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Around lunch, Lisa entered the lobby. The murmur of the hotel guests, their visitors, and staff swelled all around her. She felt safer. None of the weirdly-acting, competing winds blew in here. The chandeliers glowed brightly. The fans, turning slowly and incessantly, mitigated some of the dampness from the mist so that the inside of the building wasn’t as humid as the outside.

But the separation of inside and outside defied all logic of beforeworld in one crucial aspect: the ceiling of the lobby was simply a continuation of the sky. The moon, the sun, the stars, all coexisted together. At first glance, you could mistake the ceiling for a hyper-realistic painting or a video recording. At a closer look, however, the lively nature of the clouds proved that the ceiling didn’t rely on meager human art or technology. The movements never looped or stopped. Just as beforeworld and afterworld met on this island, the inside and outside coexisted in the building. You could see the sky from the lobby, yet above that ceiling lay the second floor.

All this was as expected for Lisa. Also, the melancholy piano tune from the cocktail lounge was as expected and didn’t sadden her. Zacharias never played any piece that wasn’t in the minor scale. His was the normal kind of mournful vibe. Lisa liked that. Cheerfulness tended to offend someone; forlornness rarely did. And at a place like this, where the recently dead stayed, harmony itself mattered, more than what kind of harmony, whether sorrowful or uplifting.

Why not listen to Zach’s performance from nearby? As long as Lisa performed her duties, Lady Song didn’t care how many breaks Lisa took and how long they were. Throughout the day, whenever Lisa felt so inclined, she could chat with her friend, Mina the bartender, while listening to the beautiful music. Zach didn’t mind people talking while he played. Sometimes it even seemed as if he enjoyed being mildly and inadvertently ignored. If he had disliked the indifferent treatment, he would’ve had a hard time being a hotel lounge pianist. And not just any hotel, but a hotel for the deceased. Those folks were not known to pay much attention to anyone else but themselves.

Lisa crossed the lobby, to the lounge on the right side of the front desk where the guestbook sat. She nodded as a sign of “hello” whenever she made eye contact with the guests. Most of them looked confused, sad, or angry. They rarely nodded back and when they did, it was out of reflex, not in full recognition that someone had greeted them.

Several valets carried silver trays with heaps of cookies and offered them to the guests, spreading the pleasant scent of sugar and baked flour in the process. Sweets for the shocked. But the guests reacted to such valets in the same way they reacted to Lisa:

What? What’s this? Oh, a cookie. Yeah, I remember, there used to be cookies in beforeworld too. I guess some things just don’t change… Yes, why not. Yes, I’ll take one, thank you.

Or:

How dare you stare at me and offer me a cookie when I am dead?

The valets wore the characteristic black and white uniforms of the hotel. The marble floor tiles were also black and white. In that scene that might seem bleak to the unaccustomed eye, the guests added sprinkles of color. Whatever they’d worn at the time of death, they were wearing now. A fire-red designer dress or faded blue jeans, for example. But the status associated with their clothes mattered little here; they were all dead the same way. That fact confused, saddened, and angered some of them extra deeply.

The hotel visitors, on the other hand, reacted more consciously to Lisa’s greeting and the valets’ offer of cookies. These were the reapers in black and lawyers in white—all people who only visited and never stayed overnight. (Again, a temporal term of convenience, not referring to the absolute existence of “night.”) The reapers operated in pairs. The lawyers operated alone. One deceased was assigned with one pair of reapers and one lawyer. Because the hotel stood between the worlds, this was where all the reapers transitioned their deceased over to all the lawyers. Consequently, clusters of four had formed throughout the lobby. Lisa walked around each group toward the lounge.

“Don’t leave me,” an old woman muttered when two reapers in black turned away from her.

“I’m sorry,” the female reaper stopped and said softly, “we have to go.”

“Your lawyer will take good care of you,” said her partner, a male reaper, with no less softness.

“That I will,” said the lawyer.

“But I don’t like lawyers,” said the old woman, looking from the reapers to the lawyer. “I didn’t like dealing with them when I was alive, so why do I have to start dealing with them now out of all times?”

Lisa chuckled softly, as did the reapers. Only the lawyer turned red. Even when dead, some people disliked lawyers more than reapers. No escaping that.

“Reapers can only come this far, ma’am,” said the male reaper kindly.

“We only operate from beforeworld to this hotel,” said the female reaper with equal compassion. “Lawyers are the ones who operate from the hotel to the end of afterworld. He’ll work on your case and get you to release as soon as possible. And that’s a good thing—finding a true and complete release.”

“But… but…” said the old woman, still confused.

Once again, Lisa felt a rush of relief and gratitude at being a worker-resident of the hotel. She couldn’t imagine how the reapers and lawyers dealt with the endless questions and endless roaming. Never a home. Never a rest. In contrast, Lisa had a family of sorts here; friends who never changed.

The conversation of that group faded as Zacharias’s tune amplified with Lisa’s every step toward the lounge. But closer to the opening to the lounge, a different conversation became audible.

“Idiot thinks he can weasel his way out of death like he did with other things for his entire life,” hissed Koe.

“He’s just frustrated,” said Joe in a soft tone.

“Yeah, you know what? I am frustrated. Everyone is frustrated. I guess that’s one thing that doesn’t change in life and death. Also, where the hell is X? Isn’t she supposed to be his lawyer? Be here for the client way before a reaper gets pissed off?”

“My guess is that X already has his files, saw that he is a murderer, and tried to gather information on the victim before meeting him so she can approach the case with as much data as possible… Lisa!”

Joe beamed at her.

“Joe,” she said, smiling.

“Hey,” was all that Koe said, without a hint of a smile.

Some reaper pairs, like the one she’d seen back there with the old woman, worked well together because their personalities aligned. Both soft-spoken, both hot-tempered, or both timid, for example. Other reaper pairs, like Koe and Joe, functioned as a team thanks to the sometimes-true adage that “opposites attract.”

Lisa had never seen Joe grumpy. She’d also never seen Koe smiling. Snickering sarcastically, maybe. Or using his facial muscles to perform the act of drawing the ends of his lips upward to convey a smile to the other party. But not actually smiling. Yet somehow, they’d worked together for as long as Lisa could remember, without requesting a new partner or circumventing such official methods altogether and eliminating the other.

Yes, there were methods to do that, Lisa had heard. You could kill someone who was dead in beforeworld; you could also “kill” someone who had no past or future because they were eternal beings.

To be more precise, in the case of the hotel guests, their souls hadn’t released yet. (“Release” was what happened when they made the substance that used to form them available to become something else.) Those souls were still “they,” unlike the beforeworld bodies they’d left behind, which were probably decomposing and returning to dust. At the hotel, the guests were in the middle of the process of dying. They literally stood on the threshold. Their souls operated their transient bodies. They still had to cross the river, stand trial, and accept the outcome, whether they liked it or not. Only then could they fully die. So, in their case, “killing” them could be as simple as checking them out of the hotel.

With the reapers, lawyers, and hotel staff, the situation was different. No one came to claim them for a trial. Also, they didn’t have to cross the river. For them, a method to reliably release didn’t exist. But Lisa had heard of horror stories—cases in which the undead had attempted to die or had been killed. Lisa hadn’t inquired about the details of how to accomplish such a task, mostly because she’d never wanted to end anyone. But she imagined that it must take great energy. It was against nature, if such a phrase made sense in this supernatural setting.

“Came here for the music?” asked Joe.

“Yes,” said Lisa. “Are you two going in?”

“We have to wait for X,” said Koe, shaking his head in disbelief—the kind of disbelief that’s actually based on belief because if it weren’t based on some kind of acceptance, one wouldn’t be so offended. “She’s so particular about meeting where it’s bright. Last time, we were waiting for her in the lounge for hours until we realized she’d been waving at us from the lobby. Can you believe it? Someone so sharp and organized as her not making the logical decision to walk into a lounge because it’s ‘too dark’ and not only that, not even to call out to get our attention? I mean, really.”

Lisa considered the lounge lighting. It was significantly dimmer than its counterpart in the lobby. Blue, green, and purple neon lights ran the entire length of the bar counter. Not the top part (that would be too blinding for the guests sitting at the bar), but rather, on the bottom part, so that Mina’s face behind it appeared ghostly from the indirect lighting. With Mina’s black hair and her black shirt, she looked like a statue that was designed to absorb light. Only her pale face appeared to be floating in nothing.

Right then, Mina noticed Lisa’s gaze. Mina stopped in the middle of making a cocktail and waved. Lisa waved back.

“I guess it could be a bit scary,” Lisa told Koe.

“Not you too,” sighed Koe. “Look at that guy. He’s enjoying himself, and us here.”

Koe meant his deceased, who was almost buried in the darkness of the lounge. The man with the hoarse voice, Lisa remembered. Because he was the sole guest in the lounge, Lisa guessed that the drink Mina was making was meant for him.

“Drinking instead of worrying about his fate,” said Koe, staring at the man. “You gotta wonder sometimes: does karma exist?”

Lisa grinned. For all the grumpiness that Koe exhibited, he wasn’t that bad. He never left Joe alone to wait for X in the lobby, for instance. Koe could have bullied Joe into doing so, with Joe being so well-meaning. But Koe didn’t. Koe also didn’t insist that his deceased go through the same inconvenience of waiting while standing, even when he obviously disliked the man.

“I’ll bring a drink to you, if you want,” she said.

“Nah,” said Koe. “What I need is for X to get over her paranoia.”

“That’s what being a lawyer does to you,” said Joe. “You don’t trust anything anymore and you’re scared about everything. Well, not everything, but of the dark, and a client sneaking up on you and ending you.”

“Well, she’d better figure out a solution to her mental obstacle soon or she’ll have to live like that forever,” muttered Koe. “And I’ll have to get used to feeling nothing in my legs from standing too long. I considered bringing a chair from the lounge, but then, look at those people.” He gestured at the guests filling the lobby. “They’re scared already, and imagine seeing a reaper exhausted. Must make them think if we’re getting enough breaks, paid leaves, and so on and so forth, so that we don’t make mistakes while reaping people. I don’t want to worry them unnecessarily, you know? They have enough on their plates.”

“They do,” both Lisa and Joe said.

Koe was compassionate in his own way. Perhaps that was why he and Joe continued working together.

“Anyway,” Koe told Lisa, “you go along. You don’t have to listen to my reaper laments.”

“I will,” said Lisa. “If you change your mind about that drink, just yell from here. I’ll hear you.”

“Yeah, well, maybe,” said Koe with a sigh.

Then he made his facial muscles work to give Lisa a forced smile. She chuckled; she appreciated his effort.

But as she walked into the lounge, at the exact moment when her left foot landed in it, she tottered.

Koe and Joe grabbed her by each arm. Thanks to that, Lisa didn’t collapse on the floor. Soon, she recovered her balance.

“Thank you,” she muttered.

“Are you all right?” asked Joe.

“I think so.”

“What was that?”

Lisa couldn’t answer Joe’s question.

“This is for an eternity, Lisa,” said Koe. “No rush. There’s no end to burnout once you spiral. Pace yourself.”

“I will. Thanks.”

They let go. Lisa waved at Mina, who worriedly looked from the bar. After nodding goodbye to Koe and Joe, Lisa carefully walked toward Mina.

“Hey, come here, sit right here,” said Mina as soon as Lisa came within talking distance, nodding toward a seat by the bar. “What was that?”

“I don’t know.” The truth was, something had pushed Lisa. A wind. But that made no sense whatsoever, for air to have intention. So Lisa simply said, “I guess I slipped.”

“Huh. Did you come for a drink or for the music?” asked Mina, nodding toward Zacharias this time.

Not paying any attention to either Lisa, Mina, or the deceased who’d come with Koe and Joe, Zacharias sat by the grand piano and swayed to his own minor scale music: a waltz, several phrases functioning as the motif that recurred in slightly altered forms. Sometimes the rhythm, sometimes the harmony, sometimes the melody changed.

Lisa marveled at his ability to improvise. He never used scores. Perhaps such creativity required the insistence on showing one’s uniqueness, bordering on peculiarity: out of all staff members at the hotel, Zacharias alone wore a deep purple suit instead of black and white. The suit snugly fit his slim figure. It had been tailored to perfection. He’d been “born” wearing it, with a thirty-something appearance, ready to start playing the piano immediately.

Lisa said, “I came for both. But I’ll need a drink first before I’ll be able to concentrate on any music.”

Mina’s face fell. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

For a brief moment, Lisa considered telling Mina about the bedsheet and the tugging winds, plus the wind that had pushed her at the lounge entrance. But Mina was a lighthearted soul—one that adamantly adhered to the belief that if one dwelled on unpleasant thoughts, unpleasant events were bound to occur. Mina’s question of “Are you sure you’re okay?” followed by Lisa’s honest answer usually led to Mina’s advice that Lisa should ignore what had just happened.

Personally, Lisa thought that Mina’s belief system placed too much weight and power on the individual, who was usually pretty insignificant and powerless, no matter what they thought of themselves. (What about victims of an earthquake, for example? Did such natural disasters happen because people dwelled on earthquake-thoughts too much? Lisa was pretty sure that they couldn’t conjure up an earthquake through collective worry.) But there was no reason to try to change Mina, just as there was no reason to try to change anyone else at the hotel. If Lisa wanted to talk about troubling events, she could always talk to others. Besides, Mina’s strict rule of sticking to so-called positive topics meant that Lisa could rely on her not mentioning unpleasantries. That guarantee had its benefits. And there was no other girl close to Lisa’s age that Lisa knew of.

So, Lisa simply answered, “Yes, I’m fine. Just tired.”

“No wonder. You’re washing sheets and towels all day long. Sit down, sit down.”

Lisa sat on the high chair by the bar and put her elbows on the spotlessly clean, smooth glass surface. A whiff of fresh mint and celery immediately surrounded her. How pleasant.

“Do you see that man right there?” whispered Mina. This time, she nodded toward Koe and Joe’s dead man. (She had to keep nodding instead of pointing or gesturing because never once did her hands completely stop the process of making drinks. At any given time, she separated the mint leaves from their stems, poured liquor, or vigorously shook the cocktail shaker.) “Did Koe and Joe tell you? His files say he’s a murderer.”

This turn of conversation came as a surprise to Lisa. “Since when are you interested in murderers?” she asked.

“I’m not. That’s why I said ‘his files say.’ What the files say and what he’s saying are different.”

“So he’s saying it’s a misunderstanding that his files say he’s a murderer?”

“Exactly.”

Lisa turned around to glance at the man. The lounge had just enough light to prevent guests from falling: one little bulb above each round table. This supposed non-murderer sat by a two-person table near Zach. The non-murderer had turned slightly right to have a direct view of the stage. Thus, the only illuminated portion of his features was a speck of his somehow unnaturally wrinkled left cheek. The rest of him, as well as anything outside the circle of light from the bulb, remained in near darkness, only softened by the bulb above the next table.

But Lisa had no difficulty distinguishing the non-murderer’s general posture. He’d placed his forearm on the top portion of his chair and leaned back, legs wide the way men from certain decades do as if they wanted the world to witness that they had something in between those legs.

How interesting. All the chairs by the tables (the chairs of regular height, not the high ones by the bar) had exactly the same design and size. Yet Lisa had seen some guests who’d used a chair like a cage, trying to fit into its imaginary boundaries by extrapolating on its edges. Consequently, they sat stooped and crouched. This man, in contrast, seemed to lack any sense of a limit whatsoever. How greedy. Gentlemen who’d been educated not to take up more space than was their due never did something like that man, no matter from which time period they came. You know, the types of gentlemen who fold their newspaper in half or a quarter so you can sit down on the park bench next to them if there is no other seat available. This supposed non-murderer was not one of those gentlemen.

Which, however, didn’t mean that he had to be a murderer.

“I heard Koe and Joe talk,” whispered Mina. “There’s not enough proof, they said. Apparently the person the man was supposed to have killed never crossed the river.”

“What?” asked Lisa with a frown. “They became a fugitive?”

Fugitives were souls of dead people who’d evaded the reapers and the rest of the afterworld deceased-processing system. They’d arrived at the hotel but hadn’t crossed the river, or they’d never arrived at the hotel, to begin with. So, they’d never faced trial and released. Rare occurrences, but frequent enough for Lisa to have seen several “Wanted” posters from the police force. But presently, no such posters hung in the lobby.

Mina shrugged. “A fugitive, or he never killed anyone.”

“But if the file says that he killed someone, there must be a reason.”

“He says that reason is a simple clerical error. Which, in this case, might be true. I mean, where is this supposed murder victim?”

“True. But what about in beforeworld? Was he convicted?”

“No,” said Mina. “That’s the thing. Never convicted.”

At that moment, Koe at the lounge entrance let out a loud cry of “Finally!”

X had arrived somewhere in the lobby.

“Oh, I have to hear this,” said Mina. She pushed two full cocktail glasses shaped like inverted cones across the bar. “Death by Vegetable. One is yours. Can you take the other one to him? You know X doesn’t like sitting in the dark. Let him have a drink while I gather intel. Okay?”

“Okay,” said Lisa, and watched Mina flit out of the lounge.

Mina caught up with Koe and Joe. After that, the crowd of guests, other reapers, and lawyers blocked Lisa’s view. She couldn’t even see X.

Lisa turned to the cocktail glasses filled to the brim. The mix was green: absinthe with artificial colorants, made even greener with mint leaves and ground celery. She tried a sip and immediately coughed. Her throat burned. What a monstrous concoction. Indeed, Death by Vegetable. But a pleasant one, Lisa supposed, since one was already dead and wouldn’t remember much of the second death thanks to the absinthe. Lisa decided not to drink more than half the glass. She hopped off the high chair and grabbed the untouched glass to deliver it to the man.

Zach’s piano tune had changed to a four-four time piece and never stopped, so that as she approached the man’s table, she unintentionally marched in rhythm with the music. One step with each beat.

The man, too, was affected by the music. Swaying as he hummed along, he still faced Zach. Parts of his black hair with silver streaks occasionally received a spotlight from the bulb above his table. Neatly groomed, it was. Someone had obviously determined that the perfect ratio of black to silver was fifty-fifty, no matter which part of the man’s hair was sampled. Perhaps the hairdresser had achieved this precision by dyeing the strands of hair individually. This man’s natural hair color might not have been black at all; it could have been brown, auburn, blond, but he’d chosen black to offset the silver—a starker contrast for added effect. Youth, combined with the experience and knowledge that one associated with silver hair—that seemed to be the style this man was going for. Which wasn’t a surprise, really. The man wore a plush shirt and had hung the equally expensive-looking suit jacket on a neighboring chair. An old man who’d died in a nice suit. Such an attire usually meant that the deceased was a businessman or a politician.

Lisa walked around the tables, left and right. Now, only a couple of tables stood between them. When Lisa turned around the last one, the man looked up to face her. The bulb above his table illuminated the front of his face.

Lisa choked, suddenly out of breath, and tottered. The man jumped from his seat and reached out to catch her. But she hadn’t fallen; she’d supported herself on a nearby table. Half the cocktail spilled in the process, making the floor slippery, making her skid as she attempted to stand straight. She lost balance once again, fumbled, flailing her arms, ending up spilling the rest of the cocktail on the man’s shirt, dropping the glass, which shattered, and then grabbing the man’s arm after all.

“Phewy,” he said in his deep hoarse voice once all was done. “You all right?”

But Lisa couldn’t answer right away. She was gazing at him. This had been inevitable; it was natural for a person to stare at the person or object he or she was holding onto, to make sure that the person or object wasn’t someone or something dangerous, didn’t get offended by being touched, and so on and so forth. Lisa could tell that his wrinkles had been carefully botoxed. That had given his cheeks the unnatural first impression. One could try removing wrinkles and make it harder for others to guess one’s age, but one never could get rid of them entirely. Lisa guessed that the man had lived up to his seventh decade at the very least. Perhaps he was closer to eighty.

But the wrinkles or the obvious botox treatment wasn’t why she stared at the man for so long, or why she couldn’t answer his question. The cause of her unease, followed by alarm, was that the face of a young man overlapped with the face of the old man.

They looked similar. Too similar. Not two different people. Rather, a younger version of the old man. A wrinkle-free, blond version; grinning widely, like a goblin. Not the grotesque gargoyle-like kind, but rather, the cutesy kind depicted in a children’s book illustration; the type that went around scaring children just enough for them to learn a lesson.

Not only was this phenomenon disturbing, but also Lisa’s physical reaction to it: she began shivering uncontrollably. She quickly looked away from him. Then, slowly, she let go of the man’s arm and stood still for a moment to make sure that she wasn’t going to embarrass herself yet again. Fortunately, he seemed to interpret her distress as the after-symptom of the near-fall.

“Hey, honey, you hear me? You all right?” he said.

“I am fine, sir, thank you,” she finally said.

“Was that my drink?”

“It was. I’m sorry, sir.” She glanced at him—again, the strange choking sensation. She cleared her throat. “I really am very sorry. I will have the bartender make another one. And I’ll clean your shirt. If you could”—no, he couldn’t take it off here, right now—“I’ll have a valet pick it up once you’re shown to your room. And about that drink, just give me one moment—”

“That’s all right,” the man said, cheerfully waving off her comment and shaking off liquid from his shirt as best as he could. It had been carefully ironed. Lisa could tell by the attention it had been given around the buttons. All wrinkle-free, all proper. “I just ordered to get a seat and listen to the music,” the man said, nodding toward Zach. “A real pro, that guy.”

Zach hadn’t flinched once throughout the fuss and was still playing.

“But I’ll take you up on that offer to clean my shirt. I didn’t get to bring along any spares, you see?” He grinned.

Lisa nodded. “I’m very sorry.”

“Nah. I’d better get going anyway. I think my lawyer arrived.”

He added another grin before he left—the type that was fake; faker than Koe’s. Koe tried to smile without wanting anything in return. This old man, on the other hand, seemed to have been professionally trained to grin just the right amount to get people to do something. He left the chair where it was, which was where it’d been flung back when he’d jumped to catch Lisa.

She stared after him. She didn’t like that man and felt bad for it, since she’d been the one to throw cocktail at him. But he’d disturbed something—her routine, for sure, and more than that. She just couldn’t pinpoint yet what exactly.

© 2021 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.