They pulled into the hotel parking lot a little after five. Junie had three bags full of clothes for three nights, and her stuffed rabbit Omar stuffed into the pocket of her pink and white sweatshirt. His head hung out the side, his ears flapping when she took a step.
“Are you hungry?” Theresa asked Junie as they crunched across gravel to the lobby. Junie nodded. She was very hungry.
The lobby was small and empty. A lopsided Christmas tree stood in front of the window, the star hitting the top of the sill and barely holding itself upright. There were no presents underneath. Junie pretended Omar was a monkey and pushed him onto a bottom branch. The tree tilted precariously.
“Junie!” Theresa grabbed her arm and hauled her to the counter to stand, pouting, while her mother filled out papers and signed her name. The woman behind the tall counter leaned over to see Junie.
“Hey there, sweet cheeks,” she said, smiling hard, her cheeks became shiny and pink. “What’s your name?”
Theresa winced. “Junie,” said Junie. “I’m six.” She held up her fingers like her Auntie Tammy had taught her, fingers spread like a high five and one thumb. Omar fell onto the muddy carpet.
“Are you two visiting L.A.?” The woman asked, turning her attention to Theresa. Her voice was high and grating. “Going to Disneyland?” Theresa glared, but Junie didn’t notice. She was wiping mud off Omar’s smeared ears onto the sleeves of her sweatshirt.
“Getting the house painted,” Theresa said briskly, tucking her credit card back into her wallet. “We’ll just be here a few days.”
“Have a good time,” the woman said, still smiling. She was still smiling after the glass door swung shut.
Theresa and Junie walked across the street to Carl’s Jr.
“Milkshake,” said Junie, before Theresa could even ask her what she wanted. She smelled hamburgers, and hamburgers meant milkshakes. Every time. Theresa opened her mouth to refuse, but Junie was already bouncing over to a table behind a row of potted plastic plants. “Strawberry!” She yelled across the restaurant, causing several other diners to look up and smile. Theresa rolled her eyes and ordered two hamburgers, one large side of fries, a strawberry milkshake and a diet coke. She made a silent promise to not eat more than half of the french fries and to make sure Junie ate her hamburger before she sucked up the shake. The ketchup dispenser was out of order, so Theresa grabbed a handful of ketchup packets and dropped them on the plastic tray before she carried it over to the table.
Omar was sitting up in the seat next to Junie. “Omar is hungry too,” said Junie, opening a ketchup packet and spreading a little across Omar’s lips.
“Don’t do that, please,” said Theresa, exasperated. She was hungry too, and cranky after spending most of the day arguing with the painters. She was nervous when she thought about having them in the house without her careful supervision and constant reminders to please wipe their feet before staining the new carpet with mud or please don’t smoke in the house and please turn the radio down my daughter is sleeping. The house would probably be some hideous shade of lavender by the time they returned.
Junie took small bites all around the edge of her hamburger before taking an enormous chomp out of the middle. A strand of hair got caught in her mouth, and streaks of mustard remained after she tugged it out while chewing. Theresa wiped at it with a napkin, but Junie screamed and pulled away.
“Don’t pull!” she said loudly, spraying chunks of soggy bread and pickle juice all over the table.
Theresa sighed and took quick bites of her hamburger. It was gone in four bites, and she was still hungry. She mindlessly ate fries and stared out the window contemplatively while Junie chatted happily to the lipstick-ed Omar. “That’s right,” Theresa heard her say. “And our room will be blue, like the ocean. Like the sky.” Theresa wondered if they’d have time to go to the beach before heading back to the house around noon. She wanted to be there before they moved on from the kitchen to the dining room, but she knew Junie loved the beach. And it felt like they never had time to go anymore, since Theresa started working double shifts at the hospital and Junie had started school. She thought wistfully of mornings from last year, how they’d drink hot chocolate and color together on the floor of the old apartment before Junie had to go to afternoon kindergarten and Theresa went to work.
“You’re growing up,” she said to Junie across the sticky plastic tabletop. Junie looked up from her conversation with Omar and stared at Theresa blankly.
“You too,” she said finally, hoping it was the right answer. Theresa laughed a little bit and then looked down, surprised as her fingers met the bottom of the empty french fry carton. “Dammit, I ate them all again.”
“Are you going to get fat?” Junie asked, looking concerned.
“Probably,” said Theresa, sweeping the empty papers and boxes and flat ketchup packets together. She dunked them through the swinging flap of the trash can as Junie hopped Omar from table to table. They walked back to the hotel in silence, Junie’s greasy hand reaching up for Theresa’s.
“Do you want to swim?” Theresa asked Junie as soon as they unlocked the door to their room. It smelled like lemon cleanser and anonymity. Junie shook her head vigorously.
“Omar doesn’t like the water,” she said. “He’s allergic.”
“Oh,” said Theresa. She knew Junie hated to swim, hated the water, but she’d packed her Little Mermaid swimsuit just in case. “Okay.”
“We want to watch TV!” said Junie, bouncing on the smooth bedspread.
“Take your shoes off,” Theresa said sharply. Junie stopped bouncing.
“Can we watch TV?” Theresa nodded. She opened the door to the bathroom and turned on the tap in the bath. If they weren’t going swimming, Theresa wanted to at least soak in some warm water. Unlike her daughter, she loved the feeling of water swishing between her legs and around her shoulders, holding her up silently while she let all her muscles relax. The hotel tub was clean and there were fluffy towels that someone else would wash later. Theresa let the tub fill while she supervised Junie and Omar on choosing a program, then undressed, leaving the door open so she could hear the muffled sound of Cartoon Network through the echoes of the bathroom. She stepped into the tub, inhaling as scalding water swirled around her ankle and up her calf. Bracing herself against the green-tiled wall, she slid all the way down and let the hot water lick her skin.
She’d always loved hotels. When she was younger, she and her mother would accompany her father once a year to Dallas, Texas, for an annual business conference. While her mother loved dragging little Theresa to discount shopping malls and musty history museums filled with old pistols and dusty shards of pottery, Theresa had always loved the trip for the hotel. They always stayed in the same Holiday Inn by the airport. Theresa swam in the pool every day. There were scrambled eggs for breakfast and once, when her father had a dinner meeting, her mother had ordered cheeseburgers and diet cokes that were delivered right to their room. Hotels meant rules could be broken, messes could be made, and the TV could stay on.
Theresa stepped out of the quickly-cooling bath water and pulled on a ratty sweatshirt and flannel pants. It wasn’t even seven o’clock, but Theresa had no plans for the evening besides watching cartoons until her eyes watered and then coaxing Junie to sleep so she could call Mark. Her stomach lit up at the imminent prospect, and she just hoped Junie would fall asleep. She’d been having trouble with nightmares lately.
“Can we get cookies?” Junie had also taken off her clothes, but she had yet to replace them with pajamas. They lay in a neat heap on top of the bed, Omar resting on top, his glassy eyes reflecting the bright colors of the television. “Please?”
Theresa shook her head. “We had milkshakes, remember?”
Junie pouted. “You didn’t! And neither did Omar! He wants cookies more than me! Please, two against one.”
Theresa took a deep breath and shrugged. “Fine,” she said. After all, they were on vacation, sort of. “Treasure Hunt?” she asked.
Junie squealed and grabbed Omar by the neck. “Yes!!!” she yelled. “Treasure Hunt!!!!”
Theresa opened the zipper pocket of her wallet and shook the coins into her hand. “Duck,” she warned, before flinging the coins across the room. She heard them hit the walls, bounce off the bedside table and one, she heard with a grimace, struck the lamp with a glassy thunk.
“Go!” exclaimed Junie, tossing Omar into the gap between the bed and the window.
“Wait,” yelled Theresa over the drone of the television. “Not yet!”
Junie froze. “What?” she asked pissily, standing with one hand on her bare hip.
“Naked explorers don’t get to keep their treasure,” Theresa said.
Junie’s mouth twisted into a frown but she grabbed at her pajamas and yanked them on, her pajama bottoms facing backwards. The tag peeked over the waistband like a little tongue. Theresa leaned forward to tuck it in, but Junie was already clambering onto the bed, scooping up coins and piling them in the center of the paisley bedspread. They were difficult to see against the busy pattern, and Junie swiped her hand over the surface to gather all of them. It took her a few more minutes to find the ones on the floor, and Theresa had to help her move the bedside table so Junie could be sure she’d gotten them all.
“Mission complete!” she declared. “High five!” Theresa held her hand high above Junie’s head and Junie jumped up to slap it weakly. “Cookies!” They flip-flopped down the hall together to the vending machine, and Theresa let Junie press the buttons for the packets of Famous Amos.
Back in the room, they washed down the cookies with tap water, watched three episodes of cartoons and one of Friends (during which Junie played with Omar and complained loudly that she was bored) before it was bedtime. They brushed their teeth together just like at home, Theresa brushing her own first and then guiding the brush around the hard nubs of Junie’s emerging adult teeth. When Junie spat into the sink, she closed her eyes. Once she’d seen blood mixed with the spit and foam, and she had cried for hours. Now she closed her eyes every time. Blood was gross and meant you were dying.
The covers scratched Junie’s chin and she turned over and over and over and over. The bed smelled weird and even though her mom was sitting right next to her, Junie felt alone. She tucked Omar under her arm but kept rolling over onto him.
“Mommy,” she whispered.
Theresa was propped against a pile of pillows, thinking in the darkness while she waited for Junie to fall asleep.
“Yes?” she asked, her voice loud in the silence.
“I can’t sleep.”
Theresa sighed. About four months ago, Junie had started having trouble sleeping. It began with nightmares, almost every night, dreams about creatures with red glowing eyes and ferocious teeth. Theresa wasn’t sure where she’d used the word ferocious, and neither did Junie, but the word fit the sharp white fangs of her monsters perfectly. Junie cried for hours while Theresa flipped on lights, warmed milk, sang lullabies, and rubbed Junie’s bony-yet-smooth back. But the process was becoming increasingly common.
“Are you afraid of dreams?” Theresa asked. She wished she had some cough syrup. Tammy had once recommended it as a way to knock kids out when they couldn’t sleep. Theresa hated the idea of drugging her baby, but a few nights wouldn’t hurt too much. She stood up and crossed the room, flicked on the light above the sink. “Shit,” she muttered as she dug through her travel bag. “I don’t have any.” But she’d seen a CVS across the street, and she carefully weighed the benefits of getting Junie to sleep against leaving her alone for a few minutes while she bought some cough syrup. If she hurried and the medicine worked, she could still call Mark for half an hour before it got too late.
“Junie,” she said carefully. “Mommy’s going to run and get a magic potion to make the monsters stay away.”
“Potion?” asked Junie.
“Yes. I have to leave for a little bit.” She reached for the remote and clicked on the television. “Omar will keep you safe while I’m gone.”
“Do you have to?” asked Junie, her bottom lip sticking out. “Can’t I come?”
“No,” said Theresa. Getting Junie in and out of any store without a tantrum was usually its own miracle. Especially when she was tired. “I’ll be right back.”
Junie nodded, already absorbed in the brightly colored lives of the television screen. Theresa pulled on a zippered sweatshirt, shoved the plastic room key into her back pocket, and slipped her purse over her shoulder. She made sure the door shut tightly and walked down the hallway to the stairwell. She’d be back in a few minutes. Ten at the most.
The children’s cough syrup was in one of the first aisles. Theresa grabbed a bottle and headed for the cash register.
“Got a sick little one, huh?” The man behind the counter asked sympathetically as he scanned the bottle. “I use this for my kids too. Great stuff.”
Theresa nodded, guilt knotting her stomach. Junie didn’t have a cough, she just needed to sleep. Without sleep, she could get sick, and then Theresa could get sick and miss work. “Thanks,” she said. She put the bottle in her purse and headed out the swooshing electric doors.
The night had turned chilly and she shivered in her sweatshirt as she approached the hotel. The pavement was dark with an encroaching mist and Theresa walked faster, her sandals slapping her feet with every step. A car passed behind her and she heard the growl of the engine as it slowed.
“Hey baby,” she heard someone call out behind her. A tingle of fear began in her lower back and spread over her shoulders up to her neck. She kept walking without turning around. “Hey!” The voice, deep and male, was louder this time. “You!”
She turned around slowly, her fingers tightening on the sleeves of her sweatshirt.
A man with long hair and dark creases on his face was leaning from the passenger-side window of the black SUV. His teeth gleamed in the neon light of the vacancy sign blinking above their heads. From inside the vehicle she could smell french fries and burgers from Carl’s Jr., see paper cups with straws poking up resting in cup holders.
“You have a room here?” He grinned ferociously. His teeth were crooked but bright white, almost blue.
Theresa swallowed and turned back around. Asshole, she thought, walking towards to stairwell entrance faster than before.
“Stop!” she heard the car door open, a voice of joking protest, and he had her arm before she even believed what was happening.
Opening her mouth for a scream, a hundred scenarios ran through her head. She was about to be kidnapped. Raped. Shot. Murdered. They would take Junie. She’d never see Junie again.
“You dropped this.” He held her room key up to her face. She stared at him, the scream still lodged in her throat, ready to be let out and into the chilly air. He smiled again and pressed the thin plastic card into her hand. Then he turned and walked back to the car, slammed the door, and the SUV rolled out of the parking lot and into the street.
Theresa climbed the stairs with legs of jelly. She opened the door and locked it from the inside, bolting it and sliding the gold chain into place across the door frame. She turned and took the bottle of cough syrup from her purse. Set it on the counter by the sink.
“Junie?” she whispered. Junie was sprawled across the wrinkled sheets, Omar’s ears pinned beneath her tiny body. Theresa pressed power on the TV and smiled as she heard Junie’s slow even breathing. She was asleep. Theresa rolled back into her sheets and placed a dry kiss on her warm forehead. “There are no monsters,” she whispered as she tucked Omar under Junie’s arm.