“This is it – the Sandcastle Motel,” declared the cabby, stopping abruptly outside a shabby, white-washed cinderblock structure before his eyes involuntarily sought her out again in the rearview mirror. His stare wasn’t particularly creepy or leering, just curious. It was the same look he had given her about a mile down the road when he’d almost rear-ended another car stopped at a red light. Luckily, the cabby had managed to brake in time, but not before her purse and its entire contents had gone flying from the seat beside her onto the floor of the cab.
Sarah Yoder understood his curiosity all too well although her husband, Daniel, sitting in the back seat beside her, seemed oblivious to it. As far as she was concerned, enduring the curious looks came with the territory but it was the leers, the covert whispers and the giggling she couldn’t stand – and there had been plenty of that from their fellow passengers soon after she and Daniel had boarded the Greyhound yesterday in Columbus. In Holmes County, they looked just like all the other locals but once out of their familiar surroundings, they stuck out like a pair of sore thumbs. Truth be told, years ago Sarah would’ve acted just like everyone else but things were different now. She was different and the Sarah of old simply didn’t exist anymore.
She glanced at her husband of little less than a month, noting the grooves of fatigue etched in the lines on either side of his mouth. He looked as tired as she felt. Usually talkative, Daniel had been aloof, saying very little on the ride down to Florida. Understandably so, Sarah thought, since there really wasn’t anything to say that hadn’t already been said before they had reluctantly embarked on this journey.
“Sarah.” Daniel’s hand reached across the back seat and briefly touched hers. “Are you all right?”
Sarah gave him a small smile, hoping it was convincing. “Yes, of course.” With that, she opened the door and got out of the cab. The intense heat hit her the minute she left the comfort of the air conditioned cab, sucking the breath from her lungs as she blinked against the blinding Florida sunshine. The black cotton stockings she wore seemed to draw in the heat as they clung to her legs, already damp with sweat.
She looked at the motel with misgiving while Daniel paid their driver and took their only suitcase from the trunk. “Sandcastle Motel” was definitely a misnomer since there didn’t appear to be any sand or castles as far as the eye could see. She had caught glimpses of the Atlantic and its inviting sandy beaches as their cab had made its way up North Ocean Drive to Lauderdale-by-the-Sea but this motel was a good quarter-mile inland. The one-story building curved around a small, deserted pool and structure-wise, looked like many of the others dotting this south Florida resort town, practically deserted this time of year. The only difference was this one was in serious need of repair, from the peeling paint on the room doors to the malfunctioning vacancy sign. Even the few scruffy palms that grew along the outer perimeter of the building did little to enhance the motel’s appeal.
Daniel took her hand and they resolutely walked over to the glass door marked “OFFICE”. Pulling it open, they went inside. The room was small and cramped but at least it was relatively cool, thanks to a window air conditioner that sputtered none too quietly. One wall was taken up by a display that featured colorful brochures, pamphlets and discount booklets on Florida attractions while the other side of the room had a small reception desk. Behind it sat a non-descript man, reading a paper. He glanced up as they came in.
“Yeah?” Reaching over, he brought his fist down on top of the window unit and it immediately quieted down. “You looking for a room?”
When Daniel didn’t answer, Sarah quickly spoke up. “Not exactly. The last name is Yoder. You’re expecting him.”
The man grunted, deliberately fixing his cold gaze first on her and then on her husband. “Who’re you?”
“I’m his wife,” Sarah answered proudly.
Apparently satisfied with what he saw and heard, he turned and took a key off the wall before handing it to Daniel. “Room 8.”
Daniel went to say something. “I don’t think—”
“—Room 8,” repeated the man before turning back to his paper.
Sarah took Daniel’s hand and headed for the door. Once outside in the scorching July heat, the little confidence she had had, seemed to evaporate as she turned to her husband.
“There must be some other way.” She gestured towards the road. “Let’s just forget this craziness and leave right now, Daniel. Please!”
He shook his head slowly. “You know we can’t. We must do this for Samuel.”
Sarah swallowed hard, taking a moment to get a hold of her turbulent emotions before nodding briskly. “You’re right, of course. Let’s go, then, and get this over with.” With that, she turned and walked down the path towards Room 8 with Daniel close on her heels. Finding it, she waited while her husband opened the door.
The blinds were drawn and the room was dark, cool and smelled musty. Stepping inside, Sarah felt along the wall until she found the light switch and flicked it on. The room was immediately flooded with a harsh light that seemed to accentuate the battle scars on the worn pieces of utilitarian furniture. Not that there was much – just a four-drawer dresser with an old TV on it, a chair off to one side, the requisite dark drapes on the window in a grating seventies pattern that matched the old spread on the bed and complemented the shag carpeting on the floor.
Sarah’s eyes were immediately drawn to the bed – or rather, the box sitting on top of the bed. There was nothing unusual or threatening about it. It had a large picture of one of those individual creamers you got in a restaurant for your coffee and the words “Mendoza Non-Dairy Creamers” under it. She went over to the bed to get a better look. Aside from the additional information of “500 packets/Product of Mexico”, there were no other markings on the box. Spying a folded piece of paper beside it, Sarah picked it up and passed it to Daniel without reading it.
Taking it from her, he read it slowly.
“What does it say?” she finally asked.
“It says to call the number on the paper for further instructions,” he replied, “and not to open, tamper or damage the box in any way.” He looked around the room. “There is no phone in here.”
“That’s strange.” Sarah frowned, going over to the far side of the room and opening the door. As she had suspected, it contained a small bathroom – but no phone. “I suppose we’ll have to use the one in the office.”
“I’ll go,” he told Sarah, giving her a tender smile. “You stay here and get some rest.”
Sarah nodded, watching silently as he left. Unlacing her shoes, she shrugged her feet out of them before unpinning her cap and placing it on the small nightstand beside the bed. She was about to remove her stockings when she thought better of it. No telling when they were going to be on the move again and the last thing she needed was to have to struggle with trying to get her stockings back on in this humidity.
Sarah gingerly lay down on the bed, staring at the box which was easily within arm’s reach. Trying to put it out of her mind, she closed her eyes but the image of the box seemed to burn its way through her closed lids. A few minutes went by before she finally gave up. It was no use. The box was like the proverbial elephant in the room. Opening her eyes, she stared at it with misgiving. Getting up off the bed, she tried putting some distance between her and the box but it was as though a will stronger than her own was pulling her towards it. Unable to resist its allure any longer, she finally picked it up. It felt solid. Turning it sideways, she felt the contents shift inside the box. The back of her head began to thump, a sure sign that she was getting one of her headaches. It’s from the stress of not knowing, she reasoned silently. Maybe if I have a quick peek inside, it’ll put my fears to rest.
Making up her mind, Sarah put the box back on the bed; this time with the bottom facing up. She removed one of the bobby pins from her hair and used it to cut away the tape holding the flaps of the box together. There was nothing special about the way the box was taped and they could easily buy some packing tape a little later, resealing the bottom before delivering it to its destination and no one would be the wiser. When she had cut the entire length of the tape, Sarah carefully lifted apart the two outer flaps, followed by the inside flaps, revealing what looked like a piece of white plastic lining the bottom of the box. The thumping in her head was turning into an insistent ache and her throat felt tight but she soldiered on, intent on revealing the contents of the box.
Gingerly pulling aside the plastic, Sarah could only gape in horror. The spaces between the neat rows of creamers were filled with…coffee grinds. Horrified, she immediately jumped away from the box but the damage was instantaneous. Coffee was her kryptonite and although she hadn’t touched it, she had had direct exposure to it. Her heart began to race and her breathing came in short violent spurts, as if she had just competed in an Olympic sprint. Her head throbbed, ready to explode, as her eyes frantically scanned the room for her purse. It was on the chair a few feet away but when Sarah tried to get to it, she collapsed as she felt the full onset of anaphylactic shock. She knew that in a few more minutes, she’d be dead unless she got to her epinephrine injector so she could give herself a shot. Painstakingly, she crawled towards the chair, fighting the darkness enveloping her, her sight also impaired by the sweat dripping from her forehead into her eyes. Somehow, Sarah managed to crawl close enough to the chair so she could reach up and grab onto it, only to have it and her purse both topple on top of her; a painful impact she barely felt. Hyperventilating, she blindly upturned her purse, groping frantically for the one thing that could save her life – but it was nowhere to be found. With her heart feeling like it would explode, Sarah numbly remembered the near-collision in the cab. Her purse and its contents had gone flying. With her last agonizing breath, she realized that her only lifeline was still probably somewhere on the floor on the cab…
* * *
Daniel hurried back to the room, anxious to collect Sarah and be on their way. Their ordeal was far from over and he was eager to put it behind them so he and Sarah could finally get on with their lives together as man and wife. Opening the door of their room, his eyes immediately took in the overturned chair and the opened box before moving to the scattered contents of Sarah’s purse, stopping abruptly at the sight of her hand closed over it.
“Sarah!” He rushed into the room and threw himself onto the carpet beside her. Daniel’s eyes took in her mottled color as he frantically tried to find her pulse before crawling around on the carpet, searching for Sarah’s injector. When he couldn’t find it, Daniel rushed out of their room with tears streaming down his cheeks. He pounded on the door of the room next to theirs and when no one answered, he rushed back to the office.
The man at the desk was still reading his paper. “Is there a problem?” he asked, looking up.
“My wife,” Daniel managed in between sobs. “She’s collapsed. Please – you must call an ambulance!”
The man had his full attention now. “I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
“But you don’t understand,” Daniel insisted. “She’s collapsed—” He turned and made for the door, anxious to return to Sarah.
Daniel didn’t see the gun the man withdrew from his desk or hear the single shot until it was too late. He crumpled to the floor just inside the office door.
The motel clerk picked up the phone and dialed the same number Daniel had dialed only a few minutes earlier. It was answered on the first ring. “I think we got ourselves a situation down here.”