Ch. 8 – Today in Afterworld (2)

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Zach, Flip, and Flop had known each other from “the beginning.” Their identities had been ingrained in their beings by default, the way humans don’t need special instructions to recognize other humans. At least that was how Zach interpreted the lack of his surprise at knowing their names without an introduction.

“You’re Flip and Flop,” he’d said when he’d first seen them in the cocktail lounge.

It must have been Zach’s first day or the day after. Past events were a blur; the very concept of a past was a blur.

“We are,” they’d said, “and you’re Zacharias.”

Afterward, Zach had learned that Flip and Flop weren’t special cases. No worker-resident of the hotel, reaper, or lawyer needed an introduction, ever.

Zach had never thought this was odd. This familiarity simply resembled his distinct sense of having been born to play the piano. Everything at the hotel functioned like that. Small ups and downs occurred, sure. For example, cookies burned in the kitchen, this and that guest arrived and departed, or Zach tripped and fell on the stairs as he hurried to the stage. But the big picture never changed. The pieces that formed the puzzle of the hotel moved, only to return to their original places; and there were no new pieces that could change the big picture.

That immutability was a prerequisite for a consistent eternity. Change meant that the flow of time would become too evident. No one could bear that for a prolonged period. Zach was born to be part of the hotel’s timelessness. Flip and Flop were born into a similar fate. But the sense of fondness—that didn’t come by default. Because of that, Flip and Flop were special to Zach.

Right now, as Zach continued to play a melancholy tune on the grand piano, he knew the faces that Flip and Flop were making. He couldn’t see them because of the brilliant spotlight that illuminated the double veils of dust and forest-cigarette smoke, but he knew. The reapers were sighing, sitting by the table right next to the stage.

“Starving to death,” said Flip, putting her fan on the table. “If I had to pick one worst way to die, that would be it. Starving to death.”

“Agreed,” said Flop, rubbing his belly as if he couldn’t digest whatever he’d eaten that morning. Zach could hear the fabric rustling. “I can’t believe Koe and Joe think it’s only second. And you know, Don and Bon think it’s fourth?”

“I think Click and Clack said it’s fifth on their list.”

“I don’t believe that.” Flop banged his fists on the table in outrage. “There can’t possibly be four worse ways to die than starving. It hurts to watch. Both the period before death and afterward, how they look so relieved that they’re finally leaving their bodies. You know?”

“I know.”

“Sounds pretty horrible,” Zach mumbled, with the cigarette between his mouth.

Flip and Flop weren’t startled at his suddenly chiming in.

“Hello, Zach,” they said. They waved big enough for Zach to see the waving through the veils.

“Hello, you two,” said Zach.

He rarely revealed to the lounge visitors that he couldn’t help but eavesdrop on their conversations. Flip and Flop, however, were the exceptions.

“Have you ever talked to a person who starved to death?” said Flop. “It’s horrible. Really tiring. Just by being around them. Just being around that slow sucking of energy that they’ve been through. Ugh.”

“Mina, please, the drinks,” moaned Flip.

“Coming,” said a young woman. That was Mina, the bartender.

Zach heard the quick clinking of glasses. Then a shadow scurried in front of the blue, green, and purple neon lights of the bar counter. Cheerful footsteps approached—brisk, but never unsteady. Mina always wore low-heeled shoes, ideal for standing for long hours. A practical outfit to perform at the optimal condition. Zach liked that about his only coworker at the cocktail lounge.

It also helped that they looked about the same age, twenty- or thirty-something. As worker-residents of the hotel, the precise age mattered little (they were going to hang around for an eternity) but Zach found it a bit difficult to treat those with the appearance of children the same way as those with the appearance of eighty- or ninety-year-olds.

Soon, a whiff of alcohol reached Zach, followed by the sweeter scents of fruits.

“The special of the day,” said Mina, near the stage, “Fairy Violets.”

“Beautiful as always. Thank you very much, thank you,” said Flip. It sounded as if she was gulping down half the glass already.

“Thank you, my dear,” said Flop, and sighed with great satisfaction when the first sip flowed down his throat.

“Do you want one, too, Zach?” asked Mina, leaning in to enter the sphere of the spotlight.

Zach glanced at her. Mina rarely addressed Zach while he played unless he talked to her or one of the guests first. Zach appreciated that.

Not that he didn’t want to talk to her. Mina was one lighthearted soul who never expressed sadness, exhaustion, or grief, to the point that Zach sometimes wondered, Is this woman capable of having any sort of expectations? If she is, how does she manage to never be disappointed? Mina’s breezy personality meant that when Zach did talk to her, they were guaranteed to have a pleasant conversation.

But it was usually awkward to talk to her during the workday. He played under the spotlight and she stood in the darkness behind the bar. He couldn’t see her face at all. That was unfair. Mina seemed to think so too. That was why she was doing that thing, leaning in and dipping her face into the light.

She wore all-black, with the only white spots being the buttons of her shirt. Her hair was also black with a slight brown tint. Zach grinned.

“What?” she said, grinning too.

“Your face looks like a full moon,” he said.

It was true. Her face was so pale, her clothes were so dark, and she’d leaned in at the perfect angle for the light to illuminate the maximum area of her face so that it looked like a shining moon.

“And your fingers look like long-legged spiders,” she said.

“But not as much as your face looks like a full moon floating above a deep, dark lake, all on its own.”

“But not as much as your fingers look like spiders tottering through a black and white forest that makes sounds.”

He laughed. This was the type of conversation they had. Well-meaning, lighthearted banters. Nothing more. Never more. That was one of the tricks of bearing each other for an eternity.

“You gonna have that drink or what?” she asked.

“Yes, sure,” he said. “Day’s special for me too.”

“Coming in two. Finish that piece.”

“Two it is.”

And off Mina went, as briskly and cheerfully as she’d come.

Continuing to play, Zach strained his ears. There were no giggles, no sobs. It sounded as if everyone had left except for Flip and Flop—unless the magma lady was lurking somewhere in the background. Truly, that lady terrified Zach. Most guests stayed for a night, never for a week. That lady—always grinning—insisted that she had to be allowed to stay for as long as she wanted, so that she could see her husband, who was going to die very soon of a terrible sickness, she was so sure of this.

But if the magma lady were in the lounge, Flip and Flop wouldn’t have spoken so freely about people starving to death. So, Zach concluded, they must have the cocktail lounge to themselves.

Zach finished the current piece in two minutes, as discussed. He placed the half-smoked cigarette on the silver case and walked down the stage. By that time, Mina had placed his drink on Flip and Flop’s table and was on her way back to the bar.

“As punctual as always,” he said.

“Same with you,” she said.

They grinned, both happy about the routine they’d established. That routine included the recorded music that Mina started to play by the time Zach sat down, forming a triangle with Flip and Flop.

It was a recording of what Zach had performed in the previous hours, played backward. This was what he and Mina had decided they should play in the lounge when he was on a longer break. He never performed the same piece twice and they wanted to keep it that way. The backward recordings ensured that.

Plus, the recordings kept the melancholy tone consistent. Nothing was tackier than forced cheerfulness. When you’ve just died, you don’t want some fool to tell you to “Cheer up” and you also don’t want upbeat music to slyly imply that you’re the only one not enjoying yourself. Even Mina the Forever Cheerful thought they shouldn’t make the guests feel pressured; there was enough of that in beforeworld.

“How’s the cocktail?” Zach asked Flip and Flop.

“Divine,” said Flip, dabbing her mouth with a black-and-white checkered napkin. “But you might not like it. It’s stronger than it looks.”

Flop nodded in agreement, holding some of the cocktail in his mouth.

The cocktail that Mina had dubbed “Fairy Violets” looked harmless and pretty. Children had better be kept far, very far away from these drinks, because they were too charming to not be curious about.

The glass was inverted-cone-shaped, as was common with cocktail glasses. But instead of being transparent, it glowed forest-green under the dim ceiling lamp above the table. Not deep-sea green, not faint-green. Forest-green, like the color of summer leaves on a sunny afternoon.

Zach was fond of that color. Something about it made him nostalgic. Something about it was magical. The cocktail was vodka-based. The clear liquor accentuated the beautiful color of the glass. Mina was good at mixing and matching colors. Ice in the shape of leaves floated on the surface of the drink and they were different shades of purple.

“What do they taste like?” Zach asked.

Flop patted his belly as he savored the ice in his mouth. “Blueberries. Grapes. Figs. Three that my highly trained tongue recognizes.”

Zach dabbed his finger at the white crystallized powder that sprinkled the purple ice leaves as if a snowstorm had befallen the fairy forest in the summer. He liked the idea of snowstorms too. Something about their energy, their sweeping force made him sentimental.

Goodness. He was thinking too much. That brought no good at the hotel. He licked his finger. Some of the powder was salt, some of it was sugar.

“Lots of story in one drink,” said Flip, and glanced at Zach.

Zach smiled at her. Sometimes Flip did that—glance at him the way old people do at young people, implying that the former has lived life already but the latter had still a ways to go.

Which was odd. Neither of them was old or young. Perhaps the strong drink, the melancholy music, and the recent experience of reaping someone who’d starved to death had made Flip pensive. Perhaps this was the day on which all of them thought too much.

Zach took a sip of Fairy Violets. Marvelous. The fruity ice leaves melted on his tongue, releasing sweetness that complemented the bitterness of the vodka.

“I tell you, it’s not a good idea to go to your trial drunk,” a man shouted at the entrance.

Flip, Flop, and Zach whirled around to see what was going on.

The dark lounge and the bright hotel lobby were separated by a rectangular opening that lacked a door. Consequently, the stark silhouettes of the people tussling there looked like the shadows of figures used for a galanty show. The opening was their vertically-long stage. There were three shadows in total. One shadow was significantly taller than the others; its head brushed the top of the opening.

“Please, I need a drink,” that tall shadow said.

It had the hoarse voice of an old man. Zach swallowed the wrong way and coughed.

“Are you okay—” said Flop, but stopped before he could raise the end of his sentence into a question.

The tall, old man stumbled into the lounge and slammed into a table. Flop jumped from his seat, scared and indignant in equal parts. The old man recovered his balance and kept stumbling toward the bar. Though his movements were too erratic for the ceiling lamps to illuminate him properly, the man clearly looked bearish—a bear with a disease of some kind, because his hands were shaking and his steps were unsteady.

“I said, stay away from drinking,” said the shadow that had shouted earlier.

Now Zach recognized the voice. It was Koe, a reaper who fit the beforeworld stereotypes: cold and grumpy. Then the other shadow next to Koe must be Joe, his partner. This one was less stereotypical because he smiled nonstop.

Both reapers entered the lounge, following the bearish old man. Unlike Flip and Flop, Koe and Joe wore significantly more modern attires: plain black suits.

“I need a drink,” the old man kept repeating. “Ghosts. Ghosts everywhere. This can’t be. Can’t be…”

Despite the limited light in the lounge, everyone could tell that the man’s eyes lacked focus. Otherwise they couldn’t explain why he zigzagged and bumped into the tables and chairs.

Zach glanced toward the bar. It was on the other side of the stage spotlight so that he couldn’t discern much. The neon lights were there, but was Mina standing behind the counter? The counter toward which the bearish man was storming?

“Hey!” said Koe, hurrying to catch the old man. “Stop right there.”

“Sir,” said Joe, in a kinder, calmer tone, “please stop. Drinking will not make anyone here go away. They aren’t ghosts—”

But the bearish man seemed to have reached the counter. Zach heard him slam his fists on it.

“Whiskey,” the man said, “a bottle of whiskey.”

“I suggest you follow the recommendations of your reapers, sir,” said Mina. Her voice shook.

“Shut up, woman, just give me the bottle!”

Zach stood up. “Hey, leave her alone!”

The man might have turned around to face Zach, or might not have. Zach couldn’t see. He pushed his chair back. Flip grabbed his arm.

Flop whispered, “We can’t interfere.”

Flip whispered back, “But it’s one of them.”

Zach didn’t have time to figure out what they meant. He grabbed Flip’s hand on his arm, removed it, and placed it on the table as gently as he could while being angry at that maniac customer. He marched toward the bar counter.

Mina mumbled something. The man yelped. Koe and Joe seemed to have reached him. Yes, they had. They’d grabbed the man’s arms. Now that Zach had walked around the stage, the spotlight didn’t shine between him and the counter anymore. He could see clearer, relying on the dimmer neon lights at the bar and the ceiling lamps. That was the funny thing about light: more of it didn’t always aid seeing. Sometimes, the presence of light prevented seeing due to its sheer blinding force.

The old man kept shouting at Mina and demanding liquor. Koe and Joe yelled. Occasionally, the man sobbed. He repeated something about ghosts, punishment by god (whichever god he thought he believed in), and how he was so very sorry, and so very scared, and then returned to Give me the damn liquor now.

The scene sent shivers down Zach’s spine. Not from fear, no. Excitement. It was strange, very strange how someone like Zach, who valued his hands above all else, could get excited about the idea of punching someone.

This old bearish man wasn’t the first customer to walk into the lounge already drunk. Men, women, and even children who’d become alcoholics before they’d learned how to multiply twelve by twelve died eventually and came to the hotel. It couldn’t be helped that some of them continued to act from the momentum of their beforelife. They functioned as if physiology still drove them; as if their body still clamored for alcohol.

Some such people threatened Mina occasionally. Some begged. Others offered to trade whatever they thought was of value to her. Jewelry, clothes, sex, you name it. Mina usually dealt with them just fine because she was Mina the Forever Cheerful. But of course such interactions stressed her out. And when someone double her weight threatened her, obviously she needed help.

Besides, Zach hated this specific kind of assholery very, extremely much. The assholery of brute force. To punch someone who resorted to assholery was worth risking his precious hands that, under normal circumstances, existed to produce beautiful music. And besides, something about that man’s hoarse voice irritated the hell out of Zach.

Now, the man struggled with Koe and Joe, inches from Zach.

“One moment, please, step back,” Zach said.

Briefly, he was impressed with himself at staying so polite and calm. Koe and Joe seemed impressed, too, or at least surprised, because they did step back.

The old man took that chance to flail his arms over the counter, at Mina. She stood pressed against the display shelves behind her. The hundreds of liquor bottles on those shelves shook precariously.

Zach grabbed the man by the scruff of his neck and pulled. The man lost balance, whirled around, and bumped into the counter while facing Zach, who punched him in the face without a second thought.

A bone cracked. Blood spurted over Zach’s purple suit and black shirt.

Koe and Joe gasped. Mina yelped. Behind Zach, Flip said, “Dear Supreme.” Flop chuckled uneasily.

The man’s eyes lost focus further. Then he collapsed on the floor, face down.

Zach shook his hand. Punching another person hurt a lot more than he’d expected. But apparently, he’d hurt the man more than he’d hurt himself. The bone that had broken hadn’t been his.

“You all right?” he asked Mina.

She nodded, trembling from tension just like Zach and the reapers, but otherwise unhurt.

Zach checked the blood smudges on his suit. He alone wore purple instead of one of the hotel uniforms, which varied in design but were all black and white. A shame that the suit had to be ruined because of something so trivial as punching a drunkard. Still, suits could be cleaned as if nothing had happened. But if he hadn’t done anything to help Mina, he would’ve remembered his own inaction forever. He’d just have to bring the suit down to the little twins in the basement laundry room. Later, after all this.

“I’m impressed,” said Joe. He’d recovered his constant smile and shook Zach’s hand that hadn’t been abused for punching.

“Thank you,” said Zach.

“Thank you. We couldn’t have punched him. He’s officially under our protection until we transfer him to his lawyer.”

“Idiot,” said Koe, gazing down at the old man who wallowed on the floor. The man was scrambling up halfway, holding onto his bleeding nose. “This must be the worst way to die.”

“How did he die?” asked Zach.

“Substance abuse.”

“Oh, that can’t be the worst way,” said Flop.

He ran after Flip, who scurried around the tables toward Zach.

“He doesn’t even know what he’s doing,” Flop said. “What’s so bad about that? It’s other people who are miserable around him.”

“That’s what’s so bad about it,” Koe said grimly. “You die in other ways, people pity you. You die from addiction, you’re still an addict in afterworld, act like one, and people hate you.”

“And you get punched in the face,” muttered Flip once she reached the group.

She leaned forward to scrutinize the man on the floor without risking contact between him and her dress. The man whimpered, only now realizing the severity of his damage. Apparently, he’d had a hard time noticing that he was bleeding, what with the semi-darkness in the lounge and the general uselessness of his cognitive functions.

“Well, anyway, we should get going,” said Flop. As soon as he was close enough to grab Flip’s arm, he did.

Flip let Flop drag her away, but glanced from Zach to the man. “Okay, I, we—Zach, you probably took a long enough break.”

“Yeah, but I’m not playing until this guy is out of here,” Zach said.

Flop immediately let go of Flip. Without any discussion, both of them returned and reached for each of the man’s arms.

“Wait, wait,” Koe said, “he’s ours.”

“I’m nobody’s,” mumbled the man.

“We have to get him out of here,” Flop hissed. “Now. Now.”

Koe and Joe exchanged glances.

They turned to Flip and Flop.

Koe sighed, shaking his head. Even Joe wasn’t smiling.

What an awkward, confusing moment. As if the reapers had all communicated without having to use a single word, Koe and Joe lifted each of the man’s arms and tried to drag him out without helping him stand on his feet. But with sudden, renewed energy, the man shook off Koe and Joe.

“Don’t you see I’m hurt?” the man yelled.

Indeed, when the man let go of the pressure on his nose to shake off Koe and Joe, blood flowed down and smeared the floor. He moaned. He’d reached the peak of his impatience.

“I’m dead, and now this,” he said. “All I wanted was a drink to get away from you. You’re ghosts. You’re all ghosts. This can’t be. Can’t be!”

The man scrambled up. He stood upright. The neon lights and the dim ceiling lamps illuminated his face fully.

Flip grabbed Zach’s arm and pulled him closer, as if she didn’t want him to see the man. But Zach saw.

The man’s hair was of such a lusterless gray that more than ever, he looked like an angry malnourished bear. And Zach couldn’t keep his eyes off of the man because, crazy as it sounded, he knew the man. Not from simple observation, the way he remembered random faces of the hotel guests; not from afterworld at all; but rather—unbelievable as it was—from before. Zach also knew the man’s name.

“Mr. Todd,” he said.

© 2022 Ithaka O.

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