“A ghost, you say,” Luc said in an uninterested voice, “with a tree branch where an arm should be.” He wished the motel owner would just shut up and leave him alone with this lovely young woman. But the old man remained in the doorway of Luc’s sparsely decorated, wood-paneled room, droning on about the malicious phantom while his daughter, Penny, changed the bedding.
“Long before he haunted this patch of desert,” the motel owner said, “he was a decent young man. Name was Vince Renton. Worked as a mechanic. Then he went over to Vietnam and did some awful things to them Vietnamese civilians and lost his arm. He came back and moped around town with a crazy look in his eyes for some weeks, telling everyone he was misunderstood. Next, he shot his parents and younger brother. Dragged their bodies over to the caves we call Hell’s Mouth and propped them up on some rocks, like they were waiting for a goddamn bus.”
The motel owner shook his head, and Luc looked at Penny. She smiled at him as she kneeled to tuck sheets under the mattress. Luc admired her long, straw-colored hair and bare, slightly dirty feet. Her yellow cotton dress allowed a glimpse of her sun-kissed thighs.
The motel owner clapped his hands, startling Luc. “Hurry up, Penny,” the man barked. “We’ve made our European gentleman wait long enough.” He looked at Luc and said, “Sorry it took us until sundown to get your room cleaned. Penny’s been acting off all day. I thought she might be catching something.”
“It’s really OK,” Luc said, trying to attract Penny’s eye again. She bundled up the sheets in her arms and walked toward her father.
“Youth can go rotten out in these parts,” the motel owner said, looking at his daughter suspiciously. “Gotta watch them. I think that’s why Vince’s life ended in murder and suicide. Not enough for the young to do, so they get into moods or drugs or worse.”
“I see,” Luc said, eyeing Penny. Now with her back to her father, she smiled widely at him. The gap between her two front teeth was weirdly obscene.
“I don’t mean to be nosey,” the motel owner said, “but why the hell would a Frenchman want to be in the desert outside Moses Lake? This place has got to be the opposite of Paris.”
“I don’t live in France anymore,” Luc said. “I own a condo in Seattle. I was DJ’ing at a concert on the Columbia River. I decided to explore the area. I love Eastern Washington. The rock formations, the wind, the heat.”
“Hell’s got the same attractions,” the motel owner said with a snicker. Before shutting the door, he added, “Me, I’d rather climb the Eiffel Tower.”
Luc kept stepping outside his room as the night progressed. He thought he might spot Penny in the window of the dilapidated 1950s ranch house that sat across the dusty parking lot from the dark strip of motel rooms. He noticed a light go on in what appeared to be the kitchen window, but the occupant turned out to be the motel owner, who was lifting a bottle of milk to his lips.
“I brought you a slice of pie.”
Luc flinched at the sound of the voice. He regained composure when he saw Penny standing outside the room next to his with a plate in her hand. Moonlight made her skin a pale blue, as if she were some beautiful alien.
“I was hoping you’d come,” Luc said, motioning for her to follow him into his room.
“The pie’s mixed berry,” Penny said, nodding toward the plate that held the wedge of dessert, a fork, and a sharp knife.
“I love all berries,” Luc said. “Let me just get the light in here.” He was reaching for the switch when he felt something jab into the hand at his side.
“Ow!” he howled. He turned on the light to find the underside of his hand bleeding.
“I must have bumped into you with the knife,” Penny said, not sounding very apologetic. She pulled a rag out of her dress pocket and pressed it against his wound.
Luc grew excited by the heat of her fingers. “I feel better already,” he said. He reached for her other hand, but she stepped away, still holding the rag.
“You should go wash your cut now,” she said. “I’ll wait out here.”
After wrapping his hand in a towel, Luc smoothed his eyebrows and moustache in the scratched bathroom mirror. He added a little water to the palm of his uninjured hand and ran his fingers through his curly black hair.
“You can bed this one,” he whispered to his reflection, “even if you are 28 and she’s 18.” He pictured Penny on his mattress, her dress above her waist as he ran his moustache up her legs. The Seattle girls always liked that. But they’d always been too easy to seduce. They’d venture up to him in the middle of his DJ gigs, and after his Sexy Frenchman routine and a couple hours he’d have them in his condo naked and crying, “Oui! Oui!”
He appreciated how Penny seemed like a fiercer challenge. There was something wild about her, almost animal-like. She was a true American flower, which was just what he’d come overseas to pluck.
After leaving the bathroom, Luc froze in surprise. He saw Penny kneeling outside his room, wiping the bloodied rag on the doormat.
She glanced up at him with guilty eyes. “The rag was soaked,” she said. “I didn’t want blood dripping everywhere.” She stood and wadded the material in her fist. Her knuckles turned white.
“Won’t your dad care about the doormat?” Luc asked, bewildered by her behavior.
“We’re in the desert. The dust covers everything.” She said this as if it were obvious. “My dad’s probably looking for me. I need to go.”
“Wait,” Luc said, suddenly desperate to keep her with him. “I thought I might bring in some equipment from my car, show you what I can do. I’ll bet you’ve never had a date with a DJ,” he said with a wink.
“I have a boyfriend,” Penny said in a flat voice. “He does whatever I want.” The grave look in her eyes unsettled Luc.
“If you have a boyfriend,” he said, “then why are you here with me?”
Penny revealed that gap-toothed smile again. “Leave your door unlocked,” she said, “and maybe I’ll come back.”
Around 3 A.M., Luc closed his door and fell on his bed to finally sleep. He’d been sitting up on the mattress, waiting to see Penny’s curving silhouette framed by the doorway. Instead, he saw the moon sinking in the night sky.
He opened his eyes when he heard footsteps on the cement walkway outside his room. He pictured Penny’s approach, but then he remembered that she’d been barefoot. Whoever this was wore heavy shoes, maybe boots.
There was also a scraping sound, as if the person were holding a sharp object against the exterior wall of the motel.
The scraping ceased outside Luc’s room. Luc heard a rustling just beyond his door. He crept over to the window and lifted the curtain to peer outside. He saw a shadowy, masculine figure squatting near his door. The stranger looked as if he were sniffing the doormat.
“What the hell?” Luc whispered, his skin tingling from fear.
The door swung open and slammed against the wall. Luc was unable to discern the intruder’s features in the dark, but he could tell that the man had a caved-in face and what looked like a crooked branch for an arm.
Terrified, Luc tried to grab the bedside lamp as a weapon. But before he could complete the motion the figure rushed toward him and hit him in the face with the weird arm. Branching sticks at the end of the arm pinned Luc’s neck against the wall and hindered his breathing. He tried to pull the wood away from him. His efforts only opened the wound on his hand, and he felt blood trickling down his wrist just before he lost consciousness.
He woke again as the figure dragged him by the ankles across the motel parking lot. Despite the dark, Luc could see the opened door of his motel room. He spotted Penny emerging from the room with his suitcase in her hand. She continued along the walkway without a glance at him.
Luc was weeping by the time he reached the cave system. His T-shirt was torn and his back bleeding after his forced journey across the rocks and dry vegetation of the desert floor.
Strangely, in the midst of his panic, Luc kept remembering a morning from his youth in northern France. Despite the snow, his father had driven him to the cemetery to view the family crypt. Descending a spiral marble staircase with an electric lantern, they passed numerous tombs bearing the names and dates of lives lived. Luc detested the chill and the dark and the clutter of corpses.
Now, as his attacker lifted him into a seating position on a boulder and raised the wooden arm for a blow, Luc thought that this cave was much worse than his family tomb. For however many people were buried here and however many were to come, Luc would never have known any of them.
David Massengill lives in Seattle and enjoys the music of some French DJs. His short stories and works of flash fiction have appeared in various literary journals, including Word Riot, Tainted Tea, 3 A.M. Magazine, Flashes in the Dark, andMicroHorror. His Web site is www.davidmassengillfiction.com.