Ch. 34 – New Day In Afterworld, Continued (3)

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Flop wrapped his black velvet cape around his large belly. This was the standard, first-step defense mechanism that he adopted every time he felt danger. And right now, at the stairs leading down from the lobby to the basement, Flop felt very much in danger.

He and Flip had returned to the hotel just before the first gong of the day. An occultist accompanied them, one whom they’d so very much wanted to reap, because those who hoped for an other-world were the rare beforeworlders who at least attempted to appreciate the challenges of reaperdom.

This particular occultist was wide-eyed, male, and in his sixties. He used to have two black cats, both of which had died two years ago. Since then, he’d lived alone, with the firm belief that he didn’t have enough time left in beforeworld to get two new cats that might outlive him. To prove his firm belief, he’d prepared an offering for the other-worlders who’d soon come to get him—and he’d done that every single night, for two years.

Nothing ridiculous. No sacrifice of a raven or a rat or a pig or a chicken or anything. Just some nice touches, offerings that an other-worlder might actually like, such as raisins and sweet cakes and fine wine and such.

Since occultists rarely resisted reaping, that process had gone smoothly. And afterward, when Flip and Flop told the occultist that they’d both enjoyed his offering very much, he was ecstatic.

He was also overjoyed because he’d been right. Right enough, at least. Two years of solitude without cats had been tough, but it’d been all worth it. The reapers had arrived. They’d proved that he’d been right to not succumb to the pleading meowings of the neighborhood stray cats for which he distributed boxes with food as temporary shelters. But he hadn’t invited them into his home. Because, no matter what some mundane beforeworlders said about him, this occultist said, he wasn’t an irresponsible person. In fact, he was such a responsible person that he’d rather live alone and lonely than risk putting two innocent cats in danger of being put down because their owner had died without any reliable relative to take care of them.

The only question that this freshly-reaped occultist asked Flip and Flop was: Will I see my cats again?

To which Flip and Flop said: No. They released when they died. Animals release. They don’t need trials.

It was all very touching. The man wore a silver locket necklace with a picture of his cats, for heaven’s sake. He showed said picture to Flip and Flop the way a person might show a picture of his grandchildren.

Flip said, Those are gorgeous cats, sir. Clearly, they’ve been well taken care of.

Flop said, Indeed, indeed. Beautiful cats, sir, they’re in a better place now. Which, you will be too, soon.

Odd, to show off pictures of cats two years dead, and even a bit pathetic, some might say. But who could dislike a person who was so proud of the beings he loved? Besides, not a single entry in the occultist’s case file indicated that he had harmed anyone. And those folks at the Sin Research Division had a way of ensuring that all good and bad deeds were properly witnessed and recorded.

At Flip and Flop’s answer that the cats hadn’t waited for him in afterworld, the occultist had looked disappointed, but only briefly. He returned to being like any other occultist: being too busy examining his surroundings for signs that validated his beliefs about afterworld—the kinds of beliefs that he’d been ridiculed for in beforeworld. So, during the entire trip toward the island, by boat, the occultist didn’t talk much.

Easy peasy. Real nice, after that teary fight and reconciliation with Zacharias.

What wasn’t easy, and what was completely unexpected, was what became evident when the boat came within a mile or so of the island.

The entire island creaked. A squeaking sort of sigh traveled through the white mist that hung in the air. The occultist sitting in the middle of the boat went, “Ooohh,” spooked yet excited. Flip and Flop, standing at each end of the boat, exchanged glances.

Something was very wrong.

Upon reaching the island, Flip and Flop hurriedly operated the manual wooden elevator system. That thing connected the platform at the foot of the island’s cliff to the flat terrain at the top.

Once the elevator reached the top, the three of them hopped off. Flip and Flop almost ran, now that they saw the building itself shaking visibly. The ground shook too. The occultist, only too excited to have arrived at such a tumultuous time, readily ran after them.

The taste of raisins, cake, and wine still lingered in Flop’s mouth. Only minutes ago, before hearing the creaking of the island, he’d savored that lingering taste. Now? His very tongue in his mouth tasted like dry, decayed matter.

Thankfully, the occultist’s lawyer was already waiting in the lobby, among many other people.

Business as usual. Sort of.

The only difference between now and all the other times was that now, everyone was trying to act that business-as-usual air rather than living it. The black and white marble tiles quaked below their feet. Many lawyers and reapers were being inadvertently separated from their deceased. Some people fell, and others tripped over them and fell too.

“You know what?” Flip said, out of breath, coming to a halt because otherwise, she’d only add to the pile of people who’d fallen. “Sir, do you think you can get to that person over there?” She pointed at Y, the tall lawyer with glasses. “I think you squeezing your way through on your own will be faster.”

“Sure,” the occultist said.

“We don’t foresee any problems with your case, do we, Flop?”

“None at all,” Flop said. “Your case is clean as can be. You’ve lived a virtuous life, sir.”

The occultist beamed. “I’m glad to hear that.”

“Good. Goodbye,” said Flip.

“Goodbye,” the occultist said, waving excitedly as he hopped over the obstacles to reach his lawyer.

Flop waved back, even though that meant that he was risking joining the pile of confused people on the floor. His steps were unsteady; his panic multiplied by the second now that the occultist wasn’t under their protection anymore, which meant that now, Flop could freely panic without coming across as a highly unprofessional reaper. (He cared about leaving a good impression when it came to people like that occultist. Because, as mentioned earlier, who could dislike a person who loved so dearly, and who would want to worry such a person?)

Luckily, Flip was much more apt at focusing on the path ahead while waving at the occultist. She was a great multitasker compared to Flop. So, she grabbed Flop by his arm and dragged him away.

“Where are we going?” Flop said in a low voice.

“I don’t know. We have to find Zach,” said Flip, covering her mouth with her fan so that others around them couldn’t hear her.

They glanced into the cocktail lounge. It was empty.

“Do you know where his room is?” Flip asked.

“No, who knows where anyone’s room is around here?”

Flip sighed, nervously glancing around.

“You think this has to do with him?” Flop asked, already knowing the answer.

Of course this had to do with Zacharias. Flop’s panic intensified a thousand times; panic at having contributed to, however remotely and tangentially, a potential disaster.

Flip and Flop had intervened too much. Hence the shaking of the hotel. Hence the shaking of the entire island. Could that be the case? What if that really was the case? Was Flop going to be punished? Flip too? Zacharias? In what way? By being sent to hell? What kind of hell?

“I hope it’s not Zach,” Flip said, “and if it’s him, I hope he’s not in trouble.” Then, she stopped fidgeting and gazed at Flop. “Maybe we should have stayed here.”

“And do what, tell everyone that we’re taking a vacation day?” Flop said.

He placed a soothing hand on Flip’s shoulder, mostly because he felt like he needed some soothing himself. At such times, offering support for another person made him feel as if he didn’t need any.

“Flip, we’re reapers. We don’t get off days.”

“I know, I know.”

“We can’t monitor what happens to everyone we’ve ever reaped.”

“I know.”

“And Lady Song isn’t telling people to evacuate. No one is acting panicked. And the police force isn’t here. Business as usual.”

“Which is even weirder.”

“Maybe Lady Song expects this to end soon.”

“Maybe,” Flip said. “And maybe, if the entire island is shaking, it has something to do with the foundation.”

“To the basement?”

“To the basement.”

That was how they’d run toward the stairs leading from the lobby to the basement. Then they’d run into Zacharias.

Flop couldn’t help but wrap his black velvet cape tighter around his belly. Apparently, Zacharias had been looking for Flip and Flop just like they’d been looking for him. This meant danger. That lack of surprise on Zach’s part—that purpose, that “I have a plan” look. Zach did have something to do with this earthquake.

And Flip and Flop had something to do with Zach. On top of that, they were going to have a lot more to do with him, because otherwise, he wouldn’t look so glad at having run into them.

“I need your help,” Zach said.

Flop glanced at Flip. She was glancing back at him. She shared his alarm.

“It has to do with making the hotel stop shaking,” Zach said.

© 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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