Slappy watched Romeo drive off down the road in the piece-of-shit farmer pick-up truck that belonged to the motel. The dust from the road floated up into the air in the trucks wake and hung there like dirty cigarette smoke. Standing at the edge of the road by himself with a peeved expression, he looked every bit the bored teenage boy he was. He sighed heavily, jammed his hands in his pockets and turned back to the driveway where the three big mutts that also belonged to the motel stood watching him.
Slappy regarded them. "So, away he goes and it's up to us to hold down the fort, eh guys?"
The dogs abruptly sat down and began to pant, tongues lolling.
"Some gang I got here," he said, shaking his head and walking back up the driveway.
The motel courtyard was half shadowed from the late afternoon sun, the pool, still and glassy but for small clusters of dead leaves floating on the surface. He walked over to the edge at the deep end and stood looking down through the cool aqua water at the pale empty bottom.
"Think I'll have a swim," he said. His voice sounded loud and shrill, echoing around the empty courtyard weirdly.
Those leaves needed to be skimmed off. He didn't like the idea of a bunch of dead leaves sticking to him.
He headed back toward the rear of the courtyard where a utility room held cleaning supplies and tools to get the leaf skimmer.
Glancing around at the doors and windows of the motel, he had a brief sensation of unease. He'd never been alone at the motel before. Romeo had taken him along whenever he went to San Angelo for supplies, but he'd had to go into Ozona for some reason and said Slappy shouldn't be in any hurry to meet Sheriff Cobb.
He'd expected to be treated like a juvenile delinquent, but so far Romeo seemed to think he was only good for menial chores. Whenever Slappy asked when they were going to do something interesting like pull a gas station heist, Romeo would just stare at him in that, "You've got to be kidding," way he had. But he knew that Romeo just didn't trust him to behave yet.
"Ah, so what?" he said to himself in a much quieter voice, "what do I care if I never see Ozona?"
He looked back at the dogs, sacked out in the shade of the driveway next to the lobby door. They seemed far away, and the utility room seemed farther as he walked past all those windows, all those doors. Except for his room, number 7, right next to the lobby, the rooms were unocupied. The windows were closed, blinds drawn to keep the sun out.
The air was heavy and static like it had been on his first morning there when he'd woken to find that he'd brought along more than his suitcases and radio.
He'd come out of his room at dawn to find that the courtyard was still, but not quiet. The sound of wind moving through trees was everywhere, though the lone tree back in the corner was as peaceful as a photograph.
Confusion and a sense that he was dreaming with his eyes open had given way to heart pounding recognition as small familiar sounds he'd heard every day for most of his life came through clearly – the soft creaking squeak of leather straps rubbing against each other and the high, almost imperceptible oily whine of metal wheels rolling.
He'd turned around slowly and looked up the walkway. A low, boxy shape was moving toward him, the light glinting off of steel spokes as the wheels turned, wild black hair softly swaying around her face as she sat forward, leaning into the straps...there, and then gone.
That had been almost a week ago, and the memory of it felt more like a dream with each passing day.
The utility room was cool and dark, and despite their best efforts to clean it out, still smelled like mildewed laundry. He grabbed the skimmer and stepped back out into the walkway just in time to see a guy's foot disappear into one of the rooms down the row and hear a door slam.
He dropped the skimmer and hurried down to the room, never taking his eyes off the doorway. It was room number 9. He stared at the door, listening for movement inside. He could hear birds, those weird insects that made the humming sounds, but not anything to give away that a guy was inside room number 9.
He glanced over at the dogs and saw that they were still asleep in the driveway. There was no way the dogs would have let anybody get by them. He knew that. But he still felt obligated to make sure that room was empty.
He put his hand on the doorknob, remembering that Romeo kept them all locked. The doorknob turned easily and the door pushed open. He leaned in, his hand still holding onto the knob.
He saw the gun barrel pointed right at his forehead before he saw the grinning face of the man behind it. “That’s a good way to get your face blown off, kid,” the man said, and laughing, he pulled the trigger.
The explosion started in the gun. It always starts in the gun, but with the gun right in his face, he got to see it, the small flash of fire that sent the bullet hurtling out. The impact was immediate, but he experienced it in a series of stuttered images, like photos taken in rapid succession.
The bullet thunked against the wall of his skull. The sound was like being inside of a base drum just as it was struck, sound waves radiated outward, blowing out his eardrums.
His skull shattered inwards like busted glass as the bullet pushed through.
His thoughts and feelings and everything he knew or thought he knew, his memories, his desires, all awareness as the person, Salvatorre Allamonte, AKA Slappy, were dragged back through the meat of his brain, caught on the point of the bullet like fish on a hook.
The bullet exited the back of his skull, taking a good sized portion of pureed brain with it, and for a moment, he was flying, back and up and out over the walkway, light as a bird, wet as a fish, still here, I’m still here, I’m...
He hit the concrete walkway and found himself sitting on his ass outside room number 9. His heart was pounding so hard, his face was throbbing and his fingers were hot. His ears were filled with a high pitched ringing. He was breathing like a steam engine.
The door to room number 9 was halfway open, the slice of dim interior showing nothing.
He looked up and down the row of rooms, all those windows, all those doors, all closed and blank except for this open doorway, this broken mindway.
He stood up and turned his back on room number 9, though it set his teeth on edge with fear to do it, and walked back over to the deep end of the pool. He stripped off his clothes and dove into the water all the way down to the pale empty bottom. He touched the rough white bottom with both hands before he shot back up to the surface.
He swam laps back and forth, never minding the dead leaves until he couldn’t do it anymore, got out and laid on his stomach against the warm concrete. He was still panting, his heart still pounding, every muscle burning.
He wished he was back home with Oma, pushing her around in her wheelchair, hearing her beautiful laughter.
He could see the dogs lying in the driveway, just as they had been. Even though they weren’t right by him, it was comforting to know they were all laying on the same solid ground.