Lorelei peered through the snow-spattered windshield at the neon sign and hoped like hell there was room at the inn. She also hoped like hell she was in Haddon. If she hadn’t made it to her destination yet, she’d stay anyway. No way was she driving any farther tonight.
How had she let herself be talked into this madness? A road trip during a blizzard, two days before Christmas? Insanity. But Dorothy had been so insistent, so desperate. Lorelei couldn’t deny the request of a dying woman, especially one who’d been like a grandmother to her. Lorelei’s parents had moved to Australia from their home in Moore, Oklahoma while Lorelei was in college. She only saw them every few years. With no siblings, she had no family nearby and hadn’t celebrated Christmas in years. So, she would embark on an adventure.
It hadn’t been snowing hard when Lorelei left three hours earlier. If it had been, she was certain Dorothy would not have sent her on this task.
She released her grip on the steering wheel and rubbed her right hand with her left. She’d held on so tightly for so long, the ring Dorothy had given her had made deep, painful grooves in her fingers. The ring was 10 karat gold with a red, oval stone surrounded by small green crystals. Cheap, gaudy, but Dorothy had been so excited to gift it to her that Lorelei hadn’t had the heart to tell her it was hideous. She could take it off now, but even without Dorothy knowing, it still felt like a betrayal.
Resigned to the fact that the pelting snow wouldn’t ease up any time soon, she pushed the door open and was immediately buffeted by a blast of icy air. She shivered as she stepped out, burrowing into her scarf. A glance at the parking lot showed several older model cars, like, maybe from the fifties or sixties. Had she arrived during a vintage car show or something? If so, there was a good chance the motel would be full. And she’d need at least one night accommodations—maybe two.
She trudged toward the door, head down. There was no moon out, and the darkness was broken only by the pink, green and purple neon sign painting the words ‘Drop Inn’ on the white snow. The name gave her hope. Apparently, reservations were not required.
The heavy wooden door creaked as she pulled it open. She stepped inside to the warmth of a cozy lobby with a fire burning in the fireplace and a Christmas tree in one corner. Plaid furniture and hard wood floors gave it a rustic, comfy feel. The sound of conversation, laughter, and music coming from the other side of a closed door off the lobby drew her attention.
Hoping she wasn’t interrupting something, she pushed open the door. A group of unoccupied tables were scrunched together at one end of the room while the other end was empty except for a larger Christmas tree than the one in the lobby. A young woman dressed in retro fifties garb was placing centerpieces on the tables. To the right was a bar and next to that, an old-fashioned juke box from which an oldies song—one that sounded familiar, but she couldn’t name—played. The guy behind the bar and the customers sitting on the stools were dressed in throwback clothing, with throwback hairstyles. Part of the vintage car show, she presumed. These people went all out.
The bartender spotted her and stepped from behind the bar, approaching her with a charming, friendly smile. His dark hair was slicked back with a wayward lock hanging over his forehead. He wore a button up blue cardigan with a black shirt underneath. Gray-blue eyes raked her from head to toe. His interest didn’t seem sexual, more…curious, puzzled. He frowned briefly, then his countenance morphed back to friendly. "Hi, sorry. I didn’t know anyone had come in. It’s kinda loud in here.” He gestured toward the jukebox which had begun playing another unidentifiable oldies song. “You need a room?"
"Sure, let's go out here."
He held the door open, and she preceded him into the lobby. Going behind the desk, he opened a registration book and slid it to her. “Your name and address, please.” On the wall behind him hung a cork board with several hooks that held keys with paper tags numbered from one through fifty. Some of the hooks held two keys while others held just one. Those surely couldn’t be the room keys…
She brought her gaze back to him. “So, do you always check guests in the old-school way, or are you keeping it real for the vintage car show?”
His brows drew together. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what you mean.”
“I mean, motels usually have computers, and you’re using a…”
His expression grew more bewildered. “Why would we have a computer and how could we possibly afford one?”
She chuckled in disbelief. “Why, you’d need one because…” She paused. She was too tired, too frazzled to deal with this. She just wanted to get a bite to eat and relax. “Never mind. What town am I in?”
She sighed in relief. “Good. That’s where I need to be.”
He gave a disarming grin. “No one needs to be in Haddon.”
She laughed. “Well, you might say I’m on a mission.”
“Ah, a beautiful woman on a secret mission? Intriguing.” He winked. With that one gesture, her irritation melted, her insides warmed, and a feeling bordering on giddiness rose inside her. Were those actually butterflies in her stomach? That hadn’t happened in a very long time. This guy might be odd, but he was most definitely hot…and charismatic. Nothing wrong with a little flirtation.
“You need my card and ID, right?”
“No ID necessary...” He peered at where she’d written her information. “Lorelei. I’m Neil, by the way. Let me know if you need anything at all while you’re here.”
“You don’t need a card for the room?”
He took a key from the board behind him. “A card for the room…?”
“Yes, you know, for payment.”
“Oh, you mean a Diner’s Club card? No, we aren’t set up for that. You can pay with check or cash when you leave.”
Her head spun with confusion. Diner’s Club? Was that still around? They took checks? “You don’t need a card for incidentals?”
He handed her the key. “I’m not sure what you mean, but I can safely say no.”
What was with this guy? He had intelligent eyes, a confident air, but he was really, really dumb. How was he able to tie his shoes, let alone run a motel?
“Is there somewhere I can get some food?” She hadn’t eaten since breakfast, not wanting to stop in the blizzard, and her stomach was vehemently reminding her she’d been ignoring it.
“Sure. I can lug your bags to your room, and if you’ll go back to the bar, Dot will take your order. I’ll be down soon to make it.”
“Thank you.” She assumed Dot was the young woman decorating the tables. So, he was the cook…maybe he wasn’t supposed to be checking guests in. Whatever, she was hungry and tired, and if he’d feed her and get her a bed for the night, she didn’t care if he was a ninja assassin.
Half an hour later, Neil was placing a cheeseburger and side salad in front of her on the bar. She’d wanted to go all in and have the fries, but she decided to semi-concede to a healthy diet. They didn’t have a wide variety to choose from—burgers, salads, fries, onion rings, and chicken fried steak.
She took a bite of the burger. Tasty. Maybe she’d survive this place after all.
The jukebox had been going steadily the entire time she’d been eating and finally played a song she recognized—“Heartbreak Hotel.”
Neil was refilling her iced tea, and he nodded toward the jukebox. “You know, that guy is going to be a big deal some day.”
Lorelei laughed. "Oh, you think so?"
His expression remained serious. "Yeah, he's boss.”
"Wow, you're really committed to this…vintage car show thing or whatever is going on here."
He chuckled and shook his head. “You know, I don’t have any idea what you’re saying half the time, but you seem like a sweet girl, and you’re easy on the eyes, so that’s cool.”
He didn’t understand her? Unbelievable. Had she ended up in some Twilight Zone, or was he touched in the head? Of course, the first hot, charming guy she’d met in years would be an addle-brained Norman Bates clone. She needed to get the message delivered to John Whitten and get back home, ASAP.
“You wouldn’t happen to know a John Whitten, would you?”
Surprise lit his silvery eyes. "He's my brother. How do you know him?"
"I don't. I just...want to meet him."
"He has a girlfriend." He gestured to Dot, who was sitting at the other end of the bar, chatting with a middle-aged woman. “He and Dot have been going steady for over a year.”
Going steady… She loved the authenticity of the fifties lingo. Nice touch. “Oh, I'm not interested in him romantically. I have a message for him."
"He's at work, but he’ll be around tomorrow. We both live here at the motel. We’re having a Christmas bash tomorrow evening, you’re welcome to come."
"That’s very kind of you, thank you.” She had no desire to attend and hadn’t packed any party wear, but she might need that opportunity to connect with John. “Can I get the check?”
“Sure, I’ll get Dot.” He moved away to tend to another customer, signaling to Dot with his hand
Dot came over with the check. She was about Lorelei’s age, pretty, with auburn hair pulled back in a ponytail. “I love your outfit,” Dot whispered. “Though I’m not brave enough to wear something like that. I’ve never seen such tight slacks before.” She wore a floral, full-skirted dress with three quarter length sleeves and a Peter Pan collar.
Lorelei grinned uncertainly. “Thank you…” I think. What a strange compliment-slash-insult. Lorelei wore black leggings and a red sweater with short boots. Nothing shocking in the least.
The check, however, was shocking. Seventy-five cents? That was impossible. “Excuse me,” she said to Dot. “I think there’s been a mistake.”
Dot had been walking away, and she turned back, her manner distracted and harried. “What’s the problem?”
“You charged me seventy-five cents, did you mean seven-fifty, or…?” Even seven-fifty would be cheap, but seventy-five cents? Preposterous.
“No, that’s right.”
Two of the tables were now occupied, and a thin man wearing a suit was waving at Dot. “I gotta go. If you have a problem with the bill, you’ll need to see Neil.” She rushed off.
Something wasn't right. Lorelei twisted the large ring around her finger. An unsettled feeling had been forming in her stomach and now it grew to mass proportions. If the storm of the century wasn't raging outside, she'd scrap this nutty plan and head back home…tell Dorothy she couldn't find John, and she’d have to die without her one wish fulfilled… Yeah, right. Like she could do that. She was already here. Might as well see it through.
All she had to do was give Dorothy’s message to John…and it had to be before Christmas Day. Tomorrow was Christmas Eve, so it was her only chance. Dorothy wanted Lorelei to tell John that she was sorry, and if she'd known how things would turn out, she never would have hurt him like that. That he was the best man she’d ever known and life without him had no meaning.
It was weird, it sounded like a declaration of love, but surely Neil’s brother hadn't had a romance with the much older woman. Perhaps he was a grandson? Lorelei had asked Dorothy why she couldn't call him and tell him, or send him a letter. Dorothy had explained that he was out of her reach, and this had to be done face to face. Even though Lorelei didn’t understand it, she’d acquiesced.
She left two dollars on the bar with the check, feeling like she was stealing, and went upstairs. Her room was larger than she’d expected. There were no amenities, not even a telephone, let alone a TV. No matter, she didn’t plan to watch television, and she had her cell—although so far, she hadn’t been able to get a signal when she’d tried to call Dorothy to tell her she’d made it. She’d get this odd task completed and get the hell out of Crazy Town. Too tired to unpack, she dug out her toothbrush and pajamas, took a quick shower, and dropped into the comfortable bed, falling asleep immediately.
The next morning, she awoke, feeling rested…but still uneasy. Hopefully, she’d be able to deliver her message before the party and head home. She pulled jeans and a shirt from her bag. When she unfolded the jeans, an unfamiliar envelope tumbled out. She frowned in confusion and picked it up.
Inside, she found a single sheet of paper with a note in Dorothy’s handwriting, and a tattered newspaper article from the Haddon Herald. The article’s headline read, “TRAGIC SINGLE-CAR ACCIDENT KILLS ONE” with the sub heading, Haddon Resident Dies in Fiery Wreck. The picture accompanying it showed a man standing on a darkened roadside near a mangled car, his head buried in his hands as though he were weeping. A smaller photo was inset into that one, showing a good-looking, smiling guy, who she assumed was the victim. The date was December 26, 1956.
Her hands shook, and cold wind swept through her soul. She sensed the letter would confirm an awful truth her brain hadn’t been wanting to accept. She began to read.