THE PLACE WHICH CALLED ITSELF A HOTEL
If you look at it now, you would think I was mad. The place has lost all of its former glory, the spirit of it brutally ripped out only twelve months ago. There are one or two pieces I love which still remain; my favourite one by far being the hotel sign, passing itself off as just another guesthouse to the unsuspecting public. But there was so much more to this place than a misleading sign. I still don’t know how the unit discovered us but I have a horrible feeling Richey’s death had something to do with it.
I think of Richey now and there is a terrible chasm in my chest which will probably take the rest of my life to heal. He wasn’t an ordinary guy; he was different, fantastic and magical – he showed me the end of the world once. I know no-one else will show me such riches again.
The place is only a shell now, a hollow exterior. The sign no longer flashes on off on off on off like a belisha beacon and instead remains chalk grey, one long crack fracturing the plastic casing. I used to think the lighting was mechanical, manufactured, believing that someone somewhere commanded the switch, much in the same way people teach dogs to learn new tricks.
Except now I know different.
The lighting was part of the place itself, bound up intricately with its function like a person’s heart or brain. And once the insides, the space where miraculous things happened were removed, the light died too, extinguishing its spirit. In fact, I really have to look at it and squint to think that this was the place where my life changed forever.
A cough sounds behind me. I turn to see Mark, his eyes like platinum lightning and I can hear his anger without him even opening his mouth. Of course he has every right to be angry but anger doesn’t solve anything. It can’t make your troubles go away. It can’t undo the past. It can’t make people come back from the dead.
Mark can’t accept it though. It has been exactly one year to the day since Richey died and Mark wants answers. To be honest I think he wants a miracle. He looks at me now, the lines scratched into his face tell of hardship, anguish and despair. He is a broken man, half of what he should be, half existing without his brother and best friend.
I do the only thing I can do and hold out my hand willing him to take it, to feel companionship again. The world is still as Mark considers my offered hand. He doesn’t move but simply stares as though I have offered him poison.
‘Mark’, I say. ‘It’s alright. You don’t have to be afraid.’
I see his bottom lip quiver for just a second and then it’s rigid again making him appear hard-hearted and old.
He removes a hand from his coat pocket then stops. Everything is written on his face: his secret fears, his frustration, his torment. And then suddenly he turns on his heels and walks away, his back stiff and defiant, his shoulders like concrete beneath his leather coat. I want to call him back but I haven’t a clue what I would say or whether I would be able to say anything at all.
The wind whips up speed, flirting with the paper-thin golden-brown leaves and tugging at Mark’s coattail. He pulls his coat to him, practically hugging himself as he disappears around the corner.
Now there is only me and the fake hotel.
I remember the invitation I received last October from Believers and Pushing Boundaries United (BPBU). At first, I couldn’t understand their words and read the letter half a dozen times. Why were they inviting me? How did they know about my background? Who else had received an invite?
We met, all twenty of us, outside the place which called itself a hotel on a cool October evening, just after the sun had set. It was a bit too light to see the stars and all signs of cloud coverage had disappeared.
I found Richey standing on the far side of the entrance steps. He stood slightly apart from the rest, eyes downcast. I reached out and touched his arm. He looked up.
I was about to speak when the doors flew open admitting all twenty of us in a matter of seconds.
Inside, the hotel was like any other. It had a grand staircase with an intricately-patterned banister, plush red carpets and drapes which reminded me of Little Red Riding Hood. A few of us gasped. The three star sign outside was completely misleading.
As we continued to survey the guest entrance, a voice from overhead commanded us to gather at the far right door and wait for the doors to open. I looked around for a face to connect with the voice but found nothing. Instead, I noticed a disc shaped speakerphone. The sight of it made me shiver.
Then the door swung open. A succession of exclamations filled the space.
One woman said, ‘Ooh Harry, come look at this,’ while an elderly man wiped away tears. Whatever was in that room had a profound impact on anyone who gazed upon it.
I grabbed Richey suddenly and raced over to the open room. Once inside, my heart stopped.
The room had no walls and no ceiling. But it had a floor – an oval platform we all managed to huddle on to. The stars stretched out endlessly above us – a phosphorescent canopy showering us in starlight.
‘It’s beautiful,’ I said.
Richey simply stood with his mouth open, his eyes large and round, speckled with miniature stars. I wanted to kiss him right there and then. He looked perfect, pure, unspoilt. He looked like a son of the night, protected by and bathed in a milky sheen.
‘What is this place?’ a voice behind me asked.
But of course everyone knew it was a stupid question. We all knew it was the end of the world.
Richey said, ‘Remember the last time we were here? How the stars played out like spotlights on Broadway? We were the last two people in the whole world.’
I smiled, nodded. The words lodged in my throat. All I had to do was blot out the others and we would be the last two survivors, Richey and I forever.
And then the invisible speakerphone took charge again.
‘Please make your way throughout the hotel. All doors are now open to you.’
A short man wearing thick-rimmed spectacles shouted at the speakerphone.
‘Why have you brought us here?’
The whole room fell silent. No-one looked at each other; the air seemingly acquired a density unknown to the atmosphere as though we were inhaling lead. We waited. The short man blinked rapidly behind his glasses. I fancied I heard Richey’s whistle-thin breathing before the speakerphone broke in again.
‘The BPBU have brought you here because we know what you are.’
A long and uncomfortable pause ensued. I closed my eyes and awaited his next words.
‘Being a non-human species doesn’t mean we don’t have feelings or concerns for our motherland. Being away from our real home for so long will undoubtedly affect our wellbeing. So the BPBU have very kindly set up this hotel to re-connect us with our motherland.’
A dozen side doors appeared seemingly from nowhere.
The speakerphone continued.
‘Now commence your journey through this door-filled haven and remember not to touch anything.’
We visited each door in succession seeing distant galaxies, the edges of the universe, total oblivion in all its formidable absence. My mouth gaped open as I took in infinity knowing it stretched on endlessly, and felt insignificant in comparison, despite my ethereal connections.
Each room we visited wasn’t a room in the conventional sense – they had no walls or ceilings but they were spaces and opened out on to the most wonderful sights. I felt sorry for the billions of people on earth who would never get to see the universe in its proper sense, and had to content themselves with a puny planet that was mostly water anyway.
The final room we entered was a swirling writhing mass of purple gas, pushing and contracting rhythmically to its own tune. Faces would appear for a second or so before they were devoured by the gas.
We were informed that the room we were currently in was The Dream Room where our long forgotten dreams resurfaced. Richey and I stood at opposite ends of the platform desperately searching for a clue or snippet from a dream we had had. We searched for a considerable time and was about to give up when I saw the motherland – all that was sacred and holy.
I watched as the great towers pierced the gloom, the fountains bursting with life. This is where I should have been, where I belonged, where I felt most comfortable. I looked at Richey who was absorbed in his own dream, watching the way his head bobbed up and down; his sight drawn to a single point.
And that’s when he reached out towards the swirling purple gas and stuck his hand right into the heart of his dream.
I screamed and watched in horror as his face was drained of all colour, all life. He was convulsing and juddering with his hand still frozen in the writhing gas which had started to creep up his arm.
An elderly man came to his aid but he was too late. Richey fell from his grip and hit the floor – stone cold dead.
I don’t remember much after that except the sudden storming of the hotel by official-looking officers. They dragged us about as though we were ragdolls and spat at us as we tried to flee. They said we weren’t fit enough to be on this planet and that if they had their way, we would never have seen the light of day. They took Richey’s body out in a body bag, the horrible noise of the zip making me nauseous.
I still have no idea how the unit were so quick to respond. My guess is that they were watching the place which called itself a hotel for a while and needed some sort of evidence before they could act. And Richey’s body served as this.
Mark has since re-appeared from around the corner and I can tell he wants to leave this wretched place. Every time I see him he looks even worse, as though the effects of time are eroding his features, which they are, mine included.
Luckily for Richey, he has joined the brightest stars at the end of the world.
Photo by Tomek Dzido