“Safe” Dark Fiction by Janet Goldberg

Five hours into our escape my husband and I pulled into Bridgeport, 8000 feet up in the Sierras.  Earlier, a little after dusk, we’d seen cows, or the shadows of them, moving slowly across the meadows.  But once in town it was too dark to see anything but the dull fluorescent strip of motels, gas stations, and the brick town hall.  Come morning we’d see the tall, snow-capped mountains rising up around the town and, if we were lucky, blue sky.  We’d been here many times before—a stop-off on the way to the desert—but this time was different.  This was no vacation.  And it was cold, far colder than we’d expected.  At the edge of town my husband turned into the Bridgeport Inn pulling up beside the office.  I peered out my window at the place, most of its rooms dark, the empty pool, lit by two spotlights, peeling.  Come summer, pool filled, it was a pretty place.  Now, early March, still the edge of winter, the motel looked run down, an unhappy place in the middle of nowhere.  Or maybe I was just tired, not just from the drive but from months of madness, and I felt guilty boarding our cats.  Little cages in a back room of a vet clinic.  Still, they’d be safe.  No one could get to them.

“Hey, are you coming?”  My husband, out of the car now, leaned back in, his door still open.  His eyes looked bloodshot, his hair a little grayer.  We’d both lost weight.

I opened my door and got out.  Before coming around the car, I looked over my shoulder at the road and beyond the road into the darkness half expecting the darkness to take shape.

“There’s nothing out there,” my husband said, holding the office door open.

“I know,” I said, stepping in, taking in the dimly lit room, a coffee maker and Styrofoam cups on a table alongside the wall, the check-in counter across from it, and behind the counter an open door to living quarters.  Inside there a T.V. flashed; orange goldfish swam in a large tank.  The rest of the office, which I’d seen before, opened into another larger room, a mini museum of glass-encased Indian relics, mounted on the walls, a wooden sled, a rifle, and a deer head.  It was dark in there now though.  My husband, at the counter, rang the bell.  A man in a plaid flannel shirt and jeans padded out in his socks and yawned.  We knew him, of course, though never asked his name, and he seemed no different than last year, amiable, maybe a little scattered as if he’d accidentally wandered into his own motel.  It was we who were different—more serious than usual, desperate looking maybe, and I worried he’d notice.  People in small towns always noticed and sometimes cared.

 “Well, hello, folks.  Was just getting ready to close things up.”   He put on a pair of gold-rimmed glasses and looked at us curiously.  “You two come up every year, don’t you, but this year seems earlier.”  He started flipping though some index cards. 

“No reservation this time,” my husband said.  “Do you have a room for tonight?”  He pulled his wallet out.

“Maybe two nights,” I said.  “I take it you’re not that busy.”

 “Just our local deer hunters now.  You can have as many nights as you like.”  He looked at me and chuckled.

I must have been grimacing.

“No fan of hunters, eh?”  He slid the credit card through and punched in some numbers.

“Or dead deer,” I said.   We’d seen them all stiff tied to flatbeds or stacked atop another in town on the sidewalks.

“Me neither.  That one over there.”  He cocked his head toward the dark part of the office.  “Came with the place.  Just glad they didn’t put it over there.”  He nodded toward the coffee maker.  “Then I’d have to look at it all the time.”  The man handed my husband his credit card.  “Storm might come in tonight,” he said.  “Maybe snow.  We can still get hit pretty hard up here even this late in the season.”  He pushed a key toward us.  “Good thing you two aren’t in a rush.  You look beat.”

  “Long drive,” my husband said.   He blinked his eyes nervously.

 “Maybe food would help,” he said.  “Nothing open in town now, but a half a mile out there’s a Mexican place–Desperados–might still be open.  You’ll see a sign on the road.”

 After we dropped our bags in the room, we got back in the car.

 “I’m not really hungry,” I said.

“You’ll sleep better if you eat something.”

Back on 395 we drove out of town and into darkness.  My husband switched on the high beams, the road, and the thick forest framing it, coming to life.  We’d driven this stretch many times but always in the morning, after check-out, on the last leg down to the desert, to Death Valley, where the heat rejuvenated us after wet, dreary San Francisco winters. 

“Maybe we should have used fake names,” I said, on the look-out for the sign.

“Relax.  No one knows we’re here.  What did he say the name of the place was?”

“Desperados.  But I don’t remember there being anything out here.”

“There it is,” my husband said, the headlights flashing on a sign at the road’s edge, a gun-slinging bandit and an arrow pointing the way.  My husband turned, driving down a short, bumpy road nestled in forest, pulling up to a ranch-style restaurant, a large picture window in the front.  The light above the door was on and a car, an old Cadillac, in the lot, but the rest of the place looked nearly dark.

“I hope this isn’t another wild goose chase.  I’ve had enough of that for a lifetime.”  A dozen butcher knives stabbed into the deck rails, bullets scattered in between, the vile threats, but because we all lived in the same building, in an HOA, the common space a free for all, the police said they couldn’t do anything, not until our neighbor actually hurt us. 

My husband turned off the engine.  “We might as well check it out.”  He opened the door and got out.

“A Mexican restaurant in the middle of nowhere.  Weird,” I said.

“Only because it’s dark.  You wouldn’t think so during the day.  Everything looks different during the day.” 

We paused at the door, which was massive, made of thick wood.  Carved into it were small gargoyles, human arms wrapped around lion heads.  The sign, hanging from a nail, said Cerrado.

“See,” I said, but my husband pushed on the door anyway, and we stepped in, everything inside–the terracotta tile, the paper lanterns, the wooden booths–giving off a soft reddish haze.  From the back of the restaurant a tall, gray-haired man with a mustache appeared.  He smiled warmly.  “Welcome.  We have your food ready.”   The man slipped back into the darkness. 

I looked at my husband. 

“Don’t say anything,” he said.

Then the man came back, handing my husband a white plastic bag.  “Enjoy,” he said.

My husband pulled out his wallet, but the man raised his hand.  “It’s on the house.”

“Really?  Are you sure?” my husband asked.

The man nodded.  “It’s the end of the day.  It’s the least we can do.  Just come back to see us again.  Okay?”  

 “Thank you,” my husband said, taking the bag.  “That’s generous of you.”

The man escorted us back to the front door and held it open for us.  Good night,” he said. 

Behind us we heard the lock turn.

As we headed toward the car, I stopped, turning, and saw the man at the window.  He raised his hand, and I raised mine back.  Then I caught up with my husband and got in the car.  He handed me the bag, and I put it on my lap.

“The guy from the motel probably called it in,” my husband said.  “He didn’t want us to go hungry.”

“Whatever it is,” I said, “it’s still warm.”

My husband turned on the lights and then drove out of the lot. 

Back at the motel, we lifted the lids off the tins, inside tacos, rice, refried beans covered in cheese.  I stared at it for a moment, a long time since I’d had appetite.  My husband unwrapped his fork and plunged it into the beans.  Even in the best of times, he was lean, but now no one would guess that beneath his bulky sweater he looked like the starved men of concentration camps.  He’d been just as scared as I was.  I pushed my tin toward him.

The dream always started the same way our trouble had–with exploding glass as loud as a gunshot.  Then we’d jumped out of bed and run to the back kitchen door; there, opposite us, was our neighbor’s kitchen door, between the two, glass scattered all over the landing, the shards still left in the frame like monster teeth.  In my dream though a face—wild-eyed and fiendish—always appeared.  That’s when I always woke, jolted out of sleep, heart racing, just as we both had been the night it had all started, the night we’d called the police.  That’s when he’d become vengeful, starting after us, his mania out of control.  Tonight was no different, the dream replaying over and over.  I switched on the bedside lamp.  5:00 a.m. now, it was still dark, the room chilly.  I got out of bed and switched the heat on and then got back in.  I didn’t see how it would end:  months of 5150s at the county asylum, giving us brief reprieves–three days of commitment, two days of post medication stupor, then the rage would start up again, an endless cycle.  The police eventually told us to get a gun.  One officer even showed me what to do if he cornered me in the basement or the garage.  I looked at my husband now.  His face a mask of calmness, he slept so quietly that I felt for his heartbeat, gently placing my hand on his chest, so thin that I could feel the curve of his ribs.  Then I got up again and went over to the window and parted the curtains a little.  But there was no wind, and now, tucked away in this little room in a mountain town, I suddenly felt safe.  I went over to my suitcase and pulled out my jacket.  I slipped my feet in sneakers and walked to the back of the room to a sliding glass door and pulled it open.  The cold air blasting in almost made me slide it shut, but I stepped out anyway, a long time since I could open a door without fear.  

 When my husband woke, I was already dressed.  Curtains parted, sun was streaming through. 

 “Muffins and juice at the front desk if you want,” I said.  “Sleep well?”

 My husband yawned.  “Well enough.  You eat?”

 “I had some tea.”

 The phone rang.

 My husband and I looked at each other. 

 “You didn’t tell anyone, did you?  Not even your sister, right?”

 “I just told her we were leaving,” I said

 “Just let it ring,” he said.

“He knows we’re here.”  I walked over to the nightstand, picked up the receiver put it to my ear, then pulled it away.  “Hang-up.”

 “That doesn’t mean it was him.”  My husband got out of bed.  “Could have been anyone.”

“Sure.  Anyone.”  I walked over to the window and looked out, our car the only one in the lot.  Then I turned back around.  “Did you bring the gun?”

My husband unzipped his suitcase and started rifling through it.  He pulled out a map and spread it open on the bed.  “Someone will kill him or he’ll kill someone, and it won’t be us.  Listen, I have an idea.  The storm’s petered out.  Let’s just take a day off.  We’re safe.  The cats are safe.  No one knows we’re here.  We can take the road into Bodie.  It’s about twenty miles.  It’s right here on the map.  To that ghost town we always pass.  First though.”  He went back to his suitcase and started pulling out some clothes.  “I’m going to grab a cup of coffee.”

In the car we got back onto 395.

“By the way,” my husband said, “it was the guy at the front desk that called this morning.  Called the wrong room.”

“Really?  Why’d he hang up?”

“Embarrassed, I guess.  Worried he’d woken us up.  Anyway, he told me to tell you he was sorry.” 

“Did you have a muffin?” I asked.

“Sure.  Chocolate chip.  There were tons of them, even though nobody’s here.”

“What else did he say?” I asked.

“You know, the usual.  What you’d expect.  Wife left him.  Short stint in law school.  Hamsters.  He’s got a whole bunch of them back there where he lives.”

“But how could he call the wrong room if we’re the only ones here?”

My husband slowed down.  “I think that’s it–the turn-off.”  He turned onto an unpaved road.

“You sure?  Why isn’t it marked?”

“Because it’s haunted.  The ghosts want to keep it that way.  Stop worrying, will you.”

The road started climbing through open meadow.  Beyond the meadow, on my husband’s side, were snow-topped mountains with low-growing sparse vegetation. Out my side a thick line of trees backed a series of bald, rocky hills, but despite the warm sun streaming in, the place felt cold, forgotten. 

“What’s that ahead?”

My husband slowed down coming to a stop.  “Deer.  No.  Antelope, I think.  Two of them.”

 The pair, poised at the edge of the tree line, were looking down the road toward us.  The larger one, the male, I assumed, stepped into the middle of the road, honey-colored, stout, as tall as horse with black antlers. Nostrils flared, he stamped one foot and snorted.  Then there was an explosion, and I fell forward, folding myself in half.  “Jesus, what was that?”

“Hunters.”

I started to sit back up.  “I thought this was state park.”

“Not all of it, I guess.  Are you okay?”

“How close do you think that was?” I asked.

“Probably not very,” my husband said.  “Sound echoes out here.  You still want to go?”

“If you think it’s safe…”

My husband started driving again. 

“What happened to the antelope?”

“I’m sure they’re fine.  They can run.”  Having just reached the crest of a hill, he slowed down again, the town coming into view, a bunch of broken-down wooden buildings scattered across a barren hillside.  “There won’t be any shooting here.”  He pulled into the lot, a truck there and a cinderblock restroom.

“You think it’s flush?” I asked.  

We didn’t talk much as we walked the dirt and pebble path from one building to another–from the church, the jail, the saloon, to the general store.  Mostly we just peeked through windows or barred doorways at what was left of the old furnishings, trying to imagine what life would have been like if the place was teeming with miners, drunks, prostitutes, thieves, children.  At the schoolhouse we could see small wooden desks and chairs and old books, readers from the era, and a chalkboard, and there was a spiral staircase up to a second floor.  We tried pushing on the door, thinking we might somehow get in, but then I felt a firm hand on my shoulder and swung around.

 “Hey, you can’t go in there,” a red-bearded man in overalls said, a shovel in his hand.  “These buildings aren’t safe.  Half my day’s spent propping them up.”

That night we ate across the street from the motel, at the Bridgeport Bar & Grill, a white-shingle house converted into a downstairs restaurant and an upstairs motel.  White scalloped curtains hung over the windows, and on the tables were gas-lit lamps.  There were eight tables in total, two against the windows facing 395, four alongside the other two walls, and two in the center where we sat.

“Now what?”  I said.

 “We order,” my husband said.

I closed my menu.  “I mean tomorrow.”

My husband shrugged. 

“Maybe we should call the police,” I said.  “Maybe they locked him up again.”

“The police won’t tell you anything.  They can’t.  Not when they’re crazy.”

“They’d tell us if he were dead.”

“He isn’t.  That’s the problem with these guys.  You can’t ever kill them.”

“This morning you said someone would.”

My husband opened the menu.  “What are you getting?”

“What are we going to do?”

“We’re going to wait him out.  Something will happen.  He’ll do something, and they’ll put him in jail or in the hospital again and get him right.  He can’t stay crazy forever.  And then we’ll go back and start over.”

“So you don’t think someone will kill him?”

“Do you want someone to kill him?”

“Hey, folks.”  The waitress stood at our table.  “What can I get you?”  She pulled out a small pad.

“Coke, please,” I said.

“Two,” my husband said, and then she went through the specials, venison stew in red wine sauce and rack of lamb with mint butter and mashed potatoes. “Think about it,” she said, turning for the bar.

My husband closed his menu.  “I say we head down to Death Valley.  A week there.  Then we go back.”

“Why a week?” I said.

“How long can we keep the cats cooped up?”

I rubbed my eyes. “I know.  The cats.” 

“It’s only been two nights,” my husband said.  “Don’t worry.”

“You don’t think he can get to them?”

The waitress placed our drinks on the table and pulled two straws from her apron.  “Ready?”

The next morning while my husband loaded up the car, I went over to the front desk and laid the key on the counter.

“So you’re leaving,” the man said.  “Was everything all right?’

“Yes.  Fine.”  I pushed the room key toward him.  “About that call yesterday.  We were already up, so no worries.”

The man raised his eyebrows.  He picked up the key and hung it on a hook.   “Are you all right?”

 “I’m fine.”

 “You know, you don’t have to go if you don’t want to,” he said.  “I can give you a special deal.”

“A special deal?”

He took the key off the hook and pushed it back toward me.  “For as long as you want.” 

I peered at the key and then looked up at the man.  “What did my husband tell you?”

The man shook his head and shrugged.

I pushed the key back.  “We have to go back sometime.”

“No you don’t.  You could stay here forever.  People do.”

“But we’re the only ones here.”  I looked down at the key again, its sharp ridges, and then over at the door.  “We can’t live our lives in a motel.” 

Chuckling, the man stuffed his hands in his pockets.  “Course you can.”


Janet Goldberg’s “Safe” comes from a collection titled Every Small Thing.  Her novel The Proprietor’s Song will be published by Regal House in the summer of 2023:  https://www.regalhousepublishing.com/janet-goldberg/  She also edits fiction for Deep Wild https://deepwildjournal.com/ and teaches writing at a community college in northern California.


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