Ch. 29 – Big Pictures and Cocktail Lounges (2)

Final Fugue_Ithaka O._horizontal

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Zach squinted because the basement of the basement had stronger lights than the basement.

That had to be where he’d ended up with Lisa. The basement of the basement. When the guestbook had miraculously elongated its wings like an albatross, blasted the twins aside, stormed toward Lisa and Zach, then fallen on top of them—that had to be where its weight had pushed Lisa and Zach to: through the floor, into the space beneath the basement: the basement of the basement.

Not just B2, not just B3, and not even B100. This basement of the basement was an area that wasn’t accessible through the elevators or stairs. Zach was pretty sure of this, since he’d never once had to cross the floor to get to any of the regular underground levels.

“Holy shit,” Lisa said from somewhere nearby. “Holy shit, holy shit.”

Her thoughts, like Zach’s, seemed to be spinning. Physically, too, he was spinning—tottering, stumbling, trying to figure out if he could trust the floor under his feet to be solid.

Then, this thought came to Zach: Lisa needs help.

For one thing, she was a middle-aged lady who was probably not used to physically demanding activities. But more importantly, she was a guest of the hotel, meaning that she, even more so than Zach, wasn’t used to this kind of supernatural phenomena. Even if Zach ended up quitting working at the cocktail lounge, he didn’t want any of the guests to leave the hotel dissatisfied with the service.

“Lisa?” he said.

He whirled around, supporting himself on the next best solid-looking object: a wooden bookshelf. Its surface felt smooth but reliably stable against his hand. Also, the shelf was long. So long that Zach couldn’t see its end.

Surprised, Zach looked around. A couple of arm spans away, there was another bookshelf, running parallel to the one he was holding. When he looked up, he couldn’t identify the top of the shelf. Guestbook after guestbook filled the shelves, so densely that Zach’s voice didn’t echo despite the substantial size of this place.

A phrase that had been buried in Zach’s memory floated to its surface: a room full of all the guestbooks that the hotel had ever used, with the names of famous people who’d visited over the years.

What the cocktail lounge guests had been gossiping about was true. Right in this hotel, there was a place that kept the records of everyone who’d ever died.

“Lisa,” Zach said again.

“Yes,” Lisa said.

She sat on the stone floor, which looked cool and smooth. Her hair, which used to look so polished, had become disheveled. She gazed up at Zach while she shook her head gently, mouth agape.

“What was that?” she said.

“I have no idea,” Zach said.

He helped her get up. While she combed her hair with her fingers and tried to unrumple her clothes, he continued to look around.

Each of the guestbooks filling the shelves looked more or less identical to the one that had brought them here. He could see many of them clearly because lamps had been installed along the various levels of the bookshelves so that no patch of darkness was left behind.

But none of the guestbooks seemed to be the book that had chased them down here. None of the books here had a cover as large as albatross wings.

“I can’t believe this is happening,” Lisa said.

She still sounded amazed, but not stressed or scared. Zach couldn’t believe that this was happening either. Things like this could happen to him, maybe. But to a hotel guest, that was a different story.

Many times, the guests were left in the dark, even when it came to the everyday operations of the hotel. What they didn’t absolutely need to know, they didn’t get to know. Since they were to release soon, why bother them with trivialities? What mattered the most to the majority of the guests was that they had died and would soon be no more. No more, not just in terms of the physical body that they’d left behind in beforeworld, but also in terms of the soul.

And yet, the guestbook had dragged Lisa into this mess. At the hotel. While Lady Song kept an eye on all goings-on within its walls and between them.

This was abnormal. Zach had to prioritize getting Lisa back to the areas of the hotel that were open to the guests.

“There should be a way back up,” Zach said. “I am very sorry for this inconvenience.”

“Inconvenience? Not at all.” Now, Lisa had completely recovered her calm and laughed. “This is pretty exciting.”

“If you’d like, I’ll try to find an exit while you wait here.”

“Oh, no. I want to explore.”

Unsure, Zach looked left and right. There was nothing to indicate danger, but there was nothing that indicated guaranteed safety either.

“Don’t worry,” Lisa said. “If something goes wrong, I’ll just die once more. Hmm?”

With that, she led the way along the bookshelves. Zach followed her.

As they walked along the aisle, marveling at the scale of the library, even more directional wind than earlier followed them around. This time, it was more like a breeze. And this time, the direction was always consistent: toward a particular shelf, but gentle enough for them to doubt that a breeze was guiding them.

“Are you feeling this push?” Lisa asked.

“I am,” Zach said.

In fact, he could lean back slightly and still avoid falling backward. Definitely, a force supported him. That, too, was abnormal.

“Eh, ma’am, Lisa, this doesn’t seem right. If you could stay here while I—”

“Oh, don’t worry, I won’t sue you. I don’t even know if it’s possible to sue you.”

“It’s not a lawsuit that I’m worried about, it’s your safety.”

“I can take care of my safety just fine.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure. I’m not so sure about my own safety either. You see, the hotel has many things hidden under its surface.”

“I can feel that. But what’s death good for if even after death, I can’t take risks because I’m scared of dying again?”

This woman was impossible to stop. So, together, Zach and Lisa approached the particular shelf that this breeze seemed to be so fond of.

“Now what?” Lisa asked.

As if answering her question, the breeze turned into a gust and pushed her down so that she fell on her knees.

“Hey!” Lisa said.

“Are you all right?”

Zach tried to pull her up, but the wind kept pressing her down. Now, apparently, it was pushing her one hand toward the very bottom of the shelf.

“I think it wants you to touch that part,” Zach said.

“Here?” Lisa said, and touched the wooden bottom.

To their surprise, the shelf reacted. It flinched and wiggled, acting like Alpha and Omega when they were tickled. Then, it spat out a foothold, which kept enlarging until it became more like a ledge: a wood panel that was large enough for a person to stand on.

“It’s trying to take us somewhere on this thing,” Lisa said. “But it’s not big enough for two people.”

“Let me see,” Zach said, knelt, and stroked the base of the shelf next to the ledge.

From there, too, another ledge emerged.

Lisa laughed, delighted. “I don’t believe this hotel!”

Then, without any additional pushes from the wind, she boarded the thing.

“Come on,” she said.

Zach considered his ledge. He looked up at Lisa. He looked around the library.

Maybe the strange events leading up to this point hadn’t been warnings. Maybe Lady Song had insisted on Zach getting his suit cleaned to get him to this ledge. And for whatever reason, Lisa, who had seemed like any other guest of the hotel, was playing a crucial role.

Zach made up his mind. He hopped on his ledge.

Then, they just stood there.

“Move,” Lisa said.

Nothing happened.

“Up?” Zach said.

And up, his ledge went, along the vertical frame of the bookshelf.

“Up,” Lisa said, delighted.

And they continued up.

Up.

More up.

And up some more.

Apparently, there was no limit to how high the ledge could take them. Zach tried to not look down. There were no safety bars, no ropes, nothing on the ground to cushion their fall.

But his worry stemmed more from habit and common sense than any real perceived danger at the moment. The solid under his feet felt conveniently liquid. He got the sense that, just as the bookshelf had spat out the ledge, the ledge would spit out safety devices if he were in danger of falling.

That vague sense of security, however, didn’t last long. Abruptly, the ledge stopped and quivered. Lisa and Zach gasped, clasping the nearest shelf at their chest level.

“What’s going on?” Lisa said.

The ledges, apparently, were trying to continue upward. But something was blocking their way.

“Stop,” Lisa said. “Stop!”

The quivering stopped. Her ledge had ceased trying to move up.

“Stop,” Zach said too. His ledge stopped quivering.

Holding very still, Lisa and Zach glanced around. Only after recovering a normal heart rate did Zach dare move. He let go of the shelf he was holding.

“I think that was the wind, again,” he said.

Lisa nodded. “It’s showing us the direction.”

“Then… since it didn’t want us to go up anymore… shall we try right?”

Promptly, his ledge proceeded right—until it clashed against an invisible obstacle once more. The ledge quivered wildly.

“Stop, stop!” Zach said.

The quivering stopped.

“Okay,” Zach said, taking deep breaths. “Left. Go left.”

“Left,” Lisa said.

The ledges moved left without facing resistance. Lisa and Zach panted, bracing for another invisible obstacle.

And the next time their ledges quivered, they yelled out “Stop!” in unison.

They held still, waiting for a signal from the wind.

None came.

“I think this is our destination,” Lisa said.

Zach nodded. He examined the guestbooks between him and Lisa. There was no empty space between the books, but they didn’t look squeezed either. The shelves here had been designed to fit exactly however many guestbooks there were.

“They look like all the other books,” he said.

Lisa examined the guestbooks too. She stroked their spines gently, as if she were trying to read braille.

“There’s no dust at all,” she said. “Someone must be taking good care of these books…”

A book jerked at her touch. The top of its spine jutted out. Lisa and Zach flinched. Since there was no extra space between the books, this particular book securely protruded from the otherwise uniform collection and remained so.

“I think it’s asking to be taken out of the shelf,” said Zach.

“I think so too.”

She encouragingly nodded at him. He gently grabbed the book and pulled it.

The book didn’t budge.

“You try,” he said.

Lisa did. And miraculously, at her pull, the book was freed from the shelf.

“Wow,” she said.

Yes, wow. Zach was getting slightly impatient. He was on a quest to answer questions about his life and death, and he had to rely on someone else to get a book from a shelf? Talk about killing a person twice!

Meanwhile, Lisa flipped through the pages of the guestbook. Zach couldn’t see why this book would be any different from the others. In each row of a guestbook, the details about a guest were written in blood-red ink: the name, the room number, the time of arrival, and the time of departure.

“The times written here are relative,” Lisa said.

“Yes, because here, there’s no absolute time,” Zach said.

A typical entry looked like this:

Arrival: 104 days 4 hours 9 minutes ago.

Departure: 103 days 2 hours ago.

Room number: 429.

“I thought the gonging from the tower did tell time,” Lisa said.

“It does, but in relative terms. It’s useful when people want to, say, meet in three hours. If it’s 1 p.m. now, they decide to meet at 4 p.m. and so on. But that 1 p.m. isn’t a ‘true’ 1 p.m. in the sense of beforeworld.”

“Ah, of course. I saw the moon and the sun together, on the sky in the lobby, and outside. And the stars.”

“Exactly. It’s neither night nor day.”

Lisa nodded. She stroked the pages of the guestbook and continued her close examination. “Is my record somewhere here too?”

“I’m guessing it’s still upstairs on the front desk,” Zach said, then stopped. “Actually, I don’t know where it is anymore. That guestbook with your name was the one that turned into a book-bird and attacked us.”

“Huh. I wonder what I have to do with all these weird events. I mean, a lot of people die and come here, don’t they?”

“They do.”

“Does something like this happen to the hotel workers a lot?”

“Not that I know of.”

“Hmm…”

She stopped.

“What?” Zach said.

“What’s your full name?”

“Zacharias Steele.”

“Look.”

She handed him the book. He took it.

On one line, with blood ink, was written the name Zacharias Steele.

Zach stared at it, perplexed to see his name in a guestbook meant for, well, guests.

“This can’t be me.”

“Maybe it’s a different Zacharias Steele.”

“Maybe.”

There were only so many faces to go around. What, then, stopped another Zacharias Steele from waltzing around here, unbeknownst to him? Nothing.

“So there’s two of you, here?” Lisa asked.

“Wait, no. That can’t be.”

Because, Zach had come up with a reason that prevented his double from waltzing around without his knowledge: he was a stage performer. If someone looked exactly like Zach, wouldn’t others have said something? At least one guest, over the years, would have commented on that, asked whether Zach had a twin brother, whether he was the same person as that other guy over there. Zach didn’t mean to brag, but truly, there was a tendency in people to recognize a stage performer more easily than a waiter, a shopkeeper, or even a politician.

Lisa gently took the book from his hands. She kept a finger between the pages where she’d found his name and continued flipping.

“There,” she said.

She held the book in front of him so that he could see yet another entry of Zacharias Steele.

Then the book vibrated.

“Oh, another signal,” she said. “What does it want me to do now?”

The books to the left and right of the empty space on the shelf vibrated too.

“I think it wants you to put it back,” Zach said.

Lisa did. And this time, the right-side neighbor of the first guestbook trembled. Lisa pulled it out. She opened it.

Neither Lisa nor Zach had been prepared for what happened next:

The book sprung from Lisa’s hands. It enlarged, like another albatross. It split in half. The center of the split was its belly. It flapped its wings, turning until that belly faced Zach. He couldn’t see Lisa anymore. The book fluttered between them.

And before he could say or do anything, the book swept toward him. It was more than a bird; it was a trap. The wings closed and he braced for slaps from both sides—

But once again, no resistance.

The pleasant smell of sweet cookies filled his nostrils. The floor beneath his feet was solid. Black and white marble tiles, to be more exact. Valets went from one group of four to another. Such groups consisted of lawyers, reapers, and dead people.

Zach stood by the entrance of the hotel between worlds.

There, at the far end of the lobby, was the front desk. The concierge was someone Zach didn’t recognize, but he loomed over a stack of paperwork much like Charlie always did.

All seemed normal, except for one element: leaning on the wooden board that separated the staff area of the front desk from the rest of the lobby, a man stood.

A man who looked like Zacharias Steele, complete with his deep purple suit.

© 2022 Ithaka O.

All rights reserved.
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.
No part of this story may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author.


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