His neck itched with sweat, the pillow under his head soaked when he at last opened his eyes. His chest felt bruised, as his breath rushed in and out freely, articulating small moans. Was that what it had been? A bad dream? Walter reached up to rub the back of his hand across his parched lips, and he felt the grain of dried blood fall away from his cheek to stick to his sweat. It hadn't been a dream, there had been a person, in that freezer-
"You need to be calm. You will have another attack, if you do not remain calm."
Walter started with surprise as the man from the walk-in stared down at him from his bedside, his expression unchanging, "Who are you?!" Walter demanded, "Where am I?! Where is Peter?!"
"All things in stride, Walter."
"How do you know my name?!" Walter said, a slight squeak of fear in his voice, as he pulled the sheets up to his neck.
"You enjoy questions?" the stranger asked, barely tilting his head and furrowing his featureless brows, as if he were having difficulty understanding. Walter thought he looked like one of the chemo patients that had frequented the dayroom, before he had been discharged from the hospital. They had all been so pale.
Walter paused for a moment in his panic, "Yes," he replied.
"Do the answers make you happy?"
"Sometimes. But seriously, who are you? What is going on?"
"I have many names. You may call me September. When they told you that you had only a few months to live, did that make you happy?"
Walter's eyes narrowed, "How did you…?"
"I have no happy answers for you, Walter Bishop. You never ask happy questions." September's pauses were felt more like gathering storms, "But you do not belong here."
Astrid glanced around the vacant lobby, beginning to worry about Walter's disappearance. Now that the power had been restored and the lobby was lit, she could see how spacious it was- large glass doors she had not noticed before looking out onto a wood patio with a view of the surrounding palm grove, A black piano away in the corner near the stairs, and a wide archway into a common room. But, even in the growing spender of the hotel, it all seemed so… empty.
And, truthfully, creepy.
Astrid passed the front desk on her way to the doors, and she jumped as Charlie suddenly asked, "Something I can get you?"
Astrid smiled sheepishly as she calmed herself, "Oh, no, nothing. Um, have you seen Walter around?" Charlie emerged from behind the desk, where she had not seen him, before.
"The old guy? No. Is something wrong?"
"I can't find him."
"It's late, he could have gone back to his room," Charlie smiled, "he didn't seem like much of a night owl. Now you, on the other hand…" he chuckled, "want to hit the pagoda? I'll get you a beer on the house. I'm important, like that."
Astrid smiled back at him, "I'd like to, but-"
"Oh- my bad, I didn't know that you two-"
"No! No, I mean, we're not- we just met, I was only-"Astrid stammered, her features heating suddenly.
Charlie laughed again, shaking his head, "Calm down, it was just a joke. If it worries you that much, I'll have a look around, okay?"
"Okay," Astrid said, slightly relieved, "The last place I saw him was the diner, we were looking for something to eat."
"You're hungry?" Charlie questioned, as he lead her toward the common room and away from the front doors.
"No. But Walter is." Astrid chuckled, "Wherever he is."
"Dance with me," Olivia said at last, doffing her empty drink onto the bartop and extending her hand to him with a smile.
Peter laughed, "No one else is dancing," he replied, looking out at the vacant patio.
"That's because everyone else is boring," Olivia said with a chuckle, "come on. I promise I won't make you look stupid."
"You make me feel stupid enough," Peter admitted.
"I'm a woman, it's what we do," Olivia conceded, rising and taking his hand, pulling him out onto the floor.
Peter didn't consider himself a bad dancer, and he was soon made aware that Olivia was no amateur herself. Her movements were smooth, and naturally complex- a rhythmic swaying and sliding that was hypnotizing, coiling and uncoiling herself, flexing her claws like a predator dominating its prey. Peter caught himself time and again failing in step, his eyes taking him where his movements could not, and each time, Olivia only gave him that same, dangerous smile, and slowed down for him to catch up.
"Peter," she whispered in his ear, and he did not have to answer as she continued, "Would you care, if you were dead?"
"You've had too much to drink," Peter chuckled, but even as he said it, she watched him with a serious face.
"Not nearly enough. If you were gone… what would you leave behind?" Olivia leaned in to his ear again, "What keeps you alive, Peter?"
He felt her muscles sway under his hands, and his lids eased themselves shut, "Nothing," he replied at last.
She chuckled, "Good."
"What do you mean?" Walter questioned, "This isn't my room?"
September had paused for a moment, somehow unprepared at the misinterpretation of his comments, and he blinked only once as he stumbled in his seriousness.
Walter was sitting up, taking in his surroundings, "This has to be my room. See, those are my boots, and there's my fleece, and Peter's things are over there-"
"I don't mean that this isn't your room, Walter," September clarified.
"Oh, good. Because it was just be entirely too awkward, if this was your room."
"I don't have a room," September said.
"Really? Well, I suppose you could stay in here, if you like-"
"You have to listen to me, Walter," September cut in seriously, "Something has gone wrong. You are not supposed to be here, not yet."
"I'm sorry?" Walter said, arching a brow.
"This place- you must have felt that it's different than other places," September explained calmly, "It must feel strange, to you."
"It's very nice, here," Walter admitted, "But yes, I'm going to bet that not many other hotels have bodies, in the kitchen walk-in."
"Haven't you been wondering why your breathing has been so strange?"
Walter raised a hand to place it across his chest, looking thoughtful, "Like… why it isn't hurting, all the time?"
Walter smiled, "No, I haven't thought a lot about it."
September frowned, "Then perhaps you should, Dr. Bishop." September rose from his seat at Walter's bedside and going to the window to move aside the curtain softly, "Let me show you."
Hesitantly, Walter pushed his blankets aside, his palm flat to his chest in his nervousness as he followed after September, craning his neck to look out of the window, but retain his distance.
September returned his eyes to the empty pool and twilit patio below, "That is your son, Dr. Bishop?" he questioned, "dancing with that woman?"
"Yes." Walter let out a small chuckle, and September glanced at him, "I knew he wasn't a lost cause."
September ignored his comment, "You saw that your son was stuck, in the accident?"
"Yes. What are you getting at? How did you-"
"Observe," September said simply. And with his word, the façade of the place began to fall apart. Walter exclaimed and stepped back, his eyes wide as paint began to peel from the walls, the curtains shred themselves, the glass shatter and fall. The roof began to cave, dust flittering to the now barren and gapped floorboards, cold wind and moonlight rushing in on them as rib bones reality were at last revealed, "This place is different from any other place," September continued, raising his voice of over the tremendous rattling and quaking, "because it is not real. Your son is dead, Dr. Bishop- and you are not."
"You said you saw him in the kitchen, last?" Charlie questioned.
"Yes," Astrid confirmed, as they were looking around the dark, empty place, "I went to go look for him, and when I got back, he was gone. I asked this bald guy if he had seen him…" Astrid shook her head. Charlie glanced at her in surprise, "What?"
"The bald guy. He was wearing a suit, right? And a grey fedora?"
"Yeah, I guess. Why? Who is he?"
Charlie chuckled lightly, "I guess you could say that he runs the place. Short of me. Like… the owner, I guess. But what I don't understand is why he would be showing up at a time like this…" he paused, "The old guy… you said he was hungry?"
"Yeah?" Astrid answered, confused, "Why?"
Charlie abruptly turned on his heel, fairly jogging back in to the lobby, and Astrid followed after him, as he hauled up the hotel roster, slamming it on the desk and ripping it open. His fingertips were trembling slightly as he traced over the penned names, "He didn't sign in," Charlie murmured tensely, "You signed in, the other guy signed in… Walter didn't sign in."
"Why does that matter?" Astrid demanded.
"They have to sign in, it's how he keeps the records. It shows who passes and who stays… There's no checking out, if you've signed in." There was a sudden rumbling, and a shutter in the floor, as Charlie looked sick, "I always hate this part."
"What-" Astrid paused as something warm trickled down her face, and she raised her hand to wipe it away, before the metallic scent of blood his her nostrils. Her mouth gaped open, as her fingers traced over the grains of glass imbedded into the skin of her cheek.
Charlie shook his head down at his prohibition-era, navy-blue police uniform, three large exit wounds darkening his chest with blood. He sighed, leaning back against the now crippled and warped front desk, "It's always so overdramatic."
Peter gave a cry as his ribs caved in, and he collapsed forward, against Olivia, "Damn it!" She hissed, and supported him as his ribs began to splinter and cave, "Hang in there, Peter, just hang in there. It'll be over soon."
"What- what's happening-?" Peter contorted, his feet slipping out from under him as he sprawled on the patio, his spine giving a sickening crack, "What's going on?!"
"Calm down," Olivia said, leaning over him, "it happens to all of us. Usually after new guests arrive." Peter stared at the bullet holes in her forehead and cheek, leaking crimson lines down her pail skin.
"What is this?!" Peter demanded, looking around wildly from his curled position at the other guests. Philip only continued to wipe down the faded, chipped bar top, his features solemn as the slash in his throat bled on to his white tuxedo collar.
"It's how we died, Peter," Olivia explained, "all of us."
And just as quickly as it had happened, Peter blinked, and it was over. Faint music still buzzed over the radio, the chili-pepper lights swinging in the slight, cool breeze. Olivia watched him coolly as he sat up, patting his shirt front, where only moments before had been collapsed horribly. Olivia's wounds had disappeared, and Philip only turned to polishing the shot glasses, over the glossy, flawless finish of the bar.
"Are you alright?" Olivia questioned.
"Yeah," Peter answered breathlessly, "I must have passed out for a second, things just went all crazy…"
"I didn't know you'd died in a car accident," Olivia confessed simply. Peter stared, stunned.
"Peter!" Peter looked up as his father arrived, his eyes wild with fear, "We have to get out of here! There's this place-!"
Peter looked back at Olivia, then to his father. He climbed to his feet, his knees feeling weak, "Peter, don't-" Olivia started, but was cut short as he grabbed Walter by the shoulder, and they darted for the lobby, "You can't leave, Peter!" she called after him, "You signed the roster, there's no going back!"
Astrid looked up from the blood on her hands as the door to the patio banged open, shattered glass scattering across the floor, "Astrid!" Peter cried, we have to get out of here!" his progress was halted as Charlie was suddenly before him, gripping him by the arm to sling him over, onto the floor.
"Peter!" Walter exclaimed, starting for Charlie before someone grasped his collar, forcing him back against the wall. The bald stranger from the kitchen was expressionless as he held his struggling form.
"Stop it!" Olivia emerged from the patio, stepping through the broken framework of the door, "All of you! This is ridiculous!"
"What's going on, here? Why did everything just fall apart?" Astrid questioned, still quaking with shock, "this place… what's wrong with this place?" she looked to Walter, then to Peter, who was still struggling on the floor, "Where the hell are we?"
"A place between existence," the bald stranger answered calmly, "A place of waiting, to pass. You are here, in this purgatory… until some better judgment may dictate your leaving."
"What about the roster?" Astrid said, glancing back at the open book, "Charlie said that something about the records…"
"The roster cements your acceptance. Once it is signed, there is no returning."
Astrid eyes began to well with tears, "We're dead, aren't we?"
Peter suddenly broke free of Charlie's hold, gripping the stranger and tearing him away from his father, "Walter, go! Get out of here! Run!"
"I said go!"
Walter glanced at Astrid as Charlie started for him, and he ducked aside, his fleeting footsteps taking him across the lobby. He burst through the front doors, stumbled down the steps, and disappeared into the night.
"How far do you expect him to get?" the bald stranger questioned softly, dusting his lapels as Peter released them.
"What are you talking about?!" Peter demanded.
"He's already dying, Peter. How far will he get, in the heat of the day?"
"Shut up!" Peter snarled, gripping him by the collar again, "You can't have him, you bastard!"
"The choice is not mine," the stranger continued calmly, "Those who die, must die. You will see your father soon enough."
"You're bastards!" Peter snarled, shoving the bald man away as tears welled in his eyes, "We can just let him die! We have to do something!" His panic only grew into hysteria as the other guests watched him, silent and motionless, "He can make it! We-we just have to-"
"Peter," Olivia said softly, stepping forward to touch his shoulder, "It's okay, really-"
"No! Don't touch me!"
"He won't suffer long," The stranger said, "His lungs will seize, in the heat. I can promise you that it will be nearly painless."
"Shut up! Walter isn't going to die! Not if we do something!" Peter pushed past Charlie and Olivia, who made no attempt to stop him as he rushed to the door, "Walter!" He yelled into the dark, "Keep running! Don't stop!" He scratched tears away from his face as his voice broke, "Don't stop…"
"Peter," Olivia repeated, and he looked back at her, staring into her envy-green irises as if transfixed, "We've all got to go sometime."
She stepped into the threshold of the hacienda-like hotel, her glances nervous, but curious. She was glad to be out of the sun and heat, in any case, and a cool breeze drifted past her like a breath, from deep within the place. Her footsteps took her into the lobby, and she was impressed at the authentic decorum, as she paused for a few moments to examine a painted pot. At last she moved on to the front desk, pausing again before she chimed the small desk bell, and she waited.
"Hello, how can I help you?" someone questioned almost immediately, and she started slightly. The dark-haired man behind the counter smiled calmingly.
"Yes, hello. I was wondering if perhaps I could rent a room, for the night?"
"Why certainly, ma'am. All I need is for you to sign in," he produced a thick, leather-bound ledger, opening it before her on the desk and producing a pen.
She took the pen, jotting down her appellation, "I certainly hope this place will be better than the last. The other night I stayed at an inn in Mexico, and there were the most terrible noises, like gunshots…" she paused in confusion, raising her hand to touch her brow, "and I must have been very tired, because I got the worst headache I'd ever had."
"Well, don't you fret about anything like that here, miss…" he looked down at the ledger, "Sharp."
"Please, call me Nina," she said.
"I'm Charlie. And don't hesitate to call me, if you need anything at all. Peter!" He called, and a young, unshaven man and a blonde woman emerged from the patio, "Could you carry Nina's things up to her room?"
Peter smiled, "I'd love to. Welcome to Casa del Sol, Nina." And his blonde companion smiled and nodded. Peter set to gathering up her matching leather luggage, and Charlie handed over her brass room key.
"Oh- I don't know if you take my credit card," Nina said, and Charlie shook his head.
"We have a satisfaction guarantee," the blonde explained, "if you're not happy with your stay, at Casa Del Sol, you don't pay."
"I'll try not to be too demanding," Nina replied, delighted.
They crossed the lobby toward the stairs, and Nina was surprised to find that the piano music that she had assumed was coming from the sound system was actually being played by an older, grey-haired man, seated at a black, baby-grand piano, "Hey, Walter," Peter said, and he looked up, "Play us something that doesn't sound like a funeral precession- we've got guests. This is Nina," he nodded toward Nina, who waved.
Walter smiled and nodded, re-positioning his fingers on the keys, "For Nina, then," and he began to drum out a jazzy tune that was somehow familiar.
"I like that song," A young woman with lively, mocha-brown curls approached Walter, placing a coaster onto the piano, followed by a glass of iced tea. She sat beside him, resting her cheek on his shoulder.
They continued up the stairs, and down the hall to her room, "Well, this is it," Peter said, opening the door and moving inside to settle her luggage on the dresser and single bed, "It's not much, but it's relaxing."
"Wonderfully so," Nina agreed, looking around the well-lit room, "this is fantastic."
"It's peaceful. Hey, once you get settled in, why don't you come on down to the pagoda? I'll get Philip to give you one on the house."
"Sounds good," Nina said.
"Good. Enjoy your stay, Nina." Peter chuckled and waved off her tip, shutting the door behind himself.
Nina knew she was going to give this place a high rating, in her travel column- if only for hospitality alone.