Ch. 7 – Today in Afterworld (1)

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Zach hurriedly left the brightly lit hotel lobby and entered the darkness of the cocktail lounge. From here and there, people clapped; the guests who’d sat here for a while recognized him. Their clapping was meant as an encouragement, a welcome-back-from-your-five-minute-break gesture. They didn’t mean ill. Zach had to remind himself of that.

Quickly, he strode toward the strongest source of light in the entire lounge: the spotlight illuminating the stage in the center. His grand piano stood there. The sooner he arrived there, the better. Then the clapping would stop. Then Zach could stop trying so hard to ignore the faces of these people. Then the whole world could return to consisting of music, and all the beautiful things that music brought with it, but nothing else.

Thanks to his continued effort to shorten the time it took for him to get from the lobby to the stage, he’d become a master at going around the round tables that filled the lounge. Expertly, he took a left, right, right and left, left and right. Numerous yellowish-white ceiling lamps, which were considerably dimmer than the spotlight but bright enough to illuminate the faces of the guests, helped and distracted Zach at the same time.

Eventually, he reached the stairs to the stage. He climbed them two at a time. He took his seat in front of the grand piano.

There. Finally.

He sighed in relief. He faced the audience—which was to say, he faced the veil of brightly lit dust that separated him from the audience so that the audience thought that he was facing them. In reality, he didn’t see them at all. None of them. This was just the way he liked it.

As expected, the applause swelled, then died down.

Good. Back to normal.

Only now did he breathe in and out slowly enough to notice the ever-present sweet cookie smell blowing in from the lobby. Only now did he have the mental space to add another safety measure to the dust veil.

He reached into the pocket of his purple suit jacket. From there, he took out a silver cigarette case, placed it on top of the empty music rack, clicked the case open, and took out a cigarette. Not of the tobacco kind, no. The kind that Zach smoked smelled of earth, wood, and leather. It had the effect of breathing in and out a whole forest.

Zach put the cigarette between his lips. From the audience, a few women giggled. For some reason, women liked to see the combination of his long fingers and the cigarette, and how his lips opened and then closed to keep the cigarette between them.

He reached into the same pocket once more, fished out an emerald-colored lighter, and lit the cigarette.

Another round of giggles.

God, Zach wished that the dust veil could block the noise from the audience, but of course, such a thing wasn’t possible. Then they wouldn’t be able to hear the music. Then there’d be no point to having Zach play. Then there’d be no stage. And Zach needed the stage.

So, he took a drag. Then exhaled.

A smoke veil layered on top of the dust veil created by the stage light. Now the setup was complete, once more, just as it had been before his short break. Nothing outside the double veils mattered.

Keeping the cigarette between his lips, he placed his hands on the piano keys. His fingers began playing. He swayed to the minor scale music.

That was how he saw his musical process: that his fingers played and that he swayed. Because, those long fingers moved as if they belonged to two spiders connected to one collective mind that didn’t filter through Zach’s consciousness.

Sometimes, he thought that he heard melodies humming at his ears, and the fingers played that. At other times, the tunes came from within, as if there were a deep, dismal reservoir of unrealized minor-scale music sleeping inside him. The fingers simply tapped into that reservoir through the blood vessels and bypassed the brain.

And then there was the blond woman.

As always, she appeared when Zach reached the ideal trance-like state. In that state, he forgot where he was. The hotel didn’t exist. The cocktail lounge didn’t exist. The audience didn’t exist. Not even the veils existed. Nothing needed to exist to keep him safe from the world of un-music.

Because there she was, the blond woman. She sat by the window inside an old house. The living room, perhaps, or the bedroom. Or, more likely, judging by the shabbiness of the house, those two rooms were one and the same.

Sunshine flooded her face so that the features remained unclear. There’d never been a time in which the sunshine didn’t flood her face. Even when the sky outside her window was clearly cloudy or when the cornfield outside was covered in snow, there was enough sunshine for her face. Maybe she was the sunshine. She wasn’t real.

She was his muse.

She swayed when Zach swayed. She interpreted the melodies that came from within him. She was also the source of the melodies that came from without him. Perhaps, within and without were one and the same thing. She was him. He was her. They made music together.

If only this moment of solitude could last forever. But it didn’t. Eventually, the equilibrium of the trance state allowed Zach’s sensory organs to perceive the reality around him. The music stayed, and the muse, too, but Zach became aware of the audience again.

He couldn’t help noticing them. It was the nature of cocktail lounge guests to assume that the musician heard nothing, but Zach heard everything. It surprised him every time, too, how he could play and listen simultaneously. It wasn’t that he didn’t concentrate on his music or his muse. It was just that—how to put this?—the music was too much a part of him for him to not notice what happened beyond it once he felt safe. Sort of the way your own corneas don’t block your view. You just see through them, unless you’re sick.

The guests talked about the hotel’s mysterious hidden corridors, its walls whispering stories in their ears, and other hauntings by lost souls. They talked about a room full of all the guestbooks that the hotel had ever used, with the names of famous people who’d visited over the years.

But no one talked more passionately and lengthily than wannabe-artists. They talked more about their art than they spent time making their art. There was one such group here, right now.

They talked about how they’d waited for the perfect moment or the perfect inspiration; the chance to do it right.

What field were they interested in, exactly? Zach couldn’t tell. And it didn’t matter. Wannabe-musicians, wannabe-writers, wannabe-actors, wannabe-architects, and in fact, wannabe-athletes and wannabe-businesspeople (Because, let’s face it: sports and business are art. Once you reach a certain level in any field, you’re an artist and whatever you give the world is art, beautiful to experience for everyone involved), all those people from all those different fields, they all talked yada yada yada at the tables around Zach’s stage and drank away their unrealized dreams.

Not that Zach didn’t sympathize with them up to a point. He was terrified of the stage, after all. Sometimes, the irrational fear that the audience was out to kill him prevented him from entering the lounge after his break. At other times, the fear wasn’t entirely irrational, which only exacerbated matters.

For example, that magma lady over there, whose silhouette was large enough to be discernible through the veils. She was one of the guests who terrified Zach, and for good reason, not just due to irrational fear. Zach called her “the magma lady” because she gave the impression of melting down at the sluggish speed of stones and minerals. When she sat, it seemed as if the only thing stopping her from becoming one with the floor was the chair. And because of her substantial size, the general downward impression was utterly unignorable.

Combine that with her fondness for talking about her husband’s imminent death, and Zach thought his fear was justified. You didn’t want to play for guests who grinned at the idea of their spouse’s death. Especially if such guests hung around the hotel for a full week and came to the lounge every day as if they wanted something from you.

But every person who wanted to create something of value had to learn how to get over the artistic obstacles. In Zach’s case, continuing to play solved the problem marvelously. While he sat in front of the piano and his fingers moved, he had to actively stop, whereas while he wasn’t playing, he had to actively start.

Hence he minimized his breaks. He played as much as possible, all the time. Sometimes he played for an entire day without stopping once.

But of course, Zach accepted that not everyone was lucky enough to figure out his or her own method of overcoming artistic resistance. Of course he recognized his immense luck: he was an afterworlder living in the in-between world and all those dead, wannabe-artist guests weren’t.

Yes. That’s right. Dead. They were dead, the guests, all of them, wannabes or not. They’d been born once, had lived once, and now had died. From beforeworld, they’d come to this hotel between worlds, to be dropped off by their reapers and to meet their lawyers to discuss everything in their case files. Soon, the guests were to cross the river and die completely.

Unlike them, Zach and all the other worker-residents at the hotel were there to stay. No one who lived here ever died fully. No one aged. No one disappeared. No one appeared either. Time didn’t pass here. There were no seasons. Everything simply was as it had been. Guests arrived and departed, but the arrivals and departures themselves were constants.

Then when had Zach started to be the piano player at the cocktail lounge in the hotel between worlds?

Zach vaguely recalled the “first day” that hadn’t felt like a first at all. It was as if he were born to play the piano. So, right when he “came to”—an expression of convenience, because he didn’t remember anything before that moment—he began to play.

He was ready to go because he was born a grown-up. His legs were long enough to reach the pedals and his arms were long enough to reach the keys from the left end to the right end. Moreover, Zach was born in a black shirt and purple cashmere suit, perfectly tailored for a piano player who needed some room to freely move the arms. Even the leather dress shoes, deep brown, almost black, had been born with him.

Zach hadn’t been afraid. The very air of his surroundings—the hotel and the cliff island on which it stood—provided all that he needed. Any information he needed to know, the air made available.

And after that “day one,” Zach hadn’t paid much attention to time. In a lounge like this, with invariable lighting, time was impossible to tell anyway. He had his muse. His music. His double veils. Also, plenty of conversations to overhear.

But since time did flow for the wannabe artists, maybe it was understandable that all they could do was sit in a cocktail lounge and talk about their art instead of attempting to make one piece of whatever they’d wanted to create in beforelife. One poem. One song. One story. None of them created such things. Their chance lay behind them, according to them. So, they drank cocktails, then left the hotel.

For Zach, his chance was neither behind him nor in front of him. He lived in the moment of chance. And that moment lasted forever.

Sometimes, Zach thought the only thing that had saved him from the fate of the wannabe was his muse. Without her, he wouldn’t be playing the piano. And then, what would be the point of his existence?

None. He’d be better off releasing.

Release…

That concept occasionally sparked his curiosity. He tried to imagine it, that last step of death. It described the moment when all the particles that had formed a person dispersed. Said person surrendered and became the purest potential of becoming something else. Sometimes, such freedom sounded appealing. But most of the time, the thought terrified Zach; he’d never see his muse, the sunshine woman by the window again.

But even those worker-residents without a muse didn’t release. Why? Why were they here to stay, while the guests left?

Zach couldn’t pinpoint a factor that automatically made someone a guest versus a worker-resident. None of them was defined by a single nationality or skin color. (In fact, some people weren’t even unique people. That sounded ridiculous, but that was what Zach had observed over time. Some guests had exactly the same faces. There was something cyclical about the flow of time at the hotel, unlike that in beforeworld, where time flowed in a reliably linear fashion. Maybe there were only so many faces to go around, hence the overlap.)

Language also wasn’t the determining factor in the release of a person. Everyone spoke the same language here—that of afterworld. Here, all were equals…

…his fingers kept moving. The muse sat in the sunshine, or she was the sunshine, and she swayed to the melancholy music. The whole entire world, before and after, wanted it this way, that Zach played, and kept on playing. And Zach agreed, because he didn’t want to notice the audience. As long as he played, he could drift in and out of that blissful trance state. And for a while, he didn’t hear what anyone said around him…

“What’s the daily special today?”

Zach awoke from his trance. The muse vanished. His fingers kept moving more out of habit, less out of inspiration. Accompanied by a whiff of the sweet cookie smell entered the reaper who had spoken with the familiar voice: Flip.

“Whatever it is, I’ll have one,” she added, without hearing the answer.

She fluttered her grandiose black dress and fanned herself. She sounded exhausted. Flip’s presence meant that another reaper was here too:

“One for me too,” said Flop.

He walked ahead of Flip, then flopped on a chair right next to the stage, stirring an immense amount of air with his substantial figure as well as his cape. The double veils around Zach’s stage dispersed momentarily. Soon, Flip joined Flop at the same table.

Zach smiled. Those two reapers were his eternal friends. And when he was with his friends, he didn’t mind leaving the safety of the double veils.

© 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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