Ch. 12 – Today in Afterworld (6)

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12 a.m. took a long time to arrive.

While waiting, all Zach did was to chain-smoke his delightfully fragrant cigarettes—one after another, holding them between his long trembling fingers and taking them to his lips, until a mountain of cigarette butts formed on the silver case on top of the piano.

He’d turned off the stage light. Though he sat by the piano, he didn’t play. Couldn’t play. He’d lost all illusion of control. This state was probably what Flip had foreseen: the loss of control in afterworld, when the loss of control in beforeworld and the resulting murder had been bad enough.

Zach eyed the tables and chairs. Not many guests had entered the lounge since his return. Possibly, the story about the bloody row had spread. Or it was just one of those slow days. And who knew how many factors contributed to slow days?

Someone feeling too lethargic to leave the guest room to sit at a bar. Someone feeling particularly inclined to take a walk through the mist around the hotel building. Someone preferring tea over alcohol. Someone running into someone else, a long-forgotten acquaintance who’d happened to die at around the same time…

Who knew what happened to make days slow.

A few solo guests came and went. And only one group of three entered the lounge during the entire time Zach sat by the piano, in the darkness: one very old man with a limp and two middle-aged women.

A puzzling combination, at first look. One of the women looked highly polished with her neat, short, sandy hair. The other was cozily plain with her carefully combed but less lustrous long hair, brown, graying. And how these very different women had ended up knowing the limping old man was a mystery.

The first woman with the polished hair probably used to have what people called “a successful career”—something that required her to be presentable, worthy of whatever company she represented. Looking at her, Zach felt a sense of familiarity, possibly because she used corporate tricks so well. She smiled and gestured the way people in important positions smiled and gestured—only when they wanted to—to make you feel like you two’ve been longtime friends since childhood.

The second woman with the less lustrous hair moved without such tricks. She didn’t need the baggage of tricks, because she wasn’t responsible for a thousand people’s livelihoods. She was her own woman. And she didn’t want to be in the cocktail lounge.

“Must you drink even in the afterlife, Daddy?” she said.

Daddy. How strange to hear it from a middle-aged woman’s mouth. But of course she had a daddy. Everyone had a daddy, whether they knew him personally or not. Even Zach had had a daddy. Still had one, in fact. He’d forever have a daddy because he’d never die fully. His father, on the other hand, must have passed away a long time ago. Zach had missed that, among many other things. The death of his own father.

“I want to drink because it’s the afterlife,” the man with the limp said and flopped on a chair.

“I say we should celebrate,” the woman with the polished hair said. “We were lucky it was just the three of us in the car. Couldn’t have picked a better moment to drive off the cliff. Right, daddy?”

“Lisa,” the other woman said chidingly.

A chilly wind swept through the cocktail lounge. In the bar area, Mina dropped a glass. It shattered. The two women and the old man flinched.

“I’m sorry, so sorry,” Mina muttered.

Lisa. A strangely familiar name. A Carningsby resident? No. Because Zach had been the only man in that town who had to worry about the next meal, he hadn’t been acquaintances with many. If he knew her, it had to be from somewhere else.

But stranger than the name? The wind. Zach felt a shiver and almost dropped his cigarette. If he’d been holding a glass or something else with a smooth surface, he’d have dropped it just like Mina.

All things were strange today. Zach might have seen Lisa before. She might be one of those guests who had faces that repeated over time. There were only so many faces to go around…

“Spooky hotel,” the long-haired woman said, shuddering. “I keep thinking that something’s aiming at me.”

“Aiming?” the old man said.

“Yes,” the long-haired woman said, “as if something were following me along the walls and breathing down my neck.”

“It’s an interesting hotel,” said Lisa, the woman with the polished hair. She didn’t look scared at all. “Feels familiar in a distant sort of way.”

“What do you mean, ‘familiar’?” the long-haired woman asked.

“I don’t know,” Lisa said. “Just that some things in life feel like you’ve seen them before. And apparently, it’s the same in death.”

“Deja-vu,” the old man said, deeply satisfied with his wisdom. “But Lisa was just saying, what if the kids had been in the car? But they weren’t. This requires a celebration. Where’s the bar…”

Much faster than he’d flopped down, the man got up from his seat and limped to the bar. Lisa chuckled. The long-haired woman, who seemed to be Lisa’s sister, shook her head in mock-disbelief.

A family. Zach had had a beforeworld family once. Where were his sisters and brothers now? Had they died, like his father must have died? Had they heard about Zach’s death while they were alive, in beforeworld? That their brother, who’d so insolently left the cornfields, had died on the stage?

Had his father laughed at the news? Cried? Been frustrated? Angry? Felt guilty—

The woman named Lisa stared at Zach. She seemed startled. Before, her group hadn’t noticed him sitting on the stage.

But now she smiled at him.

He couldn’t smile back at her and was about to feel embarrassed for failing to adhere to this very basic social protocol when Lisa’s father returned with three forest-green glasses on a tray.

Zach glanced at Mina. She shrugged at him. Some people like bringing their own drinks to the table, she seemed to say.

From then on, Zach tried to not pay attention to the guests. Overhearing a conversation while he played, meaning that he couldn’t go anywhere else, was one thing. Doing so when he might as well be sitting anywhere else, was another.

He focused on the cigarette smell, of tree barks and leather. Funny how things stayed with you, even when you didn’t clearly remember their origin. Lisa had made a good point. Some things in life stayed the same way in death—like moments of Deja-vu or key elements that you associated with your identity.

So, Zach had brought the purple suit with him. That was how special the fatal suit had been to him. The first nice suit, meant for a concert, gifted by someone else. Poisoned. Now, in afterworld, smudged with the blood of the same person who’d handed it to Zach in beforeworld.

He could have used the time until 12 a.m. to visit the little twins in the basement laundry room. But his thoughts rendered him immobile. A human could do only so many things at a time, whether thinking or acting, and if too much thinking was going on, the acting went through a period of shortage.

To outside observers, Zach was doing nothing but smoking. But in Zach’s head, he was moving at great speed. Now was the time to think of the things he’d dragged with him from beforeworld to afterworld. Things that could serve as clues to his murder mystery. Like the suit. The cigarettes, which smelled of Angeline…

But also of Gus Shevlin. That was an element that Zach’s subconscious had conveniently overlooked. She’d lied, telling him that it was the cigar smell from her brothers and father. She’d lied…

And he’d kept her in his mind as the muse. He was sure of this. He’d never seen the face of the muse, that blond woman who sat by the window, immersed in the sunshine, but he knew. It had to be Angeline. Add to that the cornfield just outside the window, and voila, the Picture of All That Zach Missed But Couldn’t Bring to the Hotel was complete.

But everything that Zach missed was also tied to his death. The cornfield that he shouldn’t have left. The purple suit that he shouldn’t have worn. The tree bark and leather smell that Angeline had lied about, and Angeline herself…

Yet Zach couldn’t stop smoking. Something about the idea of stopping made him feel like he’d lost to Gus Shevlin. Absolutely irrational jealousy, this was.

No one bothered Zach to interrupt his irrationality. Lisa, her sister, and their father didn’t demand that he play; the recorded music sufficed. Mina was busy mopping the space behind the bar.

At any other establishment, the boss would have been furious with Zach by now. But the boss of the hotel, Lady Song, didn’t monitor her workers strictly. As long as they did their jobs, she didn’t mind when they took breaks and where they went. And “doing their jobs” had an extremely loose definition in her dictionary.

It was as if she didn’t worry at all that the hotel might not operate properly, even though there were no middle managers. Lady Song alone was the owner and everyone reported directly to her. (Mr. Lee, her lover, sometimes functioned like the co-owner, but the true head of the hotel was Lady Song and Lady Song alone.) Yet on the rare occasions in which Zach had run into her, she hadn’t seemed overwhelmed at all. Everyone guessed that she had her methods of keeping an eye on the hotel operations and her employees, but no one knew exactly how.

At any rate, she was bound to hear about today’s incidents soon enough. A half-day break couldn’t possibly count as “doing his job.” He’d have some explaining to do, later. But he doubted that Lady Song would reprimand him. It wasn’t like she could get rid of him. Well, she could fire him as the piano player at the lounge, but she couldn’t really have him go elsewhere. There was nowhere else to go. Zach was neither a reaper nor a lawyer. This was the only place where he could stay.

So, Zach kept sitting next to his piano on the unlit stage. Occasionally, Mina brought him seconds and thirds of the Fairy Violets, today’s special, in glasses that were forest-green like Angeline’s eyes. As much as Zach resented Angeline for lying to him, knowing that he’d never entirely forgotten her soothed him. A string, though extremely thin, had connected him to his past all throughout these years.

At some point, Lisa’s family left. All three of them nodded polite goodbyes at Zach and Mina, who nodded back.

Then, Mina went to grab dinner in the staff hall. Zach tended to skipped breakfast and dinner. To lunch, he sometimes went, to say Hi to the other worker-residents of the hotel. But he’d never been the type of person who saw eating as one of the greatest pleasures of life. And Lady Song strictly prohibited sulking or nibbling at the table. That was one firm rule she imposed: never take food for granted. There were rumors that she turned offenders into pages of the guestbook.

After dinner, Mina returned. Eventually, Old Jeremiah struck the final gong of the day at 10 p.m..

From now until tomorrow morning, even Lady Song couldn’t make Zach play. Not that she’d ever force anyone to do anything. She wasn’t the type to do that; not the type to drag people around—unlike the men who’d dragged Angeline out of the Luminary Theater. Unlike Gus Shevlin who’d had the men do it…

Now, the night shift took care of the hotel operations. But that didn’t mean that the day shift went to sleep. People didn’t sleep here, not the afterworlders who didn’t operate under the beforeworld thought process. Some took breaks, but many worked through the night. They disliked boredom and silence.

Night only existed as a symbolic intermission. There was no rule that said, “People of beforeworld can only die from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., in afterworld time, for the convenience of the workers of the hotel between worlds.” People died all the time. Reapers reaped. Lawyers lawyered. On any normal night, Zach might have kept playing.

But not tonight.

12 a.m. was about to come.

Any time now…

A huge silhouette appeared at the entrance. This time, Zach immediately recognized who it was: Mr. Donald Todd, by himself.

12 a.m. had come, finally.

Todd slowly shuffled in, glancing around with those bleary eyes of his, which were useless because evidently, he didn’t notice Zach sitting by the piano. Granted, the stage light was off, and Lisa and her family had also not noticed Zach at first, but Zach didn’t want to grant Todd anything. He wanted to hold that man responsible for every sign of weakness he showed.

Bandages covered Todd’s nose. That wasn’t going to put the bones back together, but he didn’t have to stay in his form for much longer, so it didn’t matter. If he dared complain, Zach just might punch him once more.

“Where’s the bottle?” Todd asked Mina, whom he spotted despite his useless eyes because she stood next to the neon lights.

“In the back,” she said, nodding at the storeroom behind her.

“Well, are you gonna get it?” His voice sounded hoarser when he was irritated.

“No, silly,” she said, and blurted out the entire speech she’d prepared. “I told you I was sorry and that I’d pretend I didn’t see anything, should you walk in there while I was busy doing something else. That’s enough for Koe and Joe to kill me—figuratively speaking—and I wouldn’t have offered to help you if I didn’t think you didn’t deserve to be punched that hard. Nobody needs that kind of treatment after death—or before death, I might add. But now you actually asked me a question and I’ll have to lie for you, pretend like you never showed up here and you never asked the question. You can’t ask me to bring the bottle on top of that—”

“Fine, fine, fine,” Todd said.

He looked around, making sure that no one saw him—and only then noticed Zach on the stage.

“Mother of God,” said Todd and stumbled back.

Zach blew the cigarette smoke in Todd’s direction and said nothing. That seemed to unsettle Todd further. He turned to Mina, looking for a word of encouragement, explanation, anything.

“Just hurry,” she said. “He won’t punch you again if you don’t try to strangle me.”

“I wasn’t trying to—”

“Just go, seriously, gosh.”

Mina’s obvious irritation made Todd move. He walked around the counter to the bartender’s side and slipped into the storeroom at an amazing speed. Addicts. They only showed initiative when they could plunge deeper into their vice.

Zach stubbed out the cigarette on the silver case lying on the piano. He stood up and hopped off the stage.

In the storeroom, bottles clink-clanked against each other and on the metal shelves. Those sounds echoed and multiplied. Mina dusted the display shelves while maintaining a tactful distance from the open metallic door.

“I’m not seeing or hearing anything,” she said, without looking at Zach.

He went around the counter, much more deliberately and quietly than Todd had, and walked into the storeroom.

Keep things private, Flip and Flop had recommended. Zach planned on doing just that.

© 2022 Ithaka O.

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