The Sandman Motel is a throwback roadside haven with its 1960s neon signage still intact. In a previous lifetime, it lured families and tourists with its seductive promises of AIR CONDITIONING, COLOR TV, and SWIMMING POOL on the marquee. Today, the faded place just seems desolate and a shell of its former self. Perfect now for drifters, gamblers, loners, and anyone who’s trying to hide from whatever haunts them. But this is Florida. Hot and humid Florida. Where everyone sweats like an animal and everyone’s running from the heat –- not just the vagabonds. And the humidity makes it all feel ten times worse. You can’t escape it. Sooner or later, it’ll find you and it’ll make you do some god-awful things –- even if you’re a saint. Some years it starts as early as April and lasts all the way through November. Shit, even in January you’ll find some humid days. Despite all of this, people flock here like crazy –- staying at budget hotels inland or at luxury resorts near the beach. All in hopes of chasing the sun or erasing the past. It’s a strange place that attracts even stranger people. The very reason why Clementine and her younger brother Harry can’t wait to get the hell out. But before they do –- first things first, they need money. And that’s why we are here at The Sandman. + + + Off to the side of the main building is the fenced-enclosed pool area. A quiet oasis except for a few screeching birds soaring overhead and the rumblings of passing traffic. Under a blue umbrella sits an over-fried man watching a young girl swim. He’s caught in a deep trance –- carefully observing her every movement. No one else is around. Fake Roman statues and scattered empty chairs make up the rest of this tableau as the man sucks hard on a cigarette. In fact, he’s old enough to be her father –- which makes the scene here at The Sandman a lot more worrisome. “What’s your name?” he asks. The young girl breaks from her swimming and turns, “What’s that?” “Your name. What’s your name?” She paddles up to the lip of the pool and rests both her elbows on the concrete. “Clementine,” she responds slightly out of breath. “That’s pretty.” “I think so too.” “That your real name though?” “Does it matter?” He shakes his head no. “Got a boyfriend?” “I did... but not anymore.” “That why you’re alone then?” “Maybe... What’s wrong with being alone?” she shoots back. The man nods, wipes his brow, and sips his Bud Light. “What happened with him?” he presses, snubbing out his cigarette. “You sure ask a lot of questions don’t you?” Clementine eyes the man and notices his wedding ring. After a moment, she fixes her bikini top and then points her finger, pressing it into her right eye socket. “I shot him,” she says with a smile. “Right between the eyes.” She clicks her thumb like gun and then arches back with her arms reaching for the sunlight, splashing into the water. “But it was a mistake... You want to make a mistake mister?” And one by one, her limbs launch in and out of the water –- backstroking her way to the other side of the pool. “Or do you want to be my boyfriend?” “Fuck me,” he whispers. The man stands, laughing to himself. Curious. Heated. Still sweating like a pig. Clementine stops and yells, “Any more questions?” He pulls his shirt off and empties his pockets. He puts his keys, watch, and wallet on the side table before jumping headfirst into the water. Yes, he’s got a few more questions. + + + It’s not hard for 16-year-old Clementine to lure men into her world. They come uninvited all the time and stay too long. And the very few she wants in her life; she still gives them sass. The poor girl is used to bad situations getting worse and muscling her way out. Plus, having a front row seat to a complete mess of a mother has taught her some valuable lessons: Parents suck and trust no one. Especially men. This mantra isn’t something she’s necessarily proud of –- but who has time to be proud when you’re desperate, pissed, and have a 13-year-old kid brother to watch over. In her mind, someone’s got to be the adult. Also, she loves Harry. And Harry loves her. It’s the unbreakable sibling bond born out of a relentless will to survive and stay together. They’re underdogs in a world full of broken promises. And she sure as hell isn’t going to break the one she made to Harry. Or to herself. No way. Not like everybody else. Otherwise, she wouldn’t be here at this pool with this loser. You can say this is a love story. + + + Clementine towels off as the man hops out of the pool and lumbers toward her chair. She smirks as he approaches. “Wanna get my back?” The man obliges, takes the sunscreen bottle, and plops down on the adjacent chair. Clementine turns her body and pulls her hair up showing off her sunbaked shoulders. “What’s taking so long?” she jokes. “You’re a bossy thing, aren’t you?” He lathers her up and she continues her flirting with a giggle. He’s enjoying every single second of this... Back. Neck. Arms... Not caring how inappropriate this may look. Then out of the corner of her eye, a bespectacled teen walks in alone from the far side of the pool. It’s Harry. He finds an empty chair and throws a towel over it. The man doesn’t pay attention, clearly has other things on his mind. “You smell like coconut.” She doesn’t respond. He then leans and whispers, “I like coconut.” Clementine remains coy. Her gaze still locked on her brother across the pool. “And I like you,” he continues. “You do?” “Uh-huh.” Her soft, supple skin is becoming too much... Back. Neck. Arms... He’s about to burst. “Why don’t we finish this in my room? What do you say?” Meanwhile, Harry leans back in his chair watching the two closely. He wears a blank face. “Hmmm... What do I say?” she softly replies. Harry now eases both hands behind his head and crosses his legs. This is it. The sign she’s been waiting for. Clementine is ready to blow her lid... sky high. “I say... get your fucking hands off of me that’s what I say.” She snaps and unleashes an awful, horrific scream: “Help! Somebody HELP!” The outburst jolts the man back. He swivels around panicking. Confused. “Hey! What the hell. Calm down!” “Get off of me!! HELP! HELPPPP!” “What are you doing??” “HELPPP!!!” Harry jumps to his feet. He makes eye contact with the man who then reaches to grab Clementine’s arms. “DON’T TOUCH ME!!” she wails, twisting away. “I didn’t do anything!” And before he can say another word -- she slaps him hard and delivers a kick that sends him off-balance and into the water. She grabs her things and runs off fast. The man flails around in the pool, completely stunned. Not knowing what the hell is happening. Meanwhile, Harry snatches the man’s belongings off the table and chases after his sister. They disappear, leaving the leathery pervert gasping for air and answers. Alone in the deep end. “What the fuck!” The last place he thought he’d be just a few minutes ago. + + + Growing up, Clementine and Harry were always running from one place to the next. Bouncing between relatives, shelters, going in and out of schools. And whenever their mother went to jail –- for... you name it: shoplifting, check fraud, drugs -- it was like they were being punished with her. All they ever wanted was to be loved and cared for. But that wasn’t in the cards. They had to tough it out alone and Clementine was always the protector. When Harry was in the 4th grade, a classmate caught him kissing another boy and told him that he was going to burn in hell if he didn’t read the bible. That same classmate also said that his family was going to all die and fry for eternity because of his sins. Harry couldn’t stop crying. Night and day. The guilt and shame were unbearable. Clementine tried to console him, but he was in shambles. Then Clementine found the bible beater and gave her a severe tongue lashing along with a nasty black eye. “The Devil comes for everyone bitch! And we’ll see you in hell!” she screamed. He’ll never forget that day. The look on people’s faces. His sister’s eyes. Her rage. The girl’s reaction. Everyone standing around staring at them. He couldn’t love her more. But Clementine was right. The Devil does come for everyone. And unfortunately, he was just getting started. Later that day, the boy Harry kissed jumped to his death in front of a moving train. His family kicked him out of his house, and he didn’t know what else to do. Then the following week, Harry watched an ambulance take his mom’s new boyfriend away. He just stood there, numb -- knowing the man’s awful fate when they didn’t bother to turn the emergency lights back on as they drove away. It seemed like the world was just one tragedy after another. Maybe they’re already in hell he thought. It certainly couldn’t get any worse. Till this day Harry secretly reads the bible just in case it helps. + + + “You like the watch though?” Clementine shows off her wrist. “No not really. I like the other one you have better,” Harry replies. “Hmm... Well, I like it. A girl can’t have too many nice pieces right?” Clementine still admiring her new prize. Then she goes through the wallet. “Richard Salvo. The dickhead’s from New York.” Clementine sticks the driver’s license back, “Come back and visit us soon Mr. Salvo.” The siblings are sitting in the corner booth of at the Starlite diner, finishing up a late lunch. Some people rob banks, and some people rob dirty old men at motel pools and celebrate with milkshakes and ice-cream sundaes. “Sissy. Wanna hear something weird?” Clementine looks up still sucking on her straw. “Last night I had a dream that you were a butterfly. You had these giant wings and they looked amazing. A beautiful monarch butterfly. You were trying to tell me something...” “Really. A butterfly?” “You looked happy though.” “What was I saying?” “Not sure. I couldn’t make it out. Then I started changing. And I grew these wings like yours and we both flew everywhere. All over the world. It was incredible... but then I turned around and saw you flying away. And I couldn’t follow... I looked down and my feet were stuck, caught in some black quicksand or tar. I couldn’t move. You just flapped your wings and kept going. Higher and higher into the sky… until you were swallowed up by a thousand other butterflies. Then it started to get cold. Real cold. And I kept sinking and sinking. And I started peeing on myself. I couldn’t control it. Then I woke up.” “Harry. That’s awful.” “It was actually a great dream before that last part.” “Did you really pee on yourself?” “A little...” The siblings laugh. There’s not much that these two keep from each other. They know each other’s deepest and darkest secrets. And the more Clementine looks at her brother, the more she sees the type of person she wants to be... less angry. More honest. “Look at me. I’m never leaving you. Hear me?” She continues, “And if anything happens. Run. Run as fast and as far away as you can, and I promise I’ll find you. Got me?” Harry nods, finishes the rest of his sundae and story. “Wanna know why monarch butterflies are different? So every fall, huge clouds of them, thousands and thousands -- starting from Michigan and even Canada, make this 3,000-mile trek south to Mexico where they hibernate for like six months.” “Kinda like the retards that come here every year?” “Yeah. I guess so. Except they’re not as pretty as the monarchs. And they’re called snowbirds. Not retards.” “Sorry. Snowbirds,” Clementine corrects herself. Harry smirks and continues on... “Anyway, the sad part is... the ones that fly south won’t make it back up north. Which means, once they decide to leave, they don’t return. It’s like their final flight.” “God that is sad.” “Only their children return.” Harry plays with his spoon and Clementine slurps up the rest of her milkshake. “I wanna fly away like that,” Harry confesses... staring out the window. At the end of the day, they’re just kids with dreams. + + + The Golden Orchid Inn is like The Sandman but worse -- a last refuge people turn to before money runs out and they’re forced onto the streets. The guests that stay here range from the working poor to struggling addicts on the edge of collapse; others are transients lucky enough to be just passing through. The rooms are decent at first glance. But when you take a closer look, unsettling details start to surface. Like the dents on the door and the crooked latches. Or the screwdriver scratches covering the moldy walls. But the siblings and their mom have been holed up here for nearly a month now. They don’t notice these things anymore. In their room, The AC unit is blasting and choking to stay alive. It’s been a few days since the incident at The Sandman and the heat has only gotten worse. The pair are laying like cats in bed together. Harry’s slowly running his fingers through his sister’s hair. He picks and grooms her face while she’s half asleep. The television is on in the background. On the other twin bed, a bunch of items are scattered on top of the sheets. A gray purse. A man’s wallet. A workout bag. Credit cards and a few driver’s licenses. Evidence of a good week for the two. “You think we should we go look for her?” Harry asks, breaking the silence. Clementine doesn’t answer immediately. She just shrugs her shoulders. They haven’t seen their mom in three days now. This would be a cause for alarm for most families, but they are used to her disappearing and showing back up. “She only paid up until tomorrow. They’re going to kick us out... unless we pay.” Harry looks concerned. “Are we going to stay? What are we going to do?” “Stick to the plan. That’s what we are going to do.” Clementine smiles, reaches over to fix his crooked glasses. “Don’t worry Harry. We’ll be fine. Just the two of us.” Clementine sits up and grabs Harry’s hands. She reaches over to the side table and grabs some fingernail polish and starts painting his nails. It’s her turn to pamper him. And even if it’s just a for a brief moment, she doesn’t have to think about what’s to come. She just wants to think about how pretty his nails are and that’s it. “There. How’s that look?” Harry spreads his fingers. His nails shine with a fresh coat of black polish. “Perfect.” She kisses the top of his head and slides off the bed. “I’m going for a smoke. Think about what you want for dinner.” + + + Warts and all, Florida can really be beautiful. Especially this time of day with its cotton candy sunsets. Everyone comes here for the water, the beaches, the sunshine, and a new beginning -- but today’s sunset is something else. Something majestic. Clementine lights her cigarette and picks a spot on the curb to witness this magic hour. Even she recognizes its power. All her senses are heightened and alive. She notices how a parade of tractor trailers rattle the motel every time they pass. She thinks about how the massive sky swallows everything up and makes us all so tiny. She watches a few drifters roam the outdoor hallways, wondering if they all sleep with cash in their socks like she does. Then she hears the distant laughter of a couple with their two small kids lounging around the pool. Everyone here is just trying to do the best they can and laugh a little. This thought breaks her into pieces, and she sobs uncontrollably. Maybe everything is too much. Maybe she is completely overwhelmed. Tired of keeping it all together and tired about always worrying about their stupid mom. She doesn’t want Harry to see her this way, but she’s fucking scared. Scared that if something happens to her that he’ll be all alone. Scared that their mom is gone. Really gone. She’s scared that she’s been coughing up blood and doesn’t know why. And scared that the devil is finally going to finish what he started. It’s been a long time since she’s cried like this, and it actually feels good to let it all hang out. But it’s short-lived. Through her stinging tears and puffy eyes, she sees two sheriff cars pull into the motel. “Oh shit...” They’re coming for them. She knows it. “Oh shit. Oh shit.” Nothing good ever happens when they come. It’s either to take them away or to deliver horrible news. Whatever it is, she’s not staying around to find out. Clementine rushes back to her room, snaking her way through the parking lot. She’s got one eye on the manager’s office where the deputies just went in and one eye on where Harry’s at. Finally, she makes it back and bursts through the door. “Harry! Grab your bag. Let’s go.” Harry hops to his feet. “What happened?” “Cops. They’re here.” Clementine explains in a hurried but hush voice. She stuffs her bag with her belongings and the cash she’s been hiding. Harry runs around the room throwing a bunch of things into his backpack. “Is this real?” Clementine darts to the bathroom and begins dismantling the window screen. “Yes! Hurry.” Outside three deputies are marching towards their room. Meanwhile, Harry helps his sister with the window. She readies herself to push him out, but he suddenly stops. “Wait! I forgot something.” “What?!” Harry rushes back, bumps into the dresser hard and nearly falls. “C’mon Harry!” Clementine screams. Harry throws open the night table drawer and grabs the bible. At the very same time, the sheriff deputies are right outside, pounding at the door and yelling. They booth turn and look. The pounding grows louder but it is muffled. Their eyes widen when they realize the deputies are outside another room. It’s not for them. Finally, it’s someone else’s problem. Clementine drops her bag and slowly slinks down the bathroom wall. Relieved but her stomach still in knots. Harry turns and looks at her. Both completely out of breath. Panting and sweating. + + + For the next half hour, they watch the aftermath of a drug arrest along with the other curious motel guests and staff. Clementine and Harry are sitting on the grass near the road with their bags. Behind them a fading sun. Harry grabs his sister’s arms and leans his head on her shoulders. Florida is beautiful when you have it to share with someone. And especially if you aren’t the one going to jail or a foster home. “I love you Sissy.” “Love you too.” Clementine looks over and rubs his arm. “Tell me more about those butterflies.” Harry gives a sweet bright smile and grabs his sister’s hand. He whispers, “You want to fly?” She smiles back and they take off running fast. Their feet barely touching the ground, without abandon past the motel parking lot, towards the highway and the sunset. For today, for this moment... the pair are just happy they are in this world together, chasing the horizon. Clementine and Harry disappear hand in hand into the fading light and long stretch of road. They say nearly a thousand people move to Florida every day. Some are just looking for any way out. THE END.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Van Ditthavong was born in Vientiane, Laos and came to the US when he was 4-years-old. He began his career as an award-winning still photographer before transitioning to filmmaking. His clients included Texas Monthly, American Way, Men's Health, Stanford University, Psychology Today, and other national publications. He wrote, directed, and produced the feature film ALL ROADS TO PEARLA (starring Alex MacNicoll, Addison Timlin, and Dash Mihok) which had its world premiere in competition at the 26th Austin Film Festival and was released by Gravitas Ventures in 2020. Van will be filming his second feature BELLYACHE, this fall in Costa Rica - a supernatural drama he wrote about a grieving witch who escapes to a cabin alone to give birth. He is also attached to a post-apocalyptic horror film from producer Johnny Lin (Thelma, American Made, Hesher, Bernie) written by Conor McKnight. He is a co-founder of Tiny Windows and is represented by Zero Gravity Management.