Title: Undoing Cycles
Series: Hotel Between Worlds
Genre: Supernatural, Mystery
Seventeen-year-old Lisa manages the laundry at the hotel between worlds.
Has always managed, in the eternity stretching backward. Will always manage, in the eternity stretching forward. In other words, forever. Because that’s what the worker-residents of the hotel do for the recently-dead.
But Lisa’s “forever” ends when a mysterious guest awakens terrible memories. Buried memories.
Memories about a murder.
* A fantasy novel about family, regret, and love, which live on throughout the many worlds, inhabited by those alive and those dead.
One of the two women in black returns to the table with a silver tray. She places it in front of you: on it, a black candy, and a gray one, both round.
The other woman in black already sits across from you and says, “Black to move on, like all others. Gray to forget temporarily, to stay and wait—until you meet your murderer again. Whatever you do at that point is up to you, on one condition: you cannot tell anyone what happened to you. If you do, you will lose the right to find your own justice; we won’t protect you from those who envy you, hurt you, or blame you. Also remember, you cannot undo your actions and must live with the consequences for an eternity thereafter. Now, pick a candy.”
You stare at the candies. Which one would you choose?
<Today in Afterworld>
The sun and the moon hung on the opposite ends of the sky. Stars sprinkled the space in-between. So, it was both bright and dark; bright because of the sun and dark so that the moon and stars could shine.
An impossible coexistence? No. Possible, for the sky above the hotel between worlds.
Up there, day and night met. Down here, too, two worlds met: beforeworld and afterworld. All around the hotel, a river flowed. Gently, never overwhelming the bustling noises from the building, its torrents splashed against the cliff that marked the edge of the misty island all around.
Aside from these movements of the river, not much else shifted around the hotel. The breeze barely blew. When it did, it only seemed to do so to circulate the damp smell of earth and moss so that the newcomers, unaccustomed to odd coexistences, wouldn’t lose their sense of reality.
What exactly lay before the island or after it, physically-speaking, the worker-residents were instructed to disregard. The mist made that guideline easy to follow. Besides, with the various celestial bodies hanging on the sky at all times, time mattered little. The order of events was trivial—or so Lisa liked to believe.
She was the laundry manager of the hotel between worlds. While some of her coworkers brooded over the beyond or nigh and before or after, she found it easier to not think of change. All still, all constant, with predictable influx and outflux—that was the norm, and there was nothing wrong with that.
There was a place in the world for people like her, she believed. Imagine everyone bothering themselves with intangible concepts such as religion, dreams, and ambitions. How stressful that’d be! Shouldn’t there be at least some people who were content to lead the same life day in day out?
Such a lifestyle had its advantages. Lisa never felt frustrated. For frustration to occur, one had to expect something, and she never did. Didn’t expect change, didn’t expect surprise, didn’t expect meaning.
This also meant that she was never “happy” in the conventional sense. For example, she’d never experienced the sensation of the heart skipping a beat when meeting the love of her life. She’d also never held a newborn in her arms and realized, with overwhelming love, the complete vulnerability of that being, her immense responsibility, and the cruelty of the world all at the same time. But she surely was never unhappy either. And she didn’t complain—not about the virtual void around the hotel, and also not about the monotony.
Especially not about the monotony. Monotony, in Lisa’s opinion, was one of the most valuable things that an ungrateful soul could complain about, because the minimum requirement for monotony was peace. In war zones, you could never appreciate monotony. Even during temporary calm, you’d always wonder when the next bomb would blow up the entire village. So, for a person to never have to worry about such drastic changes was an immense blessing.
These were the sorts of things Lisa contemplated when she hung freshly washed bedsheets in the back yard of the hotel on that day when all she’d known turned upside-down.
The twins had helped her lightly wring out all items earlier and the still-wet heap was piled up in the giant bamboo basket that came up to her waist. Bamboo worked well for these sorts of things. Sturdy, lightweight, and well-ventilating, they were. All were crucial factors, since the bedsheets should never be wrung out completely dry—there was no point twisting and contorting the fabric to that extent. The bamboo basket didn’t add unnecessary bulk while excellently bearing the weight of the wet laundry. Lisa couldn’t imagine using a container any heavier to transport the washed items from the basement laundry room all the way here to the muddy back yard full of grass on which little droplets of dew hung perpetually.
Although the twins had offered to help her hang the bedsheets on the lines, Lisa had said it was okay, they should go play. That’d been the answer they’d expected, so even before she’d finished the sentence, they’d run off, giggling, to bother the confused newly-dead guests. Cute little creatures, those twins were. Alpha and Omega, they called themselves. Alpha, a girl with heavenly platinum blond curls. Omega, a boy with devilish charcoal hair. Six years old, both with mischievous grins.
Some guests asked whether Alpha and Omega were their real names. They wanted to know where the parents were, either because they thought the names were beautiful and wanted to compliment them, or because they thought the names were hideous and wanted the parents to know that.
The worker-residents politely changed the subject whenever questions about the parents were asked. The twins, like all others who were here to stay, were eternal beings. They didn’t get older, and not because they’d stopped growing up at the age of six. Rather, because they’d always been six. They’d never been born as babies. Whoever (or whatever) had caused their existence, those parents weren’t here. Fundamentally, the twins weren’t six at all. They were older. Much, much older.
Nevertheless, Lisa couldn’t help but feel sorry for them whenever she saw them laboring. So small these kids were, regardless of how long they’d existed. They smelled of childhood—of cells busier growing and replicating than aging and dying. They weren’t built to work twelve hours a day. They never would be.
Some guests had told Lisa that since she was seventeen, she shouldn’t be working this much either, it was all the same illegal child labor. But such a viewpoint seemed incredibly naive to Lisa. Of course, the guests had meant well, and apparently, some parts of the world were changing out there. But seventeen-year-olds doing no work at all? That seemed preposterous.
At any rate, it was thus that the twins ran laps around the hotel at a great speed, sometimes Alpha chasing Omega, at other times Omega chasing Alpha, while Lisa expertly wrestled with the bedsheets. When the twins rushed past the washing lines, the water-soaked bedsheets rocked back and forth. Lisa’s long black dress and white apron fluttered wildly. Supernatural beings, these children were, as were all hotel guests, to a lesser extent. None of them could be explained through modern science in beforeworld.
Sometimes, the twins were so fast that Lisa’s hat flew off—that thin, lace-adorned piece of light white cloth—and Alpha and Omega had to run even faster to catch it in the wind. Lisa’s long sandy hair, loosely tied with a hairband, became undone and whipped her cheeks. The twins laughed and Lisa laughed too. Her hair smelled of jasmine because of the shampoo that the hotel’s owner, Lady Song, supplied for all staff. Freed from the hat, her hair rejoiced and danced. This wind that the twins stirred when they raced without restriction—this was one change that Lisa didn’t mind. When the air settled, she even wished that the twins would hurry with their lap, to reach the back yard yet again and bring some life to this quiet island.
But no, she shouldn’t think that. She shouldn’t get impatient and yearn for change. Monotony, a gift. She should appreciate it. Even though the presence and the absence of the twins represented complete opposites, such opposites actually formed a cycle. And that cycle formed a small part of the larger sameness, part of peace, and the certainty that the twins would finish their lap and come back here, then leave because nothing bad had happened.
The gong stroke in the tower. Lisa looked up. At that highest point of the hotel, surrounded by a black metal fence, Old Jeremiah swung his hammer once more. And again, and again. His long white beard swayed in rhythm with his movements, becoming more irregular with each strike. Exhaustion, that was why. Lisa couldn’t hear his panting from the ground level but she didn’t need to hear to know; his chest visibly heaved up and down. He looked eighty or ninety. That poor man. Just like the twins, he was trapped in a very inconvenient age.
When Old Jeremiah had finally struck the eleventh gong, he lowered the hammer. He stumbled to a corner of the square tower and put the hammer down. It was eleven o’clock—a concept of convenience rather than absoluteness, since the sun and moon always shone simultaneously. The last gong of the “day” was at hour twenty-two. The first gong of the “day” was at hour six. Such notions kept people “on time.”
Old Jeremiah noticed Lisa’s stare. Folding both hands in front of him, he bowed at her. She hurriedly let go of the wet bedsheet that she’d been in the process of hanging, and bowed back. The bedsheet mostly blocked their views, but whenever the gentle wind flapped it back, they could see out of the corner of their eyes—the other side had not raised his or her head yet.
Only after several seconds did they finally look up and nod, her returning to her laundry-hanging duties and him beginning the laborious, time-consuming process of descending seven stories’ worth of stairs. Lisa thought this type of formal greeting unnecessary, especially because they were dealing with eternity, not just one day and also not just one time. The time spent on bowing added up. Old Jeremiah, however, insisted in his quiet, wordless manner, that this had to be done. They each were immortal beings, deserving of respect. That was his point of view. Lisa played along, mostly because refusing to bow back made her uneasy for a long period of time afterward, while bowing only created a short-term hassle.
Well, just another day at the hotel between worlds. As sunny as it could get, what with the amount of mist. Damp as always. And Lisa, as mildly content as always.
She proceeded to hang the bedsheets with great efficiency. The river splashed. Occasionally, the twins returned. They giggled and waved at Lisa. The smell of lunch cooking drifted from the hotel building. Beef stew, onion soup, and grilled vegetables today.
The hotel breathed, creaking softly, as all ancient buildings did. Some guests found such noises creepy; they feared that malicious beings lived between the walls. Lisa thought that if a building made no noise whatsoever, that’d be creepier. Most of the building’s exterior was white with the exception of black metal frames around the rectangular windows, doors, and balconies. Occasionally, round windows or arches offset the stark impression. The plant decorations too. Some hung from the eaves in smaller pots; others lived in larger pots, more like trees than shrubs, and stood in a row to mark the boundaries of roads meant for guest traffic. Still, even with the organic softening effect of such plants, the overall impression of the hotel was that of geometric precision and boldness. Old, and forever sturdy. Art Deco in black and white, a guest had once commented.
A sudden gust of wind snatched the bedsheet that Lisa was holding and blew it off of her hands. Gasping, she reached out to catch it—but the wind was already carrying it to the front of the hotel, toward the entry road, the one that stretched from the edge of the cliff all the way to the entrance.
“Alpha? Omega?” said Lisa. “Catch it!”
She’d said so because she’d thought that once again, their incredible speed had caused the wind. But when she looked around in search of the twins, they were nowhere to be seen. In fact, their laughter drifted from the other side of the building.
Alarmed, Lisa hitched up her dress and sprinted after the flying bedsheet. Mud splattered her clothes and her leather boots, which was fine; this was why she wore them, not some other fancy garbs. She could hear the chatter of the guests and visitors, only separated from her by the trees in the big pots. Their foliage glistened pale-green because of the lack of strong sunlight and the mist that had condensed on their surfaces. They were thick enough to block Lisa’s view of the entry road.
“I cannot possibly be dead,” a man with a deep hoarse voice said. He sounded like an old man—someone who’d been using his vocal cords for decades. “Because if I were dead, I wouldn’t keep existing like this. Would I? How can I be aware that I am me and be dead at the same time? Then I’m not really dead, am I?”
He sounded aggressive and unfriendly—mocking. Lisa shuddered. His complaint was a common one among the recently dead, but each person had a different way of expressing confusion. He sounded too mocking, as if he doubted the intelligence of anyone who disagreed with him.
Still, she really hoped that the foliage would catch the bedsheet because, well, the last thing any guest of this hotel needed was a bedsheet attack. Not that the guests had any choice in the matter of staying here; this was the only hotel between worlds as far as Lisa knew. No matter what any of the staff did—undercook the stew, hammer the gong at the wrong time of the day, throw bedsheets at them—the guests had no choice but to stay until they were allowed to leave. Still, Lisa meant no trouble, none at all, even for the man who mockingly denied his own death. Some people simply expressed their frustration through anger. Moreover, understandably, a recently deceased person must be traumatized enough; no such person needed additional surprises. Please, bedsheet, stop right there. Please, wind, stop carrying it—
Another gust of wind blew into Lisa’s face. The entire building sighed. Lisa blinked in confusion because with such an exhale, the hotel surely had to shrink in size. But it couldn’t have actually sighed. Or could it?
For a moment, it looked as if the bedsheet had stopped, unable to decide whether it should proceed away from Lisa or retreat toward her. Lisa stared up at it with an open mouth. How strange, even for the island for in-betweens. The two different winds were competing in a tug of war. Instead of consisting of one mass of air, they were pulling on the bedsheet in opposite directions for the briefest second.
Then the bedsheet abruptly picked a direction, and to Lisa’s relief, toward her. Feeling like the final member to join the winning team in the tug of war, she spread out her arms and jumped to catch the bedsheet. Her heart skipped a beat when she felt the soft wet cotton against her fingers. She hugged the sheet.
Happiness. The most happiness she’d felt in who knew how long.
Lisa sighed and buried her face in the fabric. Her head spun. Perhaps she’d imagined what she’d just seen. Overworking, a guest had said once, is the stupidest thing. Work, for what, if it only makes you sick?
“I tell you, I can’t be dead,” the man with the deep hoarse voice continued on the other side of the row of trees.
“Stop repeating yourself, will you?” a familiar voice said in a cold, matter-of-fact tone. Koe, the reaper. He was in his late thirties but had existed pretty much forever, so technically, he was older than the man with the hoarse voice. “Doesn’t matter if you like it or not, you’re dead.”
“Now, Koe,” said the gentler voice of Joe, also a reaper, and Koe’s partner. He was “younger” than Koe by a decade or so. “He needs time to accept his situation. That’s all.”
“So sick of this,” muttered Koe.
“You are sick of this?” said the man with the hoarse voice. “I am dead and you are sick of this?”
“Yes, idiot. You think you’re the first person who’s complained to me that he’s dead? Most people do it, one way or another, so why don’t you stop pretending that you’re damn original and just hurry up so I can drop you off and be done?”
“He means we,” said Joe. “We’ve heard a lot of people complain, and we will drop you off. And be done.”
The man with the hoarse voice muttered something back—most likely an insult, because Koe’s voice rose in response. But Lisa couldn’t hear the rest of their conversation. She’d turned around to return to the washing lines; they’d continued on toward the hotel.
It was Omega. He waved wildly as he approached her at full speed. Lisa waved back.
“What are you doing there?” he shouted across the yard. Though a span of a quarter mile still separated them, Lisa clearly heard his voice. What an energetic child he was! Alpha waved too. Her giggle reached Lisa, as clearly as Omega’s voice.
“The sheet flew off, just like that,” Lisa shouted, unsure if her weak voice could be heard.
“Weird,” said Omega, apparently having understood her message.
The hotel creaked. Lisa stopped and gazed at it. Was it inhaling what it had exhaled earlier?
The twins rushed past Lisa.
“Bye-bye!” yelled Alpha.
“Bye-bye,” murmured Lisa.
Her black dress and white apron fluttered until the twins disappeared out of sight. This was the normal kind of wind. The winds before, the one that had taken the bedsheet from her and also the one that had returned it to her—they weren’t normal. With the troubling sense that a cogwheel in the mechanism of her monotony had shifted, rendering the entire system precarious, Lisa returned to the washing lines.
Such was the problem with happiness. If it had marked a clear “up,” a “down” had to follow. This unease, then, was the down. Must hang the sheets, Lisa repeated in her head. Nothing ever changes here. Nothing, ever.