Table of Contents
Jump to the Prelude
Flop felt pretty proud of himself. He and Lisa had been running around the basement for about an hour, on and off, without a chance to sit down for longer than five minutes. And yet, he felt as if he could run more. Lisa, bless her heart, was out of breath from running around with him, but not Flop, oh, no.
He had taken Zach’s form. And as the masterful reaper that Flop had always been, he had gotten perfectly used to this new body. It was so well suited for running. That was the best thing about it. At first, the lack of Flop’s former, majestic belly had made him feel all weak and empty. But not anymore. It turned out, Zach’s long limbs had their advantages. Also, this thing called jeans were really comfortable. And color! Flop got to wear color! Black was a beautiful and charismatic shade, but real color, the chromatic kind, which this purple and green checkered shirt had, was something that Flop had never been allowed to wear. This was great. Just great!
“Can’t, run, stop, now,” Lisa said.
“Okay, okay,” Flop whispered. He pulled Lisa to a side hallway.
Lisa’s hair had become even more disheveled over the past hour. When they’d first met, she had looked like a person who normally presented a polished appearance, but had just walked through one of those disinfection chambers that attacked you with gas. Now, she looked like someone who didn’t know the meaning of polish. She panted heavily. Her makeup—which she had kept even in death and which had given her the impeccable corporate-executive look—had become undone with sweat. She slumped on the floor.
“How come we have to keep running?” she asked. “How come there’s not a single door that connects to a room? Where did the laundry room go?”
“Zach?” Alpha said from some other hallway.
“Lisa!” Omega said from another hallway.
“That,” Flop said, “is why we have to keep running. And as to the door, I think they disappeared because Alpha and Omega don’t want us to get away.”
“Oh my god. Do they have superpowers?”
“I wouldn’t call them superpowers. But I do suspect that the hotel has a bias toward the employees who died when they were very very young.”
“Oh, jeez,” Lisa said, and buried her face in her hands. “Is that what happened to them? They died when they were pre-school age and now they have to work for eternity?”
“Ooh, sorry. I told you too much. It’s not like that. Not entirely like that, at least. There’s a reason they’re… never mind. Sorry.”
“Forget about all that. In fact, do not ever tell them anything that I told you.”
Lisa shook her head with pity and exhaustion. “Is there no way around the hallways stretching?”
Flop didn’t know the answer. They had stayed in the basement since Zach, the shell, and flapper-Flip had followed Charlie upstairs. They had briefly considered going upstairs, too, but that hadn’t seemed like a wise idea, with Charlie getting so suspicious and asking so many questions to the shell. So, they’d stayed in the basement. Then, Alpha and Omega had found them.
“We have the suit!” Alpha had said, waving the jacket.
“Here, come pick it up!” Omega had said, waving the pants and the shirt.
Flop had panicked. (This was before he’d gotten used to looking exactly like Zach.) He’d run. And Lisa, not knowing what to do, had run after him. And ever since then, they’d been running from the twins.
All the hallways looked exactly the same. A long black carpet covered the white marble ground. On top of that, the hallways stretched and shortened. (For Flop and Lisa, they mostly stretched. For Alpha and Omega, they mostly shortened. The former pair running from the latter pair was a totally unfair game.) Normally, the hotel’s capacity was infinite and its nooks and crannies as infinite; but presently, Flop and Lisa couldn’t find a single hiding place. Alpha and Omega wanted to catch them. The default mode of the hotel seemed to be to oblige the twins.
“Why are you running from us?” Alpha asked from somewhere.
“You’re acting very weird,” Omega said from elsewhere.
“I want to leave the hotel at some point,” Lisa told Flop.
“You will,” Flop said. “You have to.”
Or the afterworld police will come and get you.
“I think my sister and my father will be looking for me,” Lisa said.
“Maybe we should split here,” Flop said.
“What if the twins find you and ask you questions?”
“I’ll answer them.”
“Pretending to be Zach?”
“Pretending to be Zach. Yes. I feel more confident now. I feel like I own this body, finally.”
Lisa shook her head softly.
“What?” Flop asked.
“Eh, how should I put this?” Lisa said. “You don’t look very… comfortable. Omega just said so. You look like someone who’s acting weird.”
“He could have meant you.”
“I don’t think so.”
“You don’t look like someone who’d routinely run away from children either.”
“True. But also…” Lisa hesitated.
“I’ll be fine,” Flop said. “You have to go. I think the twins will let you go.”
“I’m worried they’ll find out you’re not Zach and all this will be for nothing. Because if there’s one thing I hate more than running for an hour straight, it’s things ending up meaning nothing.”
“I’ll be fine. I look just like Zach. I’m acting just like him. Look how fast I run.”
“Maybe that’s what the twins find suspicious. The running. Zach doesn’t seem like the runner type.”
“But if he were to run, he’d run like me.”
Lisa pursed her lips and shook her head more firmly. She didn’t want to hurt Flop. At a time like this, it was unwise to tell him that he seemed to be undergoing a sort of beginner’s high, which combined beginner’s luck and runner’s high. He was fascinated with his new body and had run to the point of delirium, which was why he was smiling so widely even though he looked like he had perspired out all the fluids inside him.
He seemed to think that he was a great runner. He wasn’t. His panting was at least as heavy as her own. Though Lisa hadn’t been acquainted with either Zach or Flop for a long period, she got the sense that running in panic and perspiring heavily and acting proud about it was more of a Flop thing, and not a Zach thing. Also, Flop kept groping the thin air for his nonexistent belly. This seemed to be a habit he couldn’t act away.
“You’re worried you’ll get lost, aren’t you?” Flop asked.
“Yes,” Lisa said, because convincing Flop that he wasn’t impersonating Zach very well would take too long. “Yes, I’m very much worried, I wish we wouldn’t split.”
“But, you know what? Here’s an idea. Remember I said the twins might let you go? How about, we only split for a short while until the twins show you the way and you find a staircase? I’ll be nearby and follow you.”
So, Lisa left their hallway before the twins could reach it.
“There!” Omega said, pointing at her from a neighboring hallway that—Lisa was certain of this—hadn’t existed only a minute ago.
“Aha!” Alpha said, emerging in the same hallway.
The twins approached her at a great speed. They stirred a wind, so strong that Alpha’s long platinum hair and Omega’s pitch-black short hair and Zach’s cleaned clothes fluttered loudly. Lisa had to suppress the urge to run away from them yet again. The twins and their inexplicable non-superpower terrified her. Such cute little children, with so much power.
She managed to stay still. Ironically, the memory of her miserable school years, in which she’d felt like running from class but told herself that she needed proper transcripts to get a well-paying job outside of her stupid hometown, helped her achieve this static state. Who knew that her school years would come in handy? Maybe people were right when they said: “Everything happens for a reason.”
“Hello, you guys,” Lisa said. She smiled feebly.
“Why are you running away from us?” Alpha asked.
She and her brother came to an abrupt halt right in front of Lisa. Neither twin was panting or sweating. Was this what eternal youth did to people? Give them infinite energy?
“And why is Zach running away from us?” Omega asked. “Where is he?”
“He’s been acting very weird all day long,” Alpha said.
“He looked sick just now, when I got a glimpse of him,” Omega said.
“I think I saw his body sort of wobbling,” Alpha said.
“Yeah, as if he couldn’t decide if he wants to keep being Zach or not.”
“And he’s not working.”
“Lady Song won’t like it.”
“Yeah, while there was that earthquake, there was a reason for him to not work.”
“Yeah, not anymore.”
“If he refuses to take his clothes, what do we do?” Omega asked.
Alpha tapped her index finger on her chin to express her greatly exaggerated mock-contemplation. “We’ll go to Lady Song to drop these off,” she said.
“Yeah, we can’t keep running after him all day long.”
“We’ve got work to do too.”
“He was trying to help me find the stairs,” Lisa said.
The twins stopped and stared.
“For some reason, they’re not where they were,” Lisa said. “We got lost.”
The twins exchanged frowns.
“But they’re right there,” Alpha said, pointing somewhere.
And when Lisa looked where the little girl pointed, there they were, the stairs.
“I don’t believe this!” Lisa said, half in relief, half in outrage.
Alpha and Omega shrugged.
“The basement likes us,” Omega said.
“Every part of the hotel likes us,” Alpha said.
“Sometimes it shows us things others don’t see.”
“It’s because we work here.”
“It’s used to us.”
“Uh-huh,” Lisa said, glancing around.
“You’re looking for Zach,” Omega said, narrowing his eyes.
“Yeah, where did he go?” Alpha said.
“I’m not looking for Zach,” Lisa said. “I gotta go, kids.” She walked toward the stairs, though she couldn’t help but continue to look around.
The staircase had returned to its “normal” state—or at least, the state in which Lisa had first seen it. A few stairs up, there was the landing. From there, the staircase angled up toward the lobby. Lawyers, reapers, and guests murmured there. The cookies had never smelled sweeter.
Slowly, Lisa took the first stair. Then the next. And the next. From the basement level, the twins watched her go with their eyes narrowed and hugging Zach’s clean clothes.
Just when Lisa thought that Flop had gotten lost for good, she heard a single cry coming nearer. The twins whirled around. Generating a blast of air that was as strong as the ones from the twins, Flop dashed from the left side of the hallway. The twins gasped. The stair on which Lisa stood wobbled. She hated this continuous morphing of the hotel. At first it was fascinating—the birdlike guestbook, the infinite bookshelves spitting out wood panels, and the reapers modifying their looks—but this was too much. Lisa was a person of beforeworld. She was never meant to stay in afterworld, and definitely not whilst she witnessed all sorts of madness.
“Run upstairs!” Flop said.
“I can’t!” Lisa said. “The stairs are wobbly!”
“Trust me, the twins won’t kill you!”
Is that something they can do to me? Lisa meant to ask, but Flop had already caught up with her. He grabbed her by the arm and pulled her with him.
“Zach, your suit!” Alpha said.
“Where are you going?” Omega said.
Run. Run upstairs, then along the short corridor.
No time to look back. No time to care what the guests or the reapers or the lawyers thought. No time to halt before bumping into the valet with the silver cookie tray. Lisa imagined a firework of cookie crumbles…
The valet spotted them. He maneuvered his way out of their path. Relief made Lisa’s knees weak—but it lasted only for a second. With the valet gone, a new obstacle emerged: a big man who was headed toward the front desk.
Lisa yelped. That was all she could do to warn that man. Other people in the lobby gasped. The big man saw Lisa. He raised his hands as if to catch her—
She slammed into his hands. But he didn’t use them to catch her. He pushed her. She was shoved back like a ladybird that had been flicked from its flight route by a mean kid. She hit the marble floor. Meanwhile, the man merely took a few steps back at the impact.
“Are you all right?” Flop said, coming to Lisa’s aid.
What had just happened? She was on the floor. She hadn’t been on the floor since she’d worked at the local laundry, part-time, as a high school student. There, the floor had been wet and if you weren’t careful, you slipped from time to time. It was annoying, horrible, terrible, and Lisa had wanted to leave her hometown so badly, but even that had been better than…
Had that man really pushed her? Lisa wildly looked around. Yup, she wasn’t imagining this. Everyone else’s aghast looks confirmed her suspicion. He had pushed her.
She glared up at him. He seemed to be a reaper because he wore a black fedora and a black coat over a black suit and black socks and black shoes. The combination gave him the impression of some extreme-goth gangster who’d walked right out of a mafia movie where he had the part of the one with the worst fashion sense. No one looked good in that much black, except when at a funeral. (Since the reapers were basically on a never-ending funeral tour, all-black made sense for them.)
But what really bugged Lisa about him was something else: he was grinning broadly with no intention of helping her up.
She was reminded of one of the few memorable lectures from high school. It had been during an English class. The teacher had said, “If you think your car is going to collide into another car head-on, you should hit the accelerator, not the brake. Because, if ‘F’ equals ‘ma,’ then you’d better increase the ‘a,’ which stands for acceleration. That’s the only way you can increase ‘F,’ which stands for force. You can’t increase ‘m,’ which is mass.”
Some students had giggled and expressed their amused horror, at which the teacher had said, “It’s because I love you kids. If one of the drivers is going to die in a head-on collision, it’s better if the other person dies, not you.”
It had been an English class, not a physics class, Lisa was sure of this. This talk of people dying in head-on collisions and “F equals ma” had been such a random topic to be brought up while discussing Shakespeare. That was why she remembered the episode so clearly.
And this grinning, fedora-and-overcoat-wearing, lousy mafia-wannabe reaper had pushed her to increase his ‘a,’ which was going to increase his ‘F,’ even though his ‘m’ must have a value that was at least twice as large as Lisa’s.
“What’s so funny?” she snapped, letting Flop help her get up. “You pushed me.”
“Hey, you’re the one who came running at me like a mad cow.”
“Excuse you, though it’s too late for that.”
The reaper didn’t stop grinning. He looked strangely familiar. For an old man with white hair, he had a boyish face. The grinning made him look like a kid high on sugar after eating a whole bucket of ice cream. He looked around the lobby, as if he wanted others to enjoy this incredibly funny joke as much as he did.
No one reacted the way he wanted. In fact, few reacted at all. Dead people had a notoriously short attention span when it came to anything but their own business. So, everyone who’d seemed concerned and aghast had returned to discussing their cases with their lawyers or saying goodbye to their reapers.
The mafia reaper shrugged. “Not much humor around here.” Which didn’t stop him from still grinning.
“Have you completely lost control over your facial muscles?” Lisa said. “Are you sick or something?”
“As a matter of fact, I am,” he said—again, beaming; everything that had happened to him was the best thing ever—“Not the facial muscles part, no, but I am sick. Was. I died of pneumonia. As did a lot of people my age in my town, including my wife. Dozens who wanted to kill me with bullets and daggers, and it was pneumonia that took me. Ha!”
He roared with laughter. That was when Lisa noticed two reapers—young men dressed in plain black suits—nearby. They gestured at the front desk and spoke to the mafia reaper in low voices to make him move along.
No. Not a mafia reaper. The crazy grinning mafia guy wasn’t a permanent resident of afterworld. He couldn’t treat Lisa like this if he were one. No one here would allow it. He was a dead person who’d been just reaped. And people in his beforelife had wanted to kill him with bullets and daggers.
And he looked… very… familiar…
“Flop,” Lisa hissed, alarmed. “Flop!”
She turned around. Flop wasn’t next to her. He was nowhere to be seen. Then she noticed the look of consternation of Charlie, the concierge, as he stared at the mafia guy.
Yup. The mafia guy was who she thought he was. She just hadn’t recognized him right away because he and the shell wore different clothes, with the shell having a better fashion sense; he knew how to match his blacks with his grays and whites. Also, the shell and this man had the same face and same muscles that were being used for the same gestures, but with different intents. The shell had thoroughly enjoyed people’s attention but he’d genuinely loved them in return. But this guy? He exuded meanness. He oozed out evil from his pores.
“What are you doing?” the mafia guy asked Charlie the way a mean master asked the lowliest of servants. The mafia guy was leaning against the front desk with his elbow. He nodded at the guestbook. “The name’s Shevlin. Gus Shevlin.”
“Zach!” Alpha said.
Oh, shit. Lisa glanced from Gus Shevlin to the corridor next to the front desk. At the end of that corridor was the staircase to the basement.
“Zach, what are you doing here?” Omega said.
“Ehh,” said Flop-Zach.
Lisa slowly backed away toward the corridor. She didn’t want Gus Shevlin to notice.
“Zach, what’s wrong with you?” Alpha said.
“Zach. Zach? You’re shivering,” Omega said.
“You’re—you’re turning into liquid.”
“Are you liquid?”
Gus Shevlin looked up. He and Lisa made eye contact. At her frozen expression, he frowned.
“Zach? Zacharias!” the twins kept saying.
Lisa watched as Gus Shevlin’s face distorted with a mixture of suspicion and hatred.
© 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.