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Jump to the Prelude
When the sky above the hotel opened up to reveal even more skies with brilliantly shining stars and moons and suns, Zach felt a strong pull on his head as well as on his feet. The air around him tried to uproot him. At the same time, the mud around his feet reached, clasped, trying to ground him.
“Lady Song?” Zach said, unsure, to the ground.
“And Mr. Lee,” said Mr. Lee.
The owner couple was trying to keep Zach at the hotel. Another yank from the mud and grass—he landed on the ground on all fours. The downward pull was so strong, pretty soon his face was in the mud. He couldn’t breathe. But was that all that bad, compared to everything else that could happen to him? Lady Song and Mr. Lee’s power scared him but not in the way the upward pull terrified him. The owner couple cared about Zach. They wouldn’t rob him of his breath to the point of suffocation. He knew for a fact that Lady Song wanted him to stay and play the piano at the cocktail lounge, preferably forever.
But the upward pull? Zach didn’t know what it was. He didn’t know what exactly it wanted. But he did know that it didn’t care about him. And the two forces, up and down, were fighting, with him in the middle, potentially tearing him into shreds—
Zach was flung into the air. The force with the unknown intention had won.
He flailed his limbs, trying to reach a solid surface—the ground, a wall, anything. But everything that seemed reachable in one moment was out of reach in the next.
The world expanded around him. Rapidly. Out of control. A big bang. A rebirth. A reset.
For everyone else but him.
He was not to be part of the new start. He could feel this in his gut. The mask was torn from his hand and dispersed in the atmosphere. Some of the blood on his knuckles were torn away. Little droplets of scarlet floated away from him, back to the hotel. They were parts of Gus Shevlin that had hung on Zach’s skin after he had punched Shevlin. They were returning to their owner.
All that wasn’t Zach was being wrenched from him. He’d held on to too many things; had been allowed to do so up to this point. After the mask and the blood of another man, more things that didn’t belong to him were taken:
Soon, he had no limbs. Therefore, he wore no clothes. He lacked fingers, those beautiful, long fingers that used to make music instead of punching enemies in the face.
They were all gone.
Who could do such a thing?
Only two that Zach knew.
The women in black were taking everything they had given Zach. When he’d spoken about how he’d died, his fellow worker-residents of the hotel had wondered about their own origins. With that, the second chance that the women in black had given him had become invalid.
No more coworkers. No more friends. No more adopted family.
No home, no ground, no sky above. The “sky” didn’t exist. A top or bottom didn’t exist.
What was left to him was the awareness that he was Zacharias Steele, a murdered pianist, who’d taken a gray candy at the offer of the women in black. He’d found out the truth about his death and faced his murderer, not just any of the one hundred and seventy-six, but the murderer who had instigated his death. When the murderer had revealed that Angeline was dead, Zach had felt as if all the blood vessels in his head were exploding.
And Shevlin’s invitation to break the rules had been so sweet.
And Zach hated the women in black for preventing him from remembering his beforelife sooner, and for not giving him a resurrection candy right away.
And he hated himself, for being unable to do a thing.
He didn’t deserve to live anyway. Gus Shevlin had a point. If Angeline hadn’t met Zach, she would have lived.
Maybe that should have compelled Zach to act more cautiously. Maybe what he should have done was to patiently wait until he could have a private moment with Shevlin; use Shevlin to return to some version of beforelife; make a point to avoid Angeline wherever she went; untangle all the threads that connected him to her.
But he hadn’t done that. Caution had been the last thing in his mind. Now, it was too late. This was the end. The women in black were erasing Zach.
Zach had no eyes, didn’t see the hotel anymore.
He had no ears, didn’t hear the howling wind anymore.
Without a nose, a tongue, and any skin—that largest organ of the species Homo Sapiens—he was cut off from everything around him.
Soon, he’d forget himself. Then that’d be the ultimate end of him…
But that moment didn’t come. Panic engulfed him, greater than the initial shock at the realization that the women in black were tearing him away from all he knew. “The end” was supposed to end quickly. “The end” was just a moment in time, wasn’t it?
Apparently not. “The end” was lasting way too long. There shouldn’t have been anything left to engulf, with panic or anything else. Yet the engulfing was happening.
And though he lacked physical sensory organs, he perceived through the vibrations of the air:
The many hotels, all around him.
Their walls were white. Black metal framed the windows, doors, and balconies. Some of them were round, most were rectangular. Very few arches softened the rigid impression of the building. Art Deco, the predominant style of Zach’s beforelife, had been used to trap a bunch of fluctuating, transformable, mercurial ideas into various “worlds.”
Which was a strange word, “worlds” in the plural. There were actually no separate “worlds.” The boundaries weren’t as rigid as Zach had once thought. From where he was, he could perceive a million hotels all at once, each with a million dead people coming and going. Between those hotels, reapers and lawyers moved about, their essence black or white. Forces, not colors. They were beings that existed beyond a particular shape or form. They could have helped Zach figure out the unfamiliar nature of his new existence. But none of them did. He couldn’t identify Flip or Flop. They’d been pulled away from him like everyone and everything else.
Zach concentrated on one of the hotels nearby, which still was quite far away. Old Jeremiah’s gong tower looked like the tip of a pencil held at arm’s length. As soon as Zach concentrated, he felt himself approaching that pencil tower. He was creating a pull. Getting closer, ever closer…
And he was repelled once more. The skies exploded, creating more worlds. In those worlds, Zach could perceive the existence of many people whom he knew.
Mina, his only coworker at the cocktail lounge, happy in some places, in others, not so much.
Charlie, the concierge, on duty in some places, and taking breaks in others.
Alpha and Omega, the six-year-old twins, stealing cookies in some places, punching buttons on the washers and dryers in others.
And there were many more places without Mina, without Charlie, without Alpha and Omega.
But whenever they did exist, they all had one thing in common: none of them missed Zach. They didn’t know him. When he passed by them, they did glance up at the sky, but it wasn’t because they saw him or heard him. They weren’t even really deciding to look up at the sky; their glances were fleeting, like the glances of beforeworlders who occasionally observed the sky during a boring day at the office. Such beforeworlders knew that there was something out there that was a lot more interesting than paperwork. But they didn’t know just what that something was.
All of the hotel worker-residents whom Zach recognized behaved that way as he was flung past the worlds. And there were numerous worlds. There was a world for each possible outcome. And the outcomes of those possible outcomes.
And on. And on. And on…
Except for the possibility of Zacharias Steele’s existence.
Zacharias Steele had never appeared at a hotel between worlds as a fully formed pianist. Nowhere was his home. It didn’t matter what Lady Song and Mr. Lee wanted. Maybe they’d forgotten all about Zach too.
The women in black had said that he had to deal with the consequences of his actions for eternity. They hadn’t been kidding. This was to be Zach’s existence going forward—one of remembering everything he’d failed to accomplish, lacking a physical body, solitary, rootless…
If there was a “forward.”
Because, without the possibility of a change, what was time? Nothing. Now was then, then was now. Now was tomorrow. Tomorrow was a hundred years later. Time didn’t matter. Zach was here, now, forever.
And Gus Shevlin from Zach’s beforelife was never to be punished. Zach was never to see Angeline again. He was never to see himself again, and never to play the piano again, with or without a terrifying audience. He had ruined everything because he’d neglected reason for one moment.
Reason. That had always been Zach’s weakness.
So, it was no surprise that amidst the many worlds, celestial bodies, and dots of reapers and lawyers who ignored him or couldn’t perceive him, Zach heard melodies.
They hummed in his figurative ears. All beings were vibrations—energy—and so it was with these melodies. If he had fingers, he would’ve used them to transfer those melodies in his head into sounds that others could enjoy.
They had to be in his head, didn’t they? They couldn’t possibly be real. Nothing in this chaos was meant to interact with Zach. Wasn’t that the point of the punishment from the women in black? To make him feel helpless and alone?
Yet the melodies sounded so real and familiar. Melancholy tunes. As if there were a deep, dismal reservoir of unrealized minor-scale music sleeping inside him…
And it felt as if he had thought so before, a long time ago. His being tapped into that reservoir through the memorial blood vessels—similar to the physical ones that had been taken away by the women in black. He still remembered. He bypassed the brain.
Whenever possible, Zach did that, let things bypass his brain. When he did so while making music, he used to see the blond woman, his muse, Angeline.
He wasn’t making music now. Was he? The melodies were coming to him. Or were they really in him somewhere, in the reservoir? In a way, they were both internal and external. They were coming to him and there was something of them inside him.
And there she was, Angeline. Even though Zach had no fingers to play the piano, he could see her.
As always, she sat by the window in an old room, so shabby that it could be the only room of the house. Sunshine flooded her face so that the features remained unclear. The sky outside her window lacked any clouds. Also, the sun was just the idea of a sun, without any realness to it; he couldn’t tell where in the sky it hung, therefore he couldn’t tell the seasons or the time of day. Apparently, each plant in the cornfield was as aware of the absence of time: they grew at various rates.
This place wasn’t real. Corn in the same cornfield didn’t grow at random rates. There were individual differences, but one plant didn’t exist in the growth stage of spring while the other right next to it existed in autumn.
Angeline and the shabby room were in Zach’s mind. He had reached that familiar, ideal, trance-like state, the state in which time and place never mattered. The state in which the hotel and the cocktail lounge didn’t exist and had never existed. The terrifying audience was absent. He didn’t need the veils of stage light and cigarette smoke to protect himself.
Nothing needed to exist to keep him safe from the world of un-music.
The room didn’t need to be real. It couldn’t be real, because how was it possible that somehow, Zach and Angeline were in the same exact place? Maybe he was crazy…
And he didn’t mind that. Crazy or not, he was glad to see Angeline. Dead or not, killed by him or killed by Shevlin, she was there, in front of him.
The more Zach concentrated on Angeline, the closer he got to her. And as he did so, the vibrations in the air amplified. They thickened, so substantially that they seemed to consist of actual substance. Real material. Tangible. Like strings on a violin.
Zach moved his focus to one of the closest vibrating strings.
To his surprise, the string reacted. It sucked his being toward itself. He was pulled along it, toward Angeline.
She was humming the same melodies that circled in Zach’s mind. With every additional tone, the vibrations reinforced each other, the string thickened, and the clearer the picture of her became.
He swayed. She swayed too. The melody cradled them safely. She was the source and the recipient. He, too, was the source and the recipient. Within and without were one and the same. She was him. He was her. They made music together, pulling each other without the need to touch.
Soon, he found himself in the shabby room, right alongside her. They weren’t alone.
© 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.