Ch. 26 – These Times (2)

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Zach lay in a bed, on a mattress that was neither too soft nor too hard. It was dark, but he could discern the bed’s four-poster frame and its drapes. Through the gap beyond those drapes, Zach saw the moonlight that touched the surface of an elaborately carved drawer.

A warm breeze blew in. It was summer. Whenever the thin curtains fluttered, the moonlight shifted and touched different parts of the drawer. Smooth blankets covered his lower body. Except for that, he was naked.

Next to him, someone breathed. In and out, inhale, exhale, in that steady, gentle way of a person in deep sleep. Zach glanced at that person.

Angeline was sleeping on her stomach. This was her bedroom, in her penthouse, in 1925. Not much about her had changed in the six years since their first meeting, appearance-wise.

The same spine, bare in front of Zach like on so many other nights; seeming so fragile and yet miraculously supporting her back.

The same short blond hair, sometimes curly, sometimes straightened, tonight somewhere in-between.

And the same small hands and feet.

Not much had changed about Zach either, appearance-wise. He touched his chin, stubbles raw; his long fingers; his arms and legs. Nothing unfamiliar about any of that.

Maybe he was biased, because in his beforelife he and Angeline had always been, well, he and Angeline—too close to notice any differences, minute or huge. Two people, who always looked each other in the eyes, simply didn’t notice the world changing around them because the world stayed out of sight. Neither did they notice changes in the person in front of them. That person’s face might get all wrinkly, but the eyes, as long as the eyes stayed the same, they were the same person.

And even if that person were holding hands with a third person behind their back, the clueless partner wouldn’t notice.

Slowly, Zach leaned in toward Angeline. He buried his nose in her nape. Inhaled.

Tree bark and leather, mixed with the floral scents of her soap and perfume flooded his bloodstreams. He could feel her entire being with his entire body. It was as if he’d never died. He’d never left this world for the hotel between worlds. He’d never felt betrayed by her.

Gently, Zach kissed Angeline on the nape. She sighed, still asleep, maybe dreaming.

That reminded Zach of his jealousy. He wondered what kinds of dreams Angeline dreamed. Dreams with him? Dreams with Gus Shevlin? Dreams away from both of them?

“What is it?” Angeline asked.

Zach started.

She chuckled. “Did I surprise you?”

“I thought you were sleeping.”

He pulled away from her. She grabbed his arm.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“Nothing’s wrong.”

She turned, lying on her back. In the near-dark, only aided by the moonlight slipping in through the gap between the bed’s drapes, she gazed at him.

Zach swallowed, though his mouth felt dry. He’d come here to ask her questions, and lots of them, and yet, with her looking at him at this proximity, it was as if nothing had changed.

Absolutely nothing had ever happened between now and the same but different now that had occurred in his beforelife. The two moments were exactly identical. Why shouldn’t they be? As long as Zach, the only different element between those two moments, refused to recognize the difference and pretended that he was the old Zach from beforelife, before being murdered, before meeting Flip, Flop, and the women in black, why shouldn’t things stay the same?

The women in black must have known about Zach’s natural tendency to turn to naive hope rather than fixing a painful problem. Wasn’t this what they’d had in mind when they’d told Zach that he could do whatever he wanted? That he could live the same life again, except without being murdered this time?

For example, by doing the one thing that he should have done, thereby preventing all the bad things that had happened to him and her in beforelife:

“Angeline, marry me.”

Angeline stared at him.

“I should have asked you ages ago. Marry me.”

She still stared, saying nothing.

“I love you,” he said.

And she didn’t budge.

Now it was Zach’s turn to ask, “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, I…”

He waited.

And waited.

For her to say something.

Then, she said, “I can’t marry you, Zach. I’m sorry.”

A million possible reactions presented themselves in Zach’s mind.

He could press her, ask about Gus Shevlin. Tell her that he knew. Demand that she come clean with him.

He could pretend he was clueless, ask her once more to marry him. Tell her that they could move to where he came from, or wherever she was from, if she’d lied about being from around here. Zach didn’t care.

Or, Zach could decide to stop this iteration, return to the liquor storeroom at the hotel between worlds, and try to pick a better moment.

And so many other possibilities existed. But maybe, just one more question before he made his decision…

“Why can’t you marry me?”

Angeline hesitated, then said, “My family is counting on me.”

“Your family.”

“My father, my brothers. They’re counting on me.”

Zach couldn’t help himself. He laughed and said, “The father and brothers who don’t care where you are right now, and who you’re with?”

Angeline sat up, pulled the blankets closer. Despite the near-darkness, Zach could tell that she was hurt.

“Yes, those brothers and my father,” she said.

“If they’d cared about you, they’d have stopped me from seeing you.”

And from Gus Shevlin seeing you too.

“Believe me, they do care,” she said bitterly, “whether it’s about me, I don’t know, but they do care.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“What does it matter? You said the words. I said no. Now it’s over.”

“Wait, what?”

Angeline pushed the drapes aside and crawled out of bed with the blanket. Zach, exposed, hurriedly got out of bed too. At the great speed of his movements, the drapes fluttered. Angeline gasped in fear.

“What was that?” she said.

“Nothing, it’s nothing. Don’t be afraid.”

He had to deliberately slow down while he searched for his boxer shorts. Speed and strength, what useless powers. The power that he needed right now was the power to identify the location of his stupid underwear.

“Whatever that was,” Angeline said, “you’re acting very odd right now, Zach.”

“Odd? Because I asked you to marry me? That is just the reaction that every man wants.”

There, in the dark, Zach saw his boxer shorts on the floor. At least he had that going for him.

He dragged the drapes along with him for as long as possible so that he could cover himself. Then he reached down for the underwear. Quickly, he put it on. And that was great, because what Angeline said next made him furious.

“And here I thought you were naive,” she said, “but not blind enough to not know by now.”

This was what Zach had feared: that he’d led his life in total blindness. So, he flared up.

“What’s so wrong with believing that people mean what they say?” he said. “Am I supposed to run around, paranoid, thinking that everyone’s lying to me? And not just any ‘people,’ but you. Is it so wrong of me to expect the truth from you?”

“The truth,” Angeline said. She snorted, but sounded tearful rather than indignant. “The truth should be obvious, darling. Someone’s paying for this penthouse.”

Now, Zach saw a tiny bit more of the larger picture.

He asked, “He’s paying for the houses of your father and brothers, too, isn’t he?”

Angeline opened her mouth, almost said something, but only sighed. With great disappointment written all over her face, she gazed at Zach.

This hadn’t been the reaction that he’d expected. He’d guessed that she’d say “No” to his proposal because it was so out of the blue. He’d guessed that she might cry out of frustration, for being unable to tell Zach about her relationship with a mobster. Gus Shevlin was probably, by now, more powerful than either he or Angeline could have imagined in 1919.

And a tiny part of Zach had hoped that Angeline would say yes. If that had happened, he would’ve been willing to forget about all else—the truth, whatever—and do everything that Angeline wanted from him.

But her disappointment? Toward him, Zach, the other man who hadn’t known that he was the other, all this time? He hadn’t expected that.

“You cannot ever tell anyone that you asked me what you just asked me,” she said.

“Who— Why would I tell anyone, you just rejected me.”

“Yes. Good. I’m glad you weren’t planning on telling.”

“What, because if I do tell, then what? Is he going to get me shot without the police ever noticing?”

Angeline glared at Zach. Now she knew that he knew Gus Shevlin. That proved that Zach wasn’t as blind as she’d thought a moment ago; but in many ways, Zach knowing about Shevlin was worse.

She didn’t want Zach to say the name. Because if he did, if it became clear that he knew her relationship with that mobster—the one who’d so successfully kept himself out of the newspapers over the years—she’d have to do something that she didn’t want to do.

Such as, never seeing Zach again. Or, telling Gus Shevlin about Zach, because not only was Zach a threat to the mobster, but also to her and her family—the father and brothers who relied on her. The same father and brothers who smelled of tree bark and leather, of the cigar that Shevlin must have gifted them.

Zach chuckled bitterly. About that part, she hadn’t lied—that the cigar smell came from her family. She’d simply omitted a key piece of information. Oh, by the way, they got the cigars from this one man who pays for our apartments and will want you dead one day.

Zach got the sense that Angeline, too, had traits that were difficult to change, just as he was prone to taking detours rather than removing obstacles. She didn’t like talking more than she needed to. She hoped that her other man, Zach, understood the circumstances without being explicitly told. And if he wasn’t going to do that, the least he could do was to keep quiet and avoid asking childish questions.

This was why to the end, Angeline had refused to be more specific than “Don’t wear the suit.” She’d never wanted Zach dead, no, but she hadn’t wanted to sacrifice herself either. She hadn’t loved him, not the way he thought love worked, no matter what she’d told him.

And yet, he said again, “I love you.”

At this, Angeline’s shoulders slumped down.

“Don’t you love me?” he asked.

Before Angeline answered, darkness switched to light. The smell of soap, tree bark, and leather switched to the stench of whiskey.

Zach stood in the liquor storeroom of the hotel between worlds.

© 2022 Ithaka O.

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