Ch. 10 – Today in Afterworld (4)

Final Fugue_Ithaka O._horizontal

Table of Contents

Jump to the Prelude

Flip didn’t know if she should think that she’d been right or that she should accept that she’d been wrong. The bright chandeliers of the lobby in the hotel between worlds didn’t aid a clear thinking process. Their glass ornaments glittered and distracted—great for keeping the recently deceased just absentminded enough to prevent them from breaking down, but not very helpful for Flip. Neither were the fans very helpful. They turned slowly and incessantly from all corners, in an attempt to circulate the air within the building so that it wasn’t so heavily influenced by the thick mist outside.

“Zach, please wait,” Flip said, collecting the many fluffy black layers of her huge dress, hoping that seeing his face might help her determine if she’d been wrong or right.

But Zach kept walking ahead across the lobby. “I need air,” he’d said, before he’d left the cocktail lounge. It seemed that he could think of nothing else.

Flip was running after him—or more like, waddling as fast as possible without bumping into anyone—just to make sure that he was actually getting air, not more blood from Donald Todd. Flop was somewhere behind her. She wasn’t sure. With the size of Flop’s belly, it was going to take a while before he caught up with her.

Numerous valets who wore the standard black and white uniforms of the hotel carried large silver trays with chocolate and vanilla cookies, spreading the smell of sugar. The marble floor was black and white too. And lawyers wearing white and reapers wearing black filled the lobby.

The only patches of color, aside from Zach in his purple suit, were the dead guests sprinkled between the valets, reapers, and lawyers. Those dead people wore whatever they’d worn at the time of their death: blue jeans, white wedding dresses, pajamas. Thankfully, most of them didn’t show up at the hotel with broken bones and the reek of dying cells, even when they’d died in an accident or due to a disease. Let’s just say, the guests came in their last remembered appearance before things got really bad.

“A cookie, Flip?” a particularly slow-witted valet said. Apparently, Flip’s hurry wasn’t evident enough.

“No, no thanks,” said Flip as she kept rushing after Zach.

Usually, Flip liked grabbing a cookie or two. Usually two, because she could never decide whether she wanted the chocolate one or the vanilla one. And since she could appear whichever way she pleased and didn’t have to watch her figure, why not eat two, why not eat a dozen?

But presently, the sweet scent nauseated Flip. She rarely had to run this fast. When dead people refused to follow her and Flop, the reaper pair moved across spacetime in much more elegant and efficient ways than this.

Right now, however, Flip couldn’t use such ways. She didn’t want to imagine how much angrier Zach would be if she simply teleported to the outside of the hotel and waited there. Something about teleporting in front of those who couldn’t teleport was, well, rude, unless it was part of the job.

So Flip ran after Zach and Flop ran after Flip, because by now, Flop had probably lost sight of Zach.

Everyone in the lobby stared. No one else moved as busily and no one but Zach had blood all over his clothes. That idiot drunkard Donald Todd, a good-for-nothing, was a beast of beforeworld habits. He hadn’t forgotten the taste of liquor; he also hadn’t forgotten that when one got punched, bleeding was the beforeworld norm.

The spectators in the lobby stood in groups of four: one dead person, one lawyer, two reapers. This was because each pair of reapers transitioned off their dead person to a lawyer at this hotel. Reapers only operated from beforeworld to the hotel, and lawyers operated from the hotel onward into the depths of afterworld. That was how things worked.

Most groups of four didn’t move, deeply engaged in their conversations. Some did move, but only to check the dead person’s name in the guestbook on the front desk somewhere back there.

Whichever person who stared at Flip got her waving-of-the-fan. Mind your own business, was what she was trying to convey without using words. She was too out of breath.

These guests were mostly people who’d died normally. Diseases, old age, accidents. Even if any of them had been murdered, he or she had chosen the black candy and remembered full well who he or she had been in beforelife. Zach was the only one here who’d just found out that he’d been murdered—after thirty years of forgetting all about it. So, none of the curious onlookers could understand how Zach felt right now. Even Flip couldn’t imagine how Zach felt. She doubted that Zach knew how he felt.

But hadn’t Flip been right?

Clearly, Zacharias Steele had been much happier before recognizing Donald Todd, so she’d been right to try to delay the reunion. No, what she’d done back there didn’t even count as “trying.” All she’d wanted was to not be there when Zach recognized Donald Todd, should such a moment of recognition occur. She hadn’t really intervened. (That’s what Flip told herself, though she did hope that Koe and Joe didn’t report her actions to the head of the Reaping Department. If they did report it, the women in black would eventually get wind of it.)

Up to less than an hour ago, Flip had actually hoped that maybe, she’d never have to face the choice between intervening and not intervening. After all, on stage, Zach blinded himself with the stage light and that curtain of smoke. It’d take some great timing for one of the three Carningsby murderers to run into him while he was off the stage. And if Flip were one of those murderers, and if Zach were on stage as usual, she’d simply turn around and leave the lounge immediately.

He likes keeping himself in the dark, was what Flip had thought. Not consciously, but subconsciously.

Oblivion was the only way in which he could keep performing on stage. Had it been wrong of her to try to prolong his happiness just a little longer?

She glanced up at the lobby ceiling as if expecting an answer from a superior being. But instead, a ceiling that didn’t look like a conventional ceiling stretched above her:

The sky—that was the ceiling. Something of the outdoors, put indoors. There, above Flip, shone the sun, the moon, and the stars. Brilliant celestial bodies of every kind. In every corner.

Outdoors and indoors, night and day, all such pairs of opposing concepts jumbled up and made the hotel’s black and white decor and staff uniforms laughable. The hotel couldn’t clarify, categorize, and delineate by relying on superficial charades of dichotomy. The true nature of the hotel was gray, not black and white.

Nothing was clear at this hotel.

And Zach had finally realized that and was angry.

Upon reaching the glass doors leading to the outside, Flip leaned on one of them. It swung open at her weight. Instantly, thick white mist clung to her dress.

“Zach?” she said, continuing to run, looking around.

“I’m here,” Zach said.

He stood by the hotel. He’d walked a few dozen feet along the facade, and looked like a lean, elegant line of purple smeared with red blood. The outside of the hotel, just like its inside, was designed to continue the desperate attempt of containing everything that was undefinable. Most of the building was white except for the black metal frames around the rectangular windows, doors, and balconies. Very few windows were round, and there were even fewer arches.

Luxury, glamor, and technological progress were trapped in ebony and ivory. This was Art Deco, modified to suit the needs of an establishment that bridged the difference between beforeworld and afterworld. An establishment that was visited by dead people of all eras. An establishment that was eager to be useful but careful never to offend anyone.

But it did offend Flip. The simple contrast was too over-the-top. Black, white, black, white, black and white, the uniforms, the marble tiles, the building itself, everything, so stark, the fake contrast—

At least there was some green. Grass surrounded the property and plants hung from small black pots along the eaves or grew in bigger black pots along the road that led away from the building.

Out here, Flip could breathe. And so could Zach.

Besides, albeit foolishly dichotomous, the building was built in the style of Zach’s time—his beforeworld time. Perhaps that was why Zach stared at the building with such intent concentration. Flip imagined bits of memory bubbling up to the surface of Zach’s consciousness, the one that she’d hoped to fill with blissful ignorance for as long as possible.

Time, which had hitherto been shaped like a dot for Zach because there was no proceeding or retreating, had changed its nature. Time, now, had regained its straight-line shape that beforeworlders were used to. A reference point in the past had suddenly emerged, which Zach could connect to the here and now.

Flip ran toward him. When she reached him, she stopped—panting, glancing up at his face.

How disappointing. Zach looked neither angry nor happy. There was no way for Flip to tell whether she’d been right or wrong to try to keep Donald Todd away from him. He just looked around as if he’d seen the place for the first time—which was sort of the case. He was seeing everything with new eyes.

Above them, the sky with the sun, moon, and stars stretched far and wide. Mist blurred everything, but clearly, it was both day and night right now.

At the approach of heavy footsteps on the damp, grassy ground—not from the entrance side, but from the opposite direction—Flip and Zach turned around.

There, in the distant mist, emerged Old Jeremiah. He was on his way back to the hotel. The liveliest part of that man was his beard, which had no choice but to dance in the gentle breeze that stirred the mist. The rest of him wasn’t as lightweight. He could have been dubbed Ancient Jeremiah and no one, not even Jeremiah, would have complained. A miracle that he could strike the gong at all, and every hour too.

When Old Jeremiah spotted them standing there, he stopped and bowed. Zach bowed back. Flip curtseyed. The old man liked to show respect and liked others showing respect back by investing a significant amount of time in each greeting. Consequently, Zach, Old Jeremiah, and Flip remained for quite a while like statues in their respective respectful postures.

A while. What a relative term.

And 1 p.m. or 2 p.m. or 3 p.m., what did it matter?

What did it matter whether Old Jeremiah struck the gong or not? What did it matter that time seemed to flow or didn’t? Everything was a blur at the hotel and Flip had done everything wrong. Of course it hadn’t been her fault that Zach had been murdered, but still. But still…

Reaping a murdered person sucked and it would have been so much nicer if her partner had been the type of person who gladly took care of such things. The heavy-metal-music type. The slasher-movie-lover type. The life-has-painful-parts-let’s-face-it-grimly-and-bravely type.

Flip sighed and the hotel sighed with her. Softly, it creaked with everything that was hidden between its walls, with all that was gray instead of black and white.

“I’m, here, I, can’t…” Flop said behind Flip.

The respect-showing group broke its posture. Flop half bowed and half waved his hand at Old Jeremiah. Then he pointed at himself and shook his head.

Old Jeremiah grinned and nodded. He’d received Flop’s message: Hey, I see you, I know our routine, but, see me? Out of breath. Can’t right now. Just can’t.

At Flop’s pathetic sight of breathlessness, all “would have been so much nicer” scenarios in Flip’s mind vanished. Tears came to her eyes. Silly man, that Flop. Truly, she was very fond of Flop, especially for his hating what she hated. The blood clouds, the murders, the hardships of being a reaper. If he hadn’t been that way, she’d have constantly felt pressured to do more—intervene more, care more, and create more unnecessary work, as Flop so often pointed out. Flop kept her in check. So how could she do more than merely wishing that she’d had a different partner? How could she ever truly dislike Flop?

He was panting so heavily and sweating so profusely that she handed him her handkerchief without saying anything. One couldn’t talk to a man in that state.

Zach seemed to agree. So, Zach, Flip, and Flop just watched Old Jeremiah proceed to the hotel lobby. What a miracle that the old man walked at all, and a puzzle too. Why walk back and forth when it took so very long? Old Jeremiah would be better off installing a tent up in the gong tower. But he never did.

Well, that was his business, and Flip had hers. And she didn’t have much time, because guess what Old Jeremiah’s work pattern meant? That he rested in the hotel for five minutes, only to walk back out and climb the gong tower once more for the next hour’s gonging. Talk about Sisyphus rolling the boulder up the hill.

As soon as Old Jeremiah walked into the building and was thereby out of hearing distance, Flip turned to Zach.

“Just don’t act rashly,” she said.

“Define rashly,” said Zach dryly.

“I’d say, everything that involves doing anything to Donald Todd,” said Flop, who’d now recovered his breath. “He’s under Koe and Joe’s care, and they know you know Todd, which isn’t ideal.”

“So you mean, I should wait until either Angeline or Gus Shevlin dies and I happen to notice them?”

“Well…” Flop said.

“Do you know what it’s like to not know who you are and suddenly remember?”

“I don’t,” Flip said.

“Then you don’t know what I’m going through,” Zach said.

“That may be the case,” Flip said. “But I know what it’s like to not know who you are, forever.”

Zach frowned, not fully understanding what she meant.

“I could have been someone horrible in beforelife,” Flip said. “I could have been a monarch who burned an entire village, a rapist, or a white-collar criminal who was never officially convicted. Or worse—I could have been on the receiving end, just like you. Could’ve been burned alive, raped, or been robbed of everything I owned because of a Ponzi scheme or a bullshit contract!”

Zach stared at her. It was only then that Flip realized that she’d gradually shifted from speaking to screaming. Somehow, her agitation seemed to make him calmer.

“So what,” he said quietly, “you can go around keeping people in the dark because you don’t know who you were?”

“That’s not what I mean,” Flip said.

“Then what?”

“I mean, you think you’re a certain person, and if you learn that you’re not—”

Flip couldn’t go on. She stared at Zach and he stared back.

“Then,” she said, “what do you do?”

“My question exactly,” Zach said.

He looked away. The group stood in the mist in silence.

Eventually, Zach said, “You tried to keep me in the dark.”

“But that’s the thing, Zach, we didn’t keep you in the dark,” Flop said.

Then Flop noticed that Flip was on the brink of crying. He handed her handkerchief back to her. Irritated, she pushed it off. Really, she wasn’t going to use that perspiration-soaked thing at this point.

“What do you call trying to drag Donald Todd out of the lounge?” Zach asked.

“That was just—that was wrong of us,” Flop said.

“What was wrong of us was that we befriended you at all,” Flip said.

Surprised, Flop gasped. “Are you saying that I was right?” he asked. “That we should have left right away after reaping him?”

Flip rolled her eyes, which was useful because some of the tears hanging on her eyelashes evaporated instead of falling down her cheeks.

“Yes, Flop,” she said.

Zach snorted. “Well, thank you, that’s great to know. That’s just great. We can start unfriending right now…”

He walked toward the building. Both Flip and Flop grabbed his arm.

“I don’t mean it that way,” Flip said.

“She doesn’t mean it that way,” Flop said.

“In what precise way do you ever mean things?” Zach said, annoyed. But he didn’t make further attempts to leave them without talking things through.

Nervous, Flop glanced at Flip. She took a deep breath, faced Zach, then began:

“Reapers live for an eternity and we do see murders but cases like yours are extremely rare. Beforeworlders aren’t as organized as they like to think and especially not when it comes to murdering others. I’m not talking about battles, fights, or those likes here—there’s a lot of them, and in haphazard ways, even though the media pretends everything is crystal clear and there is evil and there is good and—”

“Please get to the point,” Zach said.

“My point is, when we saw you, Flop wanted to leave as soon as possible.” Flip turned to Flop. “Yes, Flop, you were right. Leaving would have made things simpler.”

Flop raised his brows. He could barely hide his boyish excitement. “I was right,” he whispered.

“But I wanted to stay. To testify, yes. But also, because, well, Zach, it sucks to be out of control. And everything in your case file indicates that you found yourself in an extreme, severe, ultimate case of losing control.” Flip’s shoulders slumped. “And I hated watching it.”

Flop opened his mouth.

Flip quickly turned to him and said, “And I know that you tell me not to get mixed up for that very reason. Yes, you are right, Flop, you’re absolutely right.”

Flop shut his mouth, pleased.

“But I couldn’t just not care,” said Flip. “And when I saw you again in afterworld, I couldn’t stop myself from saying Hi either. And I couldn’t stop continuing to visit the lounge. And I couldn’t stop talking to you, listening to you play, and…”

For a dreamy moment, she remembered what she’d felt, and smiled.

“…I couldn’t stop thinking, ‘Well, at least some good came out of reaping Zach, because look how well he plays.’ ”

Then she blushed. She’d said this as if she were the proud mother of a particularly beloved son. One whom, if she’d had one, she’d never remember. She’d never heard of reapers remembering their beforelives. Ever.

“Okay,” Zach said, eyes on the grass.

Flip woke up from her hypothetical son theory.

“I just want you to be happy,” she said. “I just want us all to be who we want to be, or maybe what we’re meant to be, but not what we happen to be because of factors that we have absolutely no control over.”

“Okay,” Zach said again, this time looking her in the eyes.

Then Zach hugged her.

This time, Flip cried freely. Tears just flowed and flowed from her eyes down her cheeks on her beautiful dress and truly made her look like a mourning corpse bride.

“There, there,” Flop said.

He tried to squeeze in, join the hug, and as part of his attempt, handed her the handkerchief once more. She pushed it away, again, and wiped her tears with her sleeves. But Zach noticed Flop and reached out for him and it became a group hug after all.

Flop cried a little too. Zach definitely cried. Flip wept, then howled pathetically.

And after some time, they all found calm again and turned away from each other so they could all act like normal people again.

Once Flip had collected herself (quite literally, by carefully choosing what formed her and what not—the teary cheeks gone, and brand-new rosy ones suitable for her age and baroness status taking their places), they all faced each other.

Zach didn’t look too good, though. He couldn’t just make up a new face. He was of this hotel, not of many spacetimes, like Flip and Flop.

“I’m sorry I acted out,” Zach said.

“Don’t be, my boy,” Flop said.

“I know I made the choice to take the gray candy. But this… It’s overwhelming.”

Flip and Flop nodded.

“But I never want to choose ignorance to stay happy,” Zach said. “Before I died, I didn’t know that I was ignorant. Before Donald Todd walked into the lounge, I didn’t remember. Now I know I was ignorant, and I remember. If I choose ignorance now, that’s on me. I won’t do that. That’s why I took the gray candy, to begin with: to find out why I had to die, and…”

Zach didn’t finish his sentence, but Flip knew the second thing he’d wanted: payback. Flip placed her hands on her chest because her heart ached so.

And yet, how brave Zacharias was. Much braver than her. Not knowing the truth about her past bugged her, but also relieved her, all the time. But Zach wanted to know. What a kind, nice, passionate boy with a love of music and a brave heart.

Flip had been wrong. She should have trusted Zach’s ability to handle things on his own.

“The women in black told me that I could do anything and everything,” Zach said. “So I want to make the most of my chance.”

“But see, Zach, that’s their trick,” said Flop. “If you reveal something about your special circumstances to anyone else, you break the contract. But if you don’t explain yourself, you really think people will leave you alone? It’s impossible to not reveal something. This is a very consistent, predictable place, you know. People notice anomalies. People have noticed anomalies all the way we ran here.”

“Right. If something were to happen to Donald Todd,” Flip said, “they’ll immediately wonder if it had anything to do with you. The man screamed at you saying ‘ghost, a ghost.’ People know something is up.”

“So the women in black tricked me and you let them?” Zach said. Not angry. Rather, exhausted. “I thought with you ‘testifying’ and all, you wanted to help me.”

“We did, we do, very much,” Flip said. “But you must understand that we aren’t allowed to meddle.”

“We shouldn’t even have been there at the lounge when it happened,” Flop said. “It was all a coincidence. And we shouldn’t be here now, explaining to you all this.”

“And I actually believe the women in black,” Flip said. “I do think that they are sorry as the institution that administers life and death. I don’t know if they feel sorry the way we feel sorry. I don’t know if they’re capable of feeling that way. But they definitely didn’t want you murdered. It creates lots of problems for everyone. But at the same time, they can’t will everyone else out of existence just for you, because everyone else’s being is intertwined with your being. You don’t exist in a vacuum.”

“I don’t believe this,” Zach said. “Almost two hundred people conspired to kill me and I haven’t remembered that for thirty years, and now I can’t do anything about the three murderers I was able to name?”

“All we can say is…” Flip glanced at Flop.

Surely, this part didn’t break any rules. Surely, it helped the women in black if Zach knew this:

“…keep it private.”

“Private,” Zach repeated.

“Private,” Flop said, nodding at Flip, then at Zach.

Zach massaged his long fingers.

“I don’t know what I thought would happen,” he said. “When I took the gray candy, I mean. Even if I were to talk privately to Todd, I’m not sure where to begin.”

Heavy footsteps approached. It was Old Jeremiah. This time, he headed from the hotel to the gong tower.

“But I’ll try,” Zach said. “Privately.” And quickly, before Old Jeremiah got too close, Zach asked, “Please tell me this one thing: don’t tell me that you saw Angeline or Gus Shevlin walking around here but you didn’t tell me.”

“We couldn’t have told you,” Flop said, “but I haven’t seen them.”

Flop turned to Flip.

“Me neither,” she said. “I swear to the Supreme.”

“Will I recognize him when I see him?” Zach asked. “I know his name, but I have no clue who he is or why he wanted me dead.”

“You will recognize him,” Flip said.

Zach nodded. “Thank you. I’m glad we talked. I should get going. I have to figure this out. I’ll see you later.”

“We’ll be back by daybreak,” Flip said quickly before Zach walked away. “We’ll talk again, yes?”

“Of course.”

Then Zach went toward the building, only halting briefly to bow at Old Jeremiah. And before Old Jeremiah looked up again, Zach was gone.

“I wish we didn’t have to reap murdered people,” Flip said, once the reapers were done bowing, too, and Old Jeremiah’s heavy footsteps had receded into the mist. “I wish the women in black would just take care of them from beginning to end. I don’t like being thrust in the middle like this. I don’t like this powerlessness by association. We’re just supposed to watch him—do what? Become a madman? Get violent?”

“Let’s never befriend a murder victim again,” Flop said.

Flip sighed. “I don’t know if that’ll be possible.”

“Then we go with the flow. Whatever happens, happens.”

Flip rolled her eyes. “I hate that saying.”

“Of course you hate it,” Flop said simply. “Everyone hates it. Otherwise there wouldn’t be a saying to convince ourselves that that’s the way to live.”

He had a point—one that made her glad.

“So you don’t intend to follow that advice?” she asked.

“I don’t not intend to, but I’d be surprised if I succeeded in following any advice for a whole eternity.”

Flip chuckled. Then she noticed that Flop’s silk shirt, which he’d replaced after the crying session, lacked the ornate ruffles that Flip usually added for extra effect.

“Come here,” she said.

As always, Flop patiently stood still while she plucked at his shirt collar, removing this and that part, adding this and that part, to create the ruffles. Doing this, Flip wondered: did I make Flop my real pseudo-husband? “Real” “pseudo”—that didn’t even make sense.

But it also sort of did. This wasn’t some random dead people thinking that Flip and Flop were a couple. This was Flip thinking that she was very much fond of her reaper partner. So, he wasn’t really her husband, but the only fake husband she was willing to accept.

“Done,” she said quickly.

“Done? Good,” Flop said. “Let’s go reap some occultist who’s due. Those people like us. And by the time we come back, Zach will have figured out what to do. So don’t you worry, milady.”

Glad to have each other as constants in an ever-changing eternity that only pretended to never change, they walked away from the hotel, toward the edge of the cliff.

© 2022 Ithaka O.

All rights reserved.
This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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