|Valentine by Hillary V.|
|They’d bought an old car before they left LA. An ’88 Buick. It hadn’t cost them much. They’d paid cash. They’d borrowed money from parents and friends and drove out of town. Everyone wanted to know where they were going, but they didn’t know. They just had to get out.
It had been too much for them. Life. Everyone. Everything. John owed some money to the wrong people, and he couldn’t stay. On top of that, he’d done a bad thing, and the law would be after him before too long. Maria, well she had just had enough. She’d been a dancer since she was illegal, and she was worn out. She was still young, but she’d seen too many things. She needed a break. They wanted a fresh start. They still believed in happiness.
They left town in the afternoon. They were never good at getting up early. And Maria had to make her goodbyes to her roommates. They were tearful goodbyes, but as soon as she left she didn’t miss the girls at all. She had only ever counted on herself anyway. Trusting John was a new thing. Maria normally didn’t trust men. They took her out, gave her money, whatever. But something was different about John. He’d come from a good family, he knew how to treat people. He didn’t take her to bars or to restaurants; he drove her to the beach, or to the mountains. He told her about his dreams, and like her, he dreamt in color.
They didn’t take highway 10 for long. John thought it best if they took the old road, Route 66. Maria had always loved the open road. She’d never taken any road trips, (her childhood vacations with her parents didn’t count) but she’d devoured books and stories about travelers all her life. To be with the man she loved, and to be on the highway driving into the unknown, this to her seemed the best of life.
They drove most of the night, but finally pulled over to sleep behind some 18-wheelers at a truck stop. In the morning, they pressed on, not knowing where they were going but knowing they would stop when they had an idea of where they wanted to be.
Maria pulled out a map of Arizona. “Look John, there’s a city called Valentine, right up here near the Grand Canyon. Lets go there. Lets see for ourselves why they call it Valentine.” John was agreeable, so they headed there.
They got to Valentine late in the afternoon, and the sun was hot. The air conditioning in the Buick was shot, so they’d been driving with the windows down and still they were sweating.
There wasn’t much in Valentine. Nothing at all, to be complete. The town was a stretch of highway with only a few deserted buildings. There was a functioning gas station, but no other businesses. There was a brick building with a faded sign that indicated it had once been a county school, but the building was boarded up now and the grounds were deserted. They decided to get the lay of the land, and drove around for a while, but the only signs of life were a few trailers with rusted cars out front. A few houses, a restaurant, and a motel boasting signs of Route 66 were all long since abandoned.
John and Maria came back around and stopped at the gas station. It was the closest thing to what Maria imagined to be an old country store, although she had never been to one before. The shelves were stocked with canned and boxed food, much of it long past its expiration date. They picked up some Vienna sausages, some bread, and a couple of cokes and took them to the counter.
The man behind the counter was an Indian of perhaps 70 years in age. He rang them up without interest. Maria was charmed by the name of Valentine. She felt she would burst if she didn’t ask him about it.
“Hello! We’re just passing through, and you probably get this question all the time, but we couldn’t help but wonder Why do they call this place Valentine?”
“Aw, I don’t know. You can figure it out. When Route 66 was the main road, people came through. And I guess they called it Valentine to make it someplace to stop. A place for lovers, like you. Are you married?”
“No, we’re not. But we are in love.” Maria blushed. She usually didn’t speak so openly, because people in LA didn’t give a shit. But here they were in the middle of nowhere, what could it hurt to be corny? John wasn’t embarrassed in the slightest. He put an arm around Maria and kissed her on the top of her head. Maria continued, “Can I ask you something else?”
“I don’t mind questions.”
“We saw an old motel in town. We could see it’s not open. Can you tell us who owns it?”
“Mr. Vargas. The motel closed down years ago. Mr.Vargas, he used to live in the white house on left side of the road, as you’re headed west.”
Maria nodded. “I see. Does Mr. Vargas still live there?”
“Why? You want to buy the place?”
“Maybe.” Maria was dressed in a denim mini skirt and a cut off T-shirt. She looked as poor and white trash as she was. But she was smart as a whip, and the way she carried herself, and the confidence with which she spoke made it seem believable that she could be educated, or rich.
“No, he got too old to live out here. His daughters took him back to Flagstaff, I think.” But the old man gave her a quick wink, so quick that it went unnoticed by John and perhaps didn’t happen at all. But it intrigued Maria, and made her suspect that something else had happened to Old Mr. Vargas.
“Well, Thank you so much. Have a nice day!” She waved to the man as they left the store.
“What was that all about?” John asked Maria with a smile when they were back in the car. He knew her too well. He knew she was up to something.
“I have an idea, John. A CRAZY idea. You’ll probably hate it. But hear me out.” Maria pulled her legs up onto the seat and turned to face him. “I asked about the Motel because I wanted to know if it was abandoned or not. And it is! So why don’t we hole up there for a while.”
“That is a crazy idea. We couldn’t possibly stay there the people hear would know we were breaking and entering, and they’d call the cops. We’d be busted for sure.”
“Maybe, but maybe not. Lets just pull up to it and check it out. If there is any furniture left in the place, if it’s any good at all, then it’s worth staying. We could tell people, if there’s anyone who cares, that we’re related to Mr. Vargas. Like, you could be his nephew or something. We don’t have to stay there for long, just for a few days or weeks, until we figure things out. By the time anyone is on to us, we could split town. The crime would be no worse than anything we’ve done in L.A.”
John gave Maria an uneasy glance, but inside himself he was impressed. Maria constantly amazed him. It was her intelligence, along with her spontaneity that he loved about her. “Ok, lets check it out.”
They pulled up to the old motel and got out of the car. There were padlocks on the doors of course, but they peered into the windows. The windows were too dusty, and it was too dark inside for them to see anything. John went back to the car and pulled out a flashlight from the glove compartment. He joined Maria again and they shined the light into the windows.
Inside the front office of the motel, there was a bare counter. Behind that was a door but it was closed. There were tattered curtains still hanging in the windows of the rooms, but he shined the light in the breaks of the curtains. The rooms were sparse, but the beds were still there. Just bare mattresses of course, and plenty of dust and spiders, but still, it was something.
They returned to the car and made sandwiches of the bread and canned meat they had bought, and talked the whole thing over. It was decided that they would stay, if only for a few days until they figured out where else to go. And besides, who would come looking for them in Valentine? It wouldn’t be hard to break in to the motel; they could just break a window. Even if they only stayed one night, it was worth it, not to have to sleep in the car again. Maria was overjoyed. It was as exciting to her as building a tree house in the backyard, something she’d always wished she could do as a kid.
They parked the car in back of the building, and then waited until after dark to break in. They broke a window in the office, and to their good luck and great surprise all the old keys to the rooms were still in a drawer. But they still ended up sleeping in the car again that night, as the motel was just too filthy.
The next day Maria drove back to the gas station and bought some more food, beer, candles and cleaning supplies.
“You still in town?” asked the old man.
“Yes, sir. We’ll be here a few days.”
“You have family here?”
“No, but we have a place to stay.”
“What’s your name? I’m Albert.” He stretched out his hand. Maria shook it.
“I’m Susan.” She was quick enough to give an assumed name, at least.
“Where are you staying?” he asked. He knew everyone in their small town. Everyone was only 30 people. She couldn’t be staying with anyone.
“Remember how you told us about Mr. Vargas yesterday? Well, we were interested in the motel so we called around and got in touch with his family. They gave us permission to clean up his old motel and stay there for a few days while we decide if we want to buy the land. So that’s where we are. Thanks again for telling us about him.” They exchanged a knowing glance, and he gave her another instantaneous wink. They both knew she was lying, but she had nothing to lose and he didn’t care. It was more entertaining for him to have her around
Back at the motel, Maria and John picked a room to settle into. The motel was shaped in a U, with the office in the middle. They picked the room that was dead center in the U, behind the office, as their place of residence. They spent all day cleaning it, and dressed the bed with sheets Maria had brought from her apartment in L.A. Since they were staying a few days, they unpacked their suitcases, and Maria decorated the room to make it as beautiful as she could with the rest of her belongings. In the evening, they drank the beer and then made love in the bed by candlelight.
The motel held a strong fascination with John and Maria. The old neon sign that spelled out Route 66 Motor Inn Welcome! looked so worn that it was barely recognizable, but they imagined it as it might have looked in lit up against the night welcoming weary travelers on the road. They were weary. They needed welcoming. After only a couple of nights there they felt a strange connection with the motel, as if it was built on holy ground. They didn’t know exactly why, but they respected it, and felt compelled to take care of it in some way, as if it were an aging grandparent. To them it was a more than just an abandoned string of rooms, it was their fortress, and a symbol of what should be good in the world. It was good that it should be in the desert, where there was so much sky and so little noise. It was good that it should be a traveler’s haven, since we are all travelers in this world.
They eagerly explored each of the rooms, and took time to note what needed fixing, and what was intact. Someday, they told each other, they’d come back to this place if they could, and restore it. Make it right. Give it back to Valentine. Make it open for all the people who need a place to lay their weary heads. It was their most noble dream.
Only one of the rooms didn’t have a key. It was the last room in the series, with windows that faced east, towards town. But the windows on this room were boarded up. They ignored it for a couple of days and then felt compelled to break into it. They had seen every other room; they had to see this one. They were as curious as if it were a locked turret in a castle. At first they used a credit card, and finally they resorted to using their tire iron, but finally they got in.
The room looked just as the others did, with the same stripped down bed, the same tattered curtains, and no other furniture. But the air in the room was cold, very cold. They thought it was very peculiar. They couldn’t figure out why this room was so cold, and the others were so hot. It was the summertime in the desert after all. But they figured the boards over the windows probably gave the room some protection from the sun. And upon further inspection they saw that one of the windows had been broken out, which was the reason for the boards. There was nothing new here. Now they’d seen the room, their curiosity was satiated, and the closed the door back and went on with their life.
Maria and John decided to stay for a few more days. And the days turned into weeks. Although they had no electricity, and had to dig an outhouse, and had to draw water from a well, still they were happy. Maria loved John with all the intensity of youth and first love, she played housewife to their little room and was happy. And John had no direction, and no hope for the future, but he loved Maria more than he loved his own younger sister, and he did everything he could to please her. At night they stared up at the stars, or played cards by the light of candles, or played checkers with bottle caps on a homemade board. In the days they drove around together in the desert, or stayed in and made love, or flew kites, and talked about everything. They weren’t practical, but they were they were in love.
They thought at first they would only stay for a few days, but it worried them to think of leaving. The thought of returning to the confusion of a city was something they dreaded. They had not set out to make a life in Valentine, but they discovered that they were happy there. That they had made a little home in the motel, that they had made a little life together, that they were learning things about each other they never would have known had they lived in a city. They talked about plans to leave Valentine, but it was always half-hearted, those talks came out of their own feeling that they should go, they should want what other people want, they should try to start over and take new names and get jobs again. But something was changing inside them each day that they stayed in Valentine. They knew vaguely in the back of their minds that time was going to run out, that they couldn’t stay there forever, that winter would come and they would need heat at least, but they couldn’t bring themselves to really plan another life. They had the sense that if they left Valentine, they might leave their souls there. Because they were different now somehow and they couldn’t think of anyplace that they would fit in. They seemed to have no place in the world.
And so they stayed in Valentine, and let the days slip by, enjoying it as long as it lasted.
The question of Valentine’s abandonment often plagued them. They had long talks about it, speculating the many economic and social reasons why Valentine was so desolate. They had talked to their few neighbors, and had become knowledgeable on the subject. This highway was no longer a main route, so people had moved away. But it felt to them as if there was a missing piece somewhere. Other cities had survived in the middle of nowhere. Why not Valentine? This was something John and Maria vowed to figure out.
Albert had become the closest thing they had to a friend in Valentine. They saw him every few days, and sometimes spent hours sitting with him outside the station drinking beers and talking about life in Valentine. He had lived there all his life, his father had owned the station and now it was his. He stayed, he said, because of the land. Because his ancestors had lived here, and although he too had spent some time in Flagstaff and Albuquerque, he came back because the land was his legacy. They often asked him about Valentine as it had been in his youth, in the 1940s and he told them stories of the travelers that were always passing through and the life of the town that was thriving at that time. But he was always closed-lipped when it came to explanations of life after I-40 was built. He would only speak of the town in its hey-day, or of how things were now; he wouldn’t discuss the years in between.
One afternoon, after a few beers in the hot sun, John questioned him again. And this time, for some reason, he spoke about it.
“You always ask me what happened. But you don’t know what you’re asking me. So you ask me again and again. So I’ll tell you. When they built the new road, when there weren’t so many people coming here anymore, it couldn’t be hidden anymore. When they disappeared, everyone knew.”
“What do you mean? When who disappeared?”
Albert laughed and laughed, like he had pulled John’s leg. He found these two kids enormously funny. “It’s a good joke, yeah?”
“You can’t leave me hanging like that Albert, its not nice. C’mon, tell me the whole story. Who’m I gonna tell?”
Albert had a huge grin on his face. “I like you. I thought you’d be gone by now. I thought you would have found out. But maybe that old motel doesn’t have it in him anymore.”
John gave Albert a puzzled glance, but smiled with him. “So it has to do with the old motel?”
Albert knew he had said too much. He got up and started to go back in the building. “Its too hot out here. I have work to do.”
But John didn’t give up. He caught Albert’s arm. “I’m planning on staying here. C’mon, if there’s something to tell me, then tell me.”
Albert got a serious look on his face, one that John had never seen before. He spoke to him as if in a warning, “Be careful. Vargas had a reason for building that place. He knew what he was doing. The town helped him build because they thought if he built a room there, then they could control it. He could keep it locked. Then people wouldn’t go there by accident. But we all knew. And they found it. Since the motel’s been closed, there’s been peace. So be careful.” Then he softened, and spoke in a fatherly tone, “I like you, and I like your little Mexican girlie. I don’t know where you been, but I like you, and you’re welcome to stay. If you can find some work, then you should stay. We like you in Valentine. You should stay here if you want to.”
John went back to the motel and related the afternoon’s conversation to Maria. It was exciting and unsettling both at the same time to know that there was a secret to Valentine. It was even more eerie that the secret seemed to have something to do with their new home. The motel had a warm, inviting feeling about it. New information didn’t taint that for them, but they realized they couldn’t stay another night until they had tried to figure out just what Albert had meant. It had something to do with one of the rooms.
While it was still light, they took another tour of the building, and ended up in the one they called “The cold room” at the end of the building. All the rooms had been empty, and ordinary. They opened the cold room and except for the temperature, it was the same as the rest. But they knew the answer had to lie in this room. They wanted so badly to sense something about it. They walked through the room, inspecting it for a secret, some clue that would lead them to the mystery of the “disappearances” Albert had mentioned. But there was nothing.
As they were leaving, John inspected the boards on the windows. It occurred to him that they were on the inside instead of the outside. Didn’t people usually board windows up from the outside? One of the boards was crumbling. For no reason at all, except maybe disappointment, John pulled it out of the wall. He took the board with him as they closed up the room and threw it into the overgrown lot out front.
John and Maria, despite their usual nature, had gotten in the habit of going to bed early, and getting up in the morning. They had no place to go that kept them out late, and going to bed by 10 meant that their candles lasted longer. Tonight they had a lot to talk about as they lay in bed, they kept going over Albert’s conversation again and again, and they were so excited by it that they couldn’t sleep. John wanted to have one last cigarette, but his pack was empty. “I’ve got another pack in the car. I’ll be right back,” he told Maria, and left their room to get a fresh pack from the car.
John opened up the car and found his pack lying on the front seat where he had left it. He locked the car back up and slammed the door, and as he did so he noticed a light out of the corner of his eye. He didn’t think about it and walked back towards their room and then it hit him There is no electricity in this place. Where the fuck is that light coming from? It spooked him and he went inside and fetched Maria.
John and Maria armed themselves with their tire iron and a flashlight and went back out to investigate the light. It was coming from the hole in the window of the cold room, where John had removed the board earlier that day. They went towards the room, hoping against all hope that some homeless person like themselves had stumbled upon the open room and was using a flashlight or a lamp of some sort. But they knew how unlikely that was. They came upon the room and John opened the door. The light was bright, and it was coming from inside. They took a step into the room, and then they could see where the light was coming from.
There was a window of light, in the shape of a circle, that was shining in the middle of the room. The light circle was flat, like a round table, hovering about a foot off the ground.
“What the fuck is that?” John asked, rhetorically. They stared at the light in awe for a couple of minutes before they realized they weren’t being sucked in or anything. It was just there.
“I’m going to throw the flashlight into it, to see what happens,” said Maria. “We can always buy a new flashlight, you know, if anything happens to it.” She tossed the flashlight into the circle and it didn’t hit the ground. It went into the circle, and then it was gone.
Suddenly everything Albert had said made sense. Whatever this circle was, it made things disappear. Things went into it, but they didn’t come out. This was where people went when they didn’t move away.
After a while, John and Maria shut the door and went back to their room. They stayed up late, talking over all the possibilities of the circle Could it be another dimension? A portal to another world? They hadn’t believed anything like that existed . . . and yet the evidence was in front of them. That night they felt more awake and alive than they had ever been before. They had never believed in “magic”, so to speak, or in anything that wasn’t tangible. Their life in L.A. had been filled with empty nights, and random people, day after day of seeing people strive for that they couldn’t have, and go to bed in dirty apartments. It wasn’t the circle that had made them realize there was beauty in the world, it was Valentine, and it was their time alone together falling and love and making a life out of nothing. But knowing the circle was there, and that in some way they were now the keepers of the secret and the protector of it, gave them hope that there was more to the world than they had ever seen, and that life was worth living.
Only a few days later the law caught up with them. John didn’t know how they’d found out about him, but he figured it wasn’t too hard They had been living in Valentine for 3 months now and they had visited neighboring towns for groceries and such. It was only a matter of time, and they’d known that from the beginning.
Albert tipped them off that someone had come asking about them that morning, and had shown him pictures. So John and Maria knew they didn’t have much time left. They’d be caught by sundown. They went to the cold room in the morning and stayed through the afternoon. John pulled off more of the boards and they could see the police pull up and inspect their car, and the room they’d been staying in. They tried the other doors of the motel and when they came to the cold room John and Maria had the bed against the door so they couldn’t enter. They knew they were in there. It was a stand off. They knew they were caught. They knew there was no place for them in this world any longer, except prison.
Finally, after dark, the police had gathered enough men together to storm into the room. But when the door was broken down, John and Maria were already gone.