Table of Contents
Jump to the Prelude
First, Zach turned off the spotlight illuminating the grand piano. Then he floated to the bar counter and turned off the neon lights. Only the dim ceiling lamps remained for his friends, the ones with bodies.
He didn’t smoke. He didn’t need the shield of light and cigarettes. In the near-darkness, he and the imaginary audience were equals. No one got to point fingers at another. No one got to target another unbeknownst to another. Conspiracy couldn’t happen. They couldn’t kill him again.
Also, he knew that he wasn’t alone this time. Mina, though frozen, was here in the cocktail lounge. Lisa stumbled left and right, trying to maintain her balance as the hotel shook fiercely. She held Nora and Gussie in one hand; in the other, she held Shevlin, moaning but not fully awake. Koe and Joe had become a dark veil and blocked the view to the bright lobby. Lady Song and Mr. Lee, who were the hotel itself, wanted to help Zach.
And he was much more flexible, much more capable of escape and cunning than he’d ever been. The women in black had robbed him of a concrete shape as a punishment, but as Flip and Flop had said, he had many anchors. Angeline remembered Zach. Everyone who had anything to do with his death remembered him. The punishment had backfired. The women in black had removed many of Zach’s limits.
He didn’t have to worry about standing on both feet in this shaking hotel, for example. He could simply float, as long as he stayed focused. He also didn’t have to sit in front of the piano to play. All he needed to do was to concentrate on the keys, nay, on the hammers or wires, if he preferred to play behind the scenes, and he could produce music.
What mattered was the intent. Intent added weight. Weight produced sound. It made the air ring with music.
Who could attack a player like that? Even when he was on the stage and they were in the audience, how were they supposed to see whom to attack, exactly?
Beings like Zach could attack him. The reapers and lawyers in that lobby could. But not the Carningsby murderers. Not Gus Shevlin. None of those mundane beforeworlders. Zach’s being had opened up to another plane. And as long as he could reunite with Angeline and figure out a way to stay together, he’d have everything he’d ever wanted.
So, he played.
First, a few tentative tones, while floating around the instrument. Then, a phrase.
The lawyers and reapers in the lobby whipped their heads around to face the cocktail lounge. Some marched toward the veil that was Koe and Joe. They tried to push through the veil. It didn’t let them through. It behaved like a wall. To them, it was a wall.
Outraged curses were thrown at the veil. The afterworlders had become aware: this veil was no normal veil. This was a reaper or reapers going against the ancient rules of neutrality. Reapers couldn’t just take sides like this. A “fair game,” a “fair trial,” and all things that were fair was what mattered.
Lisa hurriedly put Shevlin, Nora, and Gussie on the music rack. She rushed to the veil. It let her through with such ease that the lawyers and reapers outside gasped in shock and more outrage.
Zach concentrated on the music. He couldn’t let Koe and Joe’s efforts be wasted. He couldn’t let them get into trouble. Enough people had gotten into trouble because of him.
Look at tiny Nora and Gussie. They were doing their best to keep Shevlin down instead of hiding inside the piano and shutting the lid. The murderer had opened his eyes. He was making feeble attempts to free himself. Soon, Zach was sure, those attempts weren’t going to be so feeble anymore. Once Shevlin was fully awake and aware of the situation, he’d bite and kick and punch.
Vibrations in the air.
That was what Zach was best at.
The earthquake could be part of the music. Everything could be rhythm. The outraged curses. Lisa’s voice, sometimes pleading, sometimes angry. Nora and Gussie’s panting. Shevlin’s groans.
And the One, two, three; two, two, three.
They didn’t come from him. They didn’t come from anywhere here.
They came from her.
Clanking, shaking, stomping.
Shouts, groans, curses.
They came without Zach and filled the room by the timeless cornfield. Flip and Flop floated up and excitedly circled around Angeline’s head.
The spiderweb jittered with the murderers, aiders, and abettors. It magnified the sounds and carried them as far as all the real realities and imagined realities of those murderers and aiders and abettors.
They might have told themselves that they’d forgotten about what had happened. They might have told themselves that they had atoned for their sins because some god had declared them innocent. Or they might have told themselves that they’d never done any wrong, to begin with.
But the spiderweb remembered. The chaos remembered.
And music—emotion expressed through sound—remembered.
He saw the room that was flooded with sunshine.
There was the blond woman sitting by the window.
And there were the little black worms floating around her.
She saw a blurry shimmer floating around the piano.
Now that she knew it wasn’t entirely imagined, the question was: could she cross over there, like Zach used to cross here?
Angeline stood up. Zach saw Flip and Flop cling to her wrists like bracelets made of snakes. Snakes, because they’d become thicker, longer, stronger. They, too, were an important part of Zach’s being, and they were nurtured by all the clink clanking and stomp stomping and the melody, so sorrowful, because that was the kind of music that filled the reservoir.
They, his friends, approached. They were daring to leave the room without crossing the chaos. The journey through the chaos was too rough, too unpredictable.
This was the shortcut.
Flip and Flop wriggled around her wrists, creating a pleasant, tickling sensation.
On the opposite side of the wall with the window, she saw the chaos. Beyond that was something dark and soft, like a veil. And beyond that veil was the piano. Zach surrounded it. Or maybe, the piano was Zach.
Did she dare jump?
She glanced back at the timeless cornfield.
Lisa yelped. The lawyers and reapers in the lobby were pushing to get into the lounge. The veil broke apart.
Now is the time. Jump.
Because the dark and soft-looking veil parted in the middle, she crouched, then leaped—
—right as the piano charged toward her.
© 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.