Ch. 32 – New Day In Afterworld, Continued (1)

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When the huge guestbook had swallowed Zach in the Library of Records, he’d thought that its wings were like a trap. They’d closed and swallowed him whole. But soon, Zach had noticed that there was no resistance, no pain; he’d simply transitioned over to a different world, to the world of Lisa’s hotel of memories.

His return trip, however, proved more painful. As if he were struggling to uncrumple himself out of a trap, his bones and muscles stretched. Nausea overcame him. This was the price of returning to the world of substance, not memories.

Nevertheless, Zach didn’t let go of the overcoat sleeve he was holding: that of Gus Shevlin from the guestbook. The whirlwind of the black and white lobby tiles, the spinning firmament, and the memory-hotel people vanished. Then, everything in Zach’s field of vision reassembled into the brown, wooden shelves of the Library of Records.

Zach heard the amazed gasp of Lisa—the middle-aged one who’d come to the hotel as a guest.

“What the hell was that?” she said. “I thought you’d never get out of there.”

Her sandy hair bobbed excitedly as she pulled Zach out of the guestbook that floated in the air with its belly down.

Yes, that was what was happening, he noticed in his confusion: the humongous guestbook was vomiting him back out from between its wings. And its pages were functioning like jelly instead of crisply letting go. That was why his bones and muscles were being stretched so painfully.

Zach groaned. Lisa stopped pulling so hard.

“Does it hurt?” she said.

“Yes, but keep pulling,” he said. “Thank you, thanks.”

“Watch your feet.”

Indeed, he had to, and he was suddenly thankful for the jelly. He was reappearing high up in the air, right above the ledge that had lifted him up along the shelves. Luckily, the jelly slowed down his exit so that he had time to prepare for the landing. Without the jelly, he would have plummeted down hundreds of feet because he would have stepped anywhere but on that ledge. Besides, once his body managed to shake off the jelly bonds, no trace of them remained. Nothing sticky. Nothing slippery.

And during the arduous exit process, he also thought of this: Gus Shevlin, the huge, gregarious man with big gestures, won’t have space to stand on the same ledge.

“Wait, wait, wait,” Zach said. “Get another ledge.”

“Is that possible?” Lisa said.

Even in her doubt, she was a quick one to act. She let go of Zach’s arm and leaned down to tickle the part of the bookshelf between them.

Promptly, the bookshelf spat out another ledge.

“Good,” Zach said, finally wading out of the large guestbook with both feet.

Once he securely stood on his ledge, he pulled Gus Shevlin out as well.

“Stand right there,” Zach said, pointing at the third ledge between himself and Lisa. “Do you see that flat wood piece? Right there.”

Gus Shevlin cheerfully nodded, eyeing the ledge. The man was a complete fool, and understandably so. He was an empty shell.

“I can’t believe you brought your killer here,” Lisa whispered to Zach.

Zach froze. He hadn’t told her anything, yet she knew.

“I heard and saw everything,” Lisa said. She pointed at the belly of the humongous guestbook. “It showed me everything. The part where you asked the other Zach about Gus Shevlin, then asked him if he wasn’t killed, murdered. And I saw your face when you saw him.” She nodded toward Shevlin, who was examining the ledge with a scared look. “I put two and two together,” she said.

Zach glanced around. He couldn’t see the floor of the library clearly, but in the air, there was definitely nothing trying to attack him. He hadn’t been the one to reveal his murder to Lisa. The guestbook had done that. And no one—not the afterworld police, not the women in black, no unknown force—was coming after Zach.

The guestbook really was fond of him. Now he had an ally who knew what had happened inside the book. An ally who knew that there were many different Lisas who’d come to the hotel in many different forms—including as one of the hotel staff and as a guestbook.

“Fascinating stuff,” Lisa said.

“To say the least,” Zach said.

“But why is he smiling like that?” Lisa whispered.

“Hello,” Gus Shevlin said, pushing his head out of the book. “Good day.”

“Hi,” Lisa said. She didn’t stop frowning.

“Because he doesn’t know that he killed someone,” Zach whispered.

“Oh, right,” Lisa said. “He’s the memory. What the guestbook Lisa saw.”

“The hull,” Zach said.

“I am not a hull,” Shevlin protested.

“It’s meant as a compliment, believe me,” Zach said. “At least one version of you did terrible things. You didn’t.”

“Oh?” Shevlin said, unsure.

“You have no inner life,” Zach said. “No memory, therefore no context. I guess such a state makes people smile.”

“That doesn’t sound like a compliment,” Shevlin said.

Lisa regarded Shevlin from head to toe. There was a little bit of pity in her gaze, but mostly, curiosity.

And as to Zach, he’d really meant what he’d said as a compliment. If he’d been “born” like this shell, he wouldn’t have minded the state of cluelessness. But since he wasn’t born that way, he had to constantly choose: to stay blissfully ignorant or find out the truth?

He’d chosen the gray candy. He wasn’t so sure if that had been the right choice. Maybe he should have released; faced the clean end instead of dragging on his afterlife.

“Come on, get out,” Zach said, so he could stop ruminating.

He held Shevlin’s hand to help him balance as he climbed out. With impressive elegance, considering his huge size, Shevlin placed his first foot on the ledge. But the wooden piece didn’t react as elegantly. It shook precariously.

“Uh-oh,” Shevlin said. He clasped Zach’s hand more tightly.

Lisa and Zach’s ledges jittered too. Both of them lost balance, which flustered Shevlin further. He removed his foot from his ledge and retreated back into the guestbook’s jelly-like pages. Zach kept clasping Shevlin’s overcoat sleeve. The jittering stopped.

“What is happening?” Zach said.

“Is he allowed to be here?” Lisa asked.

The three of them exchanged glances.

“Try again?” Zach asked Shevlin.

Shevlin climbed back out, placing his foot on the ledge once more. The jittering resumed. It spread like wildfire throughout the library. First, it began with the books on the nearby shelves. Then, all the infinitely long and tall shelves, as far as Zach could see, joined in the tremor.

“I don’t think I can leave my hotel,” Shevlin said.

“You have to,” Zach said. “Come, hop out, quickly.”

“Why do I have to?”

“Because— Because you owe me something.”

“Me? We just met.”

Zach didn’t know how to explain this. Where to begin? “A different you owes me something.”

“Then it’s not me,” Shevlin said. “You said so yourself, that you’re nothing like the piano man at my hotel. Then I’m nothing like whoever who looks like me either.”

Obviously, this shell wasn’t a complete fool, contrary to Zach’s earlier impression. The shell was capable of logical arguments. He tried to shake off Zach’s hand so he could retreat back into the book. Zach didn’t let go, even though that meant that he had one less hand to help him balance on the shaky ledge.

“Fine, he’s not you exactly,” Zach said. “But you, unlike him, aren’t a terrible man. I need your help. And besides, what are you going to do over there? Keep answering the same question from the concierge over and over again? Weren’t you interested in leaving the hotel?”

“How do I know you didn’t lie to me?” Shevlin asked. “Your hotel doesn’t feel very friendly.”

“He didn’t lie,” Lisa said. Her knuckles had turned white from clasping the nearest shelf. “I am leaving too. People leave this hotel all the time. The hotel isn’t acting very friendly, I admit, but so what? You’ll leave anyway.”

For a brief moment, Shevlin hesitated. Then, he clasped Zach’s arm for support, checked that his one foot on the ledge was secure, and pushed his torso out of the book.

The shaking of the library intensified.

“Where do you go when you leave?” Shevlin said, continuing to fight past the jelly.

“You release,” Lisa said.

“Release!” Shevlin said. He tottered, too excited at the thought. “I know what releasing is! So, you’ll release? You know that for sure?”

“Yes, the guests are supposed to.”

“You didn’t tell me that this hotel was this different from mine,” Shevlin told Zach.

“I’m sorry,” Zach said. He thought it wise to humor Shevlin.

“Releasing. That means that you get to become not-you,” Shevlin said. “The particles that form you get to be something else. Anything else. Everything else.”

So, this was what a figment of memory sounded like when he recited something from his memory: like a boy boasting what he’d learned at school that day.

“Do I get to do that? Release?” Shevlin asked.

Lisa and Zach exchanged quick glances. Lisa, because she didn’t know the answer. But Zach was puzzled because of Shevlin’s enthusiasm for release.

“You do know that releasing means you die fully?” Zach asked.

“That’s what I just said,” Shevlin said impatiently. “You get to become not-you. What do you think that means if it doesn’t mean death?”

“And you want to die?”

Shevlin groaned, his hip stuck in the jelly, which quivered from the earthquake. “Dying isn’t the point, just like being born isn’t the point,” he said. “If people stayed babies because they wanted to live forever, how stupid would that be? The point is the process of living. If someone went through the trouble of building so many different hotels, surely there has to be a reason. Surely, there is something between the hotel and the release. I want to live through that. No point in staying at the hotel because that means eternal life.”

Wise words from the memory man.

“Okay,” Zach said. “I will help you release if you help me.”

Shevlin nodded firmly. His childlike resolution stiffened his facial features. Lips tightly pressed together, eyebrows raised in concentration, he plucked his other foot from inside the guestbook and moved it to the library. Finally, both his feet touched the jittering ledge. Awkwardly and precariously, arms spread to his sides, he glanced from Lisa to Zach.

“I think your hotel really doesn’t like me,” Shevlin said.

“Then we’ll try to get you out quickly,” Lisa said.

“She’s right,” Zach said. “We’ll hurry.”

Shevlin’s eyes twinkled brightly as he nodded excitedly.

© 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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