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Jump to the Prelude
The veil of timelessness that had shrouded Zach’s reality tore apart. That tearing felt so real that he couldn’t believe he wasn’t bleeding a thousand times heavier than the bearish old man was bleeding from getting punched in the nose.
This man with shaky hands, unfocused eyes, and hoarse voice was Mr. Donald Todd, Zach’s previous employer. He was a man from Zach’s past—not just from some random day in afterlife that resembled any other, but from Zach’s beforelife.
Beforelife. Beforelife. Beforelife.
The thought circled and swirled and danced in Zach’s head, making him dizzy as he backed away. He bumped into the bar counter of the darkly lit cocktail lounge.
Mr. Todd frowned, confused at that reaction. He scrambled up. No wonder. He didn’t recognize Zach. Blood smeared Mr. Todd’s face and perhaps the blood loss robbed more focus from his already focusless eyes.
But then, suddenly, Mr. Todd gasped and mirrored Zach’s reaction. He, too, backed away.
“What’s wrong, Zach?” said Mina. Her voice sounded distant, as if she stood outside of an aquarium and Zach stood inside one.
Zach stared at her pale, moonlike face that glowed in the blue, purple, and green neon lights. That look of hers, so worried, so concerned—had she known? Had everyone known except him?
He whirled around to face the two pairs of reapers: Flip and Flop, Koe and Joe.
They had known. Zach was sure of this. He could tell from their faces. Zach’s impending reunion with Mr. Todd had been what the exchange of glances had been all about. Flip and Flop had actually tried to prevent said reunion. But since that exchange of glances, the reaper pairs had taken two completely different routes of behavior:
Koe and Joe stood still, sternly neutral, just like their black bureaucratic suits. This wasn’t their business to mess with; Zach had never been under their care.
But Flip and Flop? They were nervous.
The four reapers made Zach feel like a child who’d been kidnapped at a very young age. He’d been deeply loved and taken care of by the kidnappers, so that he’d never once doubted that he was at home. But now he realized that his entire family had kept him here with blatant lies.
Sure, they hadn’t been allowed to tell him. The deal that Zach had made with the women in black, when he’d taken the gray candy, prevented an outsider’s involvement in the matter. Zach was supposed to wait until the murderers showed themselves in front of him.
An irrational, burning sense of unfairness coiled up like a lethal snake in Zach’s stomach and poisoned him from the inside. The illusion of friendship and protection, which Zach had taken for granted while living as a clueless worker-resident of the hotel, suddenly vanished.
It was like having the floor disappear under his feet. And yet, he stood. He should have fallen a hundred, a thousand stories deep into an infernal pit. But he hadn’t, which confused him further, and the disorientation only worsened with each pull from a piece of memory:
The suffocating pain. The pressure against his ribcage. The red lips, twisting into smiles. The mustaches twitching and trembling. The blindness that came just before he’d drawn his last breath. Trying to see; see what kinds of faces the audience was making… but failing, because of the light.
These were heavy memories. Zach fell on his knees, staring up at Mr. Todd, who seemed equally horrified of Zach.
“A ghost,” said Mr. Todd. He kept his eyes on Zach, as if he feared an attack. “You said there were no ghosts!”
He flailed his arms, apparently in a blind search for Koe or Joe, so that he could grab one of their arms and somehow have them support him out to the hotel lobby.
“He isn’t a ghost,” said Koe, irritated. “Let’s go. You’ve made enough of a fool out of yourself.”
“Silly drunkard,” said Flip, madly fanning herself, “a crazy.”
“I’m not a silly drunkard or a crazy!” said Mr. Todd. He pointed at Zach. “He hasn’t aged one bit! One bit! And me, look!”
Todd glanced down at himself, then glanced at Zach as if he expected Zach to confess his ghostly identity. Zach snorted despite his own shock. That man was afraid of Zach, had conspired to kill Zach, had watched Zach die—yet needed his support to avoid coming across as a lunatic.
“Three decades,” said Todd, “three decades, and he still looks thirty-something like when he died. Three decades, and—”
“Shut up,” snapped Flip. She hit Todd on the broken, bleeding nose with her fan.
Todd grabbed his nose, then lunged at Flip—and fell through her.
Flip cooly gazed down at Todd. She pulled her grandiose dress closer around her so that it couldn’t possibly come into contact with the dirty scum that was Todd, whether or not she used her powers as a reaper. All the nervousness that she’d shown earlier had now turned into venom, and she seemed elated about that transformation. It allowed her to avoid looking at Zach, for one thing.
“Idiot,” she said to Todd. “You think just because our likes have to bring you to this hotel, we don’t have a few tricks up our sleeves?” She nodded toward Koe and Joe. “Whenever they deign to touch you, they’re doing it as a favor, you piece of shit.”
“Come on, Flip,” said Flop. His nervousness hadn’t transformed into venom. “We’ve stayed for too long. We shouldn’t have interfered at all. I’m sorry, Zach, I’m so sorry, I just would have preferred that we weren’t here while you—you know.”
“You always want to avoid the hard parts, Flop,” said Flip.
She stopped glaring at Todd and turned to Zach, who hadn’t gotten up from the floor. Apparently, she figured that she could convert some of the anger into courage. But that failed and she crossed her arms, looking away.
“I try to avoid the parts that aren’t necessary,” Flop told Flip.
“Grab the other arm,” Koe told Joe while he grabbed one of Todd’s arms.
“Ghosts,” moaned Todd.
Now, Todd was terrified of the reapers just as he was terrified of Zach. He let Koe and Joe drag him out of the lounge without further resistance.
Some people in the lobby threw curious glances at them, but no one asked questions. People who’d just died generally didn’t pay much attention to anyone but themselves. Whatever attention they gave others tended to be fleeting. In this case, that was a good thing. Soon, Todd disappeared from view.
A shiver ran down Zach’s spine. What a pain to watch one of his murderers go, just like that. But at this moment, he felt numb, dumbfounded, unable to process. He couldn’t go after Todd.
Flip kept glancing at Zach. Maybe she hoped that Zach would demand eye contact from her. He decidedly ignored her. He also ignored Flop, who kept tugging on Flip’s sleeve.
“What is going on?” said Mina, glancing at each person remaining in the lounge. “Do you know him?” she asked Zach.
She walked around the bar counter. But she stopped without touching Zach. She’d meant to help him up, but hesitated at his lack of reaction.
A series of distant gong sounds made them all flinch. Zach counted them.
One, two, three…
The gong sounds came from the seventh-floor tower attached to the hotel building. Old Jeremiah, the gong striker with a long white beard, told the time almost every hour, from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., unless it was his lunch break or dinner break.
… six, seven, eight…
Of course that didn’t mean that time in afterworld actually passed in absolute terms. The gong-striking was just a charade as well as a convenient tool. Imagine a lawyer and a deceased person trying to meet up. They need a place and time. Such is the nature of being human, even in death. So, if “right now” is 8 a.m., the lawyer can say, Let’s meet in two hours, at 10 a.m., thanks to the gong.
… eleven, twelve, thirteen.
The gonging stopped. It was 1 p.m. right now.
How much time did Zach have before Todd left? Usually, guests didn’t stay for more than a day.
Flop suddenly clapped his hands together. “I’d like a candy, Mina, dear.”
“What?” said Mina, utterly perplexed.
She didn’t know what was going on. At all.
“A candy,” said Flop, “one of those little ones that pubs and lounges and restaurants and cafes everywhere, in beforeworld and afterworld, tend to offer for free. Does the lounge at the hotel between worlds have one of those for a poor old man with chronic indigestion? I think all the excitement just now didn’t do much good for my stomach.”
Flop patted his immense belly. Mina glanced from Flop to Flip to Zach to Flop.
“We… have… some cherry-flavored candies?” she said tentatively.
“Cherry candies sound splendid,” said Flop. “But if there are gray or black candies that’d be even more wonderful.”
Mina frowned. “What kind of a flavor would that be?”
“I think Flop will be fine with a cherry candy,” said Zach, without looking at anyone. “I remember, the last gray candy I had was only so-so.”
Which was the short version of the truth.
The gray candy on the tray, silver like his cigarette case, had tasted great back then, in the forest with the women in black. Sweet and smooth, the candy had rolled on his tongue. Sweet and smooth, like the vengeance Zach had imagined for himself.
But only bitterness lingered in Zach’s mouth now. It was the bitterness of panic. He remembered everything. The smell of the damp, cool earth in the forest clearing, too malleable, too indecisive. The sly women in black. The stage, the poisoned suit. One hundred and seventy-six people, in total, who had full well known that Zach was to die that night. Three of them whom he could name.
Donald Todd. Gus Shevlin. Angeline Conners.
Angeline. Angeline. Angeline.
An image of her circled and swirled and danced in Zach’s head. Her forest-green eyes, the jewels of the same color, the golden glitter, the tiny but energetic snowstorm-woman in the white mink coat…
He remembered how he hated her for letting him die. He remembered how more than anyone else, he wanted an answer from her to the biggest question: why, just why didn’t you tell me that so many people wanted me dead?
But then he remembered something else: the source of his hatred.
Love. That was the source. He hated her because he’d trusted her.
How weird. Zach felt torn between different parts of himself. The one who loved Angeline. The one who hated her. The one who remembered loving Angeline. The one who remembered hating her…
He wasn’t one person. Too much time had passed, and none at all—both contradictory perceptions of time were true.
Todd was saying that three decades had passed. Three decades. And yet, to Zach, that flow had been imperceptible. Wasted time. That was what it was.
Zach stumbled up. Flip and Flop immediately offered their helping hands, but Zach waved them off and supported himself on the bar counter instead. He appreciated Flop’s indirect reminder about the deal with the women in black. That had been the purpose of mentioning the gray and black candies. Zach had to be careful not to spill the secrets of the deal, otherwise he couldn’t do “whatever he wanted to do” with the memories he’d recovered—whatever “whatever he wanted to do” meant.
“So you want the cherry candy then?” asked Mina.
Zach, Flip, and Flop turned to her with blank eyes, each deep in thought.
“I’m really missing something here,” Mina said.
But just like she tended to do with many things that appeared to be overcomplicated and unpleasant, she simply shook her head and went to the back of the bar to get the candies.
As soon as she was out of hearing distance, Zach said, “Don’t tell me that you guys knowing about me and Todd also counts as ‘revealing the secret.’ ”
“It doesn’t,” Flip said quickly. “We already knew what happened to you. I mean, we were there, when, we knew how you…”
She stopped and fiddled with her fan.
“I’m sorry, Zach,” she said.
“Me too,” said Flop. “But we couldn’t tell you before you realized on your own.”
“Just remember how happy you were,” Flip said.
But Zach couldn’t remember. How unreliable memory was. How fleeting. Thirty years spent in afterworld as a more-or-less happy piano player, proud to be playing and playing all the time, not making excuses—and all he could feel right now was loss.
He’d missed so much. And he’d not even known.
“I need air,” said Zach.
Before Flip and Flop could react, Mina returned with a fistful of candies in a small bowl.
“Here you go,” she said with a cheerful smile.
“Thank you, dear,” Flop said. He picked up a candy absentmindedly.
“I have to leave for a moment, Mina,” said Zach.
“What? You’ve been on break for half an hour already.”
“I know. But I need some air.”
“Now, Zach,” said Flip, “just don’t do anything rash. A lot of people saw what happened. They’ll ask questions, if, you know, something were to happen.”
“A lot of questions,” said Flop.
Zach shook his head. His cool finality silenced them. He walked out of the dark cocktail lounge.
“Candy?” Flop asked Flip.
“What? No!” Flip said.
Flop’s boundless capacity to gorge on whatever, whenever, seemed to make her want to abandon him. But from their hurried footsteps, Zach could tell that both reapers were following him out to the bright lobby. They never went anywhere without the other.
© 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.