The Grand Castle Motel - Part Six

‘This doesn’t feel real.’ He said lifting me from my daydream.

‘What do you mean?’ I asked.

‘Sitting here in this place. With you. With us.’ He mumbled. ‘We’ve both changed so much and coming back to this place makes me feel strange. Sort of not real.’

‘Are you drunk off one beer.’ I asked in amazement. ‘You’re getting dangerously pseudo intellectual.’

In reality his words felt familiar to me. I had thought them many times myself. This place was an unreal place. A half reality. It was not quite alive, not quite dead. Not quite anywhere, and not quite nowhere. Halfway between the halfway between. Just outside of heaven and only down the road from hell. I can’t think of a metaphor for a halfway point between yin and yang but imagine that as well. The squiggly line maybe?

‘I may have acquired some merchandise from a bottle shop down the road actually. Around three this afternoon.’ He slurped at his drink.

‘I do know what you mean. It’s not the booze either. It is this place.’ I sighed. ‘Nothing ever happens. Nothing ever not happens. It’s like doing drugs for seventeen years of your life.’ I looked up.

‘Can I show you something?’ I asked. He nodded and we stood up. I noted the slight swaying as he followed me into the carpark.

We crossed the busy highway and entered the concrete courtyard. The same courtyard he had taught me to ride my bike in all those years before. I climbed the stairs and pulled out the key from under the mat. The door wasn’t even locked so I put the key back under the mat again. James hesitated at the door.  

‘Relax, I’m not going to murder you or anything.’ I snorted. He stiffened strangely.

‘Just checking.’ He entered the crummy motel room slowly looking around.

The ripped couch in front of the TV had my little brother, Jay, lying on it snoring quietly. He had his headphones in and was wrapped up tightly in his Ben Ten blanket we had gotten from the warehouse for ten bucks. The apartment was littered with all sorts of things not worth collecting, empty jars, motivational quotes, even a incense bowl thing from when mum had gone through her buddhism stage. We made our way through the wreckage and I lead the way out of the window. I helped him hoist himself up onto the ladder, briefly wondering if it was a good idea to take a semi intoxicated person up onto a second story roof.

I shuffled over to the other side and sat down. The tiles were still warm from the sun even though it was nearly midnight.

‘This is where I feel the most real.’ I said quietly. I had never actually taken anyone up here before.

‘You can see the city.’ He gazed at the sight in awe.

From this height you could see over the slight hill that usually blocked the way. The city sprawled out in front of us.

‘It’s the light outside the cave.’ I half joked.

‘See that!’ He giggled in what I assumed was fake annoyance. ‘Casually referencing Plato's allegory of the cave in normal human conversation.’

‘Okay you need to let go of the fact that I’m obviously some kind of cyborg intelligence prodigee and just really try to think of me as just like you.’ I laughed. ‘But better. Ya’know...smarter. More self aware. Think of me as high awareness and yourself, a meger pleb as low awareness.’

I had been joking. But he was nodding his head in agreement.

‘Even if I am smart,’ I started, ‘It doesn’t help me. What does it matter if I like science and philosophy in this place.’

I threw my hands up in the air, my voice catching in the wind.

‘None of that shit helps me in this world. You don’t need to know how to live you just need to know how to survive.’ I choked. ‘That's all this world is, it’s surviving enough to survive another day.’

‘You like this spot because from here you can see your escape.’ He said quietly. ‘From here you can see the road that leads you far far away from The Grand Castle Motel.’

The Grand Castle Motel - Part Five

I swiveled on the high stool in surprise, nearly falling off. Graceful much? He was much thinner and his ocean eyes had bags under them. He had a five o’clock shadow and his hair looked ragged.

‘James.’ I said quietly. He smiled and shuffled a little awkwardly. I no longer felt that stomach dropping rush from when I was thirteen when he looked at me. There was a long pause.

‘Of all the motherfucking gin joints in all the towns, and you walk into mine.’ I said jauntily. His laugh came easy and loud.

‘Casablanca.’ He said with a nod of his head. I felt some of the tension between us disappear. But most of it was still there. He went to sit down as a shill squeal of laughter came from the teeny boppers table. Don’t they say, every time a teeny bopper laughs, someone loses a follower on Snapchat? That might not be the saying, but it’s something like that.

‘Don’t sit down here, let’s go somewhere quieter.’ I said quickly. ‘Do you want a drink?’

He looked hesitant at Dallas who had miraculously appeared at the chance of making some more money.

‘Uh yeah, just a beer thanks, mate.’ He said. I quickly downed my drink. Suddenly I felt a little nervous. I hadn’t seen him in four years. What the fuck were we supposed to talk about? My life hadn’t changed that much. Actually at all.

Eyeing my now empty drink he threw a twenty dollar note on the counter.

‘Actually, make that two.’

We sat at the booth in the corner. The seats were high and it was the furthest away from Bernie's Counter.

He placed the drinks from Dallas down and pushed one over to me.

‘I never thought I would buy little Princess Sophie a drink, holy shit.’ He laughed a little nervously staring down at the bottle.

‘Don’t worry you’re not the first.’ I mumbled cheekily, smiling at his nervousness.

‘I bet.’ He suddenly looked up meeting my eyes with regret. ‘I didn’t mean it like that. I just, I meant that...anyway, how are you what have you been up to? I haven’t seen you in like four years.’

‘I’m okay, I work for the motel now. Oh, and the diner. Just cleaning and front desk stuff sometimes. Mum decided to retire early you see.’

He was nodding enthusiastically.

‘That's really good.’ He gulped at his drink.

He obviously hadn’t listened to what I said. I moved my eyes to the view from the large glass window next to me.

I could see the motels nightly show of disordered hazy lights, exploding rudely into the darkness. A car zoomed past and interrupted my day dream.  

‘How long are you guys staying for?’ I asked as he pushed back his hair and finally met my eyes.

‘Actually, it’s just me.’ He said quietly. He paused as if he was going to say something but it caught in his throat. ‘Dad’s dead. Mum’s moved to Invercargill and I was married, but uh. Not anymore.’

He looked pale at this and pity for him, surged around my body. But I rolled my lips together tightly and the thought of the girl that had gotten out of the car with him that dreadful summer. I bet it was her he married. I tried to find that same thirteen-year-old jealousy that had been so easy to reach in those first few months after her visit, but it wasn’t there. I was too tired to be jealous or angry. And I wasn’t thirteen anymore.

‘Wow, you dickhead. Married and unmarried. You sure as hell beat me. I was sure I was going to get a divorce before you!’ I blurted out in a weak attempt at humor.

Thankfully he laughed and his shoulders relaxed slightly. He stared at me from over his drink, his eyes penetrated my skin like needles.

‘So no handsome rich ex-husband yet? Damn kid, I had high hopes for you.’ He laughed again and I flicked my hair back.

‘Well, I didn’t want to say anything before because I didn’t want to put you to shame as usual-’ I spoke with that Auckland girl drawl I had gotten so good at. I guess Teeny Boppers are good for something.

‘As usual?’ He tipped his glass in overacted surprise.

‘I’m on my third rich, handsome ex-husband. We just got divorced last week it was all very dramatic. My seventeen children and three puppies were all devastated-’

‘Only seventeen children?

‘All under three.’

‘You know that's not biologically possible right? Just because you know, highschool dropout and all.’ He spread his hands in the air, probing it in feigned caution.

Cue the dramatic indignation.

‘Excuse me, you can’t dropout if you never attended in the first place.’

‘That's fair.’ He contemplated this for a minute. ‘Then how the fuck did you get so smart.’

I continued in my drawl. ‘Well you know, I had many private tutors all french and hot-’

He interrupted me by leaning forward. ‘No seriously. I’ve heard you talking about thermonuclear physics with my Dad when you were like nine. The two summers when I was still in college and I let you help on my homework because I couldn’t go outside with you, I got fucking A’s. Seriously, is your Mum like a freaky genetic scientist or something and she programed you when you were in her uterus?’

I was taken aback by the onslaught of compliments and dropped my drawl.

‘You’ve met my Mum. How could you possibly draw that conclusion?’

He leaned back in his chair. I remembered doing his homework with him, I had thought it was really fun because I pretended that I was just a normal kid doing summer homework. I was studying with my friend, preparing for the incoming school year. In my mind, we both went to the same school and had the same friend group.

We all would hang out at lunchtime, swapping stories about the history teacher perving on the girls or how the science teacher was texting her boyfriend while she was supposed to be teaching. In my mind, my group of friends would walk to a coffee shop after school. And when we graduated we would all go on a road trip together.

‘Nope. I’ve never met your mother. Though, I take it from your tone that she’s probably not a scientist.’ He said, dragging me once again out of my memories. ‘You never let me see any of your family. Honestly, my mum was convinced that you didn’t even have any family and were just like living, abandoned, in a motel on the side of the highway. She was half ready to call in child services one summer.’

‘You’ve really never met my family?’ I shook my head in amazement.

‘So how you did you do it? How did you become a prodigy of intelligence?’

‘That’s very kind but I’m really not.’ He looked as though he was about to object so I continued. ‘I guess I just read lots of books about lots of stuff.’

He was nodding rubbing at his five o’clock shadow. ‘Hmm, read broadly. That's what all the CEO’s are saying these days. Read broadly and wake up at five AM.’

‘Well if it makes you feel any better I don’t think I’ve ever woken up at five AM in my entire life.’

That was my first lie to him. I woke up every other night and you could choose from a catalog of reasons. The most common being that Lu Lu had a guest over in the next room. I have learned everything I know about faking an orgasm from her. I even can recognize what sort of mood she's in based on the tone and pitch of her moaning. Low means she’s bored, high means she’s drunk, probably on purpose, fast means she wants to get things over with quickly so she can go to sleep.

I sometimes woke up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat because of any one number of grisly dreams. A particular favourite of my subconscious was to let me think there was a man standing over me watching me. This one had originated out of one of mums ‘friends’ coming into our room high and unannounced. In his haze he was trying to figure out if I was my mother or not. I’m just glad he didn’t decide, before I woke up and screamed the entire motel awake.

The Grand Castle Motel - Part Four

By the fourth year, I had half forgotten the boy that used to run around my castle with me, helping slay dragons and attending royal galas with outlandish dignity for a teenager. Mum had started losing more of her money in the poker games at the bar and what little she had left she spent on alcohol, cigarettes and breath mints.

I don’t know when she started smoking. I think she tried to hide it for the first couple of months, but it was impossible to shower out the smell. It stuck behind her teeth and in her hair, which now she hardly washed. She used to be a beautiful blonde with hair that bounced and bobbed when it was windy, but now the color had leaked out and was dripping only from her split ends.

The rest of her head was a dull brown that turned almost black with the grease and oil. Aunty always told her off for smoking and said she’d be able to buy more food if she quit. But Aunty herself smoked, so I don’t know what she was on about. Besides, if Mum had a little money left over she always brought herself sweets or chocolate, not bread and eggs like we needed. Most of the time she didn’t have any money left over though.

She had quit her job with the Motel, saying it wasn’t taking her anywhere. I had quietly gone to ask Mr. Wong if I could replace her and he had agreed. I didn’t mind the job much because I got to listen to music while I worked. Mr. Wong had given me the decrepit old iPod a stuffy Indian man had left behind in a drawer. Usually Mr Wong would call the guest and tell them, but this guy had driven into the courtyard in a very low car that sounded as loud as a plane at four AM. Then he had buzzed the reception non-stop until Mr. Wong had come to the door. Then he demanded a room with a big bath, the motel has no big baths and complained when the bath was too small. Then he had left the room smelling like fish, after taking with him all of the towels. So I got the iPod.

All it had on it was big Bollywood movie theme hits, some stuff by Beethoven and a couple of Self-Help Audiobooks.

I think I can almost speak a little bit of Indian now thanks to his music and I’ve listened to all three of the Audiobooks once or twice at least.

I was the only cleaning staff at the motel so I usually started at nine, cleaning the reception, by ten I was in the rooms and at two fifteen I was heading across to Over The Moon to work a shift in the diner for Bernie. I got a crusty blue and white uniform working at the motel, it was a couple of generations old but Mr. Wong said he liked to keep things classy.

I had accidentally worn it to the diner one day because a guest had clogged up a toilet with what was apparently the entire roll of toilet paper and a plastic bag of unidentifiable substance. I chucked all of it in the rubbish bin and raced across the road not stopping to get changed because I was so late for my diner shift.

Bernie was delighted, saying the uniform made the diner a real ‘top-notch joint’ and he brought his own blue shirt to wear to work as well. Dallas, surprisingly, kept to his old ripped t-shirts and stained jeans.

This meant I basically didn’t need to buy clothes, not that there were many options to choose from, but as long as I washed the uniform every couple of days it took another whole cost off the table, which was good because Mum had slowly given up on the rent and I can’t remember the last time she brought me and Hugo food.

Last month had been a big month for me because with the two jobs, I had actually managed to pay off the tab we had with Aunty in the gas-station dairy. Or at least the amount that she had told me was the tab. Hugo and I had made pasta with fried bacon and cheese for dinner that night to celebrate.

I felt my throat contract at the thought of my little brother.

‘Another one Soph?’ Dallas leaned on the bar quizzically. ‘You’ve had a few already.’

I leaned on the counter. It was true I’d had a few but I was nowhere near intoxicated and he knew it. He just got off on making me beg. Which I usually did have to do, he was the only place in miles, emphasis on the for miles, that would sell to me as an underage. His justification was that I didn’t have far to go to get home. Living across the road, I couldn’t exactly even drink and drive.

‘Please Dallas darling?’ I let my smile pull my head to one side. He sighed deeply and turned around, rummaging in his cabinet.

I turned around on my stool surveying the scene in front of me. I let the drunken, vagueness slip from my face for a few moments. You got far in a place like this pretending to be a silly little drunk girl. The truth of the matter was that I could probably hold my liquor better than almost everyone here.

It was the same scene every night. Over in the corner were the group of single women all over forty but looking sixty, their remedy for this beauty dilemma was to turn to the latest twenty dollar ‘Anti-Aging Moisturiser’. While still smoking six packs a day. But it wasn’t the ciggies, no never, the moisturizer just didn’t work. Maybe veganism and yoga isn't the answer. They are unhappy.

Then there were the bikers. Two out of the group were actually in with proper gangs, the other four were just middle-aged men stuck in a midlife crisis. They wanted a purpose and respect. Unfortunately, all they got was cheap beer and low-end prostitutes. The kind that didn’t care about condoms. The midlife crisis guys would probably be back with their unkind wives by the end of the week. Giving up the motorcycle to pursue battery aided cycling. An activity they can do with their unkind wives to 'restart their marriage' and 'bond'. The cycling doesn’t stop them from being unhappy. Why would it?

The tourists, occasionally attractive, but mostly just tired and poor. Fighting for an authentic travel experience. They wanted to do as the locals do, but what nobody in the bar told them is that no locals dared to visit here. No locals probably even knew this place existed. This was the kind of place you drive through when you’re going somewhere else. The kind of place that never pops up in travel albums. A nothingness place. An in-between places place. The exhaustion combined with bad food and intimidating bikers makes the tourists unhappy. They will leave first thing in the morning, only a bad review to remind us that they were ever even here.

The single guys on business trips. They miss their unhappy two kids, unhappy wife and unhappy mortgage on a house they can’t afford in a neighborhood they loathe. They are also unhappy.

The couples playing footsie over by the bar. Her hand betrays a thin strip of pale skin around her middle finger, quietly ignored by her lover. They kiss and drink champagne out of greasy glasses. They will go back to one of the rooms in my castle and fuck later tonight. Fuelled by guilt and lust. They aren’t in love and they know it. But just like an audience pays for a ticket to a theatrical performance, they’ve quietly agreed to both play along with the lie and call it a fairytale. They are still unhappy, but they would prefer to be unhappy and having great sex than unhappy and not. Can you really blame them?

The prostitutes are circulating and the teeny boppers are drinking fruity drinks, drunk on the illusion of adulthood more than anything. One of them will be pregnant in a year, too scared to buy condoms or talk to a doctor about going on the pill. But also too scared to say no to her lovely boyfriend who is at least three years older. Her boyfriend is out of school. He doesn’t need an education he’s more intelligent than the system. And selling drugs, that's a completely stable income. He even gets to manage his own hours.

One of them will kill themselves, come deliberately close or self-harm and tell everyone. They have to keep up with the pregnant fifteen-year-olds.

At least two of them are Instagram models. With pictures of their prepubescent tits plastered all over the internet, in an aesthetically pleasing layout, with a color theme to really bring it all together. Their bio will say something like ‘15, Model, Tacos.’ Something relatable, down to earth, and idiotic.

I can guarantee that all of them are unhappy. They paint on their smiles at the same time they do their eyebrows. It’s all apart of their morning routine, which they blog about on their website. That blog is then turned into Youtube video. They have a total fan base of one-hundred and nine. They are ‘Internet Famous.’ And did I mention unhappy?

I turned back around as Dallas put my glass down with a wink, then a frown as he looks over my shoulder.

‘So Princess Sophie drinks now?’ James says in a low voice from behind me.

The Grand Castle Motel - Part Two

He taught me how to ride my bike without trainer wheels.

I was seven years old and it was a few months after Dad had left. Mum had found an old second-hand bike in an op-shop somewhere for my birthday. It was pink, then my favourite colour, with white wheels and tassels that hung gleefully from the handles. It was a bit beaten up being second hand. The front wheel wasn’t aligned straight and one of the tassels was fuller than the other. But I didn’t care.

Mum tried to make me leave it outside, but I kept it in the room with me so that I could be sure it wouldn’t be stolen. It rested right next to my bed when I wasn’t riding it. The day after receiving it I had kept true to my promise of taking good care of it and I had taken it out to the concrete courtyard that united all the motel rooms.

I was armed with a bucket and set to work to clean the mud off the tires. Soon it shined in the sunlight.

No longer distracted by the chore of cleaning it, I had to actually attempt to ride it. Up until that point, I hadn’t ridden a bike before, but I had seen the kids who sometimes stayed here do it. So I knew the theory. Even with trainer wheels, I was exhilarated to find that I could zoom around the courtyard quite fast. I even learnt the art of breaking by pushing your foot back on the pedal, as I zoomed towards the rear end of a guest’s vehicle.

‘Hey, nice bike.’ I turned around in surprise. He was quite a lot older than me and had a mop of combed over hair. He wore a long black t-shirt and black jeans.

I had always been strictly told to never talk to the guests, more for their sake than mine I think, but he had complimented my new prized possession so naturally, I had to engage.

‘Thank you. It’s my early birthday present Mum says.’ I state proudly. Getting off the bike I stand next to it and grip the handlebars. The uneven tassels swing back and forth.

‘That's so cool, when’s your birthday?’ He asks. He’s still just standing there and his arms swing at his hips absentmindedly. They look too long for his body. Like a really thin giant with small wrists and big knuckles.

‘December 27th.’ It’s February now, a very early birthday present. I start to roll my bike towards the gangily stranger. ‘I’m seven. How old are you?’

‘Two days after Christmas? That must be crazy!’ He exclaims and crouches to the ground, taking a seat on the curb of the courtyard. ‘I’m fourteen.’

‘You’re really old.’ I say thoughtfully. ‘And you look like a skinny giant.’ I added the matter of factually. I figured he had the right to know.

He laughs, three short noises on an intaken breath. His head tilts back and his hair flops out of his face, he had nice eyes. Kind of like the ocean’s I had seen on TV.

‘Do you want me to help take the trainer wheels off your bike?’ He asks examining the little white wheels I had been relying on for stability.

‘I don’t think I’ll be able to ride it without them.’ I say hesitantly. ‘You’re not allowed to wreck it.’

He put both hands on my shoulders. I was still gripping my handlebars. His eyes were nothing but serious.

‘I promise I won’t break it.’ He said. ‘If I do, you’re allowed to beat me up with whatever remaining parts there are.’

I giggle at the idea of me, with my skinny arms and see-through ribs beating up the giant.


We spent the rest of the afternoon hunting down a Phillips screwdriver, turns out Mr Wong had about fifty of all different sizes in a drawer in the office, then pulling the bike apart on the hot concrete in a quiet corner of the courtyard. I lay on my stomach watching carefully, like a parent who has just handed their child to a stranger they met at the park.

He tipped the bike on its side with the care and precision of a surgeon. He realigned the front wheel and removed the two little white ones.

When he stood it up again and I climbed onto the seat that was a little too tall for me I was alarmed at the lack of balance it now possessed. I lunged onto one leg to catch myself. Unlike before where I had just been able to sit on it and ride now I found myself slipping and tilting, unable to even put my feet on the pedals.

‘You’ve got to get momentum to balance.’ He said dusting off his jeans and standing up at the site of my more than disappointed face.

‘I can’t.’ I shakily said trying again and slipping off. ‘Can you put the wheels back on?’

‘Nah, you can do this.’ He said cheerfully. He shouldn’t be so happy, I thought to myself, it wasn’t his bike.

He stood in front of the bike and held the handlebars allowing me to balance.

‘Now pedal.’ He started to pull me and I pushed against the pedals. My cheap jandals flopped and bent as I pushed hard. I got my momentum up and managed to get a few metres, then he let go. I swerved and stumbled off the bike with a frustrated shout.

‘Don’t let go.’ I climbed back on.

‘You’ve got this.’ He said nodding his head and kicking one of the discarded wheels out of the way. ‘I’ll just give you a push this time, pedal hard and aim for over there.’

He gestured across the courtyard. That time when he let go I kept going. I made it all the way across the courtyard with a gleeful shout. Mummy said I wasn’t allowed to shout incase I scare the guests, but today I didn’t care. I had felt like I was flying. I had trouble dismounting and stumbled to my knees, he started to run over to me scared I was hurt. My knees stung but I didn’t care. I had made it all the way across the courtyard. I jumped up and met his high five with another shout.

‘Thank you.’ I laughed and picked up my bike again.

‘That was all you kid, you just needed a push that's all.’ He smiled down at me.

‘What’s your name?’ I asked.

‘James.’ He answered with an easy smile. ‘Yours?’

‘Peneloppe Perfidious Hector Lucie.’ I answered with a very straight face. ‘You see I’m sort of related to royalty.’

‘Really?’ He answered in feigned sincerity. ‘That's so cool. I’m sort of related to royalty as well. My real name is Prince Knight Sir Epic Dragon Slayer James.’ He leaned in closely and dropped his voice to a whisper. ‘I didn’t want to let on because it sometimes freaks people out.’

I nodded seriously, contemplating this.

‘That's why we live here.’ I said gesturing around at the motel. ‘Mummy says this is my very own castle.’ James turned to admire the shabby ruin and nodded in enthusiasm.

‘It’s absolutely wonderful.’ He smiled at me. ‘You should be very proud.’

‘I am.’ I looked at the ground suddenly plagued with guilt. ‘Okay, I lied. My names, not Penelope. But I wish it was.’

‘What's your other name?’ He asked gently.

‘Just Sophie.’ I sighed deeply at the mundane nature of my name compared to his.

‘Princess Sophie,’ He rubbed his chin thinking over the name. ‘I think that is a far prettier name than Penelope.’

He knelt down seriously in front of me and my newly stripped, very vulnerable bike. His head bowed low.

‘All hail Princess Sophie, Ruler of The Grand Castle Motel.’