Ch. 71 – Postlude (2)

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Melancholy melodies filled the cocktail lounge. Glasses clinked and clanked as guests sipped and conversed. But other than those familiar sounds, much had changed about the cocktail lounge in the hotel between worlds.

The ceiling lamps were turned off. There was no need for artificial lighting. The sunshine flooding in from one window provided all the light that this room needed. In fact, that light was so bright, a thin black curtain had been installed to cover the whole wall. That was the only way to make the lounge dark like a lounge instead of bright like a cafe.

“How is this possible?” a new guest would ask, fascinated at what he saw when he pushed the curtain aside. “Is that a cornfield? I didn’t see one outside. What is ‘outside’ anyway? How come the lobby ceiling looks like the sky outside?”

“That’s what happens at the hotel between worlds,” a guest who’d spent a couple more hours at the hotel would answer wisely.

Then the guests would change the topic of their conversation to the grand piano on the stage. A bright spotlight illuminated it. The air was free of smoke or dust, so that its surface appeared even shinier. Its black and white keys, from the left end to the right end, were moving up and down constantly, to produce the never-ending sorrowful tunes.

“No one’s playing it,” the first guest would say, once again fascinated. “How is it that it looks like someone’s pressing the keys?”

And that was when Angeline and Zach chuckled. Then the air trembled with their amusement and the guests stopped mid-sip.

“What was that?” they’d say.

“It happens from time to time,” Mina would say. “Nothing to worry about. Another round?”

“Yes, another round,” Gussie would say.

“Yes, another,” Nora would say.

Then the guests looked at the two tiny people with their own table on top of the counter. The table was round and the size of an ashtray. The people were the size of thumbs. They sat on tiny chairs with the table between them. Next to it stood a cocktail glass. It was placed in such a way that the top of the glass was at the same level as the table.

When the daily special happened to be something sky-blue, it looked as if the couple sat by a lake. The very thin, very long straws sticking out of the shared cocktail glass also made it look like they were fishing. And because the sight of two thumb-sized people drinking a cocktail from ridiculously long straws was just too cute, the guests laughed off the tremble in the air that had spooked them only moments ago.

This was the new status quo of the cocktail lounge at this hotel between worlds.

Gussie and Nora had remained tiny. When Shevlin had exploded with Angeline and Zach, Gussie and Nora had taken cover below the piano lid. They’d escaped the fate of being drenched in the murderer’s blood. But that also meant that the only place where they could safely stay was the lounge. Gussie, safe from causing the hotel to shake; Nora, safe from the afterworld police who came looking for the fugitives.

Fugitives. Just as the women in black had predicted, the afterworld police had swept through the hotel to look for them, shortly after Lisa had departed. The police had come in the form of howling twisters, inhuman. (Which only briefly surprised Zach. After all that had happened, seeing a more or less normal, human-like official would have been more surprising.)

The twisters squeezed through every crevice in the hotel—through the attic, through the staff hall, through the guest rooms and hallways, and also, through the insides of the piano—but couldn’t find the people they were looking for, in the shape they expected.

Donald Todd had been absorbed by the hotel after being used up by Zach. Lady Song had hidden Todd so well that the afterworld police shrieked in fury.

Nora Shevlin was sheltered in the cocktail lounge shielded by Gus Shevlin’s blood. It was as if she were invisible to the twisters.

And Gus Shevlin? He wasn’t him anymore.

There was the cocktail lounge, where the police could sense his blood. There were Angeline and Zach, whose every particle had been coated with blood from the same source. And there was Gussie, that oddly empty shell, whom the twisters couldn’t identify because his origin had been someone’s memory.

There was even that odd case of the old lady who’d died without a soul to reap. That had gotten the reapers talking about doomsday more than anything that had happened in the lounge on the day of Gus Shevlin’s explosion. Everyone had been looking for a lost soul for days after her death. No one found her soul, of course; she was Angeline, right here with Zach.

None of the hotel worker-residents missed Zach. They had no past. They had no future—yet. To them, the hotel was one constant, without forward or backward—until, Zach knew, it was time for them to deal with their own cases.

It was odd for Zach that Mina didn’t know she’d handed him the metal bat and helped him with Donald Todd. In her mind, she’d never had a coworker at the lounge. Zach was glad that Gussie and Nora were there to keep her company. Mina, the friend who’d so willingly helped Zach without asking questions, deserved to form lasting attachments. Even with her cheerful personality, she would have found it too depressing to work in the dark lounge alone, with numerous guests coming and going, never to stay.

Another thing that relieved Zach was that Alpha and Omega didn’t remember all the questions they’d asked him. He’d promised to tell the twins about what had happened in the basement of the basement. It would have been tough to explain any of that in detail. Without the memory of ever having asked questions, however, Alpha and Omega happily ran around the hotel whenever all their washers and driers were in operation. They asked for cookies from the guests. The guests obliged.

So, all in all, everyone was satisfied with the new status quo.

Today was like any other day. Zach and Angeline swayed to the music. They were already quite abstract forms, but with the music, they faded even more. Music in its purest form became them, and they became music…

“He’s here,” Angeline suddenly said.

She could barely hide her excitement. In the form of a green and golden wind, she swept out of the cocktail lounge to join the small part of herself that she’d left on the platform at the bottom of the cliff. Zach left part of himself by the piano and with the rest of the purple air, followed her.

This division, which allowed them to plant “eyes” anywhere at the hotel, was one of the greatest benefits of having been united with the murderer’s blood. Gussie and Nora couldn’t leave the lounge; Angeline and Zach could, while taking advantage of their transformable nature.

Lady Song had been very pleased when she’d found out that Zach didn’t need any breaks anymore. A small part of him was always at the piano.

“Music,” she’d said, “we need music to keep the guests happy.”

Zach had been pleased too. He’d never been one to crave breaks. If it could be helped, he preferred to play the piano and always play, to do something, anything. And he didn’t need cigarettes and veils. The lounge itself was the magical room of his muse, smelling of tree bark and leather, where he always found protection. Also, the muse was right here with him.

The lobby glistened under the light of the chandeliers, as always. The valets busily carried their cookie trays among guests, lawyers, and reapers. Charlie loomed over the immobile guestbook and nonchalantly verified the guests’ names.

Angeline traveled through them. Through, instead of going around. At first, she’d been worried about colliding into people (what a rude thing to do) but by now, she’d fully embraced her new form as the glittering wind.

Several reapers and lawyers glared or chuckled almost imperceptibly. They scooted aside. Others let her pass through them.

Everyone had different opinions about the day of Shevlin’s explosion. Some thought that Zach and Angeline should be punished. Others thought that they had “won” against the women in black. Yet others thought that all that didn’t matter; the balance had been restored; end of story.

At any rate, none of them could react overtly in front of the guests, who couldn’t see Zach and Angeline. No afterworlder wanted to disturb the newly-dead. The hotel had enough scary stories to preoccupy dead beforeworlders during their stay: hauntings by lost souls, guestbooks made of people, and whispering walls. Add an invisible woman in the form of wind on top of that pile, and the guests would either get too excited or too terrified to focus on their own deaths.

“Come, hurry,” Angeline told Zach.

They swept out, through the white mist, smelling the thick damp grass and earth. At the edge of the island, they plummeted. Angeline rejoined with the portion of herself on the platform.

And there, in the distance, was a boat.

Zach could identify the silhouettes of Flip and Flop. He smiled, because one didn’t need a physical mouth to smile, in the same way one didn’t need physical fingers to make music. To see his reaper friends so firmly back in their old forms relieved Zach every time he saw them.

Initially, they’d had difficulty returning to their Habsburg-era appearances. The only reason they eventually found their way back was that they’d remembered each other, instead of themselves. Flip, having micro-adjusted Flop’s ruffles and cape for the past eternity, knew what he looked like. Flop, to everyone’s surprise, had been paying careful attention to what Flip looked like while she was adjusting his appearance.

When they were still little worms, the realization that they cared so much about each other had excited them so much that they’d danced and literally flipped and flopped. Then, very patiently—but fast enough so that they could rejoin the angry reapers and lawyers trying to identify who’d been blocking the opening to the cocktail lounge—they had reshaped each other.

Here, your nose.

Here, your eyes.

Here, your lips. No, they didn’t look like that. And your collar. You didn’t like your collar like that. And your wrists, they were this thick. Yes, I know, because I’ve been paying attention to you.

And if the little worms could have blushed, they would have. Apparently, the time of world recalibration was also the best time to steer old relationships in a more tender, romantic direction.

Not to say that Koe and Joe reached the same romantic conclusion. Those two, also, reshaped each other, but in a more professional way. After all, they were people who’d chosen to wear plain black suits, out of all things black they could have worn. They meant business, those two reapers.

Zach was happy for them, that they hadn’t had to suffer the rage of the women in black. Koe and Joe had helped Zach just enough, at the most convenient timing for themselves and Zach, so that they weren’t held responsible for Gus Shevlin’s disappearance. Zach actually admired their ability to make precise strategic calculations. They had helped him and harmed no one except the murderer.

Even X had avoided becoming the target of the women in black’s wrath. Obviously, Zach had operated with the help of allies. How could X have foreseen that? And Zach was happy for X too. He didn’t want anyone to be punished because of him. He had everything he’d ever wanted.

And on the day of Gus Shevlin’s explosion, while everyone was focused on the conversation between Lady Song and the women in black, the four reapers had joined the clamoring afterworlders in the lobby. No one could say with any certainty that those four had been the ones who’d been absent while the veil was still blocking the opening to the lounge. Reapers traveled across spacetime all the time. None of them kept track of another pair’s whereabouts.

The women in black ran out of excuses to punish Zach. What were they going to do? Usurp this world all over again? That only created more possibilities for more uncontrollable events.

This was the end of Zach’s deal with the women in black. They were done, both parties.

“Come, come, come, come,” Angeline muttered.

She trembled so fiercely with excitement that Zach circled around her and hugged her, trying to stabilize her.

“He’s coming, he’s coming, he’s coming,” she said.

He was. There, between Flip and Flop, sat an old man. Mouth agape, the man looked up at the cliff island.

“Mother was right,” he said. “Mother was absolutely right.”

© 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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