Six-year-old Sannie Johnson knew she wasn’t special. Her mother told her. Her sisters told her. Her uncle told her. The hundreds of people who streamed by the tattered “Homeless” signs she and her mother held everyday told her.
That’s why Sannie didn’t think she’d done anything special the day she noticed a dollar bill fall from the purse of a woman wearing a fur coat with a high collar outside the Sapphire Hotel. The woman swept through the hotel entrance, failing to notice the little girl who scurried from the shadows of the alley and plucked the bill from the murk of a sewer puddle. Her eyes widened as she studied the “1-0-0.”
Sannie darted through the entrance, so intent on returning the money that she didn’t hear the doorman behind her shouting, “Hey you! Come back here!”
But the instant she stepped into the lobby, she stopped. The murmur of jazz from a grand piano floated around her. Sprays of flowers imported from the Amazon rainforest adorned the tables. Rings glinted off women’s fingers as they clinked glasses with men who sported silk ties and cufflinks. A grand staircase opened into the lobby. It was something else though that halted the child and left her staring, mouth agape.
Outside, it had been a cold winter day with a sky so blue and sun so bright that Sannie had to squint. But inside, all color had faded to a world of grey. Everything and everyone were bathed in flat, colorless hues that reminded Sannie of a black-and-white TV show she’d once watched through a store window.
Everything, that is, except for a chandelier dripping with thousands of sapphires, speckling the room with cobalt shimmer. Sannie stared up at it until her neck was sore. When she lowered her head, she caught other flashes of glimmering blue – a single rose, water flowing down a fountain, an antique frame surrounding a mirror.
Sannie couldn’t take her eyes off her reflection. In her world, mirrors were rare and she hadn’t seen herself - not like this - for years. She tried to pat down her braids like she’d seen her sister once do and scrubbed at a smudge on her forehead. Her hands disappeared inside the sleeves of her oversized coat – a man’s corduroy jacket a shelter volunteer had once given her.
She opened her mouth and stretched it with her fingers, giggling at the funny face reflected back. She waved her arms in the air and twirled around, staring at the mirror the whole time.
“Taxi!” she shouted to her reflection in a deep voice, imitating a man she’d seen leave the hotel earlier.
As she peered more closely, Sannie noticed other people in the mirror. She turned around and realized a crowd had gathered around her, whispering and staring.
“My dear, are you well?” a heavyset woman asked, squinting over her glasses.
“Someone dropped this money,” Sannie said, waving the $100 bill. Her voice faltered. The coat sleeve fell back as she raised her hand and her right arm sparkled with the same blue glimmering in the chandelier, the rose, the frame and the water. She pulled back the other sleeve and saw that her left arm, too, shimmered. Sannie looked at the pale faces around her and heard snatches: “Her face”…”those eyes”….”even her hair.”
She peeked at the mirror again but saw nothing unusual in her reflection. Just the same little girl with flyway hair and a coat three sizes too big for her. As flat and grey as everyone else around her.
She held her hand in front of her face, looking directly at it and not at her reflection - sure enough, shimmering like a Caribbean Sea.
An elderly man leaning on a cane, broke through the crowd and tottered to Sannie. He was smiling so warmly, that she couldn’t help but smile back.
“My dear, dear child,” the man said. “I am the owner of this hotel. This truly is a most extraordinary day.”
“Why am I blue?” Sannie asked.
“My dear, this building holds a deep magic that people come from all over the world to see. It selects only the most beautiful and precious things to imbue with its divine blue. Never –“ He turned to the crowd. “Never has this hotel found a human being worthy. Until today.”
The crowd murmured. He turned back to Sannie, face solemn.
“Child, what’s your name?”
“An extraordinary name for an extraordinary child. This is truly an extraordinary day,” he repeated. He tilted his head upward, looking toward the chandelier, and spoke to no one Sannie could see.
“What do we do? She is but a child.”
A cloud of blue shimmer dropped from the chandelier and floated to the front desk.
The old man turned to Sannie.
“Come, there is something we must look at together.”
Sannie followed him to the front desk. He huffed as he reached below and struggled to lift sapphire book, fiery blue against the lobby’s grey tones. Sannie stood on tiptoe to help steady the book which looked very nearly about to crash to the floor. With a final grunt, the elderly man heaved it onto the desk. Sannie climbed onto a stool he indicated with his cane and bent over pages that smelled of ocean breezes.
The hotelier muttered to himself as he turned pages. Finally, he stopped, and turned to Sannie.
“Now, read that for yourself child.”
Sannie looked at the mass of lines and felt a rush of heat in her face.
“I can’t read,” she whispered.
“No matter,” the man said. “All in good time, all in good time, child. Listen carefully.” And he read:
“Article 72, Section III: The Sapphire Hotel possesses the right to judge all visitors who enter the lobby. The Sapphire Hotel has the sole authority to deem them extraordinary or ordinary. Those who qualify as extraordinary will be invited to enter the hotel’s training program which, upon completion, will secure them a lifetime position as a Sapphire agent among the 22 hotel realms (see Article 6, Section V). Those deemed ordinary will be required to pay their bill and exit the premises.”
The elderly man sighed and turned his face upwards, addressing the empty air.
“But she’s so young. She has a family.”
A puff of blue sparkles erupted from the book and the hotelier nodded.
He removed his glasses and turned to Sannie.
“Do you understand?”
Sannie was poking her forearm with her finger, transfixed by the blue hues that swirled and glittered on her skin.
The man cleared his throat.
She looked up.
“The Sapphire Hotel has deemed you extraordinary. As such, the hotel is asking you to join the team and lead missions throughout its universe.”
“Ex...tror….din -what?” Sannie stumbled as she tried to sound out the word she did not understand.
“Extraordinary. That means you are a special child - the most special to ever walk through these doors. Mission leaders have been discovered at other hotels, but never this one, and never – NEVER,” he looked to the chandelier, speaking loudly, “– so young.”
Sannie kept poking her arm as the hotelier continued.
“Now, these missions that you will lead are missions for Good. You will become like fire and like light. You will lead teams in this world and others to bring Light to Darkness, Good to Evil, and Hope to Despair.”
Sannie looked up at him.
“Will I fly?”
The man smiled.
“Why yes, you will. However, Sannie Johnson, you have to understand that once you come with us, you cannot return to this.”
He waved his arm around the room.
“No. No, child. This life. Your friends, your family. That is the sacrifice required of the Sapphire Hotel – a commitment to your missions, to move ever forward, no turning back. Forever.”
“Forever,” Sannie repeated. “Forever” was a word she understood.
“Forever” was the word her sister used when their father left. “Forever” was the word her mother sobbed the last time they were kicked out of a shelter. “Forever” was what the social worker said when Sannie threw the “Learn to Read” book at her. “Forever” meant always and never.
She jumped off the stool.
“Be right right back!” she shouted as she ran through the lobby and out the hotel’s entrance, blue sparkles streaking behind her.
She paused for a moment, blinking against the glare. After the greys of the hotel's interior, the colors of the city street hurt her eyes. She looked at her hands, and her shoulders sank as she saw the ordinary, everyday skin she had lived in for six years.
Sannie sprinted to the doorway of the abandoned theater next door, where her mother lay huddled under a grey blank.
“Mama!” She shook her shoulder. “Mama!”
Her mother forced open one bloodshot eye. “Eh?”
“Mama! I’m going on a trip!” Yet, even as she said it, Sannie felt a strange sensation in her stomach, as though it had turned upside down and then dropped through the ground. She felt tears in her eyes and threw her arms around her mother. Right
then, she changed her mind. The magic blue and the elderly man felt strange and unfamiliar - far away. Too far away, like a dream.
Her mother squirmed and pushed her. “Go away, girl,” she mumbled, turning to face the building and pulling the blanket up tighter around her shoulders.
Sannie sat back on her heels, stared at the mound in front of her and stuck her thumb in her mouth, a habit no one had ever told her to break.
She heard a noise behind her and turned to see the hotelier leaning on his cane, a cloud of the hotel’s blue sparkles shimmering and swirling around him.
“You will stay, then, Sannie Johnson?” he asked.
She removed her thumb and looked up at him. The funny feeling had left her stomach. She looked directly into his eyes, shimmering with the sapphire blue.
“No. I want to go.”
He extended his hand and she grabbed it. In an instant, they were gone, leaving behind a wisp of blue that sparkled in the sun.