Upstate New York, 1982. Viv Delaney wants to move to New York City, and to help pay for it she takes a job as the night clerk at the Sun Down Motel in Fell, New York. But something isnʼt right at the motel, something haunting and scary.
Upstate New York, 2017. Carly Kirk has never been able to let go of the story of her aunt Viv, who mysteriously disappeared from the Sun Down before she was born. She decides to move to Fell and visit the motel, where she quickly learns that nothing has changed since 1982. And she soon finds herself ensnared in the same mysteries that claimed her aunt.
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Fell, New York
The night it all ended, Vivian was alone.
That was fine with her. She preferred it. It was something she'd discovered, working the night shift at this place in the middle of nowhere: Being with people was easy, but being alone was hard. Especially being alone in the dark. The person who could be truly alone, in the company of no one but oneself and one's own thoughts-that person was stronger than anyone else. More ready. More prepared.
Still, she pulled into the parking lot of the Sun Down Motel in Fell, New York, and paused, feeling the familiar beat of fear. She sat in her beat-up Cavalier, the key in the ignition, the heat and the radio on, her coat huddled around her shoulders. She looked at the glowing blue and yellow sign, the two stories of rooms in two long stripes in the shape of an L, and thought, I don't want to go in there. But I will. She was ready, but she was still afraid. It was 10:59 p.m.
She felt like crying. She felt like screaming. She felt sick.
I don't want to go in there.
But I will. Because I always do.
Outside, two drops of half-frozen rain hit the windshield. A truck droned by on the road in the rearview mirror. The clock ticked over to eleven o'clock, and the news came on the radio. Another minute and she'd be late, but she didn't care. No one would fire her. No one cared if she came to work. The Sun Down had few customers, none of whom would notice if the night girl was late. It was often so quiet that an observer would think that nothing ever happened here.
Viv Delaney knew better.
The Sun Down only looked empty. But it wasn't.
With cold fingers, she pulled down the driver's-side visor. She touched her hair, which she'd had cut short, a sharp style that ended below her earlobes and was teased out for volume. She checked her eye makeup-not the frosty kind, like some girls wore, but a soft lavender purple. It looked a little like bruises. You could streak it with yellow and orange to create a days-old-bruise effect, but she hadn't bothered with that tonight. Just the purple on the delicate skin of her lids, meeting the darker line of her eyeliner and lashes. Why had she put makeup on at all? She couldn't remember.
On the radio, they talked about a body. A girl found in a ditch off Melborn Road, ten miles from here. Not that here was anywhere-just a motel on the side of a two-lane highway leading out of Fell and into the nothingness of upstate New York and eventually Canada. But if you took the two-lane for a mile and made a right at the single light dangling from an overhead wire, and followed that road to another and another, you'd be where the girl's body was found. A girl named Tracy Waters, last seen leaving a friend's house in a neighboring town. Eighteen years old, stripped naked and dumped in a ditch. They'd found her body two days after her parents reported her missing.
As she sat in her car, twenty-year-old Viv Delaney's hands shook as she listened to the story. She thought about what it must be like to lie naked as the half-frozen rain pelted your helpless skin. How horribly cold that would be. How it was always girls who ended up stripped and dead like roadkill. How it didn't matter how afraid or how careful you were-it could always be you.
Especially here. It could always be you.
Her gaze went to the motel, to the reflection of the gaudy lit-up blue and yellow sign blinking endlessly in the darkness. vacancy. cable tv! vacancy. cable tv!
Even after three months in this place, she could still be scared. Awfully, perfectly scared, her thoughts skittering up the back of her neck and around her brain in panic. I'm alone for the next eight hours, alone in the dark. Alone with her and the others.
And despite herself, Viv turned the key so the heat and the radio-still talking about Tracy Waters-went off. Lifted her chin and pushed open the driver's-side door. Stepped out into the cold.
She hunched deeper into her nylon coat and started across the parking lot. She was wearing jeans and a pair of navy blue sneakers with white laces, the soles too thin for the cold and damp. The rain wet her hair, and the wind pushed it out of place. She walked across the lot toward the door that said office.
Inside the office, Johnny was standing behind the counter, zipping up his coat over his big stomach. He'd probably seen her from the window in the door. "Are you late?" he asked, though there was a clock on the wall behind him.
"Five minutes," Viv argued back, unzipping her own coat. Her stomach felt tight, queasy now that she was inside. I want to go home.
But where was home? Fell wasn't home. Neither was Illinois, where she was born. When she left home for the last time, after the final screaming fight with her mother, she'd supposedly been headed to New York to become an actress. But that, like everything else in her life to that point, had been a part she was playing, a story. She had no idea how to become a New York actress-the story had enraged her mother, which had made it good enough. What Viv had wanted, more than anything, was to simply be in motion, to go.
So she'd gone. And she'd ended up here. Fell would have to be home for now.
"Mrs. Bailey is in room two-seventeen," Johnny said, running down the motel's few guests. "She already made a liquor run, so expect a phone call anytime."
"Great," Viv said. Mrs. Bailey came to the Sun Down to drink, probably because if she did it at home she'd get in some kind of trouble. She made drunken phone calls to the front desk to make demands she usually forgot about. "Anyone else?"
"The couple on their way to Florida checked out," Johnny said. "We've had two prank phone calls, both heavy breathing. Stupid teenagers. And I wrote a note to Janice about the door to number one-oh-three. There's something wrong with it. It keeps blowing open in the wind, even when I lock it."
"It always does that," Viv said. "You told Janice about it a week ago." Janice was the motel's owner, and Viv hadn't seen her in weeks. Months, maybe. She didn't come to the motel if she didn't have to, and she certainly didn't come at night. She left Vivian's paychecks in an envelope on the desk, and all communication was handled with notes. Even the motel's owner didn't spend time here if she could help it.
"Well, she should fix the door," Johnny said. "I mean, it's strange, right? I locked it."
"Sure," Viv said. "It's strange."
She was used to this. No one else who worked at the motel saw what she saw or experienced what she did. The things she saw only happened in the middle of the night. The day shift and the evening shift employees had no idea.
"Hopefully no one else will check in," Johnny said, pulling the hood of his jacket over his head. "Hopefully it'll be quiet."
It's never quiet, Viv thought, but she said, "Yes, hopefully."
Viv watched him walk out of the office, listened to his car start up and drive away. Johnny was thirty-six and lived with his mother. Viv pictured him going home, maybe watching TV before going to bed. A guy who had never made much of himself, living a relatively normal life, free of the kind of fear Viv was feeling. A life in which he never thought about Tracy Waters, except to vaguely recall her name from the radio.
Maybe it was just her who was going crazy.
The quiet settled in, broken only by the occasional sound of the traffic on Number Six Road and the wind in the trees behind the motel. It was now 11:12. The clock on the wall behind the desk ticked over to 11:13.
She hung her jacket on the hook in the corner. From another hook she took a navy blue polyester vest with the words Sun Down Motel embroidered on the left breast and shrugged it on over her white blouse. She pulled out the hard wooden chair behind the counter and sat in it. She surveyed the scarred, stained desktop quickly: jar of pens and pencils, the black square that made a clacking sound when you dragged the handle back and forth over a credit card to make a carbon impression, puke-colored rotary phone. In the middle of the desk was a large, flat book, where guests were to write their information and sign their names when checking in. The guest book was open to November 1982.
Pulling a notebook from her purse, Viv pulled a pen from between its pages, opened the notebook on the desk, and wrote.
Door to number 103 has begun to open again. Prank calls. No one here. Tracy Waters is dead.
A sound came from outside, and she paused, her head half raised. A bang, and then another one. Rhythmic and wild. The door to number 103 blowing open and hitting the wall in the wind. Again.
For a second, Viv closed her eyes. The fear came over her in a wave, but she was too far in it now. She was already here. She had to be ready. The Sun Down had claimed her for the night.
She lowered the pen again.
What if everything I've seen, everything I think, is true? Because I think it is.
Her eyes glanced to the guest book, took in the names there. She paused as the clock on the wall behind her shoulder ticked on, then wrote again.
The ghosts are awake tonight. They're restless. I think this will be over soon. Her hand trembled, and she tried to keep it steady. I'm so sorry, Tracy. I've failed.
A small sound escaped the back of her throat, but she bit it down into silence. She put the pen down and rubbed her eyes, some of the pretty lavender eyeshadow coming off on her fingertips.
It was November 29, 1982, 11:24 p.m.
By three o'clock in the morning, Viv Delaney had vanished.
That was the beginning.
Fell, New York
This place was unfamiliar.
I opened my eyes and stared into the darkness, panicked. Strange bed, strange light through the window, strange room. I had a minute of free fall, frightening and exhilarating at the same time.
Then I remembered: I was in Fell, New York.
My name was Carly Kirk, I was twenty years old, and I wasn't supposed to be here.
I checked my phone on the nightstand; it was four o'clock in the morning, only the light from streetlamps and the twenty-four-hour Denny's shining through the sheer drapes on the hotel room window and making a hazy square on the wall.
I wasn't getting back to sleep now. I swung my legs over the side of the bed and picked up my glasses from the nightstand, putting them on. I'd driven from Illinois yesterday, a long drive that left me tired enough to sleep like the dead in this bland chain hotel in downtown Fell.
It wasn't that impressive a place; Google Earth had told me that much. Downtown was a grid of cafs, laundromats, junky antique stores, apartment rental buildings, and used-book stores, nestled reverently around a grocery store and a CVS. The street I was on, with the chain hotel and the Denny's, passed straight through town, as if a lot of people got to Fell and simply kept driving without making the turnoff into the rest of the town. The welcome to fell sign I'd passed last night had been vandalized by a wit who had used spray paint to add the words turn back.
I didn't turn back.
With my glasses on, I picked up my phone again and scrolled through the emails and texts that had come in while I slept.
The first email was from my family's lawyer. The remainder of funds has been deposited into your account. Please see breakdown attached.
I flipped past it without reading the rest, without opening the attachment. I didn't need to see it: I already knew I'd inherited some of Mom's money, split with my brother, Graham. I knew it wasn't riches, but it was enough to keep me in food and shelter for a little while. I didn't want numbers, and I couldn't look at them. Losing your mother to cancer-she was only fifty-one-made things like money look petty and stupid.
In fact, it made you rethink everything in your life. Which in my crazy way, after fourteen months in a fog of grief, I was doing. And I couldn't stop.
There was a string of texts from Graham. What do you think you're doing, Carly? Leaving college? For how long? You think you can keep up? Whatever. If all that tuition is down the drain, you're on your own. You know that, right? Whatever you're doing, good luck with it. Try not to get killed.
I hit Reply and typed, Hey, drama queen. It's only for a few days, and I'm acing everything. This is just a side trip, because I'm curious. So sue me. I'll be fine. No plans to get killed, but thanks for checking.
Actually, I was hoping to be here for longer than a few days. Since losing Mom, staying in college for my business degree seemed pointless. When I'd started college, I'd thought I had all the time in the world to figure out what I wanted to do. But Mom's death showed me that life wasn't as long as you thought it was. And I had questions I wanted answers to. It was time to find them.
Hailey, Graham's fiance, had sent me her own text. Hey! You OK?? Worried about you. I'm here to talk if you want. Maybe you need another grief counselor? I can find you one! OK? XO!
God, she was so nice. I'd already done grief counseling. Therapy. Spirit circles. Yoga. Meditation. Self-care. In doing all of that, what I'd discovered was that I didn't need another therapy session right now. What I really needed, at long last, was answers.
I put down my phone and opened my laptop, tapping it awake. I opened the file on my desktop, scrolling through it. I picked out a scan of a newspaper from 1982, with the headline POLICE SEARCHING FOR MISSING LOCAL WOMAN. Beneath the headline was a photo of a young woman, clipped from a snapshot. She was beautiful, vivacious, smiling at the camera, her hair teased, her bangs sprayed in place up from her forehead as the rest of her hair hung down in a classic eighties look. Her skin was clear and her eyes sparkled, even in black and white. The caption below the photo said: Twenty-year-old Vivian Delaney has not been seen since the night of November 29. Anyone who has seen her is asked to call the police.
Reading Group Guide
The Sun Down Motel
Simone St. James
Questions for Discussion
1. Why do you think the author chose to tell this story across two time periods and two points of view? Do you think it was effective? Why or why not?
2. Discuss how each of the victims were described in the media. Do you think the way the media characterized these women played a role in the overall investigation—and the failure by the police to catch the killer? How does their characterization compare to how victims are described by the media today?
3. From the beginning, Viv is determined to uncover who the female ghost is and why she’s haunting the motel. Why do you think this was so important to her? Why do you think she didn’t just flee Fell, New York, and the motel?
4. Viv, Carly, and Heather all have a somewhat morbid curiosity surrounding both the Fell, New York, murders and true crime in general, which reflects the fact that young women tend to be the biggest consumers of true crime content. Why do you think this is?
5. Discuss the ghosts that haunt the motel, especially Betty. What do you think each of them represented, if anything?
6. There are multiple instances where the women of this novel discuss what women should be doing to protect themselves, although as Viv notes: “It was always girls who ended up stripped and dead like roadkill. . . . It didn’t matter how afraid or careful you were—it could always be you.” What do you think the author is saying about the experience of being a woman? Do you think the novel might have been difference if Viv and Carly were men? If so, how?
7. How are the concepts of female rage and empowerment explored in this novel, if at all?
8. Consider Alma and Marnie, and the relationships they formed with Viv and with each other. Why do you think they allowed themselves to become involved with Viv’s investigation?
9. Multiple characters throughout this novel end up returning to the small town of Fell, New York, or choose to remain there despite many reasons—and opportunities—to leave. Why do you think they are drawn to the town?
10. Building off the previous question, why do you think the author chose a remote town—and an even more remote roadside motel—for the setting of this novel? How do you think the story would have changed with a different setting?
11. Discuss the way the killer was finally stopped. Do you think those involved did the right thing? Do you think, especially with consideration of the time period, that they could have done anything differently?