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Jump to the Prelude
Zach flinched but didn’t look away from Angeline, who sat by the window. And as they locked eyes, the sunshine that had blurred her features withdrew. Suddenly, he could identify her nose and lips. They, and her entire face and body, were changing shapes quickly, as if they couldn’t decide how old Angeline should be—an old lady with wrinkles or a young woman? But the shapes were definitely there.
Amidst those shifting shapes, Zach noticed Angeline’s shock. Slowly, she rose from her chair.
‘You aren’t Zach,’ she said.
‘I am him. I am me,’ he said.
He was glad that he’d finally gotten her to talk to him, but also frustrated that she could possibly deny he was him. His identity was about the only thing that was left to him at this point. He lacked a physical shape. So, Angeline couldn’t “see” him the way people saw physical objects and they weren’t “speaking” to each other through sound. Their voices were ringing in their hearts and heads.
Which meant that she’d recognized him the way he’d recognized her earlier, when the sun had completely blurred her features: by identifying the core; the thing that made him him without a shell; through the vibration of energy, so much of which filled this limitless space. Such non-physical elements had made him him enough for her first words to him to be: ‘You aren’t Zach.’ That, more than anything else, had to be proof that Zach was the real Zach.
‘But…’ she said.
She wildly looked around.
She pointed at the dying airy Zach on the stage.
She pointed at the clueless airy Zach in the emerald car on the first day they’d met.
She pointed at the many other airy Zachs who had appeared out of nowhere—the Zachs she remembered at various moments they’d spent together.
‘They are you,’ she finally said.
And simultaneously, all the airy Zachs of Angeline’s regret glared at her.
‘We are him,’ they said.
And before the real Zach could say one more word, they clamored. Zach couldn’t distinguish a word they said, but the message was clear: they hated Angeline.
They blamed her.
They cursed her.
They wanted her dead, tortured, torn into pieces.
‘They aren’t me!’ Zach said.
That did nothing to soothe the imagined hatred driven by Angeline’s regret.
The real Zach didn’t hate her. Far from it. Now that he had learned the missing contexts, he didn’t blame or curse her. He also didn’t want her dead, tortured, or torn into pieces. Angeline, just like him and most other human beings, had led a life largely limited by her own experience and observable facts.
From Gus Shevlin, Zach knew that she had a father and brothers who couldn’t care less about what happened to her. They relied on her to bring in money by selling herself to Gus Shevlin. And she had known exactly what Gus Shevlin was capable of. Illegal business activities, at the very least. Murder, at worst. She’d known the people of Carningsby and many other places, all functioning exactly alike in one aspect: if you became useless, you were discarded. Elsewhere in the world, maybe, people functioned differently—more benevolently, more kindly, more impractically. But not in Angeline’s world.
On top of all that evidence of opportunism, she was better than Zach at anticipating future events. Extrapolation was both a gift and a curse. It allowed you to prepare and fear. She had imagined the worst potential outcome from her pregnancy: herself and the baby not surviving for long because Shevlin changed his mind and it was too late for her to flee. That was why she had decided to flee early, to give the authorities information on Shevlin, to risk everything. And despite that decision, she had come to the Luminary to warn Zach. She had probably debated whether she should be clearer with her warning.
But if Zach didn’t die, what would happen? What were the potential outcomes? Would she die? The baby?
The many airy Zachs continued to scream and curse. The real Zach wondered how she could survive her own extensive imagination for more than a day. She’d not only replayed the events leading up to his death over and over again, but also imagined what he thought of her after his death.
The spiderweb jittered with the angry imagined spirits’ yells. They were ghosts of her creation.
Angeline backed away from the real Zach. ‘I must be going completely mental,’ she said. She shook her head. ‘Go away. I am torturing myself enough. I know I didn’t do the right thing. So just go away.’
‘I’m not here to blame you or to hurt you.’ He floated toward her.
‘Don’t!’ she said. ‘I can’t believe I have the audacity to imagine that you’re forgiving me. I’m so disgusted by me. I don’t deserve to live. I—’
‘Angeline, don’t say that.’
‘You are just my irresponsible part talking. The part that thinks enough is enough. But it’s not enough. Nothing will ever be enough. You will never come back because of what I did. I hate me.’
‘That may be so, but I don’t hate you.’
‘Go away! I killed you.’
‘You didn’t. Gus Shevlin killed me.’
‘I might as well have killed you. I kept you in my life. I never should have. The moment I knew that Gus knew about us, I should have stopped.’
Angeline slumped on her chair and buried her morphing face in her morphing hands.
‘But the way you thought everything was going to be all right…’ she said. ‘The way you were so hopeful that you’d get everything you want one day… Even when things didn’t work out and it was obvious that you were never going to be famous or rich or successful… The way you refused to give up, because fame and riches and success were secondary to playing, just playing the piano…’
She looked up. Tears covered her face. And now, it stopped shifting shapes. It remained firmly on one aged, beautiful face of a woman who had survived six decades of life in beforeworld.
That aged face, combined with Angeline’s untamable guilty conscience, hurt but relieved Zach. They were proof that Angeline hadn’t died. She hadn’t been killed. Not by Zach, not by Gus Shevlin. She had lived a long life under the care and protection of the Steele family, in the cornfields, raising her child, having enough time and energy to ruminate about her wrongdoings and the wrongdoings of others.
Gus Shevlin had lied about her death to provoke Zach. He’d succeeded, but that didn’t change the truth.
‘I knew you were a romantic,’ she said. ‘And I knew that you were strangely pragmatic. The worst combination. I loved you for it and knew the limits. If you had been more pragmatic, you would’ve given up playing. If you had been more hopelessly romantic, you would’ve married me. Things might have been different. But they weren’t. They were what they were. I knew something bad was going to happen. You didn’t trick me. You tricked no one.’
She was speaking as a person who thought she was simply recounting her thoughts to herself. That was why she spoke so candidly.
‘I wish I had known what you were going through,’ Zach said.
‘I could have told you. I didn’t. At first, because I was afraid you’d be disgusted by me. Later, because I was afraid you wouldn’t be disgusted by me. If you didn’t hate me for who I was, what did that make me? An abuser. A liar. An opportunist.’
‘I wish I had known about the baby.’
‘I’m sorry.’ Angeline’s face distorted in an attempt to hold her tears. ‘I couldn’t stop Gus. I knew he wanted blood. He might have told himself that he didn’t want it, at the time, but I knew he would want it eventually. And if you were going to die, then why make it worse by telling you that there’s a child who’ll grow up without a father? When I couldn’t even tell you with any confidence that it was yours or wasn’t?’
‘But you knew it was yours. And I would have been glad to know about it.’
Angeline smiled despite her self-hatred. She nodded. ‘Yes. My sweet little boy, he is. Not so little anymore, of course. But always my baby boy…’
Her smile faded.
‘I was selfish,’ she said.
‘I was selfish,’ Zach said.
Even slower than before, he approached her. This time, she didn’t jump up or tell him to stop. She seemed to have given up with trying to make him go away. His heart ached at the thought that maybe, frequently, she couldn’t control her self-hatred. Right now, it was him approaching her with the intent to calm her, but at any other time, what had happened to her inside her head? Death, torture, being torn into pieces?
Zach, in his formless way, hovered near her feet so that it was absolutely clear he didn’t want to attack her. He looked up at her.
‘I didn’t know how much I didn’t know,’ he said. It was such an obvious statement, but it needed to be said. ‘I did what I did, believing that it was the best for us. And when I didn’t do something, it was also because I thought it was the best for us. I am sorry.’
Angeline wept more uncontrollably. She wiped off the tears with the sleeves of her dress, but the tears were faster. They followed the lines of her fine wrinkles and hung on her chin, to fall on her lap.
‘But nothing we did to each other, real or imagined, can be worse than what Gus Shevlin did to us,’ Zach said. ‘I blame myself, you blame yourself, and part of that might be taking responsibility. But at some point, we have to see this objectively: Gus Shevlin is the direct cause for my death. Everything that happened to us, didn’t happen to us, could have happened to us, would have happened to us—all that should have been left to us. But instead of letting us be or confronting us for a fair discussion, he constructed an elaborate charade to trick me and then have me killed.’
‘And I did nothing about it.’
‘True. But didn’t you fear for your life? And for good reason too. You knew Shevlin could kill you and the baby.’
‘This is me talking. My weak part. My self-centered part—’
‘No, Angeline. This isn’t you talking. This is me talking. And I don’t see Gus Shevlin hanging on the spiderweb here.’ Zach looked around at the many choked, strangled, suspended wrongdoers. ‘I see Seamus, but he was killed by Shevlin before Shevlin planned my death. You’ve hung all my murderers and many more whom you hate for what they’ve done or haven’t done. But no Shevlin. You’ve scribbled his face away from your memories, you’ve changed his voice so he sounds less intimidating, but you haven’t hung him, even though he deserves the most horrible punishment. He scared everyone here to death, whether or not they admitted it.’
‘Just because you’re scared to death doesn’t mean that you’re allowed to do what they’ve done. Or what I’ve done.’ Angeline sounded hurt and angry. Her voice shook. ‘Everyone has to take responsibility for what they do.’
‘And Shevlin? He gets away with what he’s done?’
‘Of course not!’ Angeline clasped the sides of her chair. ‘I hate him! I just haven’t figured out a proper punishment for him yet. I can’t just’—she gestured at the infinite spiderweb spread around her—‘hang him there and be done with him. I dream of revenge. I have sinned, but he? He has… Sin isn’t a harsh enough word. He shouldn’t have had the ability to sin. He shouldn’t have been born.’
Having said that, she dropped her head.
Zach looked down too. He agreed with Angeline—up to a point. With Shevlin’s absence, many people would have been saved from misery.
But wouldn’t there have been someone else to impose misery, same or similar? There were many who would have gladly taken Shevlin’s spot if they’d had the ability to do so. Seamus or the headwaiter, for example. Also, Zach had seen the many versions of himself. Some of those versions had become friends with Shevlin, patting each other on the shoulders, making business deals. Such Zachs were muscular and wore fur coats and fedoras like any common mobster.
Such things could happen. Had happened. Everything that could happen did happen in the infinite pool of possibilities. Each manifestation was present in at least one of the worlds in the chaos that Zach had traversed before reaching Angeline’s mind.
But they weren’t his world. They weren’t Angeline’s world either. Those in a different world couldn’t take responsibility for what happened in Zach and Angeline’s world, and vice versa. That was why the women in black had ousted him from his hotel between worlds. He was to fail at getting the revenge and love he wanted because of his doing and his doing alone. Gus Shevlin was to peacefully leave the hotel.
Meanwhile, no one who remained at the hotel was to remember Zach. Not Mina, not Charlie, not Alpha and Omega. It was going to be as if Zach had never existed so that they, too, could get a fair process of trial and error.
Only here, in Angeline’s memory, could he hope to find a new home. Was that possible, to live in her head as a formless ghost of the past? But what would happen when Angeline died?
That’d be the end of him. He’d disappear along with the many wrongdoers whom Angeline was punishing in her mind. Angeline Conners and Zacharias Steele would be erased from each other’s being completely. And the chance to bring justice to Gus Shevlin would disappear.
Zach could seal himself and Angeline in an object—such as a guestbook.
The hotel hadn’t noticed a thing about the shell Shevlin until the shell had stepped out of the book. What if Zach could do something similar? As long as the object in which Zach and Angeline sealed themselves belonged to the hotel, what could the women in black do about it?
The problems were: Which object to use? How to get in? And how to seal it so that the women in black couldn’t break the lock?
Zach knew the answer to the last question. Only that which belonged at a particular hotel had a place there. Therefore, not just the object, but the lock itself, literal or figurative, had to belong.
Gus Shevlin’s blood belonged at the hotel that Zach had left behind. That was how it had returned there as little droplets of scarlet while Zach was being dismantled in the chaos. If Zach could use that blood—plenty of it—as a shield of sorts to protect himself and Angeline from the outside world…
Then, Zach would be guaranteeing both revenge and love.
Also, as to the second question of “How to get into the object”—he could turn the women in black’s punishment to his advantage.
This was genius. This whole situation. Zach being ousted from the hotel and all. At the hotel, the best Zach could have done to stay with Angeline would have been to hide her somewhere so that the afterworld police couldn’t catch her. But now, he had become formless. That was the best thing that had happened to him in his beforelife and afterlife, combined. He should be able to get in anywhere.
Same with Angeline. In her mind, she could morph without a clear shape or form. She was Angeline Conners of everything that she had ever done or should have done, and could do in the future. And now that she’d reunited with Zach this way, she could be one of the few beforeworlders who went to afterworld with foreknowledge of its workings.
The more Zach thought about this, the more he liked the idea. He was willing to try. Even if things were to go wrong, what were the women in black going to do to him as additional punishment? Complete annihilation? That was what was going to happen upon Angeline’s death anyway. Zach had nothing to lose.
The first step was to find his way back to his hotel. Then he needed the blood of his Gus Shevlin, no one else’s.
He looked up. Seamus was here, hanging on the spiderweb. Seamus had been killed by Gus Shevlin. But Seamus hadn’t been at Zach’s hotel as a worker-resident. The fat lump of strings stuffing Seamus’s mouth was connected to the spiderweb. The web radiated out from Seamus into the boundless nothing.
If Zach had found a way here because Angeline remembered him, couldn’t Seamus do the same? Or the other way around: couldn’t Seamus here lead to Seamus at his particular hotel? And Gus Shevlin there, in turn, would lead Zach to his Gus Shevlin?
‘Angeline,’ Zach said, his voice full of hope. ‘I think I know a way for us to get everything we want.’
He rose in the air. A part of him touched her hand.
The air shook. Angeline’s chair fell. The floor tilted. Zach floated away from her. The spiderweb quivered so intensely that the strings generated wi-ing, wi-ing sounds like a swarm of giant mosquitos.
The women in black had located him. They wanted to separate him from her.
They weren’t going to get what they wanted.
© 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.