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Jump to the Prelude
“Unbelievable,” the shell said.
He sat in the middle of the boat once more. Like a little boy, he pouted, his arms crossed. Flapper-Flip sat at the bow and looked exhausted. Zach sat at the stern and fidgeted with impatience. No one rowed. The boat steadily floated downstream.
“You just have to ask it nicely, is all,” Flip said. “When the Eye puts you in the theater, you don’t just walk out without asking for permission.”
“Now I have to ask an eye for permission?” the shell said. “Or else, I get punished with a storm attack? Isn’t it enough that I look like a murderer?”
“Not an eye. The Eye. And we were all attacked by the wind because you opened the door without its permission.”
The river gently splashed the sides of the boat. The thick white mist stretched far and wide. Distantly, the silhouettes of other reapers and their dead could be distinguished. But there was enough distance between the boats to render details blurry. Each deceased was left to chew on his or her private moment. That all made sense.
“So the majestic Eye gets to attack lost souls and others,” the shell said. “Great. Absolutely fabulous.”
“You’re not an actual lost soul,” Flip said.
“But you wanted me to act like one,” the shell said. “Now, what am I? Not a lost soul, not that mean man on the screen, not anything. I am a bunch of nots.” And he sounded like he was tearing up.
“You are simply you,” Flip said soothingly, “as are all others.”
Zach barely heard their conversation. He rubbed his temples. The dense mist, the shell’s frustration with his appearance, Flip’s trying to soothe him, all that made sense. The mist had always been there. No one liked to find out that he looked like a murderer. And a reaper who’d just broken her routine of eons was, naturally, too exhausted to do anything other than soothing a distressed shell from a guestbook’s memory. That all made sense.
What didn’t make sense was how slow this stupid boat was. They had to return to the hotel quickly. The Eye had shown scenes of dead people who matched the shell’s appearance. Out of those, Flip had picked out the one where she and Flop had sat on the storm clouds on the night Zach had died. It followed that Gus Shevlin, the real one, was already dead—otherwise, the Eye wouldn’t have shown them that scene at all.
In a way, it was good that Gus Shevlin was dead. If he hadn’t died, living through his life through the Eye would have been impossible. That would have meant no relevant new information for Zach. Now he knew that Carningsby’s sobriety had been a charade. Also, that Gus Shevlin had ended up being powerful enough to control others like puppets. And that, most likely, Angeline and Nora Shevlin had their own stories that Zach didn’t know yet.
At the same time, the fact that Shevlin had begun the process of death but Zach didn’t know where exactly the man was, was very bad. For all Zach knew, Shevlin could be leaving the hotel with his lawyer right now. With that departure, Zach’s chance to make his murderer pay would perish. And Zach would be left to ponder about could-have-been scenarios forever. Even if he were to somehow inflict the maximum level of pain and misery on everyone else who was involved in his murder, there’d always be the largest chunk missing: Shevlin, the mastermind.
This stretch of the river couldn’t possibly be this long. It hadn’t taken this long to travel upstream, so how was it possible to take longer while going downstream?
He shouldn’t have dropped the oar in the river when he’d seen the Eye for the first time. Now, they only had one oar, which was useless. At the beginning of their return trip, Flip had tried to use it, but that had made the boat turn and turn. That was why they were now all sitting without doing anything, just waiting for the river to carry them at whatever tempo it saw fit.
Zach picked up the mask that he’d dropped in the boat. Little droplets of the mist hung on its surface. He wiped it dry with the sleeve of his black suit and tried to think of it this way: good thing that it hadn’t been the other way around, with the oar in the boat and the mask in the river. The river, with or without the oar, was bound to flow. But without the mask, any worker-resident of the hotel could recognize that he was Zacharias Steele, the cocktail lounge pianist, not a real reaper.
He tried to concentrate on actionable plans. For example, if Shevlin was still at the hotel, what would Zach do? He’d need a private moment with Shevlin, but he’d be careful not to close the door. Otherwise, he’d just return to his beforelife, which was unnecessary.
Zach had no desire to undo his past. It was impossible to undo only parts of it. Everything was connected. He’d loved the piano. He’d loved Angeline. They’d been happy together. To meet Angeline, he’d needed to play the piano for Gus Shevlin at The Underwater Palace. When he didn’t, Angeline had fled from him in the car that Seamus drove. And when he had proposed to her after years of their relationship but before she’d become pregnant, she’d explicitly said “no.” Later, by the time she had become pregnant, she hadn’t trusted him enough to tell him about the baby.
The only way Zach could “undo” anything in his beforelife would be to relive a large portion of it. Years. Months, at the very least. Zach doubted that Gus Shevlin had enough life force to fuel such a long reliving. There was no reason for him to be any different from Donald Todd, and that drunkard had become like the hide of an aged koala after Zach’s third short trip, forcing an early return. And the women in black had made it pretty clear that Zach was to pay for the consequences of his actions for eternity. He couldn’t imagine them allowing him to disturb the fabric of the worlds by living in beforeworld as an immortal being.
So, yeah. Zach was sure. No undoing the past. What he needed to do was moving forward, punishing Shevlin, punishing the people of Carningsby who’d found it so amusing to watch him die painfully. Also, making sure that his friends didn’t get hurt in the process; getting to the hotel quickly before Gus Shevlin thought Flop, who looked exactly like Zach at the moment, was the real Zach.
And seeing Angeline again.
Yes. That sounded nice. Zach wanted to see her again. Not to take revenge or demand things, but to ask her questions. Not about what had happened to him or happened to her in the past, before his death, but instead: what had happened to her afterward? Without the people in her life who’d mistreated her, and without the people who’d told themselves that they loved her but didn’t do much for her, had she been happier?
“We’re here,” Flip said.
Zach looked up. Beyond the thick white fog, a rough stone wall emerged. And as the boat drew closer, the stone wall was revealed as an entire cliff. They’d reached the island with the hotel.
Flip hopped off the boat onto the platform at the foot of the cliff island. Zach followed her. Both of them offered their hands to help the shell get off. The shell pouted but took their hands. He detached one foot from the boat and put it on the platform.
The island shook.
“Right,” Flip said.
“Right,” Zach and the shell said.
The shell removed his foot from the platform. He let go of their hands. The island stopped shaking. They stared at each other.
“I think you’d better stay here,” Flip told the shell.
“No,” the shell said, sounding terrified. “In this fog? I can’t see anything. All alone? No.”
“One of us will come and get you,” Zach said.
“When?” the shell said. “You said I could release. Is that possible anymore?”
“I’m not sure.”
“You said you’d help me release.”
“Which I am doing. I’m trying.”
“You’re trying, but it’s not working!”
Zach sighed. “You said you wanted to release because you care more about the process of living than death itself or birth itself,” he said. “You wanted to experience things. Didn’t you say so?”
“Well, yes, but not like this.” The shell’s babyface distorted. “Not to find out that I look like a murderer. And the hotel keeps rejecting me.”
“Do you want to return to the book?” Zach asked.
“No,” the shell said quickly.
“Then accept this. This is the process of living.” Zach didn’t mean to sound harsh, but this had to be said. “Believe me, I don’t like everything that happened to me either. I was murdered. I was clueless. I was powerless. I still am, to a certain extent. But it is what it is, for me, and for you too. You can accept that and go from there or keep wondering why it couldn’t have been better.”
The shell took a deep, snotty breath.
“We’ll find a different place for you, somehow,” Flip said. She patted the shell on the shoulder. “This is a first for us too.”
“Mr. Steele!” a woman called from above.
The shell choked on his snot. While he coughed madly, Flip and Zach looked up.
“Mr. Steele, is that you?” the woman said again.
Alarmed, Zach put on the mask. He glanced at Flip. She shook her head. Do not answer.
“Mr. Steele or not, wait there.”
At that, Flip quickly grabbed the handle that was used to operate the manual elevator, which presently stood by at the top of the cliff. She tried to hold the handle still, stop it from turning, prevent the entire pulley structure from working. But it turned in a circular motion. The woman up there was turning the other handle inside the elevator to make it come down.
“What on earth,” Flip gasped.
The woman had to be one hell of a determined person to prevail against Flip’s force.
When the elevator came down enough to show who was in it, all three of them at the bottom of the cliff let out a relieved “Ohhh.”
Because, it was Nora Shevlin, the magma lady.
The three of them—especially Zach, who’d previously thought of Nora as the sad, depressing, and depressed woman in the den-shrine—had seen her in a new light when they’d watched the real Gus Shevlin find out that she’d given Angeline money unbeknownst to him. So, they weren’t surprised to see her take initiative once more and drive the elevator down with the furious turning of the handle inside.
But within seconds, the “Ohhh” turned into a surprised “Oh?”
© 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.