The Moon glow motel
by Lyz Mancini
The Moon Glow Motel was even more beautiful than the photo gallery on its website conveyed, the perfect location to meet someone in person for the first time.
Evan sighed with deep satisfaction as she pulled her little rental car into the modest parking lot beneath the neon sign. Recently renovated, the Moon Glow stood polished and cheerful amidst the stark white snowdrifts and streams of sunlight through the pine trees. Each door was painted a bright teal, and a shiny gold number let Evan know where her room was—lucky number 13, of her own request. Things that were unlucky had been an inside joke between her and Jared since they’d matched with each other two months ago, and she knew he’d get a laugh when he arrived later that evening.
Evan scanned the parking lot but knew they would be alone for their two-night stay—a blizzard three days ago in addition to slowly loosening pandemic restrictions made this room a steal, but the owner warned her that although available by text, they should plan to be self-sufficient. It would be a winter wonderland all to themselves. They’d spent hours on Zoom looking up activities in the area, a brick oven pizza place that was doing take-out, and some snowy trails that wouldn’t be too strenuous. There was a bookshop-slash-bar where you could shop for the latest bestseller while clutching a pint of in-house kombucha.
Evan hoped they’d spend a fair amount of time in bed, though. It had been a while. The plan had kept her sane through work deadlines and mandatory virtual happy hours.
She gleefully pulled her duffel from the trunk and found a gold key beneath the snow-covered mat just like the faceless owner had directed. With a tug and a squeak, the door opened into the coziest little room she had ever seen. Light oak floorboards were visible beneath ice-white faux fur rugs, intentionally overlapping to look casual. A king-size bed piled high with goose down and Pendleton blankets stood between matching bedside tables and lamps, built for dozing and reading and making out. A sweet little desk stood in one corner with a branded notepad and pen. There was no television, just a black and white photograph of a mountain above a Chemex and Smeg mini-fridge full of free seltzer and vegan buttered popcorn. Evan gave a little squeal and shook the snow from her espresso hair – freshly curled and tousled just for Jared, then after slipping off her boots, jumped face-down into the bed like a flying squirrel.
She shot Jared a text. Just got here! You are going to die.
He answered right away—he always did, it was one of his many refreshing qualities. Can’t waittttttttt, I should be there by six. Don’t eat all the snacks without me.
Evan’s skin glowed with warmth—she had three whole hours to prep and preen and talk herself down from fatal nervousness. She just recently hit a year sober—the exact recommended time to wait before jumping back into dating.
“You deserve something nice,” she told herself.
She walked through the room, touching everything—it was impeccably clean, and everything seemed untouched, unlike a lot of the seedy motel rooms she’d found herself in years ago before she hit bottom. Where those rooms smelled of nicotine, sticky liquor, and black mold, this room was grapefruit pillow spray. She cracked a lemon seltzer and poured it into a stemless wineglass. Then she remembered the bathroom and squealed again.
The tiles were an absolute dream—white and pink checkers that surrounded a deep also-pink clawfoot tub. Tiny bottles of rosemary citrus shampoo and bubble bath sat against the silver fixtures. She stepped into creamy pinkness and her keys fell from her pocket, clattering and echoing. The silence was eerie—knowing the room was flanked by identical empty ones, which were then also flanked by identical empty ones. She was the only one in this entire motel until Jared would arrive. She shivered, used to the wail of police sirens and clattering dishes and the tiny pattering of children’s feet in the apartment above her. She turned a podcast on so she could feel less alone, then snapped a pic of herself fully clothed laying in the tub. It’s porcelain cavern swallowed her up, and sent the image to Jared.
What’s missing? she asked.
Oh shit, you’re right, she wrote back. But also I was thinking… you.
Oof, can’t wait, soon enough. Stupid traffic.
Evan was happy she’d arrived first – she wanted to transform into the shiniest version of herself. It was the better situation to be in—him tired and in need of a shower, her polished and perfect, ready for adventure.
She luxuriated in that bathroom—upending half the bubbles into scalding water then slipping inside, finally reading a New Yorker piece she’d had bookmarked for weeks. She got out and scrubbed all her makeup off, redid it, scrubbed it all off again, then redid it again—needing to hit that chill balance of fresh skin, glowing cheeks, arched brows, and fruit-bruised lips. She spritzed a vanilla bean fragrance through her hair and onto her wrists, rubbing them together to release the warmth like her mom used to do. She poked her fingers into her arms, a little plumper than they’d been in the past. After she quit drinking she’d initially gained a bit of weight—the sour straws and gummy worms she needed to keep her from the languid never-ending sip of whiskey. The insides of her cheeks were now almost always raw from sugar and citric acid.
Jared knew all this—he knew everything, practically. They’d swapped therapy notes, listed their triggers and diagnoses and fears. She knew Jared’s twin brother died when he was twelve, and that his parents had a hard time looking at his too-familiar face. She knew that cooking subscription-model dinners kept Jared level-headed and de-stressed him at night, and that he’d been just as lonely as she had been. Jared was trying his hand at sobriety too—and recently told her it had been over a month since he'd had a drink. She planned to show him all the fun sober things they could do—what a beautiful life they could have.
Evan pulled on a fresh pair of jeans and a cream cashmere sweater—one that was over-worn but only because it looked so good. It was after five now, and the sun had set completely outside her window, turning the rectangle black. Evan felt like she was in a fishbowl, staring at her complexion which stared back at her.
She shot Jared another text. The depression darkness has set in, drive safe! She added an emoji of a smiley face with its eyes askew, tongue sticking out. The winter had been hard for both of them, until they’d met each other.
Don’t kill me, but I got off at the wrong exit or something, gonna be later than I thought. Maybe grab dinner without me?
Evan bit her lower lip. Damnit. She wanted to rip the Band-aid off, dissolve that fizzy friction that coursed through her body. She cracked another seltzer, this time blackberry flavored.
That suckssss, she wrote back. Take your time though, I’d rather you get here with all your limbs.
Kinky, he quipped right away, and she smiled.
Stop texting and driving.
Evan’s stomach rumbled, and she decided she would try and go scrounge up food, but she refused to do any of the things they’d agreed upon—there would be no brick oven pizza or house-made kombucha. She threw her coat back on and grabbed her keys, heading out from her haven into the cold.
She’d almost forgotten she was alone and hastily texted the owner so it didn’t feel quite so Black Mirror. Made it.
The snow crunched as she backed up, carefully avoiding the teal chain-linked fence and projector screen they used to show movies in the summer. As she pulled out onto the street, she looked back, and each porch light glowed round like perfect little alien eyes back at her.
Evan picked a shitty place almost on purpose—she didn’t want Jared to think she was having fun without her. A pub with a grubby sign and a banner that read “good food.” She sent Jared a pic.
Yeah, you better not be eating great food without me.
She ordered a Caprese salad and fries with a Diet Coke and ate it all in her car. The basil was dry, the tomatoes tasteless, but the fries were incredible. She wouldn’t tell Jared that detail.
A maskless man rapped on her windshield and she jumped—he was almost completely toothless, a Confederate flag pulled down low over his eyes, a friendly slash of a smile. He gestured for her to roll down the window. She cracked it.
“You enjoy that meal, City Girl,” he called out, the sweetness of whiskey wafting through. She gave him a lifeless thumbs-up, then started her car.
ETA? she texted Jared.
She glanced in the rearview mirror and there he was, still wobbling a little through the bar parking lot. Niceties with an edge, likely from the droves of New Yorkers who had begun to buy land up here, turn their towns into a menagerie of faux fanciness. What made him think she was one of them? If only he’d seen her a year ago.
I’m back on the road, I stopped for sustenance. I should be there by 8, get readyyyyyyy.
Relief flooded her and the prickling fingers of excitement were back. She hurried back to the motel to smooth down the comforter, re-fold the Pendleton, and make sure her makeup and skincare had been carefully stowed away under the sink. She looked at the clock—7:45. He would be here so soon. She tapped her knees, sitting upright like a schoolgirl with perfect posture. She twisted her hair and reapplied lip gloss. She got back up and brushed her teeth, then reapplied the gloss. Any minute it all would begin.
I’m an actual idiot, I got lost again. Is this the worst first date in history?
Evan sighed, a seeping disappointment masked as boredom muted all her limbs. She’d been hanging off the bed, eating one kernel of vegan butter popcorn at a time, staring at the wall. She had to be cool, though. She didn’t want her annoyance plaguing the rest of their trip.
Dude, I’m goooood. This bed is way cozier when I can starfish without my clothes.
He sent back an emoji that was a yellow face with a drop of sweat above its brow. Phew stay right where you are.
Evan decided to change into pajamas—it would be odd for her to be fully dressed if he showed up at midnight. Luckily she’d purchased cute ones—a silk short set in forest green. She slipped into them and then adjusted her makeup—she wouldn’t be bare-faced, but she should look now ready for bed. She wiped champagne eyeshadow off her lids and rubbed her cheeks so the blush was more subtle. Then she lay back down and stared at the same spot on the wall – she couldn’t watch TV because there was no TV. The WiFi was proving a bit spotty and Netflix refused to steam on her phone. She texted Jared an image she hoped was alluring—her bare legs smooth against the stark white comforter, showing off her fresh pedicure. You’re missing out on so much.
Was that whiny? Or just flirty enough?
You’re killing me. I promise it’ll be so worth it once I get there.
She flipped through a coffee table book on tiny houses that had been placed at an angle on one of the bedside tables. She thought again of all the empty rooms on either side of her—empty beds, empty bathtubs, stocked mini-fridges. The likelihood of something a little off happening in one of them was high, no? She didn’t like that thought. She turned the light above the bed off and tucked herself into the decadent bedding—maybe she could just doze a little, so when he arrived she could still sparkle for him.
Evan woke with a start to a room that was pitch black and screaming with silence. 2:38 said the clock on the wall. What the hell? She rubbed into her bleary, dry eyes and sat up straight. Sweat dampened the back of her silk pajamas and she realized the heat was blasting. She tapped her phone to bring it to life and saw there were no texts from Jared.
Are you okay?
Nothing. Had he fallen asleep at the wheel? Driven into a snowdrift? Smashed head-on by a manic truck driver? Then she remembered a blurry sound that had cut through her own sleep, the cause of her stark awakening. A slamming sound, like that of a car door. Evan rose from the bed and walked over to the window that overlooked the parking lot. She pulled open one side of the curtains, exposing the matte blackness outside. Her reflection horrified her – rumpled hair and smeared mascara.
It had begun to lightly snow again at some point in the night, and it was like she was on the outside of a snow globe with nothing inside but weather. She squinted out into the nothingness, trying to find shapes or evidence of the sound. Through the snow down the row of rooms, she could now see a silver door handle, the bed of a truck. There was another car here now.
Without thinking she threw open the door and ran out onto the porch barefoot, the cold knocking the breath from her lungs. She just caught the door behind her to keep it from locking, then spun back around towards the truck. It was parked in front of Room 21 with its headlights off—hadn’t she told Jared they’d be in 13? And did he have a truck? That was interesting texture to his personality if true, but a reminder that they still had so much to learn about each other.
She placed her hand on her forehead and squinted – she was sure she could make out a human shape sitting in the driver’s seat. Had he assumed she was sleeping and decided to wait until morning to wake her? The head then seemed to turn towards her and a thick chill ran through every vein and bone in her body. The man at the bar flashed through her mind. That was not Jared. Evan lunged back into the room, slamming the door shut and locking it with shaking hands. She yanked the curtain closed again. That had been so stupid of her.
Evan used to place herself into dangerous situations when she was drinking all the time, but sober, everything seemed scarier. Every possibility of her murder suddenly seemed so tangible. She peeked out through the corner of the curtain and could just make out the silver door handle. What if it opened. What if two legs, two boots, got out, and began walking towards her room? There was no one here.
What if it was Jared, but there was a darkness she never knew about? What if his plan all along was to torture and kill her in the woods? He knew she had little to do with her family—he knew so much about her. And her him, or at least she thought. They’d Facetimed a lot, but what did that really say? She thought she saw movement at the edge of the trees and she snapped the curtain shut, racing to the bed and jumping deep into the covers. Her eyes so wide they hurt, she stared into the darkness of the goose down, clutching her phone. She snaked an arm out and grabbed a half-drunk seltzer, lime-cucumber flavored. She took a warm sip.
Who knew how long it would take for 911 to arrive if she needed them. How long before anyone found her body in this lonely, empty, tastefully-decorated motel?
She barely slept, scrolling her phone for hours about women found dead in motels, women found dead on hikes, women murdered by people they met on dating apps. She cracked a fresh seltzer, her mouth dry from the unending heat. In the past in times like this, of uncertainty, of pending disappointment, of fear, she would’ve poured vodka into a juice glass, or disappeared into the closest dark bar. Instead, she drank flat bubbles and stared at Jared’s silence, punctuated with bouts of staring at the window, imagining a silhouette appearing against the glass. The doorknob rattling. A voice.
By seven am she was delirious, her silk shorts thrown in a corner and hair in disarray. Her seltzers were gone. In a burst of anger, she’d deleted her and Jared’s text history, then immediately regretted it. She’d dozed a little, her dreams feverish and lurking with hairy hands and crooked teeth, peering eyes. Still no word from Jared.
She pulled her shorts on and unlocked the door, desperate for the cold air on her face. It had snowed more and the parking lot was a blank slate. The truck was gone, and there were no tracks through the powder to prove its existence. A bright pink box sat at the entrance to the door, a lavish gold logo stamped on top. Evan leaned over and gingerly popped the top open.
Six perfect donuts – the icing crisp in varying shades of pastel, the smell warm and doughy. Suspicious and filled with unease, she closed the box and retreated inside, leaving the pastries in the cold. She leaned against the wall and felt the smooth new paint against her back.
I’m pretty worried you’re dead haha, she texted Jared.
It usually said Delivered at the bottom right-hand corner of the screen. This time it didn’t.
She called him. It just rang and rang.
She opened her app, the one they’d met on. The one she was this close to deleting.
He wasn’t there.
She checked Instagram. His @ no longer appeared. His likes on her photos no longer showed up.
She checked Venmo. He’d rescinded his half payment for the room and no longer showed up either.
Evan slid down the wall, the prickles of shock wracking her.
It was like he never existed at all.
Her phone buzzed and she jumped, gems of sweat appearing on her palms as she glanced down to see who’d texted her.
It was the owner of the motel.
Left you fresh donuts outside your door, didn’t want to disturb you.
Hope you enjoyed your stay.
Lyz Mancini is a writer living in Catskill, NY. She is a beauty copywriter for brands like Clinique, and her writing has recently appeared in Slate, Catapult, HerStry, Huffington Post, Yuzu Press, Roi Faineant Press, and more. She is a Pitch Wars 2020 and Tin House Winter Workshop 2022 alum and was nominated for a 2022 Pushcart Prize. She is represented by Victoria Marini of Irene Goodman Literary Agency. Find her on Instagram @Lyzaster and on Twitter @Lyzasterous.
— Nam Tran