Table of Contents
Jump to the Prelude
Zach felt heavy. The weight of another man’s blood on him pulled him down. He felt bloated; full. The only reason he didn’t sink was that the spiderweb provided him with structure. Thanks to it, the world wasn’t entirely fluid.
In the empty space between his particles and the web was Angeline. She seemed equally flustered, equally disgusted; he could feel her quiver.
And he could smell Shevlin, the reek of crime and hatred. The thought that he was becoming Shevlin terrified him. Maybe making a man explode by invading his body hadn’t been the correct method for staying at the hotel. Something had gone wrong…
But that sensation only lasted for a brief moment. The reek faded. The color red, too, evaporated. And the eternal sunshine that Angeline had brought with her had survived the transition. He realized that the hotel had stopped shaking. The opening to the lobby had reappeared.
He pulled himself together. A trail of primarily purple air formed behind him. He floated out to the lobby. The atmosphere was dense and humid. The fans weren’t circulating the air. The suffocating, white mist from the outside was creeping in, overtaking the building.
And all reapers and lawyers there stared at him in shock. Dozens of them filled the lobby, with its black and white marble floor tiles exaggerating the dizzying contrast of their white and black attire. As many frozen guests stared ahead vacantly.
Among those who could move, only Lisa hadn’t noticed Zach yet. She’d curled up on the floor. The mud and grass still hung in her hair and on her clothes. When the moment of quiet and balance lasted for a few more seconds, she glanced up. Just now, she’d realized that the persistent earthquake had fully stopped.
Zach meant to say thank you. But her gaze moved past him. She looked around.
There, at the front desk, Charlie, immobile.
There, the valets with the cookie trays, frozen in time.
There, other hotel guests, fixed in their places, gazes empty.
Then Lisa looked where all the reapers and lawyers looked: at Zach. Or rather, in his direction. She frowned. Confused, she glanced around some more.
She didn’t see him. Shevlin’s blood had become an extraordinary shield.
Abruptly, the hotel breathed. A sigh of relief. The fans began to turn. Charlie awoke. The valets with the cookie trays awoke. Guests moved. Murmurs rapidly filled the lobby. Lisa let out a soft yelp.
“Do you need help, ma’am?” a kind valet asked her.
The reapers and lawyers were tense. They didn’t dare make the wrong move and raise alarm for the hotel workers or guests. If they did, and if the workers noticed something off, a clue of why they had ended up at the hotel, they’d have to begin all over again, trying to kick the culprit out of the hotel without allowing anyone to notice…
The workers and fans and guests froze again. The hotel trembled.
But not because of an earthquake, like earlier. Two forces were fighting. One, which wanted the hotel to remain frozen; the other, which wanted everyone to awaken. Alternatingly, the fans and the workers froze, unfroze, froze, unfroze, like frames from a stop motion movie.
The reapers and lawyers backed away, toward the walls, leaving an empty space in the center of the lobby. Lisa remained close to the cocktail lounge. Everyone here sensed the impending, next conflict.
It looked like the entire hotel was spasming—
“Enough,” Lady Song said.
She’d appeared from nothing, in the middle of the lobby. The workers and guests and fans had frozen once more. The humid air layered on top of each other.
“It’s enough when we say it’s enough,” the women in black said.
If Zach had kept a physical skin, there would’ve been goosebumps. But because he didn’t have one, the trail of purple air merely flickered. He hadn’t thought that he’d ever hear those ringing, triangle-and-xylophone voices again.
“You do not rule the worlds,” Lady Song said.
She looked as composed and polished as always. She wore the same midnight-blue, knee-length dress that she’d been wearing when she’d told Zach to go to the twins and get his clothes cleaned. The whitish-yellow dots on the fine fabric reminded him of the chaos outside of the hotel. Maybe that was what this dress was made out of—a slice of the chaos.
“We do not rule, but we impose the rules when it comes to life and death,” the women in black said.
“And there lies our disagreement,” Lady Song said. “We’re tired of your abuse of our guests under the pretense of playing a fair game.”
“Which they wanted. They agreed to take the candy.”
“Not knowing what would happen.”
“Whoever knows what will happen, ever?”
“No one. Not even you. But when things come to an end, even you must accept the results. Leave this hotel alone. You got what you wanted. No one remembers what happened. No one who will stay.”
Having said that, Lady Song glanced at Lisa. Lisa tensed, but said nothing.
“That woman aided fugitives. She will pay for her doings,” the women in black said.
“If and when she is charged,” Lady Song said. “But I don’t see the afterworld police looking for anyone. Without the afterworld police, there are no confirmed fugitives.”
Then she snapped her fingers.
The floor swallowed Lisa. Quickly, Zach stormed toward the glass doors, out to the front lawn. He struggled past the heavy mist. He could barely see a thing. Race, race he did, until he reached the cliff.
Just as he’d guessed, there they were: Lisa, sitting on the boat; her sister and father, lying next to her.
Zach swept down. He wanted to say goodbye, to this woman who’d helped him without asking for anything in return.
There was no lawyer. Instead, Lady Song stood on the platform. In the boat, Lisa’s sister and father were just awakening from their sleep. They muttered sentence fragments about “earthquake” and “no memory.”
“Say goodbye, Lisa,” Lady Song said.
Lisa looked more exhausted than ever. The visit to the Library of Records, the fight with Shevlin, and the teleportation from the lobby to the boat—such events had been exciting but difficult to process.
“Say goodbye to whom?” Lisa asked.
“Zach,” Lady Song said.
Lisa looked around.
“He’s there,” Lady Song said. She pointed at Zach, up in the air right above Lisa.
Lisa stared in his direction for a while, then said, “I can’t see you, Zach, but it seems like you succeeded.”
Indeed, he had. Zach circled around her, generating a wind, blowing the mud and grass out of her hair. Lisa laughed helplessly.
Strange, that he could feel so close to a near-stranger. Strange, that she could feel the same way about him. But if the recent events had taught him one lesson, it was that the length of acquaintance mattered little when it came to trustworthiness. Some long-time acquaintances, friends, and lovers killed or had you killed. Some near-strangers helped you.
Maybe they helped you because they were near-strangers. But that explanation only briefly flickered in Zach’s mind as a valid reason. He didn’t want to think that way. If possible at all, he wanted to believe that some long-time lovers and friends and acquaintances could be trusted. Flip and Flop, for example. Lady Song. Mina. Gussie and Nora. Koe and Joe.
Later, he hoped to look back to this day and think of Lisa as more than a near-stranger or a one-time friend. Time had an odd effect on the mind and Zach believed it entirely possible that he could stay very good friends with Lisa without ever seeing her again.
Soon, Lisa was going to release. But in the many years to come, Zach would remember that she’d appeared in front of him when he’d needed her most. And he’d remember that she’d eagerly helped him. Just like a different Zach had lasted in the guestbook Lisa’s memory, this Lisa was going to last in Zach’s memory, forever.
“I wish you all the best,” Lisa said.
“And we wish you the same, Lisa,” Lady Song said. “We thank you for your help. Goodbye.”
Lady Song held her palm up. Without touching the boat, she pushed it by shifting the air. The boat drifted away.
“You’ve robbed them of their chance to face trial with their lawyers,” the women in black said.
They spoke from the sky, the sheltered chaos. Beyond the barrier, winds raged; here, the thick mist barely moved.
“Since you threatened with the afterworld police, of course I did,” Lady Song said, gazing at the boat that receded into the mist.
“Questions will be asked,” the women in black said.
“Then questions will be answered—if you can ask the right questions to the right people.”
“There are rules to be followed. And customs.”
“If rules and customs aren’t meant to be broken, I wonder why the hotel’s been given the power to protect its people from their tyranny.”
“Don’t think that power will last forever.”
“Don’t think that rules and customs will last forever either.” Then, Lady Song looked up at Zach and smiled. “Besides, no rule or custom beats music. I so do prefer to have some music at my hotel.”
© 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.