Table of Contents
Jump to the Prelude
Flop slipped on the wet grass multiple times as he ran from the hotel to the foggy edge of the island. Every time, the damp earth allowed him to avoid a fall; the step after the slipped one dug deep into the ground, rooting him, keeping him from completely losing balance.
But that also slowed him down. And undigging his foot used up a lot of energy. He panted heavily. With each inhale, the mist particles clogged up the nostrils—his nostrils, he had to remind himself. They didn’t feel like his. He could barely breathe through them. These were Zach’s nostrils, designed for the life of a pianist, one with long spidery fingers, one who spent most of his days seated. They weren’t suitable for a reaper who only pretended to be the pianist and ran from an enemy through the thick mist.
The difficulty in breathing made Flop lose his concentration. With each exhale, his usual large belly threatened to return. By the time he’d taken a dozen steps, several buttons of his checkered shirt had popped open. The jeans felt terribly tight. He badly missed his magnificent velvet cape. The people of his—and Flip’s—chosen era had a much greater fondness for comfortable clothing. Why the young ones of certain time periods had to resort to these ridiculously tight-fitting jeans was beyond Flop. And how he’d ever thought the jeans were comfortable was a mystery.
Behind him, another man panted heavily: Gus Shevlin, the enemy.
Shevlin was a mere human who had died at an old age. His hair was nearly completely white. His habitual perception of his own body prevented him from running like a young man, although afterworld didn’t necessarily impose the physiology of beforeworld. Not just that, he had died of pneumonia, a disease characterized by sharp pains in the chest, fatigue, and shallow breathing. So, under any normal circumstances, Flop shouldn’t have had to worry about being caught up.
But this was no normal circumstance. Shevlin had kept his own appearance after his death, which in and of itself was an advantage. In contrast, Flop was pretending to be Zach, wearing this stupid shirt and even stupider jeans.
Most importantly, Shevlin, even in death, was full of harmful intent. On the other hand, Flop was really just a harmless little reaper who liked Vivaldi music and peaceful, bloodless days.
The panting behind Flop came alarmingly closer. The squish squish of the muddy ground sounded ten times louder. The smell of a recently dead human, who used to be surrounded by cigars smelling of tree bark and leather, overwhelmed that of fresh, wet grass.
Flop glanced up at the sky, filled with the sun, the moon, and the stars. Night and day coexisted. The possibilities were infinite. And that was part of the problem.
How, oh how had things come to this? Flop, a reaper, being chased by a mere human?
Those little twins, Alpha and Omega. They couldn’t keep their mouths shut. They had to scream “Zacharias!” right next to the lobby, as if they wanted everyone in the infinite eternity of worlds to know that something was wrong. And of course, Gus Shevlin, a man who had spent his lifetime removing both inanimate and animate obstacles without feeling guilty, had promptly rushed toward Flop, thinking that Flop was Zach.
So, Flop had run. Past the startled guests in the lobby. Past the outraged reapers and lawyers. Out. Here.
“You can’t keep running forever,” Gus Shevlin hissed from behind. “There’s a cliff in front of you.”
Like Flop didn’t know that!
Maybe now was the time to show the murderer what eons of reaperdom had taught Flop. Such as, magnifying in size until he covered the sky in black. Or, sitting on a cloud and vomiting until the murderer thought he was going to die all over again from chills. Such actions would stop the murderer from catching Flop.
But such actions would also lead to lots of paperwork. Lots of explanations. Maybe punishments.
Attacking was not a good idea. Damn it, a reaper could do so many things yet wasn’t allowed to show off his skills in front of a deceased who wasn’t explicitly breaking the rules of life and death.
Which was why Koe and Joe couldn’t use their powers to stop Gus Shevlin right now. All they could do was yell unintelligible words from the hotel.
Suddenly, the island started to shake.
And Charlie yelled, “Sir, stop right there!” from right behind Shevlin.
Not being alone with Shevlin was good and bad.
Good, because frankly, the crass dead man terrified Flop.
Bad, because with everyone else out here, Flop could forget about shifting appearances or vomiting chills, regardless of the paperwork. If Flop were to do such things, everyone would immediately realize that Flop wasn’t Zach, which naturally led to questions such as: Why was a reaper pretending to be Zach? Where was Zach, the real one? If this fake Zach was a reaper, where was his or her partner?
“Come. Back!” Lisa said.
She sounded really close. Closer than Charlie, who had fallen behind. No surprise there. Flop had been wondering how long Charlie could keep up. They both had significant bellies, but Flop was a reaper, and Charlie was a hotel worker. That made all the difference.
“Leave. Him. Alone!” Lisa said. She was furious and she wasn’t burdened by a few extra layers of fat from beforelife.
“I don’t let anyone fool me,” Gus Shevlin said.
This was followed by something like “Humph!” which was followed by a choking sound, which in turn was followed by a muffled scream.
Flop glanced back. Lisa had flung her arms around Gus Shevlin. He’d been pulled down backward, landing on top of her, who had landed in the muddy, shaky ground.
A good friend, Lisa was. And a brave one.
Gus Shevlin did his best to get up and off of her. For now, his priority was to resume his pursuit of Flop. Lisa grabbed Shevlin by his leg. Shevlin shook her off. She was flung back a few feet. She remained there.
Charlie, Koe, and Joe surrounded Lisa.
Shevlin’s eyes were on Flop. Flop kept running toward the edge of the quaking island. Shevlin groaned like an angry bear.
Charlie yelped something about “You are not allowed to attack the hotel staff, sir!” which touched Flop greatly. The concierge seemed a bit impersonal at times, but that was part of the job. When necessary, he was willing to rush out from behind the front desk and aid his coworkers, even if that merely meant staying behind with Lisa and yelling warnings. How beautiful. Everything could have remained beautiful, if people like Gus Shevlin hadn’t existed. Selfish murderer, selfish, even in death!
The twins yelped too. Little kid-screams, vulnerable and piercing, all the worse. But their voices sounded more distant and constant, implying that they weren’t anywhere near the murderer and that no one was preventing them from screaming as much as they pleased. That was one good thing.
Koe and Joe yelled something, which Flop couldn’t hear anymore. He had almost reached the edge.
Just. A few more. Steps. Through this muddy. Wet. Grass ground.
The island was still shaking. That meant that the shell was here. Which meant that the real Zach was here. Most importantly, Flip was somewhere down there, on the platform.
Oh, how Flop missed Flip!
He could hear voices from the bottom of the cliff. Flip’s voice!
“You cannot let them know about your deal with the women in black,” she was saying.
And her voice kept coming closer. She was in the elevator.
“You and Flop said this yourselves,” Zach said. “It’s nearly impossible not to reveal what they want me to hide.”
“Then you do the nearly impossible,” Flip said. “Don’t you want to see Angeline again?”
“I do. I really do. But that monster is attacking people even in afterworld. I have to do something.”
“I’m just telling you. Make sure that the ‘do something’ doesn’t involve exposing yourself to the others at the hotel.”
Flop wanted to say, I’m fine, my friends, I’m here—
A barbaric hand grabbed Flop by the back of his collar. For a second, Flop thought Shevlin was going to fling him on the ground like he had done with Lisa. Not so. Shevlin didn’t let go. He dragged Flop through the mud and grass, away from the edge, away from the hotel. Elsewhere. Far from everyone.
“You,” Shevlin said, panting, grinning, “I thought I’d gotten rid of you.”
Flop kicked the air. He tried to push his fingers in the space between his neck and the collar. But Shevlin pulled harder. Flop choked. For a second, he felt himself disperse.
Shevlin flinched. His grip on Flop’s collar loosened. Flop used the chance to scramble up halfway. Shevlin recovered from his surprise. He climbed on top of Flop. Flop suffocated under the man’s weight.
“You’re not Zacharias Steele,” Shevlin said. “You’re someone else. Something else.”
“Mr. Shevlin,” Koe said in his usual stern voice, “get off him.”
Flop managed to glance sideways. Koe stood close enough to intervene quickly, if necessary, but not so close that Shevlin might be provoked.
Ignoring Koe, Shevlin frowned at Flop. He continued to press the air out of Flop’s lungs; leaned in, examining the prey.
Flop grimaced at the ugliness of that aged babyface. It knew nothing of adult moderation and discipline. Flop’s weakness for fine wine and smoked ham was one thing; Gus Shevlin’s fondness for violence to get everything he wanted was something else.
“Mr. Shevlin,” Joe said, next to Koe, “if you don’t step aside now, we will be forced to use less civilized measures.”
But Shevlin didn’t look away from Flop.
And Flop didn’t dare look away lest the murderer attacked him unbeknownst to him. He had to see. He had to keep his eyes wide open. Because, he had been wrong. “Adult” was not the right word. Being “adult” or not had nothing to do with Shevlin’s behavior. No amount of aging or growing up could foster the type of moderation and discipline required to stop this man from playing predator. In fact, aging and growing up had only exacerbated the coarsest traits in him. Cruelty was what had kept him alive in his chosen field. And as the product of social evolution, he proudly wore the ugly wrinkles that had marred his natural babylike face. Those wrinkles were his badge of honor. He had obtained them through years of hating and robbing and killing.
At the thought of just how many people this man must have hated and robbed and killed to look the way he looked, Flop shrank away. And to do that most effectively, Flop unconsciously took advantage of his status as a reaper: by letting go of his current physical appearance.
“There!” Shevlin said. He glanced around.
Koe and Joe stared at Flop. They had seen what had just happened. And Charlie panted behind them. The twins stood farther back with Lisa, still sitting on the shaky ground, her clothes and hair all muddy. Next to them stood Mina, who had joined them with a metal baseball bat in her hand.
“Did you see that?” Shevlin said. He could barely stop his laughter. “His face. His neck. His”—he glanced down at Flop’s arms and legs—“everything, they jittered. Like they aren’t solid. He’s not Zacharias Steele. He’s no one in particular. Maybe he’s not even real. This is foul play. You talked about a lawyer. I want to talk to my lawyer.”
“You could have done that ten minutes ago if you’d stayed in the lobby,” Koe said coldly.
“I couldn’t let the evidence run off like that, could I?” Shevlin said. Still sitting on top of Flop, he turned to Joe. “My lawyer. Tell him to come here.”
“You are to meet her in the lobby,” Joe said, smiling politely.
Shevlin chuckled—a low, humorless chuckle. “You’re all conspiring against me, aren’t you?” He looked at everyone in the misty, quaking lawn in front of the hotel. “You think I’m a fool—”
“Get off him.”
Everyone turned to face the man who had spoken. He stepped off the elevator that had just arrived at the top of the island. He wore a black suit and a black mask that covered half of his face. Zach, finally! And a flapper dressed in black followed him.
Flop almost whimpered, “Flip,” but stopped himself just before the word left his mouth. She and Zach remained near the edge of the island. They were hoping to use the thick, trembling mist as a veil of protection.
“Koe, Joe,” Zach said, “could you please remove your deceased from the lawn?”
Koe and Joe exchanged brief glances. That wasn’t a reaper they knew. Meanwhile, Flop in the appearance of Zach lay here, on the grass, suffocating under Gus Shevlin’s weight, losing control over the particles that formed him, quite literally…
Koe and Joe’s eyes widened in a moment of realization. Then they quickly recovered their calm. They faced Flop and Shevlin. Koe looked like he was trying very hard not to explode at the recklessness of his fellow reapers. Joe looked mildly amused at the curious fact that some reapers went to such great lengths to help a deceased who’d been reaped decades ago.
“Mr. Shevlin,” Joe said with his steadfast smile, “unless you cooperate now, we will do what our coworker just asked us to do. We will ‘remove’ you. It won’t look pretty. So, I suggest you get up and let that man go. Causing a scene like this doesn’t benefit your case.”
“Have you been listening to what I said?” Shevlin said. He wasn’t grinning anymore. “You’ve seen it yourselves. This man isn’t a man. He’s something else. He’s changing appearances. And he looks like someone I know. This whole place”—Shevlin pointed at the sky—“this can’t be real. The sun, the moon, together? It’s not day, it’s not night. If it’s neither, what is it?”
“Inside. Now,” Koe said sternly.
“Obviously, this is a trick,” Shevlin said, “to make me admit things that I don’t need to admit. To test if I act like I have something to be ashamed of, when the truth is that I did nothing wrong. I was just protecting myself! Any intelligent person would have done the same. You can’t hold me responsible for other people’s lack of intelligence.”
“I advise against talking about your case in front of others,” Koe said.
“Well, if I don’t, aren’t you just going to pretend like I’m not seeing what I’m seeing?” Shevlin said. He pointed at everyone. “All these eyewitnesses, and you pretend that this man is a perfectly normal man?”
“Come,” Koe told Joe.
Together, they marched toward Shevlin. They pulled him from Flop as if he weighed nothing.
“Hey!” Shevlin said.
Flop immediately sat up. He crawled toward Flip. She came running to him.
Shevlin continued to struggle with Koe and Joe. They flung him on the grass. Shevlin’s face distorted in fury. He reached for something in the inside pocket of his overcoat. What came out was a dagger.
Mina, Lisa, and the twins gasped. Charlie backed away.
Of all things that Shevlin could have brought with him from beforeworld, he had brought a dagger. That said a lot about him and his priorities.
Shevlin wielded the dagger at Koe and Joe. Neither flinched the slightest.
“This will be recorded in your case file,” Joe said calmly. Apparently, Shevlin’s behavior only increased his mild amusement.
“If you stop now, that is,” Koe said. He looked disgusted by his job. “If you don’t, I get to do what’s called self-defense.”
“You try that,” Shevlin snickered.
He raised the dagger and swung it at Koe’s chest. The twins yelped.
A second later, Koe still stood on the quaking lawn, where he’d stood before. He glared at Shevlin. Where the dagger should have cut deeply, there was nothing but a slice of misty air. Koe had partly dispersed.
Shevlin’s mean grin remained, but with less certainty than ever. He didn’t know what to think. He glanced at his dagger. There was no blood.
“What?” the idiot murderer said, confused.
Any deceased who thought he could fight a reaper was an idiot.
Koe grabbed Shevlin’s wrist. The dagger fell from Shevlin’s hand.
“Get off me!” Shevlin said.
Koe didn’t. Shevlin struggled. Koe twisted his wrist. Shevlin screamed—
“Stop!” Zach said.
Koe did stop, but glared at Zach as intensely as he had glared at Shevlin.
“Please,” Zach added, “I—”
“I’d stay where you are if I were you,” Koe said. “And I wouldn’t say one more word.”
“I need to speak to him,” Zach said. “And I need him—I need him as is.”
“Then you should have chosen a less conspicuous method to achieve that,” Koe said. “I will remove this man from the lawn very soon, as you’ve suggested, but not to hand him over to you. That’s not what reapers do.”
“You’ve had your chance. Something didn’t work out. Too bad. Live with it. Live with what you can keep.”
“I demand to know what is going on!” Charlie said.
No one reacted to his demand.
Zach, who had hitherto remained standing near the edge of the shaking island, stumbled toward Gus Shevlin.
“Zach,” Flip whispered, worried.
When Zach didn’t stop, Flip clasped Flop’s shoulder so hard, that part of him was flattened like cookie dough at the pressure of a rolling pin. And with Zach’s every step, Shevlin’s eyes widened.
“Do not come closer,” Koe said.
Zach didn’t slow down.
A corner of Shevlin’s lips ticked up. “Ha!” he said. “See?” He looked at everyone, wanting them to know that he had figured out something grand, wanting them to admire him and smile for him and cheer for him.
But no one did any of that. Koe still held Shevlin by the wrist. Zach stopped when he stood close enough to Shevlin so that he could grab the other wrist if he wanted to.
“Don’t you see that they look exactly alike?” Shevlin said to everyone, pointing at Zach and Flop. “Screw the mask. They’re the same height. They even have the same arm lengths. And the size of their heads? Hell, everything’s the same.”
“Deny it,” Koe told Zach in a low voice. “It’s not too late.”
“They’re exactly the same person!” Shevlin said.
“I have unfinished business with him,” Zach told Koe.
“That we do indeed,” Shevlin said.
“Shut up,” Koe and Joe said, together.
“Shut up?” Shevlin said. “Me, shut up? I know exactly what is happening. You’re trying to trap me in a compromising position. As if putting two of the same person who I haven’t even killed myself will make me feel bad.”
“That’s what you think?” Zach said. His voice shook as much as the ground.
This doesn’t feel good, Flop thought.
“You think if you don’t cut or choke someone’s throat with your own hands, you’re innocent?” Zach asked.
“Precisely,” Shevlin said.
Flop tugged on Flip’s flapper dress. “Do something,” he whispered.
“Do what?” she whispered back helplessly.
“He’s gonna break the deal.”
“I did nothing wrong. Not to you, and not to him.” Shevlin pointed at Zach, then at Flop with his free hand.
“Ignore him,” Koe said.
“No. For once, see what you have to see without avoiding it, boy,” Shevlin said. He looked Zach straight in the eyes—one framed by the mask and the other exposed. “You thought you could have Angeline? That was never possible, from the beginning. And if you think I killed her, guess what, that’s not true. You killed her.”
“No,” Flip said, outraged.
“I didn’t kill anyone, directly or indirectly,” Zach said. “And I know Angeline is alive.”
“Says who?” Shevlin said. “You killed her. She could have lived, but you put silly, naive thoughts in her head. You killed her. She is dead.”
Zach seemed unable to move or respond.
“Yes,” Shevlin said nastily, knowing that his words had affected Zach the way they were intended to, “you doomed her. You drove her to madness. You made a perfectly reasonable woman do crazy things. Things that led to her ruin and the death of my child.”
“He’s lying,” Flip said. “Remember what we heard. Remember everything we heard on the platform.”
“You heard otherwise?” Shevlin said. He snorted. “Those are lies. Not what I am telling you now. You think that I, Gus Shevlin, let a worthless whore get away? With ratting me out, with taking my child from me? Absolutely no—”
Zach punched Shevlin in the face. Shevlin slipped on the wet grass. Koe let go. Shevlin landed on the mud.
“Stay back,” Koe hissed, rushing to put himself between Shevlin and Zach.
Zach didn’t listen. He pushed Koe aside. He dragged Shevlin up, which was quite a feat for someone so lean and unaccustomed to the brute ways of mobsters.
“What did you say?” Zach said.
“You heard me,” Shevlin said. His nose bled but he grinned. “She is dead.”
“He’s lying,” Flip said.
“Is he lying?” Flop whispered.
“It doesn’t matter,” Joe said. He had stopped smiling and looked as stern as Koe now.
“Remove the mask,” Shevlin whispered—a cunning, sweet invitation to a fight. “That’ll trigger something you’re not supposed to, won’t it?”
“Don’t listen to him,” Flip said.
“And don’t say a word,” Flop said.
“You won’t get what you want here, will you?” Shevlin said, eyes on Zach. “Neither will I.”
“Don’t,” Koe told Zach.
“Let’s take this elsewhere,” Shevlin said.
“Do not,” Joe said.
“Let’s blow everything up,” Shevlin said.
“What is happening?” Charlie said.
“You and me,” Shevlin said, “we can’t leave things hanging like this. You’ve been waiting for me for much too long, and she’s dead. So, if you’re waiting for her to die and come here, it ain’t happening in the future. It’s already in the past.”
Zach reached for his mask. Shevlin’s blood was on his knuckles.
“No,” Flip whispered.
Zach took off his mask. Shevlin grinned so widely that Flop thought his face would split in half.
But the problem wasn’t that murderer. He could know who Zach was all he wanted. He was supposed to, at some point. That was part of the design, sanctioned by the women in black.
Those who weren’t part of the design, and therefore a problem, were some of the witnesses. Not Koe, Joe, Flip, and Flop, who were reapers. Not even necessarily Lisa, who was a guest.
But the others: Mina. The twins. Charlie.
They glanced from the real Zach in the black suit to Flop, the fake one, on the grass.
And even then, Zach could have saved the deal. If he had pretended that all this was a huge misunderstanding and he didn’t know Shevlin at all, for example. Or, if Flop had returned to his own shape and said that they were just joking around. And both of them could have asked Charlie and Lisa to corroborate their story: don’t the guests sometimes happen to have the same faces and same names, across many places and many times? Zach and Flop had just been immensely bored and wanted to role-play. What a weird thing to do, but hey, weirdness wasn’t necessarily punishable.
But neither Zach nor Flop made up any such excuses. Flop didn’t know how to communicate with Zach right now; how they could possibly come up with a coherent plan that wouldn’t contradict itself. The physical distance between them could be crossed within a few seconds, but Zach was elsewhere, mentally. He had already made up his mind. He wasn’t going to stay within the boundaries delineated by the women in black.
Angeline was dead, or so Zach thought. Sometimes, thinking so was enough to make something real.
“I killed no one,” Zach said. “If Angeline is dead, it’s because you killed her, just like you killed me.”
Those words reached the ears of Mina, the twins, and Charlie. Those worker-residents connected the dots.
They understood that Zach had, once upon a time, had a clear beginning and end like any beforeworlder; that he had been born and died—killed, to be exact; that the person who had robbed Zach of a natural end had been Gus Shevlin. After that robbery, Zach had become a worker-resident of the hotel, just like them.
Was that a thing for the people who were meant to stay at the hotel? Did Mina, the twins, and Charlie have a beginning and end too? When had time begun? Had it stopped when they’d been murdered? Had they been murdered? By whom?
A high-pitched tone hissed all around the island.
Everyone fell on their knees, covering their ears. With the sound came the howling wind, because sound was wind, and wind was sound. The wind kept them pressed down on the wet grass growing from the damp dirt.
Once again, Flop could barely breathe. His face was covered in mud. His eyes watered. He couldn’t see a thing. He couldn’t help it; he had to become himself again—
And would have, if he could have concentrated. But he couldn’t.
Before the hiss could rupture all eardrums in existence, it ruptured something else, much bigger: the invisible, intangible barrier that had separated this island from the rest of the world.
The sky opened up. The distance between each of the stars, the moon, and the sun multiplied rapidly, to reveal even more fast-moving stars, more moons, and more suns beyond them. Endless nights. Endless days. Light coming and going. Darkness coming and going.
The hiss amplified. It split into many different tones. Merged into a cacophony. The discordant sounds flowed through Flop’s body. His particles dispersed. Panicked, he shifted his consciousness to Flip. She, too, was being torn apart. He reached out for her hand. She reached out for his. Their hands slipped through each other. There was no holding anything. The particles that had formed the dirt and grass and mist rose into the air.
But because there was no more gravity, “rising” was only a comparative term. What used to be “up there” descended downward. The hotel building with its black and white walls and doors and window frames and plant pots dismantled and hung in the air.
Each to his own. Each to her own. Each to its own.
This hotel was coming to an end.
Zach had shifted too many pieces of the puzzle, especially the ones that shouldn’t have been shifted. The collective perception of an eternal, never-changing existence was what had kept the hotel together. That perception was lost, forever.
Heavy black mist settled around Flop. He couldn’t see anything clearly anymore. All he knew for sure was that he was Flop. He hung on to that idea. If he lost that, he’d lose himself. Then, he’d be no more, like everything and everyone else around him…
“Flop,” Flip said from somewhere nearby.
“Flip,” Flop answered.
He’d almost forgotten about Flip. That meant that he’d almost forgotten who he was. To avoid almost forgetting her ever again, he kept calling her name. She called his. Together, the reapers endured the rapid recalibration of the worlds. After this, nothing was going to be the same anymore.
© 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.