“By the sea, the beautiful sea, my darling she waits for me, only me by that beautiful sea….” A lilting melody drifted to me, the voice tinny and distant, as if the singer was sitting at the bottom of a tin can, the tune just familiar enough to feel like the next words were on the tip of my tongue, just waiting to be remembered. A breath of the fragrance of candles, fine wines and expensive perfumes caressed my senses, and soft muted laughter and crystal tinkling rose above the elusive music for a moment.
I drifted, half asleep, humming along to the tune, trying to snatch the elusive words from the air. I smiled slightly…and as I did so, the sweet, lilting tune turned into a bolt of fire that blossomed at my hairline, then ran across my temple and down my jaw. The base of my skull boomed as if a tiny kangaroo was kicking against it.
Instantly my body jackknifed, pain turning the backs of my eyelids red-lit. I gasped hard, my skull miserably bouncing on stonework and doubling the horrible throb gripping the back of my skull.
I rolled over and retched for a moment, my arms wrapped hard around my torso. I ached in strange places in my shoulders and ribs, and as I gripped one wrist in misery, I could feel circles of raw, abraded tissue around both of my wrists. I groaned and told my eyes to open, but they could only do so halfway—both eyes were gummed partially shut, maybe with blood.
Unsteadily, I pawed the crust from my eyes and with some work, sat up. I could smell the ocean, the scent of salt and seaweed borne to me by a passing breeze. Distantly, as if set off by my notice, a wave boomed out upon the sands. Above me I could see delicate white Art Deco arches supporting a blue dome with golden stars….except for in the dead center where a collapsed section of the roof allowed a view of the real heavens beyond.
A wave of dizziness hit me, and I pressed my forehead to the cold stones and gasped hard. My stomach rolled and heaved….and I thought I felt the building roll and heave slightly as if in sympathy. I gasped and threw myself away from the floor I lay across, almost sending myself rolling down into the elegant spiral staircase. I clutched at the masonry for a moment, but the touch of the stone made my skin crawl and I lunged to my feet shaking. I felt as if something was seeping into me, sickening me and boring into the very pores of my skin. I wiped hard at my exposed forearms, trying to wipe off the imagined contagion.
I staggered over to the spiral tower steps and leaning hard against the stucco walls, began groping my way down slowly, stopping to retch a few times as I went. The feeling of something infesting my skin, burrowing into my flesh wherever it made contact with the walls grew stronger and I retched helplessly, bracing my hand against my black waiter’s slacks to avoid touching the salt-sweaty, pebbly walls.
The arched exit of the tower let out into a gloomy lobby, the ceilings mostly lost in shadows. A passing floodlight illuminated it with a bright searching eye and as it passed I saw stunning but decayed Art Deco detailing, Mediterranean tiles up on the floor, the ratty mummies of potted palms and elegant beachgoers promenading gracefully across the frescoes of the walls, clad in the refined styles of bygone eras.
“Hello?” I shouted to the dust and decay. Echoes and the scurry of a rat answered me. I could smell a slight whiff of something musky and rankly pungent. I wrinkled my nose and peered into the decayed elegance of the lobby.
My head throbbed in time with my steps as I walked into the maw of the shadowed lobby. Dim moonlight and lurid reflected light from the neon signs of nearby tacky eateries and gas stations turned tarp covered furniture into crouching monsters and phantasms, and the old fashioned cubbyholes behind the front desk yawned like rows of hungry little mouths.
I shuddered and sank down on one couch to rest for a moment. The leather covered couch groaned like a dying fat man and the dust cover slid around my shoulders, enveloping me like a shroud for a moment. The couch reached the apex of its groan, seemed to decide to accept me and clammily embraced me as my weight sank into tired, listless springs that gave unevenly under my body and felt like I was sinking into a pile of small bodies.
Something scratched in a side room and I thought I heard a rasping laugh, then mutters. “Who’s there?” I yelled out, my voice breaking like some Victorian maiden’s. “Geez, man up. No wonder someone grabbed you and dragged you here.” I muttered to myself, my own voice rasping and dry on my tongue. There was no reply, but I thought I heard the voice again rising and falling in the pattern of an argument.
I fought my way free of the couch’s sagging embrace and lurched again to my feet. The passing spotlight flashed over the cavernous opening to a side room—maybe a parlor or small dining room once. I shuffled across the lobby with the occasional drunken lurch to one side then another. My head was shrieking in pain and the dim, phantasmal setting of the hotel was allowing my mind to race unwholesomely, filling every shadow with leering demons and the vapors of infectious, nasty little eyes that I just couldn’t completely convince myself weren’t there.
“I’m hallucinating….I’m hallucinating…..there’s nothing there.” I gasped.
“Oh I’m nothing…and I’m here….” The faintest suggestion of a voice floated up from the depths of my mind like the answers in a kids’ shaken 8 ball toy.
I whirled around, eyes wide and staring into the inky pools of stagnant night in every dark corner. So many dark corners here…so many places that something that was not quite there, not quite real could hide. So very many places for the monster under your bed to come live, and where else should monsters live but here in an abandoned hotel? Why not when the space under the bed was no longer big enough….
I felt…something snicker behind my shoulder. I screamed and swung around, flailing out over and over at the cobwebs and shadows around me until the throbbing in my head was too much and I tumbled to the tiles.
I gasped over and over, trying not to be sick, my fingers scrabbling against the smooth tile and rough grout under me.
From the small parlor…I heard heavy, dragging, shuffling footsteps. Something slow and ponderous, rough footed came towards me and I could smell something like spoiled sweat and musk, rotten cheese, mulchy dirt and seaweed. I coughed and lifted my head, trying not to vomit as I searched for the source of the sound and smell.
A fitfully sputtering neon light illuminated a squat figure standing in the parlor’s door. It seemed inhumanly bulky with a nimbus of neon-lit fur standing out from the shoulders. As I cringed back from it, I heard a quick rasp and a seed of light sprang up from the hulking thing.
In the doorway stood a massive, squat human. The person had hanks of wiry, matted hair escaping from several caps pulled down over it’s head, and was swaddled in layers of ragged coats, sweaters and blankets with a couple of luridly patterned bathrobes looped over each arm and layered over each other and tied with a matted feather boa around the figure’s barrel waist. A filthy hand raised a stub of a candle or a tea light, letting the light gleam off beady eyes sunk deep into a woman’s puffy, greasy face.
“Who are you? What the hell is this place and why’d you bring me here? What the hell do you plan to do with me?” I barked at the squat form in the doorway, my voice thin and hard with false bravado.
“I toldya dinnit I? Causeya always said it wasn’t so an’ I didn’t think it was but there it was I told you and that’s how it really was going.” The woman shook her head, her glassy eyes roving over the empty space around us. Her words slurred together as she rocked her head back and forth.
I took a careful step forward. “Hey, I’m Nick. Can you tell me who you are….and what I’m doing here?”
The person turned in my direction and wagged a finger at empty air. The light fell on the face and I could see it was a woman with greasy skin and matted, unkempt hair. “You been playing with that, and ya shouldn’t. Leave the door alone I tell you, leave it alone. I got skulls and crossbones on you and that’s why you can’t do nuthin’. You ain’t no one and you ain’t and you isn’t.” She stomped past me quickly as if someone had just run by me. “Well, you just come here then! I’ll fix you up and you’ll just be in the bottle, see if you can’t whistle Dixie then!” She swept past me hard and fast like a frigate at full sail, small objects and dust from the tables sweeping to the floor in her wake.
I followed her into a small side room. One entire wall was a massed stack of tables, chairs and boards arranged into tiers and shelves. Each shelf was filled with small objects, notes, little statues, cups filled with mummified flowers, dolls, little signs, squares of cardboard with hex signs, chains, ribbons and candles stacked and jammed upon other candles into stalagmites of wax.
The strange woman moved to the lowest tier of the altar, lit a row of candles and jammed them into guttering pools of wax, threw several strands of beads over the necks of some statues of saints, blindfolded one saint, made several hex signs in chalk, and walked back and forth in front of her altar, muttering rapidly to herself.
I approached closer. “Scuse me….what is all this?”
She whirled opposite from me, again addressing empty air. “Yeah, stop yelling! I know he’s here. He hasn’t talked to him yet! I can’t talk to him, he’s unpure, he’s not in with it all. He can’t talk to the High Priestess, he’s not inducted into the High Mystery yet and he’s got no idea, he can’t make words or ideas or pictures in the head if he’s got no clue, so you just shut your fat whore mouth!” She shook her head at my invisible companion and flapped her arms angrily. “You can’t treat me like that, you can’t speak to me like I’m cheap and can be had because I’m not all as it was!” She shook her fist at the empty air. “He’ll tell him you said that to me and I won’t stay here if you talk like that! And no, I won’t speak to those empty of the Mysteries it just isn’t so!” She turned, and swept past me with amazing dignity, a stinking, unkempt grand duchess in full decay. I watched her go, the sense of unreality building and making her grand exit strangely acceptable. My head throbbed in time with her steps and I rubbed my temples again, the building seeming to sway and breathe under my hands as I leaned against the wall.
“Young man, I must apologize about your head. It was most necessary for you to be brought here in a most effectacious manner and I’m afraid that my colleagues may have been somewhat…over zealous in their attempts to spirit you to my abode.”
I reeled around to find a tall, gaunt man standing behind me. He wore the decayed remains of a dark tweed suit and a battered, stained fedora that did not quite contain a massive shock of thistledown white hair. A patriarch’s beard in similar shock white flowed down his sunken chest and he cradled a candle in a jar which lit up his face with a peculiar glow and made his eyes seem to dance with flame.
“Who…who are you?” I rasped, trying to regain my balance.
The old gentleman straightened himself and eyed me sideways. “I am the Super-Genius. I am what you were and what you shall have been. My intelligence cannot be measured nor contained, but I am here to illuminate you as to what is to come and tell you that what has been heretofore shall be no more.” He took a few steps forward, closing the distance between us.
Up close, I could see deep lines on his face, carved by suffering, hard living and time. The man was as decayed as his suit, motheaten, threadbare, soiled and worn. His hand wrapped around the candle was gnarled, scarred, pitted and appallingly grimy. His teeth were missing and uneven, and his eyes seemed yellower than the light from the candle should allow, but there was still an awful dignity to him. There seemed to hang about him the remnants of some honorable profession or dignified way of life long gone. He seemed the ailing remnants of a college professor or judge by the look of his suit and the echoes of academic life in his speech.
“However my boy, that is all not the here and therefore now,” He glared at me over cracked horn rimmed spectacles. “But please, do keep in mind that the Now and the Here are tenuous concepts at best and always embraced by small and petty minds.” He raised his head and gave me a half smile. “I am referred to as the Beckoning Man as that is my present function and something of my calling. By Christian name, I have been referred to as Samuel and if you are overawed by my title, you may refer to me as such.”
I gaped at him, unsure of what to make of this threadbare patriarch. “What…what has that got to do with me? Why am I here…you had me brought here? By who? Why?” I felt my head, my fingers finding a good-sized knot behind one ear. “Who hit me?”
Samuel eyed me over the dancing candle flame. “I have apologized for you lamentably quick arrival here, I shall not do so again. There shall be no use to such at any rate once the full matter is explained to you. “ He tapped on the floor with a cane clutched in his far hand. “And as to what the matter has to do with you, I’m afraid it has everything to do with you, for you are lamentably and permanently, the future. “
He bowed to me slightly with a sad half smile. “You’re here to take my place young man. I’m sorry about it. You were going to be something else, but that’s lost to you now. I do fear that yesterday I went to the VA hospital yesterday and they told me I’m gone and done for.” Samuel rocked back on his heels. “I have contracted cancer. With proper care and the finest nutrition and such that money could buy, I might last six or so months.” He gestured grandly, a professor making an obvious point. “I lack such resources as my Calling has prevented me from accepting a more traditional post that gives traditional kinds of renumeration.”
He turned his jaundiced yellow eye at me as the floodlight swept us by again. “You may about to be taking over the Hotel Beautiful Sea. You’re young and healthy and you’ll last a long time before it kills you. I’m sure it gave me the cancer. It got in my head and it whispered to my bones and they went all sideways on me and my cells cried black rain inside me.” His eyes dipped backwards, seeking out a dark inner landscape, then rolled back to me. “Then again, it may move again since it does like to occasionally perambulate a bit.” He sucked on his jagged teeth a moment. “It has resided here in the Hotel Beautiful Sea for nearly a generation now, but when its’ caretaker dies it gets a little stronger for a bit till we get it comfortable again.”
He glared at me. “You’ve not got as much time as I’d like for you to be trained and frankly, as you’re young it will be hard on you to go insane, but that is what it will do to you.” His face softened at that. “And for that…for that, I may only express my regret. As I have observed you, you seem like a fellow of good mirth and jest but our charge has a terrible effect on the human mind.”
I gaped at him. “Our charge? What the hell? I haven’t accepted anything you kidnapper….”
He poked me hard in the chest with his cane. “Sirrah, I did not choose you. You attracted the notice of that which I am safeguarding. By the time I first clapped eyes upon your scrofulent hide, it was already too late. The die is cast!”
I leapt back from the poking cane. “What the hell are you talking about?”
He drew himself up, his eyes catching the light balefully. “Have you not felt the unhealthy aspect within these walls? How they draw towards you, how they feel like they are drawing something from you? Sucking energy and life from your very soul?”
I stared at him and shuddered, shuffling half a step away from the rough stucco of the wall which suddenly reminded me of tiny grasping barbs.
He nodded, the candlelight flickering across the ruined landscape of his craggy face. “You have felt it. My boy, there is a creature of another realm, another aspect that dwells within the walls of this once fair hostelry. I’m sure it has a name of some ancient aspect, but I do not care to know it for that would bond it closer to me. As I am somewhat the steward of this hotel, I call it The Guest. My job, my deep calling and curse is that I am the one tasked to keep The Guest in an eternal state of slumber.”
I stared at him. “An aspect from another realm? Are you telling me there’s a creature from another dimension or something you’re keeping contained here? How? Why? What kind….”
He rapped on the ground with his cane. “To have congress with The Guest is to let it into your head, to invite it to have a closer relationship with you. Never do that. It will already have enough chance to violate your consciousness and further cause harm to you.”
“So I can’t even know anything about this creature that’s supposed to be driving me insane?”
“Would that it were so sonny. I find the less you know about The Guest the better off you are.” He gestured towards the way the ragged woman had lumbered. “I let drop information about it during a spell of inebriation and you see how she is now. The poor woman has designated herself a High Priestess to it, doing all sorts of hexes and spells—sometimes to honor it, sometimes to help keep it contained and sometimes just to try and buy back some of herself from it.” He rubbed a gnarled, dirt-engrained hand across his face. “I think you can understand that I would not have an entire city of souls in her state wandering about….though in her way, she does a great deal to keep The Guest contained.”
“I don’t want to end up like her either! Let me out of this loony bin!” I turned to run, to pound past this gnarled wreck of a human being and find my way back to the sane world I understood.
He moved with a speed I would not have believed. With his cane he swept my legs out from under me, then pinned one of my arms behind my back and forced me to my feet.
“Once again my boy, you have my apologies, but the process has started. You are compatible with the Line of Welcomers.” He clamped his tree root fingers into my hair and hauled me down the corridor and into a dining room. He gestured at a series of oil paintings decorating the walls. Six faces stared down from tarnished gold frames.
Samuel waved his cane at them. “Six of the Line of Welcomers. There have actually been a few more, but really being that time and space are really quite arbitrary, there’s no need to be pedantic about the actual makeup of the Line.”
“The Welcomers?” I stared at the portraits. “I’ve heard of you. The City’s tradition of having some lunatic who stands at the city founding marker and greets passer-byes? Those guys?” I stared at the faces, some smiling, some distant, some misty eyed and dreamy.
Samuel clicked his teeth at me thoughtfully. “Lunatics yes, and all with a purpose. The Ritual we enact to keep The Guest sleeping takes life energy to keep it going, keep it fed.”
I whirled away from the portraits, realizing he had me trapped in the room he’d dragged me to. “So you’re a bunch of murderers? You drag people off to sacrifice them to this crazy loon god of yours?” I began to tense, to try and dodge back from him, to try and dive around him.
“Only the first Welcomer…a man over a hundred years ago. “Samuel nodded at the string of portraits. “You’ll not be finding him in this lineup. No one wants to admit this town had a firm foundation in blood and pain.” He almost casually clamped a hand on my shoulder. “One of the city fathers had truck with a dark god you know. Sacrificed a daughter to it, managed to live most of his life in the requisite luxury and wealth till the first of our line realized what he’d gotten up to and just how fragile the mans’ grip on his demonic servant was. He became a killer to use the life energy to put the thing to sleep and keep it penned.”
He walked over and tapped the first portrait. “Hezekiah here was the official first Welcomer. He took over keeping The Guest pacified, but being quite a brilliant soul, he realized his mission would be much compromised if bodies kept turning up or having to be disposed of. He is the one who realized that humans positively ooze life, and that when greeted, people have a tendency to extend a little of themselves towards others.”
He turned back to me smiling broadly and extended his hand. “Samuel the Welcomer at your service my boy!” Inadvertently, I took his hand. “Um, nice to meet you….”
Samuel raised an eyebrow, and stroked a couple of his grimy fingers just above the surface of the back of my hand. As he did so, a tiny misty glow rose from the surface of my skin, wrapping itself around his extended fingertips. Samuel rolled the firefly whisp between his fingers and thumb, collecting it into a ball, then tucked it gently into his ragged vest pocket.
I jumped back and stared at the back of my hand, scrubbing at it with my opposing hand. “What the hell was that? What did you just do to me?”
“I skimmed a tiny bit of life energy from you.” Samuel drew his hand back out of his pocket. In his fingers was a ball of glowing mist. He gave it a little pat and it rose from his hand to hover in the air a moment, a tiny glowing foggy sun. “I added it to all the energy I’ve skimmed away today, made it a part of a larger life.” He reached out, took my hand and cupped it around the little orb. “Feel it.”
The light shone across my fingertips, warm and beckoning. I could feel the shavings of lives in it, the laughter of small children, the smile of an elderly woman, the offhanded greeting of a businessman, a couple of Japanese tourists, sparking with excitement over having met a living legend, and other dimmer faces beyond. I could feel a bit of myself in it, just a slight dusting of what I was. “I can…I can feel them all.” I felt the fear drain out of me as the little light played across my skin.
“What we do…it ain’t bad.” Samuel scooped the orb from my hand. “Every day, we bless the world with another day. We are caretakers and high priests of an act of good, an attempt to keep ill from the world.” He turned towards the windows. “Come on.”
I followed him towards the dusty, partially boarded up windows. He took my hand, then raised the hand holding towards the sea booming in the dark beyond. The tiny orb rose from his hand, spinning itself into a trail of mist that sparkled joyfully and trailed into the wall of salty air beyond. “Sleep, sleep, find your rest and dwell in the realm of dreams, finding no pain or care.”
I felt….the little bits of lives moving in the air, drifting gently through the salt air and the sickly atmosphere seeping from the walls of the hotel. The mist of life reached through the air with a gentle scent of ozone and mulchy living things, a clean and living scent. It took hold of part of the sickness pulsing in the walls, sweeping it away. I could feel a tiny wave of something draw back, and settle deeper into its deep, strange dreams. The air sweetened a tiny bit and a breath of an oppressive feeling drew a bit further away from me.
Samuel gripped my hand. “That’s it. Just little by little, this is what we do. I guess you can say we save the world a little at a time. That’s why I need you.”
I turned and looked at him and for a moment, I could see him, see beyond his mortal form, see the flickering and guttering of his life energy and see beyond him into something beyond. As I did so, an infinite sense of loneliness I hardly knew was there flowed out of me, dissipating into the dusty night air. “This is crazy….but I think…maybe I believe you…I can see….” I gestured vaguely. “I think…I can feel it.”
Samuel nodded. “You already are starting to see the Great World Beyond. Not so good for you or me.” He tapped his chest. “Tick tock, tick tock you know.”
I stared at him, dizzy with the warring of my senses. “What? How…does it start? What is going to happen to me…why am I going to go crazy anyways? Why can’t I tell people, show them this?” I flung a hand out at the hotel.
Samuel’s face was full of benevolent sorrow, a saint at the bed of a dying sinner. “You only just are starting to listen and believe. You ain’t even really listening yet to the World Beyond.” He took my arm and gently now, guided me through the dining rooms, the dimly lit ruined opulence of the lobby. “Tick tock young acolyte, tick tock. This was your introduction and the ruin of a life that was to have been, but shall pass away from you like the inexorable flow of time now. Tick tock.” He guided me out to a side entrance with a cracked and patched over door, opening it outwards and gesturing vaguely to a horizon that was just starting to blush with the genesis of another day. “Out you go into the world and begin your transformation, begin your pupation from a man into the latest of the Line of Welcomers.”
I started at him. “But you said…training….”I groped for words that weren’t there in the swirlings of my confused, foggy mind.
“Some will come to you, some won’t. You’ll go home and gestate that which has been placed in your heart and later when you meet me upon the boardwalk, I will introduce you as my successor and pupil as I induce you into what mysteries I may impart upon you.” He patted my shoulder and guided me down the steps, back out into the not quite dawn. “Be at peace….and embrace the good you have been chosen to do the world.” He stepped back and faded away into the threadbare shadows of the lobby, a spirit unravelling into the tattered, worn out night.
Dazed, I stumbled along the boardwalk, past the shuttered stylish eateries, the tacky souvenir-and-saltwater taffy stands, the undersized overpriced upstairs apartments. My head pulsed…was this the real world, was the strange world I’d seen been real? Had everything I’d seen just been the product of drugs I’d been fed or a concussion….?
“Hey now!” With a jolt, I ran into the solid bulk of a barrel-chested, gray haired man, his chest encased in the sea-dull uniform of a security cop. “You ok there kid? The man’s face was kind, a sea foam of hair framing a face seamed with smile lines. His eyes took in my rumpled appearance, his eyes lighting with concern as they lingered over the top of my forehead. “Whoah there kid!” He gently gripped my jaw, turning my face toward a streetlight. “You hurt there kid? You need help?”
Overcome for a moment, I nodded. The officer drew out a radio from his belt and began chattering with the dispatcher about me, about finding a possible robbery victim, a person wandering the street looking dazed.
“Ok kid, just come on. We’ll take you to a hospital, get you checked out. Looks like you’ve got a nasty concussion there.” The officer put a fatherly hand on my back, turned and began gently shepherding me down the block.
We hadn’t taken but a few steps when I remembered. I stuck out my hand and turned to him. “Sorry…I’m…Gabriel…”
The officer paused for a second, smiled at me and took my hand. “Good to meet you Gabriel, I’m Officer Montgomery. I’ll take care of you.”
A thin shaving, a fragile puff of warm kindness and concern rose from the officer’s skin. Just a tiny skimming of life, almost no more life and energy than you breathe out on a chilly night. Almost offhandedly, I closed my fingers around it gently, collecting it and rolling it into a miniature, foggy sun….
I closed my fingers, cupping the tiny, precious orb in my shaking hands….
Things begin, things change….