The rain started coming down in torrents as I passed the I-95 exit to Daytona Beach, heading south. Another late afternoon monsoon so typical along the east coast of Florida in the summer. The high humidity spawns the storms in the center of the state, and as afternoon heating increases, the squall lines move eastward to the Atlantic side, gaining strength as they go. It was just after 6 p.m., and I’d been driving for eight hours already. My eyes felt like they had pins stuck in them as I peered into the wall of water pelting the windscreen.
My name is Eddie Brickman, and I’m a salesman for a commercial bathroom fixture supplier. I’ve just been reassigned to the South Florida district, and this is my first time in the Sunshine state. Right now, I could use some of that sunshine.
What little traffic there was on the highway was only going about thirty miles an hour, or I’d have missed the sign for the exit to Sanford and Mims. I quickly pulled the steering wheel right and took the exit, hoping I could find a halfway clean hotel to spend the night and get out of the torrential rain. At the stop sign were arrows pointing me West to SANFORD 41 MILES or East to MIMS 3 MILES. I turned left under the highway overpass looking for Mims.
An old convenience store with a few dim fluorescent bulbs blinking was the first place I saw. Turning into the empty parking lot, I was figuring on getting directions to the best, or at least closest accommodations. I wasn’t going to be too picky here in nowhere, Florida. Maybe asking for the fewest bedbugs might be the way to start?
With the deluge continuing, I reached over the seat for my rain jacket and struggled into it before making the dash from my geriatric Ford Taurus into the store. The only live body inside, and that might be stretching the description slightly, was the lone cashier standing behind the counter. Dressed in a faded hi-vis orange vest, white t-shirt, and checkerboard print Bermuda shorts, his gaunt features displayed no feeling or emotion as I approached. His eyes were blank, just empty sockets with black orbs staring back at me. “Could you direct me to a hotel?’ I asked.
He stared at me so long I thought I was going to have to ask him again, “Are you buying something?” he finally said,
Figuring I needed to ante up before getting an answer, I reached down, tossed a bag of chips onto the counter, and followed it up with two-dollar bills. “I’ll take the chips. Keep the change. Now, is there someplace I can get a room for the night.”
His movement was slow and deliberate as he took the two bills, putting one in the cash register and the other in his shorts. Then he looked, not at me, but in my direction, causing me to glance over my shoulder to see if someone had entered the store behind me.
“No hotel around here,” he finally muttered, “only one motel. If you want a hotel, you gotta get back on 95 and go forty miles.”
“I don’t want to drive in this downpour any longer. Where do I find the motel?” I inquired testily.
With a twist of his head, he replied, “Just keep on going down the road till you cross the Old Dixie Highway. US 1. Once you see the sign for East Mims, go four blocks, and the motel is just before you get to the beach. You can’t miss it.”
Turning on my heels, I threw a “thanks” over my shoulder as I headed for the door, leaving the chips behind. Even with the rain gear, I was drenched by the time I got back inside the car. Turning onto the desolate road, I pointed the car east into the dark, wet evening.
In hindsight, I wish now that I’d gotten back onto the interstate.
I didn’t pass even one car as I drove eastward, down a road with no buildings or homes on either side. Just tropical vegetation creeping out of the swampland, doing its best to take back any real estate it could. Up ahead, I saw a faint light as I entered the town of Mims, or at least what was left of it.
The light was coming from a brightly lit business that was, strangely, a meat market, as I drove past. Plastered to the building’s sides and tacked to posts out front were painted boards advertising meat specials, though not the cuts of meat you would typically request at the butcher shop. I’d never seen thigh chops, ground buttocks, and smoked appendages in the meat case at a grocery store, but with the heavy rain coming down, I thought my eyes had played tricks with me.
A stop sign ahead caused me to brake, but with no other cars visible on the old road that predated any interstate highways, I drove cautiously through the intersection and past a sign on my left that read, WELCOME TO EAST MIMS, sitting next to a long-ago abandoned house that the overgrown jungle of foliage was reclaiming.
I’d no sooner left it behind when the rain abruptly stopped, and the late afternoon sun appeared as if I’d driven into another world. Switching off my wildly beating windshield wipers, I continued a few blocks until I saw ahead a neon sign displaying VACANCY and behind it, an old single-story motel right out of the 60s. Painted in blazing green, pink, and yellow, with a sign above the entrance with giant bouncing white bunny rabbits introducing the MAGIC BEACH MOTEL.
I pulled up under the porte-cochère, seeing a few cars parked in front of rooms, though some of the vehicles appeared to have been there quite a while and predated my 2003 Taurus by thirty years. I immediately put it down to an antique car show being held in the area and didn’t think about it again until much later. It looked pretty well maintained for an older motel compared to the rest of the town I’d seen so far. Even with the on/off ramps from the interstate, East Mims looked like it had died a slow death some time ago.
Stepping out of the Ford, I walked into the lobby, which was lit up with bright lighting though I couldn’t see where the fixtures were. Several old belt-driven ceiling fans turned slowly, although it wasn’t enough to take the humidity of an August in Central Florida down a notch. The room was bereft of any guests or motel staff, but on the check-in desk was a sign,
DON’T BOTHER RINGING THE BELL. I’LL BE BACK SHORTLY.
Patiently waiting, I looked over the lobby and reception area. Old framed photographs lined the walls showing groups of happy vacationers frolicking on the beach and playing in the surf. The images spanned decades, going back, based on my limited knowledge of beachwear and bathing attire, into the mid-50s and early 60s. I looked closely at a montage of pictures and noticed one young girl that seemed to be in almost all of them, though she didn’t seem all that happy about it. She was a scowling redhead with a black and white polka-dot dress. There’s an old saying that redheads come with an attitude, and this young lady looked like she fit the bill.
“Can I help you, sir,” a voice said behind me. Turning, I stepped back towards the front desk and got an eyeful of the clerk, or tried to—because his head didn’t come up to the top of the counter until he stepped onto a stool. I’m not sure what the correct term for an extremely small person is, but midget comes to mind right off. I tried not to stare, but the whole picture of him was out of a circus story.
No more than three feet tall, not fat, but with a stocky frame. Glossy black hair slicked back against his scalp and a pencil-thin mustache that could have been painted onto his upper lip. Dressed in white dress pants and a matching vest over a pink long-sleeved, ruffled shirt. A brass name tag pinned to his vest let me know he was the DESK CLERK, and his name was PAULIE. I felt the urge to laugh, but his stern face made me hold it back. “I need a room for the night,” I told him.
“Just one night?” he replied, “Most of our guests stay much longer. Are you by yourself?”
“Just one night, thank you, Paulie. Yes, I’m traveling alone and heading south to start a new job, not on vacation.”
“Fine then. It will be forty-five dollars a night. Do you prefer a beach view or a room facing the pool?”
“That’s quite reasonable.” I told him in amazement, “I’m surprised you’re not full with those low rates?”
“Oh, we are full most of the time. You just caught us on a slow night.”
“I’ll take a beach view then. Is there a restaurant close by?” I asked, handing him my credit card.
“Not close, but we have a small kitchen that will prepare anything off the room service menu you’ll find in your room.”
“Great. That’ll be fine. I’d rather not go out in the rain, although it seems to have finished raining here. Is there a car show in town? I noticed several vintage cars parked out front.”
“No, just some of our guests that are on an extended stay. Very well, then, Mr. Brickman. You are in Room 121, down on the end. I hope you enjoy our accommodations. Checkout is at 11:00 a.m. unless you decide to stay with us longer.” the little guy told me as he handed me the key, which was an old-fashioned skeleton key, the likes of which I hadn’t seen since I was a boy.
“Don’t see many keys like that anymore,” I said, staring at the key in my hand.
With a scowl, he replied, “It works fine for us. We don’t have any security issues here, you will see. Our biggest problem is guests that don’t wish to leave.”
“Thanks, I’m sure it’ll be fine,” as I headed for the door. I drove the Ford down and parked in front of Room 121, still pondering the little guy’s statement about guests extending their stays, as I looked over the well-preserved vehicles I was parked next to now. Taking my bag out of the back seat, I went up to the room and twisted the ancient key in the lock. The door opened easily, and I stepped inside, honestly expecting an old room smell of cigarettes and musty carpet, but receiving instead the delightful aroma my olfactory nerves associated with cotton candy and popcorn.
The room was gaily decorated in bright colors, not the drab earth tones you would expect to find in a roadhouse. I suddenly felt euphoric, and the tiredness I’d experienced earlier seemed swept away. Tossing my bag onto the bed, I walked to the sliding glass door that opened onto a small covered patio. With the curtains pulled back, I could gaze out on the pearl-white beach and a calm ocean that seemed so inviting. As beautiful as it was, the beach was empty of sunbathers for as far as I could see. I quickly decided to go for a swim before darkness settled in for the night. There was no telling when I’d see a beach this secluded.
I quickly changed into my swimsuit and opened the patio doors. Going outside, I looked for other guests that might be enjoying the evening solitude, but no one was in sight. I presumed they were at dinner someplace or just resting in the cheerful rooms. Closing the door, I stepped onto the footpath and pointed my feet towards the sandy expanse and calm ocean in front of me.
Expecting to be ensconced in the warm water in no time, I walked on but didn’t seem to be getting any closer, and after several minutes I stopped and looked back only to see the motel quite a distance away, but the beach no closer. Figuring the light was playing tricks on me, I strolled onward, glancing behind me occasionally, though after another five minutes or so, I could tell I was no nearer, but for some strange reason, the motel was almost lost in the distance behind me.
I was enveloped in a strange fear, unsure of what had befallen me, I no longer felt a desire for the evening swim, so I turned back, following the path, striding along quickly, almost at a run, as I attempted to get back to my room before dark.
It took me most of an hour to get back on my patio, though the beach still looked just a few yards away. Almost frantic, totally exhausted by the endeavor, I collapsed onto the bed as soon as I got inside the room. In a few moments, I had relaxed, and the elation and joy I felt earlier returned, though a sense of panic about the space outside stayed with me. I went back to the door several times, and each time the beach seemed so near; I should have been in the water in no time at all.
Hungry now, I searched out the room-service menu and selected a meal. When I dialed the listed number, I was slightly surprised that the front-desk clerk Paulie answered to take my order. “Yes, Mr. Brickman. Would you like to place a room-service order?”
“Ah, yes, I would. Could I get the patty-melt with fries and a piece of key-lime pie? And coffee, as well, please.”
“Excellent choice. We’ll bring that over to you shortly. Would you like to charge it to your room?”
“Yes, that will be fine. I’ll settle up with you in the morning.”
“It won’t be necessary. We have your credit card on file,” he said, hanging up, not giving me the time to ask about the beach.
While I waited, I took my bath kit out of my bag and laid it out in the bathroom, thinking I’d shower and shave tonight and get an early start in the morning. I’d just finished when I heard a knock on the door. Striding quickly across the room, I was shocked that my order was already prepared and doubly shocked that it was on a tray in the hands of the young redhead in the black and white polka-dot dress, looking precisely like she did in all the photographs hanging on the lobby walls. “I have your meal order, Mr. Brickman. Would you like me to bring it inside?”
“Certainly,” I said, stepping aside so she could enter. “That was very quick. I only called it in not five minutes ago.”
“We pride ourselves on anticipating our guest’s needs,” she said, placing the tray on the room’s small table. “Can I get you anything else?”
“Maybe you could answer a question for me. I saw the pictures on the wall in the lobby, and you’re in many of them, but you don’t look a day over twenty-one, so it couldn’t have been you in them. They were taken decades ago.”
“You must be mistaken, Mr. Brickman. There are no pictures of me or anyone that looks like me in the lobby. Anything else?”
Confused, I asked, “How far exactly is it to the beach? I tried to get to the water, but I never could quite get there. I walked so far I could hardly see the motel, but the beach was no closer.”
“You must be very tired from driving today, Mr. Brickman. The ocean is only a few steps from your door. Why don’t you eat your dinner and get a good night’s sleep? I’m sure you will feel better in the morning. You might even extend your stay with us,” she told me with a smile.
Quite bewildered but soothed by her smile and the ambiance of the room, I decided she must be correct, “It did seem strange, but there’s no way I can stay on. I’m due in Miami to start a new job tomorrow.” I told her as I handed her a five-dollar tip.
“Why, thank you, Mr. Brickman. Perhaps you’ll order coffee and breakfast in the morning,” she said sweetly as she left the room, closing the door behind her.
I stood there a moment trying to justify what I’d seen and experienced against what she had said until I just put it down to exhaustion. Perhaps driving through the rainstorm had worn me out, but now my hunger overtook my senses, and I sat down at the table and, with gusto, consumed the meal quickly. Despite drinking two cups of coffee, I had to fight to keep my eyes open long enough to get to the bed. I pulled off one shoe, but that was all I managed, dropping onto the bedding and surrendering to a deep slumber.
I awakened feeling rested and chuckled to myself when I saw the condition I had slept in, with one shoe still on my foot and fully clothed. I decided against ordering breakfast, thinking I’d grab a quick shower and get on the road early. I knew I could find a Cracker Barrel along the highway with little problem, and I was anxious to get down to Miami as early as possible today.
Showered and dressed, a few minutes later, I picked up my bag and glanced over the room to check that I’d not left anything behind. I was smiling to myself, feeling quite buoyant, the gayly decorated room lifting my spirits. I just knew it was going to be a great day.
Stepping out of the door, I started walking towards my car just a few steps away and suddenly felt like I was on a treadmill, not getting anywhere close to the old Ford. I glanced over my shoulder, and my guts twisted in sheer terror as I saw I was now at least fifty feet from my room. I started to run in a panic, but although I reached out my arms to grasp any part of the vehicle, I was no closer than before.
Out of breath and sweating profusely, I turned back and saw the motel at least two hundred yards in the distance. I’d never experienced such anxiety before. Reversing direction, I started running as fast as possible, but it took what felt like fifteen minutes to reach the sanctuary of Room 121. Flinging myself through the door, I dropped my bag and lay on the bed, fighting to catch my breath, my heart pounding like it was trying to come out of my chest. Slowly I regained my composure as the tranquility of the room settled me. But the nagging fear I’d felt was close at hand.
Last night I might have been tired, but this morning I was well-rested. I’d tried to dismiss my experience of getting to the beach, but the ordeal this morning could not be banished from my thoughts. I felt trapped and began to wonder about the old cars parked in front of the rooms and the pristine white beach with no one enjoying it. Could it be that others were trapped here as well?
I walked back to the doors overlooking the beach, but as soon as I opened them, the now-familiar panic rose inside me. I started back to the front door, but the phone rang beside the bed, so I stopped and answered it. “Mr. Brickman,” Paulie, the front desk clerk, said, “we are pleased that you have decided to extend your stay. Would you like to order breakfast?”
Quite taken aback at his remark, I said, “I wasn’t planning on staying, but I’m having difficulty leaving for some strange reason.” Feeling slightly hungry, I decided some nourishment would do me right. “I would like something, maybe some coffee and pancakes, if it’s not any trouble.”
“No trouble at all, Mr. Brickman. We’ll have it over to you shortly.”
I had just set the phone down when there was a knock on the door. Knowing it couldn’t be possible, but fully understanding uncanny things were going on here, I opened the door to the redhead with my breakfast on a tray. “Well, you took your sweet time getting it to me this morning,” I told her, displaying a feigned annoyance, “I hope it isn’t cold, or I’ll send it back with you.”
A shocked look appeared on her face as she struggled for words, “I’m sorry, Mr. Brinkman. I got it here just as fast as I could.”
“If I’m staying on at your establishment, I expect faster service from now on, is that clear?”
“Why, yes, sir. I’ll be faster next time,” she said as she set the breakfast tray down and took up the one from the night before. “Is there anything else I can get you?”
“Yes,” I faced her, scowling, “I’d like fresh towels and my bed made up. Can you make that happen?”
“Yes, sir, I’ll be back shortly and make up your room. I hope you enjoy your breakfast,” she said as she hurried out the door.
I moved over to where I could see out the front windows and watched her walk away. She had no difficulty crossing the parking lot to the motel lobby. Sitting, I wolfed down the breakfast, but before I could finish it, I heard her knock and announce, “Housekeeping—may I come in?”
“Doors open,” I said without getting up.
She came in, having added a white apron over her dress. Without a word, she headed into the bathroom with a basket of brushes and cleaning supplies, and clean folded towels. Not two minutes later, she was out and had fresh linens on the bed in a jiffy. “Anything else, Mr. Brinkman?”
“No, that’ll be all,” I said with a wave of my hand, continuing to drink coffee as she left the room. As soon as she was gone, I grabbed my bag and dashed outside, not even closing the door, but as I ran for my car, watching her push the cart away from the room, I futilely thrashed the concrete with my shoes without getting close to my car. While I turned and headed back to Room 121, she disappeared into the lobby a hundred feet away.
Once again, fatigued from the exertion, I flopped on the bed and let the blissful feeling of the room rebuild me. Later, I tried in vain to get to the car by an indirect route, moving down the front of the motel rooms to try and approach the Ford from behind. I walked away from Room 121 for five minutes, and it took me over an hour to make it back, sweating and huffing as if I’d run a mile.
The utter panic I felt outside the room was quickly dispelled once I returned, making me believe I needed to stay inside and make no more attempts to leave. A look at the old cars in front of the rooms assured me that the guests that owned them had long ago given up trying to flee.
The day was waning when I decided I had one last chance that might work if I played it just right. Picking up the phone, I called the front desk. “Mr. Brickman, how can we assist you?” Paulie questioned.
“Paulie, I hate to bother you, but I went to take a shower, and the drain is stopped up. Water is running out of the bathroom, and the carpet is getting soaked.”
“I’m so sorry, Mr. Brickman. I’ll be over shortly and get you fixed up.”
As soon as he hung up, I grabbed my bag and stood behind the door. Not two minutes later, Paulie knocked. I opened it with my free hand, and Paulie, dressed now in white overalls, and matching white rubber boots, stepped inside the room. I gave him no chance as I scooped the dwarf up and ran for the Taurus.
He screamed as I thrust him over my shoulder, kicking and beating my back with his tiny fists. Pulling open the car door, I threw my bag over the seatback and slung Paulie face-first onto the front passenger seat. Wasting not a second, I had the keys in the ignition and was reversing away from Room 121. Throwing the gearshift into drive, I floored the accelerator, leaving burnt rubber streaks across the parking lot.
With one hand holding the magical midget, I raced under the porte-cochère and out onto the street. Turning right, I gunned the engine heading for the interstate. In a few blocks, I braked hard at the sign that read,
WELCOME TO EAST MIMS
Leaping from the car, I dragged Paulie out and dropped him in a heap by the sign. He was jumping up and down and screaming as I drove west, far above the posted speed limit. Just before I went under the interstate overpass, I passed by the rundown convenience store. It was no shock to see the cashier standing in the parking lot, dressed in a faded hi-vis orange vest, white t-shirt, and checkerboard print Bermuda shorts, with an emotionless expression on his face as he watched me drive past.
Just beyond the overpass, I turned left onto the on-ramp and, with light rain falling, merged into southbound traffic. I stopped only once for fuel on the way to Miami and pulled up to the house I’d rented at about 9 p.m.
I sat there with the engine off for a few moments, letting the warm, humid air wash over me until I garnered the strength to exit the car and go inside. The next morning, I started my new job, and I quickly forgot about my experience until a week later when I opened my mail and found a handwritten note, addressed from the MAGIC BEACH HOTEL, and written in red ink by a tiny hand it said,
We hope you enjoyed your stay and look forward to you returning soon.
The management and staff of the MAGIC BEACH MOTEL.
p.s. WAKE UP— YOU NEVER REALLY LEFT!
Look for this story and others in Behind the Mask- An Anthology of Short Stories, available here.
For links to my books and blog click on the menu in the upper right corner or go here.