Table of Contents
Jump to the Prelude
‘Angeline,’ he thought, because he had no vocal cords, no lips, no muscles required to speak out loud.
She didn’t react.
That much, he’d expected. He’d also expected this room to smell of tree bark and leather, of snow and storm, just the way he remembered his darling Angeline. Since this place was a figment of his imagination, it made sense that everything he associated with her was here, in the shabby room with a view to the timeless, sunny cornfield.
What he hadn’t expected was the presence of others. Not only that, Angeline sat in her chair by the window as if she didn’t notice anyone. Not Zach, not the others.
Others, such as Seamus and Donald Todd. And there were many more. Dozens, in fact. This room was no room at all. It had no walls, except for the one with the window with the view to the cornfield. Other than that, there were no limits here. The space expanded into infinity, though it was clearly separated from the chaos that Zach had just left behind.
And the dozens of people didn’t just stand or sit, as people normally did. They were suspended by the strings that the melodies had become. Some had been garroted. Others, arms spread wide, hung like scarecrows on a cross. Seamus, specifically, had his mouth stuffed with the strings. Even thicker strings tied up Todd’s legs. He hung upside down.
None of their eyes were focused, if they were open at all. White films covered those eyes.
As the vibrations continued to amplify, the strings thickened. Additional ones materialized, vertically, horizontally, at an angle, spreading out, revealing more dead or unconscious people—
Like prey hanging on a spiderweb.
And just as the prey weren’t typical spider prey, the web wasn’t a typical spiderweb either. It wasn’t flat and more or less two-dimensional like a normal web. No, this one was three-dimensional, spreading in every direction.
Everyone but Angeline and Zach hung like dead bugs that had been caught and left there. They were bugs unconsumed, ignored, because regardless of the spider’s appetite, a web was bound to be greedy. The web caught the prey, whether or not the spider planned on eating them anytime soon. Zach shifted his focus from one person to the next. There were many he didn’t recognize. Seamus and Donald Todd were the only ones he could name. But most of the unknown people had one or the other familiar feature…
Such as the mustaches.
Or the lips.
Or the ears with glittering earrings, the wrists with expensive watches.
These were the people who had sat in the audience at the Luminary Theater when Zach had died on the stage.
Oh, and there. Another person who didn’t hang from the web: Nora, the magma lady. She sat on the floor, hugging her knees, face buried in them.
A box lay next to Nora. A dead rat lay in it. It seemed that its head had been crushed with a brick.
And as if the presence of a crushed rat and murderous audience were the most natural thing in the world, Angeline continued to hum melancholy tunes while she gazed out of the window. Zach couldn’t see her expression because the sunshine blurred her features, but based on the way she sat absolutely still, she wasn’t scared or concerned.
Everything about her looked as timeless as the cornfield, which was strange. Humans usually didn’t exist without some influence from time. They aged every second of their existence. Their cells died. Wrinkles increased. Gravity pulled them down, even as they grew.
Yet none of those things were happening here, in the space solely defined by the wall with a window overlooking the cornfield. As a result, this Angeline was definitely different from the one in Zach’s memory. That one had been clearly thirty years old, clearly driven like a snowstorm, and energetic. This one, this static yet all-encompassing Angeline, was someone else.
Nevertheless, he recognized her as her. Her blond hair and her body didn’t have the familiar ups and downs, firm and soft spots, curves and edges, but he was able to extrapolate on what he knew. He had loved that hair and that body, not because they looked or felt a certain way in the physical sense, but because they encapsulated the person he loved.
So, he was certain: this Angeline hid his Angeline inside her questionable physical form. And to see that subject of love surrounded by murderers pained Zach.
‘I cannot allow that,’ a male voice resounded.
Startled, Zach looked around, shifting his focus from one person on the web to the other, until he found a man standing free from the strings.
The man wore a white coat, the kind that doctors wore. His face was blurry. He looked straight at Zach.
‘As your doctor, I cannot allow you to do something that might endanger you and the baby,’ the doctor said.
Zach frowned in confusion. He had no baby. Also, he was pretty sure that the doctor hadn’t moved his lips, blurry or otherwise. Yet he’d “spoken.”
‘Oh, doctor,’ Angeline’s voice resounded. ‘What I’m asking you to do might endanger us, but if you don’t help us, I know that neither of us will live for long.’
Zach realized that the doctor and Angeline were speaking to each other. He was right in the middle of them. That was why it had seemed that the doctor was looking straight at Zach.
And Angeline and the doctor weren’t using their vocal cords or lips to channel sound to their surroundings. The conversation filled this entire space as if the space itself were them.
‘Miss Conners, don’t say such things,’ the doctor said. ‘You have to be strong for the both of you.’
‘But it is true,’ she said, still facing the cornfield instead of the doctor. ‘I will die of heartache and the baby, left alone, will die soon thereafter. Because, doctor, you of all people should know: there are men out there who say they’ll take care of the woman and the baby, but they don’t mean that. How many of your patients believed what they shouldn’t have believed, and ruined their chances of survival, and the chances of survival for their babies? What such men mean is they will take care of what they think is theirs, and once they decide to throw away their possessions, that’s the end of those possessions.’
‘Still, Miss Conners.’
‘Please, doctor. Don’t you see that box with the rat? It’s a warning. I know it is a warning. I know I will be captured and locked up. And if I can’t find a way out, that’ll be the end for me and my baby. So, please. When someone calls you and tells you I need medical attention, tell them you can’t make house calls, not for something like this. Tell them that I have a condition. Tell them that I require an operation using all your equipment here and that an operation outside of your surgery room would be dangerous. And if Gus still says that you have to come to his house, tell him, you’re not worried about me, but the baby. Tell him the baby might die if he doesn’t follow your instructions. He’ll listen.’
Had this really happened? Had Angeline really shown the doctor the box with the rat that Nora had sent?
Perhaps so. But this scene, this space with the window to the cornfield and resounding voices, wasn’t an exact portrayal of what had happened. Nora was here. Seamus and Donald Todd were here. And…
Another Angeline was here. She was much airier and more formless than the one sitting on the chair by the window. Like an idea of Angeline, not Angeline herself. Also, she was quicker. Buried in a coat, she fought through a snowstorm. It was the same fluffy white mink coat that she’d been wearing on the day of Zach’s death. She also wore the golden necklace with the green jewels, the ones that Zach still couldn’t name but complemented her green eyes, the color of a fairy-tale forest in which eternal summer and snow crystals coexisted.
Her legs were exposed. The expensive leather shoes could barely protect her little feet from the cold. But soon, this airy, formless, and quick Angeline hid in the backs of trucks that were equally airy, formless, and quick. None of the faceless truck drivers noticed that a well-dressed lady was hiding amidst boxes of goods. They drove off, and when they stopped, Angeline hopped off to the next truck. That one drove off, and stopped, and she hopped off to the next one…
The surroundings were blurry, but Zach was sure, they—everyone in this undefinable space, including the murderers suspended by the string-spiderweb—were traveling at great speed through the streets of New York…
…until more and more trees filled the scenery…
…buildings disappeared completely…
…and reappeared, statelier and plusher than those in the crowded big city.
They had arrived in Carningsby.
The airy, formless, and quick Angeline hid behind buildings. An airy, drunk, but very much animate Donald Todd walked out of the thick-walled, ugly Luminary Theater with Zach’s shabby old suit. Todd walked into a laundry, which, if Zach’s memory served him correctly, didn’t stand this close to the theater.
But Zach’s memory didn’t matter. Increasingly, he was coming to think that this scene wasn’t imagined by him at all. He had no control over it. He couldn’t guess what it would show next. But if not his, whose imagination was this? Clearly, the scene had something to do with him. It wasn’t a random puzzle piece of the greater chaos, to which the women in black had exposed him after he’d broken their deal. He had come here against their intent. He had grabbed a string, which had brought him here.
Where was “here”?
The airy Angeline watched the airy Donald Todd through the dirty front window of the laundry. Todd and another man wearing a fancy vest—presumably, the laundry owner—loomed over a purple suit.
Zach’s purple suit. The one made of fine cashmere, the one that fit him too perfectly.
Those two men loomed over that thing and sprinkled liquid contained in a brown bottle. They were thorough too. Everywhere, on the insides and outsides of the jacket and pants, and then on a black shirt, the liquid was applied. For a few seconds thereafter, the suit and shirt looked obviously wet. But soon, like magic, the cashmere and the cotton fabric readily absorbed all moisture. The suit and the shirt looked as pristine as before.
How was it that Zach was suddenly witnessing the creation of the murder weapon?
The airy Angeline watched the airy Todd leave the laundry with the purple suit and teleport to the Luminary Theater. Yes. Teleport, as if someone had conveniently edited Todd’s life.
The murderous audience members began filling the lobby. They giggled, had jolly conversations, discussed money and the expected turnout to the next big party at the mansion…
Simultaneously, the Angeline who sat by the window continued to hum, making the air all around them vibrate. The Donald Todd and the dead audience members whom Zach had seen earlier still hung from the spiderweb. Now that Zach knew whom to look for, he could identify the laundry owner in the fancy vest hanging from the web as well. Thick strings tied up his hands as if the spider that had designed the web wanted him to never use his hands again.
As if the spider’s purpose in catching these prey wasn’t to eat them for survival. As if it wanted them punished.
‘Angeline,’ Zach thought.
And to his surprise, an answer came.
It was from the Angeline who sat by the window. Slowly, carefully, Zach approached her.
‘Angeline. Is it really you?’
‘Stop torturing me, Zach. I’ve done what I could. I really did. Go away.’
‘Torture? I’d never—’
‘What else do you call the constant hauntings?’
But before Zach could ask more questions, thunderous applause filled the space. The spiderweb jittered wildly, shaking each and every prey that hung from it. And below that web, the Carningsby audience cheered for an airy, nervous-looking, deadly-purple-suit-wearing Zacharias Steele.
He stood by the piano. He bowed and kept standing there, staring at the audience in disbelief, just like Zach had done before he’d died. Then the airy Zach sat down. He played the familiar, beautiful sonata, not knowing that this was to be his last performance.
Increasingly, the airy Zach’s discomfort became evident. The audience grinned. With hushed voices, they whispered, the lips twitching up, the mustaches covering up the smiles, barely. Earrings glittered. Watches glowed…
Zach looked away.
‘What is this, Angeline?’
She’d gone back to ignoring him. Humming endlessly, she replayed the scene of Zach’s death.
‘Let me go!’ the airy Angeline shrieked.
‘Angeline,’ the airy Zach, dying on the stage, muttered.
‘Get off me!’
Men hissed threats at her.
‘Angel…’ said the airy Zach.
People gasped at the blood that he vomited on the treble leg.
‘Someone, help, take off, this jacket, I…’
But no one helped.
‘Angeline,’ the dying man whispered.
‘Why is this god damn prick not dying?’ said an airy man who had appeared out of nowhere.
The only reason Zach recognized him as Shevlin was that he knew how he’d died. If anyone else had witnessed this replay, he or she couldn’t have identified the big mobster. His voice wasn’t a booming baritone. He sounded like a sick child that was being strangled to death; high-pitched, feeble. Also, his entire face had been scribbled and scratched with what looked like pitch-black charcoal—not covered or smudged, but scribbled and scratched. It was as if a mysterious force with the ability to treat people like two-dimensional sketches on paper had hated Shevlin so much that it had deemed him unworthy of having a face at all.
Or, it didn’t want to remember him.
With a strange mix of horror and vindication, Zach—the real one, not the airy and dying one—watched Donald Todd answer Gus Shevlin.
Then, the airy Angeline screamed, ‘Gus Shevlin! I will kill you!’
‘Women and their hysteria. Don’t know what’s best for them,’ said Shevlin.
Him saying that sounded doubly ridiculous, now that he had the voice of a kid. He took a drag from his cigar, the one that smelled like Angeline, of tree bark and leather. Smoke oozed from his charcoal face.
‘Angeline, make this stop,’ the real Zach told the Angeline by the window.
He knew exactly how powerless he had felt at the moment of his death. He didn’t need a replay. And by now, he was sure that the replay was her doing.
But the Angeline by the window ignored him.
And the airy Angeline screamed, ‘Take him to a doctor now. Please, I’m begging you. Please let him live.’
‘It’s too late,’ said Gus Shevlin with the peeping voice. ‘Take her to the house and don’t let her out. Make her take a warm bath. Give her morphine. Something. Anything to make her shut up.’
The airy Angeline’s screams faded.
And to Zach’s relief, the replay didn’t linger in the theater. The scene shifted outside, to the stormy, thunderous night. Angeline kicked and punched Shevlin’s men. They dragged her into a car, but clearly not as roughly as they wanted to. It was because of the baby. They’d been ordered not to hurt her.
Days passed in the life of the airy Angeline. But for Zach, who watched, it only took a few seconds.
He watched as she cut her wrists.
He watched as the maid found her and screamed.
He watched as Gus Shevlin made an angry phone call to the doctor. And when the doctor refused to make a house call and spoke of a special condition that Angeline had, Shevlin cursed. Paced. Threw things around his living room.
But in the end, he had Angeline transported to the doctor’s office.
The doctor treated her wrist cuts. His nurse told Gus Shevlin and his men that the surgery would take hours. Meanwhile, the doctor helped Angeline get into a car.
It drove off. And because Angeline didn’t know what happened in New York thereafter, the entire scenery shifted…
…to the cornfield in the middle of nowhere.
And there, in the distance, stood a familiar house: the place where Zach had grown up with his six brothers and sisters.
The car left as soon as Angeline got out. Buried in the thickest coat that Gus Shevlin had bought for her, she stumbled toward the front door. She knocked. Hammered, more like.
The door opened. Zach’s father stood there.
Zach felt hot tears rising, even though he didn’t have eyes that were capable of crying. His father, the man who had devoted his life to the nourishment of his country and yet hadn’t received the respect that he deserved from his son, stood there, face stern. He let Angeline in.
More people appeared: Zach’s brothers and sisters, ten years older than the last time he’d seen them. They welcomed the airy Angeline. They hugged her. Some shed tears.
Seasons passed. After winter came spring. After spring came summer, then autumn, and winter again.
The airy Angeline morphed quickly. It was alarming to watch as her belly expanded at an impossible speed. But she wasn’t human. She was the memory of a human, Zach knew now.
The wallpapers changed. The furniture was added and removed. The room in which the airy Angeline paced around was changing.
And suddenly, the two Angelines met: the airy one glided into the one who’d been sitting by the window all along. They were in the same room, filled with the spiderweb and dozens of murderers.
Then there he was: a healthy, crying baby boy on the floor.
‘Angeline,’ Zach tried again.
‘Not now, Zach, not now,’ she said.
‘Is that the… Is that the kid?’
‘Of course that’s the kid,’ she said without looking where he pointed.
‘Please slow down,’ Zach said, because the baby boy was growing too fast.
Soon, he wasn’t a baby boy, but just a boy. He walked, ran, jumped. Then, the boy became a young man. Then, just a man, full-grown—
Finally, Angeline turned to look at Zach.
© 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.