Please note: this story was provided by the author and published as is.
It’s 1967. Darla Jenkins was beautiful—too beautiful. Her long, dark curls framed a stunning, porcelain face. A real-life Snow White. A Snow White that fled her meager existence instead of an evil witch. Darla’s beauty was what landed her in trouble in the first place. Four days ago, Darla Jenkins left her husband of seven years. She always thought she was much prettier than the other housewives, housework did not suit her and her manicured nails, and she despised unruly children. When her husband left for work, she had packed everything she could in her carpetbag and loaded the rest of her most personable items in the trunk. Now, Darla was free. Hollywood was calling her name. She would never be caged again.
Darla sped down a highway in her pink convertible. She didn’t know how fast she was going and she didn’t care. Fields of wheat bled around her in a blur. As she drove, Darla twiddled the cigarette in her left hand and kept a white-knuckled grip on the steering wheel with her right. She had filled her trunk with the few belongings she cared about, one including her father’s record player. Darla’s mind wandered. She reminisced on childhood evenings spent with sweet ole’ Pa. How he would come home from work, disheveled, but happy. How her father would waltz with her in the living room, swishing Darla into the air, as classical records blasted on the record player. Darla reached under her sunglasses to wipe tears from her eyes, letting the bitter sweetness of good things lost swallow her whole. What would Pa think of her now?
The sun was setting. Darla noticed the tank teetered close to the big “L” for low. Darla pulled over to check the map she stole from the last drug store. I think I’m in Nebraska, she guessed. Nebraska is a long way from North Carolina, but still not close enough to California. Her heart beat faster, filled with anxiety and sudden dread.
The wind whistled through the wheat. Darla gazed out at the field. She had spent one too many days driving and sleeping in her car. She could not last another night of car life. There was a town—a faint dot, barely on the map—far down the road. She started the car up and drove in the direction of the town: Marpleton.
Darla’s car sputtered into the Marpleton gas station. The gas attendant came out of the shadows. Gray and sallow-eyed like a bloodhound, he asked in a high-pitched, throaty voice, “How much?” Darla handed him a few dollars, hoping he would see the state she was in and be willing to top-it-off, no charge. She smiled. The gas attendant would do nothing of the sort. He grunted, filled her car, and, without another grunt, scurried back into the shadows.
The town had one strip of street and buildings. On one side was the gas station, a bar, and diner and the other side had a grocery store and an eclectic thrift shop. All the other buildings were empty. Nothing else looked to be open—or in business, for that matter. Darla spotted a motel around the corner that spelled “MO—L” in neon lights, next to a sign that read “V-C-NCY”. Beggars can’t be choosers, but Darla believed that even beggars wouldn’t stoop to choosing this seedy motel.
Darla yawned. She needed a good night’s sleep, maybe two. Then she would have to keep driving. California was still states away and there was no way she was going to get there in one night.
Darla pulled into the motel. From a distance, she saw one fluorescent bulb above a dark figure. Darla shivered. She recalled how Ma used to yell, “Trust your gut and run!”. Well, Darla didn’t have many options. She had to shake her shivers off and forget about her gut. There was no turning back now.
Darla hoisted her carpetbag suitcase out of the trunk. She ignored the butterflies in her stomach and walked from her car, to the front door, to the front desk. The lobby was tiny, with mold folded into corners and crevices and reeking of sweat and smoke. There was a torn leather chair in the corner, next to a haphazard stack of old, yellowed newspapers and magazines. Darla looked at the desk clerk and gasped. Her heart skipped a beat. By the looks of him, the man behind the counter could’ve been the gas attendant’s brother or cousin, but that’s not what frightened her. There was a dead crow, cockeyed and open-mouthed, on top of his head. The desk clerk smiled to show sharp teeth that matched the color of the newspapers.
“Awww, look atchu pretty girl. Don’t le’ ole’ Reg scare you,” the man said, patting the dead crow on top of his head. “Shucks, I made him into a’hat. He ain’t gonna bite.” Darla could hear Ma’s voice again: run! Darla shook her head and mustered her courage. “I need a room,” she said.
“I reck’n,” he sniffed, his smile unwavering, “fur how long?”
“Two nights,” Darla whispered. Her courage faded as his smile widened. “Why, surrrre,” he said, “we’ve got a pool and any room of your choosing, cuz’ as you can see”—the man spread his arms out like the wings of an albatross—“we ain’t overbooked!” He laughed. Darla fidgeted with her carpetbag. She prayed he would just hand over the keys. As if reading her thoughts, the desk clerk reached into a drawer and pulled out a key with a crudely sketched “5” on the side. Darla reached for the key and the desk clerk pulled it back. She looked at him, wide-eyed. “This place may be cheap, but it ain’t free,” he said.
Darla grinned the best she could. That’s right, she forgot. She still had to pay. Darla paid the man and grabbed the key out of his hand. Darla drove her car closer to the room with the sideways “5”. She hurried into the room without looking back. She fumbled with the key and then—finally!—got the door to open. She closed the door and sighed. The room smelled musty. She turned on the light to see stained red carpet, ripped floral wallpaper, crooked blinds, and a single painting. When she closed her eyes, she expected silence, but all she could hear was dripping coming from the sink in the bathroom.
Drip, drip. Pit. Pat. Dribble. Splat.
To eliminate the smell, she tried to open the windows, but there was a knock. Darla noticed a dark shadow emerge behind the blinds. Her hand froze. She watched the figure move and she heard the knock again. Securing the latch, Darla opened the door the width of a toothpick.
It was the desk clerk. She was sure of it. Her mind raced.
“Do ya’ need any towels?” he asked.
Darla shook her head. “No, no towels… thanks.” She shut the door, only half regretting the lie. She peered through the window and saw him walk away. Then he stopped. His head turned. Darla saw teeth, shaped in a parabolic grin.
All breathing stopped.
A glint of eyes. A wave of a dark hand. She heard him yell a faint, “Do ya’ just hate to see me go, but love to watch me leave?”—he cackled—“G’night, sugah.” Darla closed the blinds and triple checked the lock. She grabbed a chair and leaned it against the doorknob. She saw this trick played on a TV sitcom before. Darla hoped her life played out like the end of her childhood sitcoms: happy, with a moral to the story. Or, at least, that the chair trick would work and keep the door shut from creeps. And cryptic desk clerks. She sat on the edge of the bed, lights flickering above her. No one will try to get in, she reassured herself.
A crash. Darla jumped, wildly scanning the room. Her eyes fell on the source of the noise: the painting. She heaved a sigh of relief. Darla picked up the painting and read the scrawled handwriting on the back:
“To my darling Clementine,
Sweet as wine,
To this day,
You’ll always will be mine.”
Darla hung the painting back up and soaked in the image. In the painting, she saw a young woman wrapped in a shawl, carrying a bundle of wheat, in the middle of a field. That field, Darla thought, looked like every boring wheat field she drove by today. The woman mesmerized Darla. The woman’s hair fell on her shoulders in dark, thick waves and framed her pale, thin body. The burgundy shawl was massive compared the woman’s stick frame. The shawl covered her head, dripped off her limbs. What most mesmerized Darla, though, wasn’t the similarity to the fields that matched half of middle-America or the gorgeous portrayal of beauty amidst hunger or even the audacity someone must have to put such a sad painting up here in the first place. No, no… Deep and forlorn, the artist depicted the depth of the women’s eyes with a realism that didn’t match the rest of the painting. Funny, Darla thought, it had an effect about it, like the Mona Lisa. The woman’s eyes seemed to follow where Darla moved. An optical illusion. Darla shivered.
Darla began to get ready for bed. She caught her reflection in the mirror. The creature she saw resembled a rabbit: white, petrified, and wild. Carpetbag clutched in hand, Darla fished for her toothbrush. She was almost out of toothpaste. As she brushed her teeth, Darla felt the wetness form at the corners of her eyes. Maybe there’s more cash at the bottom of the bag, she thought, a false promise to herself that she knew would never be true. Darla splashed cold water on her face.
When she looked up, Darla jumped and turned around. What was that? she thought. A noise. She heard a noise. Out of intuition, Darla snatched the plunger and crept around the room, desperately wanting to be wrong. She peeked under the covers, peered into the closet, glanced around the room and came up with nothing. The chair hadn’t moved from its spot. She let out a sigh. Darla made a start to complete her bathroom ritual, only to notice that the painting was crooked. That’s strange, she thought, but, no matter. Darla straightened out the painting and took a step back. Darla decided she didn’t like it. She didn’t like how the woman in the painting made her feel: sad, alone, and afraid. Would Darla’s eyes ever have that same emptiness? One could get lost in the woman’s eyes—a dreadful, sunken abyss. The painting woman’s eyes told a story about starvation, struggle, and depravity in humanity. These were all topics Darla refused to contemplate.
Darla finished getting ready for bed in the bathroom. She rubbed her eyes with the palms of her hands and yawned. She needed a full nights rest. Exhausted, Darla could not figure out how to stop the faucet from dripping. She attempted to wrap a small, stiff towel over the faucet head, but the water dripped through the tattered cloth.
Darla came back out and stiffened. The painting. It was crooked again. “What the hell…?” Darla murmured. She felt it. Something in her gut told her to leave. Darla ignored the feeling and went back to straighten the painting. “No wonder,” she whispered. The nail the painting sat on was lopsided. Without a hammer, Darla couldn’t fix it. She’d just have to straighten it the best she could and let it be. As she straightened the painting with stubborn futility, Darla was overwhelmed with that that feeling again. Blinking, Darla rubbed her eyes and then blinked again. Did the painting jus…blink? Darla wondered. Or did the wheat move?
Darla told herself that’s crazy. She must be reasonable. North Carolina was far away from Marpleton, Nebraska. There had been too many nights of car-sleeping and stealing drugstore purchases when cash was slim. No wonder she was jumpy and seeing things—it was a wonder she hadn’t hallucinated sooner!
The bed didn’t look like much, so Darla made a point to place herself between the comforter and on top of the sheet. Who knew what ghastly things lay underneath the covers? As she lay down, Darla reassured herself that nothing lurked in the shadows of her bedroom, ready to devour her with yellowed fangs and razor-sharp claws. Those monsters didn’t exist. Those people didn’t exist. Or, at least, I hope not…the thought crossed her before she could catch it. “Stop,” Darla chastised herself. “You, Darla Jenkins, are not a little girl anymore.” She rubbed her eyes again. Sleep. She needed sleep. Days without a decent bed—if you could call this one decent. Darla moved her hands up and down her arms as if to knock off invisible, creepy, crawly cockroaches. She tried to shake off the gut feeling. That gut reaction to get back in the car, let the nasty man keep her money, and drive away.
Drip, drip. Pit. Pat. Dribble. Splat. The faucet continued to drip.
Darla tossed and turned. Was it her imagination, or did the drips actually sound like they were getting louder? She looked at the time. The clock face read 1:13 A.M. Visions of shadowy predators and skeletal desk clerks, prowling in her head.
Darla pulled the blanket over her head and refused to open her eyes. She was overwhelmed, prickled by the sensation that she was not alone. She thought to herself, If I keep my eyes closed, my imagination will go away. I will stop hearing things. I will be okay. Everything will be okay. I will be in California, in the sunshine, at the beach, and everything… Creak.
The softest, faintest creak. The old walls? Or was that the door? Was someone jiggling the door handle? No, she scolded herself, just my imagination.
Drip, drip. Pit. Pat. Dribble. Splat.
Another one. Darla laid still. She swore her heart would beat right out of her chest. There it was again. A soft sound. Under the drips, the creaks, the groans of a motel on the verge of collapse, she could hear footsteps on the carpet.
Still. Very still. I’m dreaming, everything will be okay, everything will be o… Why did she get the feeling that someone was standing over her? The hairs on her neck stood up and her body froze. How could that be? There was no one, nothing…
Darla suddenly felt the mattress tilt, bedsprings awakened. Somebody was on the bed. Laying on her side, Darla opened her eyes. Stop, it’s a dream, it’s okay, I probably moved in my sleep, it could be a broken spring, I… The mattress moved, softer, something moving to her, sneaking up behind her. Darla could hear breathing. She could feel the tickle of breath on her neck.
Then everything froze. Even the faucet stopped dripping.
“I saw how you looked at me,” came a voice.
Darla sat up to look at the stranger in her bed, wide-eyed and wild, ready for a fight. Darla opened her mouth to scream, but it was a soundless noise.
Silence, followed by the return of the faucet…
Drip, drip. Pit. Pat. Dribble. Splat.
Motel owner Weedle “Weedy” Smith opened up the motel’s front lobby at 6:30 A.M. He checked out two of the four tenants he booked the day before by 11 A.M., one of them being that cute, little tart from Room 5. The girl dropped the key off at 8 AM and insisted she had to leave immediately. “Well, shoot, sugah, I thought you said you was gonna’ be here two nights?” Weedy asked.
The girl grinned. “Oh, thank you,” she said, “but I have a long drive ahead. Keep the change!”
Weedy squinted. Something didn’t seem right, he thought. Something about the girl didn’t look right. Maybe it was because last the night the girl was wearing sunglasses. No matter. He had also been high as a kite last night. Ole’ Weedy wasn’t going to second guess extra cash in his pocket.
“Well, good luck to ya’, sugah!”
The girl thanked Weedy. She pulled her shawl tighter around her thin shoulders as she ran out to her car, her dark hair blowing in the wind.
After two hours of waiting for another hopeless, desperate customer, Weedy decided he needed to clean the two rooms that were vacated. Weedy made his way to Room 5. While he vacuumed, Weedy felt uneasy. At one point, Weedy stood in the middle of the room and shivered. He had a gut feeling. Weedy quickened his pace and finished cleaning the room as fast as he could. He couldn’t shake the sense that he was being watched.
In the Room 5 painting stood a beautiful woman in the middle of a wheat field. She had porcelain skin, with long, dark, curly hair, holding a carpetbag. The woman’s wild eyes followed Weedy out the door.
The back of the painting now read:
“To my Darla dear,
Angel from heaven,
Now you’re mine,
To the end of time.”