The Hotel Between
1 Here, There, and Everywhere
I’m going to die in this stupid locker.
I stare at the strips of light in the door, kicking myself for getting stuck, again. And on the last day before winter break. When everyone comes back from the holidays they’re going to be surprised to find a shriveled-up mummy with a bag of Skittles in his pocket encased in this locker-coffin.
This seemed like a perfectly good hiding spot when we started this fateful game of sardines, but I’ve waited over an hour for the other teachers’ kids to find me, and I’m the only fish in the can. It’s over. I’m through.
I throw my head back against the interior of the locker, tracing the page displaying my pencil sketch of a tree with a cramped, crooked finger. I can almost hear the leaves rustling, as they have been lately in my dreams. It’s the same tree that’s on the wooden coin hanging from my neck. Dad’s coin. It might not be able to save me from the clutches of evil combination locks, but I feel better wearing the one thing Dad left me before he vanished. As long as I have it, I have hope I’m not going to vanish too.
Footsteps. Some angelic soul is coming down the empty Social Studies hall to free me from this death trap of my own making.
“Hello?” My dry voice cracks.
The footsteps pause. I can’t see much through the vents, but I imagine this heavenly hero gliding down the hall with shimmering wings and a staff of love.
“Cameron?” a familiar voice says. It’s Oma—my grandmother. Thank all her weird dreamcatcher charms it’s not some stranger.
“Please get me out of here.”
She crouches so I can see her through the vents. No wings, no staves . . . just Oma, who’s been both mom and dad to me and my twin sister our whole lives. “How long have you been in there?” she asks in her long Texas drawl.
“I don’t know,” I say, not wanting to be dramatic. “Can you get me out?”
“Cammy . . . ,” she says—the most awfully cutesy nickname in all creation—, “I think there’s a latch inside.”
Of course there is.
I feel around and find the metal release. The door opens like magic. I stumble out on tingly legs and lean into her. It’s almost a hug, but I play it off. I’ll be thirteen next year . . . too old to be hugging my Oma in the Social Studies hall.
“I’m sorry,” I tell her, about nothing in particular.
“Are you okay?” She’s dressed in her typical flower-print blouse and khakis.
I nod. I really . . . really don’t want to talk about how, once again, the other kids abandoned me and our game.
“I’m going to have to stay at school a while longer,” she tells me. “Just a bit more work today.”
That’s a lie. Oma’s a sub—she hasn’t taught full-time since Dad disappeared, so there’s no reason for her to stay at school longer than everyone else. And the look she gives me sets off every nuclear alarm in my head.
She was supposed to talk with my sister’s doctor today. Something must be wrong—again.
“Why don’t you head home and make your sister dinner?” she says, giving me a droopy-eyed smile. “I’ll be late.”
• • •
On the walk home, I stop at 7-Eleven for an orange Creamsicle pop. Something about choosing a brain freeze in December makes me feel like I’m in control. My sister, Cass, makes fun of me for it. “No one eats Popsicles in the winter,” she says every time. But she’s wrong.
Just like she’s wrong about Dad. He didn’t abandon us. It’s like Oma always says: Someone stole him away.
I finger the painted circle of wood hanging from my neck. My coin matches my sister’s in every aspect except one—mine is gold, and shimmers a little when it catches the light, while Cass’s is a dull, gray wood. Her coin belonged to Mom. Oma says hers is gray because Mom died. The only logical assumption is that, since mine is still shiny, Dad’s still alive out there.
Cass may not believe it, but I do. I’ll prove it to her one day,
too. I’ll find Dad, bring him home, and everything’ll be the way it’s supposed to be. I just . . . don’t know how yet.
I debate sitting at the picnic table outside the gas station to eat my Popsicle, but one of Cass’s morbid, educational TV shows said sitting too long can cause blood clots. On my list of Worst Ways to Die, “deep vein thrombosis” is one of the least exciting.
Instead I continue to walk through the parking lot behind the 7-Eleven, scanning the shopping center between it and my neighborhood as I go.
Something’s different about the shopping center today. It’s the only new building development in our area. The place was supposed to be a mini-strip mall, but not a single business has moved into the twenty or so glass storefronts during the whole two years since they finished. Now it’s a ghost town, complete with plastic bag tumbleweeds.
But today, a new sign on one of the doors screams for my attention. Big, shiny letters with delicate, curly flourishes sparkle even under the cloudy sky.
THE HOTEL BETWEEN
HALFWAY BETWEEN HERE, THERE, AND EVERYWHERE.
A giant, etched tree rises behind the letters, split down the middle with one half on each of the glass double doors. The sign is almost blinding, but at the same time so entrancing I can’t help
but stare. Most businesses around here have cheap, off-kilter letter stickers or those plastic, sun-faded OPEN signs, but these letters glitter like New Year’s Eve confetti.
The tree behind it looks so familiar, too. I know that tree. Same as the drawing posted inside my locker, and carved into our coin necklaces. I’ve run my fingers over that symbol so many times. And ever since I turned twelve, it’s been invading my dreams, too. Like its presence should mean something to me.
I hurry to the door and peek through the glass, but can’t see anything inside. Must not be open yet. I cup a hand and press my face against the pane, and . . .
The door slams into my nose. Glass and metal rattle, along with my ice-pop-frozen brain. I stumble back, dropping my Popsicle in the process, and crash to my butt on the sidewalk. It feels like my nose was shoved way back into my skull. I’m definitely going to have brain damage (number 43 on my Worst Ways to Die list).
A man peeks around the door as I pinch the bridge of my nose to keep it from bleeding. I’m doing everything in my power not to cry, but holding back the tears is like building a Lego ship with no instructions.
The tall man laughs and says something in another language, offering a hand to help me up. He’s bald, wearing a long robe with bright yellow and green shapes that look like those tangram puzzles in math class. My probably-crooked-now nose barely comes to his chest.
Two more people step through the doors behind him: a bearded
man in a linen suit, and a woman with a headscarf tied around her face. The woman sounds like she’s apologizing for Tangram Man almost knocking me out, but I can’t understand her. Linen Suit Man steps out into the parking lot and gazes upward to the Texas sky.
I turn back to the door and catch a glimpse of . . . something unbelievable. Thick, velvety maroon carpet stretches deep into an open foyer and up a twisty staircase. Warm light shines from old Thomas Edison–style bulbs in intricate brass fixtures. A sparkly chandelier with long, dangly chains of crystals casts rainbows everywhere, flooding the enormous space with warm, smoky light. I can’t even see the ceiling, it’s so high. And I think I smell blueberries.
Maybe the door knocked me out and I’m dreaming. But do dreams usually hurt like this?
Before I can process it all, a fourth person pushes me with a “Step back, sir,” and the spectacle inside disappears as he closes the door behind him.
It’s a boy who looks to be around my age. His skin is light bronze, and he’s dressed like money. Black suit with wide lapels and a professional name tag that reads NICO. White gloves. Two long coattails drag at the backs of his knees, and his dark hair swooshes to one side, slick with gel. The only thing he’s wearing that doesn’t shine is a pair of black Converse sneakers.
Nico leans against the door, watching me as he addresses the others in a language I don’t recognize. When he finishes, they all laugh.
“Don’t worry,” Nico says, this time in perfect English, “I told them you don’t work for the Hotel. Besides, we’re not looking for
a tour guide today. Thanks, though.” He winks.
“What?” I’m totally lost.
He says something else to the others and motions them back through the door. That warm, pie-in-the-oven glow reaches me again. I catch another whiff of blueberries, mixed with a woodburning stove and the sharp aroma of curry.
I gaze back up at the crystal chandelier over the room, but something’s off about it. The chandelier has to be attached to a ceiling I can’t quite see, three floors up at least—maybe four. But the shopping center is a one-story building.
I step in to take a closer look, but the boy in the coattails pushes me back.
“Nuh-uh, kiddo.” A smile creeps across his face. “That ain’t for you.”
“No vacancy at the Hotel tonight.”
“That’s a hotel?”
“The Hotel Between,” Nico says, pointing to the sign. “The vacation of your dreams, located halfway between here, there, and everywhere.” His gaze flits to my necklace, and he grins. “Come back when you can afford a room.”
“Am I dreaming?” I ask.
Nico chuckles. “Nope. Dreams aren’t really my thing.”
He steps through the door, snaps his fingers, and a coin appears between his thumb and forefinger. He rolls the coin over his knuckles . . .
. . . flicks it into air . . .
. . . and it’s gone.
He raises his other hand and pats my chest. “There are magics in the world, if you know where to find them.”
And he closes the door behind him.
• • •
I back away and stare at the door. Nico’s words bounce like a Super Ball in my head.
There are magics in the world . . .
Oma’s always told us stories about magic and spirits creeping into our world, ever since we were little. Magic’s neither good nor evil, she always says . . . it just is. It’s the person who uses the magic that determines whether it helps or hurts.
She also says it was magic that took Dad from us.
But I don’t believe in magic. Magic doesn’t help the ones you love get better or give you more friends. It hasn’t brought Dad back, either. And Oma’s stories about magic and Dad and all that never make sense. She has hundreds of postcards Dad sent to her from all over the world—Japan, Botswana, Queensland, everywhere in Europe—but when we ask her what Dad was doing there, she won’t say. She acts like she’s forgotten all the important bits, like how he could travel to all those places in so little time, or who would have taken him, and why.
A drop of something wet falls from my nose, and I wipe it with my hand. Blood. And not just a little. Full-on Niagara Falls. I was
so distracted by the door, I didn’t even notice how badly I was bleeding. I try wiping it, but all that does is leave a big smear of red across my hand and probably all over my face. I must look like a preschooler who’s been finger painting.
I feel in my pocket for a used tissue from this afternoon, but my fingers close around something hard and round instead.
Nico’s coin. The one he used to perform his magic trick. The smiley face scratched into the worn-smooth front grins at me. He must have slipped it into my pocket somehow.
I turn the coin over, and freeze. It’s the tree again. Nico’s coin is an exact replica of the ones Cass and I wear around our necks. The coins Dad left with us when he dropped us off with Oma twelve years ago.
I glance back at the door, emblazoned with that same gold tree. Is this where Dad got them? Did he stay here, at The Hotel Between? A twinge of excitement bubbles deep down inside me. I have to figure out a way in.
Another drip of red falls from my nose, so I finally dig out the tissue and pinch it closed. Oma says nosebleeds are a normal part of growing up, but I’m pretty sure this represents a subdural hematoma or a brain aneurism (numbers 458 and 459 in my WWTD list). She should take me to the hospital to confirm, but I know she’ll tell me to suck it up instead.
The hospital. Cass. She’s probably waiting for me.
Sorting out this hotel stuff will have to wait. I need to get
home and make sure Cass is okay.
• • •
My nosebleed stops before I get home, which is a good thing, because Cass is in a mood. She basically assaults me with her wheelchair as I enter.
“Where have you been?”
I juke out of the way and take off my shoes. “At school.”
“Oma said she sent you home, like, hours ago.”
“Don’t be mad. I got . . . detained.”
Cass huffs. I get why she’s annoyed. It’s not about dinner or needing help. She’s capable of doing most things on her own these days. It’s because bad things happen when she’s alone. Ever since the home health care nurse stopped coming last year, we’ve all been more worried about her.
“I’m sorry,” I say, and hurry to the kitchen to make dinner.
“What happened to your face?” she asks, rolling behind me.
I throw a hand up to cover my nose.
“Did you get in a fight again?”
I am a terrible liar, but this time I’m not lying. Unless fighting with a door counts.
She folds her arms, giving me her best disappointed-Oma impression.
“I only got in one fight this year.” I never had the heart to tell her it was because Jaeden called her a . . . well, just thinking about
it makes me want to hit him all over again.
I ignore her look and grab a skillet from under the stove.
“Put that away,” she says. “I already ate.”
I groan. “You should have waited.”
She groans back. “If I waited for you, I’d starve.”
Oma’s been “working late” a lot lately, so Cass has been taking the accessible bus home. I should probably ride with her, but I can’t stand the bus. It smells like the fumes of a dirty gas station, and Oma says it’s good for Cass to do things on her own. Besides, I’d rather walk so I can be aware of any changes in our neighborhood. Like the hotel.
My hand jumps to my pocket to make sure Nico’s coin is still there. I want to talk to him, to find out more about this Hotel Between, and why he has a coin just like Dad’s.
I glance at the almost identical coin hanging from Cass’s neck. Has she been having dreams too? I want to ask—to tell her about the door and Nico—but it feels like a bad idea. Talking about Dad always makes her angry, and when Cass gets angry, we might as well flush the whole evening down the toilet.
I pull the Pop-Tarts out of the pantry and pop two in the toaster, glad I don’t have to make anything special. It’s not pretty when I cook on my own. She was smart to eat the Pop-Tarts.
“Something’s up with Oma,” I say.
Cass slouches in her chair. “I know. She was talking to Aunt
Jeri on the phone last night.”
“I thought she might’ve heard something else from your doctor,” I guess, hoping for a clue.
Cass twists her lips to the side, which means Oma did hear something, but they’re not going to tell me just yet. Typical.
She goes back to watching a National Geographic show about hunters in the Congo. It’s her favorite channel. She calls it “preparation” for when she gets to travel the world. I don’t know why she tortures herself like that; we’ve never left Texas. And I’m pretty sure Cass will never go to any of those places—not with her condition. One of these days she’ll realize what I’ve already learned: It’s safer and better for everyone if we all stay home.
I head to my room and flip on the ceiling light. My fan whirls, blowing up the corners of all the safety posters and foldouts I’ve collected from our endless trips to the hospital. Someone’s got to be ready to take care of Cass in an emergency. Her room is plastered with maps of the exotic places from Oma’s stories. Photos of South African cities, a painting of Peru, a cuckoo clock Aunt Jeri sent from Germany, even a didgeridoo Cass’s friend gave her after a vacation to Australia. She may think Dad abandoned us, but her eyes still brighten every time Oma leans in for another fantastical tale of Dad touring the temples of Burma, or sleeping under the stars in the Sahara.
I flop onto my bed and a tiny cloud of dust poofs from under
the mattress. Oma doesn’t believe in dusting. She told me why once—something about needing as much dust as she can get in her life to bind her to one spot—but really, I think she just doesn’t like cleaning.
I lie back and untie my necklace, comparing Dad’s coin to the one Nico slipped into my pocket. Dad’s is light, thick, and so scratched up I’ve never been able to read the words imprinted on it. The embossing on Nico’s is clear and bold. The words “Hotel Between” swirl under the tall, regal-looking tree on the front, and the design on the flip side—a grand castle-like building—bears the words “Halfway between here, there, and everywhere.” A smiley face has been carved over the building, winking at me.
There are magics in the world . . .
After all this time I can’t possibly have found something to help me, can I?
I pull my Dad-box—a shoebox full of clues I’ve collected over the years—out from under my bed. It’s mostly pictures and notes and used ticket stubs I found in Oma’s closet. I flip through some photos of Dad and Mom together. One shows them atop the Empire State Building. Another has them on a rocky, snow-covered mountain, the wind blowing Mom’s long, dark hair.
Oma says that on the night Dad left us with her, he was scared. He told her that Mom was gone, and that they’d be coming for him too and she needed to keep us safe. And then we never saw him or Mom again. I’ve always wondered what they could have done to cause people to come after them. Who—or
what—was he running from? Are they the reason he never came back? And if Mom’s “gone,” what happened to her?
I stop at a photo of Mom and Dad at a fancy party. Dad wears a suit and a prickly mustache, and Mom’s dressed in a silky, cherry blossom dress. In the background, I spy the pair of gilded doors engraved with that same tree symbol.
Nico’s coin is proof—I can feel it. Proof Dad’s still alive. Proof that someone’s keeping him from us.
Proof that Dad’s out there, waiting for me to find him.