What Once Was

By: Mark J. Hadley

* * *

CHAPTER 1: "Check-In"

The City of Townsville was still at least a day or two's journey away. Buttercup stared out of the window of the car, watching the landscape roll by, consisting mostly of just empty fields and the occasional woods. For what seemed to be the hundredth time, she suggested, "Why don't we just pick up the car and fly it home? It'd be a lot faster…"

"Because we're on vacation," the professor said, from the front seat. "Enjoying the scenic routes on the way home is part of the whole experience, you know."

Buttercup protested, "But we're on our way back from vacation! The vacation is over…so why can't we just get home as fast as we can?"

Blossom, seated in the center of the backseat next to Buttercup, answered, "I'd think you would have wanted the vacation to last as long as it can, Buttercup…"

"Yeah, except that this last part of it has been boring," Buttercup countered.

Bubbles just stared out her own window, ignoring the conversation, and pointed excitedly to a fenced-in field on a farm, "Look! Ponies!"

The professor smiled from the front seat and continued driving, heading down the long, two-lane highway. It was starting to grow dark, so he was keeping his eye out for a hotel, but there didn't seem to be anything along this road for miles. He hoped they would find something soon, or else they'd have to just sleep in the car for the night.

"How much further?" Blossom asked.

"I'm not sure," the professor replied, reaching onto the seat next to him as he drove and picking up a road map. He handed it back to her and said, "See if there's anything along this highway."

Blossom studied the map and said, "This doesn't have hotels or anything on it."

"I know, but how far is the nearest exit?" he asked. "I'm sure we'll find something if we…" He broke off, spotting a sign on the road ahead, and said, "Nevermind, there's an exit. There should be someplace to spend the night near here…I hope, anyway."

He pulled the car off the road onto the exit, and it emptied out on a rocky, unpaved road. Buttercup looked out from her window at the ground and remarked, "Um, Professor…it doesn't look like hardly anyone uses this road…"

"Nonsense, see?" he said, pointing up ahead. Far in front of them, they could see a large house up on top of a hill, almost like a mansion. It was bordered on its sides and back by woods, but there was a road spiraling up to it on the front side of the hill. There were lights on, so they knew people were there. The size of it, and the number of windows, seemed to indicate that it wasn't a mansion, but rather, an old hotel. As they drove closer to it, a sign confirmed this: 'Hotel Vananda'.

"Perfect!" the professor exclaimed as he turned the car onto the road leading up the hill. "I just hope that they have an available room…"

The drive up only took a minute. Buttercup peered at the three-story hotel as they approached and said, "Creepy place…"

"Yeah," Bubbles agreed. "It looks really old…"

The professor parked the car in front. Oddly enough, there weren't any other visible cars in the area. He began to wonder if maybe there actually wasn't anyone here. He and the girls got out and began walking towards the front door. It was a beautiful set of thick cedar doors, engraved very elegantly, and a row of marble pillars lined the front of the hotel.

Buttercup noticed that the sun was just about to set, so she followed the others to the door of the hotel. As she did, she suddenly felt very cold, like a gust of wind had just blown across the hill. She shivered slightly, and Blossom looked over at her, "You okay?"

"I'm fine, just the wind," Buttercup said, shaking it off. She looked up at the windows on the upper floors as they approached, and for a moment, by one of them, she saw a woman with long red hair looking out at her. She stared back curiously for a second, but a moment later the woman turned away from the window, disappearing. Buttercup shrugged, and continued with the others to the front door.

The professor slowly swung the doors open and glanced inside. The hotel foyer was very artistically decorated, with several marble statues, comfortable-looking couches to rest on, and an enormous crystal chandelier hanging from the ceiling. Paintings adorned the walls, most of them images of various important-looking people. The front desk was up ahead. Despite the lack of people, the place seemed very clean; no cobwebs or dust anywhere.

"It's beautiful," Blossom breathed, looking at the décor. "Don't you think so?"

Bubbles nodded, "I like those paintings a lot."

The professor approached the desk and rang the small bell. A few seconds passed, and someone came out from the back room. The man had black hair and a moustache, and was dressed in a suit and tie. He said cheerfully, "Greetings! Welcome to Hotel Vananda. I am Mr. Fenton. How can I be of service to you?"

Nodding, the professor replied, "We'd like a room for the evening, one for me and my three little girls." He glanced around and said, "You don't look very busy right now…"

"It's the slow season, I'm afraid," Mr. Fenton explained. "We usually don't get any guests here at all during this time. They mostly come down during the early winter or mid-summer. In fact, you're our only patron in the past few weeks." He pulled the guest book out from under the desk and swiveled it around, offering the professor a pen, "If you'll just sign in, I'll get you your room key."

The professor signed, and Bubbles continued to admire the paintings. She pointed to the one right over the desk and said to Mr. Fenton, "Is that you?"

He looked up at the painting and smiled, "That's me. I'm the current owner of Hotel Vananda. Most of the other ones across the foyer are previous owners…"

"There sure are a lot of them," Blossom observed.

"The hotel has a long history," he explained. "It has been here for well over a hundred years. The building itself is even older, dating back to colonial days, and although it has been renovated more than a few times since then, much of it was restored to its original quality. All throughout the hotel, you'll find sculptures and other pieces of art dating back many, many years, all of them the original ones displayed here."

The professor finished signing in, and Mr. Fenton took the guest book back, going over to get their room key. The professor remarked, "Well, let me complement you on the condition you've kept the hotel."

"Thank you, sir," he said, coming back and handing him the room key. "Your room is 309. It's on the second floor…the original builders numbered the first-floor rooms in the 200's instead of in the 100's, and it was never changed, because the previous owners felt it gave the hotel…'character'. Also, since you're our only patrons at the time, feel free to go where you wish around the hotel. Much of the art and décor is simply stunning, if I say so myself."

The professor took the key and said, "Thanks!" He picked up his bags, and the girls each carried theirs, as they headed for the large, curved staircase leading up to the second floor.

Buttercup paused by the desk before following them and asked, "Are you sure we're the only guests here?"

"Quite sure," Mr. Fenton answered. "Why do you ask?"

"I saw someone by the windows upstairs," Buttercup told him. "A woman. If she's not a guest, then…maybe your wife, or…?"

He shook his head, "There's no one like that here. Perhaps you only saw a set of drapes through one of the windows. I can assure you that besides myself, you four are the only ones in this hotel right now."

"Oh…" Buttercup said, still a little confused. "I guess so…" She blinked a few times, then carried the bags with her to the stairs. It sure looked like a woman, she thought. Guess my eyes were playin' tricks on me…

* * *

Room 309 had two beds in it, and the girls' bed was large enough for all three of them. The bedposts were carved from cedar, and were as elegantly designed as anything else in the hotel. There were more paintings in the room…most of these were paintings of the hotel itself on a landscape setting. One of them dated back to the early 1800's, and although it looked somewhat different from the outside, they could still tell it was the same building.

As they unpacked their things, Bubbles was looking around the walls of the room…she said, "I wish they coulda given us a room with a window…won't it get really dark when the lights go out?"

"It's all right, sweetie," the professor told her. "I'll be right here in the next bed." Bubbles smiled, and seemed to relax a little, returning to her unpacking.

Blossom sat down on the edge of the bed and yawned a little, then said, "I'm feeling a little tired. I don't really feel like sleeping yet, though…I guess it's just been a long drive. What do you think?"

Buttercup nodded absently. She was still wondering about the girl she thought she saw…she kept giving glances at the door, until finally she said, "Professor, can I look around for a little bit? I promise I'll be back."

"That's fine," the professor said. "Just don't get lost."

Buttercup laughed a little at that, "Me? Get lost? Are you kiddin'?"

"Well, I think one of your sisters should go along with you, at least," the professor said. "Blossom?"

"Sure!" she exclaimed. "I wanted to take a look at some more of the art that's around, anyway."

The professor smiled and nodded, "All right, but be careful not to touch anything. I'm not sure Mr. Fenton would appreciate it if you mishandled any of it."

"Don't worry, we'll be fine," Buttercup said. "C'mon, Bloss…" The two of them left the room and headed off down the hallway. Lamps every ten feet or so lighted the hall…they were electric lamps, although they looked like they were probably once conventional lamps sometime in the past.

"Sure is a nice place," Blossom remarked. "None of the other hotels we stayed at during our vacation were anywhere near this nice."

"Yeah," Buttercup said, preoccupied. She found a stairwell leading up to the third floor and flew up, with Blossom right behind her. She's got to be up here somewhere, if I really saw her, she thought.

Noticing she was in a little bit of a rush, Blossom asked, "What's your hurry?"

"When we came in," Buttercup told her, "I could swear I saw a woman by one of the windows. I've gotta find out if I did or not."

"Mr. Fenton said that no one else was here," Blossom pointed out, as they started down one of the halls on the third floor.

Buttercup stopped for a moment and turned to face her, "Yeah, and that's what bothers me. If there is someone else here, why would he lie about it? Either way, I have to know for sure whether or…"

"Look!" Blossom interrupted, pointing past her. Buttercup swiveled around just fast enough to see something at the end of the hall. At the T-junction of the hallways, a shape of someone had moved past, visible for only a moment, although it looked like a woman. The two of them quickly flew for the end of the hall, and Blossom called out, "Miss? Hello?"

When they reached the junction, they looked down both directions of the hallway. There was no sign of her. "But…where'd she go?" Buttercup wondered.

"Maybe she went into a room," Blossom suggested. She flew to the closest door and knocked on it, calling out, "Hello? Anyone there?" There was no response, so she moved to the next door and repeated. Buttercup started knocking on the doors on the other side of the hall.

"I don't get it," Buttercup huffed angrily as none of the doors gave a reply. "Where'd she run off to?" She finally gave up on the doors and focused on the walls of the hallway, using her x-ray vision to see into the rooms. Blossom was doing the same.

"Still no sign of her," Blossom said, then she blinked a few times as her vision became sort of blurry. She closed her eyes and rubbed them, adding, "I must be even more tired than I thought…I can't keep my x-ray vision going."

"Me either," Buttercup said, rubbing one eye. "I don't wanna go to sleep yet, though…I wanna know what's going on. You saw the woman too, so I know I'm not seein' things."

Blossom nodded, and Buttercup turned towards one of the doors, reaching for the doorknob. As she did, Blossom suddenly saw something…it struck her almost like a flashback, or a premonition. For a moment, the hallway had changed…the lamps on the wall burned with candlelight instead of electricity, but everything else seemed to be similar. The room number of the door Buttercup had been reaching towards was the same, only now, she saw a middle-aged man wearing a long brown coat and a hat, reaching for the door similarly to the way Buttercup had been. When his hand grasped the doorknob, a gunshot rang out from the room, a bullet splintering through the door. A red stain of blood covered the opposite wall, and the man stumbled, falling down…

Snapping out of it, everything suddenly returned to normal. It must have all happened in an instant, because she saw Buttercup still reaching for the doorknob. Without a moment's hesitation, Blossom flew forward with a cry, slamming into Buttercup and tackling her away from the door. They both landed on the ground in a heap.

Buttercup grunted in surprise, "Blossom, what's the matter with you?"

"I…" Blossom started to say, then realized that she must have been seeing things. "I…thought there was…I mean…I had a weird feeling, like something was wrong with the door…"

"C'mon, it's just an empty room," Buttercup said. "What could possibly be wrong with it?"

Blossom was quiet for a moment, and said, "I don't know…something's not right here, and I don't like it…I think we should just get back to the Professor."

"But what about the woman?" Buttercup asked.

"She obviously doesn't want to be found," Blossom told her. "If she even exists."

Buttercup waved a hand and said, "You saw her, she's real!"

Blossom nodded, "Yes, but I'm also tired…I could have been seeing things, as so could you. I just think we should get back and get some sleep, all right?"

Buttercup was about to protest, then she sighed and said, "Fine…" The two of them started flying back to the stairway they came from, and Buttercup thought, I saw her…I know I did…I saw her twice! She's real, she's got to be…but what's she doing here?

* * *

Back in room 309, Bubbles sat on the edge of the bed, staring worriedly at the door. She fidgited and said, "Where are they? They're taking a long time…"

"It's a big hotel," the professor said. "There's a lot to look at. Besides, your sisters can take care of themselves. They'll be fine. It's getting late, though…they should be back so they can get to bed."

Bubbles yawned and laid back on the bed, "I'm tired…"

The professor headed for the light switch and said, "Do you want to go to sleep now? We don't have to wait for the girls…"

"Okay, if you think so," she said, pulling the bedsheets over herself.

Nodding, the professor turned off the lights. The room immediately became pitch black…no light shined in even from under the door. Bubbles let out a brief, frightened whine, but the professor said, "It's all right…I'm right here."

"Thank you…g'night, Professor…" Bubbles said softly.

"Good night, Bubbles," the professor replied, making his way back to his own bed. Bubbles sighed and closed her eyes, starting to fall asleep, thinking, The girls can look at the hotel all they want, but I'm tired, and I just wanna get some sleep…

No sooner did she closer he eyes, though, then she heard a loud *thump* against the door. Her eyes flew open, and she clutched the bedsheets, whispering, "P-professor? Someone's at the door…"

"It's probably the girls," he said, and waited. After about half a minute, with no more sound, he said, "Or maybe not…hold on, I'll go check…" He fumbled around in the dark to get back to his feet , then walked over and turned on the lights.

They both immediately saw something was different…the décor room they were in had changed. The walls were paneled with wood instead of with wallpaper, and all of the paintings were missing, although there was a new one up of a large clipper ship sailing across the ocean. The beds had even changed, looking much older and less fancy than they had before. All of their bags were also missing.

Bubbles glanced around in confusion and said, "Wh…what happened?"

"I…don't know…" the professor said, gaping at the room. "This is impossible…" Everything he knew about logic told him that there was no way the room could change this drastically in such a short time, even if someone had set it all up that way. Remembering the sound he heard at the door, he slowly cracked it open slightly to peer outside.

Lying against the door was a disheveled man dressed in rags, passed out, the scent of alcohol permeating the air. Startled at seeing someone else in the hotel, the professor slammed the door shut, leaning up against it…his breathing quickened a little. Bubbles saw his reaction and flew out of bed, over to him, asking, "What's wrong?"

Realizing that the man might be hurt, the professor very cautiously opened the door again to take a look at him. The man was no longer there…Bubbles peeked over his shoulder as he glanced down each direction of the hallway outside the door. "I…thought I saw someone…" he said.

Bubbles said, "Was it Mr. Fenton? He's the only other p—…" She interrupted her own speech as she turned around, with a surprised shriek. The professor quickly turned to look back into the room…everything was back the way it was before it had changed. The paintings were even back on the wall, in the right places, and all their bags were where they should have been.

The professor was at a loss for words. We only turned our backs for a second, he thought…What on Earth is going on here? All right, that's it…I'm going to go find that Mr. Fenton and demand an explanation right away. And where are the girls? They should have been back by now…I hope they're safe…

* * *

"Are you sure this is the right way?" Blossom asked, following Buttercup down the corridors of the hotel. They had started back, but after a flight of stairs and several turns in the hallway, she no longer recognized where they were.

"I'm positive," Buttercup replied. "It's gotta be the right way…"

Blossom frowned, "Admit it, we're lost…"

"Okay, okay," Buttercup said, throwing her arms in the air in frustration. "We're lost. But the place can't be that big, so if we just keep going in one direction, we'll make our way out, right?"

"Right," Blossom replied. They passed down some more halls, and made some more turns, but tried to keep going in the same general direction. As they continued, Blossom was looking at the doors and said, "Wait a second…do you see anything strange?"

Buttercup stopped her flying and asked, "No, what?"

"Look," Blossom said, pointing at the door. "Check out the number…"

Looking at the number plate on the door, it read 413. "That's…wait, that's the third floor! But we went down the stairs, didn't we?"

"Yeah…so either we somehow got up to the third floor again," Blossom guessed, "or else these rooms are just numbered badly. Either way, I…"

Her talking was interrupted by a loud, piercing scream. It wasn't Bubbles or the Professor, and it didn't sound much like Mr. Fenton either. Blossom thought, It must be that woman we saw! Buttercup must have heard it as well, because she said, "Hurry, it came from this way!" and flew off quickly down the hall. Blossom stayed right behind her, thinking, We need to get to the bottom of this right away…this is becoming really weird…