Arthur pouncing on the halls irritated Miss Guthrie even further, the pen snapping at her hands, the legal files in front of her held only in its perfect, flat form by the hands of Miss Dinsly who, after ninety-eight years of working under the hotel matriarch, knew by instinct how papers with one-star reviews could not withstand the forces of mental exertions her boss could produce once engulfed in rage.
“Read me that review,” Miss Guthrie said as she stood up, marching towards the double oak doors of her office.
“Well, Ma’am, I—”
“Arthur!” Miss Guthrie shouted, the baby’s gigantic head swiveling back from the hall to meet her gaze. He let out a hearty giggle, pacifier the size of a basketball waving in his hands.
“It says here the babies in the Nursery were too big for him.”
“One more step and I’d send you to Space,” Miss Guthrie exclaimed.
The baby stopped in the middle of sprinting. He stared at the Hotel Manager with eyes opened wide, his huge pupils almost as dark as the blankness of the room he hated so much. With hesitation, he walked back along the hall and, putting the pacifier on his puckered lips, looked out the distance, away from the searing eyes of the Manager. Miss Guthrie stared up at his enormous head, thrice the size of hers. Other guests have gotten out of their rooms, disturbed by the commotion and held by the spectacle of a twelve-foot baby striding down the halls.
“And lift your feet, will you?” she said as Arthur walked past her, one thigh of the baby standing as tall as the scowling miss.
They toured all over the Hotel as Miss Dinsly enumerated the complaints of the offender in question, a guest named Michaelson who died three days ago after a shoot-out with the local police. After Salon pulled the bullet out of his right temple and Costumes replaced his bloodied brown coat, he went ahead and tried their commodities which were, it turned out, so horrific it turned his angry soul even angrier. He gave the Hotel’s first one-star in six hundred years after trashing it to his pleasure.
Maintenance had already arrived at the scenes, a development Miss Dinsly found relieving; Miss Guthrie would have threatened to send them all to the dirtiest busses she could find across the Yeonghon River, as she’d done before. In most rooms the damage was minimal, except for a few others: the planets from the Space room were misaligned, the door to the Nursery had been crashed open, water from the faucet flooded the Lava Room, and so on. All of these the Hotel Manager fixed with a wave of her hand, or sometimes with the employ of an item from her Purse.
Miss Guthrie’s ears perked up when they entered the Museum. She sniffed the air like a wolf, sensing stimuli outside Miss Dinsly’s formerly human limits. They walked past Incarnations of Heroes, to the Authentic Cavemen Graffiti, to the Area of Futuristic Art where she pointed at the beak of a diamond mosaic of a stork.
“Three are missing,” she said.
The wind smelled of mint and roughness that night, reminding Miss Dinsly of the streets of her childhood home outside the industrial city of Jürgen. The Hotel towered behind her, a hundred floors of brightly-lit beige-gold exterior open to the eyes of the dead for miles. People–living people–walked past, the worries and elations of the flesh cloaking their eyes and moving their bodies forward.
It confused her how the tracking of a soul could ever be done as dead people, it occurred to her, only ever went into the Hotel, not away. She fidgeted. Her boss wanted to find the angry soul of a man who just died. She could at least have told her where to begin.
Something poked at her side.
Old Man Wang stood beside her, a grin on his face. He wore the same clothes the last time she saw him, a huge cart of filled trash bags sitting at his side.
“Miss Guthrie’s in trouble, I take it.”
He sighed. “Come walk with me,” he said.
Old Man Wang’s cart creaked into the night, drowned only by the handful of cars that passed the road. Miss Dinsly noticed how the wind blew and the trees swayed forward and back when they passed by canopies overhead. Some commotion brewed at the far end of the street.
“I worry for the both of you,” Old Man Wang said.
“You sure about that, Mr. Wang?”
He laughed. “Are you sure about your skepticism?”
Miss Dinsly smiled.
“Do you know why I’m here, Rebecca? Of all the nights and of all the occasions in the eight years since you all last saw me?”
“Did you check how far Guthrie’s broken clock has winded back?”
“It did. One minute.”
“So where is it now, eleven thirty-four or something?”
“Used to be eleven thirty-five. One more year for her to get that lost minute back.”
“And the last time she had a one-star,” Miss Dinsly trailed off, then gasped. “She lost, what, fifteen minutes?”
“Believe me, Rebecca, as much as I gave her that Hotel for her penance, I am still under the mercy of the law. Fifteen more years of servitude for failing to serve a guest is not what she was ordained to do. Dozens of times the people she’d wronged had already been reborn, in hundreds of different incarnations. Dead people always move on. She’ll have to as well.”
The shouts grew louder the closer to the end of the street they strode. A chair flew out the window, passing through the ethereal body of a man whose right arm had been cut off.
“What about me?” she asked.
“Still after Chink?”
“I have a present for you if you help Guthrie.”
She nodded. “I’d appreciate some help, though,” Miss Dinsly said, eyes wary of flying projectiles from what looked like a restaurant for the dead.
“Haven’t I already?” Old Man Wang said as he disappeared right into thin air, a bubble bursting in his spot.
Miss Dinsly shrugged. It was the kind of exit she thought she could never get used to.
Michaelson sprinted past Miss Dinsly from inside the restaurant, three people running after him.
It was by accident she found the Hotel almost a century back, her dead and blood-stained soul roaming all over the city the morning she died. It was the industrialist Chink Morrison that had been the source of her heartache, and when night fell and she saw the towering exterior of the place, she thought it must have been the work of that swine and the people under his employ who did all his bidding for cents. She told Miss Guthrie she ran away from the dooms of the earth. The answer seemed satisfactory to both of them at the time.
She scurried too, now, after the guest named Michaelson, past streetlights that flickered when they sprinted past it, through people whose flesh their bodies ran straight through, past mottled streets and twists she was familiar with for ten decades but somehow seemed more perplexing the farther the disgruntled ghost led her. She tried to scream out his name when the gap between them widened a considerable length but produced a voice different than what she’d always had.
The man ceased his gallop and turned, his face devoid of sweat or puffiness. His wide eyes stared at her and he opened his arms in a wide embrace, running towards her instead of away.
“What? No, I-”
The spirit that was Michaelson hugged her tight and spun her around, and the blossoms on the thin tree branches above her spun all the same, and he kissed her and held her close and only then, after realizing what Old Man Wang had done, had she the wit to say:
“Thank goodness you didn’t cross the bridge so quickly.”
“We need to help Wilson. He’s all alone.”
“Ah, yes, Wilson.” Had Old Man Wang warned her about altering her appearance, she thought, she wouldn’t have appeared so clueless and so mum. “Do you still live, you know, there?”
“No money to move, so yes. But not anymore.”
In his pocket, Michaelson produced three little studs of sparkling diamonds.
They went through the part of town where thieves and murderers slept at night and stalked their prey in the morning, where the houses stood close to the ground and, when the rains from the typhoon seasons come, floodwater would reach as high as the corkboard ceilings. Inside a dingy abandoned house laid Wilson, his mattress on the floor soiled and torn in places. Miss Dinsly could just see the outline of a birthmark the shape of a crescent moon on the boy’s left forearm, near his wrist. Michaelson reached underneath his son’s stained pillows and left the diamonds there.
“I’m not ready to go yet,” he said.
“What happened to you, anyway?”
“Red Tigers. Pulled out a loan for Wilson’s tuition. Police got to me when I tried to steal from a store to repay it.”
“He won’t make it, won’t he?” he asked. “Not as old as me, at least.”
“Your gifts would help.”
“They’ll take it if they find out.”
Miss Dinsly knew he told the truth, and though she knew she was exactly where she had to be, she still felt unsure what the purpose was of her presence.
“I want to stay,” Michaelson said. “I should.”
Silence covered them for a while, Miss Dinsly unsure how to proceed. There seemed to her no option where she can appease her livid boss, follow the workings of Old Man Wang, and help the boy and his father all at the same time.
Outside, the moon shone in its crescent, its lower tip touching the silhouette of a tree in the middle of the dark compound. Fireflies flickered atop the timber’s canopy; they flew up in a thin line across the sky and hovered around Michaelson, his ethereal form turning a golden hue.
She stared. “I don’t know.”
Terror struck his face, then relief as his body disintegrated into the air and up into the sky, the particles floating towards the direction where the moon was. Old Man Wang appeared by Miss Dinsly’s side.
“Can you even do that?” Her voice and her body reverted to being her own.
“Guthrie won’t ever let him cross the Yeonghon River on her Hotel, won’t she?”
“Wait, you actually made him cross?”
“His job is done.”
“You’re not supposed to force him.”
“I didn’t. I showed him his son’s future.”
She nodded. “Why am I here then?”
“I needed you to see it. All of it.”
Old Man Wang tapped the butt of his cane to the ground, the Hotel appearing in front of them, all one hundred floors of glamour and mystery.
“You still want to follow your original plan?” the old man asked.
“No crossing until death catches up to Chink’s whole bloodline.”
“He’d have been reborn numerous times by now, each new life worse than the previous one.”
“I would have given you reins of the Hotel had you been more vengeful.” He laughed. “But since Miss Guthrie is about to go, she needs to train a replacement.”
“A replacement? Who?”
He touched her shoulder and the world around her started spinning, turning black with patches of white. When the revolutions slowed down, the room of the broken Grandfather Clock materialized around her, Miss Guthrie standing in front of it, a glass of wine in her hand.
“Someone from both of your pasts,” the voice of Old Man Wang resonated in her head.
Moonlight poured through the glass dome of the room, the broken Grandfather Clock soaking in all the light. It looked the same to her, Miss Dinsly thought, the color, the edges, the curvatures unchanged for the century she had been there. This instance, however, she thought was special, as Miss Guthrie hadn’t been inside this room for maybe a decade, to her knowledge. The clock’s hands were at eleven twenty-five then.
“Wang had to intervene, didn’t he?”
She felt the bump of the diamonds in her palm. “He said you need to train a replacement.”
Miss Guthrie smirked. “That enthusiastic to send me across the River, huh?”
The Hotel Manager strode closer towards Miss Dinsly, eyes trained, posture straight and regal. She looked twenty-four ninety-eight years ago as she did now, the bends of her lips and the lines around her eyes still the same shape and the same depth. She’d look the same for the next twenty-five years or so, until the hands of the Grandfather Clock strike twelve, the minute marker moving only once every year. For a thousand years she’d taken charge of the Hotel, they said. A thousand years unchanged.
Miss Dinsly held out her hand with the diamond, her palm out. As Miss Guthrie reached out and their fingers touched, white light burst forth from both of them, Miss Dinsly feeling the light go through her and in her, passing through all the little spaces between the fibers of her being.
The next instant they stood outside a wooden bungalow, its slate roof covered in soot and dust, an image of Miss Dinsly washing the dishes, looking out the kitchen window towards three men in dark gray trench coats and matching hats. Missus Dinsly came out to greet them, the usual ease in her smile and grace with her movements this time replaced with unease, as if her lips were rubber and her cheeks were locked. They spoke in hushed tones, and when they finished one of the men pulled out a revolver and trained it on her.
The image of Miss Dinsly looked away. She couldn’t move, not when she heard the door get kicked down, or when she was pulled into the living room. They asked her who she was with, then answered themselves with “Oh wait, your dad was missing? Yeah, we were paid to do that.” Miss Guthrie balled her hand tight when she heard from where they stood. Then they’d laugh and point a gun at her and do it again, and only after telling her Chink Morrison sent for them after her mother sold trade secrets did they shoot her and leave her body for the flies to feast on. Looking back on this sliver in time, Miss Dinsly realized the man who shot at her, six feet tall and square jaw, had a birthmark the shape of a crescent moon near his left wrist.
And then they were in an Imperial Palace, hundreds of barons and courtiers in robes and noblewomen in red, gold, and green gowns gathered around rectangular tables. Dozens of aides attended to them, Miss Guthrie included, still looking the same as she did for a thousand years, head down, her sight meeting the eyes of the other aides, nods full of meaning exchanged between each other. The King, sitting on a dais in front with his family all in yellow and black, announced a toast to the victory against the barbarians from the south, and seconds after they swallowed their drinks and put down their cups their bodies would convulse, their heads tilted back, eyes empty and soulless and dead. Miss Guthrie of old took her time climbing up the throne and, pulling the King’s hair, whispered “murderer” in his ear. She’d stumble on the King’s seizing little son on her way down, on his left forearm, near the wrist, a birthmark the shape of the crescent moon.
Then they flew back to when Michaelson, his soul this time still on earth, hid three shiny stones underneath his son’s pillows. Though dim was the moonlight, the mark on the boy’s forearm was clear as day.
The little diamonds dropped to the floor as their premonitions ended, Miss Dinsly’s legs crumpling to the floor, Miss Guthrie holding onto the Grandfather Clock for support. Their eyes met then, both shining with recognition, an understanding of how, despite the thousands of years separating the times the universe conspired to create them, the thread with which both of them ran was the same. There were penances to be paid for, those eyes said to each other, and though their transgressions occurred at different times, those still were choices that needed payment, whether they wanted to or not.
“Send for that boy you saw,” Miss Guthrie said, and Miss Dinsly, though dazed, ticked off the preparations she needed in her head.
“Did you like my present?”
Wilson stood in a dark alley, his eyes trained on a woman with a bright red purse in her hand. The perfect routine, Miss Dinsly thought, standing a block away: an empty street, the sun almost set, and the familiarity a criminal had over the domains with which he hunted.
“I’d say it was rather harsh.”
“Not my doing, Rebecca. I just watch Fate twirl itself in front of my eyes.”
The woman stopped walking and looked back. She saw no one.
“This won’t change my plans.”
“You will cross this earth when you learn to forgive, Rebecca.”
Miss Dinsly looked at the old man. The lines in his face seemed deeper, she thought, his hair whiter than before. She noticed his cart filled with fallen autumn leaves. He smiled at her.
“Oh wait, here he goes.”
Rebecca trotted towards the boy as he moved, her hands reaching for the boy’s left wrist, near the birthmark with the shape of a crescent moon.
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Hi Jerome - nice to see you back on here! This story was giving me some real nostalgic vibes - "Spirited Away" for one and then something else I can't put my finger on... But it was a unique story in a really intriguing world (which I pictured very much Spirited Away style because of the opening part with the 12 foot baby) ... would love to know if that was an inspiration for this! Also, the kid with the birthmark... So intriguing, I'd love to read more.
Hey Riel, Thanks for reading the story! Spirited Away was, indeed, the inspiration for the opening sequence. The Hotel for the dead came straight from the Korean TV series Hotel Del Luna. Rooms as big as solar systems came from Doctor Who. I'm sure there were other subconscious inspirations in the story that I can't quite put my finger on, as a huge part of it was a stream-of-consciousness writing thing.
Hello! I really enjoyed this short story, and if you could, I’d really appreciate it if you could read my stories too :)