As for Chelsea: the truck she’d hitched a ride in had dropped her here one frozen January afternoon, when it was too cold to stand out by the highway waiting for the next driver. She’d been on her way to Vegas, but after a few days the Green River had seemed as good a place as any to crash until the weather turned. Now, two years later, she worked the night shift. She still hadn’t unpacked, not really—every morning she woke up and intended to leave.
Not that she had anywhere to go.
At two a.m. on the last Tuesday in September, Chelsea took her smoke break in the parking lot, under the bright stars. Over the past six hundred nights she’d added dozens of constellations to her known universe, poring over the star maps that Dwayne kept in the office along with pamphlets for the local attractions: an illegal zoo called “George’s Tortoises”, and a mystery house, like there were any mysteries left in this sun-baked country.
Behind her, a car pulled into the lot and she turned to look. A man about her age in a dark jacket climbed out of a subcompact so scratched and battered the moon didn’t shine off it. Utah plates, so he was probably local. Dwayne wouldn’t like that.
She stubbed her cigarette out on the ground and made it to the office with just enough time to look settled behind the counter. The bell on the door chimed as the man entered.
Under the fluorescent lights, she could see something was off about him. Chelsea had a pretty good eye for drunks and junkies, given how she’d grown up, and it wasn’t that, but there was something blurry about his features. Like they’d been smudged with an eraser. She blinked twice, thinking her eyes were out of focus, but it didn’t help.
“Looking for a room?” she asked. The man twitched at the sound of her voice. “A room,” she said again, slower. His eyes got big. Maybe he didn’t speak English. “At this motel.”
In the pause that followed, she swore she could see him trying to work out her intentions. Finally he said, “Yes. A room at this motel.” No accent.
“Okay. Room’s forty dollars. Cash only and you have to leave a deposit. In case you, um.” She looked him up and down: the circles under his eyes, the deep pallor of his skin. “Party too hard. Trash the place.”
She smiled to let him know she was joking, but he didn’t smile back, just slid a few crisp twenties across the desk.
The man wasn’t inside, but there was trash everywhere. Stacks and stacks of papers, some of them torn from magazines and newspapers and books, others written or drawn on with pencil, marker… charcoal? She couldn’t tell if there was any order to it.
She walked gingerly around the piles, straightened the sheets, fluffed the pillows. He’d taken down the painting on the wall: a Monet print, because Dwayne thought it looked classy. Chelsea found it shoved under the bed. Her room had the same print; she’d hidden it in the closet the day she moved in, and still hadn’t hung anything back up in its place. If she started hanging things on the walls, the Green River would start feeling less like an accident and more like a decision.
The door clicked open. The man stood in the doorway, tall and broad enough in his unzipped jacket that he blocked most of the light. She imagined some people would feel a threat from his posture, his shadowed face, but those people hadn’t seen as much bullshit as Chelsea had. She didn’t flinch.
“You should not be in here,” he said.
“I’m cleaning,” she said.
His footsteps were heavy, not muffled at all by the patchy gray carpet. He started piling up the loose papers in no obvious order, then shoving them into dresser drawers that squealed when he pulled them out.
Chelsea stood there watching him, hands on her hips. “What are you doing?”
“I think you are not supposed to ask questions like that,” he said, slamming another drawer shut, and normally she would have been offended, but she got a keen sense that he meant it—like he really was confused about what either of them ought to be doing, rather than suggesting that the maid shouldn’t have an opinion.
One piece of paper slipped from his hands. A pencil drawing of something mechanical, maybe part of a computer or a car. In that brief glimpse she could see fine detail, tiny perfect lines, perfect circles. Smudges where the artist must have rested his palm. It was weird and beautiful, and it made Chelsea look at him a little more closely.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“A traveler. This is what people who stay at motels are.” It sounded more like a question than a statement.
“Sure, while they’re here. But nobody stays at a motel forever.” A lie—lots of people did. But this guy was no drifter; he was clean, and the inside of his car was empty, whatever weird shit he had was piled up in the room. “What are you when you go home?”
A shiver went through him like a lightning strike. His body shook and his hair stood on end, then settled back into place. “Home,” he echoed, and she felt it in her chest, his sharp regret for saying the word at all. He cocked his head and gazed straight at her, his eyes flashing silver from some unnoticed reflection, making their own light in the dim room. “What are you when you go home?”
Like home was a given, a place you could return to or at least find on a map. This was the longest she’d lived anywhere, and she hadn’t even updated her driver’s license.
“I don’t.” She moved toward the door, head down, and he got out of her way.
“Don’t—” he paused, like he had to formulate the simplest question “—what?”
She walked out into the parking lot and answered, mostly to herself, “Go home.”
Every night, just after her desk shift started, he came in to pay for the next night. Always in crisp, perfect twenties that looked like they’d come straight from the mint, even though the only place to get cash around here was the ancient ATM in the lobby, and she knew it wasn’t dispensing bills that looked like that. One afternoon, while he was gone wherever he went to, she rifled lightly through his stuff, expecting to find his stash somewhere. But it seemed like the money just appeared whenever he needed it.
On the sixth night she said, “You know, we have long-term rates. If you’re gonna be here a while.”
As usual, it took him a moment to process what she’d said, like he was translating in his head. “Okay,” he said.
“It’s two-forty for a week, if you’ll be here that long. Eight hundred for a month.”
In the two years she’d been at the Green River, no one had ever paid for a month up front. Anybody who had eight hundred dollars in cash had somewhere better to be. But the man nodded and said, “Yes.”
A few minutes later he returned with a thick stack of bills in his hand. Chelsea counted them, feeling conspicuous. She texted Dwayne: Need to make a deposit ASAP.
“That guy in room eleven,” he said, gesturing with his thumb. “I saw him messing with the ice machine yesterday. Trying to unplug it or something. You think he’s on the up and up?”
Chelsea didn’t look up from the floor she was scrubbing. It looked like the last guests had tried to set fire to the linoleum. “He never uses the bathroom, and he had eight hundred bucks just lying around, ready to go. So… no.”
“You think he’s like some kind of drug lord? Cartel guy? Maybe a hired gun.” Dwayne watched too much TV.
“He might grow pot in his basement and sell it to college kids. He doesn’t look like a drug lord.”
Dwayne shook his head solemnly. “They never do, Chels. They never do.”
“Well, what do you want me to do? Call the cops?”
He recoiled, like she knew he would. “No way. I just, you know. I’m speculating. You know I like to speculate.”
“He’s a weird kind of handsome,” Dwayne added, and Chelsea knew what he meant—the man looked like one of those composite faces, technically correct but fuzzy around the edges. Not quite human. “You think he’d be interested?” He puffed up his chest and grinned at her, but she knew it was only half a joke.
“We don’t sleep with the guests, Dwayne. That’s like, the first rule of business.”
He gave her a mournful look. “I trained you up too good, Chels. Now you’re the one keeping me in line.”
“Don’t forget it.”
“You do this a lot,” he said by way of introduction.
“Every night,” she confirmed. It was one of the best things about her life here: the long, quiet nights, watching the stars rise and set. The world calm and soft. It was a peace she’d been surprised to find, something she hadn’t known she needed.
The man nodded. “I also stay awake.”
Chelsea wondered when he slept. Maybe he was like her, even as a child she’d slept short and hard, waking after a few hours ready for the new day. It had made most of her legal and not-so-legal guardians crazy, but her mother had never minded. She would take Chelsea out to look at the stars in the middle of the night, giving them names and stories invented on the spot. More than once they fell asleep out there on the roof.
The man watched her. After a moment he gestured toward her cigarette and she exhaled and offered it to him, a little spark lighting up when their fingers brushed. He took it and inhaled, then coughed violently.
“Not a smoker?” she asked, grinning.
“Maybe not. Do you like it?”
Chelsea shrugged. It had never been a question of liking it, it was just something to keep her hands busy. “This stuff kills you, you know? Sometimes I think about quitting, but I guess I don’t see the point. The way things are.”
“This planet is getting warmer,” he said, nodding sagely.
This planet? she wondered, giving him a quick, sharp glance. “Warmer, or just worse. You don’t worry about that? You don’t think about all the fires and the storms? The fact it gets hotter and hotter out here every summer?”
The man took a small step closer to her and said, “I think about it.”
They stood together, looking up at the dark sky. She traced the constellations, reciting their names in her head. She’d learned Cassiopeia like other kids learned catechism.
“What are you saying?”
She looked at him, surprised. She was sure she hadn’t spoken out loud. “The stars. Their names.”
“You have names for all of them?”
“Of course not. There are billions of stars. More—an uncountable number.”
“There is no such thing.”
“It’s an expression. I just say the ones I know. The ones I see out here every night.” She pulled out her phone and loaded the app that gave her the positions of each planet, each star. It showed the Space Station shooting across the sky, impossibly fast.
He looked it over and poked at the screen, pulling up information on each of the stars in turn.
“Much of this is wrong,” he said. “This is not what these stars are called.”
Chelsea laughed, and he startled at the sound. “All right,” she said, “let’s hear it. What are they actually called?”
“Most do not have names that work in your language.”
“Sure,” she said amicably. “I guess that’s why we have to make up other names for them, right?”
“Your people’s capacity for both hearing and speaking is more limited than most,” he affirmed, and did he mean that like you Americans, or something more, like he was—
Never, even as a little girl, had Chelsea been prone to imagination. When her first-grade teacher asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, she’d said a nursing home aide, like her aunt, who watched her sometimes when her mother disappeared. The other kids, the aspiring soccer players and actors and rock stars—Chelsea didn’t know what had happened to them, but she doubted they’d gotten any luckier than she had.
And so she did not, of course, believe that he was some kind of alien. It didn’t strike her as the kind of thing she’d be able to believe even if she wanted to, and she didn’t want to. It was just another in the long line of stupid things men had told her.
“I am lonely sometimes,” he said after a while. As he spoke he continued staring up at the stars.
Chelsea glanced over at him, her head still tilted back. “Me too.”
For the first time in as long as she could remember, she dreamed: a capsule of metal and stone, dark skies, the stars spread at her feet. Earth in the distance, bright like it was lit from within, like it was a star, like it was aflame. She wheeled her arms uselessly, trying to get back home, and she woke with her lungs burning like she’d really been out in space, free-floating, hypoxic.
Though she didn’t need to start on the rooms for an hour or two, her hands were restless, so she made her way down to room eleven. “What’s your name?” she asked as soon as he opened the door. He blinked at her. She tried again. “What are you called?”
“Not something you can pronounce.”
Sure. Why not? “Then what can I call you?”
He thought about it. “Refrigerator.”
She winced. “Yeah, I’m not going to call you that. How about Michael?”
His eyes, owlish and strange. He looked less human every day. “Michael is fine.”
“Do you want to let me in?”
His shoulders hunched. “Why?”
“I work here. Besides, it seems like you could use someone to talk to, and I—I’m bored.”
His eyes flashed, and this time she couldn’t pretend some reflection from outside had caught them.. “Lonely.”
“I don’t know about where you’re from, but here on Earth those are usually the same thing.”
With a white-knuckle grip on the handle, he opened the door just wide enough for her to enter. He hadn’t let her in to clean for a few days, and she saw why. With the tape he’d borrowed from the office (she knew she should’ve asked what he needed it for) he’d plastered charts and pages all over the walls.
She saw now what he’d been making back on that first day. It didn’t make sense to her, but he’d managed to tape together all those scraps—torn-out magazine pages and the sports section of a Salt Lake City newspaper and bits of car manual—like puzzle pieces, so they formed an enormous diagram. Not that Chelsea could tell what it was supposed to be a diagram of. It didn’t look like anything she’d ever seen before.
“Is this where all the brochures went? Dwayne was pissed about that.”
“Tell him I am sorry. I needed them.”
“Oh, I’m not going to tell him anything. What is this?”
The man—Michael—traced the outline of whatever it was. “I got lost,” he said. “A long time ago. I have been trying to get back, but it is difficult. I had to find all the pieces.”
“Is that what all this is?” Chelsea looked at it again. The way he’d folded and cut so that everything fit perfectly together, how she could see each individual piece, but only if she really focused. She thought it was the best, weirdest art she’d ever seen. Way better than the Monet he’d shoved under the bed.
“My… colleagues? Is that the word? They have been helping, but there are many rules, many restrictions. This is not a place where they can easily send messages.”
“Yeah, the cell coverage is terrible out here.”
“That is not the problem.”
“Yeah, Michael. I know.”
He’d pulled it out from the wall. Somebody had taken the plastic back off the machine and torn up all the wiring inside. Somebody, she thought, but she had her suspicions. Dwayne did too.
“This is your guy,” Dwayne accused. “Room Eleven. Ten and Twelve keep complaining about weird noises. Clanking and shit.”
“He’s not my guy.” She didn’t address the clanking. She was sure it was true.
“You’ve been hanging out with him,” Dwayne said. “You don’t hang out with people.”
“I hang out with you,” Chelsea pointed out, which was true to the extent that sometimes their shifts overlapped. A couple times they’d traded hiking intel or shared a pizza. “Hey, do you ever think there’s something weird about him? Like maybe he’s not…” She hesitated. “From around here?”
“Utah plates,” Dwayne said.
Chelsea ground her heel into the pavement. “Yeah. Sure.”
“Maybe he’s a fugitive or something,” Dwayne said.
“Cops would’ve told us.” They’d had plenty of fugitives. Fugitives and drifters and weirdos, but she’d never felt any threat from Michael. He just seemed kind of lost, and Chelsea knew something about that.
“You gotta get him in line, Chels,” Dwayne warned, before he walked off muttering, “The ice machine!”
Sometimes she’d play music for him. Mostly hipster shit that sounded like aliens might like it, but she threw Beethoven’s Fifth on there to see if he’d heard it before. Her mother had been born the year the Voyager space probe launched, and she could’ve listed every song they’d sent into space. Her mother used to play them when she got high. “Music is the only language you’ll have in common,” she’d say, wispy and strung-out, and Chelsea almost wished they were still in touch, just so she could tell her mother she was wrong.
Now, those smoke breaks were the only time she saw him. She’d stopped trying to clean his room—it clearly made him agitated, and he barely seemed biological at all, so there was never anything to clean. She was sure now that he didn’t sleep. The lights were on in the room all day and all night, brightness streaming out through the broken blinds and around the sides of the door.
“You like it here,” he said one night, after a noise complaint had pushed him out to the parking lot. He seemed more anxious than usual. “At this motel. With your stars.”
“There’s more of them here,” she agreed.
“No, there are not—”
“Not literally,” she cut him off, gently. Not that he seemed to notice if she was gentle or not. “They’re easier to see. It doesn’t get this dark other places.”
In unison they leaned back against the side of his car, passing the cigarette and those weird static sparks back and forth. His hands shook and his foot tapped the cooling pavement; his strange eyes scanned the horizon, searching. She didn’t ask what for.
“It’s quiet here, too,” she said after a while. “And it’s easy to live somewhere where everyone always leaves.”
“Where do they go?”
“Home, I guess. Or maybe just another motel.” Chelsea looked at him. “You will too. Leave, I mean.”
Michael hummed low in his throat and seemed to settle. “And you?”
She shrugged. “I keep meaning to. Not today.”
“He might be experimenting,” she mused.
Dwayne narrowed his eyes. “Not like that. I meant, you know, wholesome experiments. Science experiments. You’re not involved with him, are you?”
“I’m not even sure that’s an option. I don’t think he’d know what to do.”
Dwayne snickered, but she hadn’t been joking. He never seemed all that comfortable in his body. Chelsea wouldn’t be surprised if he were missing out on some of the finer points.
It didn’t take Dwayne long to get serious again. “Look, I warned you. It’s getting worse. The weird noises, stuff going missing. Room 6 caught him digging through the trash. And I still can’t get that damn ice machine to work. We get one more bad TripAdvisor review and it’s all over.”
Dwayne never liked the weeklies. Never mind that they were half the customers, at least this time of year. She and Dwayne got paid either way.
“He’s not a bad guy,” Chelsea said, though she felt like she should be able to offer up a stronger defense.
Dwayne shrugged. “Whether he is or isn’t. He’s bad for business.”
Chelsea said, “I’ll tell him.”
“It’s not that. You’re just… you’re not our usual kind of guest is all. Dwayne doesn’t know what to make of you.”
“He does not have to make anything of me.”
“I’m not the boss. I’ll see if he’ll give you a few days.”
Michael was bouncing on the balls of his feet, blocking the doorway again. His face flickered in the shadows, like an old TV with bad reception. He was disappearing, she thought. A little more every day. “I need a week,” he insisted.
“If you need help finding another place to stay, I can call around. I know it feels real isolated here, but there’s other places nearby, you just have to know where to go. I can get you set up.”
He shook his head. “I need to be here. This is where they will look for me.”
“Who, Michael?” The question burst out of her.
“I think,” he said slowly, “that you are not supposed to ask these kinds of questions.”
But surely she was ready, now, for the answer?
He looked down at the floor, then away to the horizon. Night fought the last trails of pink and gold down below the mountains, leaving both of them in the dark.
“Where are you going to go?” she asked finally.
“Where we are always going,” he said, and Chelsea had to blink to keep him in focus. “Where you are also going.”
She snorted. “I’m not going anywhere.”
He angled his head to look at her more closely. “Perhaps not,” he said. “Perhaps you are already here.”
There wasn’t any response, and no light shining from under the door either. “Michael?” she tried again. Still nothing. When she turned, she saw the empty space where his car had been.
She used her master key in the lock. The room was empty and perfectly clean, the Monet back in its place. There was no sign that anyone had occupied the room at all, not even a tissue in the garbage or a rumpled sheet corner. It was cleaner than she usually bothered to leave the rooms between guests.
Walking the room, she pressed her hand to each corner of the desk, the side of the television, the top of the mattress. Even without him there was some kind of energy in the room, in every object. She felt it in her palms, that little frisson of electricity.
“Where’d you go,” she said out loud, then sighed.
It was not possible to miss him. She didn’t know anything about him, or he about her. They had no special connection. He was just another guest who came and then left. Went home, she thought.
But he’d stood next to her out in the dark, and she hadn’t minded the company.
Even though the room was spotless she dragged the vacuum cleaner in, just to make a show of things for Dwayne. It didn’t pick any dirt up, but it did catch on a single piece of paper under the bed. She recognized it as part of his massive diagram: not one of the news clippings, but part of a star map. He’d printed it off on the computer in the lobby, used a whole thing of toner that Dwayne had insisted he pay for.
On it, one star was circled. Chelsea pulled out her phone and looked it up. HX-5709, apparently. That’s what they called it on Earth.
She wondered what its real name was. She wondered what his real name was. For one moment, holding that piece of paper, she let herself believe that all of it was possible. That all of it was real.
After the rooms were clean, she snuck past Dwayne in the office and stole a thumbtack from the desk. Back in her room she studied the bare walls, looking for the spot where the Monet had once hung. She pinned the star up in its place.
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