I remember well the family cars from my childhood. We had a couple of Pontiacs, a Mazda, a Honda, a Saab with a fold-down armrest that my brother and I fought over. We’d go for day trips—picnics near waterfalls, hikes around mountain lakes—or longer jaunts, maybe to the coast for a weekend or longer.
Now that I have kids of my own, we pile into the SUV for road trips too. We drive down south past miles of Joshua trees to visit my husband’s family, or north to visit mine. We go to Yosemite, San Francisco, wine country. We’ve spent endless hours along the dustbowl towns of Highway 99 and I-5. We know our favorite places to stop for bathrooms and fast food.
I hope when my daughters grow up they’ll have lots of good memories of squabbling over backseat territory, eating snacks I only allow on long car rides, playing license plate games and making up stories about the strange sights we’ve seen. Because a road trip is more than just a way to get from A to B. It’s not like the placeless limbo of airports and airplanes. A road trip is a Journey.
In my newest novel, Motel. Pool., Tag Manning is on a road trip. He’s looking to escape a lifetime of bad decisions. But as is so often the case in these sorts of journeys, he stumbles upon something totally unexpected—a ghost who can change Tag’s life.
Motel. Pool. was inspired by a family road trip we took last year. We didn’t find any ghosts, but I think inspiration for a new story is a pretty good discovery in itself.
I’m giving away an e-copy of Motel. Pool. To enter, just comment here with your email and let me know about a road trip you’ve taken or plan to take. I’ll randomly choose a winner on May 12 at noon Pacific time.
In the mid-1950s, Jack Dayton flees his working-class prospects in Omaha and heads to Hollywood, convinced he’ll be the next James Dean. But sleazy casting couches don’t earn him stardom, and despair leads to a series of poor decisions that ultimately find him at a cheap motel off Route 66, lifeless at the bottom of the pool.
Sixty years later, Tag Manning, feeling hopeless and empty, flees his most recent relationship mistake and takes to the open road. On a roundabout route to Las Vegas, he pulls over to rest at an isolated spot on Route 66. There’s no longer a motel or pool, but when Tag resumes his journey to Vegas, he finds he’s transporting a hitchhiking ghost. Jack and Tag come to find much-needed friends in each other, but one man is a phantom and the other is strangely cursed. Time is running out for each of them, and they must face the fact that a future together may not only be a gamble… it may not be in the cards.
He’d find a room in Williams. Someplace quiet, where the sheets smelled like bleach and the cups were wrapped in plastic.
The highway was dark. A few cars were strung out in front of him and a few straggled behind, but he passed nobody heading the other way. His eyelids were heavier than they should have been. The damn radio was on the fritz again, picking up nothing but static and something that sounded vaguely like a pipe organ playing very far away.
That left Tag alone with his thoughts, which wasn’t a good thing. As clearly as the road in front of him, he could picture Jason’s handsome, earnest face. It was a Midwestern farmboy face, even though Jason had grown up in Kansas City. He had the kind of all-American looks that predisposed him to being a Boy Scout and a member of the high school football team, going to church with his family on Sundays, and probably helping little old ladies cross the street. Jason’s laughter came easily. He was the kind of guy who charmed little kids; who hugged all his friends, gay and straight; who loved to go out dancing, then tumble into bed with his boyfriend, sweaty and smelling of tequila. He was the kind of guy who told his boyfriend he wanted to go out to dinner, and in the pause between the soup and the steak, slipped out of his chair, got down on one knee, and produced a ring in a velvet box.
“Fuck!” Tag shouted. He rolled down the car window and let the slipstream tear the postcard from his fingers. It disappeared into the darkness.
“That was littering,” said an accusing voice.
Tag whipped his head to the side—and saw a man grinning at him from the passenger seat. Tag screamed. The car swerved onto the shoulder. He overcorrected, turning sharply the other way, flying across the northbound lane and onto gravel, spinning sideways. For an eternal moment, the car was poised to roll, teetering like a tightrope walker on a windy day. Tag wasn’t wearing a seat belt. He took a breath and waited to die. Then the Camry found its balance and skidded to a halt.
Without planning it, Tag popped the shifter to Park, flung open his door, and leapt out of the car. He stood there, breathing hard, every muscle in his body tensed. After several seconds, the passenger door opened. Someone got out—Tag couldn’t see details—and sauntered to the front of the car, where he was illuminated by the headlights.
He was a young man, twenty, maybe twenty-one years old. His sandy hair was short on the sides but longer on top, swept back in a sort of pompadour that probably required a lot of product. He was a couple of inches taller than Tag’s five eight. His plain white tee stretched over wide shoulders and a muscular chest and tucked into the trim waist of his blue jeans. He was smiling.
As Tag gaped, the man turned his back and perched his butt on the hood of the Camry. Tag didn’t see how the guy managed to produce a cigarette and lighter, but the flame flickered brightly, the guy exhaled noisily, and a cloud of smoke drifted through the headlight beams. Tag stepped around his open door and walked in front of the car. The man looked relaxed, a little amused. “You almost killed yourself just now,” he observed.
“Who the fuck are you? And how the hell…?” Tag ran a shaky hand through his hair. Had he really been so preoccupied as not to notice someone sitting in his backseat when he left the park? He certainly would have noticed him climbing into the front. It wasn’t like the Camry was a big vehicle.
The guy took another puff and tapped ashes onto the ground. “My name’s Jack Dayton.” He tilted his head slightly. “Maybe you heard of me? I was in a couple of movies.”
Tag shook his head mutely, and Jack shrugged. “They weren’t very big parts.”
Motel. Pool. releases May 12. It’s available now for preorder at Dreamspinner Press.