The Newcomer by Mary Kay Andrews



1


IT WAS STILL DARK WHEN Letty pulled into the parking lot. The car bumped slowly over the rutted oyster-shell pavement and she turned around to check on Maya, grateful that the child was finally sleeping. Her head slumped against the side of the car seat, her curls dampened with sweat, her rosebud lips pursed as she softly snored, and Ellie, her ever-present toy stuffed elephant, was clutched tightly to her chest.

A large hand-painted sign was posted at the entrance to the motel lot: GUEST PARKING ONLY IN ASSIGNED SPACES. TRESPASSERS’ CARS WILL BE TOWED. THIS MEANS YOU.

Letty yawned. Her eyes burned and her shoulders and arms were cramped. She ignored the sign and backed the silver Kia into a space at the far end of the lot, which was near capacity, with two dozen or so cars parked in spaces marked off with numbered wooden signs, so that she’d be able to spot anyone approaching her car. The yellowing fronds of a huge palm tree draped over the spot, which was next to a dumpster. Surely nobody would mind a crappy little Kia tucked away in a parking slot nobody else wanted. Right?

She turned off the engine, locked the car doors, and slid her seat back as far as it would go. She sighed wearily and her eyelids fluttered as the motel sign’s neon-blue waves, waving green palms, and pink lettering flashed on and off, on and off. THE MURMURING SURF. FREE WI-FI. POOL. COLOR TV. She’d paused, before pulling into the lot, after spotting the yellow NO VACANCY notice, but maybe, she thought, there really was a room. Maybe someone would be checking out this morning, after the sun rose.

Letty picked up the carefully folded article she’d placed on the passenger seat. It was a faded page torn from a back issue of Southern Living magazine. “Florida’s Hidden Gems: Four Family Motels You’ll Want to Discover.” There was a photo of the Murmuring Surf at the bottom of the page, which had been circled with a black Sharpie pen, but from the looks of the place now, the photo had been taken some time ago.

Sunrise was probably half an hour away, with just the faintest promise of pink streaks in the midnight-blue sky, but she could make out a series of little concrete-block units arranged in an asymmetrical horseshoe shape. In the center of the horseshoe was a glowing aqua kidney-shaped swimming pool, shaded with tall palm trees and ringed with lounge chairs and tables. No lights shone in any of the windows, but at the curve of the horseshoe, a two-story unit, double the size of the others, had a small neon OFFICE sign posted in a window, and there was a lit-up Coke machine near the door.

She slid her window down a few inches and sniffed, inhaling the cool, salt-scented breeze and listening to the gentle wash of waves from somewhere very nearby. God, what she wouldn’t give for a moonlit walk on the beach, just a moment to sink her toes into the sand and feel the warm tickle of water lapping at her ankles, washing away the terror and trauma of the past thirty-six hours.

Maya stirred, mumbling something in her sleep, bringing an abrupt end to Letty’s daydream.

Her face softened as she regarded the little girl, her face so calm and untroubled in sleep. What had she seen? What would she remember? “Poor little chickadee,” she whispered, unconsciously using the endearment her grandmother always used when referring to her and her younger sister.

During the long drive from New York, Maya had cried for hours, at first racking sobs, which finally subsided into whimpers and sniffles. She’d refused to eat anything, sweeping away her favorite (and usually forbidden) chicken nuggets during a raging tantrum in a roadside fast-food restaurant in West Virginia, screaming “I want my MOMMY!” so loudly that a panicky Letty had hustled her out of the place so fast that she’d left behind her own dinner. Hours later she’d pulled into the drive-through line of another fast-food joint, bribing Maya with a chocolate milkshake, which she’d greedily sucked down—and then barfed up half an hour later, which meant yet another gas station pit stop.

She picked up her cell phone. Six text messages, all of which she deleted. The last two texts were from Zoey.

WHERE R U?

OMG! CALL ME! R U OK?

She hesitated. Zoey had been her first real friend in the city. She had to trust somebody, didn’t she? No, she decided, shaking her head. Nobody could be trusted. Not after everything that had happened. The less Zoey knew, the better off they’d all be.

Her eyelids fluttered again, and she descended into a black, dreamless sleep.



* * *



She was awakened by a sharp metallic rapping on her car window. “Ma’am? Hey, ma’am? Wake up!”