Seth has been living in the motel for almost three months now. He refers to it as “his apartment” and insists that people take off their shoes before coming inside, even though the carpet is rough and pre-stained. The stains are blackish crud puddles, oozing out from under the bed, the dresser, the TV stand. The carpet is maroon and blue. Colors that are supposed to make you think about conference rooms or airport terminals, places where important things happen. Sometimes Seth imagines buying a black light at the Spencers under the back stairs in the mall, to examine the extent of the stains—for every one he can see, there must be fifty that he can’t—but he doesn’t really mean it. He’s only been in there once and hated it, the super-crude slogans on everything, all the weed leaves and dildos. There was even a dildo shaped like a weed leaf, looking like a punishment instead of a sex toy. Who would buy that? Even as a gag gift? He picked it up, baffled. In a second a teen employee was at his side, asking can I help you, Sir. The Sir came out snide, indicating Seth’s out-of-place-ness: his neat button-down, his relative adulthood. The kid had those metal tunnels punched through his earlobes. Seth could see the rainbow lights from the novelty lamp display glowing through the holes. The kid looked at Seth, bored and waiting. His nametag read Gary and he was wearing a t-shirt that said Just Do Me, with the Nike swish. In public places Seth was supposed to be really friendly and give a two-minute spiel about his group, the One Best Way, accompanied by a brochure printed on grainy cardstock. On the cover are two healthy-looking white people, a girl and a boy, holding hands and poised to jump off the top of a waterfall. The brochure outlines Eight Steps and Benefits of the Way; it’s like church and self-improvement all rolled into one, it’s the best. The speech is supposed to start, Are you feeling like you might need a greater direction in your life? but Seth’s brain hitched up, it always does when he’s nervous. He tried to say something like Gary are you feeling but blurted out, Garfield direction? So he just pressed the folded paper into Gary’s left hand and speed-walked away as fast as possible without the added shame of actually running. Past the Coffee Bean, past the desert plant kiosk, past, past, past. When he got to the parking garage he could not remember what level he’d left the Chevy on. Great. He’d already failed his friends as an Ambassador, and now he’d lost their car, too. He stood just inside the entrance, pacing back and forth, totally empty. It was August and the air smelled like warm trash. There was a dull alarm tone that sounded whenever cars pulled out, to warn pedestrians. He knew this but he still cringed every time it went off.
Once and only once, when Seth was in middle school, he had convinced his dad to let him go to the Sears shopping plaza with Kevin Ulman and Dave Krause. They were older kids who got off the bus three stops before him; they loved Papa Roach and that game ‘Look at my Butthole,’ where you make the ‘OK’ sign with your hand and hold it down by your side, then punch people in the arm when they look at it. Seth’s dad was not into ‘hanging out,’ as ‘hanging out’ does not ‘build character,’ but he was also not into his son being a ‘loser,’ which means no friends, no prospects, and worst of all, no chances to prove your character. You were either a ‘loser’ or you ‘had character,’ a simple dividing line which very few individuals got to cross. Good examples of ‘character’ included Seth’s dad himself, Gerald Ford, occasionally Paul Newman and once Jimmy Stewart. Kevin Ulman and Dave Krause were most definitely ‘losers,’ a fact which Seth’s dad took particular glee in detailing on the brutal half-hour ride home after Kevin and Dave had abandoned Seth in the bathroom next to FYE. Actually it was less abandoned than locked in a stall. They wanted him to pocket a bracelet in his baggy cargo shorts, which Seth remembers with perfect clarity: a chain with a butterfly charm, an Eiffel tower, a tiny silver comb. Kevin said it was his girlfriend’s birthday but he couldn’t like, afford to buy her anything so could he help him out, man, just this one time? Seth tortured out some rough calculations: stealing = bad, but helping = good. Sitting on the bus alone, behind the driver in the “bitch seat,” or next to Henry who stuck his head in his shirt to smell his armpit = all bad. Sitting with Kevin and Dave, sharing their headphones and having them explain various erotic terminology so people wouldn’t make fun of him when he didn’t know what a chode was = good. But trumping all equations was the idea, just the spectral outline of the idea, of his dad having to pick him up at the police station, which in his head was an amalgam of several TV show sets and the mildewy locker room at the Y. And then, what would come after the picking up? No way, Jose. Seth panicked and threw the cheap red un-velvet box under a table of folded polo shirts. A big mistake. In the car, he’d taken comfort in the fact that enough time had passed, between the initial dunking in the toilet and his eventual release by a janitor, for his hair to dry so his dad couldn’t tell said dunking had taken place. They were right to leave you there, you should have called the cops on them, fought them, you were a wuss back there, not a stitch of character at all, not a stitch.
Little Seth would barely recognize Older Seth who, with eighteen additional years and two additional feet of height, is acne-free and blandly handsome. He is transformed by rightness, by his new purpose, which is most definitely character building. He occupies some middle range of attractiveness between movie star and one of those guys in infomercials who are always knocking things over, before the product comes in to transform their worlds from black-and-white mishaps into full-color successes. This attractiveness is obscured in part by his wire glasses and itchy white shirts but mostly by his anxiety, so thick he worries it’s almost a physical characteristic itself. Like he reeks of it, like it serves the same instructive purpose that bright colors do on certain frogs and caterpillars: an advertisement for poison inside.
Looking for the Chevy, he was so sweaty he might as well have just been drowning in the toilet all over again, choking on water that tastes like sweaty balls and industrial soap. Are you a loser, Seth? Are you a loser? Are you, loser, you are, are you, until the right combination of lot number manifested in his mind—D6—and he actually cried from relief. It came in a voice different than his own, or his dad’s. In the Way they talk a lot about the moment that you know: that you click on, like a light switch, and you finally Believe. Seth is proud that he can pinpoint his exactly. He’d been scared that it would never happen, that he would be the only one left behind, singing along at Service in a mealymouthed way where everyone could tell he wasn’t really Feeling it. He bets Kevin Ulman and Dave Krause have never clicked on in their whole crappy—cruddy—lives. Too bad for them. Sometimes God is too busy to hear small requests but occasionally, Seth is learning, He pulls through, and that makes all the other times worth it.
The point about the carpet, though? Seth doesn’t want to give it more attention than is due. When he stares at it for too long without blinking, Seth can see patterns working themselves out of the maroon bumps. Mouths and towers and once, a snake with seven heads. Then he shuts his eyes and rubs them hard, to dislodge the afterimages. This happens more often than Seth would like, because the TV doesn’t get very good reception and he only brought one book that his Friends gave him right before he moved in. He tries to avoid reading it whenever possible. The book is about the One Best Way, but not watered down like it is in the brochures. It’s only for Ambassadors, upper-level members of the Way. Which Seth is: upper level. VIP. It’s bound in some kind of leather, real luxury, that feels spongy and hot in Seth’s hands. It is full of obscure language, its pages cramped with spindly text. Seth is grateful that his friends think he’s so smart, smart enough to appreciate a gift like that. Seth’s ok. Seth is fine! Seth is already so much better than he used to be. He’s about ninety miles from the town where he met his friends, closer to the state’s northern border. He doesn’t miss his home. Out here the pine trees are a lot more densely packed. The ratio of woods to people is much higher, and so is the ratio of snakes to people. Features of this town include the aforementioned mall, medium-sized, a length of frigid and rocky beach, this small motel, and a large, dormant volcano.
Seth knows his room is not really an apartment, but the combination of temporary lodging and semi-permanent language feels right to him. When he was little someone read him a story about how, long ago, in a country that was maybe China, people used to call their dying family members by the wrong names. This way Death would get confused as to who it was supposed to be collecting, and leave. He realizes that this story presupposes a lot; mostly that Death is either very stupid or very easily discouraged. He believes, however, in a way that has progressed from fully joking to only slightly, that motel logic works on a similar plane. So Seth’s dad passed right before he moved in. Seth’s dad didn’t take his blood pressure medication, because he believed dependence on anything other than one’s own willpower was the hallmark of losers everywhere. So what? Seth is not stupid, he’s young, and he’s in relatively good shape. He just likes to be prepared. If he thinks about this for too long, some part of his guts dislodges a quarter of an inch. Seth pictures his insides like the vending machine that stands sentry at the end of the motel’s long row of peeling green doors. Every feeling is poised behind a big metal coil, ready to be shaken loose. To keep a proper balance maintained, Seth makes a big point to laugh about the temporariness of his living arrangements when his friends come over. Welcome to my apartment, everybody! His friends all laugh with him, shaking their heads like, Oh, Seth. Seth privately thinks of himself as the funniest one in the group. Also the most thoughtful one. He knows he’s not supposed to rank people like that, that everyone is valuable in their own Way, but old habits are hard to break. On account of his thoughtfulness, he provides his friends with fresh socks, when they come, even if they’re already wearing their own. He buys the socks at the Walmart down the road from his motel every Tuesday. His friends don’t come see him nearly often enough to necessitate this but he wants to make sure that he is seen buying socks every week. He tries to go at the same time every Tuesday, if possible, so roughly the same people will be working there. He does not bring his brochures to Walmart, because he is a regular customer. On the first day Seth arrived in Mount Alma, his friend Paul explained this no-repeats tactic to him as don’t shit where you eat. They were going over the Rules in the Wendy’s parking lot by the motel. It was raining like always, so they sat in the Chevy while they talked and ate French fries out of their laps. Seth was startled by the sudden profanity, but Paul just laughed. It’s okay, amongst friends. Which we are! Friends! Paul has a contagious laugh, bubbly and warm, and Seth caught on after a minute. Okay, I won’t SHIT where I EAT, he said back, with extra emphasis. Paul clapped him on the back, still laughing. It was a great moment, safe in the car, a couple of buddies having lunch. Then Paul’s voice dropped and he said, But don’t let Uncle Jory catch you talking like that, right?
At first Seth just needed to set a dependable schedule for himself but now he thinks of these shopping trips as a sort of contingency plan, for what, for just in case. The plan is that, if he doesn’t show up on Tuesday at 9:30 pm to buy socks, the cashier in Aisle 11 (yellow bangs and a tattoo under her collarbones that says no regrets) might turn to the cashier in Aisle 12 and say, ‘Hey, the sock guy didn’t come in today’. The cashier in Aisle 12 (mossy-looking sideburns) will say, ‘I hope he’s okay.’ If he doesn’t show up the week after that, maybe they will tell someone who has the ability to look for him, or look into him, re: his personal safety and well-being. It’s the neighborly thing to do. Seth is not positive about the actual mechanics of this search, although he has tried, on a couple painfully slow nights, to make a flowchart of how decisions might be made re: people inquiring after him. He used the pad of yellowed paper that the motel has provided. Seth is not good at art and he’s extremely embarrassed by these attempts, one time going so far as to try burning one in the metal wastebasket of the bathroom that is nominally his. It left a rolling scorch mark on the wall of the shower, where he had thrown the wastebasket to put it out, and that’s an important reason for staying. He will stay until he figures out some way to fix it. The hard white plastic is brown and bubbled; is that something you can sand down, or what? He doesn’t know and that’s bad. What’s worse is that while the shower was slightly on fire, the smoke alarm in his room didn’t even go off. Afterwards when he had calmed down enough, he stood on the back of the desk chair and pulled the plastic circle off the ceiling, to check the batteries. There were none.
Lauren Artiles mostly writes and usually exists, currently in Boston. Her work has appeared in New Fraktur Journal and Esque Mag. She prefers Frankensteins to Draculas and worries too frequently about breaking her glasses post-apocalypse like that episode of The Twilight Zone.