Ch. 43 – New Day In Afterworld, Continued Once More (2)

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“That’s it,” Zach said.

He jumped from his seat and turned away from the immense screen in the theater of the Eye.

“Me too,” the shell Shevlin said. He weakly climbed out of his seat and knelt on the ground. He shook all over his body. “That’s not me. That’s definitely not me.”

“Of course he’s not you,” flapper-Flip said, “you’re from inside a guestbook, from someone’s memory, whereas he’s from a real version of beforeworld. He only looks like you.”

Flip was the only one who wasn’t shaken from the experience of living as Gus Shevlin. Perhaps it was because she seemed conveniently distracted—as if she weren’t fully in the here and now. Zach noticed how the contour of her clothes scattered and reassembled, as if it weren’t sure if it wanted to maintain the new look that Flip had adopted.

“I don’t understand,” the shell said. His voice was teary. “That Nora lady seemed like a nice person. Why would he do that to her? And that Angeline person, she has a baby, he thinks that it’s his, or wants it to be his, and he wants her dead? I mean, you can’t tell for sure who’s the father, but you always know for sure who’s the mother, don’t you? It’s her baby, but he wants the baby and wants to kill her?”

The shell’s misery was painful to watch. Zach looked away. He understood why the shell was so overwhelmed. Zach himself had been surprised to see his double inside the guestbook. It was fascinating and chilling that someone who looked like yourself could behave so differently. In Zach’s case, luckily, the double hadn’t been a murderer. But for the shell, it was a different story. Zach felt bad for him.

Because Flip only gradually collected herself—literally, the particles forming her coming together—Zach paced around. From time to time, he couldn’t help but catch a glimpse of the screen.

Donald Todd was there, openly drunk for once. People laughed at that bearish man, but he didn’t seem to care. Zach had never seen him so easygoing and happy before. When Shevlin approached Todd, Todd seemed a bit scared and put the whiskey glass down on the nearest table, lest he spilled it. But Todd was ready to listen to Mr. Shevlin, sir, yes, sir, anything you need, sir, as long as you keep the liquor coming and all of us buried in such abundance.

Shevlin gathered a few Carningsby residents to a corner. They whispered. Plotted. The murder of Zacharias Steele had to be public and in no way should it be connected to Gus Shevlin. All those people who plotted together, they were drunk and giggled as if killing someone were the funniest thing in the world. They knew they were safe. They knew that Shevlin would reward them in cold hard cash and a good life.

Once Shevlin gave the instructions, the small group dispersed to spread the news to all one hundred and seventy-six people who’d eventually participate in the grand scheme. Todd’s wife was there too. Zach had thought that she disapproved of her husband because all she ever did in Todd’s presence was to scowl. But now, here she was, putting her arm around her husband’s neck, pulling him closer, and kissing him on the cheek. In one hand, she held a champagne glass. She was drunk and happy like everyone else. About the only thing that Zach had been right about when it came to Mrs. Todd was that she had even more secrets than Todd. Todd was an open alcoholic; she had pretended to dislike him for that.

“I want to go back to the hotel,” Zach said. His voice didn’t sound like his own. It was too calm, too normal. But his fists shook, he was clenching them so fiercely. “I know everything I need to know. I’ve seen enough.”

He wanted them punished. All of them. Gus Shevlin and those laughing people on the screen.

Yes, Zach had been a naive fool. Yes, he should have tried to figure out the cause of the inexplicable misunderstandings that had led to his career failure. And yes, he shouldn’t have taken everything that people said and did at face value.

But his foolishness didn’t justify other people’s crimes. It didn’t matter if the women in black agreed. If they wanted to punish Zach for punishing those who hadn’t been named in the gray candy deal, so be it.

Gus Shevlin’s way of justifying himself, how he argued that “having the effect might as well be the truth,” disgusted Zach. The way the murderer controlled Carningsby and its people, and the way they let him control them, sickened Zach. And Seamus too. That mole, he deserved to die. But that thought, too, disturbed Zach. He was thinking like Shevlin.

“It’s just his opinion, Zach,” Flip said, worried. She had gotten up from her seat. Her silhouette wasn’t blurry anymore. “I mean, what’s happening on the screen is what really happened in that world, but what he thinks in his head—that’s his opinion. The theater lets its audience live through that opinion because it’s meant for the Sin Research Division people, and they need to figure out what the intent of a deed was, not just the deed itself. Not that intent ever trumps the deed, but sometimes, unintentional things do happen, and… It doesn’t matter. What I’m trying to tell you is that some things are just in that man’s head. You know, the part about… About what he thinks about his own wife and everyone else. What he thinks isn’t the answer or the truth, necessarily.”

“I know,” Zach said.

Flip was referring to Shevlin’s opinions about Angeline. They were just like Zach’s: limited.

Zach had blamed Angeline, he’d loved Angeline, he’d thought she was responsible for his death, he’d thought she was a happy girl from a rich, nice family, responsible for nothing—all such opinions had been wrong because they’d been formed based on insufficient knowledge. He didn’t know enough about her. Maybe he knew nothing true about her, just like he’d known nothing true about Carningsby.

“Remember, he’s living through life the way you lived through your life—not knowing all sides of the story,” Flip said.

“That’s not me. That’s definitely not me,” the poor shell said once again.

Flip sadly shook her head at him, then turned to face Zach. Zach stared down at his seat, covered in red velvet. It seemed like a reliably neutral thing to gaze at.

Thinking about Angeline hurt him. Maybe Angeline had only meant well. She’d been teary in the dressing room, when she’d swept in like a snowstorm to give Zach her warning. Maybe she’d only wanted to save his dignity. That was why she hadn’t told him that Gus Shevlin was going to have him killed. Because, inevitably, Zach would have asked “Who is Gus Shevlin?” since he’d long forgotten the man. Then, after Angeline’s answer, he would have asked, “Why does he want me dead? I only met him once ten years ago.” She would have had to answer something like, “Because I’m his mistress and he thinks I’m running away with you because I’m pregnant. But he’s mistaken. I’m not running away with you. If that had been my plan, I would have told you by now.”

How bizarre that Shevlin thought Angeline wanted to run away with Zach. Obviously, Shevlin was as clueless about Angeline as Zach was.

But the hypothetical running away aside, what hurt Zach most was that Angeline hadn’t mentioned the baby to him, at all. All alone, except for Nora Shevlin’s monetary help, Angeline had tried to protect herself and the baby. Why she’d thought it was necessary to put Shevlin in prison, Zach didn’t know. Maybe she’d thought that Shevlin would eventually kill the baby because it could be half Zach’s. Instead, Shevlin had wanted to keep the baby because it could be half his…

Everything that Zach had noticed but hadn’t thought much about made sense now. Angeline getting busier and busier. Meeting people. Going to doctor’s appointments. Yes. She’d actually told him explicitly that she was seeing a doctor and he hadn’t paid attention. What was he thinking? He wasn’t thinking. Angeline had been unable to sleep and the style of her dress had changed, from slender-fitting to the ones that covered her belly, and Zach hadn’t paid attention…

Then he thought, Angeline must have known that he wasn’t going to pay attention. An image of Zacharias Steele, according to the opinions of Angeline Conners, popped up in his head. Irresponsible; always only caring about his music; unable to support himself, much less a woman and a baby. Much more than Zach, she’d been aware of his predetermined failure, carefully planned by Gus Shevlin.

But since she’d known about it, it was unfair that she should think him irresponsible. If he hadn’t been pushed away from opportunities, who knows what he might have become? Also, with or without financial success, if Zach had known about the baby, he would have taken responsibility. It didn’t matter who the father was. If Angeline had wanted to, he would have raised the baby with her. She hadn’t given him a chance. She hadn’t trusted him. She hadn’t thought him worthy of being kept in the loop.

But then Zach remembered Shevlin’s theory: Zach had value to Angeline because he was the one person who didn’t know that she was a mistress. In fact, Shevlin had called her a whore and a bitch. That pained and infuriated Zach at the same time.

Then Zach also remembered that Shevlin saw Angeline as a person who was ready to die; someone who would get rid of the baby because she was “no blissful idiot.” Meaning, Angeline had lived in a world where having a baby was proof of idiocy. Also, Zach recalled how Shevlin remembered her father and brothers: as people who couldn’t care less about their daughter and sister.

Zach had known nothing about her. Goosebumps sprang up on his skin when he thought about all the times he thought he’d loved her. In fact, he remembered three distinct times in which he’d been consciously aware that he was falling in love with her all over again.

© 2022 Ithaka O.

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