We’d been driving for hours – five at least,- with just the one stop in a bustling rest area where rich RV-ers accompanied their pooping pets to the desert bathroom and Indian traders sold their wares under the hot sun.The sun was beginning to disappear and the desert landscape had long since been transformed from the empty tundras of earlier in the day. The incoming night lay ahead, broken only by the headlights of our hire car. Squinting out the window conjured enchanted forests where firs stood in the milky black, only the snow under each tree holding light, a silver shadowy deathbed.
In time the ink breaks as a gas station comes into view. We drive straight past it – almost miss it but for a keen eye spotting the small blinking neon sign. The flickering of a wasted H barely visible next to its doomed capital brothers O S T E L.
We turn around on the deserted highway and pull in next to a pick-up truck. The block of rooms seem abandoned so we walk through the crisp night and into the gas station. An electronic bell as we enter. A Western cliché playng on the radio. An old soap from the 80’s showing on a small TV behind the counter. “We’re looking for the people who run the hostel?” “You’ve found him” came the drawl. “Uh… we have a booking”. He turns slowly to a calendar on the wall behind him, and looks for our booking. Slowly. Then he turns back to face us with cotton eyes. Slowly.
A tortoise in a plaid shirt and glasses.
An old man in a baseball cap, grey and bearded sits in a corner staring at the Twinkies. Grinning maniacally.
Then with a whir the music winds up again, the 80’s actress falls to the ground and Dismal Desmond slowly takes our cash and gives us a key. We walk back outside shivering with the blast of cold that envelopes us…..or do we tremble with trepidation? No one says anything but every one is thinking the same as we walk slowly along the block of rooms until we come to Room 13. Several feral cats scrounge around the building as we enter the room and someone tries the lightswitch. Nothing. In the dim light we see four rickety bunk beds with stained mattresses, an empty chest of drawers and demon shadows.
The bravest spokesperson from our party of three ventures back to the “office” in search of linens and light. And returns with Mr Dismal who proceeds to open every other room one by one, slowly. He walks away, not very fast, leaving us huddling together in the snow-laced night contemplating our fate. Someone tries the heater – it struggles. Could we really last a night here with no blankets? Perhaps we could snuggle. Perhaps we could find some alternative…outside a feline caterwauls and we all consider the unthinkable….
Moments later our survival plans are interrupted by the arrival of another man, a strange shadowy figure with an aura of authority, who appears to be Desmond’s boss. He ignores the greeting, neither speaking nor looking at us. Is this avoidance of eye contact merely because he lacks social graces, or is it really because he doesn’t like to get-to-know his prey? This man is not slow like Desmond, but his rough beard and gaunt contours belie a deeper handicap of the soul. We have not seen his eyes, but we suspect they too are cotton.
The Boss repeats Dismal’s inspection of the surrounding rooms… one by one by one. They’re all empty of blankets. And people. We huddle outside the room, watching the moths hurling themselves at the one working light on the empty path, a small pile of their dead comrades marking the ever-futile battles of nights past. The Boss concludes his search and disappears, only to return a moment later with a bulb which he screws into the only fixture, still without looking at us. Perhaps he thinks this will mollify us, that we too will be drawn to the light, and, like the moths, to our deaths?
The Boss leaves us alone on the path, wondering if he will ever return with blankets. Breath frosts the air, we clutch our insufficient jackets closer and contemplate – again – just how far a cat pelt would stretch. Finally, having seen neither hide nor hair of anyone for at least ten minutes, we retreat into the false warmth of the gas station. The chime over the door makes an eery ‘uh-oh’ as we enter. As Dismal Desmond drags his gaze, slowly, away from the grainy TV, an urge to stab ourselves with the “Desert State” novelty toothpicks adorning the counter overcomes us. Before anyone is self-maimed, we see The Boss outside in the cold, gesturing violently and communing with some unseen force in the dark. It is mutually decided without need of words that it is time to leave, but Dismal’s snail-pace leaves us cornered as The Boss enters, finally addressing us directly although eerily his eyes remain in shadow, and he assures us that blankets are coming….
The Boss is summoned back outside by the unseen force of darkness that controls him, and we see our opportunity to escape. Dismal finally has our money in hand, we grab it and run, breaking free of the cloying decay that eminates from this desert grave.
We screech off into the night, our last image through the rear-view mirror is of neon light – pulsating in the inky night the only illuminated letters, the H, the E, and the L.
(Based on a true story. Co-written by E, L, A).