Table of Contents
Jump to the Prelude
In the chaos, the minor scale melodies clashed against each other. In the chaos, the wind howled and slapped Zach and Angeline, who were barely recognizable as ethereal spiders. The atmosphere smelled of blood, which meant both birth and death. And all the melodies and winds and smells were a jumble. All Zach could do was follow the thick string that connected Seamus in Angeline’s mind to, hopefully, a different Seamus at a hotel between worlds.
Although the string was thinning rapidly due to the stress imposed by the howling, slapping, and shaking, it was still the thickest one that stemmed from Seamus on the web. Also, there were other supporting strings, a whole web of them. Those strings were what enabled Zach and Angeline to dare move across the web. It wasn’t like they had to walk a tightrope. An individual string might have broken at the external stress by now; a whole web, however, was a much more stable structure that elegantly absorbed and distributed the force thrown at it.
A similar phenomenon must have been at play when the Carningsby residents had denied responsibility for Zach’s death. They’d told themselves that the full weight of the sin couldn’t fall on each of them as individuals. Quite literally and physically, the shared knowledge had eased the force of their burdens.
Yet they had never been entirely free from their sins either. Past the numerous stars and moons and suns, Zach recognized many of the wrongdoers whom he’d seen in Angeline’s mind. Some were in beforeworld, others were in afterworld. Regardless of their location, each remembered himself or herself.
They glanced up at the sky whenever Zach and Angeline passed by, just like the many Minas, Alphas, and Omegas had done. And now, with the spiderweb visible, Zach knew: the strings were creating pulls. That was why they looked where they looked.
Some wrongdoers didn’t like being thusly compelled to look up when they couldn’t identify a logical reason to do so. Others seemed curious. Occasionally, a melancholy melody that Zach had thought he’d forgotten echoed throughout the infinite universe, and that made the wrongdoers wince or stop and think.
And regardless of the reaction, each wrongdoer remembered others who had been part of the murder. Each replayed the events of their lives over and over again. That fortified the strings, although at a lesser speed than the thinning.
In a constant battle of forgetting and remembering, the spiderweb dwindled and amplified. Memories and lives, in the form of the infinite spiderweb, were the fabric of the universe. Angeline’s mind had only been a small segment of it. The totality of the spiderweb held everything together in the chaos.
Those memories and lives didn’t simply fade, no matter how badly those people denied their crimes or regretted their deeds. It didn’t matter how much the women in black wanted Zach erased. Zach wasn’t just connected to Angeline, he was connected to so many other people.
More importantly, the connections between him and his wrongdoers didn’t rely on fleeting and random events. Two strangers who happened to stand at the same bus station one fine afternoon, never to see each other again, formed a fleeting and random connection. Zach and his wrongdoers, however, had fortified their connections through intent and intensity—the strong emotions that a person inevitably felt when witnessing the death of someone else.
Thusly, the many accomplices that Gus Shevlin had gathered were functioning to Zach’s advantage.
At the far end of the string, he saw the faint silhouette of a hotel. Angeline let out a surprised gasp behind him. No wonder. The entire large hotel was suspended midair. Sure, there was a ground, covered in grass, just like at the hotel that Zach had left behind. But that ground didn’t seem as firm from this angle as it seemed from the inside.
There were dots of people who moved about on the hotel grounds. Not just that, there were dots of people who occupied the lobby and each of the floors of the hotel. They were oblivious to everything happening outside of their atmosphere. Meanwhile, Zach and Angeline had no problem seeing through the walls, through the floors, through the charade of physicality and clarity.
And there was Seamus, in the lobby.
Just as Zach had guessed, Seamus was a hotel worker. He wore the black and white uniform of a valet and carried a silver tray with chocolate and vanilla cookies. From his expression, it was difficult to tell whether he had run into Gus Shevlin yet. But Zach was sure that Seamus was to get his own chance to deal with Shevlin.
In fact, Zach should have thought of this sooner. There were murderers who killed multiple victims and Gus Shevlin was one such murderer. Yet no one at Zach’s hotel had tried to cooperate with Zach. More importantly, and very fortunately, no one had tried to convince him to forgive his murderer. No one had known about Shevlin and Zach’s hated relationship. That had been the beauty of the deal with the women in black: Zach had been able to do what he wanted.
And just like Zach, everyone else who’d been killed by Shevlin was getting their freedom to do whatever they wished. In a way, the women in black had indeed been fair. For every murder committed, Shevlin was going to be punished (or forgiven), never more and never less. The women in black could provide the murder victims with as many copies of the “real” Shevlin as necessary.
And there he was, one such Gus Shevlin, picking up a cookie from the silver tray that Seamus held. Zach watched as Seamus almost dropped the tray. This was the moment of awakening for Seamus.
As much as Seamus had done wrong, Zach did feel sorry. Seamus had been shot on the roof of the Grille without a chance to defend himself. He had every right to take revenge on Shevlin. Or forgive. Do whatever he wanted to do.
“I can’t believe he’s there,” Angeline said behind Zach.
He glanced back and noticed that she was focused on Shevlin. She was trying hard to keep calm, but understandably, it wasn’t working so well. The atmosphere around her vibrated more intensely than the surroundings.
“It’s him and at the same time, not him,” Zach said. “The one we’re looking for is elsewhere.”
“And Seamus,” Angeline said. “Just like thirty years ago, when he died.”
“Like me. Now, come on. We need to get that.”
Zach pointed at the thick string that shot out from Shevlin’s head to the sky of the hotel. The man was turning away from Seamus to walk toward the front desk. Regardless of Shevlin’s movements, the string remained firmly rooted in his head. And on the other side, it kept stretching on and on, splitting and entangling with other strings, so far into the distance that no one could identify where its influence ended.
Zach crawled on the spiderweb, along Shevlin’s string. Angeline followed. Once they reached the part where the string began splitting in many directions, they sat on the web and considered their options.
“So, there are more of him?” Angeline asked.
“Yes,” Zach said.
“How do we know which one is ours?”
Zach didn’t know the answer. The split strings varied in thickness. They pointed in different directions. And at some point in the distance, those split strings split again.
He looked around. No one was on the web except for them. The black and white dots that were reapers and lawyers kept their distance. If only one of them could point him in the right direction. If only he could get help from his friends Flip and Flop…
Angeline yelped and pulled Zach back. They tumbled down the spiderweb. Zach wrapped himself around Angeline while he braced not to lose a single particle that was theirs. She anchored herself around one of the strings, stopping them both from being carried away by the wind.
“What’s wrong?” Zach said.
“There,” she said.
About a dozen feet away, something black and formless, like smoke, crawled on the web. It was moving toward Zach and Angeline at an incredibly sluggish pace.
No, it wasn’t one thing. There were two separate black and formless things, actually. Like twisting worms with cell walls that could barely hold them together, they were spiraling forward with a string as the axis. It was painful to watch, how slow they were moving, just like watching certain worms that seemed determined to cross the street, leaving behind the moist lawn. You wanted to tell them, There is nothing to be gained by your trip! But of course, the worms couldn’t hear.
Once the formless worms reached the intersection of the many Shevlin strings, they changed course. Instead of following the Shevlin string, they began crawling toward Zach and Angeline. Clearly, Shevlin wasn’t the thing attracting them; Zach or Angeline or both of them were.
“What are those things?” Angeline said.
As if to answer this question, the smoke worms made barely audible noises. They sounded like the popping of bubbles—lots of p sounds, audible despite the constant hissing of the howling winds. And as the worms came closer, the f sounds could be heard too.
They were sort of cute. With each additional inch of movement, Zach thought he could tell apart the two worms. One of them seemed heavier than the other and also, more exhausted. If smoke could perspire, that worm would have. Meanwhile, the second one seemed to be in more of a hurry. It lacked any hands, but it was as if it were pulling the first worm with it.
And they kept making p sounds and f sounds, f, p, f, p, f, p—
“Flip-flops?” Angeline said.
“No!” the worms said in unison, which still didn’t mean much because their voices were so soft.
“Flip and Flop!” Zach said.
The worms halted, as if Zach’s recognition gave them permission to take a short break.
© 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.