The Fable Hotel

Story by Matt Mills · Estimated Reading Time: 19 Minutes

It was the summer of ’98 when all the magical creatures of the famous Fable Hotel went on strike. The dwarves came up out of the boiler room, the imps skittered out from under the leaky sinks, the centaurs left the stables. All together with the griffins and the goblins and the gnomes, they marched in circles around the old marble pillars that flanked the front doors, waving signs, clanging bells, and beating drums while Og the troll, head of the Magical Creatures Union for the last three-hundred-and-fifty years or so, bellowed into a megaphone.

On the whole, it was quite a spectacle.

Out of all the humans working at the Fable Hotel, only Quincy Washington had been there since birth. His mother had worked in the kitchens, and one stormy night she’d delivered Quincy in one of the guest rooms, while a cluster of wood nymphs watched from behind a grandfather clock. He knew the color of every bannister, the feel of every piece of marble flooring, the sound of every step on every staircase.

Quincy was the manager of the Fable Hotel. He was also a man in love. The first thing he could handle; the second was causing him something of a headache.

“Do you hear that racket, Washington?” said short, hairy Mr. Hackenfeffer, the owner of the hotel, from behind his big mahogany desk in his office. “And at the height of tourist season! What have they got to strike about, anyway?”

“Well, you don’t actually pay them, sir,” said Quincy.

“Pay?” said Hackenfeffer. “We certainly cannot pay them. Do you think they’d settle for an extra half-day off?”

“Every year?”

“Let’s say every other.”

“You mustn’t make any concessions, sir,” said Miss Kilwin, the new lawyer. She’d been drinking vitamin water and listening to a recording of a hundred motivational phrases all morning. “If you concede now, you will appear weak.”

Hackenfeffer twirled a flyswatter in his hand. Outside, the drums thudded. “By George, you’re right. What do you suggest?”

“Riot police, sir. And tear gas. Shall I call the SWAT team?”

“Let’s not be rash,” said Quincy. “Have you spoken to them yet?”

“What?” Hackenfeffer said. “To them? I haven’t got anything to say.”

“I know, sir. But they might.”

Kilwin and Hackenfeffer looked at him as though he’d just sprouted antennae. Then a sly grin spread over Hackenfeffer’s face.

You’re the manager, Washington. You talk to them.”

This was precisely the outcome Quincy had been angling for. But, on the inside, he felt his heart begin to race. It was that love again, being a nuisance. He did his best to ignore it.

“Of course, sir. I’ll go now.”

Firaníel the elf—her friends called her Fran—had always been a consummate professional. She wasn’t one of those small elves of the North Pole variety, but a high-elf, as tall as a human and twice as elegant, with long, pointy ears and a refined disposition. She lived in the kingdom inside the large armoire on the fourth floor—one of the Hotel’s most popular magical worlds—and when she entertained guests she dressed the part, wearing the flowing blue silk and crystal tiara fitting of a high-elf maiden.

But today, she wore warpaint under her eyes, ripped jeans, and a t-shirt with the word “ANARCHY” printed in red letters. It was the day of the strike, and she’d never been happier.

“Die, bourgeois swine!” she screamed up at the Hotel, ringing handbells in both hands.

Next to her, Og put down his megaphone. “What’s taking them so long? We’ve been at this all morning!”

“I sssssssaid we sssssshould just bite off their handssssssss, didn’t I?” said Burdock, a squat little goblin. He was holding a sign, on which was scrawled sinister-looking symbols that he claimed were curses in a long-forgotten tongue.

Just then, the front doors of the Fable Hotel opened and out stepped a tall, thin young man in a red suit and glasses. He had a quiet, handsome face and excellent posture.

When Fran saw him, her heart did a little somersault.

“It’s Wasssssshington!” hissed Burdock.

Og brightened up at that. “Quincy? That’s good. Quincy will make that old tyrant Hackenfeffer see reason. Good ol’ Quincy!”

“No!” Fran stamped her foot on the ground, and both Og and Burdock jumped. “Blast it all, Og, don’t you see? He’s going to talk you down! If it’d been Hackenfeffer, you’d tell him what’s what, and if he’d sent that new lawyer you’d have roared in her face. But Quincy? He’s the worst of the lot!”

“But, Fran,” said Og, “We all thought…you and Quincy…”

She felt her face grow hot. She raised a handbell, as if to strike Og right on his flat nose. “I’ll teach you to do any thinking.”

“Well then,” said Burdock, “why doesn’t ssssssshe talk to him?”

“Oh, don’t think I won’t!” With a huff, she spun around and marched right for the doors.

Quincy was looking around for Og when he saw her coming. He’d known Og since he was a boy, and he’d often played cards with the old troll. But when he saw Fran, he swallowed.

“Good morning, Fran…”

Don’t ‘good morning’ me, Washington!”

“I was hoping to speak with Og.”

“Oh, you’d like that, wouldn’t you? Well, fat chance: you’re talking with me.”

Quincy assessed the situation, his managerial instincts waging war with his heart.

“Fran,” he began slowly, “on behalf of Mr. Hackenfeffer and the Fable Hotel, I’d like to say that we see you, and we hear you, and there’s no reason we can’t come to a reasonable—”

She interrupted: “Why didn’t you take that job at the Ritz?”

He was taken aback. “I don’t see what that has to do with…”

“It’s a five-star hotel! In the capital city! They’ve got a Michelin-starred restaurant!”

“I…” he looked at her. “Is that what you’ve been so mad about these last few days?”

“The pay was double what you’re making here!”

“But…but I’d have had to leave the Fable Hotel. I’d have had to leave you.”

She shook her head. “You’re an idiot, Washington.”

“Fran, what did I do?” He had forgotten all about the strike. Now, more than anything, he just wanted to reach out slip his hand into hers. “Please, I don’t understand…”

Fran looked up at him, and her face was resolute and hard, her eyes flashing like steel blades. Standing there, under the marble pillars, with the picketing fauns and centaurs and dwarves chanting and marching behind her, she was the very picture of a fierce high-elven princess.

“Quincy, I’m sorry,” she said. “We can’t be together.”

His stomach sank. Feeling as though he had nothing left to lose, he voiced a longstanding suspicion: “Because I’m a human and you’re an elf?”

She looked at him in disgust. “Because you’re management.”

Then she turned on her heel and went back to join the strike.

Follow me, if you are brave enough and innocent enough, to a time before that summer, to the glory days of the Fable Hotel.

In those days, as a boy of six, Quincy explored it all. He roamed free while his mother fried scallops in the kitchen, laying in the grass on the front lawn, racing up the cobblestone walkway, throwing a coin into the fountain out front where the mermaids played. This was before the paint on the stone pillars was chipped and peeling, before the gold carpet in the lobby was stained and ripped.

Oftentimes, Quincy would sit on the winding staircase, peeking out at reception. There, the guests would come in, young couples and their children. They’d shout with glee about the floating chandelier, and the old woman behind the counter would smile and hand them a metal key hanging by a ribbon. On the desk there would be a black cat, and it watched them too, its tail swishing.

Then the parents would call for the children to come along, pulling their suitcases behind them. But the children would be too excited: there were too many hallways to explore, too many secret nooks and hiding places. There was a greenhouse, and a little room filled with teacups, and a library with a sliding ladder.

And hidden all over, tucked inside the most ordinary places, were doors to other worlds.

The doors had been collected long ago by the hotel’s first owner, the eccentric Charles Hackenfeffer. He’d journeyed all across the globe, from busy Malaysian bazaars to quiet Irish glens, and over the years he’d gathered together all the secret passageways written about in children’s books: a mirror you could pass through into an undersea realm, a stopwatch that transported you to an enchanted train station when you wound it up, a steamer trunk containing an underground land of grouchy gnomes. He’d taken the enchanted items and used them to open a hotel. It would be a very special hotel, he said, a hotel where anyone could be a child again.

Over the years, like chili peppers in a soup, the magic from the trinkets he’d collected began to soak out into the hotel itself. Silverware started singing, and books on bookshelves began having arguments with each other. In the lobby, the chandelier broke loose from its chain and floated free.

And as the enchantment seeped from the magical worlds into ours, so did the magical creatures: unicorns grazed on the front lawn. Fairies did cartwheels in the stairwells. Griffins perched on the roof and preened their wings. No matter where you went in the Fable Hotel, you could always expect something fantastic to happen.

But for Quincy, the most fantastic thing had happened that sixth year of his life, when he’d first noticed the armoire on the fourth floor.

The armoire was old and dusty and unimpressive, but by now Quincy knew how to recognize magic when he saw it. He pulled the armoire open and poked his head inside. From behind the old coats and mothballs, he smelled lilacs and clean air. Inside he found a silver palace nestled on the side of a mountain overlooking a clear blue river.

Sitting on a tree stump, her hair in braids, was an elf-girl about his age. She was eating a hamburger, and she scowled at him.

“Go away!” she said. “Mom says we get a half-hour break for lunch. You know why? ‘Cause of the onion!”

“Um,” said Quincy, “you mean the union?”

Next to her on the stump was a to-go box of french fries. Quincy’s stomach rumbled. “Can I have one of your fries?”

She glared at him for a long minute. Then she picked up a fry and held it out to him.

He’d never tasted anything better in his whole life.

It was a hot night. The strike had been going for six days. Quincy sat by a window in the carpeted stairwell, looking out at the stars. From below, he could hear the sound of the bells and the drums and Og on his megaphone. He had dismissed the rest of the staff— the human staff that remained, the cooks and maids and receptionists—and now, with his managerial duties finished, the love was taking over again.

Try as he might, he couldn’t stop thinking about Fran.

He was sitting there, thinking about her, when a voice came from the hallway.

“Mr. Washington?”

It was an elderly woman. She was wearing pearl earrings and a pink sweater. Quincy remembered checking her in.

“Miss Claremont, good evening.” He glanced at his watch; it was after midnight. “I’m very sorry, are the drums keeping you awake?”

“No, no, I was awake already,” she said. She smiled at him, but her eyes went past him to the window. Together they listened to the chants.

“How long, Mr. Washington, will this go on?”

“It’s hard to say, ma’am.”

There was a faraway expression on the old woman’s face. “You know,” she said after a moment, “I came here when I was a little girl. We stayed in the back, with a view of the stables. My brother and I would sit in the window and watch the centaurs. One day I found a watering can in the garden. It took me to a world of snow fairies. We played together and they taught me their songs.” She paused. “I had been hoping to go back, just one more time.”

Not knowing what to say, Quincy looked down. There was a stain on the carpet, just under her left foot. She was wearing expensive shoes, and the contrast bothered him more than it should have. He felt ashamed and annoyed.

“I’m sorry the accommodations have been less than satisfactory,” he said. “I assure you that, when the strike is over, we will make every effort to restore the hotel to its former splendor.”

She blinked at him. Then she saw where he was looking and she laughed. “Oh, Mr. Washington. You should know I don’t care about the carpet stains, or the peeling paint, or the cracked bannisters.”

“Still, ma’am. This is the Fable Hotel. We pride ourselves on a quality experience.”

“And yet, we don’t come here for the bannisters, Mr. Washington.”

He said nothing. They listened to the drums for a while longer, and then she went back to her room.

“Pixie dust,” said Mr. Hackenfeffer.

“Pixie dust?” said Quincy.

Hackenfeffer swatted at a fly. It was the eleventh day of the strike, and he had had enough. “Yes, Washington, pixie dust. Didn’t you hear me the first time? Tell him, Miss Kilwin.”

“Pixie dust is magic dust, Mr. Washington,” said the lawyer, as if she was talking to a two-year-old. “It’s been blowing out of the enchanted world behind the cabinet in the storage room for many years now. The shelves are lined with the stuff.”

“I’m aware of this, Miss Kilwin,” Quincy said.

“We’re going to sweep it all up and put it in buckets. Then, when the moment is right, we’ll drop it out the window onto the picketers.”

“I’m not sure I follow.”

“Pixie dust, Washington!” said Hackenfeffer. “It makes people fly.”

“I know that.”

“So?” He brought his flyswatter down with a decisive blow. “Bam! All this meddlesome union rabble just float away!”

“I’m not sure—”

“Oh, shut it, Washington. Who’s the boss here, anyway?”

Kilwin took a drink of her vitamin water. “You are, sir.”

“That’s right,” growled Hackenfeffer. “Confound it all, my great-great granddaddy built this hotel! Those magical creatures signed a contract! It’s time we reminded this ungrateful rabble of precisely that fact.”

“Dragons!” said Og.

“Dragons?” said Fran.

They were huddled up behind the fountain, out of earshot of the other picketers. Though the drums still thudded and the bells still clanged, Fran could tell they were starting to tire.

“Well, a dragon,” said Og. “The one that lives in the world inside the tool shed. Burdock here was telling me all about it, weren’t you Burd?”

“Yesss, yesss, that’sssss right.” The goblin nodded and licked his own yellow eyeball.

“See, we gotta take a goat out to the tool shed and open the doorway in the floor, under the wheelbarrow. Inside is the Field of Dust, that old battleground where the twelve armies once fought over that magic teapot. The ground there is cursed. We bring a goat, see, and we start calling for the dragon. And when it comes down on those big bat-wings it eats the goat instead of us.”

“Lovely,” said Fran. “How do you know it won’t want dessert?”

Og scratched his head.

“We alssssso bring cookiesssss,” hissed Burdock. “And milk.”

Og nodded. “Good. That’s good.”

Fran looked at them. “Wait, you’re serious? What do you want to go and talk to a dragon for anyway?”

Og stomped his foot and somewhere in the distance a tree toppled over. “We’ll show Hackenfeffer. He thinks he can keep exploiting us? We’ll burn him to a crisp if we have to!”

Late that night, after he dismissed the staff, a very tired Quincy made his rounds, looking around at the place that had always been his home with new eyes.

He stood in the library and saw that the sliding ladder was broken. On the shelves, the books had stopped arguing and lapsed into whispers. In the kitchen, where his mother used to work, the silverware no longer sang in their drawers, and there were grease on every counter and wall. The stairs creaked louder than ever under his footsteps, and in the lobby the floating chandelier was drooping closer and closer to the floor.

For the first time, he admitted it to himself: it wasn’t just that the hotel had fallen into disrepair.

The magic was leaving.

Suddenly, from behind the reception desk, a picture frame fell off the wall. It was a painting of a snowy tundra, and when he turned to look he saw someone climb out of the painting and tumble onto the floor of the lobby.

“Gah! It’s freezing in there!”

It was Fran.

His throat tightened. “What are you doing here? I thought—”

“Oh, can it, Quincy, not everything is about you.”

He blinked at her, then down at the painting lying on the floor. The paint had gotten all stirred around when Fran had slipped out of it, but now it was settling back into its original shapes, a range of snow-capped peaks that looked deceptively like boring hotel art.

“I’d forgotten about that world,” he said. “Home of the ice giants, right?”

“Yeah, and they do not like trespassers,” said Fran, brushing herself off.

“They’re still hanging around in there? They decided not to join you on the picket line?”

“Believe it or not, some magical creatures prefer to stay cooped up in their little worlds. They don’t care that the rest of us have to cross into the human world to advocate for their’re making fun of me, aren’t you?”

“I just like hearing you get worked up.” He frowned. “Wait a did you even get in there? I thought the only doorways to the magical worlds were inside the hotel.”

“What, you thought Charles Hackenfeffer got them all? Well, then you’re a bigger idiot than I imagined.”

Fran’s cheeks were flushed, all the way up to the tips of her pointy ears. Her hair was a mess, and she was out of breath.

He couldn’t help himself.

“You look beautiful,” he said.

At that, lightning flashed in her eyes. She stamped her foot. “Shut up! Just shut up! What are you even doing, standing here in the lobby by yourself?”

“I’m doing my rounds. I do them every night.”

“What? Why? You think Hackenfeffer even cares anymore?” She gestured at the room. “Look at this place! It’s falling to pieces, and he’s still wringing every last drop of magic out of it. Magic has to be nurtured, Quincy, like houseplants and children. But that’s the problem with you humans: you devour things. You’re nothing but tourists.”

“Are you lecturing me now?” said Quincy, beginning to get angry. He pointed at the front door. “Don’t you want to get the rest of your picketers so you can shout in my face?”

But Fran didn’t need the picketers: she could shout loud enough on her own. “That’s right,” she yelled at him, “you’re just tourists, every last one of you! You just come to visit, to dip your toes in. Oo, how charming, you say, how enchanted! It’s always been that way, ever since I was a little girl. You come into our worlds and we teach you our songs and become your friends and then you always leave and you never come back. Never.”

Something clicked, and his anger vanished. He stared at her.

“So,” she said, “what’s wrong with you, Quincy Washington? Huh? Why do you insist on staying here? Nobody else does! Why didn’t you take that job at the Ritz? Anyone but you would’ve taken it in a heartbeat. What will it take for you to finally leave? Because you will leave, Quincy. You’ll leave the hotel and you’ll leave me.”

There were tears in her eyes. “Everyone always does.”

Then Quincy understood.

“There will always be people who will come and go in your life,” he said. “But there are some people who will never leave. Not ever.”

She looked at him. Then she grabbed his face and kissed him. It caught him by surprise and knocked his glasses off.

They stood there blinking.

“So,” said Fran, clearing her throat. “We have a bit of a situation.”

Miss Claremont still couldn’t sleep. She lay in bed under the big comforter, listening to the drums outside, remembering when she was a little girl. Her joints ached.

There was a knock at the door.

“Come in,” she said without getting up.

The door opened and there was a gust of frosty wind and the tinkling sound of bells. Little crystalline shapes pinwheeled into the room, laughing and giggling, wings fluttering in the moonlight.

“Hello, Eileen,” they sang. “Won’t you come play with us?”

Standing in the doorway was Mr. Washington. Next to him was an elf-maiden with the word “ANARCHY” printed in red letters on her t-shirt. She was holding a duffle bag full of items. Miss Claremont saw a mirror stuffed inside, and a painting of mountains, and a stopwatch. She blinked.

“Sorry to disturb you, Miss Claremont,” said Mr. Washington. He held up an old watering can. “How would you like to visit the snow fairies after all?”

The following day, a Tuesday, was the last day of the strike.

The picketers marched all morning. They chanted and rang their bells. The goblins hissed and the dwarves bellowed and the little imps did cartwheels on the cobblestones. Meanwhile, on the upper floors of the hotel, Kilwin and Hackenfeffer were lugging four full buckets of sparkling, golden sand. Hackenfeffer huffed and puffed as he carried the stuff, stopping frequently to wipe his brow.

“You should try jogging in the morning,” said Kilwin. She hadn’t broken a sweat.

“I shouldn’t need to jog!” said Hackenfeffer. “Where is Washington? Where is the staff? Someone was supposed to carry these buckets, but I can’t get anyone on the intercom.”

“Nevermind, sir. Just a few more feet to the window. Then this will all be over.”

They went on. But, all around the hotel, everything was quiet. There were no cooks in the kitchen, no maids in the laundry room, no receptionists behind the desk. In the lobby, the floating chandelier had settled on the floor, and the books in the library had gone silent at last. A black cat slunk across the golden-threaded carpet, jumping up to a window where it turned for one final look before vanishing. Unknown and unnoticed by protestors and management alike, a sigh went through the bannisters and the marble floor.

The Fable Hotel was very tired.

“On my mark,” Kilwin said. She opened a window and hoisted her bucket onto the sill.

Before she could give the word, though, Hackenfeffer screamed.

“What the devil is that?”

From out over the horizon, something big and black was approaching. Down below, the magical creatures cheered. Hackenfeffer’s knees shook.

Like a roll of thunder, the dragon landed on the ground, smashing the fountain into rubble. It stood panting on all fours, its wings open, smoke billowing from its nostrils. Its red eyes stared at the Fable Hotel.

“Miss Kilwin!” shrieked Hackenfeffer. “Miss Kilwin! Miss Kilwin!”

“Now!” yelled Kilwin.

They emptied their buckets. The fine, golden powder caught the breeze and wafted down onto the picketers, who spat and sputtered.

Then, in an instant, their feet began to leave the ground.

“Hey! What givesssssss?” hissed Burdock as he rose into the air.

“Stand firm!” said Og. “Don’t leave this spot, don’t surrender our—hey, whoa, whoa!”

At last even hulking Og was peeled from the earth and began to float away.

Soon the air filled with floating magical creatures, all yelling and shouting and raising quite a ruckus.

It agitated the dragon very much.

The beast roared, and the sound shook the earth. Then, with a great, terrible noise, it spewed fire. The flames belched out and drenched the pillars, the windows, the front doors.

“Miss Kilwin!” shrieked Hackenfeffer again. “Miss Kilwin!”

But Kilwin, who had recently been training for a marathon anyway, was already running. Dropping his bucket, Hackenfeffer went sprinting after her. Out front, the dragon spit fire again. Flames shot into the lobby, curling up into the guest rooms, roaring down the halls. It burned the chandelier, the carpet, the bannisters. Still the dragon spewed and spewed, unleashing its fury.

And when it finally finished and flew away, the famous Fable Hotel was nothing but rubble, smoldering on the ground.

At a cafe in the city, on the patio, a thin young man with glasses and excellent posture sat next to an elf-maiden in an “ANARCHY” t-shirt. They were sipping coffee. In the distance they could see smoke and could hear the blaring of fire engines. The elf-maiden reached over and gave the young man’s hand a comforting squeeze.

After a little while, a moving truck arrived. The young man gave the driver a handful of cash, and then went with the elf-maiden to inspect the contents of the truck. Inside, piled high against the walls, were trinkets from all over the world: mirrors and steamer trunks and pocket-watches. And against the back wall, old and dusty and unremarkable, was a large armoire.

“Everything here?” asked Fran.

“Everything’s here,” said Quincy.

Then he bent down and picked up an old, rusty watering can. Kneeling on the pavement, he tipped it out into the grass.

Water came out, followed by an old woman in a pink sweater.

“Goodness!” she said. Her shoes had fallen off, but she was grinning from ear to ear like a child.

“Good morning, Miss Claremont.” Quincy smiled and helped her up. “I trust you had a wonderful adventure?”

Follow me, if you are brave enough and innocent enough, to a time that following summer, when a new hotel opened up. This one was small: it did not have a stone fountain or marble pillars or a gold chandelier. There was no library and no greenhouse. It was, in all respects, unremarkable.

And yet, whenever children would walk by with their parents on some errand downtown, their eyes would linger as they peered in the big windows. Their little hearts would race, and they’d tug their parents’ hands.

“Mommy, daddy,” they’d say. “Can we go there?”

And when, days or months later, their parents finally relented—“You know, a little weekend away could do us all some good”—the children would go running through doors of the hotel to find a young man with glasses and excellent posture waiting for them. Next to him would be his wife, an elegant elf-maiden. She would smile and hand them a metal key hanging by a ribbon. On the desk there would be a black cat, and it watched them too, its tail swishing.

Then a big, old troll—looking well-fed and well-paid—would tip his hat at them and offer to take their suitcases up to their rooms. The parents would call for the children to come along, but the children would be too excited: there were too many hallways to explore, too many secret nooks and hiding places.

And hidden all over, tucked inside the most ordinary places, were doors to other worlds.

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