Ch. 72 – Postlude (3)

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Junior verified his name with Charlie, who didn’t show any sign of recognizing the name “Zacharias Steele.” Then Junior marveled at the lobby ceiling, which looked like the sky outside, sprinkled with celestial bodies. He took two chocolate cookies and two vanilla ones from the silver tray of a valet.

When Alpha and Omega asked him if they could please have a cookie, Junior said, “Yes, of course,” and gave them all four that he’d just grabbed. The twins ran off. Junior was as bewildered as any guest that the twins wore hotel worker uniforms. But by the time the next valet came with more cookies, Junior was glad to leave the matter of employment to those who hadn’t just died. The kids seemed to have plenty of time to run around instead of working, after all.

Normally, now would be the time to say goodbye to his reapers and be transferred to his lawyer. But Flip and Flop invited him to a drink.

“A drink?” Junior said. “For free?”

“Yes, dear,” Flip said. “Everything at the hotel between worlds is free. And even if it weren’t, I’d make sure it’s free for you.”

Junior seemed puzzled. He looked like a man who’d never asked for anything free in his life. His hands were rough from decades of hard labor. His face was deeply wrinkled. He wore clean but old clothes.

Like Zach’s father.

But the prospect of getting something for free without having to ask for it seemed to greatly please Junior.

When he entered the cocktail lounge with Flip and Flop, Zach felt like running away and clinging to Junior at the same time. Angeline had tried to prepare Zach for this moment, while she was preparing herself as well. She’d told him that she didn’t know, to this day, who Junior’s father was. And Zach agreed. He couldn’t tell. The boy looked too much like his mother.

Boy. How funny. The old man, who’d lived a much longer beforelife than Zach, asked Mina if she had beer.

“We do,” Mina said.

“But the daily special cocktails are always great,” Flop said.

“Cocktail?” Junior said. “Never really had a cocktail before. A sip or two, but not really.”

“Well, would you like to try?” Flip said.

“Why not?” Junior grinned. “Might as well try something new since it can’t kill me now.”

“What’s it today?” Flip asked Mina.

“Fairy Violets.”

“I’ll get that,” Junior said.

“Same for us,” Flop said.

While Mina made the drinks, Junior talked to Gussie and Nora:

Wow, hello, you two. I’m sorry if I stared, I’ve just never seen people as small as you before. But I guess a lot of unexpected things happen here. Though it wasn’t as unexpected for me as it might have been for other people, because, you see, my mother, she was dead for a day and then she came back to life, only to die again…

He also made the expected comments on the self-playing piano:

Very strange. Very magical. Death isn’t so bad after all.

And again, as expected, he asked Mina if he could please push the curtains aside for one moment to see what was producing the light that was strong enough to illuminate the entire lounge. Mina said, Yes, he could.

Junior opened the curtains with both hands.

The eternal cornfield of sunshine stretched on the other side of the window. Junior stared at it, clasping the curtains. Then he stared back at Flip and Flop. At Mina. At Gussie and Nora.

“Does everyone see different things through that window?” he asked.

“Not as far as I know,” Mina said. “It’s always the cornfield, when I’m here.”

Junior stared at the cornfield again. He seemed to want to ask so many questions. But clearly, he didn’t know where to begin.

Then, after a long while, he managed one sentence: “My mother used to sit by a window just like this one.”

The air trembled with Angeline’s teary sigh. Junior glanced around, half in nostalgic sorrow, half in fear. Gussie and Nora wiped tears from their eyes, nodding at Angeline and Zach almost imperceptibly.

“Your drinks,” Mina said.

She placed three vodka-based drinks in forest-green glasses on the table between Flip and Flop.

Junior let go of the curtains. The thin fabric dimmed the sunshine just enough to soak the lounge in soothing darkness. He slumped down on the chair by Flip and Flop.

Purple ice in the shape of leaves floated in the drink. Blueberries. Grapes. Figs. White crystallized salt and sugar had been sprinkled on top of them, like a snowstorm that had befallen a fairy forest in the summer.

Some recipes were hard to forget.

Junior took a sip. He raised his brows. “This is good,” he said. “This tastes great.”

Mina smiled from behind the counter.

Angeline sobbed softly in her formless way. Zach could do nothing but play the piano. Maybe that old man was his biological son, maybe he wasn’t. Frankly, he didn’t prefer it one way or another. He hadn’t raised the child who had grown to be an old man. He hadn’t been there when his own father had passed away. Neither had he been there when some of his six brothers and sisters had passed away.

But he could do one thing for this boy, this old man, right now: play the piano.

He played the lullabies, the carols, the birthday songs.

He re-played all that had been stored in the reservoir, released, and not fully appreciated because of the lack of context.

And Junior listened. He’d been the reason Angeline had sent the sketch to Nora. Angeline had wanted to tell someone from her past that there was a future: that Zacharias Steele had been murdered but there was a boy named after him; that the boy was alive and growing; that he was going to die the natural way, because his mommy was going to make sure of it.

And who knew? Maybe, just as Zach had seen the sketch many years later and realized that they had never really parted, this music could gift someone else a key piece of information. Where, when, and how, Zach couldn’t choose. But he could put the music out there, for Junior and for that hypothetical person.

Junior happily sipped the cocktail, humming the melody.

Flip and Flop held hands.

While the music cradled them all, Zach expanded to fill the room. And he played, and played, and played.

© 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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