An excerpt from Elin Olausson’s “Uncle”: A story told through the eyes of a young boy who recalls growing up on the ground of his uncle's motel where residents mysteriously go missing.
Uncle says that it was for the best that Mother died. I didn’t agree at first but I agree now. She was slow and clumsy, like a slug or cow or some other animal you don’t have to be nice to. Her food tasted bland and she was always crying. Boo-hoo, Uncle said, then lifted one of her thin braids and spoke with his lips touching her ear. Boo-fucking-hoo! He doesn’t want me using bad words but it’s not the same when it’s only in my head. I don’t think it’s the same.
Uncle is the only man I know. We don’t need other men here. Svetlana does the cleaning and I answer the telephone and Uncle does everything else. Svetlana lives in town; she drives here in the morning and leaves at noon. She tried to smile at me in the beginning but smiles don’t work on me. I don’t despise her, really, but I don’t care for her either. Uncle says she’s sloppy and wears too much makeup. At least she never cries.
The motel is ours and when Uncle dies, it will be mine. I have a lot of responsibilities. I do as I’m told. The old woman in Room 12 says I’m very clever. She has a strange way of talking; the words come out all stretched and bent. She has stayed for one week already, which is good because there are no other guests. The VACANT sign blinks, blinks, blinks like a shock-pink constellation in the sky. The woman has a big head and a name I don’t like, so I think of her as Head. Every day, Head drives off in her rusty white car with her canvas bag. I peeked into the bag on her first night here, when she forgot it in Reception, and saw an old camera and a book. I wonder if Head reads the same book every day or if she has lots of them to pick and choose from, lining the walls in Room 12. I have ten books but I haven’t looked at them since Mother went into the tub. None of them have pictures, because Uncle says picture books are bad for children. Mother used to read the stories to me when she was around. I guess you could say it was the only thing she was good at.
I have a secret place of my own below the counter in Reception. I can sit there with my legs outstretched and Uncle doesn’t notice, Svetlana doesn’t notice, no one notices. It’s a lockable hollow space inside the counter, dark and dusty, all empty because Uncle keeps everything important in his office down the hall. Sometimes I fall asleep in there. Other times I spy. I listen as Uncle asks guests for their names and hands out keys. I hear his voice ripple through the air. If the front door is open, which it is a lot because of the heat, I eavesdrop on the conversations on the porch. Those are what interest me the most. Uncle talks to all the guests. Only girls come here, and they are always alone. Their cars break down close to the motel in the middle of the night, or they come wandering from nowhere, barefoot, carrying nothing but their shoes. Hitchhiker girls, runaway girls, girls with pills in their pockets and china doll faces. Uncle tucks their long hair behind their ears and they laugh like a choir of broken toys, shrill and off-key. They ask him to fix their cars or make them coffee or let them stay the night. Uncle twirls their hair around his finger and they melt until the floor is a gooey mess.
There are no girls here now. Only Head. I like it when Uncle talks to her. Their talks are like cigarette smoke trailing through the air, beautiful but not beautiful at all. I don’t understand what they talk about but I want to hear it and pretend I am grown like them. Uncle sips the peach-flavored iced tea you make from powder. He buys twenty bags of it every time he goes to town for supplies. Once, I tore open an empty package and lapped at the remaining powder inside. I imagine that real peaches would taste just like that. An explosion of sweetness.
I sit under the counter tonight playing the spy game. Uncle is outside, and Head with her pale eyes and the usual scarf tied over her grey hair. I have made a hole in the counter with a nail. It’s small, but if I press my eye against it I see things. Right now, I see the rickety porch table with Uncle’s glass of iced tea, his long thin legs and his hairy arm, reaching for the glass. Head sits at the other side of the table. She drinks from a hip flask. Sometimes it’s a thermos, sometimes a water bottle. Uncle has never offered her anything from inside the house and she has never asked. Her bra is visible through her worn white t-shirt. Not like Uncle’s girls would do it, to be sexy. Head doesn’t know and if she did, she wouldn’t care.
Shadowy Natures: Stories of Psychological Horror, edited by Rebecca Rowland
Read more from Elin Olausson’s story, “Uncle"
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