Victoria Ballesteros

Motel Check-Out



Victoria R. Ballesteros was born and raised in Los Angeles where she currently lives with her young adult son. Her family is from Jalisco, Mexico – the birthplace of tequila and mariachi music – which inspires the stories she writes. When she is not writing literary fiction, Victoria devotes her time to humanitarian efforts and volunteers for several international nonprofit organizations. She has her master’s degree from the University of Southern California. Connect with Victoria and learn more about her stories on Twitter @Vicb_pr.

“Mommy, who is that man behind you?”

The sound of Joey’s voice jolted Caitlin from the restless sleep she’d been slipping in and out of for the past few hours. She was in the middle of a dream where she’d been telling Joey to be a good boy and to take care of himself, that mommy would always love him. In that moment he’d gotten a curious look on his face, tilted his head to look past her shoulder, and asked the question that had woken her with a start. 

She sat up in bed, swaying and dizzy. She struggled to focus as her eyes landed on the tattered sign just below the peephole on the door, stating that the motel’s check-out time was 11:00 a.m. Just beneath it was a map with emergency escape information that indicated “You are here,” with an angry red X marking the spot. The sign was like a slap to the face. Where had that emergency escape route been when she really needed it, she thought, reaching up to feel the throbbing knot on the back of her head.

She looked around the room and considered that under normal circumstances an 11:00 am check-out would seem reasonable. No problem. However, these circumstances were anything but normal. Joey had sleeping for days, and she couldn’t bring herself to wake him because it seemed more merciful to let him avoid the reality of their situation. Perhaps all the sleep was his way of forgetting what they’d been through. Or maybe he was in some sort of shock. Whatever it was, he obviously needed his rest and she wasn’t about to wake him up and drag him back out on the road. The moment at hand pretty much summed up her entire life: desperate and on the run.

Caitlin looked around the room and wondered how they’d accumulated so much crap in just five days: books, shoes, her childhood Snoopy lamp, clothes, purses, and some of Joey’s toys. She had even less of a clue how they would get it all back into the car. How had her life come to this, trapped in a dirty motel, out of luck and with no money? Sure there’d been some fuck-ups in her past, but she’d always found a way to do her penance and then some. Bringing Joey into the world was her biggest penance of all, and frankly, doing so had saved her life. The minute he was born she realized she needed to get away from Jack and his predisposition for slapping her around. Getting away was, in fact, what had landed her here. She felt the back of her head again, massaging the tender spot where she’d been hit so hard she could have sworn her eyes were shaken loose at the sockets. She’d managed to wash away the blood but the wound was still swollen. A scab was forming which she figured was a good thing, but the room was spinning and her vision was still blurred.

She reached across the bed to pick up the ancient rotary phone on the nightstand and, noticing the mysterious smudge marks on the yellow mouthpiece she held it away from her face as she dialed ‘O’. Watching the dial spin slowly all the way around she wondered how this 70’s relic had managed to survive.

“Front desk,” droned the hollow voice on the other end, not even attempting to sound friendly. Or human.

“Hi, um, do you allow for late check out?” she asked, trying to conceal her desperation as she twirled the worn phone cord in her hand. She secretly hoped the soul on the other end of the line would sense the urgency of her request and understand that sometimes all we need is just a little more time.

No dice. The operator informed her that each additional hour would cost $15.00. A deep pain hit her in the pit of her stomach. How fitting. Time is money and she was running low on both. She bit her lip as she watched little Joey sleep, his mouth slightly open, oblivious to the darkness swirling around him. A shudder ran through his body the moment she realized that they’d soon be on the run again.

“Ok thanks,” she said disheartened, and let the woman know they’d be checking out at one. Two more hours would eat their last $30.00, without a clue as to where they’d go next. As she hung up the phone, she knocked over the thick glass ashtray resting on the phone book. She tried to grab it before it hit the ground but missed, and she immediately froze, looking at Joey to see if he’d awaken. He was now on his side in a deep sleep, mouth gently open. He didn’t stir at the sound of the ashtray crashing to the floor.

She took a deep breath as she assessed the room and again considered the impossible task of getting their belongings back into the car. She couldn’t recall packing any of it, but had a flash of a memory of getting Joey’s things together when Jack had gotten home and caught her in the act of trying to leave. Jack had immediately gone into a rage, and she remembered putting herself in front of Joey as he walked angrily in their direction.


Mary, the motel’s maid, was a short and slightly round old woman who liked to keep busy, rushing around delivering towels and shampoo, talking to guests and helping them feel comfortable. She was five feet tall in her nurse’s shoes, the ones with the extra thick comfort soles that added a good two inches to her frame. She liked to tell people they helped her tired feet but she really just enjoyed the extra height they gave her. In one of those unlikely coincidences – uncanny, frankly, given the distance Caitlin and Joey had traveled – Mary had been Caitlin’s grade school crossing guard back when they were referred to as ‘crosswalk ladies.’ Mary had been there every day helping Caitlin get safely to the other side of Excelsior Avenue starting when she was in Kindergarten to the time she was in seventh grade and had said a tearful goodbye to Mary as she departed for high school. This was the same Mary who knitted colorful spiral ponytail holders for Caitlin that were all the rage at the time, the same Mary who would often ask how Caitlin’s mom was doing, and who listened to Caitlin’s playground gossip with interest. Mary wore her hair in a firm gray bun, youthful bangs framing her face. The wrinkles around the old woman’s eyes projected warmth and reassurance when she’d settle her gaze on Caitlin.

It seemed fitting that Mary found herself still looking out for Caitlin, sneaking extra towels and bottled water to the room, little soaps and snacks from the vending machines outside. These gifts came with a warm smile that at once took Caitlin back to her childhood and made her want to cry. Caitlin fought the urge to revert to that distant past and climb into Mary’s lap to weep like a baby. She wanted to tell her that she and Joey had been through hell, to explain that she was a good person who’d lived a rough life that had taken some wrong turns, that she and her little boy were now trying to claw their way out despair. Instead, Caitlin simply nodded, as Mary would pat Caitlin’s hand, a gesture that seemed to put Caitlin at ease. Her presence had been a calming force these past few days, and Caitlin wasn’t sure how she would have gotten by without her.

Having Mary around also stirred up long-forgotten memories. As a child, Caitlin’s mother was always putting in overtime at the factory to feed her six children. She would occasionally sneak Caitlin a twenty-dollar bill when none of the other kids were around. She knew the family couldn’t afford this, but her mother hadn’t wanted her youngest daughter to feel the way she had felt growing up: like a burden because there was never any money and too many mouths to feed. She would secretly press the folded bill into Caitlin’s hand without saying a word so her siblings wouldn’t see, making brief eye contact that spoke volumes. It broke Caitlin’s heart every time; that was the way it felt when Mary came around to bring her snacks and linens. She had an overwhelming sense of not deserving any of the kindness and generosity being shared with her.

Mary’s husband, Frank, also worked at the motel tending the grounds and handling the repairs. He was tall to Mary’s short, standing at almost six-feet four inches. He was a friendly-looking man with bright blue eyes and a dusting of white hair, his potbelly the pleasant result of 60 years of Mary’s cooking. He, too, kept busy in spite of the fact that there didn’t appear to be anyone else staying at the motel at the moment. Still, the place was old and certainly had seen its day, so the list of repairs was long. The absence of other guests wasn’t a surprise given the motel was on a long, deserted stretch of Interstate 25, and the solitude was a welcome refuge for Caitlin, who thought to herself that it was the sort of place where you might end up after a long, exhausting journey, not a destination anyone would seek out intentionally. As far as Caitlin was concerned, it was as good a place as any and she welcomed the silence. Nothing for miles in either direction, it was actually perfect.

Frank never said much, just nodded his acknowledgement the few times he’d seen Caitlin leave the room to fetch more items from the car, one of only two that sat in the parking lot. He’d glance up when she walked by, then get lost in his work again as if to avoid eye contact. Once, however, after walking past him as he stood outside the room trimming some hedges, she turned around and found him gazing at her as she walked back to Joey. He wasn’t looking right at her, though – he seemed to be looking over her shoulder. In spite of this and his general lack of words, he too had a calm demeanor that provided Caitlin a sense of security that she had rarely felt in her life.

Frank also tended to the motel’s garden that seemed out of place on the dusty, remote highway. It was a dirt and gravel pit with grayish-looking plants, dotted with a generous sprinkle of fantastically bright red roses with an exaggerated aroma that seemed to rest on the air over the motel. Never mind that this was the desert and it was a harsh and dry summer, the roses were there in their neon red glory just the same. Caitlin thought they resembled droplets of freshly spilled blood, carelessly scattered among the otherwise dry bushes. What struck her most was that the roses had no thorns. Not a single one. Didn’t all roses have thorns? Frank couldn’t have trimmed each one by hand. She meant to ask him about that the next time she saw him.

Even though they’d only been there a few days, it felt as though months had gone by. Caitlin and Joey had simply landed here on the run, and it was time to move again. Staying in one place too long just wasn’t safe – not while Jack was still looking for them.


“Everything will work out, don’t worry, viejo,” Mary said to Frank who was sitting patiently at the dinner table as she shuffled through the kitchen. “Caitlin is taking her time because of the boy, it’s not as though we’ve never seen this before,” she continued softly as she set a bowl of watery refried beans--Frank’s favorite--and warm handmade flour tortillas wrapped in a towel in front of her husband. “’Til death do us part” hadn’t really applied to Frank and Mary. Mary died first, after spending 59 ¾ years married to and taking care of the only man she had ever loved. They had talked about celebrating their 60th anniversary surrounded by a lifetime of family and friends, so when she died, Frank’s will to live had simply gone with her. After languishing for three months in the most painful and profound sorrow ever experienced by any human, the gods themselves could no longer bear his anguish. His intense and absolute need to be reunited with Mary was so pure that the spirits felt his pain as their own. Finding it unbearable, an exception was made and he was allowed to cross over peacefully in his sleep just to reunite with Mary. Frank’s grandchildren found him lying on top of his bed in his day clothes, clutching his wedding photo with fresh tears still on his cheeks. Eduardo, the youngest of their grandchildren, had observed that the room smelled strongly of roses even though there weren’t any around, what with the garden having been neglected in the months since Mary’s passing.

“Mary, we’ve seen a lot of resistance before from crossers, but I’m telling you, this one is different,” Frank replied with gentle urgency. “I came pretty close today but she won’t let go of that boy, and he can’t let go of her. I’ve never seen them hold on this strong. It’s dangerous for them both if she won’t let him go.” Frank tore off a piece of tortilla, folded it and used it to scoop beans into his mouth. A splatter dripped off the tortilla, landing on the table in front of him. “You remember how it happened with us, Mary,” he said in a low voice, as if to prevent anyone else from hearing. He wiped up the beans with his napkin.

Mary sighed deeply. What the old man was saying was true. Frank had not been able to live without Mary, and because his need to be with her was so strong, he’d been allowed to pass. They couldn’t let the same happen with Caitlin and the boy. He was much too young and there were great plans in store for Joey. Surely there was something Mary could do to get Caitlin safely across. Time was running out. They needed to move fast.

“If she gets in that car and leaves, we will lose them both. We can get her to let go of the boy, we just need to keep her here.” Mary made the last statement more to herself than to Frank. She walked over to the sofa, picked up her knitting, and started on a rainbow spiral. Knitting always helped her think. She grabbed the stitch with the needle and worked on the next loop.


“How am I going to all this crap back in the car?” Caitlin exhaled as she surveyed the room, holding on to the counter for balance as her head continued to throb. Spread throughout were clothes, Joey’s toys, books and blankets, a tennis racquet, shoes, makeup bags, two suitcases that had since been emptied, an array of overstuffed photo albums, the official dissolution of marriage papers (ha, what a joke she thought to herself – Jack hadn’t left her alone since she filed), a stack of cd’s, paintings she’d done in her 20’s, and an old trusted machete handed down by Caitlin’s grandfather for protection. She was replaying the confrontation with Jack in her mind and was about to lose it when she heard a faint tap on the door. She recognized the gentle knock as Mary’s but moved to look through the peephole just to be safe. Mary was so short that only the silver bun on her head was visible through the tiny glass lens. Caitlin opened the door and invited her into the room.

Mary stood before her. “I made something for you, I thought you might like to wear it,” she said as she placed the knitted hair spiral into Caitlin’s hands. Caitlin could barely contain a gasp as she recognized the gift and walked over to the sofa and half sat, half fell into the cushions. She couldn’t bear Mary’s kindness. Caitlin had believed her entire life that she was undeserving of even the smallest gestures of generosity. She realized she was crying silently as she recalled being seven years old and skipping across the street so that Mary could see her ponytail bounce back and forth, the knitted spirals swinging rhythmically with it. “Mary, it’s been so many years since I’ve seen one of these, I’m sorry, it just brings back a lot of memories.” Caitlin wiped her cheek with the back of her hand and looked up at Mary.

“Don’t apologize,” Mary said. After a pause, she continued. “You were the sweetest little girl, I always thought of you as one of my own.” This caused Caitlin to break down further. “I still do,” Mary added, triggering an emotional torrent.

“Mary, you have no idea. I was such a horrible kid,” Caitlin objected through tears and a runny nose, which she was now wiping on her sleeve.

“Nonsense,” said Mary. “You were a dear child, how can you even possibly think that?”

Caitlin suddenly remembered her distant uncles, her father’s many drunk cousins who would crash on the sofa from time to time before sneaking into her bedroom at night. She snapped back to reality and sat upright, hardened. “Thank you Mary, it’s very kind of you, but I’ve got to get our things back into the car and hit the road soon.” Her tone had gone considerably colder and defensive, signaling to Mary that she was losing Caitlin.

“Do you want to talk about it?  Perhaps I can help,” Mary offered. Caitlin’s shoulders dropped and she rested her head in her hands, elbows on her knees. She was so damn tired. Mary watched as Caitlin seemed to be studying her shoes, retreating into her own mind. After an extended silence, Mary took the ponytail holder and began to sweep Caitlin’s hair away from her face. The feeling of Mary’s gentle hands in her hair was immediately soothing, and she realized that her head had stopped throbbing. Mary maneuvered Caitlin’s hair into the knitted holder as she spoke. “You know, the afternoon that your mom died I went to see her, just to check on her. With your dad leaving and you kids all grown and gone, I wanted to make sure that she was okay.”

Caitlin was shocked. She didn’t know that anyone had talked to her mother on the day of her death. She had lived in isolation for a year, with her children blaming her for their father’s abuse. To her knowledge, she had died in her sleep and hadn’t talked to or seen anyone in weeks. “Please tell me, what did she say?” Caitlin pleaded.

Mary breathed deeply. She looked at Caitlin’s hair expertly locked into a long ponytail, smiled to herself, and took Caitlin’s hand between hers. “Your mother was so proud of you, she’d worked hard to make sure that all of her kids turned out okay, and she was grateful that you had. She told me that you, most of all, had the biggest heart. She was looking forward to seeing you again someday.” Mary kept her eyes low, avoiding Caitlin’s after the last comment. Caitlin was now sobbing. Her sobs became deep wailing, then trailed off into childlike whimpers as she slumped into the sofa. Mary never let go of Caitlin’s hand as she offered her the tissue she just happened to have in her sweater pocket.

“My mother was proud of me?” Caitlin finally asked in disbelief.

“Of course she was, dear,” continued Mary. “She saw what a good mother you’d become, and the fine young man you were raising, and she was at peace knowing that you and your boy would be alright.”

This only made Caitlin cry harder. “Oh but Mary we’re not alright at all! It’s Jack. He’s violent, he’s crazy and he wants to kill me because I won’t let him near Joey. But I can’t seem to get away from him, and the police won’t help because they say he hasn’t actually done anything. It’s like I need to get killed in order for them to lock him up so he can just leave Joey alone. It’s horrible!”

Mary knew she was in and moved quickly. “Caitlin, I want to show you something, but I need you to come with me.”

Still holding Caitlin’s hand, Mary led her outside. As Caitlin’s eyes adjusted to the bright sunlight and came into focus, she couldn’t believe what she was seeing. In front of her was the most glorious garden, with colors so intense and vibrant it almost hurt as she scanned what was once the dry, desolate motel grounds. She could see bursts of reds and oranges, sprays of yellows, tufts of greens, blues and purples. So many flowers, only some of which she recognized: the red roses, purple hydrangeas, tiger lilies, pink carnations, yellow and white daisies, orchids, every possible flower and plant – and so many trees! She had never seen anything like it. She stood taking in the beautiful colors, flowers and greenery. How had this gorgeous paradise suddenly just appeared? It was Frank, she thought. Frank made the garden come alive! She looked in the direction where the road had once been and saw that in its place was a beautiful bubbling river with a little bridge, with Frank on the other side standing next to a swing set he had erected. It looked just like the one Mary had pushed her on when she was a little girl. Frank looked so happy and peaceful. Younger, even. How had it happened so quickly? What was going on? Caitlin felt excitement and awe, and realized that her mouth was wide open as she took it all in. “Mary, what is this – where are we?” she asked.

“Caitlin, you’ve suffered so much. You’ve spent your entire life running from pain and wondering why you had to experience what you did. I can’t tell you everything--it will all come later--but I can tell you that Joey is going to be okay. So much better than okay, he’s going to change the world, and he will be looked after. I need you to believe me. You have to let him go. It’s time for you to come with me.”

“Wait, I don’t understand …” Caitlin began then trailed off. Suddenly, flashes began to explode in her brain like Polaroids from the 80’s. Before her were scenes like bits and pieces of her life on a screen. The misshapen cakes her mother would bake on her siblings’ birthdays. The family crammed into the white station wagon going to church. Her first communion. Her uncle’s hand on her leg. Picture day in grade school. Bad haircuts and even worse hand-me downs. Crying at the breakfast table because there wasn’t enough food to eat. The nuns at catechism telling her what a beautiful smile she had. Hating her dimples, her hair, herself. Cutting class in high school. Dropping out of college. Dr. Boyle, Dr. Franks, and Dr. Smith, the three therapists she’d attempted then quit. Mary was right. She had spent her entire life running from pain. 

Caitlin started shaking and sobbing uncontrollably, her words coming out in spurts between sobs. “But - I’ll - never – see - Joey - again? I’ll never -- hold him -- again?”  She looked down and realized she was seven years old, the spiral ponytail holder still pulling her hair away from her face.

Seven years old – just before she’d started experiencing all the bad things from her childhood.

Seven years old – the last time she could remember being truly happy.

The wound on the back of Caitlin’s head was completely gone. There was no more pain. She was wearing her favorite red dress with the white lace in front, the one with the oil stain from playing in the garage while her dad worked on his car. Except the stain was gone, and she realized just how much she’d loved this dress, how pretty it made her feel. She also had on her favorite Buster Browns and white fold-down socks with lace trim. She stood holding both of Mary’s hands as she leaned over to look at the boy through the open door. He was in bed and appeared to be in such a deep sleep he didn’t even look like he was breathing.  She felt the urge to run to him. Her eyes shifted as she realized that the room was now clean – all of the clutter she had filled it with was gone, completely cleared out.

“Caitlin look at me,” Mary said. “I need you to trust me. Just like in the old days, I need you to walk with me. I will guide you across the bridge. Everything is going to be okay.”

Caitlin closed her eyes and shook her head. “It’s too much, I can’t let go, it hurts more than anything Jack ever did to me, more than anything I’ve gone through in my whole life. I can’t let him go Mary!” She pleaded, as though Mary could reverse the decision that had already been made. Had anyone witnessed this, it would have been a strange and unbelievable sight, the words coming from the mouth of this seven-year-old child, expressing the desperation and pain of an adult. Of course, nobody was there to see it. Only Frank, who was gently beckoning her to come to the other side.

Suddenly, Caitlin heard a familiar melody from her childhood… the tune from her little plastic radio. It had been her favorite toy. It was a small wooden block with a yellow, plastic dial attached to the front. The back featured a painting of a little boy with his friends buying ice cream, with the words to the song in red letters: “My name is Michael… I got a nickel… I got a nickel… shiny and new.” Caitlin heard the song at first very faintly, like a memory.  She suddenly felt giddy and wanted to run towards it. She realized Frank was holding the music box, turning the dial to play the song. Caitlin felt a rushing sensation through her body as everything heavy that she carried left her. She felt carefree - excited and happy for the first time in decades. Caitlin broke away from Mary and twirled around in her dress, her hands lifted up in the air as she looked at the radiant blue sky. Caitlin twirled in circles until she was dizzy, giggling as she tried not to fall down. She had let go. She knew the boy was going to stay behind and he’d be ok because Mary had said so. She was eager to run across the bridge to Frank. “Let’s go play, Mary!” little Caitlin squealed as she started singing aloud, “My name is Michael… I got a nickel…” She skipped happily down the little pebble pathway that would lead her to Frank, who was now crouched down with his arms open wide, ready to welcome Caitlin home.



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