Charla was down on her hands and knees, scrubbing the floor of the hotel lobby, when the earthquake hit. She stayed still, not even squeaking in surprise, as the tile rocked beneath her like a raft tossing on ocean waves, bobbing and buckling as if the ground had turned to water.
Run for the doorway, her brain told her, but her legs refused to lift her off the ground, her feet refused to move. Her hand tightened reflexively on the scrubbing brush that old Mrs. Fellowes insisted she use — nothing got the dirt out of the grout as effectively, the cantankerous manager always said — but none of the rest of her muscles were willing to obey her.
It was loud. Shockingly loud. A rumble like thunder, filled with crashing and shattering and screaming. Dust was falling from the ceiling, giving Charla an entirely irrational pang of annoyance. Damn it, she’d just cleaned that floor. But before she even had time to mourn the energy wasted or her sore knees, a crack ran across the tile in front of her. She put the brush to it, as if she could hold it closed, as if the brush could stop the dirt from opening up beneath her, but it was a helpless gesture.
The ground opened and she fell. A foot, two feet, and she landed, a hard bump against her knees, but no more than that.
She straightened, resting back on her heels, and looking around her. The noise was gone, the world become as silent as if she’d lost her hearing.
“Hello?” she said tentatively. No response, but she could hear her own words.
She scrambled to her feet. Where was she? Not where she should be, that was for sure. The tile floor of the hotel lobby had opened up and she should have fallen through into the brightly-lit basement. It was useful space, down there, storage for the cleaning carts, the industrial strength washers and dryers for the laundry, a coffee room where they all took their breaks.
She tried to calculate where she’d been. Halfway between the elevator and the front desk, falling through the floor should have dropped her into the laundry room but this… Looking up was automatic, a test to see where exactly her scrubbing had taken her to, but the sight froze her thoughts.
No ceiling, no gaping hole, just… nothing.
Her breath puffed out into the chill air, white vapor forming before her mouth. “Hello?” she called again. The word was smaller, shakier, but there was still no response.
So this must be death. It was the only possibility that made sense. She’d died in the earthquake and this was what came after. Charla turned in a slow circle, her shock being replaced by annoyance. This was death? How in the world had so many people gotten it so wrong?
There was no white light, no rainbow room, no green fields and friendly beckoning relatives. Charla didn’t know any dead people—all the relatives she’d ever met were doing just fine, even her grandparents—but surely her great-grandparents or some distant cousin or someone could welcome her to the afterlife. Or, if Charla had been evil—which, her aggrieved thoughts went on, she really hadn’t been—shouldn’t there be some pits of fire?
Instead she was in a place that looked something like a dream version of the laundry room she would have expected to land in. A shadow world replica of the real world, half drawn, with gaping absences and colors all wrong. She could see through the washing machines as if they were transparent. Ghost appliances, in fact. The ground didn’t look particularly solid either, but Charla took a few steps forward. It felt walkable.
She held up her hand in front of her face. She looked solid still. Would she fade to be like the rest of this place? Not a happy thought. She was still holding the scrubbing brush. It looked solid, too. If she set it down, would it fade away? Would it fall through the floor?
Instead, she slid it into the pocket of the apron she wore.
She hated the apron. Hated the scrubbing brush, too, but her mom had gotten her the summer job at the hotel and Charla hadn’t been able to say no. Not just because she needed the job, although she did, but because of some family thing about the building.
Tentatively, Charla headed for the door of the laundry room. It didn’t really exist. It was a door knob and a few boards of frame and a sketching of door, but she could peer through empty space and see a semblance of a hallway beyond it. She put her hand on the knob and her hand passed right through it.
Charla took a deep breath and let it out. It condensed in the air. She closed her eyes, refusing to let herself shake. She could walk right through the empty space but that would be giving in to the lack of reality, acknowledging it. Instead, she squeezed her eyes closed, tight as she could, and imagined the doorknob into being. The feel of it under her hand, the smoothness, the cool chill of the metal, the way it would turn, the click as the lock unlatched.
She opened her eyes in time to watch her hand twist the knob and pull the door open. The entire door was closer to solid now, the colors deepening to the real shades that they ought to be, the door knob brassy yellow, the door wood painted white.
She stepped out into the hallway. She would find the stairway leading up. She’d return to the hotel lobby. Maybe it would be a ghostly hotel lobby, but that would be a much better place to spend eternity than a laundry room.
Actually, if she was going to choose her eternity, she’d probably go for the library room. It was a small, wood-paneled room off of the lobby, with walls lined with low bookshelves and some big comfortable chairs. A few of the older hotel guests, the permanent ones, used it in the morning to read the newspaper, and one of the older guests sat in one of the leather chairs from five to six every evening, like clockwork.