fast, yeah?”
The driver said nothing and the sound became worse.
It became this long, slow whine like where the wind is pushing into a small pinhole. It was a screaming sound like someone plummeting to their death but the volume was low, or else all the lows and mids were cut out so only the highest frequency poured in like a mosquito with a megaphone by his eardrum.
“Hey,” William said again. “Hey!”
“We’re here,” a voice answered back. A voice that seemed too familiar.
William looked to his left and saw the side of a face. The skin seemed too pale, the features somehow off like he was a caricature that was drawn and given life like a fucked up Frosty the snowman.
William swore he could feel his heart stop.
Mike looked over him. His skin seemed to sag. His eyes seemed too large, the sockets looked limp like they were made of clay that was too wet. His mouth was slack and the cheeks drooped. “One fucking job, Willy,” he said with a sick, dead expression, “but we’re here now.”
William wanted to scream but his voice wouldn’t obey.
He couldn’t hear the car anymore. All he could hear now was the blood rushing past his ears and the sound of his heart pounding like it was made of nothing but angry fists.
Mike leaned over, his motion odd like his body was being moved around by strings and pulleys. His face twisted as he smiled. The lips moved and warped like some invisible set of fingers was pushing and pulling to make his face work like some infantile recreation of what a human face would do when trying to smile.
“We’re here, Willy,” he said as the smile grew wider and his body leaned more and leaned closer. “We’re here.”
“Hey!” the voice said, “We’re here.”
William looked around and saw the lights of The Saturn Inn before him and the face of the driver looking back at him. “Don’t get me wrong,” he said, “much as I’d like to keep the meter running to let you sleep, I’d rather get home.”
“Right,” William said trying to calm his nerves and slow his heart from the seven or eight thousand beats-per-minute it was running at, down where it was just near cardiac arrest. “Yeah, shit, I musta dozed off.”
“No shit you did,” the driver said. “Not that I mind. Easy money.”
William opened his eyes wide and blinked a few more times to reorient himself and then got out of the car. He paid the driver in cash and watched him drive away.
The parking lot was mostly empty. Two other cars, each was parked in front of a door along a line of identical doors. The lobby had bright light pouring from a small window that showed him almost nothing of the interior.
Beyond that, there was little else to see. Past the road where the inn was situated were dense trees and it was far too dark for him to see how far they went in any direction.
Inside was a small, but bright room with one of those long desks that’s attached directly to the wall, shaped like an L. Behind it was a chair and a computer monitor that the 1980s meant to come collect.
Behind the desk was a closed door.
He decided to pace around the small interior for a second, his journey ending quickly enough when he turned to the wall across from the desk and saw a painting of what looked like a mostly empty field at dusk. In the distance, it looked like a small house, or maybe a barn. The features seemed strange like the perspective was off. Like the person who drew it couldn’t figure out how close they were when they were putting it on the canvas. The shadows were inconsistent. It looked like there was something by the side of the building and he squinted like people do when they think that squinting will help make sense of what they’re seeing.
“Now I thought I heard someone come in,” a woman said, pulling William from his thoughts.
“Yeah,” he said. “Just a second ago. Was just admiring the art.” He turned to look at her. She was an older woman. Older than he was, anyway. She had that look like you’d expect from someone who could tell you about ten years ago down at the ranch when the horses got out during the storm or about how to make a great pitcher of sweet tea. “You paint this?”
“That?” she said, her face crinkled up. “Been there since before me. Friend of my grandpa painted it forever and a day ago.”
“Huh,” William shrugged.
“So how long you lookin’ to stay?”
“Not sure, really. Kinda playing it by ear at the moment.”
“Well, it’s fifty-two dollars for the night. If you want to go for a whole week, it’s three twenty-five.”
“Let’s say a week, and we can go from there.”
“Alright,” she said as she sat down at her computer that William suspected might just be a typewriter with a fancy case around it, “let’s get you into the system. If I can get a name from ya.”
“William Rowe,” he said, spelling out his last name.
As she sat down, he was able to see the room behind her which had previously been blocked – first by the door and then by her standing in front of it.
He saw another painting, a rather large one. In it, it looked like some strange figure drawn like the artist was in a hurry, like a brush being moved by fear and a very questionable understanding of how the human body should look. It was a man, tall and lanky. His arms seemed too long for his body and he was wearing nothing but seemed discolored by random smudges. His eyes were wide like they were made with blank thumbprints that were twisted back and forth. There was no nudity, however, as he was hunched over slightly, his distended hands clutching a body and from his mouth hung splatters and lines of red and black from where he had bitten the head off of the form he was holding and between the torso and the missing head were ropes of what once connected the two.
William just stared at it.
“Now that’s, oh,” the woman said, “bit strange that one. Some people find it unsettling, so I don’t keep it on display.”
“The fuck is it?”
He could feel her purse her lips at him for using profanity. “That’s Cronus. Father of the gods or some such nonsense. Ate his kids or something. You know how Greeks were – gay sex and bathhouses and apparently eating babies.”
“Uh-huh…” William muttered.
“My brother painted it back when he was young and in college. Said that Romans called that same guy Saturn, so, you know, Saturn – Saturn Inn. I dunno. My brother was like that. Didn’t have the heart to tell him I didn’t want it when he was alive, and now, well, just seems wrong to get rid of it.”
“Uh-huh…” William said again, finally pulling his eyes from the painting.
“Anyway,” she said, “that’s gonna be three twenty-five, and oh,” she shook her head, “where are my manners? Name is Dira Root.” She put a key on the desk, not one of those card keys you see at most places nowadays, but an actual, metal key. “I don’t keep a big staff, so if you have any problems, you’ll have to wait till I’m in the office. Normally get here at about six though.”
“Thanks,” William said giving one more awkward glance at the painting in the room beyond.
“Room 106. Out the door and just follow it down, you can’t miss it.”