Ch. 28 – Big Pictures and Cocktail Lounges (1)

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In a strange state of confused serenity, Zach left Lady Song in the cocktail lounge and walked out to the bright lobby. She’d told him nothing specific except for “Go get your shirt cleaned.” Everything else had been abstract philosophy talk that made sense at times and no sense at others. Yet he felt as if he’d been given the key to a solution to his problem. If not the key, then at least a key, to get him to the next step.

If Lady Song truly was the hotel itself (along with her lover Mr. Lee), she knew a lot more than Zach. And she was telling him, “Get your shirt cleaned.” So, he would.

He passed by a few groups of four consisting of a dead person, the reapers, and a lawyer. Some glanced at him, but most were deep in whispered conversations. They were keeping their voices down because it was late. Funny how the concept of time, even at a place as timeless as this hotel, could encourage people to act differently during the “day” versus during the “night.”

The valets with cookie trays walked around the lobby. The fans spread the sweet smell. Zach felt reassured. He was at home and he had a purpose. The valets politely nodded at him. They saw his bloodied suit, unlike the dead guests who couldn’t care less about someone else’s clothes at the moment. But the valets weren’t about to start asking questions.

Whatever happens, happens. It is not right, it is not wrong, but it is what happens. Maybe that saying was thrown around so much because otherwise, the entanglement of lives would become more complicated than it already was. Or maybe, all these valets had a murder story of their own and Zach had been the last to realize that everyone here had been killed. They knew what he was going through. They knew they couldn’t do much to help. And just in case any of them still dwelled in their blissful ignorance, Zach wasn’t going to start revealing unsolicited answers.

At the front desk, several groups huddled around the guestbook. Zach walked past them, too, through the little corridor nearby. From there, he took the stairs down to the basement. A hallway stretched as far as a person could see to either side of the staircase. It was lit in the most straightforward way possible: with lamps on the walls and ceiling, instead of chandeliers and the celestial bodies. A long stretch of black carpet covered the white marble floor tiles.

Zach took a left and followed the hallway until the smell of cookies faded and was replaced by the pleasant scent of laundry detergent. Machinery rattled softly and steadily, like a mechanical lullaby. The gentle vibrations in the air calmed Zach further. Soon, he reached two doors on either side of the hallway. Both stood ajar.

To the right: a room with ironing boards, irons, and ceiling-hangers with a variety of clothes.

To the left: a room with washers and dryers, every one of them in operation.

From that left room, low murmurs came: the voices of children and a woman. Zach slowed down and made his footsteps extra soft. He gently pushed the door open, just a little bit wider.

As he’d expected, the children’s voices belonged to the little twins who worked in the laundry. One, a girl with beautiful long platinum blond curls; the other, a boy with stunningly deep-charcoal short hair.

“Little” wasn’t just a term of endearment, though Zach was quite fond of the kids. These kids were truly little, being six-year-olds.

When the guests happened to spot the twins roaming about during their many break times, they couldn’t help but notice the twins’ black and white clothes.

Are those uniforms? the guests would ask. Are those little kids part of the hotel staff?

Yes, they are, a valet would answer. Outright lies were likely to infuriate a person further if that person was already prepared to be offended. This, because many hotel guests were aghast at the seeming cruelty of such extreme child labor. Sixteen-year-old workers, maybe. But six-year-olds?

Pity and outrage overcame many guests at the answer of the valet. And then, miraculously, the twins noticed. They stopped racing or chasing after each other and hurried toward the guests.

“May we have some cookies, please?” Alpha would say. This was the girl.

“Please?” Omega would say. This was the boy.

The guests didn’t need to be asked twice. It didn’t matter that the uniforms of the twins weren’t identical to those of the adult hotel workers. A knee-length skirt for Alpha, shorts for Omega, both in comfortable shoes—all such trivialities didn’t matter. Whatever the twins wore, they were six-year-old child laborers!

The guests grabbed as many cookies from the silver trays as they could and handed them to the twins. The twins smiled their sweetest smiles, said thanks, and rushed off.

If the guests felt the need to express their horror further, it was left to the valets to explain that the children were very happy here, and that they could take as many breaks as they wanted to. Then, either a lawyer or a reaper diverted the guests’ attention back to their cases.

The twins knew that they should stay away from the lobby for a while. Otherwise, either a reaper or a lawyer might get vexed at them. Or, Sam, one of the sous chefs, might chase after the twins. That was a sight that none of the hotel staff liked to watch. It looked very bad, for someone as lanky and twenty-something as Sam to chase after two seemingly harmless children. But of course, Sam had his reasons for not wanting the twins to get in the habit of eating the lobby cookies. The twins ate a lot. A lot. And for eternity too.

The twins weren’t normal six-year-olds. They were of the hotel, like any other worker-resident on the island. They couldn’t starve to death. Also, they were probably older than most of the hotel guests. In fact, now that Zach had learned just how long he had stayed at the hotel without a clear sense of time, he wasn’t so sure if he was older than the twins. Was anybody older than anybody else at this hotel?

Add to that the way time flowed differently in the beforeworld iterations, and the twins’ real age became a very tricky matter. They acted like children, but at other times, when they became manipulative, Zach couldn’t help but think: maybe they’re just making the most of the physical trap they’re in.

They couldn’t age or grow physically. They couldn’t change at all. But they never complained about it, the way some children whined that they wanted to grow big and strong like their Mommy or Daddy or older brothers and sisters. Did the lack of whining make the twins wise, or truly and cluelessly young? Was it even true that they were twins? Because of the stark contrast in their hair color, the twins looked like complete opposites at first sight. Had these kids not been so adamant about being called twins, no one would have guessed that they were siblings.

But over time, one could identify many similarities between them. For one thing, they both knew how to grin in the most mischievous yet charming way. For another, they never went anywhere without the other.

At any rate, all such complicated subjects were to be kept out of the guests’ minds. Therefore, the guests were never to learn that the twins’ job didn’t just consist of light chores, such as wiping the dining tables before and after meals. (The twins didn’t do that. None of the kitchen or dining hall staff wanted them near the kitchen or the dining hall unless absolutely necessary. To repeat: the twins ate a lot.) These two kids were in charge of the laundry for the entire hotel, with hundreds of guests coming and going on an hourly basis. And they’d been in charge that way for many, many years.

Presently, the twins had their little backs turned toward Zach. They sat on small stools, listening intently as the woman in front of them spoke. Zach couldn’t see the woman’s face from this angle because she sat opposite of the twins and the door blocked her from view. But judging by the reaction of the twins, she was telling them an exciting story.

Zach found the woman’s voice familiar. But he couldn’t pinpoint which of the hotel staff she was. Still, she had to be one of them. The twins knew better than to talk to the guests down here.

The twins broke into sudden laughter. They seemed incredibly fond of the woman who was speaking to them in a low voice. Zach wondered if he should come back another time.

But at that moment, a gust of wind blew the door wide open. The twins whirled around.

“Zach,” they said, delighted.

They hopped off their stools and ran toward Zach. Before Zach could say anything, they each grabbed one of his long-fingered hands with their tiny hands and pulled him toward: Lisa, the strangely familiar, middle-aged woman with the highly polished, short hair, who’d visited the cocktail lounge with her sister and father.

“Hello,” Lisa said. She stood up from the stool.

“Hello,” Zach said.

“Lisa, Zach. Zach, Lisa,” said Alpha.

Lisa still smiled faintly from her amusing talk with the twins just now. She and Zach shook hands.

At the moment their hands touched, another gust of wind circled around the laundry room. It was the size of a tennis court, large enough to be filled with a dozen washers and a dozen dryers, so that wind this strong couldn’t be mistaken as a mere draft. The wind lifted up all their hair, whipped it against their faces, then settled down.

The group exchanged confused glances. The twins laughed.

“So strange,” Alpha said.

“Just like you said,” Omega told Lisa.

“I was just telling them,” Lisa said, “how there’s this wind that seems to be chasing after me ever since I arrived here. There’s one that’s following my sister, too, and I’m not sure if it’s the same wind or two separate winds. Two separate winds—is that even possible?”

“I’ve heard some guests talk about whispering walls, ma’am,” Zach said. “Sounds no stranger than that.”

“We told her,” Alpha said, “that sometimes it’s like we can fly, when we’re running outside, because the wind lifts us up.”

“We thought it was just us,” Omega said, “because all the others at the hotel think that we’re crazy when that happens.”

“They say we’re imagining things,” Alpha said.

“But see, it happened to Lisa too,” Omega said.

“Sort of,” Alpha said.

“Because she’s an adult,” Omega said. “But if she were as small as us, she’d have felt like she was flying too.”

“Very odd hotel, in a good way,” Lisa said. “It’s like it’s alive.”

It was alive, in an oddly between-world way; the building was Lady Song. But the gusts of wind? Zach doubted that she controlled all the winds of the hotel. If she didn’t micromanage people, why would she micromanage air?

But what Zach found odder was why he found this woman, Lisa, so much more familiar than any other guest. Apparently, Alpha and Omega were fond of her, too, and strangely so, considering that they couldn’t have known her for more than half a day. These children weren’t children who’d be easily swayed by corporate tactics—of smiling and gesturing at you to make you feel like you’re special friends—and besides, Lisa wasn’t acting formally at all.

“What happened to your suit?” Alpha asked.

Zach reluctantly looked away from Lisa. “There was a little disagreement earlier today, in the lounge,” he said.

“ ‘A little disagreement’ that led to blood?” Omega asked.

“If the disagreement had been any bigger, there’d have been more blood,” Zach said.

The twins shrugged. “Give us the clothes,” they said.

“I should get going, then. Let you work,” Lisa said.

“No!” the twins said.

“You were about to tell us what Sam did after he saw you in the kitchen,” Omega said.

Lisa glanced at Zach furtively. She’d told the twins about the events regarding Sam because the twins took the form of little children. But Zach being an adult, in terms of physical shape, Lisa seemed to think that maybe he shouldn’t know about what happened. Interesting, that Lisa had this mischievous side, just like the twins. And here Zach had thought that she was a perfectly polished corporate-representative type.

“Don’t worry,” Alpha said. “Zach is our friend.”

“That’s right,” Omega said. “Zach doesn’t care about food, so he doesn’t care about Sam, right?”

“I wouldn’t put it that way,” Zach said.

He hadn’t run into Sam very often over the years. Sam mostly stayed in the kitchen and Zach stayed in the cocktail lounge. And since Zach rarely went to the staff hall for the meals, they hadn’t had much chance to socialize. That didn’t mean that Zach “didn’t care” about Sam.

But Omega definitely didn’t care whether that was the case or not.

“I’d put it in that way,” Omega said. “You guys have no overlapping interests whatsoever.”

“Sit down, Lisa,” Alpha said. “Please. You have to finish the story.”

“All stories where Sam ends up flustered are worth hearing,” Omega said.

“She said, as soon as Sam saw her, he dropped a bunch of plates,” Alpha told Zach. She giggled. “They all shattered and there was a big fuss at the kitchen.”

“Really?” Zach said.

He tried to not frown, but couldn’t hide his wariness completely. Sam, in addition to Zach and the twins, seemed to see something in this woman named Lisa.

“Come here, Zach.” Omega pulled Zach to the door. “You can get changed in the ironing room. I’ll give you spare clothes.”

Alpha flopped on her stool and asked Lisa, “And then what happened?”

“Don’t continue without me!” Omega said.

Zach let Omega drag him across the hallway to the ironing room. It was substantially drier and brighter than the laundry room, but also smaller.

There, while Omega stayed by the door to ensure that Alpha and Lisa weren’t continuing the story without him, Zach took off the bloodied shirt and suit jacket. And upon spotting a drop of blood on his pants, he took them off as well, albeit reluctantly.

He really didn’t enjoy being exposed. The last time he’d been this exposed with another person nearby, he’d had a fight with Angeline in his reliving of his beforelife—right after his failed marriage proposal, on top of that. And way before that, he’d ended up accepting the murder-weapon suit from Donald Todd.

“There are spares there,” Omega said. He was pointing at the many clothes hanging from the ceiling without looking around to face Zach or the clothes.

Zach considered the collection: sweaters, T-shirts, pajamas, jeans, and other sorts of casual clothes that he hadn’t worn for a long time.

“Do you have a suit?” he asked.

“No suit,” Omega said quickly. With one foot in the hallway and one foot in the ironing room, the boy was trying to figure out just what Alpha and Lisa were giggling about without him.

Zach faced the casual clothing collection again. There, behind the bunch of jeans, a single button-down shirt lurked. It was made of cotton. Checkered, in purple and green. Zach rolled his eyes. That shirt was in the colors of Mina’s Fairy Violets cocktail. Which, now that Zach thought about it, consisted of the colors he most associated with Angeline and himself. It was as if the hotel had known which colors conveyed the most symbolic meaning to him, even before he’d recovered his memory, and had inspired Mina to create a cocktail in those colors. Then, the hotel had designed the spare shirt.

Nevertheless, the shirt was the most reasonable option for him, compared to a sweater or a T-shirt. Wearing an uncollared piece of garment bordered on walking around in underwear-only. So, he snatched the shirt from the hanger and pulled down a pair of blue jeans.

These clothes didn’t go with his leather dress shoes at all. That amused Zach. Not that style was the most important factor right now, but one fact was undeniable: Zach had died in style. But now, out of all times, in afterworld, he found himself wearing a combination of clothes that was quite unpresentable, in his opinion.

“Are you done?” Omega asked impatiently.

“Yes,” Zach said.

At this, Omega finally turned away from the hallway and faced Zach. “Looks good,” the boy said.

Zach grinned.

“Come, come,” Omega said.

This time, the boy didn’t drag Zach with him. He scurried across the hallway back to the laundry room without waiting for Zach.

Zach stopped in the hallway. “Actually, I should get going,” he said.

“You’re not staying for the Sam story?” Alpha asked.

She and Lisa had been sitting across from each other, heads leaned forward as if they were two best friends conspiring to conquer the world. Now, with Omega joining them again, a triangle was formed. The three of them looked up at Zach from their respective stools.

“Yeah, I have to get back to the lounge,” Zach said.

Lady Song had told him to get the suit cleaned, and he’d done so. There was nothing here, except for this woman named Lisa. She felt strangely familiar, but finding strange elements at the hotel was old news.

After exchanging brief goodbyes, Zach took the stairs to the lobby. A strangely purposeful whirl of wind followed him. Constantly, it tickled the back of his hands and ruffled his hair, as if clamoring for attention.

Zach tried to ignore that. A wind. What could a wind possibly do, except for being annoyingly unclear in its messages? Just like Lady Song, winds in any shape or form were riddles. And frankly, he was getting tired of riddles. Better return to the lounge and see what happened to Donald Todd before Mina gets to work in the morning. Had the floor finished swallowing that old man? Or was there something that remained of him that Zach could use?

At the top of the staircase, the light from the chandeliers became visible. The freshly-baked cookies smelled sweet. Lawyers, reapers, and the recently-dead murmured. The concierge gave instructions, telling the guests to check their names in the guestbook—

At a sudden, loud fluttering of pages, the guests at the front desk yelped. The black curtain that separated the public front desk area from the staff area fluttered madly. That effect rippled throughout the lobby. Curious whispers spread. The concierge apologized profusely, mumbling, “I don’t know what’s up with this guestbook—”

And once more, the pages fluttered madly. They sounded as if an entire brood of chicks were angrily attempting flight.

Zach rushed to the top of the staircase. A half-moon circle had formed by the front desk. Tonight’s concierge was Charlie. On any normal day, Charlie barely looked up from the guestbook that lay perfectly still on the front desk. His arm or hand tended to rest on his chubby belly and his sharp eyes quickly browsed through the many rows of guest names and room numbers. If not that, he had a separate mountain of paperwork to get through and mechanically asked the new guests the necessary questions to check them in.

But right now, the guestbook was far from lying perfectly still and Charlie was acting far from detached. In fact, Charlie, that chubby-bellied man with sharp eyes, was actively struggling with the guestbook. Struggling—as if the guestbook were a farm animal that had been hitherto tame, but suddenly couldn’t be kept in the cage anymore. Its pages jittered, flapped, and slapped Charlie’s hands as he tried to close it.

“What is going on?” Charlie said, obviously to himself, because no one in the lobby could answer his question.

“Charlie,” Zach said.

The guestbook sprung from Charlie’s hands. Now, truly like a bird, it flapped its wings: one half of its pages, the left wing; the other half, the right wing. It flew toward Zach.

The people gathered in the lobby gasped and backed away. Even the lawyers and reapers, who’d seen a lot more than the guests, seemed shocked at the sudden motivation that the guestbook showed. For countless years, it had lain on the front desk passively, as books often did. But now, this?

As the book came closer, Zach thought that its blotchy brown cover gave it the impression of a wild animal. Most people who came to the cocktail lounge found the guestbook beautiful, or at least noteworthy. Calfskin, they said. Exquisite calfskin. But the more morbidly-minded liked to claim that the book was made of human skin. Keeping human affairs internal, they said. Why should the calves be killed to keep a record of the human dead?

Either way, animal leather. And the supernatural flying guestbook-bird seemed to derive energy from the pulse that used to drive whichever animal that had provided the skin for its cover.

And not just the energy, but also its purpose. For, clearly, it wasn’t just flying toward Zach because he happened to stand there. It was flying at Zach, for Zach, aiming.

Now that it became clear that Zach was the target, the audience reaction multiplied. The audience was in safety; the event had become a spectacle worthy of witnessing, not a personal disaster.

Zach backed away in the opposite direction from the audience. He alternated between glancing at the book and glancing back at the stairs that led to the basement.

Then, when the book came within a few feet of him, he rushed downstairs, not looking back. Some people in the audience laughed. Others let out outraged sighs, in pity for Zach.

Either way, Zach suppressed a shiver as he ran. This, on top of everything else, made it even more impossible for him to play on stage again. He hated being the center of attention without any sense of control.

From the left side of the hallway, Lisa and the twins emerged. They ran toward Zach.

“What’s going on?” Alpha asked.

Zach let out a halfhearted “I, no, this—” because, frankly, couldn’t Alpha see what was going on? A guestbook was flying after him.

Lisa said, “Holy mother of—”

But before she could state whose mother she was referring to, the guestbook flapped its wings once, twice, slowly but vigorously, generating a wind strong enough to blast the twins aside.

While Zach and Lisa gasped in shock, the guestbook hovered over them, spread its wings—suddenly longer than those of a giant albatross.

Then, abruptly and perfectly straight, the book fell on top of Zach and Lisa.

The fall of that immensely enlarged guestbook should have broken their bones, but it didn’t. Instead, Zach and Lisa found their bodies crossing the basement floor without the slightest resistance.

© 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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