Zach would have jumped from his seat if the sudden sight of the two women in front of him hadn’t been so captivating. Out of nowhere, they had appeared across the table where he sat. It was as if the fog that hung in this forest had been them all along; as if the fog and these women were made of the very same material: light, mixed with just enough shadow to create the illusion of individual entities.
Out of all things presented in front of Zach, the women had the highest density of light rather than shadow. He was sure of this, based on the light that seeped through the airy black fabric that enveloped them. Beneath that fabric, their core was probably blazingly, brilliantly white. They weren’t human. Had his meager human eyes been directly exposed to that kind of light, they would have burned up. So, in a way, he appreciated them hiding their true identities to save him from blindness.
But at the same time, their cloak unsettled Zach. It wasn’t concrete in any way. There used to be a time when he reveled in limbo, in the ability to change directions quickly, in absorbing everything that the world presented to him even though that “everything” entailed contrary, paradoxical, oxymoronic elements.
That Zach, however, had faded with each additional year away from home. Moreover, after the chilling experience of facing an audience that laughed at his death while hiding their faces behind the stage lights, he definitely yearned for certainty. Open animosity would have been better than the kindness that the audience had pretended to show.
And now, these women. He knew that their cloaks were black because they absorbed light so effectively, but that was it. Everything else was a blur.
Unrealized possibilities—that was what all matter in this forest was. The women, if they wanted to, could turn this entire forest into something else, just as they’d turned the air above the chair into themselves. Similarly, the forest seemed undetermined as to which season it should live in. Spring, summer, autumn, winter jumbled up in one incoherent scenery, only to shift to a different season and keep shifting forever. Zach couldn’t even tell how old the women in black were. And the only reason he knew they were female was that they seemed to think that he’d feel more comfortable that way.
Yes. That was what was happening. He faced beings that weren’t clearly women or clearly men. The women in black lacked a fixed gender. But such open flexibility was too difficult to understand, they assumed. So they presented themselves as women. That was easier to understand.
And apparently, they presented themselves the same way for the kind old lady in the extravagant black dress who stood by the table. She’d introduced herself as Flip and had explained that the women in black would show up soon, before they actually did.
“See? Just as I told you,” said Flip. “There’s nothing to worry about, my dear. The women in black are here to offer you a deal.”
“She’s right, young man,” said an old man, who came fluttering an outrageously pompous black cape that couldn’t hide his plump figure. “For some, life after death can be many times more pleasant than life before.”
One of the women in black cleared her throat. The man had said something he shouldn’t have said. But what an echoey, beautiful, polite cough. It sounded like an instrument. A triangle or a xylophone.
“We’re just here to, you know, help with anything if the need arises,” said the man. He seemed fearful of the women in black, and sort of bothered by their presence too. But he had the courage to hold out his hand to Zach for a handshake, whether they liked it or not. “I’m Flop,” he said.
Despite the confusion that had nauseated him up to a moment ago, Zach smiled broadly. He shook Flop’s hand.
Flip and Flop. What an incongruous name for people dressed like a noble lady and gentleman from several centuries ago.
But soon, Zach’s smile faded. The taste of panic from the Luminary Theater lingered in his mouth and once again, the purple cashmere suit seemed to suffocate him. He massaged his palms, then each of his long fingers. The bruises didn’t hurt anymore but the blood circulation seemed to work poorly.
This reminded him of the stage lights that had blinded him. That light had pretended to illuminate things but had only tricked him into dismissing what he should have taken seriously: the devious grin of the audience, the undeniable pain that shouldn’t have been brushed off as stage fright, and Angeline’s mysterious warning.
“Am I dead?” Zach blurted out.
Flip and Flop looked at each other and raised their brows. Zach seemed to have impressed them.
“You are,” said the woman in black who had cleared her throat earlier.
And without dawdling further, the other woman in black plucked something from the air as one would pluck a delicate rose from the royal garden.
A silver tray appeared between her fingers. There were two candies: one black, one gray, both round.
“As the institution that administers life and death, we are deeply sorry that we couldn’t protect you,” she said.
“So we give you a choice. Whichever way you choose, is up to you,” the other said.
“Black to move on, like all others. Gray to forget temporarily, to stay and wait—until you meet your murderer again.”
“My murderer,” Zach said. A statement of comprehension, not a question.
Murderer. That made sense. Angeline’s warning. Mr. Todd’s odd behavior of wanting to clean Zach’s old suit and bringing a new one. The full house. Gus Shevlin. The part where he said, “as discussed”—as if other people were aware of a plan. And the men who dragged Angeline out of the theater.
“I was on stage,” said Zach, more to himself than to anyone else. “I was playing. I couldn’t breathe anymore. I felt numb. Then I fell off the chair and my eyes got all blurry and…”
He stopped. Everyone waited patiently.
“So I’m really dead,” he said.
“Murdered,” one of the women in black said, “with the poison dye on the suit. The poison seeped through your skin and contorted the fabric. The exact cause of your death is organ failure. Multiple organs, actually.”
The other one nodded calmly.
They hid their blazing cores well, but were ruthless about revealing the truth about Zach’s death. He liked that. It helped to be presented with the truth in the simplest way possible when everything else was confusing.
So, the poison dye had been why Mr. Todd had taken so long to return with the new suit. “As discussed” had involved delaying the timing of Zach’s wardrobe change so that he’d die on the stage, not in the dressing room. Also, the poison dye was why Mr. Todd had held the suit as if he didn’t trust himself with it; not because it was valuable, but because he’d been scared of it.
“But Mr. Todd,” Zach said, “he didn’t do it alone. And that Gus Shevlin, I don’t even know who he is, though I think I’ve heard the name somewhere. And Angeline…”
Angeline had known that Zach was going to die. At this point, Zach was sure that she’d known.
“This is where we come in,” said Flip, folding her fan together. “Thing is, we saw some blood clouds.”
“That’s not what you call ‘some,’ ” said Flop, shuddering. “There were hundreds, thousands. A thick layer of bloody clouds in addition to the storm clouds.”
“We wanted to testify to that. In this case, no single person can be declared the murderer.”
“Murder by an entire town. They all knew. Well, maybe not exactly all, but a significant enough portion to put all those clouds up there.”
“And in such a case,” Flip said, “my understanding is that the wish of the deceased should be upheld, when it comes to categorizing murderer versus bystander.”
“That is my understanding as well,” Flop said.
“Wait, so, say we know who killed me, then what?” said Zach, looking from them to the women in black. “And if I don’t know, then what?”
“Let us go over the options step by step,” said one of the women in black, “starting with the clearly established elements. The gray candy enables you to wait until you meet the murderer again. But until the murderer shows up, you will forget everything that has happened to you.”
“Why?” asked Zach.
“Because the time between taking the gray candy and your reencounter with your murderer will be the last time you will ever be free of the weight of remembering your own death.”
“Also, not remembering will help you keep the entire affair secret,” the other woman in black said. “That’s what you have to do. Keep this deal a secret.”
“We’ve found that people tend to talk when they get impatient.”
“Hence this policy.”
“The eternity that you must live through after meeting your murderer is less of a problem.”
“That’s when boredom becomes the primary problem, but most people find it easier to manage than impatience. They aren’t necessarily the same—boredom and impatience, that is.”
“Wait. Eternity?” asked Zach.
The women in black nodded. One of them said, “When you meet your murderer again, you can do whatever you want to do, on one condition: you cannot tell anyone what happened to you.”
“And whatever you do, you cannot undo your actions and must live with the consequences for an eternity thereafter. That is the price of taking the gray candy.”
“So even though you’re sorry as the institution that deals with life and death,” said Zach, “you’re not sorry enough to give me the gray candy free of charge.”
“The entanglement of life and death, beforeworld and afterworld, and everything in-between is intricate. Unless actions are paid for in some way, everyone would do whatever they want to do without thinking about the consequences.”
“You can do what you want to do as long as you remember the consequences. That’s no different from the life you led up to the point of your murder.”
“As long as you keep quiet and work on your own justice, no one will come after you.”
“Your case would be a protected secret, only known to the highest of highest clearance level.”
“You won’t see us again.”
“We won’t tell anyone about you.”
“And all that becomes much trickier if there is no clear single murderer.”
The women in black gazed at Flip and Flop.
“Nevertheless,” Flip said, “we—Flop and myself—argue that if this young man wants them all held accountable, that’s what should happen. As you’ve said, unless actions are paid for in some way, everyone would do whatever they want to do.”
“Everyone will be judged by the Supreme regardless of your candy choice,” a woman in black said.
“Do not feel pressured to find your own justice,” the other said.
So, there was a Supreme. The thought soothed Zach a little, until he remembered that said Supreme had done absolutely nothing to prevent his death. To hell with the Supreme.
“But if I were to take the gray candy,” he said, “the murderers could be punished by me and the Supreme?”
“Depends on what you do after your reencounter with them,” a woman in black said.
Zach sat back. The gray candy didn’t sound like a good deal.
“So… an unknown number of people have plotted to murder me,” he said. “And I’m supposed to decide whether I want to take a candy that makes me forget all about that until one of them shows up in front of me, but it’s difficult to decide who ‘one of them’ will be because too many of them knew about the murder?”
“You’re smart,” said Flop. He nodded as if he’d been the only one to notice Zach’s intelligence all along.
“Alternatively, you can take the black candy,” said a woman in black.
“That will take you to the end of the dying process,” said the other, “just like with everyone else who dies without being murdered.”
“You can take the black candy.”
Zach said, “But Mr. Flop here—”
“Just Flop, son,” said Flop.
“Flop here said that life after death can be many times more pleasant than life before.”
Flip threw Flop a nasty glare. He cleared his throat, making a deep, gurgling sound, and avoided looking at her. The women in black kept their gaze firmly on Zach.
“Which candy you take is entirely up to you,” said a woman in black.
“What you do after taking the gray candy is entirely up to you too,” said the other. “You’ll bear the consequences, whatever they are.”
“The gray candy simply represents another chance to do something, if you think something must be done.”
“But we do not guarantee the results.”
Zach almost didn’t hear that last sentence. Another chance to do something—that idea stuck in his mind. What did he want? That was what he needed to know to decide.
Well, for a starter, he wanted to not have died, and especially to not have died the way he’d ended up dying.
“There’s no option to take a resurrection candy, is there?” he asked.
“No white candy,” said the women in black. They smiled gently.
Although Zach had expected the answer, a great sense of injustice swept over him. These women in black pretended to care about him. They thought they were giving him “options.” But how was this fair?
He was never going to play the piano again. The grins of the audience at the Luminary Theater haunted him. The inability to see their faces scared him. Right after being freed from his body, he’d jumped off the stage out of fear. He’d never climb on it again. Not voluntarily, not with these memories.
And he’d never trust anyone again. Not because of Mr. Todd, no. Mr. Todd had handed him the poisoned suit and Zach hated him for it, but they’d never been best buddies. The betrayal that was going to hurt Zach forever was Angeline’s.
Angeline had warned Zach about his impending death in the most puzzling, unclear way possible. She might not have loved Gus Shevlin, but that didn’t automatically mean that she’d loved Zach. She’d known that Shevlin was going to kill Zach and had done nothing about it except “warn” him not to wear a perfectly harmless-looking suit. And she’d lied to Zach. She’d said she loved him. A total, complete lie.
Zach hated her more than Gus Shevlin. Gus Shevlin was an unknown. Angeline Conners was an unknown who had seemed like a well-known only an hour ago.
The hatred hurt Zach with its strength and unexpectedness. The momentum of loving a person for a decade suddenly turned in the opposite direction. The drastic switch was worse than gravity pointing upside down. Zach couldn’t control it. His guts protested, his heart objected, his head clamored for clarity, and he couldn’t make them stop. And the lack of control infuriated and confused him further, making him hate her more, and everyone, and the whole town of Carningsby.
“Why did this happen to me?” Zach blurted out.
Flip put her hands on her chest and shook her head gravely. Flop put his hands on his belly and nodded with heartfelt understanding.
“Why did they want me to die?” Zach asked the women in black.
“What humans do in their worlds, and why, is a mystery, even to us.”
“I need to know,” Zach said. “And I want payback.”
Flip sighed as if she’d rarely seen such a pitiful being as Zach before, but also as if she’d definitely encountered a few in her time, and seen them fail at whatever they’d tried to accomplish.
“And I want everyone who had even the remotest inkling of my murder to be counted as my murderer,” Zach said. “That’s the only way I’ll be able to figure out my murder as soon as possible, right? When I see one of them again and start remembering?”
“There are too many,” one of the women in black said.
“Well, how many are there?” Zach snapped.
“One hundred and seventy-six.”
“Holy sh—” said Flop.
Zach slumped in his chair. What could he possibly have done to make one hundred and seventy-six people keep their mouths shut about him being murdered soon?
“All of them,” Zach said grimly. “I want all of them as my murderers.”
“That’s too many,” a woman in black said.
“When they plotted to kill me, they didn’t say ‘That’s too many.’ ”
“It’d be an unfair game.”
“ ‘Unfair’?” Zach said, outraged. “ ‘Game’? How is one against one hundred and seventy-six unfair for the one hundred and seventy-six?”
“You’ll have made friends and acquaintances in your afterlife by the time your murderers arrive. And they won’t all die at the same time. The more people are counted as your murderer, the longer the gap between each murderer’s arrival will be, in total. You’ll have too much time to prepare.”
“Yeah, because I deserve at least that!”
Zach stopped. He was heaving in and out. He realized that he’d jumped from his seat and slammed his fists on the table.
Breathe in, breathe out, he told himself. Angeline could have stopped me from dying painfully, but breathe in, breathe out.
“How many murderers do I get then?” Zach asked. “If one hundred and seventy-six are too many, how many aren’t too many in your opinion?”
“In your case, involving those you cannot name won’t be good for you,” one woman in black said.
“Good for me?” Zach snorted.
The women in black nodded.
One said, “Let the Supreme handle the others.”
The other said, “The more murderers, the more weight on your shoulders.”
“And those outcomes leading to more outcomes.”
“Do I even have a say in this?” Zach asked Flip and Flop.
They looked pained. They shook their heads.
Zach glared at the women in black. His mood was changing so dramatically from minute to minute, he didn’t know if it was better to ask for more time or to make the decision now. At first, he’d seemed to calmly accept his death, then he’d found Flip and Flop’s names amusing, and now this. Utter fury.
“Angeline Conners,” Zach said. “Gus Shevlin. Donald Todd.”
There were no others that Zach could name. He hadn’t recognized the faces of those in the audience. These sly women in black, they were aware of that. That was why they wanted names.
“Deal,” the women in black said.
One of them pushed the silver tray with the two candies at him.
Zach glared at the candies. He sighed, once again dizzy at the memory of the smiling red lips, twisting mustaches, and glittering earrings. And the laughter at the sight of his death, amidst the gasps from the audience… None of that had been a hallucination. People had truly rejoiced at his demise.
And he’d never play again. He knew it. He just knew it. Absolutely nothing could bring him to perform on stage again. Eternity was going to be painful, without doing what he did, without people listening to him play.
But he wanted to know why he’d had to die. He wanted payback.
“So this is it,” Zach said. “I’ll forget everything for a while.”
Hopefully, he’d forget about the piano completely. Maybe he could be a cornfield farmer like his father had always wanted.
“I’ll forget you, too, won’t I?” Zach asked Flip and Flop.
They nodded, smiling bitterly.
“Thanks for dragging me out of my body.”
Flip wiped off tears with a black handkerchief and fanned herself to hide half her face. Flop patted on Zach’s shoulder like his father used to do before he’d found out that Zach didn’t see a future at the farm.
“We were glad to do it,” said Flip.
“Auf Wiedersehen,” said Flop.
Zach reached for the gray candy. He tossed it in his mouth.
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.