Ch. 11 – Today in Afterworld (5)

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When Zach returned to the lobby, all eyes fell on him. Reapers, lawyers, valets, and dead people alike stared and whispered. It seemed that many had been expectantly waiting for the return of the troublemaker who’d caused a scene in the cocktail lounge earlier.

And those who hadn’t been there to witness the scene stared because Zach was the only one wearing a purple suit in an otherwise predominantly black and white environment. Even in beforeworld, purple suits weren’t that common so that no one had died wearing one. And most importantly, no one had blood all over their clothes.

Zach ignored all the stares and maneuvered his way around the cookie-tray-carrying valets toward the lounge. That group hug with Flip and Flop had been helpful. The uncontrollable yearn for vengeance had subsided somewhat. Distant curiosity had replaced it. Mainly, this was because he felt like he had a team behind him, even though the team couldn’t do anything to directly help him. He had a home here at the hotel. He had a family. And Flip and Flop, who were part of that family, had been willing to run and cry and intervene, albeit in a way that Zach didn’t agree with.

They loved him. He loved them. Carningsby had wanted him dead but no one here thought the same thing. These people who stared at him, they were just curious. That was all. And if they meant any harm, if, just in case, then Zach was now better prepared to defend himself. He was of the hotel between worlds. They, just transients. This was his home ground. There was no reason to be scared or worried.

Anyway, if he couldn’t confide in anyone and ask for help, he might as well take advantage of the greatest benefit of operating alone: speed. No explanation necessary, no convincing, no arguing—just doing.

Doing.

That sounded nice, for a change. What he’d been doing up to now wasn’t doing at all; he’d kept busy, yes, but his actions had resembled the tottering and groping of a blind man without a stick in an unfamiliar place.

Now he knew where to go: forward.

Time had actually flowed, at least in the beforeworld that Zach had left behind, and now, suddenly, Zach had a past and a future.

Future. He liked the sound of that word. Future

He rubbed his palms. They’d been feeling numb ever since he’d recognized Todd. The powerlessness that he’d felt at the moment of his death had returned. The fear of being on stage too. Had the lack of proper memories been the only reason Zach had gotten over his artistic resistance? Had he been a total fool in thinking that he’d mastered a secret that remained lost to the beforeworlders, the wannabe-artist guests?

He had to speak to Todd. That’d keep his mind off the painful memories by allowing him to indulge in anger…

In front of him, he spotted Mina. She stood in the middle of the lobby. She noticed him noticing, turned her back to him, and dashed toward the lounge. In there, her pale face had stood out like a shining moon, a beacon; out here in the lobby, and seen from the back so that the white buttons of her shirt were hidden from view, she looked like a reaper because the rest of her attire was pitch-black.

Maybe that was her intent: to fool Zach into thinking that she was a reaper. But Mina couldn’t fool Zach. They’d worked together for thirty years without the slightest change to their appearances. And besides, reapers didn’t operate alone.

“Mina,” he said.

Without turning around, she slipped into the lounge. She was running away from him.

How ridiculous! Zach sped up, gathering more attention but ignoring it thoroughly. He jumped into the lounge.

Comparative darkness left him blinded for a moment. But gradually, his eyes adjusted. Mina stood behind the neon-lit bar, wiping the already spotlessly-clean counter with a dishtowel. But she panted. The too-obvious charade was rude and funny at the same time. Did she think that he was an idiot?

“Why are you running from me?” Zach said, also panting. “Were you following me?”

Mina glanced at him, then around the lounge, then back at him. “I heard,” she said.

Zach’s heart skipped a beat. “Heard what?”

“That I’m not supposed to hear. That you’re supposed to keep something secret.”

“And?”

“So I stopped listening at that point.”

Zach sighed in relief. He didn’t think that counted as “revealing the secret.”

Or did it?

He looked around. Mina nervously followed his gaze. Only the two of them occupied the lounge. The recording of Zach’s melancholy music still played backward. The grand piano stood under the stage light, as always.

“But I connected the dots,” Mina said.

“What dots?”

“From the first dot, when you acted awfully weird with that guest. You don’t normally go around punching people. You never go that far.”

“I didn’t ‘go around punching people’ this time either. The man was trying to attack you in your workplace—in my workplace. No one else ever went that far, so I never had to go that far before, either, but today I did.”

“Yeah, then you acted all… paralyzed, or something, and then the weird glances from the reapers, like they knew everything, and you didn’t know what they meant but the next moment you did—”

“Stop,” Zach said.

He had to admit: Mina hadn’t taken him for an idiot; he had taken her for one. Not consciously, no. But he’d thought that all Mina did was smile and keep on smiling, oblivious, expecting nothing. That very well might be what she wanted to do, but she wasn’t stupid enough to fail to notice things against her will.

“I can’t just stop,” Mina said indignantly, confirming Zach’s thoughts. “I… I did something.”

Zach tensed. “What did you do?”

“Without hearing anything directly from you, just completely out of my own free will, I sent a message upstairs to Mr. Donald Todd.”

“Saying?”

“That if he can manage to sneak out, and doesn’t mind the risk of being punched again, I’d have a bottle of whiskey ready for him as a token of apology, at 12 a.m. tonight, in the back room.”

She nodded toward the storeroom from which she’d brought the cherry candies for Flop earlier.

Zach processed the news and the possibilities it represented.

“He actually believed that I was sorry, can you believe it?” Mina said. “What a prick. And I’m only telling you this now because that’s what coworkers do. You know, talk about things that mean nothing at all for the sake of talking.”

He nodded.

“And since you’ve taken an unusually long break today,” Mina said, “it wouldn’t be surprising for you to play overnight and run into Mr. Todd by accident.”

“I don’t think I can play,” Zach said, “not today.”

He suddenly felt weak. The thought of Mina partially sharing his sudden burden relieved him so much that he felt okay to feel weak, a little.

Mina sighed softly, sympathetically, even though she had no idea what he’d gone through in the past hour. “Then you sit here,” she said, “and if anyone asks why you’re just sitting here, you say that you’re sick and waiting to feel better. You do look sick. Say you have a headache or something.”

“Thank you, Mina.”

“Hey, I dream about playing hooky. My pleasure.”

“I mean, for inviting him.”

“Huh, why would you thank me? You have nothing to thank me, I have nothing to thank you. I’m not doing any of this to thank you for punching an idiot in the face when he tried to probably choke me to death.”

Zach grinned.

“And come 12 a.m.,” Mina said, “the reason I’ll stay here and make sure that no one disturbs your completely accidental meeting with said idiot won’t be because I owe you a favor, but because I just like standing around the bar at 12 a.m., doing nothing.”

© 2022 Ithaka O.

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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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