The teacher had recently started trying to teach the children how to tell time, but it was well beyond Lacey's comprehension, however she could usually feel when it was roughly time for her mother to pick her up.
Typically, it was her mother that came to the preschool to pick her up, and she had no notion that today would be any different.
To pass the time at the end of the day, the teacher had given crayons and paper to the children. Lacey was working on a picture that she said was of a dream she had had the night before. There were smiling people, lots of colors floating about and it was all in a big, black box.
"That's very good, Lacey. I like all of the colors."
Lacey answered her teacher, "Oh those colors are music. It's in an elevator." She then pointed out the black box, "see?"
The teacher smiled and said, "Oh, is it elevator music?"
"No silly," replied the girl, laughing, "What's that? It's a music elevator, " she said like it was the most normal thing in the world. "You said it backwards."
The teacher smiled to herself and was about to say something when a fight over a red crayon broke out between two boys on the other side of the classroom. She rushed to break it up.
Lacey continued to work on her picture, humming a song to herself that was unknown to all around her.
As she worked diligently on her picture, two people, a man and woman entered the classroom. When the teacher aw them, the man put a finger to his lips as a sign to not tell their daughter they had arrived.
The teacher smiled, not saying a word, well not to Lacey at least; she was still in the middle of mediation between the two boys over the red crayon.
Janneine and Artie, the parents snuck up quietly behind Lacey and looked over her shoulder to see what she was working so hard on.
Lacey's father spoke first.
"That's quite some picture you've got there, baby."
Lacey turned around, excited to see her father, but her first impulse was to tell him, "I'm not a baby anymore daddy."
"Oh yeah," he said, chagrined. They had talked about this just the night before. She insisted that she was a big girl now and no longer a baby.
The girl saw her mother next to her father and smiled, "Mommy!"
Janneine looked at her husband and shrugged, "I guess she likes me better today."
"I guess so."
To try and win his daughter's favor back, Artie called attention once again to her colorful drawing.
"That sure is great. Can you tell me about it?"
Artie had learned that it was not a good idea with Lacey to assume he knew what anything she ever drew or painted was, and to instead ask open ended questions about her work so he didn't wind up looking like a complete loon.
Once she had drawn a picture and he had asked, "is that a cowboy on a horse? It's very good." His daughter had sighed to herself, then gave him a disgusted look and said, "No daddy, "in the most annoyed tone she could muster, "it's a picture of you and mommy."
This made him wonder which he was, the cowboy or the horse, so he asked. Her answer took on an even more annoyed tone, explaining that what he thought was the back end of the horse was him, and the part that looked like the man and the front half of the horse was his wife. Luckily, he stopped short of telling Lacey that he didn't get it. He and Janneine had a good laugh, more her than him, when he told her about it.
"So basically she drew you as a horse's ass," Janneine joked, "yeah, I can see that," she added as she poked him in the side playfully.
Lacey explained her picture as she had with the teacher, but in more detail. It was a dream she had had about a magical place with the most beautiful music anyone had ever heard. She pointed to the colors to explain that it was the music. The place was an elevator, "but not like a normal elevator, it was, like, really, really big. Umm, I don't remember there being a door, but the people said it was going up and down so it was an elevator." Lacey explained that the people were all so very happy and that she wished it was real so she could visit it.
Both Janneine and Artie were amazed with their little girl's imagination and told her so.
Lacey thanked them in a very polite manner, but just after she paused a very troubled look came over the girl's face. Before either parent could ask what was wrong, Lacey asked, "Why are you both here? Usually just mommy picks me up."
Janneine leaned down to get next to her daughter's ear and said, "Well daddy's here because we're all going on a driving trip together."
Lacey's face grew excited. "Where are we going?"
"That's a surprise, ba…" Artie said, leaning down on the opposite side from his wife, stifling the urge to add the word baby just a second too late.
Lacey gave her father a look that said to him, "I already told you I'm not a baby."
To what her husband said, Janneine added, "You'll just have to wait until we get there."
In the car everything had been packed and ready to go before Janneine and Artie had gone to pick their daughter up from school.
Janneine got into the passenger seat and Lacey climbed into her booster seat while Artie checked to make sure her seatbelt was on. Then he went around the car and got into the rear seat next to Lacey.
"Umm, daddy," Lacey asked, "who's the driver?"
"Oh yeah," joked Artie, getting out of the car, then opening the correct door. "I just thought it would be nice to ride in the back with you."
Lacey laughed, "You're silly, daddy."
The drawing from preschool was in the back of the car with Lacey and from time to time, as they drove, she would talk about something in it.
"Mommy, mommy. There's a white doggy in my picture too. See, its right here."
Janneine tried to turn around and see it, but with Lacey seated directly behind her, it was difficult. She tried to play it off. "Oh really," she said, "Can you tell me about it? Was the doggy in your dream too?"
"Oh yes, "Lacey explained, "he… or she… I don't really know. I think it was a he. He was the sweetest little puppy. I wish I had a puppy like that. It was small and white and it had curly hair and a cute little nose and it was so nice and it licked my face and I wish I had a puppy like that, mommy."
"What did the puppy do in the dream?"
Lacey thought about that question, "I don't remember him doing anything, but he was with me and he was my friend."
Later, watching the passing trees from her spot in the back seat, Lacey noticed a rumbling noise coming from her tummy.
"Mommy, I think I'm hungry because my tummy made a rumble."
"A rumble?" laughed her mother.
"Uh-huh. It went like this," and Lacey did her best impression of her tummy rumble.
"Oh my," said the girl's father, eying her in the rearview mirror, "that sounds very hungry indeed. I believe we packed some snacks for the road. Would you like some crackers or apple slices?"
As he asked, Janneine pulled a canvas bag from the floor at her feet, and opened the Velcro top.
Lacey made a case for cookies, but her parents told her, "not before dinner," so instead she got the apple slices her father had mentioned.
Passing the sandwich bag with apple slice back to her daughter, Janneine said, "This should tide you over until we stop for dinner."
"When's that gonna be?"
Janneine gave her husband a questioning look that he missed, his eyes being on the road and all, then she glanced at the clock in front of her. "In about an hour and a half, dear."
"Okay mommy," Lacey said as she took a bite of her first apple slice.
"I think," Lacey started after swallowing her first bite, "that the rumble my tummy made was a thirsty rumble too."
Artie laughed, "Oh was it now? Well I think we have some juice boxes."
"What kinds are there, dear?" he asked his wife, "Oh yeah. We have strawberry, cherry and orange."
Before Lacey had answered, Janneine began pulling one out of the canvas bag.
Janneine stopped herself from handing the juice box to the backseat to ask, "What kind?"
"Oh yeah. Sorry mommy. Strawberry."
"That's better." She handed the juice box back, "Here you go."
To Lacey' mind it was a long, long time after the apple slices and juice box had been finished, but in reality only twenty minutes short of the hour and a half she had been told that they would be stopping. She began asking about dinner.
Her father said, "Soon, bab… I mean honey."
Lacey seemed unaware that her father had almost called her baby again.
Artie told his daughter that he wasn't sure exactly how long it would be, but soon.
"Okay well I'm only asking because I have to go to the bathroom too."
Janneine gave her husband a look that said, "Yeah we had really better stop and I'm hungry now myself so let's get dinner, okay?"
Artie had turned his head to catch that look from his wife and knew exactly what she meant.
"Alright girls, we'll stop at the next town."
A hearty, "Yay!", with upraised arms came from the back seat.
Janneine put a hand on her husbands thigh as he drove on.
As promised, Artie stopped in the next town which was sorely lacking in dining options. There were only three eating establishments within view. The first was a popular fast food burger place on one side of the road next to a poorly lit gas station. Across the street there was some sort of local diner that seemed as if it might be closed as there were no cars outside and the inside lights were either very dim, or off entirely and windows were merely reflecting the light from the street light outside. The third restaurant was next door to the possibly closed diner and in front of a small, one story motel with a neon sign. Like the fast food place across the street, it was part of a large nationally recognized fast food chain, but this one specializing in cuisine of a more Mexican variety.
Taking the advice from the backseat, Artie pulled into the Mexican fast food place on his right.
"Mexican it is, my dears."
Janneine hadn't said anything when her daughter had brought it up, but she had to go to the bathroom too so while her husband and child negotiated the sometimes complicated booster seat she went inside to find a hopefully sanitary place to do her business.
Artie pretended to give up, claiming the seat was far too intelligent for him to outwit when Lacey unbuckled it herself and said, "Silly daddy, it's not that hard."
"Oh. I get it now," Artie chuckled.
The father and daughter duo entered the restaurant and approached the counter. Besides the one middle aged woman behind the counter with graying hair unsuccessfully hiding under her uniform cap, they saw no one else at all. Many of the tables and booths in the dining room seemed to have a thin layer of dust on them as if they hadn't been used in several days, and not cleaned since. The chairs, which were randomly scattered about as if only loosely pairing with the tables, looked no better.
Lacey didn't notice any of that at all, and focused on her father and letting him know what she wanted to eat. Once she had told him, she said, "You got that bub?"
"Yeah," Lacey answered, and explained that one of her classmates' fathers had said it.
Changing gears, Artie suggested that Lacey join her mother since she said she had to go to the bathroom.
"Oh yeah," said Lacey, "I almost forgot."
Artie gave his daughter an endearing, although quizzical look as she walked away.
Because he wasn't sure what his wife wanted to eat, he had a good idea mind you, he just wasn't absolutely sure, he waited a few feet from the counter for the rest of his family to come out.
The woman behind the counter never said a word, she never moved, her expression never changed. If Artie had bothered to look down from the menu at her, he might very well have been more than a little unnerved.
Finally Janneine and Lacey emerged from the ladies room, giggling about something, and wiping their hands on their pants due to a lack of paper towels or a hand dryer.
Artie met them by the counter in front of the cashier.
Her nametag, clearly some kind of an in-house joke, had only a question mark on it that was drawn with a permanent black marker.
Artie ordered large soda and large order of nachos with beef and extra cheese for himself, then Lacey's cheese quesadilla kid's meal with an orange soda with no ice.
Lacey had decided several weeks prior that she liked the drink way more than the flavorless ice and reasoned that there was no need to have it in her drinks any longer.
With no change in her expression, the cashier pressed a few buttons on the register keypad in front of her. She turned her head to look at Janneine as she stepped forward to make her selection.
"And I'll have two chicken burritos please, oh and a Coke, Pepsi or whatever."
The cashier pressed more buttons.
The transaction came to the point where the cashier would normally ask if they would like anything else. This cashier though, simply stood her ground and said nothing, staring at Janneine.
Artie finally broke the silence by saying, "Umm, yeah. That will be all. Thanks."
The cashier looked down and pressed a few more buttons and finally said, in a slow, almost slurred, half asleep sounding drawl, "Sixteen ninety seven."
Artie pulled a twenty from his wallet and handed it to the cashier, noticing for the first time the question mark on her nametag.
She fumbled with the change and receipt as she handed them to the patient Artie. Janneine and Lacey had left to find a table.
"Mommy, why is there dust on the tables," asked Lacey as she drew a smiley face on one as she walked by.
"I don't know honey, but let get some napkins to wipe this one off, okay?"
Lacey followed her mother to the drink dispenser area where lids and napkins were available. Lacey grabbed a handful of napkins and followed her mother back to the booth they had chosen on the wall next to a window.
The family unit was complete again when Artie joined them at the table just as they were finishing. Janneine wadded up the used napkins and put them to the side of the table next to the wall.
Artie looked at his wife, "That was weird, wasn't it? It's not just me, right?"
"No honey, it's not you," Janneine replied in a hushed tone. "That cashier is a little, err," she looked at Lacey, "spacey."
"No doubt. And did you catch her name?"
Janneine hadn't seen the name tag and so shook her head.
"Me either," Artie said, tossing his hands up in mock surrender, "there's just a question mark on her name tag."
Just as Janneine was responding with an, "Oh really," Lacey asked, "What's a question mark?"
To answer her daughter's question, Janneine searched her purse for a pen, then drew a question mark in blue in on one of the napkins.
Lacey studied it, furrowing her eyebrows.
"I don't get it," she finally confessed.
"That's okay," Artie comforted her, "you won't have to get what that is for a few years I think."
He looked at his wife as he said this, shrugging his shoulders as if to say, "it is a couple of years off, isn't it?"
After waiting for several minutes, engrossed in conversation about where they were going, still keeping it as a surprise for Lacey, the cashier seemed to appear behind Janneine from out of nowhere, holding a tray with all of the food and drinks. Without a word, she set it down in front of Janneine, then walked back to the counter.
She had a slight limp, though it was difficult to say just which leg it was that was gimpy.
The family happily enjoyed their dinner. There was no rush so they took their time eating. Lacey received a small, plastic toy with her meal. Janneine and Arty made sure that she ate all of her food before opening it. They had learned from experience that letting her have the toy from a kid's meal before eating led to disastrous results ranging from dropped food to spilled drinks to emergency shirt changes.
Lacey didn't mind waiting. When she finished her quesadilla, she unwrapped the toy and started playing with the small, green cartoon character-looking thing that neither parent could identify. Lacey had a pretend conversation with it and walked it around the table, introducing it to her father's drink and the wadded up wrappers from her mother's burritos.
Artie got up to go to the bathroom while his girls sat, having a talk between the green figure Lacey held and a vaguely human figure her mother fashioned from a straw. The two miniatures were pretending the table top was a small town. The tray that the food came on was a playground next to a school that in the real world was Artie's drink.
Having finished his business and washing his hands, Artie left the restroom and waved his cell phone in the air, pointing outside to let his wife know he was going outside to make a call.
Lacey and her mother continued to play. Just as Lacey was beginning to toy with the idea of desert, Janneine noticed a queasy, upset feeling in her stomach. It felt like a simple tummy ache so she thought nothing of it and continued to play with her daughter.
"What Lacey?" Janneine asked, putting a hand to her stomach. It was getting worse.
"Mommy, I asked where daddy is?"
Janneine grunted before answering, "I'm sorry girlie. He's outside making a phone call. You know how he doesn't like to talk on that thing in doors."
"He says it's rude," Lacey added.
It wasn't until her mother didn't respond that Lacey noticed that her mommy didn't look like she was feeling very well. Her face was strained and pale, almost green-looking, her arms were crossed in front of her stomach and she was slightly bent over.
"Mommy are you okay?"
"Mommy, do you need a hospital?"
Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang!
Lacey jumped back in her seat, screaming.
Janneine gave a startled jerk, then threw up in the face of her husband on the other side of the window glass.
Hearing the scream from the little girl, the cashier disinterestedly glanced at their table.
Artie had meant only to give the girls a pleasant surprise hello from outside. He hadn't meant to scare them and he most certainly didn't mean to make anyone throw up. He rushed inside to check on his family, slipping on the floor mat by the entrance, but keeping his balance in a way that, were it a less serious situation, would have been rather comical.
"Oh my god, are you okay?"
Janneine tried to answer her husband, but when she opened her mouth, she threw up on his shoes.
Lacey stood several paces away, eyes wide with shock with her hands covering her mouth.
Artie put his hands under Janneine's arms as she began to lean involuntarily forward. Holding her up, he noticed Lacey over his wife's shoulder.
"Are you okay, baby?" he asked her.
Lacey nervously nodded her head, not worrying this time about being called a baby.
Thinking the question was directed to her, Janneine attempted to speak.
Despite the vomit running down her front, Artie hugged his wife.
"I love you. Don't worry. You're going to be just fine."
Artie helped his wife to her feet and walked her to the door, motioning for Lacey to follow.
The door was somewhat near the entrance and Artie looked over to the cashier and apologized for the mess as he lifted his wife through the door.
The cashier stared, unblinkingly, her expression unchanged.
Artie trusted Lacey to buckle herself up in the back seat while he sat his wife down, pulled her legs into the front seat, then began to fasten her seat belt.
Janneine leaned her head to her right and threw up in the parking lot, grazing Artie's already soiled shoes.
As she finished, he buckled her seat belt, then ran around to the driver's side.
He thought for a moment what to do. He had gotten his family to the car without a plan. He spied the motel behind the restaurant.
"Perfect," he said in his head.
Backing up, with his right hand on the head rest behind his wife's head, he told her, "We're going to stop for the night right here. I'll take care of you, okay?"
In spite of himself, Artie let out a small, quiet, nervous chuckle, having never heard his wife ever make a noise even remotely like that before.
"That was quite a burp, baby."
There were no other cars in the parking lot so the trip to the motel lasted only a few seconds. He ran inside and began asking for a room before he even saw if anyone was at the desk.
There wasn't anyone there… yet.
Artie stood by the desk, gasping, desperately looking for a bell or buzzer to let someone know he was there.
A man stepped out of the shadows of the dark room behind the desk, his hair was dark and straight and longer than it was short. He looked very pale and had a large, oddly shaped nose.
"How may I be of service?"
Artie was desperate for a room, but something about the man gave him pause. No, surely it was in his head. The stress of the situation.
"Thank you. Thank you. Yes please. My wife and my daughter and… my family needs a room for the night… right away please."
The man gave a crooked smile as his fingers did a little flourish, stepping up to the desk.
"Certainly." The word seemed to slide from his mouth as he pushed the registration book on the counter forward towards Artie, using only his long, boney middle finger.
Again, Artie got a very bad vibe from the man behind the desk. He did just say, "certainly" though, right?" He's not saying anything weird, but still…
Artie overlooked his concerns and signed the book in front of him.
"Non-smoking I presume?"
Artie actually felt goose bumps at the man's voice, but he remembered his sick wife in the car.
"No, I mean yes. Non-smoking," he stammered.
Seemingly from nowhere the man behind the counter all of a sudden held a key with a green, long, thin, plastic keychain with a number on it. He was dangling it like a carrot in front of Artie's face.
"As you wish. Non-smoking. Here is the key to room twenty seven," he said, placing emphasis on every syllable of the room number.
Artie was too worried for his wife to care anymore how much the clerk creeped him out. He snatched the key and turned to walk out, saying as he waved a hand over his shoulder, "Thank you. Thank you so much. You're a life saver."
As the door closed behind Artie, the man behind the counter smiled a wide, uneven smile. His eyes seemed to hide an evil laugh that never touched his lips.
In room twenty seven Artie, not knowing what to do with Lacey while he cared for his wife, turned on the television, finding a channel devoted to cartoons and children's programs, then went to the bathroom where Janneine was throwing up into the bath tub.
Lacey sat on the edge of the bed, a foot and a half from the television. She was very worried about her mommy. She had never seen her sick before, or at least not that she could remember. She didn't even know a person could be so sick. Her dad was in there and she trusted him to make her feel better. Sometimes he had made her feel better when she was sick.
She watched four separate programs on the television, trying to listen over the noises from the closed bathroom door.
Through the throw up noises, Lacey had also heard the sound of running water. She thought it was the shower. At first she thought it was weird to take a shower when you were sick, but then she remembered two things. First she remembered that her parents had made her take a bath even when she was sick, and that the warm water did make her feel somewhat better. The second thing she remembered was that her mother had throw up all over herself so a shower was probably a good idea to wash all of that yuck off.
Her daddy was fully clothed, but soaking wet. Maybe he had to help mommy wash herself in the bath tub.
"She must be really, really sick," Lacey thought to herself.
Artie walked towards the door, then stopped to rub a wet hand through Lacey's hair, saying, "I'm so sorry about this. Mommy is very sick and I need to take care of her."
"I know daddy," Lacey said, looking up at him.
He leaned over and kissed her on the forehead.
"I just have to go out to the car to get mommy's suitcase. I'll get yours too."
He wasn't gone very long, then came right back in with two large bags. He placed Lacey's on the floor next to her, asking her to be a good girl and to put her pajamas on.
Lacey could tell he was tired and not in the mood to mess around so she nodded her head.
Artie pulled open Janneine's much larger bag and rummaged through it until he found a pair of her underwear and a t shirt. He took the items to the bathroom, then closed the door behind him.
The shower had stopped.
Lacey turned to watch the television again, but remembered that her father wanted her in her pajamas so she opened her pink suitcase with rainbows and unicorns on it. She saw one of her favorite outfits, a yellow overall dress with a sunflower in the middle. The pajamas were under that. Pink footed pajamas with ponies on them. They weren't her favorites, but she knew her father liked them and thought she did too, so changed out of her day time clothes and into the night time clothes.
She didn't know where her toothbrush was, but was hoping that maybe just this once she might get to skip brushing her teeth.
She turned back to the television as a new show was beginning. From the bathroom, Lacey could hear the sound of her mother throwing up again. Shortly after that, Lacey heard a very different noise from the opposite direction. It came from outside, possibly where the car was. It sounded kind of like a thumping noise.
She was just about to get up to look out the window to see what it was, but jut then her parents came out of the bathroom.
Artie was still soaked, looking as if he had gotten into the shower with all of his clothes on.
Janneine was pale and needed help walking to the other bed, the one nearest to the bathroom. Her head was low, and she seemed to have to focus on every step she took. She looked weak. Artie pulled the covers down and helped her into bed, then pulled the covers back up over her. She was wet, but from sweat, not from the shower.
Artie brought a small trash can to the side of the bed she was on in case she needed to throw up again.
He stood over his wife for a moment, watching her with a look on his face more worried than Lacey had ever seen before. The loving husband leaned over to kiss his wife on the forehead, then walked around the bed to climb in next to her. He stopped himself, remembering to put Lacey to bed.
"Time for bed pumpkin. Let's turn off the tv."
Lacey sensed things were less tense so she said, "I'm not a pumpkin."
"I know you're not. I'm sorry. It is time for bed though. I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to ignore you all night, it's just that mommy is very, very sick and I needed to take care of her."
"I know," she said as she crawled up the bed towards the pillows, then burrowed inside her covers.
Artie leaned over and kissed his daughter on the cheek, telling her, "good night" and that he loved her.
"I love you too daddy."
She kissed him back.
Lacey then looked over at her mother in the other bed. Her eyes were closed, but she didn't look asleep. She looked hurt.
"I love you too mommy."
Janneine responded as best she could through the pain.
"Looove you too…. La… cccey."
During the night, Lacey was awakened several times by the sound of her mother throwing up into the trash can, sometimes accompanied by her father whispering. Her mother also attempted to get up to walk to the bathroom several times on her own, each time unsuccessfully. Her father would get up and pick her up off of the floor then walk her the rest of the way in there.
Lacey didn't get very much sleep that night, but it was much more than either parent did.
The next morning, like it did everyday, the sun came up and the world seemed a fresh, new, happy place. Janneine was feeling better, not well exactly, but she had stopped throwing up. Her fever had broken and she was finally able to keep water down. She was exhausted though. She and Artie had talked it out and decided that they should drive on, finishing their road trip. Janneine was going to sleep in the car.
While her mother laid in bed recovering, Lacey's father made sure the girl got dressed in her yellow sunflower dress, then the two walked to the motel lobby where there was rumored to be, according to the laminated sign next to the television, a continental breakfast.
All that was present was a basket of prepackaged danishes and a pair or oranges on the counter. There was a coffee maker in the corner, but it wasn't plugged in.
Artie grabbed a Danish for himself and one for Lacey.
"It looks like we don't have much of a choice, do we?"
Lacey frowned at the oranges. They seemed to her to be sick somehow, not entirely the way they should look.
Noticing his daughter's expression, then glancing at the oranges, Artie said, "Those don't look so good, do they? Don't worry kiddo, I won't make you have one."
Her whole body instantly let out tension that she hadn't realized was there.
He patted her on the head and said, "Come on. Let's go back to the room to see mommy."
Lacey smiled and followed him out the door.
Lacey sat on her bed in the room with the television on, much like the night before, while her father gathered together all of their belongings and her mother sat upright, with eyes only half open in bed.
There wasn't much to carry, so Artie grabbed the keys and walked out to the car, the door remaining open behind him. Lacey heard the trunk open, she couldn't hear the bags go inside, but then she heard the trunk close again. A few seconds later she heard some very angry sounding words come from her father's mouth that she had never heard before.
This woke Janneine.
Artie stormed back into the room and before anyone could ask what was wrong, he yelled, "the fu…. The tire I mean is flat! I mean really, really fuc… err, flat! If I didn't know any better, I'd say someone slashed one of our tires!"
"One?" asked Janneine, trying to remain calm.
"Huh? Yeah, just one."
Lacey watched the exchange intently. She had never seen her father so upset before.
He looked from his ailing wife in bed, then to his daughter's big, searching eyes and took a moment to breath and compose himself.
He let out a sigh before speaking, "Okay. I can put on the spare tire, but the next town is miles and miles away so I'll check here in town about getting a new tire before we go."
Janneine, though upset at the situation, smiled at her husband for calming down and figuring out what to do.
"Okay," she said." While you do that, Lacey-girl and I are going to stay here in the room watching tv, okay Lacey?"
Lacey half wanted to go with her father to see where tires came from, but she nodded to her mother when she asked.
"Thank you my love, "Janneine told her daughter, "I might need you to take care of me too."
Lacey smiled at this, thinking it was kind of funny that the mommy needed the little girl to take care of her for a change.
Artie walked all the way into the room to his wife. He kissed her on the lips, telling her that he loved her very much and that he would be back as soon as he could. He then stepped to his young daughter, kissed her on the cheek and told her to be a good girl and to, "take good care of mommy for me, okay?"
Lacey smiled and laughed, still thinking it funny that the child had to take care of the parent.
He walked out, closing the door, and proceeded to the car where he worked on replacing the flat tire with the spare.
In the room, Lacey sat in front of the television as a cartoon she had never seen before, or at least not this particular episode, had just started. Janneine laid her head back, moaning as she did so, and closed her eyes.
Near the end of the cartoon, Lacey's father opened the door to take a peek inside. He noticed that Janneine was asleep on the far bed so he tiptoed over to the girl, kissing her on the forehead, then whispering, "I'll be back soon, okay?"
"Okay bye daddy," she whispered back.
He tiptoed slowly to the door, and closed it as quietly as he could.
Lacey heard the sound of the car engine starting, then turned her attention back to the television. It was a commercial so she looked over at her sleeping mommy, worrying about her, hoping she would get better soon. Wanting to be close to her mother, Lacey hopped down from her bed and onto the other with her mother, leaning against the lump under the blanket that was her left leg.
After the commercial break, a new show was starting, this one wasn't a cartoon, well, not entirely, but some of it was. There were also some big, colorful characters talking to children and a man wearing a purple pair of overalls.
Lacey watched all of that show, then all of the next, then fell asleep during the show after that.
Lacey wake up with the television is still on, but there was a different show on than when she fell asleep. She looked at the bed she was on, then the other, but her mother was gone. Thinking her mother might be in the bathroom, Lacey walked to the door and looked, but she wasn't there either. Just to make sure though, Lacey went all the way inside, looking behind the shower curtain and down into the bath tub.
"I wonder if mommy went outside," Lacey said to herself. She stepped over to the window and ducked under the curtain without opening it. The family car was not there, and neither was her mother.
Throughout Lacey's life, she had never been given reason to believe her parents would just vanish without her. Although she was curious to know where her mommy had gone, she didn't feel too upset or worried about it.
"Maybe she went to get some breakfast," she said to no one in particular.
Feeling the best thing to do was to sit and wait, she plopped herself down at the end of the bed in front of the television and started watching.
Lacey watched a cartoon on which featured a bear, another bear and a giraffe. When that show ended she watched another animated show with talking vehicles. As that show ended, another one with a girl and a talking monkey began. Getting somewhat lost in the shows, Lacey completely forgot to worry or wonder about her mother, still believing that any moment she would walk right in the door.
As the third cartoon neared its end, Lacey's father opened the door, sweaty, dirty and very visibly agitated. Before noticing that Janneine wasn't on the bed, he started to tell Lacey about what had happened with the car.
"Well cupcake, I sure am glad to see you. The car place didn't have our kind of tires and said it would take a few days to get one. They also said they found something else wrong with the car so they're keeping it for now to try and fix it. I had to walk all the way back here and boy am I pooped."
As Artie sat down next to his daughter. He looked around the room and the open bathroom door, finally realizing his wife is missing.
"Is your mother in the bathroom?" he asked.
Lacey turned from the television, "I don't know where mommy is, daddy."
Artie got a concerned look on his face, "Do you know how long she's been gone?"
He looked at his daughter, struggling to answer. Finally she said, "I don't know how to tell time yet daddy. I woke up and she was gone so I started to watch tv until she came back."
Artie's face turned red and he began to get upset with his wife for having left Lacey all alone in this strange place, even if just for a few minutes, which he was thinking was probably a serious underestimation of how long she had actually been gone.
Before allowing himself to get overly excited about things, he suddenly remembered how sick Janneine had been the night before, and how ill she still was when he had left with the car. His face brightened and he looked at Lacey, rubbed his fingers through her hair, then said, "I'm sorry, I don't mean to be upset."
"I think we should go try to find her," he said, standing up, "What do you say, baby?"
"Daddy, I told you I'm not a baby."
He apologized, then held out a hand to help her up, "Come one."
Taking his hand, Lacey said, "Okay."
They walked out the door and headed straight to the front office. They encountered the same man that had been behind the desk the night before. Lacey had been in the car during that encounter. Artie remembered his time with the man well. It brought forth feelings of contempt for the Mexican place across the street, the motel, his wife's sickness, the car place, his long walk back to the motel, heck, the whole town in general. These feelings had been growing stronger and stronger as the negative events piled up. He had just about had it.
When asked if he had seen Janneine, the man behind the desk said, in an almost mocking tone, "Oh dear. I haven't a clue where she might be, but I will keep an eye out for her."
One more notch of disgust and hate.
The father and daughter walked hand in hand out from the front office to search around the motel. They walked around the side, not seeing anything but the landscaping, or what might have once been landscaping before being overrun with broken wooden pallets and chunks of concrete. Not really believing they might find Janneine there, but feeling they should look absolutely everywhere, the father and daughter then went around the back of the motel. There was a rickety wooden fence, broken in many places, about two feet from the back wall. The ground between was littered with broken milk crates, a moldy bathroom sink, a rusted air conditioner and a toilet on its side. Artie carefully studied the entire length behind the motel to the other side, seeing nothing that even remotely resembled his wife.
"Nope. Don't see her there," he said, trying to sound as upbeat as possible for his daughter.
Lacey smiled up at her father when he said that. It was something he said when they would play hide and seek at home sometimes. Was mommy hiding?
They walked back to the front, past the pallets, some with rusted nails protruding.
"Be careful, okay?" Artie asked of Lacey.
They walked past the office down the front of the motel, passing their room seeing nothing until Lacey and Artie both heard a thud from a room they thought had been unoccupied. There was no car in the front of that room. In fact, with their car gone now, there were no cars in the parking lot at all.
Lacey and her father looked at each other upon hearing the noise.
"I wonder what that was," he asked, thinking it was probably a
maintenance man or a cleaning lady working in the room. The
curtain was slightly open so he peeked inside to see.
Inside he saw what or who, rather, he had been looking for, not what he thought he'd find there though. He was stunned.
Janneine was laid out on the bed, fully clothed thank goodness, arms and legs spread above and below her towards the corners, possibly bound, but he couldn't tell for sure. She was unconscious. There was what looked like some kind of a tube attached to her mouth almost like she was being force fed.
Normally her father would never say a thing like that. Something was very wrong, something far worse than mommy being gone.
Artie began to pound on the door with all of his might. It shook, but would not give way.
No one opened it.
Lacey walked up to the window to peek inside as her father gave up on hitting the door with his hand, starting instead to try knocking it down with a running start. She saw her mother laid out on the bed. Not fully understanding what was happening, but knowing it must be very serious by the way her father was acting, her eyes began to tear up and she put her hands to her mouth in shock.
Artie bounced off of the door, falling to the ground. He got up to try again.
He fell to the ground again. He tried once more.
Realizing that course of action was getting him nowhere, he searched frantically for another way into the room.
Artie looked down at his hand first, having never broken a window before, or not on purpose at least. He thought back to movies he had seen where someone had done it, trying to channel that, then pulled his shirt sleeves over his hand in an attempt to ward away as many cuts from the glass as possible.
It was just a small hole. He pounded his hand again to clear more of the glass away with more ease, having already gotten over the initial shock of his action.
He was just about to climb inside when he suddenly remembered Lacey there next to him, sobbing inconsolably.
"Oh baby. I'm so sorry. I have to save mommy, okay? I'll be right back."
He put a hand on her cheek, the one he hadn't punched the window with.
She continued to cry and let out a sniffle.
Lacey watched as her father climbed into the window, trying to be as careful as he could not to cut himself on the remaining glass. He made it all the way inside and was just straightening up when something large and heavy, Lacey couldn't tell what exactly, struck him on the back of the head.
He fell limply to the floor.
The girl shrieked and jumped back, cupping her hands over her mouth.
Not a moment later, the door to the room seemed to open of its own volition. No one came out, there were no sounds coming from the room, just an open door and the parents she knew were on the other side of it.
She wanted her mommy and daddy so she nervously stepped towards the door. Standing an arm's length away, she reached out and pushed it open. Her head peered inside before she took a step inside. There was her father sprawled out on the floor between the bed and the broken window. There was her mother laid out on the bed, her hands above her and her feet tied with ropes to the bottom legs of the bed. A tube was connected to her face, to her mouth, moving somewhat as if something were oozing through it. Then there was something else Lacey noticed in the room. It was a pair of shoes sticking out from behind the curtain which extended beyond the window on both sides.
With lightning speed, a figure of a woman sprang out from behind the curtain, grabbing Lacey and putting a hand over her mouth to keep her from screaming.
The woman picked her up, pulling her over to a small table on the other side of the bed where there were two wooden chairs with ugly, faded and worn out cushioning.
There was a rope on the table.
The scared little girl was forced into one of the chairs, then held in place with one arm while the woman began to tie her up with her other hand. Then she put a bandana into Lacey's mouth and tied it up behind her head so she couldn't speak.
The woman wore clothes that Lacey thought were more appropriate for a man. She had on torn, dirty blue jeans, a t-shirt and an unbuttoned flannel shirt with the sleeves slightly rolled up. Her hair was medium length and mostly dark, but messy, and almost greasy looking. It took Lacey a moment to realize it was the strange woman from the Mexican restaurant when her mommy had first gotten sick.
As she was finishing with the bandana in the girl's mouth, the door to the room opened and the clerk stepped inside. He closed the door behind him right away, then looked at the broken window tsking to himself, mumbling about the cost of replacing the glass.
His attention shifted from the broken window to the woman and the girl just after making sure the curtain was completely closed.
"Was all of this really necessary?" he asked her, waving his hand towards the man on the ground, the girl and the broken window.
"It ain't like I wanted to do it. He done busted the window in."
Waving her excuse off like he would a fly, the front desk clerk walked towards Lacey and knelt down in front of her.
"Lets put this one in front of the television," he said over Lacey's head to the restaurant woman.
"Come here and help me move her."
Lacey's feet did not touch the floor so pushing the chair was easy. The clerk took a few steps back and pointed to a spot just in front of the television. He grabbed the remote control off of the top of it, then pressed a button to turn it on.
While he was searching for something for the girl to watch, the woman pushed the chair from behind to the place the man had indicated, overshooting it just a tad and nudging him in the foot.
Immediately she looked up at him with fear in her eyes.
He was already staring at her when her eyes reached his. His eyes grew wide and evil.
"Mind the shoes," he grumbled.
His expression changed immediately as he looked down at the girl, pointing to the television screen.
"You may watch this for the time being," he told her.
The woman let out a sigh of relief.
Lacey could not move, but she heard a noise come from behind her. She thought it might be her father waking up. The clerk and the woman heard it too, and quickly moved over to him.
"I'll hold his feet first. You tie them up," he said to the woman, who already had a rope in her hands.
They tied up Artie's feet, then his hands behind his back, and put a bandana gag in his mouth as well. Before he was able to come to completely, the woman hit him on the back of the head with something Lacey could not see, but she heard the impact and her father stopped making any noises at all.
The girl sat in front of the television, trying to figure a way to help her mommy and daddy, but she was stuck. She couldn't focus on the television shows through her tears. She cried a lot.
The man from the front office had left shortly after Artie had been tied up, but came back three cartoons later with some Mexican food from where the woman worked. He handed a bag to the woman, who was sitting in the other chair by the small table. He dropped another, smaller bag in the lap of the girl.
He glanced at the girl's father on the floor.
"Has he been any trouble?"
"Nah. He ain't doin' nuthin."
His attention turned to the girl's mother on the bed.
"And how is our other guest?"
The woman laughed and said something that Lacey couldn't quite understand about feeding and getting fattened up.
Lacey tried to yell through her gag words that would have been, "You leave my mommy alone.".
This brought the man's attention to her.
"Ah yes. Then there's you my dear. Well I've brought you something to eat."
He stepped towards her and pulled the bandana from her mouth.
Lacey stared up at him with tears streaming down her face.
"Since you were there last night I assume you eat this, "he paused making an expression of distaste, "faux Mexican food."
Lacey said she didn't want it. She said that her mommy got sick there and she thinks it was something bad in the food.
"I assure you young lady, the food I have given you is just, "again he made the distasteful look, "fine."
Behind her, Lacey could hear the woman chomping down the food the man had given her.
Lacey was hungry, having not eaten all day, but she wasn't going to give the man the satisfaction.
"I don't want it," she said defiantly.
"Well it's all you're going to get," he said to her.
She sat there with the bag in her lap. The smell was making her hungry. Of course, with her arms tied up, she couldn't have eaten it even if she had wanted to.
With her mouth uncovered though, she realized she could speak. Since she had been sitting there, she was not only getting hungry, but she had started to feel as if she needed to use the restroom.
"I have to go potty," she told the man.
He looked down his nose at her, "Of course you do."
The man motioned for the woman to untie the girl to let her, as he put it, "Do her business."
The restaurant woman put her own food down on the table, got up and walked over to Lacey. The man walked past her in the other direction, taking the seat she