Ch. 30 – Big Pictures and Cocktail Lounges (3)

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Zach’s first reaction to the appearance of another Zacharias Steele across the lobby was to examine whether he still had all body parts.

First, he checked his right arm. Then, his left arm. Then, his left leg. His right leg. His stomach. His chest. And most importantly, his head.

He grabbed each of these body parts with both hands, whenever possible, just to make sure that they were solid. A lot of suspicious glances were thrown at him from the dead people, reapers, and lawyers who were just entering the lobby. They seemed to think he was crazy.

He thought he was crazy.

But clearly, his limbs were there—as real as they could be in afterworld. He still wore the green and purple checkered shirt that Omega had given him. He wore his usual leather shoes. And jeans.

Good that he’d gotten changed. Otherwise, everyone would have wondered why two identical men in identical deep purple suits stood on either side of the lobby. Zach, by the entrance; the other Zach, across the concierge and leaning against the front desk.

“A cookie, sir?” a valet asked abruptly, right by this Zach’s ear.

Zach quickly covered his face and cringed away. “No thank you. Nope, thanks,” he murmured, and hurried away toward the cocktail lounge.

The valet had thought that Zach was a guest. But when anyone saw Zach’s face clearly, the questions and confusion would start.

He strode around the groups of four and the valets without stopping. No one paid any real attention to him. The valets looked for anyone who might want cookies; the groups of four were absorbed in conversations about the dead people’s cases.

Nevertheless, Zach didn’t slow down. He passed by a cart that stood next to the cocktail lounge entrance. As he did, a refreshing smell reached him. Fresh, fluffy laundry. Pillowcases, just dried. The smell came from the basket on the cart.

Once he got inside the lounge, Zach pressed himself flat against the wall right beside the opening. That was where the near-darkness of the lounge met the brightness of the lobby, making the near-darkness seem like complete darkness through contrast. A nice place to hide.

Mina, behind the bar, hadn’t noticed Zach. With her back turned against him, she fumbled at the music player. Maybe she was going to start playing the recording. Presently, no music sounded from anywhere. Other than that, everything was exactly the same as things at this Zach’s cocktail lounge. The piano; the blindingly bright stage light; the stairs leading up to the stage.

Zach peeked around the wall and eyed the other Zach in the purple suit. What was that guy doing at the front desk instead of doing his job?

The guy was taking a drag from his cigarette. Very faintly, Zach could discern its smell lingering in the cocktail lounge. The same smell as his own cigarettes. Tree bark, leather, forest.

What an imposter. In every way, that guy was a mirror image of Zach himself, except…

That guy seemed much more relaxed. The unfamiliar concierge didn’t seem to mind at all that the guy was smoking right next to him. The guy had a way of making whatever he was doing seem perfectly natural. He seemed a bit aloof, examining his fingernails, but even that seemed like a normal thing to do.

Examining his fingernails. This Zach snorted with great indignation, since he seemed to be the only one who saw how ridiculous that was. This Zach did care about his hands, but not in that way. His hands were his greatest assets for making music. He couldn’t recall the last time he’d been vain enough to examine his fingernails in front of people. Especially not in front of the guests.

Zach didn’t like the other Zach at all.

It wasn’t just because the other Zach seemed so at ease, or because he liked examining his fingernails. It was something more fundamental than that. A doppelgänger! One didn’t want the existence of another person who was so identical to oneself. After all, if one wasn’t a unique self, who was “one”?

But others here seemed to like the other Zach all right—especially the concierge. That Zach stood in such a way that he separated the concierge from the guestbook, which lay some distance away on the front desk. The concierge didn’t seem to care. Neither did the concierge mind that there was a person looming over the guestbook:

A woman. Or a girl. Someone at that age at which people couldn’t tell for sure if she was an adult or a minor.

She had the same sandy-colored hair as Lisa, whom Zach had left behind in the library with the guestbooks. She, like Lisa, seemed to be examining the guestbook for the first time. But this girl-woman wore the black and white hotel uniform.

Zach watched as the girl-woman asked the other Zach some questions. The other Zach answered. Then, abruptly, that Zach turned away from the front desk, nodded at the concierge, and crossed the lobby toward the lounge.

This Zach hurriedly retreated into the darkness of the lounge. He could hear the footsteps of the other Zach—much lazier and more elegant than his. Then, with a whiff of the fragrant forest smell that overshadowed the smell of the fresh laundry, the other Zach entered the lounge.

“I’m back,” the other Zach said.

“Oh, you are,” Mina said, looking away from the music player. “I was just about to start playing the recording.”

“No need for that.”

The other Zach hopped on the stage with a lot more agility than this Zach had ever been blessed with. He was Zach’s double, but with elements that surprised Zach. Once again, Zach told himself: he isn’t me; only I can be me.

But then, the double sat down by the piano and promptly began playing. With that, this cocktail lounge came to look and sound exactly the way the original Zach thought his cocktail lounge would look and sound, if anyone were to gaze at it from the entrance on any normal day.

Original. That was how Zach saw himself.

But was Zach the original?

Or was the other Zach, the double, the original?

Or were neither of them original, since they looked and acted so identically despite their small differences? Because, although the double liked to examine his fingernails, he also seemed to enjoy playing the piano, and played well. Just like this Zach.

The clink-clanking of Mina’s cocktail glasses hadn’t changed. The blue, green, and purple neon lights along the bar counter hadn’t changed either…

Something rattled behind Zach by the entrance. The girl-woman hotel worker with the same hair color as Lisa had come to fetch the cart with the pillowcases. So, she was a laundry worker. That meant that Alpha and Omega weren’t the only ones who worked in the laundry room. Or maybe they didn’t work in the laundry at all. That meant that this, definitely, was not this Zach’s hotel between worlds. This was the double’s version.

Zach let out an involuntary sigh of relief. There was no double at his hotel. As long as he found a way out of here quickly, there’d be no trouble at all.

But the relief didn’t last long. The very next moment, someone called from the lobby:

“Lisa.”

“Coming,” said the girl-woman from nearby.

Zach frowned, perplexed. The hotel-worker Lisa was pushing her laundry cart toward the corridor next to the front desk. She was headed to the basement, where the laundry room was.

Lisa. Identical names.

Another set of doubles? Or a mere coincidence?

Zach wanted to think it was a coincidence. There were many people with sandy-colored hair. Many among those could share the name “Lisa.” Besides, he hadn’t seen the laundry-worker Lisa’s face clearly. There was nothing to indicate that she’d grow up to be the middle-aged Lisa whom he’d met. And even if he had seen the laundry-worker Lisa’s face, she was younger than his Lisa by decades. He couldn’t possibly compare the two.

But the matter of Lisa didn’t preoccupy Zach the way his own double did. If he found a way out right now, if he walked away, there’d be no trouble anywhere. Not here, not there.

And yet…

There the other Zach was, playing the piano as if he feared nothing in this world. That Zach didn’t care about the audience. That Zach played as much as possible, all the time, just like this Zach had done for decades before meeting Donald Todd again.

Slowly, Zach approached his double on the stage. Zach’s fingers brushed on the surfaces of the round tables as he passed by each of them. He needed some grounding. Watching himself play, as if nothing bad had ever happened to him, was strange.

The double on the stage kept smoking the cigarette, just like Zach used to, creating a veil between himself and the world. The music continued nonstop. But would the double keep playing if he realized that another Zach was creeping up on him?

Zach didn’t know what he wanted. That the double continued, blissfully unaware? Or that the double awoke, so that Zach didn’t have to feel so powerless all alone?

Behind the bar, something rattled. Zach quickly glanced. Mina had opened the door to the liquor storeroom. She slipped in.

Now was the opportune moment—

“No need to sneak up on me like that, I know you’re there,” said the double.

Zach stopped.

The double didn’t sound surprised. He didn’t even stop playing the piano: a minor-scale, melancholy tune, just like the music that Zach liked.

Zach cleared his throat and said, “You don’t seem surprised.”

“I am not,” the double said. “But you do seem surprised.”

“Of course I am.”

“Understandably so. You’re living your afterlife. I am but a figment of Lisa’s memory.”

“Lisa?”

“Lisa. You’ve met her, no? In another reality? I assume that’s how you ended up here.”

“Wait, slow down.”

Because, Zach couldn’t follow. He waved away the smoke smelling of trees and leather. The double stopped playing the piano.

“Don’t stop,” Zach said. “Mina will notice.”

But as soon as Zach said this, the double snapped his fingers.

Astonishingly, the smoke that Zach had just waved away ceased to behave like a gas. It froze. It hung in the air, not in the gas form that constantly shifted, but as if it were solid: gas particles that had been carved into a particular spot in the air.

“How…”

“Mina won’t notice,” the double said. “She has stopped, like this smoke, and won’t move unless we want her to.”

Zach approached the stage through the frozen smoke. The particles dispersed, just as any normal smoke would when the air around it was disturbed. But once Zach passed through, the smoke particles found and maintained a new equilibrium: they hung in their new positions, once again without moving at all.

So, without anything to block their views, Zach and his double gazed at each other. The hair on Zach’s arm and neck stood on ends. It was both exciting and scary to see a person who looked like a mirror image, but definitely wasn’t a mere image; the double had a will of his own.

As if to prove that point, the double took another drag from his cigarette and exhaled while politely turning away from Zach.

Zach had no control over this being. Absolutely none. He had even less control over this guy than over the newest smoke particles. Those tiny things dispersed all around them until they lost the energy from the double’s exhale and remained hanging in the air along with their older likes. Zach knew that if he waved his hand, they’d react by dispersing further until they couldn’t anymore. But this double? Zach had no idea what the double could do or wanted to do.

“You needed me to slow down,” the double said. “I have slowed down all the things that can be slowed down.”

“I didn’t mean it literally,” Zach said, with the unspoken comments: Besides, I also asked you to not stop playing, and you conveniently ignored that part. And what are you, to have this kind of power? A higher being of some sort?

The double shrugged. “The lack of distraction will keep us focused. I’ll start from the beginning: I am how Lisa remembers me.”

“O…kay?”

“And you are a version of you.”

“Wait, what does Lisa have anything to do with all this?”

“She wanted it this way, for us to be able to meet here.”

“But there are many different Lisas.”

“There are.”

“Which Lisa are you referring to?”

“The Lisa who remembers the Lisa who used to be the laundry worker, the one that you’ve just seen out there in the lobby.”

“I don’t even know her. She didn’t seem to know me, or know that I am here.”

“You are right. The Lisa whom you just saw doesn’t know you. She doesn’t know that you’re here. She is also a memory, just like me. But there is a Lisa who remembers that Lisa. Do you understand?”

“Absolutely not.”

“Everyone we ever come across exists in each of us. We form opinions about each acquaintance and whether such opinions are ‘true’ or ‘false’ matters little; our impression becomes a reality in our minds. That’s how I exist as this.”

The double casually gestured at himself.

“We also form opinions about ourselves,” he said. “That is how we have memories of ourselves. Such memories shape our self-image. The Lisa you just saw is part of such a self-image. But the Lisa who brought you here is the driving force behind that self-image. The one who does the image shaping.”

Zach nodded slowly.

He recalled Lady Song’s mention of big pictures. She’d corrected him when he’d said “big picture,” saying that she’d meant “big pictures,” in the plural form. Had she been alluding to something like this? The existence of another Zach in another picture?

“I get that you and that laundry-worker Lisa are part of a memory,” Zach said. “You exist inside some other Lisa who does the remembering.”

“Yes.”

“But what I don’t get is this: the whole memory thing still doesn’t explain how the Lisa who does the remembering knows me at all, enough to bring me here. I do know a Lisa but she looks different from that hotel worker. The Lisa I know is middle-aged and she’s a hotel guest, not an employee. She was as perplexed by the events leading to my ending up here as I was perplexed.”

“But you have met the Lisa who does the remembering,” the double said. “The book.”

“What book?”

“The guestbook.”

Not the guestbooks again. “Which guestbook?” Zach said. “There’ve been several that attacked me today.”

“The one who just swallowed you to bring you here,” the double said. “I guess the others are her friends. You sit on a shelf at the Library of Records for an eternity, you tend to make friends. Or enemies. But over time, they sort of even out.”

Zach stared at his double.

Slowly, Zach said, “You mean to say that… there is a Lisa who is a guestbook? And there are other guestbook people who are friends with each other?”

“Yes, there are people, there are guestbook people, there are many ‘people’ in many shapes and forms. Some ‘people’ are swallowed by the hotel and exist between the walls. Some ‘people’ are guestbooks. And some Lisas know of other Lisas’ existence, while others don’t. That must be how my Lisa recognized yours while your Lisa didn’t recognize mine. It’s just like us. You didn’t know that I existed in someone else’s memory. I didn’t know you either, but I knew of the possibility that you could exist, well before you came here, because Lisa knew that multiples of us could exist.”

“This is way too much to handle,” Zach said, taking an instinctive backward step.

The trips he’d taken to his past by sucking the life force out of Donald Todd had been enough of a stretch for him. But now, this? If this double was telling the truth, there could be many more Zachs who were completely oblivious of each other.

Apparently, the guestbooks had expected Zach’s reluctance to believe in the existence of the many alternate versions. That had been why they’d shown the entries for the different Zachs—as proof. And still, Zach had a hard time believing.

“Just remember this: everything that can happen will happen,” the double said. “Every decision every person makes in this entire universe results in an outcome, and each of those outcomes is represented in at least one reality. And each of those realities branches out whenever another person makes another decision, and so on and so forth.”

That meant that the number of realities was infinite.

“Even when one tries to eliminate the very possibility of the worst kinds of outcomes,” the double said, “the memories of the potentiality of such outcomes stay. One cannot eliminate potentiality, you see? Say, if someone were to say that ‘Humans can fly,’ the idea that humans can fly cannot be eliminated even when humans can’t.”

Which meant that the number of realities plus potentialities was even more infinite.

Zach shook his head. The double stopped, giving Zach time to digest this information.

“So… There is a Lisa who is a guestbook who remembers me. You are the shape and form in which she remembers you. The laundry-worker out there, whom I just saw, is how she remembers herself.”

The double nodded, occasionally taking long drags from his cigarette.

“And the guestbook just swallowed me,” Zach said. “And now I am inside the guestbook.”

The double nodded.

“And there is another Lisa, the middle-aged one, whom I met at my hotel,” Zach said. “And she doesn’t know any of this. Is that correct?”

“Yes. It was the book Lisa who wanted you here.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know. Maybe so I can show you how I can freeze smoke.”

Zach couldn’t tell if the double had meant this as a joke. It wasn’t very amusing. Then, an idea came to him:

“You know Gus Shevlin, right?” Zach asked.

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t? You weren’t killed? Murdered?”

“I don’t know.”

“What do you mean, you don’t know?” Zach snapped.

“I mean, I am only Lisa’s memory of me, so I don’t know if I know Gus Shevlin. I don’t know if I was killed. He—meaning, me, but from Lisa’s point of view—he probably didn’t tell Lisa what happened to him and whoever he knew or didn’t know.”

“Well, then, this isn’t very useful,” Zach said.

The double merely shrugged. “I never said that any of this was going to be useful.”

“Well then, how do I get out of here? I want to return to my hotel.”

“I guess you have to get out of this hotel first if you want to get to any other hotel.”

“I know that. But how do I accomplish that?”

“How should I know?”

“Unbelievable.” Zach threw his hands in the air. “Just great.”

“I do know this,” the double said. “Lisa is very fond of me.”

“And how are you sure of that, of all things?”

“I just know. Liking and disliking someone, that isn’t something a person can hide very easily.”

“Is that so.”

“It is so. I’ve always thought so. And now that I look at you, I’m even surer of her liking me. She has a bias in my favor.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“It means that I might have been more like you than me, but she chose to remember me as me.”

“What?”

“You know. You. Clumsy. Nervous. Scared.”

Zach found it infuriating that the double complimented himself in such a backhanded manner, followed by an open insult.

And the even more infuriating part? Zach himself. The part where he interpreted the double’s comments as a backhanded compliment; the part where Zach, too, had thought that the double was more elegant and agile than himself.

“Anyway,” the double said casually, “it’s always better when someone is fond of you than when someone isn’t.”

Zach turned on his heel and walked away from the stage. He’d had it enough. Stupid double.

“Goodbye, other Zach,” the double said.

“Yeah, yeah,” Zach said, though he wanted to add that he was the Zach, and that the double was the other Zach.

The double resumed his piano playing. At the same time, the smoke particles resumed their movements. The lobby bustled with life.

What a total self-esteem killer, this whole detour! The double was still a pianist. Zach had to accept that. And here Zach was, not playing, not getting any answers as to why Carningsby had wanted to kill him, and not getting payback either. Todd being spent like that had done nothing for Zach. That didn’t count as payback. No number of Zachs or Lisas could do anything about this state. Absolutely no—

Zach stopped at the edge of the dark cocktail lounge.

There, in the brightness of the lobby, by the front desk, in front of a guestbook, stood a huge man. His back was turned toward Zach.

Zach had seen men like these in the newspapers before he’d died. The big man held a black fedora in his gloved hands and wore a dark gray striped suit; ivory and black two-tone shoes; a heavy black wool overcoat that reached well below his knees—such a stereotypical mobster outfit that Zach snorted in disbelief.

But then, he stopped.

That man. That stereotypical mobster. He didn’t look like just any mobster. He looked familiar, even though Zach couldn’t see his face.

The mobster had a few blond strands of hair but most of his hair had turned gray. While he spoke to the unknown concierge he used such grandiose hand gestures that everyone around him took a few steps back. Plus, although Zach couldn’t hear what exactly the man said, Zach could feel the booming vibrations of the man’s baritone voice.

As if hypnotized, Zach left the darkness of the cocktail lounge and entered the lobby. Now that he knew that the valets were part of someone’s memory, and not real, he didn’t worry that they’d interrogate him; no one cared that he looked exactly the same as the double who was playing the piano.

Uninterrupted, Zach crossed the lobby toward the front desk.

The concierge asked the stereotypical mobster:

“Could you confirm your name please?”

The mobster stooped over the guestbook. Well before he responded, Zach guessed the answer.

“Gus Shevlin,” the mobster said. “That’s right, that’s my name.”

A sweetness, a thousand times stronger than the cookie smell around him, swelled up inside Zach. The guestbook Lisa had pointed him in the right direction, after all.

© 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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