Ch. 27 – These Times (3)

Final Fugue_Ithaka O._horizontal

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Angry, Zach grabbed the handle of the metal door leading out of the storeroom. Since it already stood open, he shut it.

Opened, shut. Opened, shut.

Nothing happened, except the door letting through, then blocking the sound of his piano recording, played backward.

Why had this method of visiting his beforelife suddenly stopped working?

With the baseball bat in hand, Zach approached Donald Todd, sprawled on the floor, face down. Shriveled up, the man was, now not even like an aged, sick koala. Rather, he looked like the mere hide of a koala. Todd’s hair had turned completely white, like the strands of a coarse, poor-quality hemp fabric that had been left in the sunlight to wither to the point of disintegration.

The hated whiskey smell in the storeroom had only become denser and more far-spread during Zach’s absence. The bright ceiling lamps were too blinding compared to the gentle moonlight in Angeline’s dark bedroom. The echoes of his own footsteps and breathing irritated Zach too.

“Wake up,” he said.

He nudged Donald Todd with the baseball bat.

“Wake up!”

Todd didn’t budge. Zach nudged harder with the bat, then pushed Todd until he turned over. At the sight of Todd’s face, Zach retched.

All moisture had been sucked out of Todd’s face. The eyeballs had dried up against the sockets and the tongue was wrinkled up like crumpled, sickly-brown paper.

Zach had to accept a terrible fact: Donald Todd had been spent. “Spent” was the word that came to Zach’s mind, because clearly, a man who’d already died couldn’t die again. And Zach had caused this spending. He hadn’t killed Donald Todd, but he’d spent the man by using whatever remaining life force inside him to take trips back to the beforelife land.

The sense of something akin to mourning and horror only lasted for a moment. After that, quiet rage overtook Zach. He wasn’t going to feel sorry for the man who’d put him in this position, to begin with. Useless, this man had become! From start to finish, Donald Todd had done absolutely no good.

Zach paced around. Now what? Did he have to wait for Angeline or Gus Shevlin to die? Maybe he could talk to Nora. But was he allowed to talk to her? She was extremely eager to talk to him already; that eagerness, he worried, might prompt him to break his promise to the women in black. Then what would happen?

He didn’t know for sure. That was part of the problem. He didn’t know what punishment he’d face if he broke the rules.

Like Flip and Flop had said, this whole “second chance” nonsense was pure trickery. Zach sat in a trap. He was stuck in eternity without any answers. He’d meant to keep his eyes wide open, really see what had happened to him, and in return, Angeline had run away from him and declined his marriage proposal.

Which, he had to admit, had been a silly proposal. But in that moment, with her by his side again, he’d hoped that all could be good once more…

He took deep breaths. He had to hit something. The baseball bat was there. Great. He raised it in the air and aimed it at the door that had become as useless as Donald Todd.

He hit it. Hit it again. Each time, the bat and the door generated clinks and clanks. Repeated over and over again, those ringing noises sounded like a melody.

Clink clank. Clink clank. Add to that Zach’s breathing. In and out, in and out. The rustling of his suit. Rustle-rustle. Rustle-rustle. The music of gradual destruction. Destruction of the door as well as the suit. The cashmere wasn’t meant for sweaty labor, but who cared anymore? It was already dirty with Todd’s blood.

Would’ve been nice to hit Donald Todd, that pointless asshole. The one who’d directly handed Zach this purple suit, the murder weapon. The man who’d made Zach trust him. Worse than Gus Shevlin. Worse, way worse.

Nevertheless, Zach couldn’t bring himself to turn mush out of Donald Todd.

Was Zach too good? Too weak? He couldn’t tell. The only thing he knew was that he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t possibly hit a man dead in beforeworld and used up at the hotel between worlds.

So, Zach kept hitting the door.

Clink clank. Clink clank.

Breathe in and out. In and out.

Rustle-rustle. Rustle-rustle.

A dent appeared on the metal surface—a tiny, insignificant dent, compared to the destruction that Zach had been able to cause with very little energy when he’d returned to New York. But it was enough to make him keep going.

Good that Mina had brought a metal bat. Not wood, not plastic, but metal. Metal against metal. A fair game in anyone’s dictionary, even in the women in black’s.

The dent turned into a crack. Zach found himself grinning like a maniac. Never had he guessed that there was this violent side in him, this side that reveled in destruction.

More sweat soaked the suit. He kept smashing the door. The crack extended. Multiplied.

Good. This was good, that finally, there was one activity in which the cause and effect were crystal-clear: Zach hits the wall, wall breaks.

Little pieces of the metal door crumbled around the cracks. More of the surface pulverized and made Zach cough as the powder drifted in the air.

Weird, that metal could crumble like concrete or cookies. But whatever led to the total annihilation of the door suited Zach.

Also, clink clank. Clink clank.

Breathe in and out. In and out.

Rustle-rustle. Rustle-rustle.

This music suited Zach. It carried him. When he was a child, he’d watched the men sing together as they labored in the fields. Rhythm carried them through the painfully hot summer days. Music did wonders. It put you in a trance state. If Zach wasn’t ever going to play on stage again, this, making music through destruction, could be his option.

Clink clank.

Breathe in, out.

Rustle-rustle.

The crack enlarged, like a shallow crater.

Clink clank.

In, out.

Rustle-rustle.

The shallow crater deepened and widened…

In his mind’s eye, he saw his muse in the form of Angeline Conners. He couldn’t distinguish the individual features of her face but he knew it was Angeline. She sat by the window and gazed out. Sunshine flooded in as always. Outside, the cornfields stretched far and wide.

His subconscious was taking him back home. His true home. Not New York City. He’d never been successful there and never would be. But the cornfields, oh, yes. His father would be proud of him now. Finally, Zacharias Steele, learning the value of physical labor.

Zach continued to hit the door. Then, he realized that there was a door no more. Only Angeline and the window overlooking the cornfields remained. The physical barrier between them had vanished thanks to the trance state. But the barrier of the mind remained firm. Zach felt definite resistance whenever he swung the bat. A semi-transparent wall of sorts. The kind that separated plant cells.

The interior setting beyond Angeline’s immediate surroundings was a blur. She might have sat in a cabin or a grand hall. Zach couldn’t tell. It had to be a cabin though—there were no grand halls where he came from.

Every time Zach swung the bat and hit what was in front of him, the atmosphere around Angeline vibrated. Good. Maybe he was shattering his lingering love for Angeline.

Hit, hit he did. Clink-clank. In, out. Rustle-rustle.

The air vibrated, the way the air around the piano strings vibrated when Zach hit a note. Truly, he was making music with this bat. Music had transported him here, to his muse, to her warmth.

No. To his hot fury. That was where music had transported him. The gentle warmth, her, everything else was just in his head. Only the beads of sweat running down his temples were real. He had to remember that.

And that reminded him: the sun-flooded room wasn’t his true home either. Why did he always resort to the most naive, most convenient thought? His father wasn’t here. He was probably dead by now. Nothing in Zach’s mind was real. So he had to destroy that image of fake warmth, that representation of his naïveté.

Hit, hit he did, clink-clank, in, out, rustle-rustle, one more hit—

Angeline Conners looked at him.

Startled, Zach dropped the bat.

Instantly, his sunshine-flooded muse vanished. He found himself in the storeroom lit by artificial lights. The reek of whiskey surrounded him once more. The backward piano recording sounded through a gaping hole in the middle of the metal door.

What had he just seen? Angeline had seemed startled. It was as if his last hit had awakened her from her peaceful cornfield-gazing time. But she existed in his mind. Did that mean that he’d just startled himself?

A face appeared in the hole in the metal door.

Zach yelped, backed away, slipped on the puddle of whiskey, and fell next to Donald Todd.

“I’m sorry I startled you, Zacharias.”

It was Lady Song. She opened the door. Zach quickly scrambled up.

Lady Song was the owner of the hotel and Zach’s boss. She remained standing just outside the storeroom, her hands folded in front of her. She didn’t seem particularly angry that he’d destroyed her property. That didn’t surprise Zach. Never once had she reprimanded him in the many years he’d worked for her. Neither had he ever witnessed her reprimanding anyone else.

Sometimes, her expression was so calm like the surface of a still lake that you didn’t know whether she had any opinion on anything. But her policies always spoke louder than her facial muscles.

She was the one who provided the recently deceased guests with an unlimited supply of cookies. She was the one who’d designed (at least, so everyone thought) the entire hotel with its many considerate lighting fixtures and fans. She was the one who took care of all worker-residents of the hotel, the old-looking ones and young-looking ones alike.

Directly or indirectly, everyone here was indebted to her, and it wasn’t merely because she was their boss. People didn’t get hired and fired here anyway. And their indebtedness was much more deep-seated than any gratitude that mere employment could trigger.

Lady Song was the owner of their home. Their mother figure. The person who always seemed to know more than anyone else.

Knowing her, Zach doubted that she was feigning calm, only to unleash her anger later. This lady didn’t hold grudges. But the lack of her anger didn’t mean that Zach hadn’t done something wrong. Now that the repetitive rhythm of his music of destruction didn’t carry him anymore, he was painfully aware of the stupidity of what he’d done.

“I’m so sorry, Lady Song,” he said. “Did the guests hear? Did I disturb… I mean, even if no one heard, I’m so sorry.”

“No one heard,” Lady Song said. She stepped into the storeroom to examine the door from the other side. “The hotel is remarkably soundproof when it wants to be, and no one’s in the lounge.”

Tonight, Lady Song wore a midnight-blue, knee-length dress. Whitish-yellow dots sprinkled across the entire fabric. She wore tasteful, practical high heels. Her black hair covered her shoulders. Her nails were trimmed moderately short—again, tastefully—and smoothly painted with alternating colors: midnight-blue and whitish-yellow glitter.

She looked one or two decades older than Zach, but age was a poor tool for describing her. She had one of those timeless faces on which age was written in very fine, almost invisible wrinkles.

“What did the door do to you to make you do this to it?” she asked, facing Zach.

“Nothing,” he said, blushing. Stupid, stupid him.

“Then why are you hitting it instead of playing the piano?”

“I…”

Zach didn’t know where to begin. If he told her that he was scared of the stage because he died there, what would she say? What would the women in black say?

“I’m sorry,” was all he said.

“Will you play, then?”

“I can’t.”

Lady Song gazed at him. Her take on his sudden inability to play was difficult to guess.

Then she glanced at Donald Todd on the floor. “Step outside, please, Zacharias.”

Zach did as told. Lady Song went to the lounge side too. She stood between the damaged, open door and Zach. With her palm, she swiped the air just above the hole in the door.

When Lady Song stepped aside, there was no hole anymore. The metal door had become whole.

Zach’s jaw dropped. As if nothing special had happened, Lady Song grabbed the handle to push the door closed.

“Wait,” Zach said.

“Yes?”

“What… How…”

“Someone has to take care of the hotel, Zacharias.”

“Yes, but…”

“Today can be construed as you taking a much-needed break. But I’d much prefer it if you took shorter breaks more frequently in the future—much like beforeworlders of some places and some eras taking weekends off throughout the year, rather than accruing three months’ vacation time and using it all at once. Now, can I close the door?”

“No, wait.”

“Yes?” she said patiently.

So many questions popped up in Zach’s head.

“What about him?” he asked, pointing at Donald Todd on the floor of the liquor storeroom.

“He has expired,” Lady Song said. “You’ve used him up.”

“How aren’t you surprised?”

“By what?”

“By him. His state. By me being with him. By me, doing nothing about his state.”

“Hmm.”

Lady Song pondered the way adults pondered so that they could give a child the most succinct, easiest-to-understand answer.

“I have a way of running this hotel,” she finally said. “It requires that I see the bigger pictures than the other employees.”

“The bigger picture?”

“The bigger pictures.”

“Does that mean that you know… I mean…”

“Some things I know, I have to pretend I don’t know, because those who also know would rather that I didn’t know.”

Zach translated this as: Some things Lady Song knew, she had to pretend she didn’t know, because the women in black would rather that she didn’t know. But it relieved Zach greatly that someone as calm and controlled as Lady Song was aware of his situation. She didn’t have to know the exact details; she knew the essence.

“And you’ve seen cases like this before?” he asked.

“Many,” she said.

“Here?”

He couldn’t believe that his fellow worker-residents at the hotel had gone through similar things that he was going through. Did that mean that some of them were murder victims, just like him? Could it mean that all of them were murder victims?

“Here,” Lady Song said, “elsewhere, everywhere in between.”

“What does that mean?”

“Sometimes, here and elsewhere are difficult to separate. And some lives are so intertwined in the before and after, it’s unclear who owes whom, and what. Such lives are forever entangled. But others, they are best kept apart. And for that, the hotel has many hidden nooks and many facades.”

Zach stared at her. She’d told him something profound that he didn’t fully understand.

“Would’ve been nice if I could’ve had the list of everyone who knows about these things,” he eventually said.

“As I said, they don’t like that I know. Or that anyone else knows, for that matter. Makes it hard to keep us under control. But someone has to know. Some can’t help but know.”

Like Flip and Flop.

“Now, I’m going to close the door,” Lady Song said.

“But what about—”

Zach didn’t need to finish his question. Before Lady Song gently closed the door, he caught one last glimpse of Donald Todd as his remnants were absorbed by the floor of the brightly lit storeroom.

Then, with a click, the door fully closed.

“The afterworld police will come looking for him,” Zach said.

“They will,” Lady Song said. “But their fugitive won’t be available for their taking.”

Fugitives were those deceased who slipped through the system before they reached the release stage. Often, it was because they thought some information in their case file was false. The lawyers and reapers, of course, explained that falsifying the case file was impossible. The Sin Research Division had a way of ensuring that every deed was being properly witnessed and recorded. The guests, of course, didn’t believe that. They hid in the cafe, in the lounge, or in some relatively secluded room within the hotel, hoping that no one would find them. Usually, such fugitives didn’t stay fugitives for long. They were found within a couple of hours.

But sometimes, they never showed up again. Now Zach knew where the “successful” fugitives went. At least some of them were like Donald Todd—unintentional fugitives. They’d been used up and were sucked up by the hotel. No one would find Donald Todd’s soul ever again. No one could tie his disappearance to Zach.

“I wouldn’t worry about the afterworld police,” Lady Song said. “You still have time until Jeremiah’s morning gong.”

“What time is it?”

“Oh, 1 a.m. or so. Not as late as you might have thought.”

That meant that Zach had only been less than an hour away from the hotel when he’d taken the repeated trips back to his beforelife. Clearly, time was subjective. And Lady Song knew about these subjective things as if they were unchangeable facts.

“Who are you?” Zach said.

He didn’t know how to be more specific than that. He stared at Lady Song. But with the door to the storeroom closed, there wasn’t enough light in the cocktail lounge to see her clearly. For the first time in a long while, Zach wished there were more light to illuminate the murk.

“I am the hotel,” Lady Song said. “Most of this building. Mr. Lee is most of the outside, the island. But then, outside and inside are malleable concepts, so I’d just say, we are the hotel between worlds. Now, you must go get your suit cleaned.”

“What?” Zach said, incredulous.

The lady of the hotel had just said that she and her lover were the hotel. And she thought it mattered whether his suit was clean or not?

“Get your suit cleaned,” she said again, “unless you have something better to do right now, which you don’t, which is probably why you were hitting this door instead of playing the piano.”

Zach wanted to tell her that he very much appreciated her trust in his ability to be useful but that a clean suit wasn’t going to make him less afraid of the audience. He needed to quit. He was going to be the first person to resign from his post in the history of the never-changing, eternal hotel between worlds.

“You see, I need you to play,” she said, as if she’d read his mind. She looked him straight in the eyes and said, “Mr. Lee isn’t here but I’m sure he wouldn’t mind me saying: We are the hotel and we know everything that goes on within its walls and between them. But some things are out of our control even within this hotel and its grounds. We aren’t dictators, after all. We aren’t mind control artists either. You and your piano are some of the things we cannot control. You are protected by this hotel because we let you in, but you aren’t part of us.”

Obviously. Yes. Zach wasn’t part of Lady Song or Mr. Lee.

“The recording is better than nothing, because, believe me, the cocktail lounges filled with silence are awful,” Lady Song said, “but I much prefer your playing the piano over the recording. So, you should get your suit cleaned.”

Zach softly shook his head. Lady Song—the owner of the hotel, and according to her, the hotel itself, together with Mr. Lee—was talking about big pictures and cocktail lounges in the plural form. And somehow, she was connecting all that to his suit. Why was it that the key female figures in his life spoke in riddles when it came to his suit? It was more puzzling than the actions of the key male figures in his life, who’d chosen a suit, of all things, as a murder weapon.

The only part that Zach understood crystal-clearly, and therefore repeated stupidly, was: “You think I should get my suit cleaned.”

“Yes,” Lady Song said. “This is all I can tell you as the owner of the hotel, for the hotel.”

© 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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