Ch. 33 – New Day In Afterworld, Continued (2)

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Zach, Lisa, and the memory-shell Shevlin rushed each of their ledges to go “Down, down!” so that they could reach the bottom of the Library of Records before all the books began falling off the shelves.

But before they’d reached the bottom, Zach recalled:

“We came from up there, didn’t we?”

Lisa gasped, remembering too. “That’s right. A guestbook pushed us through the floor.”

“You two both keep talking nonsense,” Shevlin said, laughing, having recovered his clueless cheer. “How does a book push you through the floor?”

Zach ignored him. “Up, up,” Zach said.

The shaky ledges abruptly changed directions so that all three of them had to duck and clasp their sides to avoid falling.

But unlike the human travelers, books had no hands. Loudly fluttering their pages, spreading the smell of leather and paper, the books flew down from the shelves for many seconds, even minutes, out of sight, and smacked on the floor. A shower of leather-backed paper birds that had lost control over their wings—that was what the phenomenon looked like. And in the opposite direction of that shower, Zach and his fellow travelers fought their way through.

Zach told himself to not let go, never let go, even though his hands felt slippery with sweat and he could taste the tension in his mouth, something like stale blood.

Up, up they went. The shelves had no end.

Up some more, they went. The shelves still didn’t end, only kept shaking and jittering and vomiting out books—

Suddenly, everything sounded muffled and the surroundings blurred.

Zach had heard about episodes like this from hotel guests who’d shared their air travel experiences with him. When one sat in a plane that rapidly gained altitude, traveling through clouds, the air pressure in the middle ear and the air pressure in the environment became mismatched. The eardrum couldn’t vibrate normally anymore. One couldn’t hear things clearly.

The known remedy: yawning and swallowing.

So, Zach swallowed hard. Yawning, he couldn’t force, especially while he moved at such a great speed.

Soon, he could hear more normally. The wind whipped and slapped his eardrums. But recovering his hearing ability didn’t calm him down at all. It only emphasized how hazy his view was. A pale mist, as frustratingly thick as the one that surrounded the entire island on which the hotel stood, blurred his view.

Nevertheless, he didn’t have difficulty breathing. There was nothing raw, nothing that attempted to scratch and scar his respiratory tract. His ledge kept pushing him up, upward, up some more…

He broke through the limit. That’s what he concluded—that something had ended, and another thing had begun—because of the suddenly clear view and crisp sounds.

What he saw: washers and dryers.

What he heard: those machines turning round and round, all while the walls and floor shook, just like in the Library of Records.

What he saw next: Alpha and Omega, the six-year-old girl and boy twins, backing away in awe at his sudden appearance, and nearly falling because the floor and walls shook fiercely.

What he heard next: their gasping, when Lisa and the clueless shell of Gus Shevlin squeezed through the gray concrete floor right after Zach.

Yes, “squeezed through” was the right way to put it. The floor didn’t break. It acted like jelly, and as soon as Lisa and Shevlin had squeezed through to the laundry-room side while disturbing the minimum surface area of the floor, it returned to its original state—that of shaking fiercely but looking fairly solid.

For some time after that, Zach and his fellow travelers hovered over the floor. They flailed their limbs, still in panic mode, still in rushing mode, still remembering the guestbooks falling down all around them.

But humans—even Gus Shevlin, the memory of a human—were animals known for their adaptability. Soon enough, the three of them realized that they were in comparative safety. The ground and walls shook, but there was nothing falling from the ceiling.

While the twins let out shocked sighs and indistinct questions, Zach and his fellow travelers gently descended to the quaking, solid floor.

Alpha grabbed the ends of Zach’s checkered shirt to maintain her balance.

“What happened?” she asked, finally managing an intelligible question. “One moment, you stood in front of us, the next, the guestbook presses you down into the floor and you disappear. Then you reappear from the floor.”

Alpha glanced from Zach to Lisa for an answer.

Omega was shifting his weight from his left foot to right foot, half grinning, half terrified. His arms were outstretched. He seemed to think that the physical balancing act was a game.

When Alpha noticed her brother’s naive behavior, she became more impatient.

“What is happening?” she said.

She clasped Zach’s shirt tighter. With deep mistrust, she stared at Shevlin’s smiling old babyface.

What to tell these kids? Regardless of the women in black, he couldn’t explain the spectacular disappearance and reappearance to the twins or to anyone else.

First of all, the more people he dragged into his situation, the more opportunities opened up and the more something was bound to backfire. This incessant quaking, for example, had been triggered by Gus Shevlin’s shell.

Second of all, he had no time. He doubted that the hotel could survive the quake forever. He had to get what he wanted from Shevlin and get the man out of here.

So, Zach told the partial truth in answer to Alpha’s question. “I don’t know how this happened.”

“What’s up with all this shaking?” Omega asked, still grinning tentatively.

“Yeah, and who is this man?” Alpha said, substantially angrier than her brother, and pointed at Shevlin.

Zach hesitated, thinking of a convenient, succinct answer. He glanced at Lisa. She minutely shook her head. She didn’t know what to tell the twins either.

Thankfully, the twins didn’t notice this exchange of nonverbal signals. Their entire surroundings shook too much. Detergent bottles fell from the top of the washers. Baskets with dirty pillowcases toppled over. No water droplets hung to the tips of the faucets because there was no time for droplets to form.

“Where were you?” Omega said, squeezing in another question.

“Yeah, who is this man, and where were you?” Alpha said.

“I am Gus Shevlin,” said Gus Shevlin.

All heads turned toward him.

“Okay,” Alpha said sarcastically. “Mr. Gus Shevlin. Where are you from and what happened?”

“I was at the hotel,” Shevlin said.

“Which we still are,” Omega said.

“Yes, but I was at a different hotel.”

“A different hotel?” Alpha and Omega said in unison.

“Mr. Shevlin is a bit confused,” Lisa said, smiling a political smile.

While that smile diffused Alpha’s belligerent curiosity somewhat, it offended Shevlin.

“Confused? I am most definitely not confused,” he said. His constant smile disappeared.

“What I meant to say is,” Lisa said, never losing her grace and confidence, “that we sometimes just don’t know where we are. All of us. Life takes us places and, you know, people name places, but where we truly are? That can’t be explained just by stating place-names. That’s a very, very deep philosophical question.”

“Precisely,” Zach said. “Also, this hotel is so huge, it might as well be different hotels, but it isn’t necessarily.”

“Huh,” Shevlin said. He frowned deeply.

The man was really truly doing his best to assess Zach’s statement. To Zach’s irritation, this made it difficult to associate this shell with the real Shevlin. The shell was not only older than the real Shevlin whom Zach remembered, but also, he used the aged facial features for entirely unfamiliar expressions at times. Confusion, rather than animosity, for example. Uncertainty, rather than gregarious confidence. Zach simply couldn’t hate a man who was so openly confused and uncertain with himself.

Best to proceed quickly. Otherwise, Zach feared that he might end up actually pitying this shell.

“What matters is that you were at the hotel,” Zach said.

“Yes, I was,” Shevlin said.

“You still are,” Alpha said.

“Am I?” Shevlin said.

“You are,” Zach said. He turned to Alpha and Omega. “And he is a guest, so be nice to him.”

The twins considered Shevlin from head to toe—his fedora, his long overcoat, his gloves.

“He does wear regular clothes, instead of one of our uniforms,” Alpha said.

“But Zach doesn’t wear a uniform either,” Omega said.

“Zach is the only exception,” Alpha said.

“You never know,” Omega said.

“Doesn’t matter what he’s wearing or what I’m wearing or what anybody else is wearing,” Zach said. “I know for a fact that he is a hotel guest. Aren’t you a guest, Mr. Shevlin?”

“I am,” Shevlin said. This statement helped him recover his confidence. “That I am. I am a guest. That is the correct name, Gus Shevlin, that is my name, I told the concierge.”

Alpha and Omega exchanged glances. Whether a guest or not, they accepted the part that he was a confused man. This subdued them. They weren’t mean kids, these twins. They’d simply learned to be suspicious of adults who smiled too much.

“Okay, then,” Alpha said. “But after Mr. Shevlin leaves, you have to tell us where you were.”

If I can explain what happened,” Zach said, to avoid lying to them. “I’m so confused myself, I’m not sure I can.” He turned to Lisa. “Let’s go.”

“We’ll have your suit and shirt ready for you by the end of the day,” Omega called after them.

If the quake stops,” Alpha said.

“Okay,” Zach said.

Lisa led the way to the shaky hallway. Zach followed her. Behind them, the twins giggled. As quickly as Alpha had become suspicious of Shevlin, she seemed to have forgotten all about him. She joined Omega in the game of balancing.

“Ooh,” Shevlin said, from behind Zach.

Zach stopped and looked. The shell had fallen on the floor close to the laundry room. He’d barely followed Lisa and Zach. And he still kept glancing around.

“What are you doing? Come over here,” Zach said.

“This is fascinating,” Shevlin said.

Zach rolled his eyes. He stumbled toward Shevlin and helped him up.

“Come, let’s go,” Zach said. He pulled Shevlin by the sleeve to guide him toward Lisa, who waited far ahead of them.

And the shell needed a lot of guidance. Everything around him was delightfully new to him. He seemed to have completely forgotten about Alpha’s mistrust toward him or Lisa’s comment about his confusion. Curiously, he looked around the hallway, even though there wasn’t much to note besides the fact that the marble floor was white, that the carpet stretching for the entire length of the hallway was black, and that the hallway was shaking.

Zach and Shevlin eventually caught up with Lisa. The three of them kept walking. When they came closer to the staircase leading to the lobby, Shevlin said, “Cookies. They have them here too.”

The smell put him in an even more childlike state. He shook off Zach and hurried forward in such a lively way that Zach worried the man might bump his head on the wall.

“Slow down, slow down,” Zach said.

Shevlin didn’t listen to him—until the gonging began.

Abruptly, Shevlin stopped. Zach bumped into him. Lisa stopped with her foot on the first stair.

“What is this?” Shevlin said, looking around, apparently mesmerized that the gonging could resound so strongly throughout the hallway without bursting people’s eardrums.

“The morning gong, I think,” Zach said quickly. “Come on, let’s go.”

“I thought you wanted me to slow down,” Shevlin said, taking a step back.

“Come on, my friends are supposed to get here by daybreak,” Zach said.

He was thinking of Flip and Flop. The reapers could help him obtain Shevlin’s files. With this shell Shevlin looking like the real Shevlin, that wouldn’t be too much to ask. Maybe Zach didn’t have to talk to Charlie at all. Charlie, the concierge, had a sharp eye. And if Zach was going to bypass Charlie altogether, might as well go straight to Flip and Flop, as soon as they arrived on the island. The sooner, the better, because that meant fewer witnesses.

But Shevlin didn’t budge. Six times, Old Jeremiah struck the gong for 6 a.m.. Long thereafter, Shevlin remained standing where he’d stood before the gonging had begun. He looked around like an expectant child hoping for something magical to happen all over again.

It felt as if impatience in tangible form boiled in Zach’s innards. Something hot, something uncontrollable. Groaning, he grabbed Shevlin’s coat.

“Let’s. Go!” Zach said.

Using physical force on innocent people might count as assholery; using it on Gus Shevlin, shell or not, didn’t. This giant baby-faced old memory-shell was changing his mind from one moment to the next: wanting to run after the cookie smell, stopping because of the gonging, then staying that way because he’d forgotten all about his desire to release.

“Let go of me!” whined Shevlin.

“You said you wanted to release!” Zach said.

“Calm down, you two,” Lisa said.

Zach didn’t want to calm down. This disagreement with Shevlin served a function: that of allowing Zach to dislike that man thoroughly. After all, if Zach was being honest, he was using Shevlin. Owning up to that felt great. Why shouldn’t Zach use the shell of the man who’d killed him? Before, when Zach pitied the shell just a little bit, using him was wrong, but now? With this shell-person so unwilling to cooperate? Zach was free to do mean things to him, deeds that were trivial compared to what the real Shevlin had done to him.

The floor shook precariously. The stairs too. The three of them pushed and pulled.

“Zach.”

Zach stopped and looked up, clasping the railing.

There, at the top of the stairs, stood Flip and Flop, the two reapers in pompous black attire.

© 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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