For LOST IN LOS ALAMOS Beta Readers Only - Please Do Not Share.
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The dead bolt turned. The door reluctantly allowed itself to be pushed inward, the seal of the weatherstripping made the sound of an airlock opening in a space capsule. The only light inside was the faltering light from the street and it barely illuminated the completely foreign shapes inside the house. Scott instinctively reached to his right, sliding his hand down the wall to find the light switch, which turned out to be one of those newer, flat rocker switches. Scott’s fingers pressed the switch in.
Nothing. He rocked the switch back and forth. Still no light. There were no appliance lights or digital clocks lit up that now fill modern kitchens at night. Scott pulled out his phone and hit the flashlight app again. The phone illuminated the room like a cave explorer’s torch that had a very limited reach in a large cavern. He moved forward into the room, leaving the front door open but letting the storm door close on its own. It didn’t. He looked backwards up at the door closer to see that it was hanging down along the door frame and not connected to the storm door at all. Then he glanced across the street to the opposite house in time to see the curtain move in the remaining room that still had a light on.
“Creepy,” Scott said aloud.
Turning back into the house, his phone light showed that he was in the kitchen. But that was where the similarity to an actual kitchen ended. As Scott panned across the room and further back into the house, the harbinger of doom that he felt when he pulled up to the house inflated like a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade Snoopy, threatening to carry him off with it as the only holder of an anchor rope.
What he surveyed in the dim light was shocking to him. Half the normal set of kitchen cabinets were not installed, but more than that, half of the cabinets that were installed were smashed and broken in their bottoms and doors. The counters beneath them were missing and bare wires escaped from the electrical boxes like shadowy skeleton hands and fingers above where the counter tops should have been.
He skimmed the light along the walls and Scott found he wanted to cry. What became one of his worst nightmares of the trip appeared as his light revealed drywall that looked like a moonscape, cratered and pitted, dipping and blemished across its horizon. Scott hated to help anyone with drywall work. In being a good friend, he drew the line right there. The drywall that he could see looked like it had been installed by someone that had a serious motor and mental disfunction and could not line up the pieces or screw the drywall screws in straight, all the way, or keep from driving them too far in. And the mud work. Scott was no expert, but he’d seen good drywall tape and mud work in friend’s and family’s renovations and this was more like a drunken Van Gogh’s Impasto technique, troweled on way too thick, ensuring the impossibility of being able to sand it smooth. It would all have to be redone.
Scott stepped backward only to blindly find an open heat register in the middle of the floor, the grate missing, and his heel caught down in it. He went down hard on his butt.
“Shit!”, he whispered, in keeping with the silence of the space. The floor was filthy, the tiles cracked and cantilevered from uneven mortar beneath them.
Looking down at the register, he shined the light into it. The duct below was almost filled to the top with dust, wood chips, trash, and something else. Scott bent down to look closer and realized that he was looking at dried dog crap that had been swept into the heat register with the other detritus. They were really big dog turds, at that.
On cue, a low, menacing growl emanated from the hallway to his right which led to the other end of the house. Scott swung the phone up to shine the light in the direction of the sound. Sitting with the light at the same height as his eyes, Scott was made aware of two things. The first was that his battery level notification of below ten percent was on the screen. How long the message had been there was anyone’s guess.
The second, three-alarm-fire thing Scott saw was a huge pair of canine tapetum lucidum - dog eyes - reflecting his phone light back at him, the green luminous circles unblinking as a deep growl began to rise.
“Shit, shit, shit!” Scott whispered once more with feeling. “I hate big dogs.”
Big Dog stepped forward. Scott slowly raised himself with the power of his strong arms until he could get his legs beneath him, but when he put the hand holding the phone light down on the floor, the light shining upward into his face like a jack-o-lantern, the dog became bolder, stepping forward once more, his growl heightening. As soon as he could, Scott shined the light back at Big Dog and slowly stood up.
If Scott had the time, he’d pick apart this scene he had been cast in. Only later would he be able to recreate all that the modular home held in that moment and in what the small phone light was able to illuminate. And recreate away he would as he built up the ironclad case for getting the hell out of there and back home to California, pronto.
Scott thought he should get a move on pretty quickly so he backed up slowly as Big Dog matched him step for step, the growl deepening and heavily salivating gums peeled back to reveal massive teeth that seemed to glow in the dark. He knew the front door was still open as the street light and shadows across the floor confirmed. He hoped to all hope that he could make it to the door and get it shut in front of him before the animal ate him alive.
Then, one step more backward and two things happened simultaneously. The first was that his phone shut down, the light extinguished, giving the advantage of night vision to Big Dog. The second thing that at happened was that Scott’s heel came down hard on something round. His foot rocked to the side as it continued down with his weight and the sound of a loud, glassy POP! exploded apart the intimate moment he and Big Dog had been sharing.
Big Dog really went about doing his thing, adding a snarling bark to the growl and snapping his teeth and Scott about peed his pants as he backed up quickly past the broken light bulb toward the open front door. Instant calculations ran through his brain just before Scott bolted for the door. He made it in two strides, Big Dog pressing in at him with his head lowered and snarling, done with playing around with the fool who had walked into his Master’s house.
From outside, the images inside had appeared as a manic light show with shadows thrown around the center of the house, a small beam of light swinging in and out of the windows and against the interior walls as a dark figure was alternately thrown in and and out of shadow. But now, all was shadows and growling and barks.
While Scott was still backing through the closing doorway, Big Dog took hold of the toe of Scott’s Timberland boot that was still inside the door, the rest of him on the outer side. He was truly afraid for his life as Big Dog pulled on the shoe, then released quickly to go further up to the pants leg before Scott could pull his leg back behind the door. Big Dog only got the fabric of Scott’s Levis on the next snap but was determined to gain ground. Scott wondered how the dog could be so friggin’ strong and quick and knew that the next lunge would get the meat of his leg.
Finally, instead of continuing to try and pull the door shut on his leg, Scott gave the solid door a quick and hard shove open which hit the dog in the side of its head hard enough to loosen it’s grip so that Scott could yank his foot out and slam the door shut. Then he leapt off the porch backward, landing in a pile of snow that was yellow and pocked marked. He got right up and bent over with his hands on his knees, trying to catch his breath.
After a moment, Scott thought he should go back up on the porch to lock the front door. Inside, Big Dog had gone quiet after attacking the door with such ferocity that Scott thought he might actually get the door open somehow.
As soon as he put the key in the deadbolt all hell broke loose again. Big Dog’s bark ratcheted up into some sort of bloodcurdling scream from within as it apparently started throwing body blows against the door, actually making the door knob move. Scott leaned backward, recovered, then got the key turned and the deadbolt set before he jumped off the porch again, running all the way to the Jeep and around it to stand on the driver’s side, staring at the front door.
Scott breathed out a, “What the hell?!”
He then looked back across the street and the last window light was out, but the darkness he’d just come from allowed Scott’s eyes to note that the drape was pulled to the side and he could make out the silhouette of someone openly watching him now.
“I’m getting out of this shit. This place is insane,” Scott muttered, still wide-eyed and breathing hard.
He yanked the Jeep door open and jumped in, started it up and pulled off down the street even before he had his door shut.
Scott drove like he was a man possessed, but within reason of the speed limit. Normally, he would have Yelped every motel within a twenty mile radius, but Scott made it all the way back across the bridge and through town to where he had entered Los Alamos before he began to look for a place to stay. He pulled into the first place that had a neon sign and the word ‘Vacancy’ lit up. He really wanted to just keep driving back out of town but he was tired and freaked and he just wanted to watch TV, which he thought was really weird.
A bell rang as Scott walked in through the door to the lobby, such as it was. An old man was in a rocker behind the knotty pine counter watching a Matlock rerun.
“I‘d settle for that,” Scott thought as he crossed from the door to the counter in only two steps, the room was so small.
“Hello?” Scott asked. Motel Man was still wrapped up in the show. Then he spoke without turning his head.
“Hey there, youngster. What can I do ya for?” he said, his head finally turned toward Scott.
“I need a room,” Scott said, manic, his eyes darting about the close space, looking for the danger that so many movies with motels had prepared him for.
“Ok. I think we can handle that. You need a single or a double?” Motel Man could see that Scott was a bit crazed. He got up from the rocker, watching Scott closely, and came to the counter, bringing the registration clipboard onto it.
“That’ll be $39.60 with New Mexico tax and all. Just need you to sign here and here.”
Scott almost fell through the hollow core door of the motel room, number 202, carrying all that he could grab in his arms from the Jeep. On his way in, he managed to shoulder the light switch on before his boot caught on a bump in the saggy shag carpet he and spilled the contents of his arms onto the equally sagging bed. The first thing he noticed, besides the condition of the carpet and bed, was the musty, air freshener-infused cigarette smell of the non-smoking room. He groaned.
Righting himself, he looked around the room. It was yet another knotty pine paneled chamber. “What, is this going to be a theme of this trip?” he thought. “Have I headed back to my childhood instead of the Nuclear City of Tomorrow?”
Scott had to pee bad again so he went into the tiny bathroom/shower combo, unzipped, and let the stream flow before noting that he hadn’t need to lift up the toilet seat first. In fact, he didn’t have to take off that inch-wide paper strip that should have been wrapped around the whole seat deal. And now that he was looking down into it, there were ugly monster turds there in the bowl he was peeing into.
“Oh, shit!” he exclaimed ironically, wishing he could stop his stream and back away from the toilet. He turned his head until he finished, a grimace of disgust on his face. Without looking into the bowl, he slammed the lid down and jammed the flush handle down, turned to the the sink and washed and dried his hands thoroughly. Then washed them again, not really knowing why he did so.
After, he stood in the center of the room and took it in. There were grimy fingerprints around all the light switches. One bulb was out in the overhead light, casting a dim light around the room. The drapes were coming off their pins. One knot in the paneling had been pried out. The little desk and chair were beat to shit. And Scott’s thoughts kept going back to the remains floating in the toilet.
Scott went to the missing knot in the paneling. He looked closely. There was a message in it. It was printed in tiny lettering and read: DONT GET YORSELF STUK HERE. What the hell did that mean? Scott could think of a few meanings relevant to his own situation.
He wondered how he could go on from this. How was he even going to get to sleep? He should call Betti and tell her the situation. He even pulled the phone out of his pocket and went to the Recents in the phone app. But when he saw her name, the image of her and the girls putting their hopes in him popped out and he stopped short of redialing the number.
Conflicted. Oh, Classic. That’s where he was in his head and in the Universe just then. Scott sat on the bed among his stuff and stared at the black tube TV, his silhouette-reflected posture looking quite pathetic. And yeah, he felt pathetic. He wanted to go, he wanted to do what he said he was going to do. He wanted to help Betti. He wanted to do what he could to help Jeannie get to college. He wanted to sleep. He wanted to go tell Motel Man about the condition of the room, the gift in the bathroom. He wanted to go out and get in his familiar and formerly trusty vehicle and drive. Anywhere. He wanted to be on the beach with the sun shining on him and the cool ocean breeze stimulating his body to move and be active. He wanted to find succor in the embrace of Sienna.
Scott knew that he was at his worst when he was at rest, still, frozen in mind and body. He could not move and knew he should. Even his breathing had become shallow. He knew he should do something, make some decision either way. And still, he sat. In his head, his inner dialog began again.
“This trip was doomed from the start. Betti will understand, she’s a very understanding person. But is that why she got dumped on like this? Maybe I should give her the chance to call me on my shit - tell me to get my ass to bed and get started on the place tomorrow morning bright and early like I said I would. Yeah, but she’ll really say, ‘Scott, you’re tried. Come on back to our house and I’ll get this sorted somehow.’ But how the hell could I go back there like that?”
When Scott’s eyes focused back on his TV reflection, he realized he was still in his parka and boots, sweating. And he recognized that he had not moved a muscle in all that time.
Without any conscious thought, he moved off of the bed, grabbed up his keys, and walked out of the door, closing it and cutting off the light that streamed out in to the night.
Outside, he spied his Jeep. He thought to get in it and drive, but then appreciated the movement his body had made from the point inside to this spot where he was standing.
“Nope,” he said aloud, and looked up into the night sky, many stars visible in the blackness despite the proximity of the motel lighting and street lights. Then he turned his head to look out and down the road that ran the way he had come into town from down below the mesa. He began walking.