Ahoy there and welcome to Part Two of Chokeville. Some chapters were written 20 years ago, this one was written yesterday. Fresh out the oven! Didn’t even check to see if it was done cooking! Enjoy.
— 16 —
Batya Hull, thoroughly thrashed and exhausted in a way she wishes wasn’t so familiar, unlocks the knob of the motel room she’s called home for the past couple weeks. Her pants are at her ankles before she even gets the door shut. She doesn’t remember unzipping them, it’s like they just knew their services were no longer required.
(How to even describe the bouquet in this room. A hairy armpit slathered in old chicken grease? With a soupçon of bleach?)
She hops over to the bed and collapses face down. The springs squeal and jab into her chest and she doesn’t care. This juvie-quality bed is now her truest and dearest friend.
She has a good cry for about five seconds. That’s usually all the time she needs. Enough to get the feeling out of her body and into the light and the air.
She’s about to pass out when she notices something on the particle board nightstand. There, propped up against the shadeless lamp, is a business card. It looks thick, expensive. Embossed upon it is a logo of a hand, fingers outstretched except the pinkie, which is curled down. Written next to this, in friendly cursive, is: Hi there! With a little heart instead of a dot over the i.
Every cell in her body feels like it’s about to puke. She scans the room as best she can from her position, doesn’t see anything unusual. Now for the blind spots.
She hurtles off the mattress and flips the bed end over end. (This looks impressive but the cheap frame weighs nothing.) No one hiding under there. Then she vaults into the bathroom, bellowing. It’s empty. She shrieks and rips the shower curtain aside. No assailant, just the most dismal bar of soap of all time.
Head and teeth aching, she goes back out and picks up the card. No other message aside from the implied one: We know where you live.
She probably shouldn’t feel like her personal space has been violated when that space is a motel room that was basically born violated, but here we are.
Bat’s never been good at keeping a bug-out bag. That’s her sister’s specialty. Mina loves nothing better than assembling a bag and then endlessly fine-tuning its contents until everything is perfect. Bat, on other hand, is now frantically peeling the case from one of the eerily moist pillows and filling it with whatever she can find in under ten seconds: a small transistor radio, toothpaste but not her toothbrush for some reason, some shirts but not any underwear, a plush donkey doll named Kevin Sanders that she’s had her whole life.
She stops by the front desk on her way out. The clerk looks up from a magazine called Let’s Fondue! and gives her a genial smile. He’s wearing a bulletproof vest and sitting behind the remains of a not-bulletproof window that got shot out months ago.
“Someone drop by Room 14?” Bat asks.
“Someone sure did,” the clerk says.
“You tell them anything about me?”
“That is not our policy here at the Starshine Inn.”
“Just the one.”
“Also not our policy,” the clerk says. “But between you and me, I’d classify the gentleman as, oh…quite unsettling.”
“Thanks,” Bat says, hoisting the pillow case over her shoulder. “I’m checking out forever.”
“Sorry to see you go. Shall we settle up? I believe you still owe us for…” He lifts the cover of a ledger on his desk, glances at it for a millisecond. “Your entire stay here.”
“Yeah I’ll get my checkbook.” She says this in a way that makes the clerk sort of shrivel up into his vest, clearly not interested in Bat-style trouble at this hour.
She stumbles out into the fog-choked streets, trying to decide what to do. She can’t decide what to do, so she hurries toward the first thing she sees: the all-night streetcar known as the Ugly Sunrise.
(Like all Fort Hook public transportation, this car was decorated years ago with a godawful nature painting by local “artist” Hal Overbeck, brother-in-law of the transit commissioner. Everyone’s forgotten the official letters/numbers and now just refers to them by nicknames based on these landscapes: Ugly Sunrise, Monkey Fish, Shitty Meadow, Moose Maybe, Greenish Smear, et al.)
Bat uses an old Hull Family hand maneuver (adapted from an old pickpocketing trick) to divert the conductor’s attention away from herself and onto some other lowlife, then slips into a seat without a ticket. She tries to control her breathing. She tries to vanish. Her throat is raw. Her hair is vibrating.
The Hand’s thug tracked her down. And he is of the unsettling variety. She wonders if she knows him.
The good-ish news is she still has some time, otherwise the thug would’ve done more than leave a note. But she needs that payday now. Mina better be right about the moneymaking potential of Hawthorne Grain.
Funny thing is, the whole reason she got that terrible loan from the Hand was to get away from situations like this. To build something good, somewhere safe. A life where she wouldn’t always have this knot in her gut.
The streetcar dings and starts clacking along the track. Batya huddles down into her seat, watches the blur of street lamps roll past the window. As usual, she doesn’t know what time it is. So late that it’s early, probably.
She finds her little sewing kit in an obscure coat pocket and starts to stitch up one of the open wounds between her knuckles. She falls asleep with the needle still woven through her skin.
This has been Chapter 16 of Chokeville, a novel by Josh Fireland.
Next up: We’re the Archivists