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Jump to the Prelude
Zach pushed the boat—the one carrying him, the shell of Gus Shevlin, and flapper-Flip—off the platform. Voila, the island with the hotel immediately stopped shaking.
Flapper-Flip and Zach sighed in relief and slumped down on each end of the boat; Flip at the bow, Zach at the stern. The shell, a.k.a. the “lost soul,” remained standing in the middle of the boat for a long time. With his characteristic grin, he waved goodbye at the unmoving island as the boat slowly traveled downstream.
“Finally, away,” he muttered. “Finally.”
The white mist surrounded them. Zach took off the mask when he realized that little droplets of water hung between it and his face. He wiped off the moisture with the sleeve of his black reaper suit.
Flip, too, adjusted her clothes, especially her dress. It fit tightly around her hip. She’d chosen this design, so her fumbling didn’t mean that she disliked it. But it was something new, something she had to get used to. For much too long, she hadn’t walked around in public in such lightweight fabric while exposing her lower legs.
Gus Shevlin sat down. He hugged his knees and remained still, unlike Zach and Flip, busy collecting themselves. There was nothing for Shevlin to collect. He was too empty. Staring into the pale misty nothing, he hummed an indistinct tune.
The smell of damp earth and grass faded. The smell of the river replaced it. The water rocked the boat gently.
Once Flip was satisfied with her dress, she stood up. “We have to row,” she said.
They found the oars. Zach and Flip each took one. They rowed without turning the boat around. It was exactly symmetrical, so that the bow didn’t look any different from its stern. Practically speaking, there was no absolute front or back.
Zach felt a little uncomfortable as the boat switched directions, traveled upstream, and he ended up standing at the newly-defined bow. He would have preferred that Flip led the way. But Gus Shevlin took up a significant amount of space in the middle of the boat and neither Zach nor Flip wanted to go through the trouble of maneuvering their way around him.
And pretty soon, Zach didn’t care anymore where he stood. Front, back, who cared? Both he and Flip grunted from exhaustion.
This was what it took to go against the flow of life and death.
In the distance, the river splashed against other boats. Through the mist, Zach could see the vague silhouettes of reapers and dead people. Some were standing, sometimes perfectly still. Zach thought that those people were staring at this boat. Curious, probably. Wondering why this boat was the only one that traveled in the opposite direction. Wondering, perhaps, whether someone was getting a second chance at beforelife.
Zach could taste his salty sweat when it glided from his lips into his mouth. Flip’s panting had grown as irregular and loud as his own. Only the shell, the eternally clueless old babyfaced man, continued to hum, noticing nothing that happened around him.
“There,” Flip said.
Ten minutes might have passed, or an hour. Either way, Zach was glad, because there, in front of him, the mist was white no more.
It was gray, for a stretch shorter than the length of the boat. After that, black. Pitch-black.
“Uh-oh,” Shevlin said. He hugged his knees closer.
“We’ll be fine,” Flip said.
Just like Zach, she seemed to have a hard time hating this man who looked exactly like Zach’s killer but acted like he couldn’t hurt a fly.
“Keep rowing,” Flip told Zach.
“Got it,” Zach said.
But as soon as he did, a humongous, pitch-black window opened upward in front of them. Light flooded out of the window, soaking the entire boat and blinding its passengers. Zach fell with a loud yelp. He dropped his oar in the river and the mask in the boat. Behind him, in the middle of the boat, Shevlin whimpered.
“Everything’s fine,” Flip said, but she didn’t sound so sure.
Zach couldn’t move. Couldn’t get up because of the shock. Now he realized that the thing floating in front of him wasn’t a window at all. It had appeared out of nowhere and it wasn’t flat. This non-window was curved. Omnidirectional. Perfectly spherical, in fact. Meaning, it hadn’t opened up the way a window would. Rather, its husk had been sucked upward into its North Pole region.
A floating, glowing, pale-white globe, which used to be covered in a pitch-black husk that matched the color of the murk—that was this thing floating in front of Zach.
And in the center of the pale-white globe was a black dot. A moving black dot, a dot that pointed this way and that way, as if it were looking.
An iris with a pupil.
This floating thing was an eye.
The Eye. Strangely beautiful. Magnificent.
It floated in the middle of nowhere, watching all humans of all worlds at all times throughout eternity. And how achingly solitary the sight of the Eye was! How overwhelming the knowledge of all human actions must be!
That lonely Eye was pointed at Zach, the person nearest to it. Zach stared back. Their three eyes met and it seemed that the Eye knew everything that Zach had ever done. Had always known. Always would. Zach was completely exposed. Helpless.
“Excuse me,” Flip said awkwardly.
The Eye pointed at her. This gave Zach a chance to crawl to the side of the boat without feeling like he was about to be judged for his every minutest action. He saw that Flip stood at the other end of the boat with her hands politely held together in front of her. Shevlin covered half of his face with his hands. Always only half. He wasn’t about to miss anything even though he was scared.
“Eye,” Flip said. “Hello. I’m Flip. This is Zach. This is Gus Shevlin.”
The Eye kept staring at her. It was amazing how still it could stay, refusing to show any socially-accepted sign of acknowledgment.
“Okay,” she said. “You probably don’t care. Just three random people out of the millions of trillions of gazillions of people you watch every day… Never mind. We came to identify this man.”
The Eye flitted toward Shevlin, who flinched.
“Please,” Flip said, “show us all the possible versions for this lost soul.”
With as little warning as it had given when it had opened up, the Eye beamed a panorama of images from its pupil. The dark murk, which had been a single entity without a beginning and end, was suddenly subdivided into many rectangular scenes. Dozens. Hundreds. Thousands.
Mouth agape, Zach jumped up and spun around and around on the spot.
Hundreds of thousands of Gus Shevlins moved, one in each rectangle. And the only reason Zach thought “hundreds of thousands” instead of “an infinity” was that in practical terms, there was no way for him to see infinity. His eyes could only cover a limited area at a time. And no matter where he looked, there the hundreds of thousands of Gus Shevlins were.
It was as if Zach suddenly found himself in a limitless security footage control center. The Eye had spied on so many Gus Shevlins:
The one who cooked amidst pots and pans in a kitchen.
The one who flipped through books at a bookstore.
The one in a fur coat, similar to the one he wore now, who fired a pistol at a man in the dark streets.
All, clearly Shevlin, yet with minor differences. Some had scars, others wore glasses. Some limped, others had lost a pinky.
And there, one Shevlin and one Zach patted each other on the shoulders, the way men do after having reached a mutually beneficial business deal. That Zach almost didn’t look like Zach at all; he was more muscular and wore a fur overcoat and a fedora.
A god damn fur overcoat and a fedora!
There was Angeline, being introduced to Zach the mobster, by Shevlin himself.
There were Angeline and Zach, sitting right next to each other at a gala of some sort, but backs turned against each other because they weren’t romantically involved.
And there was Angeline who sat where Nora Shevlin had sat: in the back den of The Underwater Grille. She watched everyone who came and went, and listened to every conversation—as antsy, eager to please, and pathetic as Nora Shevlin, the magma lady.
In the case of those clearly unfamiliar scenes, Zach didn’t need to wonder if those were part of his own beforelife. But there were trickier ones too—ones that were nearly identical to Zach’s beforelife, but differed in a trivial way.
For example, in one case, Nora Shevlin wore a blue dress instead of a pink one on the day she’d met Zach for the first time. In another case, Angeline had dyed her hair dark instead of leaving it blond.
“I can’t tell which is which,” Zach muttered. “There are too many.”
He turned to the shell. But alas, the shell seemed even more shocked than Zach. There was no point in asking the shell if he recognized himself in any of these scenes. That man didn’t know who he was. At all. He couldn’t know.
Lost, Zach looked at Flip who stood at the opposite end of the boat. But Flip didn’t look back at him.
She told the Eye, “Tilt up, please. Toward the clouds. There. Thank you.”
The Eye did as told. Quickly, lights from street lamps and signs flashed. Numerous people of the 1920s swooshed past. Cars. Exhaust. Snow. Rain.
And there, in some of the scenes, thick red clouds hung, interwoven with the storm clouds.
“Ah,” Flip said. She seemed relieved. “I was hoping that the blood clouds would be visible.”
On the clouds sat Flip and Flop in their original forms: Flip in her Habsburg-era dress and Flop wearing his velvet cape.
“Sound, please,” Flip said.
As if someone had flicked the switch, the conversations of all the people in all of the hundreds of thousands of scenes became audible simultaneously.
In confusion, Zach glanced back and forth between the many scenes, Flip, Shevlin, and the Eye. But apparently, Flip was capable of discerning comprehensible sentences amidst the chaos.
“That!” Flip said. She pointed at one of the rectangular scenes.
At once, all other scenes disappeared. Now, Zach could hear the conversation too:
“We might as well request the presence of the women in black now,” said Flop. He retched.
“Please don’t vomit again,” said Flip, the one in the scene with Flop. “You’ve sent too many chills down there.”
“Who cares? It’s January. It’s supposed to be chilly.”
“Be quiet if you aren’t going to help me spot the victim.”
“But it’s not like we’re going to stop the murder.”
“Of course not. We can’t stop anything, but we can appear at his or her side straightaway when it happens.”
“I don’t think it’ll be only one person dying tonight.”
“I think only one person will die tonight,” Flip in the scene said.
“That’s the one,” Flip on the boat said, and pointed.
The floating Eye nodded with its entire spherical body. Once, twice, it did that, and at the third time, the beam that it shot out from its pupil intensified. The particular scene that Flip wanted became crisper, more colorful. It enlarged.
More. And more. And more…
…until Flip and Flop became life-sized. Until the clouds of storm and blood stretched from the boat to the horizon.
“Down, and go back in time to the beginning of the most recent sin,” Flip said.
At great speed, the scene plummeted from the clouds to the ground, as if it were descending with a camera that was attached to the head of a racing roller coaster. Zach and the shell screamed, even though the boat safely cradled them. Flip trembled.
Then, abruptly, the roller coaster stopped.
Zach saw the familiar bluestone-slate sidewalk of New York City in the 1920s. It was nighttime, with the only lights in this neighborhood coming from the stores along the road.
In front of him was the bookstore with The Underwater Palace. The darkness, which buried all places where the lights didn’t directly fall, prevented him from reading the sign, but he was sure he recognized the building. The jeweler’s and dressmaker’s shops stood to its left and right. He was gazing down at those stores from a high angle; from across the street; directly across the street. It was as if he were on the roof of The Underwater Grille.
Zach had never been up there before. This scene wasn’t from his beforelife.
Suddenly, he realized that he didn’t feel the gentle swaying of the boat anymore. When he glanced down, he saw that he sat in a comfortable chair covered in red velvet. And the next time he looked up, the scene with the bookstore hung in front of him, on a huge theater screen.
He looked around. The shell and flapper-Flip sat in the only two other chairs in this theater. Aside from the screen and the seats, the theater was empty.
And once Zach got over the sudden change in the environment, he examined the bookstore closer. Now, when he squinted, he could read the sign above its door: Bookstore. Impossible to misread. How unimaginative. The Bookstore’s windows had been wiped clean. Curtains were drawn. But the orange light seeped through and a few silhouettes moved. It seemed that the place was never full at any given moment.
The number of customers who entered and exited from the store, however, was enormous. Most of the customers were clearly not interested in books. They were dressed for partying. The glitter, glitz, gold earrings, neat suits; their willingness to visit the bookstore on a cold night that required thick gloves and multiple layers of scarves—all signs indicated the abundance of their time, energy, and money.
This was definitely not the day Zach had met Gus Shevlin. Instead…
At a sudden, piercing headache, Zach groaned. But what was many times more alarming was that Flip and the shell Shevlin had groaned at the exact same time.
“What is this?” Zach asked.
Flip rubbed her temples and said, “This, my fellow temporary sin researchers, is what it’s like to create a file for a deceased. We’re sitting inside the real Gus Shevlin’s head.”
And when another sharp pang overcame Zach, he lost himself.
© 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.