The doorknob on the motel’s small office turned easily in my hand, but the door was stuck. I gave it a tug and then pulled harder when I realized it was probably because of the humidity. Rain continued to spatter down intermittently. The old man behind the desk was reading USA TODAY and kept me waiting for a minute.
I cleared my throat delicately, afraid to cough in front of someone else that night, lest I have to sleep on the street like I had the plague.
Bring out your dead.
“I see you. Just a sec,” the man said, not unkindly, from behind the paper.
I waited until the pages rustled and came down to reveal an average face, about sixty years old, with half-moon glasses.
“Holy cow,” the clerk whispered when he saw my face.
Okay, that was going to get old. “That bad?”
“Worse,” the manager drawled. “What can I do for you?”
“I need a room for”—I realized I’d have to call Daniel, who might or might not choose to come and get me—“a while maybe.”
“Okay.” The clerk got out a registration form and handed it over. “Our rooms are all nonsmoking.”
“I’ll take it personally if whoever did that to your face blows up my motel.”
I got out my wallet. “It was domestic, so that’s highly unlikely.”
“All right.” The man didn’t bat an eye. “The little woman box professionally?”
“High-fashion runway model.”
“Oh.” The old man’s lips twitched. “Those are deadly; that’s why they hobble them in those spiny high heels.”
I laughed and glanced up. “I’d shake your hand, but I have a cold.”
“I have hand sanitizer.” The man held out his hand. “Carl Lents. I own this place.”
“Jacob Livingston. I…” I stopped talking when I felt a tickle in my throat. I coughed into my shoulder and then took his hand and shook it. “I just got thrown off the Greyhound for coughing.”
“I hope that’s not the high point of your life so far.” Carl’s lively eyes crinkled at the corners.
“Maybe it is.”
The man grinned while he checked my identification and ran my credit card. “Upstairs or down.”
I looked out the window into the motel courtyard, empty and slick with rain. At either side of the parking lot the two-story buildings had long galleries and stairs at the far end. Stairs. Shit. “First floor.”
“There’s an acute-care clinic in town, and it’ll be open at eight tomorrow morning.”
“I saw a doctor this morning at the ER.” Was that only this morning? “I have a cold, and I’m spectacularly beat to hell. Nothing a little Vicodin and some rest won’t cure.”
“If you say so.”
I bent to pick up my bag. “I appreciate your concern.”
“Yeah. Well. Dead people stink real bad.”
I shook my head. “I’ll try not to let it get that far.”
Carl frowned. “Look. If you need something, it’s okay to ask, all right? Call the office if you need…”
I paused at the door. “It’s fine. I’ll be fine, thank you. Really.”
“All right.” Carl let me go, and I made my way across the empty lot to the room. The old-fashioned key felt odd in my hand, its tag proudly announcingThe SeaView Motel in faded gilt lettering on opaque, cream-colored plastic. It looked like it might glow in the dark. When I went on vacations with my family as a kid, we’d play a game where my dad would toss the hotel key into the pool so Daniel and I could swim down and retrieve them—usually only until Dad had one too many and started throwing them so high they were dangerous when they fell if you got under them. I clearly remembered losing one in the moth-covered security lights at one pool and wearing a key-shaped bruise on my forehead for a week.
Nowadays key cards floated, taking away both the adventure and the danger of the game—and wasn’t that just the dilemma of the modern world. Everything had to be sanitized for your protection, like the little strips of paper across the toilets in those old motel rooms proclaimed.
I tossed my duffel on the second bed and entered the bathroom, hoping an old curmudgeon like Carl would keep the ancient fires burning. But the toilet was bare of any proclamations.
I peed and washed my hands, then unwrapped one of the hard plastic mugs and got myself a glass of water. A flash of inspiration made me fill the tiny coffeemaker’s carafe as well, and I placed them both on the nightstand next to the bed along with my medications. I could barely peel off my damp clothes and hang them over a chair before the bed beckoned me, welcoming me into the bleachy white envelope of thin linens and old blankets.
There was something I knew I was supposed to do, but I was so tired. My meds and the water I’d brought from the bathroom seemed as if they were miles away. Surely it wouldn’t hurt me to sleep for a bit before I took anything. They were only pain relievers, and if I was asleep, it wouldn’t matter.
* * *
My skin was on fire. There was no other explanation. It burned with pain like a thousand needles, and the agony was shooting straight from my nerve endings to my brain. Every cell in my body hurt. My muscles had tightened, and the swelling on my face and ribs throbbed. Light was dancing behind my closed eyelids, but I couldn’t find the will to lift them.
One was lifted for me, and the light blinded me for a minute.
“Jacob,” a voice spoke above me. “Come back, buddy. Can you hear me?”
The voice wasn’t familiar, but it held a kind of paternal sweetness that reminded me of my zeyde. Zeyde’s voice had been a lightly accented tenor, and it still called my name in dreams sometimes. I didn’t hesitate to answer, even though Zeyde was long gone.
“Yasha, Zeyde. How come you don’t call me Yasha?”
“Yasha. Okay. Yasha, talk to me. How you doin’? What happened, Yasha?”
“Dunno.” So much pain. “Musta been Daddy. I didn’t let him get Mama, Zeyde. This time he didn’t hurt her. Me and Dan stopped him good.”
I felt the hands pause on my skin, which was too bad, because even though they felt sticky and caught the fine hairs on my arm, they were cool, and it felt nice.
Somewhere above me my zeyde, my grandpa, sighed. “Aw shit.”
When I tried to push myself to a sitting position, the man with the cool plastic hands pushed me back down, crooning to me to be still. I felt a pinch and a prick in the back of my hand.
“No.” I fought to get up again, to push the pain away and find my feet. My head was so fuzzy, and I hurt everywhere. Someone sticking a pin into my arm was unnecessary and cruel. “Leave me alone.”
A second pair of hands grasped my shoulders as Zeyde’s voice hummed in my ear. Even though I fought, my strength was entirely gone. Still, I didn’t stop twisting in the hands of the beings who held me. All of a sudden I had the most awful feeling that I knew who it was. It made such perfect, horrible sense that I drew in a shuddering breath.
“Zeyde,” I whispered. “I’m wrestling with the angel, just like Yaakov in the story.” I lashed out with a foot, and hands clamped down on it. “Well, thissucks. God seems to have sent more than one for me.”
An amused voice said, “Shh, Yasha. That’s because you’re special.” Hands lifted me onto another bed, one that moved beneath me. I tried to get off it, and Zeyde grabbed me around the rib cage from behind and held me while others fussed with me and grabbed at my feet.
I turned my head and found a pair of green eyes that held such compassion. Or was that the angel, using Zeyde’s voice to trick me into giving up the fight? If I told Zeyde I’d let my lover beat the crap out of me, not just this once, but for a whole year…
Wait. My zeyde’s dead.
“Tell me who hurt you, Yasha.”
“Fight club,” I lied. No way I would let the angel trick me into telling my secret.
The light in the pretty eyes dimmed, as if their owner was disappointed in me. Shit. I knew it wasn’t my zeyde. My zeyde would never look at me like that.
“Stay still now while we move you.”
I struggled. “Leave me alone. I just want to go to sleep.”
“It’s all right if you do,” came the reply.
The offer was tempting. It felt like Zeyde was right there and so warm. If I dropped my head back, I could imagine it resting on Zeyde’s shoulder. Everything would be okay.
Hands moved over my body, taking me away from my zeyde, holding me still while they pulled a strap tight around my chest. Then I remembered again; my zeyde was dead, and I had to wrestle with all these angels until morning to win.
“Zeyde.” I wanted to cry. “I’m not strong enough.”
“Strong enough for what, Yasha?”
“I can’t hold on until morning.” I looked at him through unshed tears. “The angels will beat me.”
“No, Yasha,” Zeyde’s voice spoke firmly in my ear. Someone took my hand. “I’ll be right here. I won’t let you lose.”
Maybe my zeyde’s a ghost?
“Thank you, Zeyde. I’ve missed you so much since you’ve been gone.” I squeezed my zeyde’s hand. “You’re the only one.”
A rough hand that smelled like seawater, makrud lime leaves, and something subtler, like a smoky driftwood fire caressed my cheek. I knew my zeyde would stand guard until I was strong enough to wrestle with the angel some more. I turned my head toward his palm and pressed a kiss there because—at last—I knew it was safe for me to rest.
* * *
When I opened my eyes, the light was bright enough outside the window next to my bed to convince me it was morning.
“Welcome back, Yasha.” Soft hands wrapped a blood-pressure cuff around my biceps.
I was too startled by the use of my nickname to brace myself for the pain of the cuff contracting over my battered arm. “Ow.”
“I know this hurts a little because of the bruising. Sorry. I’m Alice.”
I looked up into the face of a fortysomething woman in scrubs. She was taking my blood pressure, so I thought it was safe to assume she was a nurse. She had brown hair and kind eyes and wore no makeup.
“What happened?” The last thing I remembered was… What?
“The paramedics brought you here after the motel manager where you were staying found you unconscious in your room. You were so severely dehydrated, I think he might have saved your life. He’s here if you want to see him. He stopped by to see how you’re doing.”
I remained silent. Wow. I’d almost…
“He’s just outside. Should I tell him to come back some other time?”
“No. It’s all right. I should thank him.”
“That’d be good,” she agreed.
After noting my vitals, Alice drifted out, and in came Carl the Motel Owner with a younger man, maybe my age.
“I hear I have you to thank for some timely medical intervention.”
Carl’s eyes lit up. “That’s the second time I’ve had to call paramedics for a guest this year. They just don’t make tourists like they used to.”
Because of my sore face, I fought back a grin. “I’m usually made of sterner stuff.”
“When you didn’t come or go for a couple of days, I started to worry. And like I said, dead people—”
I rolled my eyes. “Stink real bad, I know.”
“Here’s someone else you should thank. This is Jason, my son. He’s the paramedic I called.”
Jason held out his hand. I took it and found his handshake firm and dry. “Call me JT. Glad to see your color’s coming back. You scared us all for a while, Yasha.”
I frowned. “What did you call me?”
“Yasha. Isn’t that your name?”
“You told me to call you Yasha. You called me zeyde. That’s ‘grandfather,’ right?” He looked at his dad.
Suddenly, what happened came flooding back, including the look in his eyes that had caused me to kiss the palm of his hand. Shit.
Carl spoke. “That’s right. Zeyde is Yiddish for ‘grandpa,’ and Yasha is a nickname for Jacob, like Sasha is for Alexander. I had an uncle we called Yasha.”
I felt my face catch fire. “I must have been really out of it if I called you Zeyde.”
JT grinned. “It did seem odd,” he murmured. “I don’t usually get mistaken for someone who has grandkids.
JT rested his forearms on the railing of the bed and folded his hands together. My heart did a little squeeze thing. JT had green, green eyes—an opaque color like jade—and brown hair. He must have been coming off shift, because his cheeks and chin were heavily stubbled with beard hair that glinted coppery red even in the half-light of the hospital room. He looked tired but sweet, as if he was going to go home with his dad and curl up in a chair across from him to play chess. Feed some stray cats. Kind eyes. Soft voice. Jason Lents. Not exactly my normal kind of guy, but attractive.
“My name is Jacob.”
“The problem is, I like calling you Yasha.” JT’s voice was a caress. He stretched a finger out to trace the tape that held the IV in place on my hand. “I saved your life, so I own it, right?”
“Sure,” I said lightly. “As soon as I get out of here, I’ll move in with all the other people you’ve rescued over the years.”
“No need to go that far. Maybe you could see to it that you don’t need my services for a while.” Green eyes peered at me, serious and probing. “Let me buy you coffee sometime so I can tell you that you shouldn’t be content to be someone’s punching bag.”
I felt slapped. “You don’t have to tell me that.”
“Looks like I do.” JT’s eyes narrowed. “Looks like you don’t give a rat’s ass what happens to you.”
“You don’t know that.” I sounded hoarse, and I hoped Carl and JT thought it was just about cotton mouth. The way JT was looking at me made something compress my heart painfully—like shame. Because I knew I had only myself to blame. I knew what Sander was, and I should have walked away. But what did this virtual stranger know about it?
“Then stay out of trouble.”
I looked at his father, who kind of rolled his eyes and shrugged. I looked back down at my hands. “Sure. Sometimes trouble just…finds me, though.”
Although he exhibited no outward sign of disappointment, JT’s intense focus dissipated. “Dad, I have to go get some shut-eye. You”—he pointed at me—“do whatever Alice and the docs tell you to do. Don’t make me come back here and kick your ass. Figuratively speaking, of course.”
Carl winced. “Son—”
JT turned to his father. “See you later, Dad.” He gave his dad’s arm a squeeze. “I’m outta here.”
When the door closed behind Jason, Carl leaned over my bed. “Don’t mind my son. He’s like that. A whirlwind.”
“It’s all right. He’s probably had a long night.”
A deep silence filled the room. I had never been one to wade in and fill them, and neither, it seemed, was Carl. Eventually he said, “You’re Jewish?”
“Me too.” Carl gazed down at me. “I’m not very observant.”
I tried out a smile, but it hurt. “You noticed I didn’t leave my room.”
“That’s not… Oh. I see. Yes.” Carl grinned. Another silence followed. “I guess I meant to say I’m not a good Jew.”
“I know. Me neither.”
“My son is more religious. He thinks it’s a crime against God to fight like you do for pleasure or money. He worries about things like that. He’s fairly opinionated about it.”
I tried to think what that could mean. “Fight for pleasure?”
“Don’t get me wrong, I understand that it’s a popular thing, and people call it a sport, just not Jason. He has this idea that those fight clubs are barbaric, a return to the kind of blood sport that was popular in ancient Rome.”
“Fight club?” I tried to focus on Carl, but even that brief encounter tired me. I tried to think back on what I’d said while I’d been so sick.
“Yeah. No big deal. You just need to know you’re going to hear about it from Jason. He’ll try to talk you out of ever doing it again.”
Something clicked in my memory. “Fight club.” I sighed. “I told him I was in a fight club.”
“Yeah.” Carl’s eyes were brown. I wondered where Jason’s green eyes came from.
“I lied. I don’t… I’m not a boxer. He can rest assured I’ll be avoiding anything like this in the future.”
“That’s good. He was building up quite a head of steam, and he can lecture like you wouldn’t believe.”
“Why would you lie?” Carl asked. “If you’re in some kind of trouble with the law—”
“It’s nothing like that.” I fought the desire to look away. Instead I stared Carl right in the eyes. “I told you the truth. It was domestic—my boyfriend. I was ashamed.”
“Ah…Yasha.” Carl sighed sadly.
“It’s over anyway. Even I’m not that stupid. Just don’t tell…anyone, okay? It’s embarrassing enough wearing it on my skin.” Despite my determination to hold Carl’s gaze, my eyes began to drift closed. “So tired.”
“Heal up.” Carl started for the door but then turned back. “How long do you plan to stay here in St. Nacho’s?”
I dragged my eyes open. “Hell if I know. I never planned to be here in the first place.”
Carl started moving again. “You might want to rethink that. St. Nacho’s has a way of wrapping itself around you. I only stopped here for a burger, and that was forty years ago.”
“You’ve done well, though. You must have liked it here.”
Carl frowned in concentration, as if he was thinking hard or remembering. “I don’t think so. Not exactly, no. But it didn’t let me go.” He left me alone in the room to wonder what the hell he’d meant by that. There were lots of things in my past that wouldn’t let me go. But that didn’t mean I wanted another one.
Rain began to patter against the window, and the sound was soothing enough that it drove away all my more pressing problems. I’d have to call Dan. Maybe Dan knew where this place was, and he could pick me up. I had been asleep on the bus in the dark when they’d left me off, and I had no clue.
Maybe I’d take a break right here, though, and look around after I got out of the hospital. I’d never heard of St. Nacho’s. What kind of a town was called St. Nacho’s anyway?
Maybe I’d stick around long enough to find out.