Table of Contents
Jump to the Prelude
Nora Shevlin wasn’t just not sad, not depressing, and not depressed, but, somehow, startlingly, she looked… beautiful. Not because she had lost weight or because her makeup had changed. Not because the dense white mist blurred the less attractive features. Also not because of the fire-red dress that made her look like a descending flame.
No. Such superficial elements had nothing to do with her newfound beauty. The cause was the confidence that she exuded, through her smile, through her cheerful waving of one hand, and her quick movements with the other as she drove the manual elevator down toward the platform at the bottom of the cliff island.
Zach removed his mask. He couldn’t help it. He openly gaped at Nora. The sight of her, so passionately trying to reach her goal, was so moving, so hopeful. He laughed. From the passive remnants of the magma that flowed down a mountain, she had transformed into an explosion of energy. The force radiated out of her and touched Zach. She was positively addictive to watch.
“Hello, everyone,” she said, slightly out of breath, when she arrived at the bottom.
All the muscles on her face and body were tense, in a state of pleasant expectation.
“Hello, Mr. Steele, I see you’re not running away from me.”
“No, Mrs. Shevlin, no,” Zach said.
They shook hands as soon as she hopped off the elevator.
“Please. No Mrs. Anyone Else here,” she said, proceeding to shake hands with Flip, who looked as happily surprised as Zach. “Nora. Please call me Nora.”
“Nora,” Flip and Zach said.
The shell took a step back and hid behind Zach.
“Oh, come on,” Nora said, waving off the shell’s unspoken fear with friendly cheerfulness. “I know you’re not my husband. You can’t be him. He’s up there. You just look like him.”
Nora’s statement unsettled Zach on two counts. First, Nora didn’t seem surprised by the idea of different people with identical faces. Second, the shell had been right about Gus Shevlin having died already.
“He arrived at the hotel?” Zach said, and he exchanged a quick glance with Flip. “When?”
“Just now,” Nora said, “which is why I came running here. I’ve been waiting for this day for so long!”
She clapped her hands together like a little girl who’d just been told that she got to unpack her Christmas gifts a month early.
“Ma’am— Nora,” Flip said, trying to maintain her grace as a reaper, “how… what do you mean by you’ve been ‘waiting for this day’?”
“I mean, I knew, I simply knew that this had to happen. I knew that my husband couldn’t possibly be allowed to do all he’s done and get away with it.”
“Did anyone tell you something about…” Flip hesitated. “Candies? A deal? Or, specific punishments? Precedents?”
“No,” Nora said cheerfully. “In the past seven days that I’ve spent at the hotel between worlds, I’ve noticed that the people of afterworld are impressively taciturn when it comes to the really exciting stuff. But, you see, the mere fact that I can still talk, that I am still me, and that you, Mr. Steele, are here as you, proves that what I’ve believed all along is true: there is an afterworld—obviously, duh, we’re all here—and there is a Supreme—that part, no one denied—and my husband will be punished!”
Zach, the shell, and Flip stared at her.
“You’re glad that Gus Shevlin will be punished?” Zach asked, just to be sure.
“Absolutely!” Nora said, and broke into a fit of laughter.
The shell retreated further. At this, Nora only laughed more delightedly.
“As soon as I saw him—and of course, just like in beforelife, he didn’t see me at all, treated me like I was invisible even though I’m wearing this beautiful dress that a very kind lady agreed to trade with me, because I was getting so very bored with my old dress— But never mind my dress. He didn’t see me, like he’s always done in beforelife, which is a good thing, for a change, because it gave me time to go look for you. I wanted to warn you. But you weren’t at the cocktail lounge. The nice girl at the bar told me that you haven’t shown up in a day or so. So, I went outside. And then suddenly, the island was shaking, like earlier when I was in my room. Back then, when the earthquake stopped, I figured, someone important just left.”
The shell cleared his throat and dared step out of Zach’s shadow, as if to imply, That is I, the “someone important” whom you are referring to.
“And this time,” Nora said, “I figured, the important someone returned, which had to mean that he or she arrived by boat, as people tend to do around here. So I am here, and I was right! You are here!”
She beamed at Zach, who couldn’t help but slowly shake his head at Nora’s enthusiasm and readiness to embrace the complicated mechanics of beforeworld and afterworld.
“How come you aren’t surprised your husband died so… conveniently?” Zach asked. If Nora had really poisoned Shevlin, Zach wanted to know.
“Oh, didn’t I tell you?” Nora said. “So many older people in Carningsby died of pneumonia. Besides, Gus had a history of heart disease and diabetes. He was bound to die soon after me. Just as I prayed for. See, prayer works. Prayer always works.”
“Nora,” Flip said, smiling that smile of a professional who wants to gently calm down an overly excited layperson, “you also don’t sound surprised that Zach looks exactly the way he looked at the time of his death.”
“Oh, I was surprised, a little, at first,” Nora said. “But if he doesn’t get to keep his youth, that’d be unfair, wouldn’t it be?”
“I thought you were praying for your husband,” Zach said. “Everyone thought you were spying for him in the shrine. I mean”—he blushed—“your, the, where you sat at The Underwater Grille.”
“Oh, you even remember the name of the restaurant,” Nora said. She seemed touched.
“I’ve recently had a refresher on my beforelife,” Zach said.
“Don’t feel bad about calling it a shrine,” Nora said. “I know that everyone called it that. But also, nonsense.” She snorted with great indignation, like a volcano that puffed out hot air. “I didn’t pray for my husband. I prayed about him, yes. I let everyone believe that for and about might as well be the same thing because that was an easy cover and I needed one to get what I wanted. So, I don’t blame you for believing my cover too. I had to pretend I loved him, and miserably so. Otherwise, he would’ve killed me. You see, with Gus, it doesn’t matter that he doesn’t really want something. What matters to him is that no one takes what’s his, regardless of whether he wants it or not. Anyway, I was lucky that people were so eager to believe that I was a sad, helpless person. I mean, it wasn’t that hard. People tend to think that ugly women are sad and helpless.”
“I greatly disagree,” the shell said.
“What?” Nora said, a bit antagonistic.
The shell shrunk, but dared make his point: “I mean, I disagree that you are ugly. I think you are, you are… magnificent.”
“Oh,” Nora said. She blushed. “Well. Thanks.”
“Not that I think ugly women are sad and helpless,” the shell quickly said.
“No,” Nora said.
The shell and Nora stared at each other, seemingly fascinated.
What in heaven and hell?
After a few seconds, Zach deemed it reasonable to break up the strange meet-cute.
“So then, that’s what you had so many candles for?” Zach asked. “And praying to the Virgin Mary and Buddha, was that also a cover to make yourself…”
“Look more pathetic?” Nora said, grinning. “Sure, that was one function that those tools served.” Then, abruptly, her face distorted in hatred. “But tools are never mere tools when someone prays wholeheartedly. I prayed for my husband to be punished. I built that shrine so that I could witness all his sins, so that I could tell the angels in heaven, the seraphs, the nymphs, the ghosts, whatever you want to call them, about his sins when it was my time to die. I prayed for his death. And I prayed that I could die when he died so that I could witness his pain in hell. Without the thought of an ‘after,’ I couldn’t live in the then and there, which Gus loved so much. What I dreamed of was this. Here. Now. An afterworld.
“And I prayed to all those deities and their familiars and slaves. I prayed to every one of them, because people thought it outrageous. And what people thought outrageous tended to be the wise, the good, the sensible, at least in my experience.
“I thought, if any of the heavenly beings are willing to listen, I’ll pray to each of them a thousand times. It never occurred to me that I couldn’t pray to all of them. Honestly, if any of them have any common sense, they’d collaborate, which I figured was what was going to happen, no matter what mere humans said. Because, if you’re deities, you should at least be equipped with common sense. The supernatural powers come after that. You know?”
The three members of the audience nodded. There was no other choice. Nora spoke with great conviction. Apparently, there had been a good reason she had survived the tyranny of her husband: she had as much force inside her; only, it had been hitherto sheltered, and according to Nora, for this very day, when Gus Shevlin was to die and join her in the other-world.
“And now, you remember me,” Nora told Zach. She smiled again. “I knew this time would come. I knew it had to come. This is only fair. It absolutely had to be this way.”
“I’m glad you think that way,” Zach said, and he meant it. Nora possessed enough cunning and determination to fool everyone around her for multiple decades. He was lucky to have her on his side.
“So, my husband just died and he arrived at the hotel. He just bumped into a woman and she seemed like someone with fire, like myself.” Nora said this with no little pride. “It sounded as if she was challenging my husband. That’s when I left. But he will soon check in and meet his lawyer and all, so I figured, I have to tell you now or never, because before you can think of a proper punishment for my husband, you have to know just what happiness he robbed from you.”
“Miss Conners was pregnant when you died.”
“We know that.”
The shell and Flip nodded.
“Oh,” Nora said. She seemed disappointed. “Shame. It was one of the most useful things that I ‘spied on’ at the Grille.”
“How did you find out?” Zach asked.
As expected, Nora was delighted at the chance to explain. “Well, she visited the restaurant from time to time, as you may already know. That little bitch—I’m sorry Mr. Steele, but I’m the wife who was thrown aside for the mistress, so I hope you give me some leeway in terms of vocabulary here—anyway, that little thing came and went as if she had nothing to fear, nothing to be ashamed of. And I won’t lie, I hated her for that. She was a beautiful little thing, probably is, still—”
“Do you know what happened to her?” Zach asked.
“Be patient. I’ll get to that part. Anyway, she was a beautiful little thing and I hated her for that. So when she came to the restaurant, I made sure to pay special attention. I even bribed one of the waiters to make him seat her at a table that I could watch. The waiters laughed at me. Thought that I just wanted to torture Miss Conners and myself. It wasn’t like they actually liked her, you see? Those bastards didn’t care what happened to me or what happened to your girl. They were cruel beings. Sometimes I wondered if my husband hired them just for their cruelty. Or maybe he didn’t notice how cruel they were, he was just naturally attracted to his kind… But anyway, I digress. I watched her that day, just like on any other day when she visited. And just like on any other day, she pretended to not see me.
“But as she was getting up to go freshen up—she was doing that a lot that day, had to get up every other minute to go—something happened. Something fell out of her coat. And before she hurriedly picked it up, I saw: it was a map. I snatched it from the floor”—Nora snatched the air as if it were the map—“and rushed to the lady’s room with it, forcing her to follow me. And there I saw: it was a map to a warehouse.”
“She was working with the authorities,” the shell said, nodding, “to rat out on Gus Shevlin.”
“You know that part too?” Nora said, greatly disappointed.
The shell laughed awkwardly, regretting that he’d said anything.
“Well,” Nora said. “Yes. She was working with the authorities. She told me so when I pressed her about that map. Since she trusted me as little as she trusted my husband, she didn’t spill the details easily. I got… well, I got a bit rough with her. Not that I hit her or anything, but I pushed her against the wall. Multiple times. And every time I did that, I noticed how she was protecting her stomach area. Even when I pushed her on the shoulder or poked her in the head.”
“I’m not proud of it,” Nora said. “But I knew she was hiding something. In her stomach. Possibly, literally. And once my thoughts got to that point, it was easy to guess the rest: she was pregnant. I asked her if she was. That’s when she told me, yes, she was.”
At the thought of Angeline protecting her baby from a woman twice her size, Zach couldn’t help but feel terrible. Yet he couldn’t hate Nora. Nora was right. Nora was the jilted wife. And where had Zach been? Nowhere except in la-la land, thinking about music and all that.
“Why did she risk working with the authorities?” Zach asked. “It was so dangerous, especially with the baby. I saw, I mean, I know Shevlin killed Seamus.”
“You know that too?” Nora sighed. “What don’t you know?”
“That’s always the problem, isn’t it?” Zach said bitterly. “You don’t know what you don’t know. Please. Tell me everything you think I should know.”
“I think she worked with the authorities because she wanted to keep the baby,” Nora said. “She didn’t want the baby to have a mother who was a mobster’s mistress. The only way for her to hope to get away from Gus and raise her child as someone other than a mobster’s bastard was to put Gus in prison.”
At this point, Nora noticed Zach’s gaping.
“Mr. Steele, are you all right?”
Zach didn’t know what he was. To start with, he was impressed by Angeline’s… courage. And determination. And strength that he hadn’t seen in her. Not that he’d ever thought she was weak, absolutely not. But this kind of strength—the “I’d rather die than raise my child as a mobster’s bastard” kind of strength—was completely unexpected.
“From that point on everything changed,” Nora said. “I used to hate her. But when I saw that she was willing to live a lonely life—one blessed with a child but lonely nevertheless because the world expects a woman to have a man, no, belong to a man, or else she has no one to ‘represent’ her”—Nora sighed—“once I saw that she was willing to choose that life, and willing to raise the child as her own, with or without a second parent in the picture, I had to admit: the girl’s got guts. And I’d always hated Gus more than I’d hated her. There are women who blame the other woman more than the husband. I am not one of them. First and foremost, Gus is the one who broke our marriage vows. So, I helped Miss Conners pay for her doctor’s appointments and save up a little so she could leave. And I must say, I enjoyed helping her very much. It was the one creation I was allowed to partake in, albeit in an indirect fashion.”
They fell silent.
“Thank you,” Zach said, after a while.
“For?” Nora asked, her brows raised teasingly, but not unkindly. “It might have been my husband’s baby, you know.”
Zach shook his head. “Thank you for helping Angeline.”
Nora sighed more heavily than before. “Mr. Steele, we all knew about the murder plot and we did nothing to stop it. Me, Miss Conners, all of us. We chose a quick end to the unpleasant business over a clear conscience, because anybody who’s been around Gus knows: that’s way easier than to live with the threat of his bullet looming over you, ready to strike at the most unexpected moment.”
“But she came to warn me,” Zach said.
“Which, apparently, didn’t lead to the desired result, because you’re dead,” Nora said. “Not that I blame her. She was scared Gus would change his mind; shoot her and her baby dead unless he didn’t get to kill you.”
“Get to kill me,” Zach repeated. What a phrase. As if it was Gus Shevlin’s right to kill him.
“That would have been how he’d put it,” Nora said.
“I agree,” Zach said. The experience of living in Gus Shevlin’s head gave him that certainty.
“I think that is why she didn’t warn you more explicitly,” Nora said. “Don’t forgive her for that. Don’t forgive any of us for that. But, at the same time, Miss Conners did go to the Luminary to see you one last time. She could have fled well before then, but she didn’t.”
“Your husband locked you up in the house, didn’t he?” Zach said. “How did Angeline avoid getting caught? Before coming to the Luminary, I mean.”
“I was able to find a rat in the house, kill it, put it in a box, and send it to Angeline at the doctor’s.”
“You did what?” Flip said.
“I was able to find a rat in the house, kill it, put—”
“Yes, yes, but why?”
“To send her a message. That the mole’s been found, meaning, her. And that Gus planned to kill it, Mr. Steele, or someone. But I couldn’t very well find a mole in the house, so I went for a rat instead.”
Flip said, “Dear Supreme.”
The shell said, “You did the right thing.”
“And I thought she’d flee the same night,” Nora said. “But she didn’t. For that, Mr. Steele, for that, I believe she deserves at least a little bit of praise.”
Zach looked off at the thick white mist over the river.
“I’m guessing that, at some point after receiving the dead rat,” Nora said, “she found out that Seamus was gone. She must have realized that Seamus, too, was a mole. And that Gus knew about her plot to sell him to the authorities. To save the baby and herself, she had to give up something or someone: you.”
Zach nodded grimly. “But she came to warn me and didn’t leave immediately afterward. I remember, after I was done playing the sonata, she was still there. She was caught by his men. She begged them to take me to a doctor.”
Nora nodded. “Choosing the cruel way isn’t easy unless you’re used to it, even when the cruel way is the logical way and it’s too late to walk a different road. She stayed a moment too long at the theater. She was dragged to our house. I heard them put her in a room on the same floor as mine. The third floor, a room without a balcony, so she couldn’t try to escape that way unless it was by killing herself. Horribly cruel.”
She crossed herself.
“Horribly cruel,” the shell repeated, also crossing himself.
Flip raised her brows. The shell had found someone to emulate; someone with plenty of life history to make up for his lack thereof.
“But one day, not long thereafter, I heard a great tumult in her room,” Nora said. “The maid was screaming. Something about blood. A miscarriage. Maybe, maybe not. They weren’t sure. They called the doctor. Gus yelled on the phone so furiously. Something about the doctor being unable to make a house call. Something about a potential operation because of significant blood loss. They carried her outside. Put her in a car. I heard the engine. I guessed they went to see the doctor. Very late at night, they returned. But Miss Conners wasn’t with them. She never returned. I never saw her again.”
Zach cleared his throat. There was a heavy lump. His eyes watered.
“What happened to her?” he asked.
“She escaped,” Nora said. She smiled.
“Are you sure? How?”
Nora fished out an old, crumpled envelope from the pocket of her fire-red dress. She handed it to Zach. He took it, nervously glancing at the others. They nodded encouragingly. He opened it.
Inside was a folded piece of paper.
“I’ve kept it with me ever since a gentleman dropped it on my table at the restaurant,” Nora said. “Every day, for the past several decades, I’ve carried this around. I knew that we didn’t get to bring everything to the other-world. But I was sure that we got to bring certain things with us. Important things. Our appearance, for example. Our memories. And key objects, like this one.”
Zach unfolded the paper.
It was a detailed pencil sketch of a window. One that Zach knew very well. One overlooking the cornfields. One through which the sun usually flooded in.
Though the pencil sketch didn’t capture the light, the warmth, and the nostalgic mood that he always felt whenever he found himself traveling to the place it depicted, he didn’t need the details. It was as if he could feel the sunshine. And although the chair in the sketch was empty, it was as if he could see the woman who always sat there.
Angeline. His muse. One and the same.
The sketch depicted the imaginary place that opened up when he reached a trance-state while playing the piano or, most recently, while hitting a metal door with a metal bat out of sheer fury.
In the lower right corner, a message was written in Angeline’s handwriting:
– A.C. & Z.S.Jr.
“What is this?” Zach said, looking up. “Is this a joke?”
Nora’s smile vanished. “Why would you say that?”
“This place,” he said, “where is this?”
“That’s the thing. I don’t know where this is, but I think it’s where she was about a year after she escaped.”
“That man who gave this to you, who is he?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t see his face. But look. I’m pretty sure that Miss Conners sent this. ‘A.C.’ meaning Angeline Conners. ‘Z.S.Jr.’ meaning Zacharias Steele Junior.”
“This could be a trick,” Zach said.
“Trick to accomplish what?” Nora asked.
“To… I don’t know. For Gus Shevlin to find out if you knew anything.”
“Gus would have chosen much less subtle ways to find out if I knew anything, believe me.”
“But. The man. Why?”
“Miss Conners did escape from the doctor’s office, didn’t she?” said Nora. “Somehow, she managed that. And in the same way, she managed to send me this sketch.”
Zach wasn’t sure if his heart was hammering more fiercely or if it had stopped beating altogether. He wasn’t sure if he was shriveling up or exploding. He also wasn’t sure if he was crying or laughing.
“So, she did have the baby,” he said.
“I think so,” Nora said.
“The baby was born, and Angeline was fine too.”
“Based on this, at least for a year after she escaped, yes.”
“She named the kid after me.”
“Is there anything else ‘Z.S.’ could stand for?”
“I have a child named after me.”
“It seems so.”
“And she went to the cornfields.”
Of all places. Of all the places in the whole wide world, Angeline Conners had gone to the cornfields that Zacharias Steele had left behind. And of all places in beforeworld and afterworld combined, Zacharias Steele went to this room depicted in this sketch when he was concentrating on the one thing that allowed him to be absolutely content without fear or worry: music.
Zach recalled what his double had told him: Everyone you came across existed in you. You formed opinions about each acquaintance. Whether such opinions were true or false didn’t matter. The impression could become a reality. That was how the double existed in the guestbook.
An impression of Angeline, so strong that it couldn’t be erased with the gray candy from the women in black, had remained in Zach. And in Angeline, an impression of Zach had remained. He couldn’t recall explicitly telling her where he came from. But he could have mentioned it, without thinking that he’d told her anything important. And that information that had been unimportant to him had stuck with her.
Now, this sketch, after his death.
Death had failed to part them. And for many years, a person who was named after Zach had lived unbeknownst to him. A person with a whole world of his own…
“What is it, Zach?” Flip asked. She looked concerned.
“I know this place,” Zach told her. He noticed tears flowing down his cheeks and wiped them off with his sleeves. “I didn’t think it was real, but…”
“So… Gus Shevlin never found her?” Zach asked.
“Not as far as I know,” Nora said. “I know he tried to. If he had succeeded, he would have done something that I would have heard of, eventually. I’m pretty sure I didn’t miss anything important while I was gone. He kept me locked up for a few more days after Miss Conners disappeared, but he couldn’t do that forever. People started asking questions: where did the pathetic lady go? He had to allow me to leave the house. He doesn’t like sullying his reputation, you see? And as soon as he let me go, I went to the Grille. It paid off that I’d built my own reputation as the pathetic lady in the shrine. People knew me. People expected me to be there. And at the same time, people treated me as if I wasn’t there. And those waiters at the Grille, they like to talk when they think no one’s there. I would have heard something if Gus had found Miss Conners.”
“And after this?” Zach said, holding the sketch at Nora. “Did you get any other letters? Messages? Did you ever see the man who brought you this sketch again?”
“No. And I figured, no news is good news.” She clapped her hands together. “And now, I have told you everything that I wanted to tell you.”
“Thank you, Nora.”
“You are very welcome, Mr. Steele. And thank you. For allowing me to try to atone for my sins.”
Zach nodded. Thanks to Nora, a huge weight had been lifted off his chest. It meant a lot to him that he could believe in the good intentions of some people, even though that hadn’t saved him.
“Please. Call me Zach.”
“Zach.” Nora smiled. “I am very sorry for everything I have done, and everything I haven’t done. Now I can leave. Rest in peace.”
“You’re leaving?” the shell said. He sounded unnerved.
“I have to, don’t I?” said Nora, turning to Flip.
“You have to,” Flip said.
Nora nodded. She didn’t seem sad. Actually, she seemed relieved. “Well, then.”
She headed toward the elevator. The shell, in his desperation to follow the person who sort of knew him but had zero expectation that he’d act like his meaner counterpart, jumped onto the platform.
At once, the island shook. Nora yelped and landed on the floor of the elevator. The shell fell on the platform. Flip and Zach grabbed each other’s arms to remain standing.
“What is this?” Nora said.
“You see, Nora,” the shell said, “I am the important person who left and returned to the island.”
“I thought it was Zach—” Nora paused.
High above them, at the top of the island, people screamed.
“You’d better get off the platform,” Flip told the shell.
“Wait,” Zach said.
They listened in.
“Sir, stop right there!” Charlie yelled, distantly, but clearly.
“Come. Back!” Lisa said, panting. “Leave. Him. Alone!”
“I don’t let anyone fool me,” a man said, also out of breath.
Everyone at the bottom of the cliff exchanged glances. They knew: the real Gus Shevlin was right up there.
© 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.