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IT WAS STILL DARK WHEN Letty pulled into the parking lot. The car bumped slowly over the rutted oyster-shell pavement and she turned around to check on Maya, grateful that the child was finally sleeping. Her head slumped against the side of the car seat, her curls dampened with sweat, her rosebud lips pursed as she softly snored, and Ellie, her ever-present toy stuffed elephant, was clutched tightly to her chest.
A large hand-painted sign was posted at the entrance to the motel lot: GUEST PARKING ONLY IN ASSIGNED SPACES. TRESPASSERS’ CARS WILL BE TOWED. THIS MEANS YOU.
Letty yawned. Her eyes burned and her shoulders and arms were cramped. She ignored the sign and backed the silver Kia into a space at the far end of the lot, which was near capacity, with two dozen or so cars parked in spaces marked off with numbered wooden signs, so that she’d be able to spot anyone approaching her car. The yellowing fronds of a huge palm tree draped over the spot, which was next to a dumpster. Surely nobody would mind a crappy little Kia tucked away in a parking slot nobody else wanted. Right?
She turned off the engine, locked the car doors, and slid her seat back as far as it would go. She sighed wearily and her eyelids fluttered as the motel sign’s neon-blue waves, waving green palms, and pink lettering flashed on and off, on and off. THE MURMURING SURF. FREE WI-FI. POOL. COLOR TV. She’d paused, before pulling into the lot, after spotting the yellow NO VACANCY notice, but maybe, she thought, there really was a room. Maybe someone would be checking out this morning, after the sun rose.
Letty picked up the carefully folded article she’d placed on the passenger seat. It was a faded page torn from a back issue of Southern Living magazine. “Florida’s Hidden Gems: Four Family Motels You’ll Want to Discover.” There was a photo of the Murmuring Surf at the bottom of the page, which had been circled with a black Sharpie pen, but from the looks of the place now, the photo had been taken some time ago.
Sunrise was probably half an hour away, with just the faintest promise of pink streaks in the midnight-blue sky, but she could make out a series of little concrete-block units arranged in an asymmetrical horseshoe shape. In the center of the horseshoe was a glowing aqua kidney-shaped swimming pool, shaded with tall palm trees and ringed with lounge chairs and tables. No lights shone in any of the windows, but at the curve of the horseshoe, a two-story unit, double the size of the others, had a small neon OFFICE sign posted in a window, and there was a lit-up Coke machine near the door.
She slid her window down a few inches and sniffed, inhaling the cool, salt-scented breeze and listening to the gentle wash of waves from somewhere very nearby. God, what she wouldn’t give for a moonlit walk on the beach, just a moment to sink her toes into the sand and feel the warm tickle of water lapping at her ankles, washing away the terror and trauma of the past thirty-six hours.
Maya stirred, mumbling something in her sleep, bringing an abrupt end to Letty’s daydream.
Her face softened as she regarded the little girl, her face so calm and untroubled in sleep. What had she seen? What would she remember? “Poor little chickadee,” she whispered, unconsciously using the endearment her grandmother always used when referring to her and her younger sister.
During the long drive from New York, Maya had cried for hours, at first racking sobs, which finally subsided into whimpers and sniffles. She’d refused to eat anything, sweeping away her favorite (and usually forbidden) chicken nuggets during a raging tantrum in a roadside fast-food restaurant in West Virginia, screaming “I want my MOMMY!” so loudly that a panicky Letty had hustled her out of the place so fast that she’d left behind her own dinner. Hours later she’d pulled into the drive-through line of another fast-food joint, bribing Maya with a chocolate milkshake, which she’d greedily sucked down—and then barfed up half an hour later, which meant yet another gas station pit stop.
She picked up her cell phone. Six text messages, all of which she deleted. The last two texts were from Zoey.
WHERE R U?
OMG! CALL ME! R U OK?
She hesitated. Zoey had been her first real friend in the city. She had to trust somebody, didn’t she? No, she decided, shaking her head. Nobody could be trusted. Not after everything that had happened. The less Zoey knew, the better off they’d all be.
Her eyelids fluttered again, and she descended into a black, dreamless sleep.
* * *
She was awakened by a sharp metallic rapping on her car window. “Ma’am? Hey, ma’am? Wake up!”
“Huh?” The sun was shining in through the windshield.
Maya began whimpering. “Letty? I’m hungry.”
“You can’t sleep here, ma’am.” It was a man’s voice. He was peering at her through the driver’s-side window. He was wearing aviator sunglasses, and some kind of dark blue shirt with a badge pinned to the breast pocket.
Despite the heat inside the car, a cold shiver ran down her back. A cop!
She shook her head, trying to dispel the cobwebs. “Huh? I wasn’t sleeping.”
“So what, you were passed out drunk? With a kid in the car?” The sunglasses obscured his eyes, but he was youngish. Late thirties, very tan, very judgey.
“Letty?” Maya again, her voice pleading. “I need to go pee-pee.”
She ignored the cop and turned to her niece. “Okay, baby. We’re gonna go inside the motel now, and find you a bathroom. Can you wait just a minute?”
She turned to the cop, trying to tamp down her fear and annoyance. “Look. I’m totally sober, just really tired. I’ve been driving all night, and I pulled in here about an hour ago. I was waiting for the motel to open, so I could get us a room. Now, can you please go away, so I can take my little girl to the bathroom?”
“You didn’t see the no-vacancy sign?” He pointed at it.
“I figured somebody would probably check out this morning.”
She opened the car door and swung her legs out, but he was blocking her way. “There aren’t any vacancies,” he said. “They’re full.”
“If you don’t mind, I’ll just go inside and speak to the manager myself,” Letty said. “Besides, I really need to find my child a bathroom. Okay?”
“There’s a Citgo down the street,” he said, pointing.
“Would you let your kid use the bathroom there? The parking lot is filthy.”
Maya was wriggling, trying to unfasten her seat belt. “I gotta goooo,” she wailed.
Letty opened her door all the way and got out, sliding past the cop. She opened the back door, extricated Maya from the car seat, balanced her on one hip, and grabbed her purse and phone.
“Excuse me,” she said, not bothering to turn around, race-walking toward the motel office. It wasn’t just Maya who needed a bathroom now.
She glanced backward just as she reached the door. The cop was standing by the Kia, hands on his hips, watching.
Letty yanked the plate-glass door open and an unseen electronic bell dinged. There was a front counter, with a blond fiftyish-looking woman standing behind it, talking into the phone. She looked up and frowned.
“Are you the owner of that Kia out there?” the woman asked. “I’m just getting ready to call for a tow truck.”
“Bathroom,” Letty said tersely. “Please? My little girl…”
“Pee-pee,” Maya wailed, right on cue. The kid’s timing was flawless. Like her mother’s, Letty thought ruefully.
The woman paused, then shrugged and pointed to a narrow hallway. “Right there. But it’s for motel guests only.”
“Fine,” Letty said, hurrying toward the bathroom door.
* * *
She took her time in the bathroom, first washing Maya’s tearstained face and hands, finger-combing the damp curls, then doing her best to try to make herself look, as Mimi would have said, “respectable.”
Letty sat Maya on the closed toilet seat. She washed her own hands, then splashed water on her face and neck before gathering her straight brown hair into a ponytail. She fished lipstick from her purse, which was bulging with all the last-minute items she’d tossed in before fleeing the city.
She closed her eyes and tried to choke back the suffocating sense of panic she’d been seized with at the sight of that cop in the parking lot. Common sense told her she should back the Kia out of here and ride on down the road.
That magazine article. There was something about this place that meant something to Tanya. Her sister was not particularly sentimental. She was not a saver of magazine articles. And yet, she had saved that article about this particular place. Why?
Breathe, Letty, she told herself. Inhale. Exhale.
When she opened her eyes again, the face that stared back from the bathroom mirror was pale and gaunt. Her hazel eyes were bloodshot, ringed with dark circles. She glanced down at the blue-and-white-striped T-shirt she’d grabbed from Tanya’s closet, after she’d realized her own white blouse bore a blood smear on the cuff.
“You look like you were rode hard and put up wet,” she muttered, unconsciously slipping into Mimi’s West Virginia twang. For the first time she noticed the price tag fluttering from beneath the sleeve of the shirt. She plucked it from the fabric. The designer brand was one she didn’t recognize, but the price took her breath away. Tanya had paid 325 dollars for this simple boat-necked blue-and-white-striped knit shirt, which she’d never even worn, and probably didn’t remember having bought. The walk-in closet in her sister’s town house was crammed with expensive clothes like this, many never worn.
Tears stung her eyes as she ripped the tag in half and stuffed it in her pocket.
“Letty?” Maya’s bright blue eyes studied her. “You crying?”
“No, baby,” Letty said, leaning down and kissing the child’s forehead. “I’m fine. We’re both gonna be fine. Let’s go talk to the nice lady about a room, okay?”
The nice lady was standing right outside the bathroom door, arms folded across her chest. The cop from the parking lot was standing next to her.
“Hi,” Letty said, forcing a weary smile. “Thanks so much for letting us use the bathroom. It was kind of an emergency.”
“You’re welcome,” the woman said. She wore a pink polo shirt tucked into high-waisted mom jeans. A name badge pinned to her collar said MURMURING SURF. MANAGER, AVA DECURTIS. Her ash-blond hair was worn in a short, bad perm. She nodded at the cop. “Joe tells me you said you’re looking for a room.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Letty said, deliberately laying on the Southern accent she’d worked so hard for so long to erase. “We don’t need anything fancy, just a clean place to sleep.”
“I’m sorry, but like the sign outside says, we’re full up.”
“I told her that,” Joe said. He’d removed his sunglasses, and if he weren’t busy being such a prick, Letty thought, he could actually be considered semi-hot.
“Yes,” Letty agreed. “He did tell me that. But I was hoping maybe somebody would be checking out this morning. We drove all night, and I haven’t slept in hours and hours. Are you sure you don’t have anything? I mean, at all?”
“I’m really sorry, hon, but if you’d called ahead, I could have told you we’re booked solid. It’s still high season, you know.”
“Oh.” Letty’s shoulders sagged and she felt like she’d been kicked in the gut.
“There’s probably rooms back up the road by the interstate,” Ava offered. “I could call Mark over at the Econo Lodge.”
Letty shook her head. “I really had my heart set on this place. I’ve heard so much about it, and I promised Maya we’d be at the beach.”
“It’s that doggone Southern Living article,” Ava said. “Forgotten motel, my ass. It’s been five years, and I’m still turning folks away.”
Joe the cop stared at her. “You’re not gonna find anything on the beach this time of year,” he said. “It’s March, and it’s Florida.”
“I realize that,” Letty said, fighting against the urge to kick him in the nuts. She sighed heavily. “I just … well, this place has some very special memories for my family.”
Once again, she’d slid into another persona. Was this the failed actress speaking now?
“Is that right?” Ava asked. “I’ve owned the Surf since the eighties. Maybe I know your family?”
“My mimi and granddaddy honeymooned here, but I guess maybe that would’ve been back in the sixties.” The lie was seamless. “Mimi used to tell us stories about swimming in the ocean … and eating shrimp at the seafood place down the street…”
“It’s the Gulf of Mexico,” Joe cut in. “And we still don’t have any rooms available.”
“Joe!” Ava said sternly. “Don’t be rude.” She knelt down and looked at Maya. “This sweet baby needs to be on the beach, don’t you, sweetheart?”
Maya batted her extraordinarily long, spiky dark lashes. She really had gotten all the very best DNA from the gene pool, Letty thought. “I wanna go swimmin’.”
“What’s your name, sweetheart?”
“Maya Abigail. And I am four years old, and I go to big-girl school.”
The manager was instantly besotted, Letty saw. Maya had that effect on people. Like her mother.
“They have a pool at the Econo Lodge,” Joe pointed out.
Ava stood up and looked around the motel lobby with a sigh. “Maybe the old storage unit?”
Letty looked from Ava to Joe. “She’s your mom?”
“Guilty,” Ava said, giving her son a warning glance. “Look, we haven’t rented it out in years, because it’s the only efficiency unit in the place, and it’s tiny, but there’s nothing magical in there. Just a bunch of old broken lounge chairs and faded bedspreads and random junk I’ve been meaning to get rid of.…”
“As long as there’s a bed and a bathroom, I’m fine with small. I’m used to small,” Letty said, thinking of all the roach motel rooms she’d rented back in New York. She sounded desperate, but that was because she really was desperate.
“And who’s gonna haul away all that crap in there?” Joe demanded.
“I will,” Letty said.
“In that piece-of-shit Kia?”
Letty really, really wanted to kick him in the nuts. “I saw a dumpster in your parking lot.”
“That’s true,” Ava said. She glanced at her son, and then down at Maya, with her bedraggled stuffed toy elephant.
“Tell you what. If you want to clear it out, and drag all that stuff to the dumpster, you got a deal. I know there’s a bed in there, but I can’t vouch for what kind of shape the mattress is in. The bathroom is nasty, but the last I knew it worked. And there’s a sort of kitchenette. You probably don’t need more than that.”
“I don’t,” Letty said. “That’s enough for us.”
“I can’t spare a housekeeper to help you,” Ava warned.
Letty nodded and thought about the wad of cash she’d stuffed under the front seat of the Kia. She could already feel it shrinking. “If I empty it out and clean it up, what would the weekly rate be?”
“No housekeeping?” Ava asked.
“No, ma’am,” Letty said, laying it on thick. “My little girl and I just need a place to stay, at the beach. I’m used to working hard, and cleaning up after myself.”
“For how long?” Joe asked.
“Not sure,” Letty said. “Can we figure it out as we go along?”
Ava looked at her son, who just shrugged and looked away.
“Fine with me,” Ava decided. “How’s three hundred a week?”
“If I paid in cash instead of a credit card, could you do a little better?”
Ava shrugged. “I guess I could knock off ten bucks. One thing, though. You can’t tell any of my regulars what you’re paying. I don’t need a riot up in here.”
“You got a deal,” Letty said, sticking out her hand. “I’m Letty, by the way. And I promise, you won’t regret this.”
Ava grasped Letty’s hand in both of hers and shook. “I’ll get the key. You can use the wheelbarrow that’s back behind the pool pump house.”
“I want to go on the record here and say I’m against this,” Joe said, shaking his head in disgust.
“Okay, noted,” Ava said. She held out her arms to Maya, who normally didn’t take to strangers, but immediately allowed herself to be picked up. “Precious baby,” Ava cooed, running her fingers through Maya’s curls. “I can’t remember when was the last time we had a little one around here.”
“Wait until the Feldmans find out you’ve got a kid staying here,” Joe said. “They’ll shit a brick.”
Ava stared at her son. “Doesn’t your shift start soon?”
Copyright © 2021 by Mary Kay Andrews