Ch. 56 – Chaos and Mindscapes (7)

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The worm-reapers led the way, creeping along the particular Shevlin string that led to the hotel between worlds where Zach used to live. Zach and Angeline followed, climbing the spiderweb that filled the chaos. None of the travelers had a set shape or form, which was both a bliss and a curse. Every time the howling wind slapped them and the strings thinned, all of them were in danger of being dispersed into nothing. But also, because their physical vessels were malleable—almost limitless—they helped each other recollect with one goal: reach the hotel.

And soon, Zach saw the familiar river. There, in the middle of it, a hotel appeared. The hotel. Because, on a boat at the bottom of the unmoving island, were Nora and the shell.

The two had moored the boat to a spiky stone in the cliff. They were on the opposite side of the platform with the manual elevator. Nora had thrown the shell’s coat over her head and entire body. At first, Zach thought that she was hiding from someone or something. But then he realized that she and the shell were talking to each other, oblivious to the outside world, not just because people living within any world tended to miss what was happening outside of it, but mainly because they were—it seemed—in love.

Zach could tell immediately that it was the shell and not the real Shevlin. The man seemed so happy to be with Nora, the beautiful magma lady in a red dress. And as to Nora, well, that lady was full of surprises. She laughed and chatted and paid attention when the shell spoke. She exuded such vitality that Zach felt ashamed for ever agreeing with Shevlin that she was like a log.

All in all, this was a peaceful scene. Though the overcoat thing was odd, neither Nora nor the shell seemed scared. Nora smiled from under the coat like a little child using bedsheets to make tents and hide there. The shell was her accomplice in mischief. They both enjoyed this situation tremendously. If Zach hadn’t been the one who’d been kicked out of the hotel, he’d never have guessed that anything dramatic had happened here, ever. Just two lovebirds on their first date.

When Angeline recognized the shell and Nora, she seemed both startled and pleased.

“I don’t believe this,” she said. “That’s Nora. Or is she not? Because that’s not Gus.”

“That’s Nora,” Zach said, “and you’re right, he isn’t the Gus Shevlin you know. He’s the shell.” Then he asked Flip and Flop, “Did they forget what happened?”

“No, they aren’t supposed to forget,” Flop said.

Zach could sense a bit of irritation in his voice, though the worm lacked a face to show it. And Zach shared the worm’s sentiment. Sure, he was glad that the shell and Nora had survived the recalibration unharmed. But some people were wandering the chaos without a set shape or form up here. And down there, the shell—the man who was all shape and form because without it, he’d lack any sort of definition—was having a date.

“They certainly seem happy enough to look like they’ve forgotten everything,” Zach said.

“But they didn’t,” Flip said. “They somehow managed to survive the freeze. Look.”

And thanks to being in a formless state, Zach could see through the hotel walls and floors.

Time had stopped.

Old Jeremiah stood at the glass doors of the building entrance. He’d been stopped on his way out to the front lawn. Slowly, painfully, he would have moved forward on his endless Sisyphus’s journey—but couldn’t anymore.

Alpha and Omega were in the laundry room, sitting on their little stools, frozen mid-giggle. Across the hallway, in the ironing room, hung Zach’s purple suit—perfectly clean, without any blood from Donald Todd.

Mina had been stopped in the middle of wiping the already-clean counter of the cocktail lounge. Most other things had remained the same, such as the blue, green, and purple neon lighting of the counter. But there was one noticeable change: there was no music. The piano stood on the brightly-lit stage, without Zach. The music player, which used to play the recordings backward, made no sound.

Numerous guests filled the lobby as usual, but none of them moved. They, too, had been stopped mid-walking, mid-sentence. Charlie, unmoving, loomed over his usual batch of paperwork.

Mostly, only the lawyers and reapers moved—unless they gave one of the guests permission to join them.

This happened when one lawyer and two reapers (always only those three at a time, with any other reapers and lawyers patiently waiting) touched a guest in the lobby. At their collective touch, the guest awakened. Confused and scared, the guest looked around. The lawyer and reapers explained the situation—only as much as needed, nothing more, nothing less.

The guest said goodbye to the reapers. The lawyer led the guest outside and operated the manual elevator to the platform. Whenever that happened, Nora and the shell in their boat stopped chatting and listened in intently. A different boat awaited the guest at the platform. The lawyer and the guest left the island.

The process repeated with the next guest in the lobby. And the next, and the next.

“They are doing this so any guests who were at this hotel at the time of your dispersal will leave before the hotel is completely reset,” Flip said. “After the guests leave, most everyone who is meant to stay here will forget you and what happened.”

Zach shivered. To remain unknown to random Minas and Alphas and Omegas who’d never met him, that was one thing. It was another thing to be forgotten by those who knew him.

But he couldn’t see any other way. His friends deserved to settle their scores in the way they wanted to. Zach had to stay out of the way. And at the same time, now that he was here, he wanted to be around them, for as long as possible, without hindering the realization of their wishes.

The guestbook Lisa had done that. Like that guestbook, Zach wanted to stay at the hotel. None of his friends had to know that he was there, so long as he got to stay near them and wish the best things for them, as much happiness as a murdered person could feel. No one could take that away from Zach, just like he wasn’t going to let anyone take Angeline from him again.

“It’s good this way,” Zach said. “With no one moving except for one guest at a time and some reapers and lawyers, we can get to Shevlin without disturbing the ones who shouldn’t be disturbed.”

“There!” Angeline said.

Everyone looked.

Gus Shevlin sat in the darkest corner of the cocktail lounge, sipping whiskey. The darkness had allowed Zach’s eyes to wander past him earlier. But now that Angeline pointed him out, clearly, that was him. Two reapers stood next to Shevlin. In their black suits, they were as difficult to spot as Shevlin in his black overcoat.

But what really alarmed Zach wasn’t that he’d missed Shevlin initially. It was that Shevlin hadn’t needed to be touched by a lawyer and two reapers to be able to move.

Mud and grass covered Shevlin’s black overcoat because of his earlier struggle with Lisa. Even his hair and babyface, here and there, were smudged with mud. Maybe that was why the reapers had granted him one last glass and a private moment. Shevlin was the type who’d ask for such special treatment.

Just outside the cocktail lounge, in the brightness of the lobby, a woman waited for them. She looked impatient, the way train conductors were politely and professionally impatient when a passenger delayed the departure of the train that they’d never before allowed to arrive late at the next station.

But this woman was a lawyer, not a train conductor. And she pulled off the all-white attire better than any other lawyer whom Zach had ever seen. Her white suit boasted daring lines, made all the more charismatic by the white stilettos. They accentuated her long, lean lines. She had tied her black hair in a ponytail, which reached her waist.

From the edge of the cocktail lounge, the lawyer said something to the reapers. Clearly, she was asking them to hurry up, please. But Koe and Joe didn’t seem to be in a hurry. They seemed to know that the lawyer was reluctant to enter the lounge—possibly because it was so dark. They took their sweet time with Shevlin.

Except, “sweet” wasn’t how they glared at the murderer. They seemed disgusted by him. They weren’t granting him that glass of whiskey as a favor.

As always, Shevlin emanated arrogant menace, the type that no shell could possibly replicate. He looked around, excited, clearly remembering what had happened to Zach and liking it. He blabbered to the reapers, who didn’t join him at his table and didn’t react. In fact, Koe and Joe frequently rolled their eyes and glared up at the ceiling. At times, Zach flinched because they gazed right in his direction.

At any rate, this wasn’t all bad. If Shevlin had been part of the freeze or hadn’t remembered his beforelife or the words he had used to provoke Zach, Zach might have derived less pleasure from taking revenge. But with Shevlin so boastful, Zach didn’t have to worry about that.

Because, yes, Zach planned on doing just that: deriving pleasure from taking revenge.

If people wanted to accuse him, let them. Unless such people had been murdered on stage, lied to about the death of their love, and then kicked out from their eternal home, they couldn’t swear with any certainty that they wouldn’t do exactly the same things that Zach had done and was going to do. Therefore, their accusation would be an arrogant delusion at best. And at this point, few things disgusted Zach more than the idea of people who thought they had the right to determine the method in which others had to handle their own revenge.

The wind howled around Zach. The web shook. Yet since he’d left the hotel, he’d never felt more secure than now. The sight of Gus Shevlin made it impossible for Zach to be anyone other than Zacharias Steele, the pianist who wanted revenge. It didn’t matter how formless he was, how insecure the network of particles that formed him.

And next to him, Angeline seemed to be feeling the same kind of certainty. She was no other person than Angeline Conners, who wanted revenge. Together, the energy exuding from them reinforced each other.

“Be careful with your anger,” Flip said. “The women in black will notice you.”

Just then, Koe glanced up. Without needing to be nudged, Joe followed that glance. The two reapers stared right at Zach. Then, before the lawyer and Gus Shevlin noticed, the reapers looked away.

“Quick ones, they are,” Flip said. She didn’t sound surprised.

“Are they going to stop us?” Zach said.

“Not if you act after they’ve handed him over to X,” Flop said.

“That’s her name? The lady in white?” Angeline said.

“Lawyers have funny names,” said the smoke-worm named Flop with the partner named Flip.

Joe snatched the glass from Shevlin. Koe nodded toward X. Time to go. At once, Shevlin’s face distorted in hatred. But what was he going to do? In beforeworld, he might have been a dangerous mobster, but at this hotel, he was just one more dead man. Koe and Joe led Shevlin out of the cocktail lounge. X and Shevlin shook hands. They headed out.

“So, Koe and Joe are willing to look the other way once Shevlin isn’t under their care anymore,” Zach said. This brought him to a point that he hadn’t considered before. “Once Shevlin leaves the island, he wouldn’t be allowed back, right?”

“Right,” Flip said.

“So we only have time between him walking out of the building and him leaving the island on the boat,” Zach said.

“Yes.”

“How do we get in?” Zach said, looking around the chaos, filled with celestial bodies, wind, and echoing melodies. “We—both Angeline and I—have to get in and stay there until we can…” Well, how to put this?

“Chop him up to get enough of his blood to cover an object fully, but only after we’re in it,” Angeline said. “Right?”

“Yes,” Zach said.

Angeline had recovered her snowstorm spirit now that she saw a way to take action about the things that she’d deemed too late.

“Problem is, I’m flung out of any world that I approach,” Zach said. “Since it sounds like we only have one chance, I don’t want to waste it, alerting the women in black—”

Angeline was snatched from his side.

Instinctively, he reached out to catch her.

The force was too strong, too quick. Screaming, Angeline flew farther and farther away in the form of a scattering fog. Flip and Flop, the tiny worms, shot spiraling around a string to follow her.

But Zach knew. The reapers in this weak state couldn’t possibly catch up with Angeline by using such a physical and mundane method. What Zach needed was a way to reach her by defying all reason, all rules of the separation between worlds… while catching Shevlin.

And chopping him into pieces.

And finding an object to hide in.

Alone in the chaos, Zach grabbed the nearest string that led into the hotel’s atmosphere. He shook it fiercely. X, who had just opened the hotel door for Shevlin, looked up. Her expression changed from that of cool professionalism to mild alarm. She, a being who crossed many worlds, just like the reapers, had noticed Zach’s presence up in the sky.

But at the same time, Nora and the shell looked up. They squinted at the sky. They couldn’t see Zach clearly. And yet, the shell and Nora nodded firmly at each other. While Nora kept the coat carefully over her head, the shell unmoored the boat. With their arms, they paddled toward the platform. It seemed they’d discussed all this beforehand.

Zach felt sorry for thinking that they’d completely forgotten about him. They hadn’t. They’d been waiting for him. And despite not seeing him clearly, they were willing to do what they thought was necessary to help him.

X hurried Shevlin to the edge of the island. He seemed to want to talk, making the biggest of all hand gestures, his baritone voice booming all the way to Zach although the words were unintelligible.

Nora and the shell continued to paddle to the platform.

X operated the elevator while Shevlin talked on and on.

Near the platform, the shell got up. The boat shook precariously. Nora, holding the coat with one hand, continued to paddle with the other, getting them even closer.

The shell jumped out of the boat. He landed on the platform. The island began quaking. With it, the elevator, in the middle of descending, shook. X and Shevlin fell inside it.

Zach noticed one of the strings close to him jittering. He grabbed it. Pulled at it.

Something anchored it to the hotel. The anchor was Gus Shevlin, though he didn’t know it, and wasn’t impacted by the pull. In fact, he successfully scrambled up. He was ready to attack whoever had caused the quaking of the island. Zach couldn’t simply drag the man here. Shevlin had too much substance to be dragged around by one string.

But Zach could do something else. He used that substance, that anchor, to descend along the string, through the atmosphere of the hotel, toward the damp earth with wet grass—

© 2022 Ithaka O.

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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.
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