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The Hotel Under the Sand
By Kage Baker, Stephanie Pui-Mun Law
Tachyon Publications Copyright © 2009 Kage Baker
All rights reserved.
Cleverness and bravery are absolutely necessary for good adventures. Emma was a little girl both clever and brave, and destined—so you might think—to do well in any adventure that came her way. But the first adventure Emma had was dreadful.
One day a storm came and swept away everything that Emma had, and everything that Emma knew. When it had done all that, it swept away Emma too.
It might have been a storm with black winds, with thunder and lightning and rising waves. It might have been a storm with terrible anger and policemen coming to the door, and strangers, hospitals, courtrooms, and nightmares. It might have been a storm with soldiers, and fire, and hiding in cellars listening to shooting overhead. There are different kinds of storms.
But Emma faced the storm that swept over her, and found a way to save herself. She kept her head above water, and kept swimming even when she was tired. She didn't think about all the things that might be in the dark. She didn't drift, feeling sorry for herself. When she spotted a floating tree, she pushed herself to swim faster, and soon she caught up to it and was able to climb aboard.
She blew along on the angry water, clinging to a tree trunk, driven by the pitiless wind, but she held tight and kept her wits about her. After a long time she saw land, far away on the horizon.
As she sailed closer, Emma saw a golden wilderness of sand dunes, hills and mountains of bright sand. The wind kicked up plumes of it, whirling into the sky.
Soon she heard breakers crashing on the shore, and knew it was time to watch out. Whump! The tree trunk ran aground and Emma scrambled free, and crawled out of the waves on her hands and knees. The warm sand above the tide line felt nice, so she lay down there and rested awhile. Then she stood up and looked around her.
There was nothing to see but the dunes and the ocean. Emma found herself all alone, with nothing but the dress she had on, in a wilderness of shifting sands.
She wanted to cry, but Emma knew that if she started crying now for everyone and everything she had lost, she would never be able to stop crying. So she dusted herself off instead, and started walking away down the beach to explore. She had no idea where she was, but knew it must be close to where people lived, or had once lived, because she could see a double line of old pier pilings, worn down so far they looked like black broken teeth, stretching out across the low tide flat. And as she looked up and down the beach in both directions, she could see pieces of shipwrecks, littering the beach for miles.
Emma decided to climb up a sand dune. The dunes were quite high—much taller than they had looked from the open sea—and she thought that if she could look in every direction, she might see a town. She climbed and climbed, wading in the hot sand, up a ripple-sided mountain. But when she got to the top, all she could see, stretching away forever under the noonday sun, were more rippled mountains and steep sliding valleys of sand.
"These aren't just sand dunes," said Emma to herself. "These are the Dunes."
She had once owned a book with pictures of the Dunes. It had said that the Dunes were far away, on a wild and lonely seacoast, very hard to find. Very little was known about them. Was there water in the Dunes? Looking at the bright, dry sand, Emma realized that she was very, very thirsty.
As she stood up there in the wind and the sun, wondering what she ought to do, Emma heard a tiny peeping sound. It was just barely there, under the hiss of the wind and the roar of the sea, but it was there. Balancing carefully along the spine of the dune, she walked in the direction from which she supposed the sound was coming. The sound grew clearer, and Emma recognized it for the singing of frogs.
Where there are frogs, there must be water, thought Emma. She hurried along the dune and the sound got louder. She came over the top of the sand-hill, and saw below her a green place where a creek went winding down to the sea. Cattails grew there, and beach myrtles, and dune grass, and blackberry brambles. Emma slid down the high face of the dune and ran to the creek's edge. The peeping of the frogs stopped at once, but Emma could see them now: they were perched all over the blackberry leaves, tiny froglets, green as emeralds and golden bronze, like jewelry scattered between the white flowers and black and red berries.
Emma cupped her hands and drank the clear water. When she had drunk all she wanted, she picked blackberries and ate them hungrily. The frogs hopped away from her hands to leaves farther away, but didn't seem to mind that she was there otherwise.
Now that I have water, thought Emma, I'd better make myself a house to live in. So she followed the creek back down to the beach, to where all the old shipwreck debris lay scattered. For the next hour she dragged planks and sheets of tin and fiberglass to the creekside, propping them up and leaning them together to make a sort of hut for herself.
During one trip down to the sea's edge, she saw lots of little holes in the wet sand, just the shape of keyholes, and here and there a seagull poking its beak into the sand as though it was digging for something. She smiled to herself. Emma had lived beside the sea before, and she knew what the holes meant. There are clams under those holes, thought Emma, and I can dig some out to eat for dinner.
And that was what she did. When she had finished her house, she dug down with her hands, as the little waves rolled in and splashed her ankles, and caught the big slippery clams that were trying to get away from her by burrowing down deeper into the sand. Soon she had eight of them, like big glassy cobblestones, and she pried them open with a piece of broken boat propeller.
The clams were raw, of course, but Emma was very hungry. It's just like eating sushi, she told herself. She ate them all, and they weren't as bad as you would think, but she decided they would have been better if they were cooked.
This made her think about fire. She would have to build a fire before night came, to keep warm and perhaps to signal any passing ships. Emma knew that people sometimes made fire by rubbing two sticks together. She found the driest sticks she could, far up above the tide line, and rubbed two of them together for what seemed like hours, until her hands were tired and she felt like crying; but she couldn't make fire.
At last she threw down the sticks. "I won't cry," Emma told herself. "I'll look around the shipwrecks some more. Maybe I can find a can of gasoline!"
She searched and searched, and actually it was a good thing Emma didn't find any gasoline, because if she had tried to get a fire going with it, it would probably have exploded. But she found something even better. Lying in a heap of broken plywood and seaweed was a plastic cigarette lighter, which had been lying in the sun so long it had faded to white on one side. Emma wondered if it hadn't been ruined by seawater. She held it up close to her face and flicked the wheel. How happy she was to feel a quick burst of heat, and hear the tiny hiss!
So as the long evening shadows began to stretch over the Dunes, Emma made a fire just outside her hut, feeding it carefully at first with dry dune grass and then putting on bigger pieces of driftwood. For a long time she watched the fire, as the red sun sank down and the purple night fell. The stars came out, and a bright crescent moon hung above the sea and threw a track of silver on the calm water. Emma watched the moon on the water and didn't feel quite so lonely. It was almost as though the moon were a person out there, smiling at her and telling her not to be scared.
She watched the sea, hoping to see the lights of ships. She wondered where she would go, if a ship did rescue her. I have no place of my own anymore, she thought, but maybe I can make one.
After a while Emma put her head on her arms and slept, listening to the frogs and the soft boom of the surf.
The storm hadn't taken everything she had, after all. It could never take away her brave heart, or her cleverness.CHAPTER 2
The Bell Captain
In the middle of the night, Emma woke up. Her fire had died down to ash and coals, only brightening now and then when the wind swept across the sand, so she was a little cold. She sat up to put a few more sticks on the fire.
The moon had vanished into the sea, but there were seven million white stars lighting up the sky. Emma tilted back her head and stared up at them in amazement. She had never seen so many stars, living in a city, or understood that there really is such a thing as starlight. They lit the Dunes with blueness, under the night, and reflected like points of fire on the black night ocean.
Straight above her, the Milky Way trailed across the sky. To the West it went down to the horizon, as though it were smoke from a ship's smokestack. To the East it went all the way down to the top of the high dune. Right where it met the top of the dune, it looked strangely cloudy. Emma saw two stars close together in the cloud, as though they were a pair of eyes looking down at her.
"That's funny," she said to herself. "That cloud looks almost like a person standing there."
But when the two stars seemed to blink, and when the cloudy person began to float down the dune toward her, Emma needed all her bravery not to jump up and run away. Instead, she reached out and took hold of the biggest stick from the fire, and held up its burning end defiantly. She didn't shout. Instead, she just watched the person come nearer and nearer.
The closer it came, the more it began to take on solidness. Emma glimpsed bright brass buttons, and gold braid on a white uniform, and very shiny polished black shoes. A white cap floated on the cloudy head, with a gold badge winking in the firelight. Gradually the rest of the figure took shape, until only the face and hands were a little transparent. The ghost of a young man in the uniform of a bellboy stood just at the edge of her fire, looking at her with a wistful expression.
"Ahem," he said. He had a nice voice. "Er ... I don't suppose you have any bags I could carry for you, do you, miss?"
"I'm afraid I don't, no," said Emma, who, in addition to being brave and clever, was also extremely polite.
"Any letters I could take to the post office for you? Any shoes you'd like polished?" said the ghost hopefully.
"I'm sorry, no," said Emma. "I lost my shoes when I was blown here by a storm."
The ghost flinched at the word storm, and wrung his hands. For one awful moment Emma thought he might emit a ghastly scream and shoot upward through the air, the way ghosts do in horror movies sometimes. Instead he coughed and stood straight, flicking a bit of sand from the front of his tunic.
"I'm so sorry to hear that, miss," he said. "Very unfortunate thing to happen, yes indeed. What about some room service? Is there anything I can do for you at all?"
He seemed so desperate to please that Emma felt she had to say something, so she said, "Well—I'm a little thirsty. Could you get me a drink of water?"
"Right away, miss!" The ghost smiled radiantly and saluted. Then he appeared to be thinking, and his smile faded a bit. "Of course ... I don't know where any glasses are, or the water pitcher, any more."
"You could bring me water in a clamshell," said Emma. She picked up one of the shells she had saved from her dinner, and offered it to the ghost. "There's a creek right over there."
The ghost took the shell from her—she was pleased to see that it didn't fall through his transparent hand—and floated over to the creek, where he filled the shell and came back at once. "Happy to oblige, miss," he said, offering her the shell.
Emma took it from him. "Thank you," she said. She thought about the time she had stayed in a hotel and said apologetically, "I'm sorry I don't have any money, or I'd give you a nice tip."
"Oh, that's not necessary, miss!" said the ghost, saluting once more. "Service is its own reward, that's my motto!"
He watched her, beaming with pleasure, as she drank. Emma set down the shell. He didn't go away, and she wondered how to ask him what he was doing there without seeming bad-mannered.
"It must be very interesting being a bellboy," she said at last.
"Bell Captain," he said proudly. "Bell Captain Winston Oliver Courtland, at your service, miss! And whom do I have the pleasure of serving, miss?"
"I'm Emma Rose," she said.
"Dee-lighted, Miss Emma!" Winston replied. "Can I do anything else for you?" "You could sit down by the fire," Emma suggested. "Would you like to tell me about yourself?" It was the least rude way she could think of to ask him who he was and what he was doing there, so far from anywhere in the middle of the night.
"Certainly, Miss Emma." Winston sat in midair, as though he were perching on the edge of a chair, and cleared his throat. "Though I'm afraid there's not much to tell about me. I was an orphan, you see. Left in a peach crate on the front step of the Courtland Boys' Home. As soon as I was old enough to earn my keep, I was put to work shining shoes."
"Did you run away?" asked Emma.
The ghost looked shocked. "Why, no, Miss Emma. I wouldn't have been so ungrateful as that. Not when the kind people on the Boys' Home Board of Directors had given me a roof over my head and the clothes on my back. I wanted to make them proud of me. I became the best shoeshine boy they had ever seen. And so I got promoted, you see, to one of the really nice shoeshine stalls in the Grand Hotel in town. What a swell place that was! Gold lettering on the door and everything."
Emma thought his story was rather sad, but knew it would be impolite to tell him so.
"And I worked so hard there, that they said I was diligent enough to be promoted again," said Winston, smiling dreamily. Perhaps he looked a little more solid just then, because she could see that he had once had big dark blue eyes and a handsome face.
"What does diligent mean?" asked Emma.
"Why, it means being careful, and thorough, and—well—always doing your very best to please," said Winston. "Taking extra pains to do your job right, by gosh. So I became a bellboy, with a blue cap and a nickel-plated badge. And I was such a hardworking bellboy, in no time at all I got transferred to the Empire Hotel in the city. That was an even grander place! Stained-glass windows in the Lobby and all. I got to wear a red cap then, with a silver-plated badge.
"And while I was working there, a great man came to stay at the hotel. His name was Masterman Marquis de Lafayette Wenlocke the Fifth. He was a brilliant inventor, and as rich as a king. Came from a fine old family. I ran errands for him all summer, just as diligent as I could be, and when the day came to pack his bags, he asked me if I'd like to come out here and work for him."
"Did you say yes?" asked Emma.
"Did I! Why, I just about jumped for joy. You see, he'd been busy all summer, drawing up plans for a great new hotel he was going to build, out here on the coast. It was going to be positively the most spectacular place ever constructed, a marvel of design, with everything up-to-date and first rate. The Ritz, the Savoy, the Waldorf-Astoria—oh, the Grand Wenlocke would have beaten them all hollow!"
"Would have?" said Emma. "Didn't he build it after all?"
Winston didn't answer for a moment. He faded back to transparency, sitting there in midair; his brass buttons lost a little of their gleam. At last a tear ran down his cheek, glittering like stardust.
"Oh, he built it, all right," said Winston, and sighed heavily.CHAPTER 3
The Downfall of the Wenlockes
Winston the Ghostly Bell Captain wiped away a tear and spoke in a firm voice.
"I may as well tell you the whole truth about Masterman Marquis de Lafayette Wenlocke the Fifth," he said. "He was rich as a king, and he did come from an old family, but the fact was, his family had a sort of unsavory reputation. They had a castle and some lands in Europe, but nobody knew where they got their money. I heard that one of the Wenlockes had been a Royal Astrologer to some king over there, and another one worked as an alchemist for some fellow named Prince Rudolph.
"But Mr. Wenlocke, he was just as nice a gentleman as you could hope to work for. Nothing stuck-up about him at all! Even if he did look sort of sinister, with that pointed beard and those black eyes of his.
"And there did used to be some mighty strange characters who came to those parties he threw. He said they were his investors. It wasn't my place to have opinions about them, of course, I just handed around the trays of those funny green cocktails they all drank, and served them those funny little black hors d'oeuvres they liked to eat. 'Winston,' I said to myself, 'these folks are as far above you as the moon, so you just keep your lip buttoned.'"
"So what happened?" Emma asked.
Winston sighed again. "Mr. Wenlocke had decided to build a hotel out here in the Dunes," he said. "People told him he was crazy to build a hotel on the edge of nowhere, in a place no roads led to, miles and miles away from shops or railroad lines. But he told them that people would find ways to get here. In the meantime, he'd build a steamer pier, and bring everything in by steamship."
Excerpted from The Hotel Under the Sand by Kage Baker, Stephanie Pui-Mun Law. Copyright © 2009 Kage Baker. Excerpted by permission of Tachyon Publications.
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