When Sophia was a child, she and her mother would have Sunday morning picnics at a park near their home. They would sit under the shade of a big oak tree and lay out a green picnic mat with yellow polka dots. Once they were both sitting down, her mother would make a great show out of presenting Sophia with her meal, which usually consisted of either pasta or a sandwich. She would get a store-bought cookie if she’d been especially good that week.
Her mother, on the other hand, always ate tuna. Always, always, a can of tuna, sometimes mixed in with mayo. For the longest time, she just assumed her mother loved tuna. It wasn’t until she was older that she realized it’d always been a sacrifice so her daughter could eat something other than tuna.
Another one of her mother’s sacrifices was the location, too, actually. Indulging her daughter’s insistence to go there every Sunday so little Sophia Majorelle could engage in her favorite pastime:
Reading epitaphs at the cemetery that her mother called a ‘park’ just to avoid awkward conversations with other people.
Munching on her two-day-old discounted chocolate chip cookie, little Sophia made her way through the rows and rows of tombstones, practicing her reading skills by saying the names of the deceased out loud and then repeating their epitaphs if they had one.
Her favorite one was the epitaph of Clark Jones (1907-1979), which said:
I cannot allow myself to believe there is a better place after death,
for if there is, what is the point of trying to live this life?
Sophia thought a lot about that epitaph, but never more than then, sitting in a bus alongside a pirate lady, about fifteen little multicolored ‘ghost blobs,’ and the literal skeleton driving them through The Great Big Vast.
If she wasn’t hallucinating or dreaming, she couldn’t help but wonder what poor ol’ Clark must have thought when he got there himself.
If someone were to ask Sophia how to describe the Vast, she would frown greatly and say it felt like an adventure video game. When the bus first ‘crossed’ into it, they’d found themselves inside what seemed to be a great green meadow with blue skies and green mountains in the distance. She felt strangely like she was somewhere in Switzerland—not that she’d ever been there, but it was what she thought of. Maybe it was her memories of the ending of that one musical with the singing children and the repressed nun.
As the bus traveled the meadow, she thought it wasn’t so bad. But then her eyes caught a sign pointing in the direction they were going, which read as follows:
ENTRANCE TO THE MOLTEN NORTH
Singed Sinners Resort
She didn’t even have time to finish trying to parse the names before the bus crossed an invisible wall and their surroundings changed completely, much like areas in a video game unloading and loading. The meadow became lava bedrock, the green mountains volcanoes, and the blue sky became orange-yellow. In the distance, she could see a massive banana-shaped building on top of a volcano, which immediately added points to her “I’m On Drugs Somehow” theory.
Sheathing her sword and looking out the window, Ramona gasped at seeing the banana building. “Oh, crap! That’s huge!” She cupped her hands on the window pane and used them as makeshift binoculars, chuckling to herself. “Lotsa potassium in there, I bet.”
Mister Bones left his driver seat and walked over to Ramona, looking out the window like the rest of the dead souls on board.
“Ah! That would be the Banana Lodge! One of the oldest hotels in this biome, in fact,” he diligently explained, affecting the tone of a tour guide. “And one with a fascinating origin! Its architects were both Ancient Egyptians who were offered bananas by a 16th-century Brazilian soul. They loved it so much, their hotel modeled itself after the fruit to share in their love. They make the best banana splits in the Vast!”
Sophia looked at him. “Literally nothing in that sentence is possible. Those are all just words you put together in a bullshit order.”
Mister Bones smiled patiently. “All in good time, my dear.” He looked toward the windows on the other side of the bus. “And on this side, you can see Singed Sinners Resort!”
Though Ramona and the rest of the souls quickly and excitedly rushed to the other side to see, Sophia stayed put in her place, only just glancing at the other side right up until she gasped in shock and immediately joined them in plastering her face against the windows.
There, in the middle of a lake of lava, was a modern-looking white building completely engulfed in brilliant, multicolored flames.
“A more modern addition to the Molten North,” he continued, “Singed Sinners Resort is known for its sinfully good créme brulée, as well as their Steak Diane! They also hold their own bi-yearly molten lava smores and fireworks fest. A very popular permanent residence with the gastronomically and-or fire-inclined.”
A soul raised their hand. “Can I swim in the lava?”
“You can! One of the perks of being deceased,” he exclaimed, delighted. “Some have described it as a warm mud bath.”
While the rest continued to watch, Sophia returned to her seat, still struggling to grasp what was going on. What the fuck, what the fuck, what the fuuuuuck. She fell onto her seat with a thud, and her eyes lingered over the multicolored blobs chattering amongst each other.
And then an idea struck her, grasping her heart in a chokehold.
Sophia tore her eyes away from the deceased and burned them on Mister Bones. “This place. If this is really the afterlife, then anyone who’s died before me is here already, aren’t they? Right?”
Mister Bones paused, his complexion losing its eager playfulness for a ghost of a moment. He observed Sophia carefully. Thoughtfully. But the care and thought vanished as soon as Ramona and the passengers looked at him, curious.
“Not necessarily!” he chirped, regaining his Tour Guide disposition. “The Vast sits on a different time plane than your universe. Obviously, there are many reasons why we pick up who we pick up, but traditionally, guests are picked up in batches from across time. Why, just a few weeks ago, we welcomed guests from the Great 2402 Mars Colony Failure.”
“But, wait,” Sophia said urgently, standing up. “Have you picked anyone from—”
A loud melodic chime interrupted her, and the electronic sign above the bus’ front window now read:
Mister Bones clapped his hands, excited. “Oh, wonderful! That was quick.” He glanced at Sophia. “We’ll have to resume this conversation at a later time, I fear.” Then, before she could even protest, he shuffled off towards the driver’s seat.
Sophia fell back onto her seat with a frustrated thud. “Great. Thanks.”
Ramona took this as an opportunity to talk, kneeling on the seat in front of Sophia and resting her forearms on the seat’s backrest. “So, you’re taking this all pretty well!” she noted, cheerful. “How’re you feeling?”
Sophia didn’t much want to talk to her, but she had a suspicion pirate lady wasn’t going to care for that, especially when said pirate lady’s reaction to being stared at for almost half a minute was to grin and say, “C’mon, no need to be shy!”
“Well,” Sophia finally replied with the emotion of a rock, “I still think I’m either dreaming or somehow got drugged with hardcore stuff, so at this point, I’m just going along with things.”
Ramona laughed. “Hey, that’s good! It’s a start. Better than how I took it, at least.” She nodded towards Mister Bones. “First time that the boss turned into a skeleton, he tried to shake my hand and instead I took his whole arm and beat him up like a piñata.” She flashed Sophia a proud grin. “Can’t do worse than that, right?”
Sophia raised an eyebrow, still off-put. “I guess?”
Reprieving her from any further awkward conversation, the biome around them suddenly changed, drawing both women’s attention towards the window. The Molten North disappeared, and the bus now drove through a bustling night-life city street with rows and rows of flashy casino-like hotels. Dozens of the same colorful soulblobs strolled the streets, as well, but not just them.
Sophia moved towards the window, pressing a hand against it as she squinted to get a better view. “What the—?”
There were people, too. As in, physically looking. A couple of normal-looking humans were walking among the blobs of all shapes and sizes. Except behind this couple was what seemed to be an actual talking tiger talking to an anthropomorphic wolf right out of a furry art website. And then, a few feet away from them, was a talking human-sized banana. And then a literal cartoon person. And—
“Weird, huh?” Ramona said, having noticed Sophia’s truly disoriented expression. She gestured to the passengers inside the bus. “We call the little ghosty dudes ‘Young Souls’. That’s for when they just get here and don’t know what they want to be.” She then gestured to the souls on the street. “Once they figure out what they’d like to be in the afterlife, they turn into that.”
Sophia looked at her. “And you decided to turn into Blackbeard?”
Ramona rolled her eyes, returning to her former position, forearms resting on the seat’s backrest. “Okay, first of all, I’m not dead, remember? These are just my normal clothes.”
Sophia snorted. “What, are you actually a pirate, then?” she said, as a joke that she suddenly felt wasn’t a joke when Ramona blinked at her, perplexed.
“Well, yes,” she said, matter-of-factly, tilting her head to the side. “I was picked up in the year 1702 off the coast of Cancún.”
Sophia’s eyes widened, scanning this woman with an admittedly newfound interest. “Wait, holy crap, really?”
Ramona looked at her for about a second and then broke into an insolent grin. “No, but wouldn’t it be awesome if I was?” She unsheathed her sword, looking at it instead of Sophia’s completely unimpressed expression. “I wish I was a pirate.”
The bus came to a stop shortly after, the doors opening with a loud exhale. Mister Bones stood up right after, clearing his throat to draw attention to himself.
“We’ve arrived at your first destination in the Vast! Please follow me out, if you would be so kind.”
Ramona immediately jumped out of her seat, joining the little river of young souls shuffling out. “Come on! Let’s go look!”
Reluctantly, Sophia trailed after the crowd and jumped off the bus to find that The Last Resort should in fact be called The Holy Crap How Expensive Is This Place hotel.
Before her towered a glistening, sparkling thirty-story high black luxe building that immediately brought to mind the kind of casino resorts heist movies would take place in. Two large beautiful fountains with carved angel statues stood at either side of the building, and pleasant jazz music emanated from unseen speakers.
To put it bluntly, it looked nice. Real nice.
“Impressive, isn’t it?” Mister Bones said, adjusting his bowtie with a grin as he spoke to Sophia and the gawking young souls. He gestured to the building in a great theatric sweeping gesture. “And this is only your first stop in your exploration of finding your quite literal ever-after home! Please, go through those diamond doors and the concierge will take care of the rest.”
Finally, feeling excited for the first time since everything started, Sophia eagerly hurried to the doors alongside the guests, only to be stopped when Mister Bones called out to her.
“Miss Majorelle! Where are you going to?”
Sophia screeched to a stop, turning back to find that neither Mister Bones nor Ramona were moving toward the hotel, both offering her puzzled looks.
“What do you mean ‘where am I going’?” She frowned, confused. “I’m going to our hotel?”
“Our hotel?” Mister Bones laughed heartily, placing a hand on his chest. “Oh no! Dear girl, that lovely building is Angel’s Haven! That’s not The Last Resort, oh no.”
“This is the Last Resort!” said Mister Bones, about thirty minutes later, gesturing to—
“A cabin?” Sophia said, dumbfounded. Horrified. And then added, for good measure, “A dinky old cabin?!”
The Last Resort, the first and only hotel in a biome named “East of Somewhere”, was indeed a small, single-floor wooden cabin akin to the ones one might find abandoned in a forest and used as a hideout for either a supernatural creature or a serial-killer or both. For ease of access, please observe the following depiction of it extracted from Sophia’s sketchbook.
As you can see, it was indeed shitty, and as mentioned earlier, at that point in time, it was also the only hotel in its biome.
The biome designated East of Somewhere was east of Somewhere and was widely considered to be one of the least interesting and least convenient biomes in the Vast. Blanketed in an endless indigo night, the only notable thing in it was the hill in its center. Long and thin, it looked as though someone had pinched the ground and then pulled up the earth as high as it could go, taking a moment to flatten the top before growing bored and leaving.
And that was it. Nothing else.
A shitty biome, Sophia thought, fit for a shitty dinky cabin.
“It has charm,” Mister Bones insisted, walking over to the building and affectionately patting it. “I think you look lovely, my dear.”
“How are we supposed to fit guests in there?” Sophia asked next. “Have you looked at the size of it? Are we all going to sleep in bunkbeds like a hostel? Or what?”
Ramona laughed. “They fit, don’t worry!”
Sophia watched as Ramona went to the door and straightened out the sign bearing the hotel’s name.
“And, also, ‘The Last Resort’?” Sophia continued, on that note. “You might as well have called it the ‘Don’t Stay Here Resort’!”
“I didn’t name it,” Mister Bones pointed out, once more patting the hotel but less in an affectionate way, and more like a car salesman might proudly slap the hood of a car they’re trying to sell. “The dear Lady Resort named herself!”
“H…Herself?” Sophia repeated. And then stared at Mister Bones. Who stared back. And kept staring until Sophia was forced to clarify, “As in the… The Hotel?”
Mister Bones nodded.
“As in the hotel named itself The Last Resort. That’s what you’re saying. To be clear.” When he nodded again, every inch of his face serious, Sophia looked to Ramona, desperate for someone else to acknowledge the absurdity of this all, but when Ramona instead complimented the building on picking a good name, Sophia had no choice but to disassociate as she whispered, “Jesus wept.”
Ignoring her, Mister Bones joined Ramona at the entrance and opened the door, politely gesturing the two women in. “Come in, come in! There’s still a lot to do and explain.”
Ramona wasted no time in walking in, but Sophia hesitated. This was all still very strange, and weird, and other similar synonyms. Without overtly meaning to, she couldn’t help but glance at the bus parked ways away.
“I can take you home if you’d like, Miss Majorelle.” She looked back to find Mister Bones smiling amiably at her. He grinned. “Spare the good Jesus Christ some weeping, perhaps.”
“You can…?” she asked, tempted. “Like, right now?”
The kind smile remained. “It would be a shame, I admit, but I’m happy to oblige if that’s what you want.”
Sophia’s heart twisted in her chest. Yes, she wanted to go back, but… back to what? To her life? Her miserable existence she constantly dreamed of escaping? This entire thing was weird as hell, but… it was a reprieve from that, wasn’t it? Even if just for a little bit.
“No, not yet,” she finally said, the same decisiveness in her voice as in her steps as she made her way to him. “I can stick around a bit more. Just to see how bad it is inside, I guess.”
Delighted, he stepped aside so she could walk in. “Please, do come in!”
And she did indeed, stepping inside the hotel, only for a loud gasp to ring out, followed in short order by her immediately exiting the hotel to address Mister Bones.
“What the hell?”
He grinned. “Impressive, isn’t it?”
“No, it still looks pretty shitty, but what the hell? What kind of cartoon logic crap is this?”
“Now, now, Miss Majorelle,” he said, gently ushering her back inside. “All in due time.”
“Is that a friggin’ third floor?”
This still figuring out original wriiiitiiing aaaaaaa
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