Ch. 14 – Ten Years Before That Day in Beforeworld

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The loud approach of a honking car yanked Zach out of his confusion and forced him to jump out of its way.

“Watch where you’re going, asshole!” yelled the driver.

Tottering, Zach watched the car drive off, leaving a trail of disgustingly thick and hot exhaust gas that looked especially black under the brilliant sun.

Zach coughed. This coughing was familiar, and at the same time, surreal and new. He vaguely remembered the last time he’d coughed this much, this hard…

But that wasn’t the important part right now. He whirled around, waving off the exhaust gas, in search of someone or something concrete that would reveal the location and time of this place, which definitely wasn’t the well-ventilated, palace-like liquor storeroom of the hotel between worlds.

He tripped on something high and hard. Instinctively, he rolled to the side on his arms so that he didn’t land with his hands or end up smashing his face on one of the dirty bluestone slates.

A sidewalk. He’d tripped on a sidewalk.

And something had fallen off his head—a baggy, shabby cap, the same color as the sidewalk that must have been trampled on by a million people.

A few pedestrians laughed, walking past. Zach couldn’t see their faces yet. The exhaust refused to clear from his view. But for sure, they weren’t one of the hotel staff in their black and white uniforms. They, his coworkers, wouldn’t laugh at him so maliciously.

Or was he just acting naively again? The Carningsby residents had killed him after all, so why couldn’t his coworkers do the same?

But no Donald Todd? No baseball bat? No Mina?

Correct. They were nowhere to be seen. And Zach was outside. The dirty sidewalk and the car that had almost run over him told him that much.

He crawled up and snatched the baggy cap from the ground. Then he stumbled up, shaking off the dirt and dust from himself using that cap. The hotness and blackness of the exhaust gas were dissipating. With that, another sensation swept over Zach: the cold. He shivered.

How had he gotten here from the liquor storeroom?

To get a wider view of the surroundings, Zach backed away.

“You dropped something there, old sport,” said a man, passing by. He seemed to be in a particularly good mood today, as crisp as the morning air.

“What?” Zach said.

He must look like a fool, glancing around, so flustered. But he glanced around anyway and stepped on something: a briefcase—battered, ancient.

Indeed, that man had been right. Zach had dropped that thing. The briefcase was his. Zach wore the cap and picked up the briefcase.

Last time, Zach had dropped both the cap and the briefcase, just like this time.

And last time, that man had said “You dropped something there, old sport,” just like this time.

Which meant…

The memories of the last time Zach had coughed this much, this hard, began flooding his brain with distinct clarity. This wasn’t the hotel between worlds, and he wasn’t Zacharias Steele, the cocktail lounge piano player—at least not yet.

Knowing what he’d find, he examined himself, grasping his clothes just to make sure that they were real. He wore a shabby gray suit; not the purple one, so perfectly fitting his figure, but a baggy one, as if he’d fished it out of a donation box at a church—which he actually had, only a few days ago.

Only a few days ago. Was that right? Should he say, a few days and many more years ago?

Because, clearly, this, here, was Zach’s first day in New York City, ten years before his death.

His heart hammered like mad. He whirled around. The commuters who filled the dirty but lively streets of early 1919 sometimes cursed at him, and sometimes laughed at him for blocking the way with such a flustered expression. The insides of Zach’s nostrils froze at inhale and unfroze at exhale. With every car that drove past, exhaust gas filled the streets once more, blurring his view.

Zach clasped the briefcase as if it were his lifeline, the nearest concrete object in this surreal situation. He’d teleported from the hotel to a street filled with densely clustered one-story shops. In the distance, a web of streets with taller buildings stretched far and wide.

New York City.

That had to be it. That was the only explanation.

And there, in a dirty window for a vacated shop between a dressmaker’s and a jeweler’s shop, was reflected the image of Zacharias Steele when he was twenty-two years old, fresh from the cornfields and tired from the long train trip.

As if enchanted—and bumping into even more commuters—Zach approached the reflection.

He’d long forgotten about this boy, so full of hope, so full of dreams. And some would call a twenty-two-year-old boy a man, but to Zach (who should have been sixty-two by now, had time worked the same way in afterworld as in beforeworld) twenty-two was a boy. A mere boy…

Zach turned away from his reflection and faced the streets.

So much hope. So much possibility. All these busily moving people, more than Young Zach had ever seen in his entire life. A big city, so different from home—his beforelife home—where people smelled of dirt and grass and firewood instead of gas and cigarettes and booze…

That was where Zach had returned.

How?

He’d been talking to Todd, who had tried to leave the liquor storeroom after revealing that Gus Shevlin was a mobster and that Angeline had been his mistress. Mina had smashed Todd’s head with the baseball bat, then she’d given Zach the bat and closed the door, then—

Then this had happened. The teleportation.

Keep it private, Flip and Flop had said. Was this what they’d meant? Close the door?

“Hey, excuse me, sir,” a booming baritone’s voice said from across the street.

Zach turned to the man who’d spoken. He was a huge blond babyfaced middle-aged person who wore a white apron smudged with some brownish sauce. He’d just emerged from one of the restaurants on the other side of the street. It said The Underwater Grille on the windows.

Two uniformed police officers, who’d walked out after this babyfaced man, retreated back into the restaurant with a frown when they realized that Zach was staring right at them. At this, the babyfaced man whispered something to the officers. Zach couldn’t hear the words, but the deep low voice generated a vibration that was faintly perceptible despite the great distance. That babyfaced man seemed to worry about nothing. His broad silly grin never faded. But the officers snapped something back. They worried. Quickly, they dashed out of the restaurant and walked off, puffing angry white clouds of curses under their breaths.

The babyfaced man shrugged, remained standing in front of the restaurant, and waved eagerly at Zach. He didn’t seem to feel the cold.

More cars vroomed past, meaning more exhaust gas. Nevertheless, Zach could see how that Big Blond Babyface with the baritone voice stopped waving and crossed the street without looking left or right.

Cursing and honking, a hundred times louder than what Zach had experienced when he’d stood cluelessly in the middle of the street, was now thrown at the man. Still, the man didn’t slow down. He seemed to know no fear, this Big Blond Babyface. Spellbound, Zach watched him finish crossing the street alive and unhurt.

“Are you here for the audition? For the bookstore?” said Big Blond Babyface, well before the shroud of black gas that he’d brought with him cleared between him and Zach.

“I…” said Zach, but stopped.

He’d just remembered what made this day so significant.

Through the thick gas clouds, Zach could tell that Big Blond Babyface was squinting to see Zach’s face clearly.

But Zach didn’t squint. All muscles in his body seemed to have frozen, not because of the cold, but because of the cascade of feelings that poured through him.

Surprise. Hatred. But most prominently, thrill, resulting from a combination of vindication, certainty for victory, and sick delight.

Those feelings shook Zach to the core without the world noticing it the slightest. He appreciated his body, for knowing when to freeze. It was better this way, that no one knew what Zach was going through, especially not Big Blond Babyface with the incongruous baritone voice. Otherwise, he could suspect that Zach recognized him; that Zach knew his name, even though evidently, for Big Blond Babyface, this was their first encounter.

Finally, the exhaust gas cleared. Big Blond Babyface didn’t seem to find the gas particularly disagreeable, just as Zach, back then, had associated it with opportunity and energy rather than pollution and health risks. Even now, knowing all that he knew, Zach didn’t dislike the black clouds. So many years later—or no years later at all—and despite the painful coughing they caused, the black clouds still represented opportunity and energy, perhaps even more so than last time, because…

“Well, if you are here for the audition, I’m the man you’re looking for. I’m Gus Shevlin,” said Big Blond Babyface.

This was the day Zach had met his would-be killer for the first time. This was the only day on which they’d met, until Gus Shevlin had stood next to Zach while he died. In the ten years between now and his death, Zach had completely forgotten about this man.

Now he remembered.

Gus Shevlin offered his giant hand. Zach removed his cap, clutched it against his chest with one hand, and grabbed Gus Shevlin’s hand with the other. Zach shook that hand vigorously while looking up at the huge man’s eyes.

Truly, absolutely, Zach was glad to have met this person—again.

Shevlin seemed mildly surprised at the pressure, but his grin only broadened.

“That’s a proper handshake,” Shevlin said. “Shows a man’s strength of character.”

© 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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