This is a humor story of a little boy named Johnny whose life is tragically cut short in two still-memorable lives - lives in which he reminisces about from his spot Hell.
"The Lives and Deaths of Little Johnny”
- A Story –
“Hi, my name is Johnny, and I have a story to tell.”
Johnny sits in the gray-brown dirt. “Although I am only a fourteen year-old boy, my appearance is that of a 70 year-old ham, a 75 year-old decomposing tree stump, an 80 year-old sock puppet, or some other analogy portraying an object or thing that is between 70 and 80 years old.” He looks off into the surrounding hills beyond.
Along the crest, the apparitions of men stand perched.
Above and beyond all the air is thick and black, lit only by a glowing haze.
“Those are my friends,” states Johnny. “Although we’ve never met, and they constantly yell profanities at me, I think of them as such.”
He pokes his finger in the dust and draws. It appears to be a crudely drawn cat, much like if you were drawing a cat in an e-mail with only characters.
Just like that. Or at least that’s what I think is a cat.
“This is my cat,” he announces proudly to the figure in the ash.
I thought so.
“I call him ‘Mr. Ash Cat.’”
Of course he does.
“But, enough of setting the mood and scene.”
Did we really set anything?
“I must go on.”
He shifts to become cross-legged in sitting posture. “As I stated, I have a story to tell.”
He draws a bowl next to the cat.
“I almost forgot to feed him.”
“My story is not one of happiness throughout. Nor unhappiness or half-happiness with a touch of joy. No, this is my life. This is my death.”
We enter a hospital room where a mother-to-be is giving birth. A doctor and nurse are at her stirrupped feet. The husband – the father – nervously paces across the room. I hope it’s a boy is what he dares not say. He stops pacing to hold his wife’s hand.
With many gentle encouragements and one final, messy push a baby is born. The nurse swiftly guides the child away. A moment later, she returns to bring the child to the mother. The father weeps happily. The mother can barely speak.
Over heavy tears the mother breathes: “You are home now, little Tabatha….”
Okay, that baby isn’t me and therefore this isn’t my birth. I really don’t remember my own birth and stop claiming that you do. Liar. Though, I do imagine it to be the same, but with a lot more slapping and in more of a bar setting.
Most of my formative years (my formation years?) are a blur. But, who really cares what I did at “pre-school that one time I burned down the caretaker’s tool shed,” or “when I broke the mirror in the boy’s lavatory in middle school, tried to replace it with those “default” photos you get in picture frames, and hoped no boy would notice they actually weren’t those two red-headed girls playing on a swing set?” I surely wouldn’t.
Back to the original intent of the story - me, at the ripe old age of fourteen, and well past my formative Tom and Jerry years. They aren’t on anymore are they?
I loved to ride my bike. And, delivering newspapers (are those still around too?) was my job. The thrill of delivery that morning news, sometime around two-thirty in the afternoon, was addicting. “You’re late!” They’d say (scream). “It’s still the same day!” I’d rebut. It was a grand back and forth.
The neighborhood was typical suburbia (how about that, does that exist anymore?). Two rows of houses aggravatingly similar in appearance with semi-unprofessionally groomed lawns, and ornamentation barely within the boundary of the development association’s guidelines – ornamentation they will allow for now (until the next meeting). Oh, but this black family moved in a couple years ago so it’s becoming more “urbany” as Dad calls it. I heard they might install an authentic Asian take-out place at the strip mall we call “downtown.” I can’t wait for the bona fide Asian-style governor’s chicken.
Anyway, my route is only my own block (a cul-de-sac) – the paper company said it was for my “own good” - and I was happy to abide. Our neighbors, the urban Smiths, bore my love one year to my prior. That means she’s fifteen if you are keeping track at home.
Shea. My black chocolate as I call her, though not to anyone really. Only to myself. I’m not even sure what it means – I heard it on TV once. I suppose that means she can be sweet at times, or very bitter if you buy the wrong one like I did when I bought that one labeled “95%” at that specialty store a few weeks earlier. That was nasty.
Mr. Smith looks up at me from washing his car as I whiz by and throw their paper into the bushes. “What a cracker,” he says. He always says that – and pretty loud, actually.
Shea perks up on the house stoop (why don’t most suburban homes have porches?) and watches as I race by. “He may be a cracker,” she breathes, “but he’s a Ritz!” Exclamation point! What does that even mean? I am very buttery, I suppose.
Mr. Smith drops the hose, spraying Shea in the process. She recoils from the jet setting. “What,” Mr. Smith yells quietly glaring at his daughter darting around the stream and into the house. “You stay in there!” Exclamation point too!
At this point, although I am enlightened to it much later on, I’m not entirely sure what is going on at the Smith Home. All I had understood was talk about crackers, which made me hungry. But, my hunger made me think about the bitter chocolate again, and that made me sad. Man that was terrible chocolate.
Mr. Smith is still rambling in the front yard, grabbing at the running hose. I witness all this since we’re in a cul-de-sac - I’m really not riding very far. “You don’t even take ‘anatomy,’” he curses, “so why would you need it to study with Johnny for a ‘mid-term?’” He pauses. “I bet you couldn’t even point out your femur!” He yells while pointing up and down his leg.
Confused, I peddle faster, toward construction traffic, and into a back-hoe used to construct the new Asian Bistro – whatever an Asian Bistro is.
I hear Mom scream from afar: “Johnny, no! What will we do with your share of meat loaf?”
I now lie inside the back-hoe scoop with my arms and legs in an unnatural state to say the least, and in less pain than it would have looked from a casual observer.
Mr. Smith casually walks up to me. “You’ll be okay son,” he says aloud. I think he’s giggling a little too?
He leans toward me on one knee. Gently, he says “That’s what happens when you touch my chocolate bunny.”
There’s that bitter cocoa taste again.
Instead of using grand simile and metaphor; a perfect prose of thought; or thoughtful descriptors to properly juxtapose any agony in depths of your mind – I’m just going to out-right tell you I am dead. And now I’m in Hell. How do I know this? How would you not realize it if you were in Hell? What are you, stupid?
Okay, I’ll describe a little of what it is like anyway. It’s like a combination of what you’d find Biblically; in the texts of Dante; and in my own personal imagination.
There’s a shore-line.
It appears to be so. Across the shore is complete darkness, except one small glimmer of light casting what illumination there is around the area. Swiftly moving about the water, or what I am led to believe is water, is a small ferry.
As it reaches the shore, the front drops like the Higgins boats used in World War II. But, no one walks or storms off these vessels. Bodies are dumped onto the bank under a sign that states “Drop-offs.” I’m guessing the other side says “Pick-ups.” With as much expediency as it had arrived, it takes off. A moment later, a bulldozer knocks the pile of persons apart and begins to spread them evenly along the bank.
“Have you seen my arm?” A man is crawling around my leg and interrupting my prose. He is apparently missing an arm. “I seem to be missing my arm.” I knew it.
“No, I haven’t. I have just awoke, or something.” I check all my appendages – to be sure. The man still crawls around the area, searching between piles of bodies not yet awake – or perhaps not even ambulatory. With curiosity, I ask before he gets away, “what happened to your arm?”
He turns about. “Kid,” he states sternly, “when the directions say not to remove the safety shield on a circular saw… don’t operate it while drunk….” Probably good advice.
The man scrambles away toward the river and spots an arm on the shoreline. He takes the arm, fruitlessly tries to re-attach it, and crawls off. Sorry, I felt like I needed to conclude that man’s story.
There must be something with that other shore and that light. I’d stake my reputation on it! I really don’t feel like biding my time in Hell. It’s already boring. I can’t swim. My lessons were never finished. They caught me peeing in the pool too many times … from the diving board. Probably a good decision on the pool guard’s part. Oh ya, and this river in Hell is actually teems of people wallowing in synchronicity. Just noticed that.
The only, reasonable, alternative is to join the ferryman. Easy, right? I dive onto the pitiful crowd, after I spot the ferry returning, and mosh my way to the drop off spot.
The boat’s front drops, slumps more souls onto the shore, and I pull myself in. Success! A man with a coal shovel immediately approaches me. His name-tag says “Hi, my name is: Charon.” Although malnourished, he appears fit from his shoveling duties. There is a pile of puppies and kittens next to the boat’s coal furnace.
“Hi, my name is Johnny and I don’t think I should be here.”
Charon laughs heartily as he shovels a small pile of puppies and kittens into the furnace. What did you think happened to un-adopted puppies and kittens?
His smile brings a smile to my face as he shovels more and more puppies and kittens into the furnace. His smile almost makes me forget about the dead puppies and kittens piled neatly on the starboard bow.
But, without a warning, he slaps me ungently with his kitten-mover, and I fall over the side into the moshing Hellions. Once again, as quickly as it arrived the boat was gone.
On the crowd I lie, directing my gaze to the glowing light beyond. I think someone’s groping my bottom. “Maybe I can make it to that shore, if I just mosh hard enough,” I soliloquy. “It can’t be that far? What’s time anyway!”
“Don’t try it,” says another soul riding the mob near me. He’s ruining my soliloquy. “It’s a long way,” he continues ruining my moment, “they have jet skis.”
“Who have jet skis?”
“The guards. Don’t ask me how they work on a mass of people – it’s your story.” So true. I look around, squinting as hard as I can. There do appear to be jet skis of a sort skimming along the people-sea. I am not sure how that works.
“Thanks for the tip,” I say. End of conversation.
I wonder if I died with a granola bar?
Completely disparaged by my current missteps, I make my way back to the drop-off area. I walk around kicking various body parts. Many of the remains state a mixture of rude comments. Charon still makes his scheduled trips.
That sounds like a girl’s name if you ask me.
That would have been a great zinger!
Too late now.
After kicking a particularly vulgar head, I spot a small bloodied pamphlet. “So You’ve Gone and Went to Hell” is its title. The rest is illegibly stained.
“Where’s the newsstand?” I wonder.
With that sole thought I look around away from the riverbank. This was the first time I looked away - I was pre-occupied with the boat…. And this one headless woman, okay?
Anyway, I saw what I mostly expected. Fields of bodies and loose extremities. Among the strewn deceased are only a few lucky ones – like myself – whom are mobile. Most just helplessly sit and look around. I think one guy is checking for a signal on a cell phone.
About 100 yards from the shore there is a low ridgeline with a red-orange glow emanating beyond in a half-circle shine; but, nothing but darkness outside that outer radiance. Atop the ridge is a man with a cart.... Hot dogs? Hot dogs!
I ran through the corpses as fast as I could – it was like running through tires. Grabby and moany tires.
Finally, my destination is reached! But, alas, it is not a food cart but a newsstand.
Wait, they really have those here?
Well, I did think it might be a hot dog stand so I suppose this is no more ridiculous. The man with the cart is leaning against a craggy boulder, and does not seem to notice me approach. His concentration is all upon a tangled yo-yo. His name-tag reads “Hi, my name is: Jeff.”
“Hi, my name is Johnny.”
Jeff drops the yo-yo, startled. “Halt!”
I had already halted.
“Don’t move any further!” I wasn’t going to. And I think he means “farther.”
“I’m new here,” states I.
Still somewhat flustered, especially now that his toy lies in two on the ground, “Who,” he realizes the yo-yo is broken, “Damn, it is going to take another century before someone dies in a yo-yo accident again.” Jeff looks at me. “Who are you?”
This sounds familiar.
“I’m new here.”
Jeff pushes the yo-yo aside with his foot. “I see, well, you know you cannot pass this valley.”
I didn’t know that.
“I didn’t know that,” I respond. He looks at the pamphlet in my hand. “It’s a little dirty – do you have more?” I ask this as I stare at his cart full of pamphlets, so therefore I am fully aware of the answer to my own question. But, I had just met him and I don’t want to seem mannerless – you know, like when you’re at a party and the host said “drinks are provided,” but you ask “hey, can I have one of those” anyway when you get there, even though you definitely remember that he told you don’t have to bring anything? It’s just polite.
He hands me a new brochure from the cart. I place it in my newspaper satchel. Yes, I still have my newspaper bag. “What am I doing here?”
“You tell me, kid” he responds.
“I wouldn’t know.” I scratch my head. It’s sore.
He’s staring at my satchel. “Well, then, neither do I.” I don’t like it when people stare at me. He sighs, and looks back up at me. “You are a suicide.”
“That’s news to me.” I pat my satchel. Pun intended. “I thought you said you didn’t know why I was here?”
“I don’t know specifically why you are here.”
Suicide is pretty specific to me.
“Everyone down there, piled up along the river, is a person who committed suicide…. And sometimes a puppy or kitten winds up there too.”
“Well, I know I’m not a kitten….”
“It’s all in the brochure,” he counters.
In dismay, I look at the bodies along the shore. “Honestly, I didn’t suicide!”
“Go pray it to God.” Jeff looks at the yo-yo again. “I’m busy here.” Clearly.
He seems to be trying to ignore me. “Are you a devil or something?”
He is now definitely trying to ignore me.
“Because, you don’t look like one like in the movies or TV?” Not really a question.
Jeff begrudgingly answers the queried statement. “This is my punishment.”
“This was my job on Earth, and they felt this was the…” he hesitates “the best way to spend my time down here.” He stares to the darkness above.
“Were you a yo-yo artist or Jehovah’s Witness?” I point to the yo-yo, and then to the pamphlet stand to make my punch line clear. A bit of a stretched joke.
He shakes his head. “I was a security officer in my past. See my badge?” There does appear to be a badly tarnished metal plate on his chest which almost blends into the rest of his tattered uniform. “Well, this isn’t actually my badge,” he says rubbing the badge. “I found it out there combing the basin a while back.” Neat.
“So, what did you do to get down here?”
Terrible recollection appears on his face, and he looks away.
Changing the subject, “are you the only guard?”
“No, we line the valley hills.” He looks into the darkness, peering. “Most of you suicides don’t bother us so we’re spaced pretty far apart.” I follow his gaze. Only the eerie glow and blackness. “I’ve never met or seen my fellow guards.”
Jeff pauses to think, and smiles. “Well, except at the orientation luncheon.”
“I enjoy luncheons.” I do.
“There isn’t much visibility, but you can still see her.” He walks to the side of the boulder he once leaned upon, and looks to the shimmering light on the other side of the valley. You would have thought I would have checked from where that light source emanated once I reached the top – but I didn’t. It must be my A.D.D. acting up. I wish I had died with my required meds – it is so very necessary to have medicine to counteract being a male child bored in school!
I just mutter.
Jeff sees me confounded.
“You didn’t notice Lucy over there?”
He obviously doesn’t know about my debilitating medical condition.
“That’s Miss. Satan.”
Out in the distance stands an enormous figure of a winged woman. Her out-stretched wings beat furiously, fanning the dust and debris from her body. Her feet are strewn with sinners trying to scramble from her stomping hooves, and her claws grasp and squeeze more … bad people.
The worst of the worst. Pirates and mean ninjas I’m guessing. There is no land discernible between this crest and Lucy. The scented candles which surround her on small tables painted with flowers glow about her; turning her into a beacon.
Now that I think about it, Hell does smell like sandalwood. Bloody sandalwood.
“Are you muttering to yourself?” Asks Jeff. I had been stating the entire last descriptor under my breath.
I don’t respond.
“You can use that if you want to see in closer.” There’s a quarter-fed binocular pedestal to our right. “You just need to find change.”
I look into the binoculars without change anyway – the eye-hole flags are down. I spin the binoculars and look back to Jeff, and then around the area. “I thought it would be hotter around here. You know, ‘sulfur and brimstone?’”
“Miss. Satan doesn’t like sulfur. It makes her complexion ‘look yellow,’ as she had said in the introduction video at the luncheon….” Jeff keeps going on with the back-story to Hell. I am only mildly interested now.
“… and the air was hotter and more stagnant, but now we only use ‘clean coal technology’ so the air is a little cleaner….” Great.
“… most of this fine ash and fog is artificially generated with 90% recycled material, and absolutely no CFCs….” Jeff seems proud of his knowledge.
“… only applicable parts of Hell have higher heat and sulfur content, which makes things not only economically viable but environmentally conscience….” I am no longer interested.
“… you suicides are to stay here in the valley by the river, and pretty much just be bored….” Damn you A.D.D. disease!
“Anyway,” I try to get him off the history lesson, “what’s on the other side of the river? I see a light.” The light is still barely visible from this spot.
“… it’s all in the brochure.” He finishes his last thought. “The light? That’s the escalator to Heaven,” factualizes Jeff.
“You were dropped down a shaft next to the escalator – much like everyone else in this quadrant - then sorted, and then taken ashore.”
“Can we go see it?”
Jeff is a bit surprised, then grins. “Oh ya, sure, I think Charon is the ferryman on duty right now.” I know Charon!
“Yes, I’ve met him. Funny guy, loves animals.” I motion for us to go.
He stops me. “I’m being sarcastic. That’s a ‘no.’” And yes, he uses air quotes.
I turn around and tug at his shirt, innocently. “Come on, it’ll be fun!” He vigorously shakes his head. “What else do you have to do today?” I kick the yo-yo. “Please? Maybe there are fresh toys to play with?” It’s hard to look and act sweet.
Jeff thinks a moment. “No, I have a good thing going on here…” He looks at the newsstand. “I couldn’t imagine where I would have been sent if I wasn’t placed here….”
Hmm, new plan. Enough of the sweet crap. “Let’s play ‘How long do you think I can bother you before I want to stop?’”
“So,” I continue the game, “what did you do to deserve Hell?”
Jeff’s eyes widen, he takes me by the arm, and we are off to the river.
We are now on the other shore of the river. Jeff and my agreement to cross the river with Charon was a long and hard-fought battle full of great dispute by both sides, but in the end we prevailed. Oh I wish I remembered how it all went down exactly! Nevertheless, Charon really is a good guy once you sit down and talk to him.
This bank is similar to the other, less the scattered corpses. The signage reads “Deliveries” – close to what I thought it would state earlier. And “Trillions served” below – nah, I’m kidding.
Because of the glow of the escalator, the area isn’t quite as dark as the Drop-off side. There is no valley encompassing (from what I can surmise), but instead stands a mammoth wall of granite which extends infinitely in all directions. You know what, the more I think about it, this bank is nothing like the other. Forget what I said earlier on the comparison. This West bank is much better than its Eastern counterpart.
Embedded within this wall is the luminous escalator and adjacent drop shaft. The “delivery” shaft is basically a hole in the wall with the occasional new Hellion arrival. An automated conveyor belt sits in front of the hole. Three men run the belt – one on each side. Two have metal poles they use to push bodies leaning over the edge of the line.
The third is supervising, I guess.
The conveyor dumps the bodies near the pick-up area, where they are piled neatly by more laborers in wait for the next shipment. A bulldozer, like on the East bank, awaits Charon.
The escalator shimmers neon like a bug lamp for humans, with a slight hum, but a pleasant hum, making it all the more tempting. It sits several feet in the granite, within a niche. The only thing blocking the entrance to the escalator’s vestibule is a burgundy velvet rope.
No one really seems to notice Jeff or me.
“You’ve been quiet for quite a while,” notices Jeff. “It’s almost like you are in long narration.”
He’s on to me! I think quickly. “I’m just in awe.” Save!
“I haven’t been here in a long time. Last time was to get an etch-a-sketch of which I had heard rumor a little girl died with and it fell behind.” He looks at me, and then the velvet rope. His voice drops and becomes slightly unnerved. “Now, don’t touch anything. Especially the red rope.”
“If you touch it, you become immediately unconscious, and you will be assigned to a deeper part of Hell.” He looks back at the rope. “It’s electrically driven somehow, I don’t know - but I’ve seen it happen!”
Jeff continues on the tour, and begins to explain the inner-workings of the escalator. But, the foolish fool has me exactly where I wanted … me!
Yes, the sweet, sweet bitter glow of the escalator is calling!
However, it is fiercely fortified by a rope of velvet!
The only thing I need is a ploy… a trick….
“Something to get him to let his guard down.”
Jeff stutters to a halt, ending his own narration on gears. I said that last part aloud.
“What did you say?” He is rightfully confused.
I have to think and act fast! Wait – there’s a light switch pointing in the down position in the escalator niche, located a few steps up from the platform. It’s color matches that of the velvet rope, and has a small tag that states “do not touch.”
Is down “off” in Hell?
Can this possibly be the switch to the velvet rope, sitting in the “off” position?
Too much time has elapsed after a poignant question! Screw it!
“Look!” I point and yell. “It’s Jesus!”
He looks quickly to his left for Jesus, while combing his hair with his fingers. Before Jeff can look back at me, and probably tell me to straighten my posture for Jesus, I am off – over the velvet rope and flipping the switch to the “on” position along the way. Onto glorious freedom I go!
Jeff stands frozen. “I’ll be sodomized for this.”
Next to Jeff, Jesus steps in at the platform behind the rope.
Jesus nods, confirming Jeff’s worry.
In this light, the rope does look red.
My gold and glass chariot of steps carries me steadily up to what I can justifiably assume is Heaven.
Oh wait, there’s an escalator map with three blue dots and connecting line. I was here, Hell, and I am going up to there – Heaven. But, there is a change-over platform on the way.
Purgatory. And an Apple Store, apparently.
Finally, reaching the landing for Purgatory, I find the Apple Store closed. Aside from that, Purgatory is more or less reminiscent of an airport check-in. There’s a lengthy wall of “baggage” claim desks on one side; and to the other, a plane of glass doors. Every desk has a long line with people eagerly chatting with one another, none realizing the odds stacked against them. A few notice me on the escalator landing. Are they looking at me or the three monstrous bouncers protecting the escalator entrance? They’re probably looking at the bouncers. You should see them! Well… someday you will. One of them holds a passport stamp. The others stand stoic.
Above the landing is a sign with Las Vegas-esque light bulb border blinking in unison. It spells “Heaven” in blue with neon arrow directed to the second set of escalators. Perhaps they are looking at that sign?
There is no escalator going down.
I wonder how Jesus got downstairs? What am I thinking – he’s Jesus! Probably used the service elevator in the back. Near the employee lounge and kitchen. Adequate snacks in there, I’d bet.
I return to the escalator, excusing myself to the few who actually step onto the platform without trouble from the guards. Not many make this journey. I wonder if there were steps to Heaven before escalators were invented?
Slowly, again, I make my way up.
Along the ride are typical scenes you’d expect from Heaven – or at least what has been shoved down your throat. Fluffy clouds; people with halos; and said people throwing the aforementioned halos like a flying disc to another. Harpists? Or is it harpers? In either case, there are plenty of them. Everyone seems to wear nice, freshly bleached clothing and sit on clouds. Very stereotypical.
“I hope Heaven is better than this,” I say to me.
After contemplating running down the steps to wait for the Apple Store to open, I reach the summit. The golden gates – “A gated retirement community.” Short line.
A pristine red brick wall spans the white, marshmallow-resembling ground as far as I can see. And, more than likely, as far as you can see too. In the “middle” of that wall are the golden gates.
Above the wall looms a gigantic roller coaster (it was 1000 feet tall if it was a foot!) against the radiant blue sky. I am so overwhelmed I do not hear me called. The man behind me in line nudges me forward.
He seems impatient.
I’ve been narrating at the front of the line for a while.
A small, old steel desk not befitting its surroundings sits before the gates. Behind the desk, an old man with white beard dressed in drab white types with fervor on his Commodore. He needs to get to that Apple Store for a new unit. Maybe Ikea too for a desk while he’s at it. To his side is a small post with keys hanging from hooks. A name-plate lies on his desk. His name is Pete.
Pete asks blankly, “name.” It’s not really even a question.
I’m still partially looking at the coaster.
“Name,” he states again.
“Sorry. I was looking at the coaster.”
“That’s what you see.” His head does not rise. His fingers linger above the home-key position.
Pete sighs and loosens his typing stance. “Everyone sees a different Heaven based on their own tastes. It’s all in the brochure you should have picked up in Purgatory.” There is a stack of brochures on a fold-out card table next to his desk. Seriously – what a crappy office setup.
“Oh,” I answer back.
“Name.” He is still staring at the computer.
He’s typing. “Does Johnny stand for something.”
“Just ‘lover.’” I grin. I get the feeling he is not amused. “I mean, no, it doesn’t.” Tough crowd.
Still typing. He’s typing an awful lot on the keyboard for just a name. “Okay, you’re from -” He finally looks up at me and states confidently, “Ohio.” He types some more.
“Yes…. You can tell?”
He grins, and then stops dead. “Good Lord. It says you were already sent to Hell – suicide.” Pete stares me down. Can’t he go back to the screen?
Quickly, I try to state my case. “I know, but that, it was a mistake! I never did suicide!” He is still staring. “What – how does it say I died?”
“I know, but how -”
Pete interrupts, anticipating my question. “You ‘purposefully’” he makes air quotes “rode your bike into traffic.” Like air quotes are ever really necessary.
I’m shocked. “Why would I ‘purposefully’” I air quote him back “ride my bike into traffic?”
He points to the unseen screen. “It says here you are a very troubled boy.” True.
“I guess, whatever, but there are hundreds of better ways to -” Whoops. “I mean, I wouldn’t and didn’t!” I’m flabbergasted. Funny word.
Pete leans back in his swivel chair, making a loud screech as he does so. “This was around two o’clock or so yesterday I see.” He places his hand under his beard, and rubs. “Unfortunate.”
I’m confused. “Why?”
“Never die between one and four pm Eastern Standard on the third Friday every month.”
“Why?” Still confused.
“That’s God’s poker night.”
My face is blank.
“It has happened before… Well, actually, it probably happens every third Friday of the month between one and four Eastern Standard Time.” He continues to contemplate. “His bowling nights are usually the bigger problem. However, no one normally comes up here to complain in person.”
“I was sent to Hell because God was playing poker?”
Pete sits up. He looks down at the growing line of Heavenites behind me. Six people now. “Well, yes, I suppose there’s a chance. It’s rarely a problem since most souls are meant to spend their days in Hell anyway.”
Good to know.
He begins to type furiously on the computer again. “You need to talk to God about it.”
He shakes his head slowly. “Why do people always ask it like that?” His dot-matrix printer coughs out a slip of paper. A cup of pencils falls over from the desk shaking.
“What do I do?” Pete hands me the paper. “Follow the signs and hand this to God’s secretary.” The gates open leisurely. “Good luck.” It doesn’t sound like he means it.
Before I can say my thanks, he bellows out “next.”
I am pointed left via pedestal sign past the golden gates. Behind the wall and gates is more endless blue and white, with a few doors standing in open space. There are no walls to support the doors. Where is my roller coaster?
The sign directs me to a particular door that says “office” engraved in its plain pine surface. But, another door distracts me. It spells out my name, Johnny - if you had forgotten. It’s locked. A third door has no lock.
Why don’t I just go to the office?
I twist the knob to the third door and pull open. There is a sea of hallucinogenic colors bouncing around the door frame. The colors expand, explode, and expand again – this reminds me of a computer screensaver. A screensaver on acid. What a weird door.
I head back to the office door and open it. The sounds of heavy typing and layering conversation startle me, and I slam the door. Now, fully expecting the noise from within, I open the door and enter.
The room within the door is much deeper than it is wide. The walls are painted a drab shipyard gray, and the floor is carpeted in rust orange. Its long dimension has two columns of desks – metal, again. Behind those desks is staff pounding on typewriters, and/ or speaking on an old rotary-style telephone. You know: those phones that you had to wait five second to dial “0?” People had time to kill back in the olden days. The typists are in plain tan and gray clothing – not the white attire I had seen near the escalator.
One particular angel adorns a golden wing broach with the word “angel” embroidered in sky blue on his clean, white gown. He walks the aisle between the desks with a clipboard – occasionally stopping to look at paperwork in an “out” box at each workstation. The workplace is like a 30s style newspaper office typified in movies. Where’s the stereotyped, one-dimensional, hot-headed female reporter trying to get a leg up in a man’s world?
There’s a huge door at the end of this bowling alley of a layout. The door is solid gold with a large crystal plate that states “God, CEO.” In front of the door is a secretary - Pam. There is a jar of jelly beans on the corner of her desk with yellow smiley face stick on the jar. This makes her approachable.
I speak to her. “Hi, I’m supposed to see God?” I’m not sure why I pose this as a question.
Pam smiles. “Do you have an appointment?” She looks at the note Pete handed to me.
“I’m Johnny Johnson – Pete sent me in.” I want a jelly bean, so I take one.
She pushes a small button which makes the large door buzz. “Go ahead right in.” I guess she didn’t need to see the paper since Pete is most likely the only person anywhere – dead or alive - using a dot matrix.
Built in the large gold door is a small human-scaled entry, which I use, but only after Pam informs me that the gold door is much too heavy for me. The jelly bean is green-flavor.
God’s office is another never-ending open space like the golden gate area. Just white and blue. A huge polished oak executive-style desk with two wooden chairs in front sits twenty or so feet from the man-door, which appears now as a stand-alone detached-from-everything door. The desk is surprisingly bare. There is a hat rack near the door, on which I set my news bag. Another floater door is perched to the right. God is poised on his large black leather executive chair, eyeing me. Oh right, yes, God is there too.
“Sit down, Johnny,” says God smoothly.
I sit. “I see you already know who I am.” I know who he is as well.
“Well,” he starts, “I’m omniscient. Plus, it’s on my day schedule.”
“Oh, my dad had that.”
“Omimpotent,” I explain.
God leans back and smiles. “You are thinking of something completely different. Omniscient means knowing all.”
“That’s not the way my mom explains it to her friends over the phone!” I digress. “So, what’s going on in Hong Kong right now?” I’m already bored with this conversation. A.D.D….
“What can I help you with?” He redirects.
This is somewhat confusing if he already knows all. “Don’t you know? You said you were impotent.”
“I do know.”
“Then why do you ask?”
“To see if you know.” The more God speaks the more it sounds like he has what my dad has. He leans back. “You escaped from Hell.”
Strange question. “I was in Hell.”
“Yes, you were.” His voice is very calming and very soothing. He should do self-help audio books.
“Because I sent you there.”
Now this is just getting tedious. “But I never suicided. Don’t you know that?”
God rubs his maintained beard. “I’ve heard this before.”
I know. We all know now of his games.
He starts to innocently fumble around his desk. “Now, what do you think I should do about it?”
What does he think?
“What do you think?” I’m a little frustrated.
“We do have everything on file during my… nights out.” He presses an intercom button. “Get me the Johnny Johnson file from last night, please.”
The intercom screeches back: “Yes Mr. God.”
He looks at me. “It will be a minute.”
We both start looking around in wait. God grabs a pen from a cup and starts clicking it intermittently. I ask him to stop. It is very annoying. He offers a pistachio from a wooden bowl jokingly (I think) labeled “tree of knowledge.”
I Pass and break the silence. “Shouldn’t you know what happened without a file?”
“Sometimes God doesn’t want to see all - to know all. Sometimes God just wants a break.” What’s with the abrupt third person references? “There are too many ignorant, stupid people out there to see and hear all day and all night.”
I don’t believe this story.
“In addition, my card buddies do not want me to know what cards they have.”
There we go.
Pam wheels in a TV and VCR into the office on a tray and sets it near the desk. I guess it doesn’t need to be plugged in.
“You ought to get a DVD player,” I proclaim.
God fiddles with the VCR buttons. “They’ll just come out with something newer next year to replace it….” What a strange, strange concept in Heaven.
The TV flickers to life. Upcoming births and deaths are announced. All rated NC-17. God begins to fast-forward through these previews, muttering to himself. The video starts. I am seen riding my bike around the cul-de-sac, past the Smith House, and right into construction traffic. Just as I don’t remember it! I wonder whose perspective this camera video is in?
God rewinds and replays the accident a few more times. “It appears you are telling the truth.” The screen is paused on me lying in the back-hoe bucket.
I’m excited by God’s revelation. “Does this mean I get to leave Hell?”
I’m un-excited. “Why not?”
He leans back in his chair again. “In many ways I am an obstinate God. Cantankerous, if you will.” Another funny word. “You should have gone through the proper channels.” What channels? Damn you, Jeff, you didn’t tell me about the bureaucracy! “Or, better yet, if you would have just let things be for a day longer all would have worked itself out.” He sees my confusion. “You’re confused?” Duh.
“What difference would a day longer make in an eternity?” Good question, me!
“You are aware of the by-laws, correct?”
God pulls a brochure from a drawer. “This.” It’s the pamphlet from Hell.
“No….” Oh, that thing.
God shakes his head and tosses the pamphlet to me. I have like three of those in my satchel already. “Suicides spend two days in Hell. After which, they are rehabilitated to Earth.” If my face could turn into an exclamation point it would be one right now. “You thought, what, this was forever?”
“There is no such thing as forever or eternity, Johnny. Everything always ends at some point.”
I am shocked. The only thing I can do is stare at the brochure on my lap and let out light squeals. From my mouth.
God chuckles, “Good me! If people were fated to Heaven, and especially Hell, for an eternity I could not imagine the over-crowding and potential riots! Well, in Hell at least.” He chuckles for a good minute or two while I try not to soil myself. What a jerk.
I finally come back to conscience. “So, I go to Hell for just another day?”
He wipes the tears from his eyes. His tone becomes serious again. “No, I am afraid not. You broke the rules.” This is disheartening. “According to the law you are assigned an additional thirty years as punishment.”
He presses the intercom. “Could you send in security, please?”
To me: “Sorry, I do not make the rules.” What?
Before the security arrives, within seconds, I re-plead my case for leniency. This is to no avail, and I am forcibly escorted out of the office. The light squeal is no longer from my mouth.
“Read the material, learn the rules” is the last thing I hear from God.
Pam covers the top of the jelly bean jar as I am dragged past her desk.
I guess those aren’t for me anymore.
EXT. HELL – RIVER STYX – EAST BANK – TWENTY YEARS LATER…. I mean, here I am again on the East Bank of the River Styx in Hell – reading the pamphlet for the millionth time.
Per Ordinance F801-c.6 I had been allotted an appeal to the highest court in the ever-after land. Unfortunately, that again is God and he “rules from the bench” as the saying goes … and I think he has something against me. Normally, this wouldn’t be an issue for most (suicide) Hellions anyway, because the in-Hell duration is so short and the court date would be set after reincarnation. The ordinance must be meant for other Hellions. This also explains why he never met any of his “accidents.”
Around me, Hellions walk scattered about along the shore. Some find comfort in playing tic-tac-toe in the dust and other games with such bland taste. I stick to the manual. The manual actually does have a pretty good Hellion write-in, word-of-the-day, and “notable news” section – the latter of which simply expounds on new-found torture methods.
Time stands still in Hell. There are no clocks, no alarms, no buzzers. At the moment, I was certain my stay had been only a week or month at the most. “Thirty years of this?” I say kicking someone’s dust drawn hangman game. “Something must be done.”
A man, who stands near me, is wearing lederhosen and hat with a feather. People’s clothing or general “style” are stereotyped in Hell (or he is simply his own stereotype). It’s just another “screw you” by Satan.
“What’s thirty years in an eternity, anyway?” He speaks with a soft German accent. “Thirty years is no matter.” Has he not read the manual as I hadn’t before? And where’s his beer stein?
“Yes, right, no,” I stumble over my words. “No, I’m here for, because I know Jesus.” He seems surprised. “We met once in a bar in Detroit. He’s being lenient on me since we’re good friends. Everyone here is forever – unless you know Jesus?”
The German looks down. “Oh.”
“So, you don’t know him?”
“No.” Good. He begins to search the ground.
“You lose something?”
I speculate, perhaps, he seeks a hand.
He concurs. He is missing his right hand.
“I’m Ludwig Muntzel.” His handless arm is outstretched, but he soon realizes the silliness of his action.
“I’m Johnny. Are you German?” I know full well he is German, but it’s rude to make brash assumptions. You know, like when you see in a TV show or movie when someone assumes a woman is pregnant, and he learns she is not pregnant, and then hilarities ensue? No, I’m not going to make a badly-written cliché like that.
“Yes.” He furrows his brown. “You are American?”
How dare he question-state my origins! But I nod all the same.
“Your German is very good.” It is very obvious he hasn’t read the pamphlet. In Section 60, article XI, part c. it clearly states “All those damned need only speak of one language, in their native tongue … however clearly understood by all those damned.” Meaning, we all understand one another regardless of language barriers.
I play along. “Thank you.” Tee-hee.
Ludwig spots a hand, although obviously not his own, but content anyway. The left hand of an elderly woman snaps snuggly into his right arm stub. He realizes the now double lefthandedness of himself, but shrugs it off contently without attempting to remove it. I’m not ever sure the hand – or any body part – can come back off once attached.
In fact, I’m not sure if any of this makes sense.
He sees my pamphlet. “What’s that?”
“Nothing,” I hide the pamphlet behind my back, think quickly how silly that action looked considering he already saw the pamphlet, and reveal the pamphlet again. I rewind. “I mean, it’s just … it speaks of how long someone stays down here. Kind of a salt-in-the-wound thing. A downer, really.” He seems to buy it. Encourageable, ain’t I?
In my most woeful voice, I continue. “~I can’t believe we’re all stuck here forever! I mean, me, thirty years, but you for all eternity!~”
Ludwig gently kicks a body part laying on the ground. “Yeah. I miss home already.” He looks to the sky. “Do you think you could put in a good word for me with Jesus?”
I shake my head.
“Why are you here?” I tell him my story (except all the stuff about visiting God – just the before death story). “Suicide? Me too. They all said climbing that mountain after a rainstorm was suicide, but I didn’t think it would be meant literally.” I actually do sympathize with the poor guy.
A little girl, maybe around five, walks up us. She is wearing a red kimono. “I miss my mommy and daddy,” she states solemnly. What is she doing in a place like this? This little girl committed suicide? Doubtful, but I don’t want to bring it up to a little girl.
“You committed suicide too, honey?” I guess Ludwig is bringing up the topic.
She’s a little puzzled. “What’s that?”
I interrupt Ludwig to further interrogate. “What do you remember last?”
“I fell off the swing set.”
Ludwig ponders the little girl, and probably has come to the same conclusion as I – she was in the same boat as he (and I). He bellows out: “What strange rules in the afterlife!” His right (left) hand is held aloft as if he is at the end of a soliloquy. I don’t know or understand what he’s doing, but he needs to be holding a skull.
I ask, without thinking, “was it on the third Friday of the month?”
The little girl doesn’t seem to hear (or understand?) me, but Ludwig speaks up now out of his confusing monologue. “Why do you ask that?”
“Because … I think that may have been the day I died?” Why did I ask my answer?
“I see.” He turns back to the girl. “Well, whatever (how accusatory his voice has become!) happened to you it seem you are stuck here forever.”
That same puzzled look is upon her. “Forever? But that man says two days.” She points to (toward) Jeff. I think Jeff may have just picked his nose.
“What? What guy?”
Stupid little girl! How dare she know things! I chime in on the conversation (otherwise known as spouting strange, interrupting noises), just as the little girl is about to mention the brochure.
Ludwig looks up to Jeff, who appears to be staring at his finger. I scowl at the little girl and kick her into the river. Hellions anguishing in the mud immediately pull her in. Ludwig turns back to us (just me now) at the sound of the little girl’s last “eep.”
“She slipped on some mud!” I try to act as surprised as Ludwig at this turn of events.
“Anyway, Jesus personally taught me everything to know about Hell.” He looks suspicious at me.
I look over my shoulder, then his, and keep my act going. “You know,” now whispering, “I think there is a way out of this.” I look over his shoulder again, all cautious-like.
He whispers back. “How?”
I can’t understand him.
Louder, he asks “how” again.
“I think there is a way out of here.” I keep looking to my left and right. This is still an act, but also I want to make sure that little girl isn’t back. “We can get out of here, back to our families … in time for meat loaf….” I trail off.
“Meat loaf?” There must be a translation problem, because he makes the most disgusted face toward meat loaf.
He shrugs this off. “Get how how?” I can tell he isn’t on board, but inquisitive nonetheless.
I look to my sides again (still no sign of the little girl). “We can get everyone on the shore to lead an attack on Satan!” He sort of gasps/ whimpers. “As we sweep the land, more will join!”
“Attack Satan? That’s nuts!”
“But, you’re already here forever.”
He contemplates this.
“What’s the problem if you’ve got nothing else to do?”
Ludwig quips back, “but what if they put us someplace worse?”
“Ha!” I chuckle falsely. “Satan is defeatable. I learned this from the best, remember?”
“What?” He’s apparently forgotten my lie.
“Jesus,” I confidently spout.
“Ah, Jesus,” he states with an understanding.
“Jesus…” I mumble, with mouth slightly open. I thumb to my (his left) right.
Jesus approaches walking across the River Styx toward Ludwig and me. He reaches our shore, near where the little girl fell in totally by accident. To show my acquaintanceship with Jesus, I bolt out: “hey, Big J.”
“Hi, Jesus” meekly states Ludwig, following my lead.
Jesus takes no heed in the moniker I have bestowed upon him. He nods to us, magically apparates a loaf of bread and a fish from behind each of our ears, and walks away along the shoreline. Pretty neat.
“Yup, that’s Jesus. Always giving me friendship bread and fish.” Good times.
Ludwig takes this as an omen. “You really do know Jesus?”
“And you really do know a way to defeat Satan?”
“And you think people will go for it?”
He leans closer, as if I might not have fully understood his last question. “An attack?”
I do fully understand the question, and I nod.
Ludwig and I create a flyer for the attack on Lucy on the back of some old junior crosswords from the daily leaflets lying on the ground. Someone wrote in “poop” and “fart” in all the spaces. No, it wasn’t me.
We scratch out the offending words so not to create confusion amongst the Hellions. On the back we state:
ATTACK ON SATAN TONIGHT FOR ALL THOSE WHO WISH TO BE RID OF THIS ETERNITY IN HELL AND FINALLY HAVE OUR COURT DATE SET FOR RELEASE OR AT LEAST PAROLE. WAIT FOR THE SIGNAL.
Now, I’m sure I don’t have to remind you most Hellions are not, say, well-equipped for battle. Usually one must have at least two limbs to put up a good fight; especially in a battle of this magnitude. But, the hopeless have no reason not to give it their all.
The shores of the river are divided semi-equally among several “barons” – Hellions who for one reason or another decided to take it upon themselves to become a leader in the territory around them. Imagine Marlon Brando’s character in the movie Apocalypse Now, and then add ignorance.
Basically, there’s one guy for each region (demanding loyalty and bribes) competing on a body parts trade. Strange but true. This would worry the nonobservant type, but considering the incredibly high turnover of barons (due to the two-day reincarnation period) - I was not in the least bit concerned. And, this again supported my theory that no one reads the brochure when they get to Hell.
All Ludwig and I had to do is convince the barons they would each get a bigger piece of the limbs trade when we win. Hell was much bigger than this shoreline, so much more “merchandise” (as they referred to it) was out there for the taking. Forget the point that limbs would miraculously disappear every hour from stock piles as its related Hellion returns to Earth; but whatever exactly were they trading for? I have no idea, and it hurts my head to think about it. Sometimes (a lot of the time, actually) the ones with the most power aren’t the brightest.
In addition to the disappearing limbs, once in a while Charon the ferryman would report to docks along the river and call out names from a tattered scroll. According to the brochure, it takes a lot of energy to dissipate bodies (and body parts), and therefore more fuel, and therefore more money – more than Satan’s budgetary allowance anyway. Those Charon beckons to are more mobile than most Hellions, and are simply transported via the fuel efficient ferry. Hellions normally do report to Charon right away, but I have countered Charon’s.
At the bottom of the notes, I tag on:
P.S.: IF YOUR NAME IS CALLED BY THE FERRYMAN THAT MEANS IT IS YOUR TURN FOR THE TORTURE CHAMBER! AND NO LEGAL AID AVAILABLE TO YOU!!
I wasn’t sure what the last part meant, but Ludwig assured me it was topical.
At this point, Charon is restlessly standing, waiting, at his dock near Ludwig and me. We have drawn Xs (representing Hellions) and an O (representing Satan). Basically, the dust drawing is a bunch of Xs with arrows pointing (attacking) the big O.
Anyway, Charon calls a few names from his scroll. Three silent gasps occur in our vicinity. Two are within an earshot: Cristian and Xing are their names. Their conversation is relatively short with one another after they learn their similar predicaments, and then they keep silent so not to make Charon aware of their location (as if he knows who they are).
Charon is starting to get more agitated. He double-checks the list, probably looking again over the names and his dock number. He is of course correct. More whispering and light chattering spreads along the banks as Charon stands there.
I erase the dust battle plan and nod to Ludwig. Ludwig nods back in secret nodding agreement. It is time.
I sprint from the “base” to a small plateau on the climb to the ridge far enough to see along the shore. At this stop, I yell: “Signal! Signal” This denotes the signal to which the notes referred.
Slowly, Hellions react to my signaling and rise from the mud – the closest barons first, with followers following. Then the next closest group, and the next, and so one along the river (at Charon’s shock and dismay). To be honest, I was surprised how well the leaflets worked.
Jeff, still waiting out his own personal Hell years, flees the crest of the ridge – as does his fellow guardsmen. There is really no reason for the guards to stay and fight (them having read the brochures they hand out). As the guards scramble, they are heard yelling “read the brochure” to no avail over the deafening, slushy stomping and moaning of the oncoming residents of Hell.
We are on the march to Satan, and all her guards are on the run. At this point in the attack, Satan will not have known the extent (if anything) of the attack because of the deep blackness which envelopes most all of Hell’s layers. The slope of the hill opposite the River Styx is much steeper than the other side. Satan’s plateau is held slightly aloft. This configuration gives Hell a bundt cake pan feel to its terrain. Being without this knowledge, most of the Hellions - including Ludwig and myself - tumble into the abyss below. To the casual observer, our “army” would have appeared to be a screaming, cursing landslide.
We find the bottom of the hill is barely illuminated by scattered torches. They light only a few dozen feet in circumference beyond their flames in each area. Torches in the distance, on this level, glow like stars beyond. Lucy’s candles reign supreme.
Ludwig and I land near each other. Before us sits a rock staircase meant for apparent “gluttons.” I know these are gluttons from an “Historic Designation” marker nearby.
“Est. 12” the marker states.
Here, Hellions are whipped (with whips) up the stairs to the top. From there they are pushed to and off of the landing. At the bottom, they collect themselves (sometimes literally) and are forced to start again. There are no other types of punishments visible from our spot.
Before I can go into any type of fantasy on which the lustful may undertake, Ludwig exclaims: “Gluttons! Up in arms! Pie awaits!” But that further titillates my lustful fantasy.
There is an immediate stair-climbing stoppage, and many of the licking of lips (same for the lustful?). Although we are shadowed and speak within complete darkness, the guards realize something is amiss. They begin to back slowly from their positions, and we charge. The guards, as those before them, run off leaving the gluttons and thieves (assumed nearby) and murders (assumed nearby) and every other sinner to us.
Now, Hell’s brochure contains a map (but no bundt cake pan cross section to gage depth) of Hell and its various rings (sinner punishment areas). Hell is a near perfect circle. The River Styx runs down one side, and a long, meandering corridor - lined with what I believe are tree symbols or tents of some kind - pokes out of the very opposite side of the circle from the river. The corridor leads from Lucy’s plateau (labeled elsewhere as “Lucy’s Playplace) to something called “Lucy’s Cottage.”
From the cottage, an arrow points to a photo of Lucy and a man named Chad. Below the photo, in which Lucy and Chad lovingly embrace, is a caption which states “Lucy’s Playplace” (that’s where it was labeled).
So, in reality, Hell is like an off-centered bundt cake pan.
According to the Who’s Who? Of Hell section in the brochure, Chad is Lucy’s boyfriend. Of course, this is not Lucy’s first, since like everyone else this Chad will one day return to life. Another section of the brochure ironically (or is it satirically?) called R.I.P. Chads lists hundreds of previous boyfriends – all named Chad, and all chiseled, blonde, spray-tanned, and curiously effeminate in attire.
Anyway, after collecting all the Hellions we could (and could see), our group surrounds Lucy’s Playhouse in a crescent moon shape – remaining in the dark below the plateau. From this locale, most of us can hear and see Lucy and Chad pretty well. Lucy stands wings out, towering over Chad – who relaxes in a fold out reclining pool chair.
On the plateau, sinners scramble about. They are avoiding Lucy’s enormous clawed stomping feet (they were clawed and not hoofed as I thought earlier). The plateau is entirely fenced in all around. They make many fruitless attempts to climb out.
On his lawn chair, Chad edges on his mate from behind his metallic sun visor and mirrored sunglasses. A small side table sits next to him on his left, with a mimosa perched atop. I wondered what he had done to deserve such treatment! All the while, my posse goes unnoticed below. It really smells like sandalwood down here now.
With a final “hurrah” by Ludwig and me, a chain reaction along the battlefield begins and sets our infantry moving once again.
Chad lowers his sunglasses to the edge of his nose, Satan stops her soul crushing (with soul still under foot), and both look in awe. The man under foot seems to be taken aback as well (although he may just be saying “augh”). He does not appear to be a pirate or ninja as I had thought he would be. So many misconceptions resolved in these past few moments.
We easily down the poorly erected non-union fence around Lucy’s Playplace. Chad leaps from his chair and sprints down the (now seen to be) tree-lined path to their cottage. A few Hellions chase after Chad. Lucy is enraged. Her wings beat more furiously and her stomping restarts, but more heavily and angrily than before – much to the chagrin to the non-pirate under foot.
Many Hellions are blown backwards, others are merely stomped into oblivion, and a few are encased in wax spilled from fallen candles. Ludwig and I stop giving orders, which mainly involved the words “attack” and “go.”
Neither of us are really sure what exactly to do to defeat Lucy. We have in reality no good weapons or an attack plan (the Xs and big O is already in progress). Some throw rocks and bones and chunks of cooled candle wax at Lucy. Others are much, much more brave. They reach her pivot foot and make an attempt to climb her like an angry, thrashing mountain.
Without an endgame, the battle is in complete chaos.
New recruits keep flooding in – literally new. I guess Charon had given up returning Hellions, and started shipping in new ones. These new recruits take the same route as my Hellions. They hear the commotion beyond the hill ridge, do not read the (now strewn) brochures, and blindly follow along.
The screams from those completely dismantled or basically-crushed-into-dust-by-Satan don’t go unrewarded. For all those veterans involved, this fight will be forever called “The Battle of Mounting Satan by Hellions.” Not my title.
Many hours, it seems, pass and Satan is tiring. She runs down the corridor toward her home while fighting off the remainder of the tick-like climbers.
Lucy is gone from sight. A glorious “hurrah” erupts on the plateau.
Along the plateau there is a party of biblical proportions. Ludwig and I are congratulated and pat on the back many of times. We’ve created two thrones for us in the middle of the playplace with a sign that says “Heroes” in large red (yes, in blood) lettering – we wouldn’t want the credit to go someone else. All around, Men and women sway together in drunken behavior. Some Hellions who chased after Chad gained access to Lucy’s and Chad’s liquor cabinet. Even those sinners who are frozen within a nearby pond – faces above ice – are bobbing their heads to and fro in glee. Those whose heads are frozen under and their bodies above wag their behinds. I’m not sure how they know what’s going on, but it’s nice to see them enjoying theirselves for once.
Now, I guess we wait. Wait for what exactly I do not know.
A couple of Hellions who stuck around Lucy’s cottage said the cottage was ransacked for more than just booze. Chad hid himself in the closet to get away from lustful souls poking about. Lucy eventually showed up in dismay. She told Chad she would “talk to God,” kissed Chad on the forehead, and flew off into the dark sky. This sounded like great news to Ludwig and all those around the storytellers, but in my mind I wasn’t quite sure how this would work out. To my knowledge, there wouldn’t be any precedent for demands after attacking Satan.
I, of course, was not at the meeting with Lucy and God, but I imagine it went something like this: Lucy and God meet in God’s greenhouse. Before Lucy can speak, God veers the subject to his newest creation – a man-eating plant named Kyle. They have a brief discussion on the merits of a man-eating plant, which goes nowhere. Satan brings up her situation in Hell. But - being God - he already knows the problem, the instigator (me), and the solution. With Lucy, God sends a small (but powerful) Angel Squadron to help her break up the resistance. Jesus, of course, will be sent as a supervisor with a limited role. Lucy flies off with the Angels ready to descend to Hell. God unleashes Kyle for a test run in Phoenix.
Anyway, to continue my (real) side of the story, Satan (and God’s Angels) returns to the plateau. The party breaks up at the sight of the Angel’s fireball wands. Their wings unsettle dust on the plateau, choking the air. I rub my eyes, reopen them when I feel like the dust had settled around me, and see Satan right there before me – in normal, human scale. I suppose that is how she kissed Chad.
She looks at a small photo handed to her by an Angel. Two Angels grab my arms – one to each arm. She looks up and me and down to the photo a couple times, and nods when content that I am the boy in the photo. I am lifted off by the Angels to a new destination. The last thing I hear from Ludwig, hiding behind his throne and under the fallen “Heroes” banner, is “she’s hot” and a few other Hellions agreeing.
Ms. Satan and the Angels drop me off directly into God’s office and quickly fly off. I guess she just wanted to make sure I made it okay. The flight was relatively quick and long at the same time. I could tell we were going fast, but it seemed to take forever. It was long enough for my arms to ache under the Angels’ tight grasp.
God speaks from behind his desk before I have much of a moment to collect my thoughts. “You are a very strange, manipulative, and devious boy.”
He reaches for his intercom and asks Pam to hold his calls. This can’t be her Heaven. What did Pam do to still be working here?
“But, I am not sure if you are actually intelligent, or simply those three descriptors.”
Pam speaks from the intercom to tell God the intercom is still on. God re-presses the apparently jammed button and mutters to himself. I smile.
He recomposes. “I am betting on simply persuasive, although that in itself is not difficult to accomplish with people like desperate Hellions” he says while pointing to the white cloud floor. I gather he is pointing not at the floor but to Hell. “I know what you all want.” I assumed that. “And, I am willing to give this to you.” Really?
“We can all go home?”
He is bemused by my question. “Not quite. This offer is only for you.” I inquire. “I simply cannot allow thousands and thousands of dead people wander home to say ‘hi, I was just in Hell.’” His high-voiced impersonation of us isn’t very good. “Johnny, I know you have read the brochure many times, so you know it takes time to reset Hellions’ minds for recovery to Earth.”
I nod. Re-mindification was, of course, my favorite chapter! When you are set to be reincarnated, your mind is “reset” (blanked is a better word) so you have no memory of Hell or Heaven, and any prior life (or lives). This doesn’t always work as intended.
“I will let you go home for one day, for a few hours. You can visit your parents or do anything you want; but keep in mind-“
Pam buzzes through again – an “urgent” prayer on line one. God slams the intercom button again, holding it down hard and exclaims to Pam she should “hold all calls.” This does make me feel pretty important right now to be God’s main point of attention. He takes his finger off the button, and takes additional care to ensure the red indicator button is off.
He looks back to me still standing where the Angels and Lucy had left me, and calms back down. “Keep in mind, my Angels are watching your every move.”
“That sounds okay to me,” I say - for the most part to myself.
“You will return to me at 10:00 PM, your home time. After which, you will serve out your remaining ten years in Hell - guarded vigilantly I might add. After said Hell time, you will be given thirty additional years in Heaven.” He pauses. “Somewhere out of the way.”
I’m a little disappointed. “Why can’t I be reincarnated after the ten years – wait.” I think. “Ten years? I’ve been down there” I count on my fingers and toes “twenty years already?”
He nods. “This is the deal.” I don’t even want to know what the deal wouldn’t be.
“I only had ten more years … that was going fast….”
God nods again and stretches his arms to place his hands behind his head.
“Well, at least I get to go to Heaven, so that isn’t bad?”
God shakes his head to say “no, that isn’t a bad thing.”
“And the other Hellions?” Surely they will be angry about the deal not including them. He says not to worry about them. Most will be – are due to be - reincarnated soon.
“When do I leave?”
“Immediately.” He sits back upright in his chair. “Go to Purgatory. There, a man named Ligriv will meet you. I believe you know the way.”
I am pretty peppy at this point and thank God for being reasonable.
He shakes off my gratitude as “poppycock” and leads me to his golden office door. There is a strange smile on his face. I ignore it, try to take another candy from Pam, and get scorned by her in this candy-thievery attempt.
I reach Purgatory exactly the opposite way I had once reached it before.
Purgatory has changed a bit since my last encounter twenty years prior. Even longer lines await the check-in counters; body scanners are guarded by twitchy armed security personnel; and likewise twitchy bomb sniffing dogs search the crowd. It is hard to know whether this longer wait is from a terrible calamity on Earth, or the halved number of check-in assistants (and tripled stalling “security efforts”) at the front of the queue. Never would I have thought Heaven and Hell would need this much protection.
From the crowd, a man enrobed in burgundy robbing, open sandals, grayed beard, and grayed balding head emerges – prodding Purgitorians with a twisted, dark willow cane with silver head atop. He looks like a warlock or wizard – or are those the same?
He reaches me at the Purgatory landing past the three guards, who don’t react at his presence.
Is he invisible?
No, I’m pretty certain I see him.
“I am Ligriv.” I assumed.
“Hi, I’m Johnny.” He probably assumed.
“I have been instructed to guide you back home,” he says waving his cane in the air - warlock-like? “Now, close your eyes.” I do. A moment later I get the distinct feeling of being rapped on the head with a silver-headed willow cane (by a wizard-like man?).
I open my eyes. His voice and body trails off: “…if you need me just think it … now … you are there….”
And I am. With an aching head to boot.
Anyway, I am back home near a sign that states “Keep Kids Alive, Drive 25.” Better late than never. The neighborhood still looks about the same, except the backhoe which scooped the life out of me (pun!) still sits on one side of the road as a rusting memorial.
I’m not sure if my parents still live at the same address, or even if they are still alive (although, why would God allow me to go home if they were dead?), So I cautiously poke around the front stoop and check for evidence of my family – none. Next, I try a nearby window facing into the living room. There is an old mantle clock sitting atop a television in the corner - a dead giveaway for this to be my parents’ house. The clock says it’s only 6:23, and that is much too early for them to be awake. Plus, I would rather shock them with my appearance after they at least had their coffee. Scare my dad while he is still half asleep and he may accidentally stab you with a fork … again. At least I believed it was an accident…. Hm.
I sit on the stoop to wait for, at least, 8:00 AM to come. There I sit, waiting, when twenty years of sleeplessness in Hell comes crashing onto me.
I wake to a ring of a bell and then slap in the face – a newspaper. I rub my eyes, look up, and see my father standing in the doorway staring down at me. He is looking none surprised to see his fourteen year old son, twenty years dead, sitting on the stoop half asleep.
“The new paperboy (I can only assume he means “new” as in the latest one in a string of many paperboys over the years) remembers to leave us a morning paper and gets the neighbors’ on their porches.” He still has the same monotone, authoritative voice I had grown up with, but now a little worn and craggily – at least twenty years more worn and twenty years more craggily. My dad never really seemed surprised by anything, so this isn’t as crazy of a reaction as it may appear.
“Your mother has been waiting for you.” Strange, but surely she will be shocked to see me.
We walk into the house. I mutter to myself “it all looks the same.” My dad says to stop muttering to myself. Yup, the same. The television on cheap laminated (fake) wood roller cart meant for a microwave in the 80s; a mantle clock atop the TV (as was mentioned earlier); and rabbit ears atop the mantle clock (which was not mentioned earlier but nevertheless were there). Drab orange and green sitting furniture also from the 70s and 80s fills the living room (though, many years ago it hadn’t yet been drabbed), and photos and paintings of frowning clowns hang all over the yellowy sun-faded walls. The floor is still covered with brown shag (used to be red) with a path permanently compressed from the kitchen door to Dad’s orange, worn reclining chair. If you didn’t know any better, you would think the décor was “retro” rather than sad.
Mom pokes her head through the kitchen door. There is now the scent off coffee emanating from the kitchen as the colored beads separate in the doorway. Her eyes open wide and mouth goes slightly agape. She blinks only once, and then her eyes go back to her normal size and mouth no longer open – I think, yes, one eye is twitching a bit. And, yes, it appears both her pupils are now the size of pin pricks. The facial expressions from my mom would have been best accompanied at the end with the sound effect of a window shattering.
“Johnny, is that you?”
“Yes?” As a question?
“Where have you been?” As with my dad, my mom appears the least bit surprised about my re-appearance. Her voice is normal.
Or, maybe I should say her (their) voice is “disappointed.” Like I had just run away for a couple of hours, or I had gotten another “C” in math. Although, I do consider their disappointed voice to be normal.
Or, movies and TV shows are wrong at how shocked people would be when they see their two-decade-long-deceased relative?
Or, my parents are insane.
“I was in Heaven and Hell –“
“Now watch that mouth!” Interrupts my mom.
“But, that’s where I was –“
“Listen to your mother,” now interrupts my dad from the orange recliner – behind the sports section of the newspaper.
There really isn’t much time, so I just came out with my situation. I explain, in brief, where I was (remembering to not say the word “Hell”) and what had happened with me, God, Satan, Big J, and then God again. My unbelievable story is, of course, un-believed.
“Heaven, heck, Satan – what have we told you about too much peanut butter?” Something about dogs? “I want a phone number the next time you are gone for that long.”
“Okay.” Not really.
The conversation goes quite a while longer, but more in the direction of my “tone” and my “language.” After the scolding, my mom promptly tells me to clean my room while she gets the ingredients for meat loaf ready for tonight. Again, in vane, I try to explain why I am here and for how long.
With a sore behind, I venture upstairs in my old room.
In my room, there is no bed, no desk, no chair, no nightstand, no lamp, no alarm clock, no posters, no pictures, no toy chest, no toys, no strewn clothing, no anything.
Am I to clean an empty room?
Apparently. I decide, indeed, my parents have gone insane. Perhaps at the first sight of me?
Here, now, I sit on the small ledge of the bedroom window and look out at Shea’s old house down the street.
My thought of Shea is immediately interrupted by “I don’t hear any cleaning up there” from my mom below.
So, I kick and scrape my feet against the wall below the window to create the sound of movement and shuffling. It either sounds like that or someone clawing at the wall. They don’t complain, so I carry on.
After an hour of this, my mom comes up to inspect my handiwork – and approves the empty room. Content, we go to the kitchen dining table for some lunch – not meat loaf, but bologna on rye. The raw ground meat is sitting in its pan melding with the ketchup (catsup?), garlic powder, and onion salt flavors.
Through lunch, I still cannot tell if my parents are simply in shock or just given over to insanity (possibly years before). But it does not matter. The fact is something is amiss and there is nothing I can do about it. However, lunch isn’t a total loss. I ask about Shea and her family, and they have some useful information. Shea is still living at her parents’ old house after her parents moved out.
After I clear the table, wash (and dry) the dishes, and do a couple other chores I am granted permission to visit Shea – as long as I am back for dinner on time.
It was a great surprise for Shea to find me on the front stoop of her house. Not a window-shattering-sound-effect-worthy reaction, but pretty taken aback. When she did finally stop raving about my evil spirit and calmed down a bit, we had a nice long conversation. I told her my situation with God, and she talked about her parents moving to Arizona some years back after Jonathon (her, my, son) turned sixteen. Shea was a few weeks pregnant when I died, unbeknownst to her or anyone else – including me.
She explained, at first, her father was furious. But after realizing I was the father, and dead, the “problem” was a little less grim and more manageable. Her father could always lie about Jonathon’s paternal ancestry.
All over her house are photos of Jonathon growing up without me. I had never been in the house so the décor was new to me. The décor was, thankfully, not “vintage” as my parents’. It was very cozy and intimate feeling. Oak flooring with accent rugs about; a fireplace set with brownish-red (unpainted) brick and more stained oak trim; solid cherry wood end tables, bookshelves, console, etc.; and earth-toned not-tweed sitting furniture. I was happy to see not everyone painted their fireplace white and set a fish tank where a fire should be ablaze.
Shea’s story: a pregnant teen, later high school equivalency, and working many, many ranges of jobs including a restaurant server, bartender (at the same place), a receptionist (several times), and finally a city worker for the parks department.
Of course, my labor experience over the years did not amount to much – except as army commander if you count that. “Commander” would look good on a resume.
Shea looks lovingly to a photo of Jonathon in his high school graduation cap and gown. “Jonathon is at State. On full scholarship in criminal justice; though, his grandparents - meaning my parents - helped with books from time to time.”
My parents were never meant to be part of the big picture, nor were they ever told about the big picture. “He sometimes comes home on the weekends (she checks her watch) – perhaps tonight – but he never calls first.” She smiles at me. “Sort of like you, tonight.” I smile back.
There is a single photo of me centered on the fireplace mantle, surrounded by more of Jonathon or Jonathon and Shea. I say while nodding to the photo. “At least he knew I existed.” She smiles again.
Not more than a moment passes when the front door slams open 180 degrees onto the wall – startling the both of us.
In walks a large duffle bag of laundry with legs. “Sorry, too much to handle and the knob slipped.” Says the walking, talking bag of dirty clothes. The bag falls to the floor in a muted thump, revealing a young, tall black man. This is of course not a walking, talking bad of laundry, but Jonathon - if you haven’t figured that out.
How serendipitous, or possibly a part of God’s plans?
Jonathon wipes his brow while looking at the now spilled clothing on the vestibule floor. “I was able to catch a ride at the last minute from – “He stops, now staring at me next to his mother on the sofa. His mouth, along with the door, is slightly ajar.
Shea rises and half-skips to Jonathon – she’s gleaming. “I have sort of a surprise!”
He probably already knows that.
“This is your father.”
He probably already knows that too.
She leads Jonathon into the living room by his arm. He seems slightly reluctant.
Jonathon rubs his eyes and does a double-take. I didn’t know people actually did double-takes. After a few rapid eye blinks from Jonathon, I lift myself from the sofa, walk to Jonathon who still stands by hand with his mother near the living room door, stretch out my hand, and say:
“Hello, son” in a false, fatherly gruff tone. It may even be an impersonation of my dad.
He still stares at me. “Dad?”
“Son,” I say still impersonationally.
“Dad!” He awakes from his stare.
“Son!” I exclaim more juvenilely.
Jonathon knocks my outstretch arm away as he lifts me off my feet, and swings me around in a whirling.
After a few swings around he lets me down. I call him “little guy” and he calls me “big papa,” or something equivalent. We are out of breath. And I am dizzy.
“You’re alive! And … so young?”
I catch my breath, sit on the sofa, think twice about asking him to sit on my lap for the story, and then answer as he sits next to me (good choice).
“Yes, sort of. I am still dead, I think. I was released by God –“
“God?” He interrupts.
“Yes.” He definitely is my son.
Hours pass as I re-tell for the 50th time my adventures in Hell and (briefly) Heaven. Jonathon fills me in on his collegiate life and his career aspirations. He wants to be a police officer after graduation and training so he can give back to the community. If not an officer, then a counselor of sorts (perhaps on the city council?), or a rich philanthropist. I tell him the latter sounded safer.
The phone rings as I recount an especially funny joke I had come across in Hell. Shea answers: it’s my mother, and I am handed the phone. I am late for the meat loaf dinner, and it’s getting cold (why parents never stick the “getting cold” dinner in the oven on low is beyond me).
They won’t eat without me.
My dad’s voice carries in the background - requesting my butt to get back home (censored version). I almost mention Jonathon, but catch myself, and hang up.
“I … I should spend some time with them – my parents.”
Jonathon jokes: “Aw, but I didn’t get to teach you how to shave!”
I mock the joke. “You don’t understand your grandparents and their meat loaf.” And their current state of mind seems a bit off as well – but I keep that to myself.
Shea’s mantle clock (actually on the mantle) points to 9:15. I sigh a bit.
We say our tearful goodbyes (eating up a solid 10 minutes of my time on Earth) on Shea’s front lawn.
“I guess we won’t see you again,” Shea asks in a stated voice.
“Probably not. Although, I will be reincarnated in forty years.” I turn to Jonathon, fully knowing the math. “Who knows what I may remember?” He is saddened slightly. “I tell you what, big guy: if I can remember anything of this and you, fifty years or so from now we will meet at the park down the road. Check every Friday for me, and I will do the same if at all possible.” He perks up a little more, but we both fully well know this feat will almost certainly never happen. Who knows who or what I will be reincarnated as, and where.
We embrace for a last time and I head toward my parents’ house. Shea calls out “have a good time there.”
I stop, think about her comment and the strangeness which has come over Mom and Dad, and I close my eyes. Ligriv appears (only to me?), pops me with the silver cane head again, and I am gone.
“I knew you’d be back early,” God states all-knowingly. He is holding a watering can and standing behind a tall, ugly, bean stalk-esque plant. A man-eater?
I shrug. “I figured I would quit while I was ahead.”
Ligriv asks if he may leave.
“Yes, but first take Johnny down to Hell.”
Ligriv grins evilly.
“But, not down the shaft.”
Ligriv makes a mumbled remark.
“Only ten more years, right?” Ligriv is forcibly ushering me by the arm from God’s office. God nods, again, with a strange smile.
The next ten years pass pretty quickly – much more than I would have expected. My wish to return to my home, granted by God, had been fulfilled so I spent my remaining years trying to make up my bad behavior to Satan (who now allows me to call her Lucy), Chad, Jeff, and all the other guards and devils.
At times, I would help various devils in their various Hellish activities: usually as someone to reach into the torture devices to dislodge some debris from a gear or dunking mechanism; or fetch nitrous oxide for the frozen pond for Lucy. Yes, there was much laughing and gallivanting about during my remaining years in Hell.
Lucy and her devils (Jeff had been finally released by now) sent me off with a big going-away party on her plateau; although, not quite as exuberant as the party with my Hellion brigade.
Soon I was back at Pete’s desk and the Golden Gates – which were currently being renovated so the area smelled of gold spray paint. It’s nice that they up keep the area. Or, at least the more touristy areas.
My conversation with Pete was much shorter and easier (since I was supposed to be there this time). His voice is still the same monotone and short-stated quality.
And finally, I am in Heaven!
God stands before me, waiting, on the Heaven side of the Golden Gates. He greets me.
“Hello, Johnny,” he greets.
I sputter a bit, confused. “Uh, hi.” A winged woman with a clipboards stands next to God equally confused.
“Allow me to show you your Heaven.” He smiles widely, and waves off the winged woman. He is holding a piece of yellow paper obviously torn from the lady’s clipboard.
The idea of God giving me a tour of my own Heaven strikes me as peculiar. I don’t reckon he gives a private tour to every – or many – Heavenites; but I suppose my case is different – we being great friends and all.
We arrive at a hallway of doors stretching as far as the eye can see. The corridor is blanketed by white, fluffy clouds (just as all of Heaven) with bright blue sky, and doors simply stand as if propped up by nothing (much again, like all of Heaven).
We walk a little and then stop at a door. I am happy to see we do not have to walk very far down the corridor, and I exclaim this thought.
He briefly explains: many Heavenites who belong neither in Heaven or Hell, nor Purgatory, are destined to walk the many days, weeks, or months to their door down the hall. When they arrive, their time in Heaven is up and they are promptly reincarnated – never knowing and reaching their Heaven. In human form, they appear grumpy, do not understand what it is they are missing in life, and live to put down others’ achievements.
I tell him there must be an awful lot of those people who have to make this trek.
He opens my plain leaf wood door with gold nametag that says “Johnson/ 14.” I would have imagined many Johnsons out there with the same door and confusion should and would occur. “Does your door not appear different than the rest?”
I look down the hall and, yes, God is correct (of course). My door does appear different. The door emanates light from its jambs - only to my eyes. And probably God’s.
While I reach for the knob, God states: “If you attempt to open any door which is not your own, you will get a great shock.” He again grins.
I don’t know if this is true, but I double-check the door tag and make certain no other door is lit.
No. No others glow, so I open and peak inside.
Beyond the door lies a giant amusement park full of roller coasters, thrill rides, concessions stands, water rides, ample rest rooms, and more attractions too numerous to name. There are clean, tidily dressed people running about the park in white and red pinstriped suits, bright white shoes, red and white cap, and red tie. They tip their hat as they pass God and me. Most of them carry brooms with attached pans, bags of garbage (from what or where I do not know), and other cleaning instruments.
“These are your employees to make your stay in Heaven ideal.” God sweeps his hand across the park.
“I don’t need to do anything?” I am still in awe of one particular roller coaster whose largest incline soars into a single cloud (cumulus) floating by itself against the clear blue sky.
“What if I get tired of the rides or bored?” This does concern me, because of my attention disease and all.
God responds with: “Will what you ride, ride what you will.” And, as if it were read from a motivational poster: “Your imagination is your only limitation.”
I suddenly feel the desire to blow something up. But, I think of the mess that would make and defer that thought to another day.
“Who are all these people cleaning up after me?” Not that I really care that much. “Are they real or imaginary?”
“These are the miscreants of the amusement park world with a few carnies in the mix.” He looks around. “They are on a leave program from Hell – an ‘ironic’ punishment campaign of which I allow Lucy to perform at times.”
There sure is a lot of Hell going on in Heaven.
“Many males who die young have the desire for an amusement or theme park.” I briefly interrupt him to say theme parks are stupid, but he ignores my op-ed. “These parks are large and require maintenance. So, who better to serve these Heavens than those who had once served them on Earth?”
I inquire. “Who?” I am not paying a lot of attention to his answer to my question.
“Them,” he answers sweeping his hand across the park once again. I think he’s a little annoyed.
“But,” he goes on, “do not worry. They will never harm you. There has never been an instance of a Hell transplant harming a Heavenite. For if they do, a fate far worse than this awaits.” A nearby attendant hears this last bit of information and begins to sweep the sidewalk furiously.
“What about other people? I don’t want to just talk to carnies.” We start to walk into the park. “Can I conjure friends or anyone to join me?”
“Of course.” He stops, and holds his arm to my chest to stop me as well. “But,” he wags his finger, “you have to remember these important aspects. One can only copy a person who is dead or has lived and died at some point in time. If you conjure, say, a childhood friend who is not yet dead: your friend will simply be a ‘blank’ as it is known. Not until that person has died – and has gone to Heaven – will the blank have a personality.”
“In addition, you may wish for any person who has died in the past – regardless of whether they have been reincarnated or not.”
I think about this curious characteristic of Heaven and a great idea pops into my head. A second later, Benjamin Franklin billows into being before us. However, Mr. Franklin has a peculiarity about him: his gray hair is frazzled and askew; his shirt is unbuttoned in places or mis-buttoned in others; a lens from his self-invented spectacles is missing; and it appears he now has a seriously humped back. He is also drooling and swearing quite more than I would expect from a dignitary to France.
Or is this exactly what I should expect from someone who has spent a lot of time in Paris?
I expect not.
My puzzled look triggers a response from God. “When you conjure someone who is dead, it makes a copy of that person for you – rather than simply send that person to you. The more a person is copied, well, the worse the copies become. If you keep Ben for a long while, the copy will eventually become better as your copy moves up the queque.”
He keeps going.
“Think of it not like a duplicate from a paper copier, but an electronically shared ‘static’ entity.”
“The more copies before you the more ‘static-y’ the form. The static illustrates itself as disfigurement, disease, etc.”
“There are, of course, many copies of the founding fathers of your country so the queque is quite long.” God looks Benjamin Franklin up and down in disgust, as do I.
I imagine the sad Ben Franklin gone, and he fades into a wailing, profanity-ridden haze. I didn’t really like most of my friends in reality, and I had assumed they must be dead from ignorance by now, so I couldn’t think who else to summon - except for Shea and Jonathon. But they aren’t dead yet. I find this out as their blank bodies appear when I ask for them. And no, a blank woman would certainly not be as fun as some teenagers and creepy middle-aged men might think. I send them away.
God and I continue toward the middle of the park – give or take a few yards of the exact middle. He really doesn’t need to show me around. It is nice of him to do so. But, I quickly realize his intent.
When we reach the exact middle – give or take a few inches – there sits my boyhood home (just beyond the tilt-a-whirl).
Mom yells out to me from an open living room window: “It’s about time you showed up! Hop inside young man. Your food’s getting cold! We’re having meatloaf.”
“Listen to your mother,” says Dad at the stoop, bending for a newspaper.
I turn to God with my mouth agape. “They’re ‘blanks,’ right?” I fully know the answer.
“You fully know that answer,” states God. “No, they are very real. They are not even copies.”
“Ten years ago, you left your parents in their dining room (which was really just a table in the kitchen) waiting for you to show up and dine on meatloaf.”
I know that.
“Your very presence – arriving after twenty years of death – twisted and distorted their minds.”
I assumed that.
“They – with minds broken - refused to eat until their son, you, would return home.”
I didn’t know that.
“I had no reason to send them to Hell.”
“So, here they have waited for your arrival – for dinner.”
“This is a joke, right?”
I know it’s not a joke.
“You know it’s not a joke.”
He knew I knew it was not a joke.
I close my eyes and wish them away like Benjamin Franklin. They do not disappear.
“They were allotted a piece of Heaven with the wish to become a whole family again. They’ve been here, biding their time, waiting for you, and therefore, their own Heaven to start.”
“I felt generous that day.” He appears to be proud of himself.
I look back toward the tall coaster and watch the cars ratchet up the first hill.
“Don’t worry. The ten year wait felt like nothing to them.” That isn’t my worry. The coaster finishes its climb and races down the hill. “It is almost like they died just yesterday.”
I sigh and turn back to my parents, who are now standing in the lawn grinning and waving goofily. They call to me in to the house using faux ghostly voices, and giggle. They appear to be fully cognizant of the situation and no longer “twisted and distorted” as God put it.
This isn’t fair (to me).
God starts to walk away.
I whine. “But what about my Heaven?” Is he chortling?
“What?” He spins around with his arms outstretched in a fake, confused manner to mock me. “But, my boy, this is Heaven!” He spouts as if I should be in revelation of this fact. “I told you, you will get to Heaven – and this is it.” He motions his chin to my parents’ house. “Regardless if it is your own.” He is chortling.
God shakes my hand off his garb as I plead and beg at his feet. God wears Keds.
He fades away.
“You’ll have yours, God,” I say under my breath.
Mom is holding a game board: Monopoly. Dad: Uno. This will be a long death in my new Hell.
I call the thimble.
I eventually figure out how to hide from my parents temporarily throughout Heaven-Hell. This is achieved within my own Heaven, and the various common areas along the outside corridor. These public spaces are normally used as rest stops for those who must venture far to their own respective Heavens (if they have is one).
At first, I would bide my time amongst the coasters – conjuring friends like an ignorant William Shakespeare, an incompetent Thomas Edison, and a normal (but boring) Calvin Coolidge. Not many Heavenites bring about Calvin Coolidge I suspect.
As I settle in with my three amigos on a log water slide, my parents miraculously appear in the log boat behind us and tag along. The same with the lazy inner-tube, the typical goldmine rail ride, and the tall – my favorite – roller coaster. It was like they had a tracking device implanted in me.
Fed up, I stepped into the long hall of doors and looked for a new place to get away. There are gold signs (much like street signs) stacked atop one another. The signs pile so high into the sky they become illegible, unnecessary, and silly to have.
Mainly, it appears, the gold signs are labeled with names of Heavenites, and point to the (general) direction of Heavenites’ doors – with helpful mile (and kilometer) marks.
A few of the signs are white with black lettering. These signs point out special places of interest, such as: the casino, the race track (dog, horse, people, and stock car), restaurants and lounges, and God’s House (an historical landmark). God’s House is marked as being a billion jillion miles (several billion jillion kilometers) from this location.
The casino is the shortest distance from here, so that’s where I headed.
At the casino’s bar, I drown my sorrows in “virgin” drinks served up by damned bartenders. There, I find myself in good company with fellow Heavenites in similar situations (though not entirely the same) as I.
We decide to start an email campaign to God using Heaven’s free Wi-Fi hotspots. We want him to be either set free from our individual sufferings in Heaven, or reincarnated back to Earth – or to a planet of greater or equal value. I suggest reincarnation on Mars, but that was voted down. Probably a good move.
Over and over, the same automatic response message from God’s inbox would reply:
I’m sorry. God is away from the computer on an urgent matter.
From the desk of God.
This message would continue for a long while. Eventually, messages like “stop it” started to appear. With this minimal success, we devised many other email SPAM plans and schemes for God.
Not much came about from it, but we never gave up.
My family did eventually find me at the casino (about three hours after my first Virgin Bloodymary).
To me, at the time, I felt I did not have a Heaven of my own. However, being a teen, perhaps my perception of time was a bit askew. As in Hell, time goes by both slowly and quickly. What felt like hours were in fact many days or years in reality.
I can now look back at this period of my death and realize perhaps (just perhaps) I wasn’t as overbeared upon by my parents as I thought. I contemplate this while being escorted back to the golden gates by angels and my parents – who just wanted to say their last goodbye.
At the golden gates, in a whirlwind of movement, I was stamped with “return” in red on my hand, conferred with Pete (another Pete – this one does check-outs rather than check-ins), and cast back to Earth.
There is not much time for good-byes, ciaos, hope-to-remember-you-but-probably-won’ts, or sorry-about-being-an-ass-for-twenty-five-years-while-in-Heaven to my parents. All is, and will be, forgotten of my previous existence during my new life.
This is a sad reality of life and death, but reality nevertheless. Generally speaking.
Renewed, I know nothing of my previous existence in my new (and improved?) body. Whether it is strange or normal that, in my resting place in Hell, I remember a life prior to this but none before – I do not know. But, in my “new” (current) body I knew nothing of that life.
No Mom and Dad.
No God and Lucy.
No Shea and Jonathon.
It truly is a new life.
My new life has the feel as my old. In fact, by great coincidence I can only assume; my name is the same (Johnny, in case you’ve forgotten); I reside one town over from my old neighborhood; and my death certificate carries the same age. In general, my life is pretty much exactly the same as the old with only minor tweaking. But, back to the story at hand.
One day, my (new) mom asked me to head to the convenient store the town over to grab a quart of milk. I didn’t mind doing this errand as much as I normally would. Technically, I was grounded for various offenses (even though there were no witness), and this was an opportunity I could not pass up. I wanted to get out of the house for the first time in two weeks.
I decided to take the quick route through the tree-littered park, where a rusted out bulldozer sits at a neighboring cul-de-sac.
The store was only on the other side of the park. Because of its close proximity, I figured I had plenty of time to make it to the store and back before mom would seek me out. Besides, it was only three in the afternoon – I couldn’t possibly waste this warm summer afternoon!
I took my good old time playing on each piece of playground equipment to the point of exhaustion. It had been a while since I had such freedoms, and I was not about to waste the opportunity.
Eventually, I passed out atop the slide – shaded by the canopy of trees. Oak I believe. Under the shade, I contently napped until I awoke from a loud, muffled “pop” sound from an unknown location not far from my perch.
I wearily awoke to find it is now sun down. I slide down – and then climb back up the slide and slide back down once again (for good measure).
Still groggy, I run toward the store, thinking of an excuse in advance to tell my more-than-likely angry mother. Halfway through the park, I see commotion at the convenient store, but with the darkness of night and my heavy eyelids it is difficult to tell what exactly is happening.
Suddenly, a silhouette bursts in front of me and tries to run through my chest. We are entangled in a grappling, confusing mess. Another somewhat muffled, but loud(er), “pop” arises - in tandem with a warm wetness around my stomach. This immediately puts a stop to the impromptu wrestling match.
The armed silhouette scurries through the maples (Did I say oak? I meant maple.) toward the cul-de-sac. Another (un-muffled) “pop” rings past my ear.
The armed silhouette is no longer armed, nor alive if I judge his downward thump properly, and drops into a pile of leaves. On second thought, I think these are sycamore trees. I’ll stick with that.
My vision is slightly blurred, but my adrenaline is high and I feel surprisingly little. Another man approaches me with a similar wound as my own.
A police officer in a wind jacket.
He bends over to look at me, holding his own bloody stomach. His nametag is revealed to me as he gruntingly bends to my aid: he is a Captain something.
“My name is Jonathon.” He pauses and furrows his brow like he is trying to peer deeply into me.
As if in a revelation of an astounding fact, he nearly falls backwards.
He is not reacting to my wound, which really is inconsequential and unfixable at this point.
He breaths out: “Dad.”
Purgatory’s long lines await me.
In queue, only now do I realize my long ago meeting arrangements had occurred. Before I can feel sorry for Jonathon, or myself, a scuffle arises in the crowd to the left. God is pushing his way to me through the lines.
He wants to see me – in private.
I wonder if the silhouetted man is here too?
God knows I remember my past life (lifes) (lives).
I know this because he tells me this.
We are now near the escalator landing on the Purgatory side. People in the Purgatorial lines are whispering to one another and pointing toward us. They are most likely wondering who that handsome, young lad is with God.
“Johnny,” speaks God in his calm voice, “you do not really want to be here.”
This does not appear to be a question. “Is that a question?”
He says nothing.
“Am I going to Hell again?”
God purses his lips back. “No, but that does not mean you want to be here.”
“So, I’m supposed to go to Heaven?”
He doesn’t answer again.
“Why wouldn’t I want to be here?” I know full well he doesn’t want any trouble from me; but, I want him to say it or at least gives some other excuse.
“Is there not something you desire more?”
I think about Shea and Jonathon.
“Stop thinking about them.” He knows I’m thinking about them. “In the duration of two lifetimes you never grew past the age of fourteen.”
Whose fault is that?
“You never really had your own family – at least not one that you had known in reality for more than a few hours. You never got to see your son grow.”
He has a point, and my thoughts still drift to Shea and Jonathon briefly.
“I am offering you a second chance at true life – on Earth”
“Really?” I perk up. “Can I haunt someone?”
He rolls his eyes. “No, you would not be dead.”
My mind wanders. “Alive again … just like Jesus did it?”
I agree to his suggestion. Who wouldn’t? No one, that’s who.
Ligriv appears from behind God – out of nowhere it seems. With the rap of his cane, I have no recollection of Shea, Jonathon, God, Ligriv, or Ligriv’s silver-header cane once again … and I find myself in a pitch black chamber of some sort.
This new containment I find myself in is dark, very cold, cramped, and smells of feet – and not in a good way you pedophiles (is that right?). The only light visible is a square outline where my bare, but apparently blanketed, feet sit.
I kick forward at this light, and the blackness of the square of the space grays as the outline expands slightly. I kick again and again until the blackness is now tan, the light is bright, and my toes now easily counted after the sheet had fallen to the side during the kicking frenzy. I now realize I can easily push and pull from the chamber above and continue my gradual slide from this frigid thing.
It takes several seconds for my eyes to adjust to the fluorescent bulbs. Soon, I find I am in a morgue – my first time as a corpse that I can remember (the new me). I plop off the skid onto the concrete floor – steadying myself against the morgue drawers, or whatever you call them.
My first step from the morgue drawers was unsuccessful. I ended up tumbling forward to a wood table (which seems unsanitary in a morgue to me), and accidentally swipe all the paper contents from the table onto the floor.
Crawling on the floor, I find a metal folding chair on which to wake some life into my sleeping legs. On the chair, I find a newspaper turned to an article of my death.
It states a “daring” robbery had occurred at the convenient store around 9:00 PM. Johnny, me, had accidentally run into the suspected robber with gun drawn (the robber had the gun, not me), and was “accidentally” shot by the fleeing suspect. An off-duty officer, Jonathon Smith, happened to be at the park, confronted the criminal, and was shot but able to successfully apprehended the robber (via a bullet). Jonathon is in critical condition, and Johnny, me again, was pronounced dead at the scene.
Staring at the last sentence, I try to yelp out “I’m dead.” But it comes out as “unged” with a slight drool from my frozen jaw.
Quickly I get over this misdiagnosis, and my mischievous, groundable background soon rears its ugly head.
“A prank” (Or “grank” in non-thaw-talk) I exclaim.
A prank! Not just a prank, but a prank to end all pranks!
The prank plan is a relatively simple prank plan as prank plans typically go. According to the paper’s obituary section, my funeral is to be held in two days – this Saturday.
My plan (prank plan): replace my body with the plastic skeleton I found in another room of the morgue; hide out somewhere close to watch over things; and then sneak into the casket at the funeral to scare everyone out of their wits during the urology!
It’s a pretty foolproof (prank) plan I say to myself.
This foolproofedness becomes especially more evident when I realize that I am not in a morgue (in the sense of a county or hospital), but the basement of a funeral home. Much of what I had nonchalantly strewn across the floor off the wood desk (still seems unsanitary) were business cards for the funeral home.
The only funeral home in town, as owned by a (sort of) school friend.
The plastic skeleton does have a stamp with the funeral home’s name – but the stamp is located on the neck vertebrae backside, so no one will see it when laid in the coffin.
You ask: “How would no one suspect anything or question the strange skeleton in the casket?” Calm down, you!
I fear not for the funeral home owners to suspect anything from the now fourteen inches taller skeleton (of plastic) in my freezer compartment. The family’s son, Jacob, is a boy two years older and two years behind all at once. Not to disparage all funeral home families, but this one in particular has spent way too much time with the chemicals in small enclosed spaces – and by chemicals I don’t mean embalming fluid.
The family lives in the second story of their two-story house, with the family business on the first level (and basement). The home has a small bit of land behind it, which is mostly dedicated to parking.
In the non-parking zoned land there is a small tree fort built for Jacob many years ago. He has “grown out” to such an extent he can no longer make the climb to the fort no more than a couple months after it being constructed. I had been invited into it a couple times before, but it simply became high-ground from which to taunt him with candy. I hadn’t been up there in years. Assuming it still exists, it would be the perfect hideout till Saturday.
On the way out of the house, I snuck into the second floor of the funeral home to “borrow” supplies for the next two nights. I couldn’t risk going to the convenient store or the Asian Bistro for authentic governor’s chicken, so I had to grab everything I would need.
The mission itself was actually quite easy. Jacob and his family, the Morts, were glued to their television set. I was able to grab all I needed. When I climbed up and arrived at the fort I found some candy left from previous assaults on Jacob. A bonus.
The two days pass without trouble, except for excursions into the Mort household to use the toilet. Every time I would use the facilities, it seemed, one Mort or another would nearly walk in on me. I spent many of minutes behind their bleached blue shower curtains. Boy they can go.
During my wait, I planned my prank to its absolute fullest. Jacob left plenty of papers and, to my luck, working pens in the fort on which to utilize. Everything had seemingly been abandoned overnight.
It may seem strange, but I have been to many funerals and urologies at the Mort House. This was normally at the bequest of Jacob so he can show me something “cool,” which always meant a dead body. A dead body that met it demise by something more abrupt and painful than natural. So, I know the funeral home layout - and even how they run it – pretty well.
One room downstairs split into two: one side for the line of sympathies, and the other side closed off with large burgundy felt curtains. The casket goes in the room behind the curtain (normally surrounded with flowers on tables around three sides of the casket) and metal foldout chairs. The Morts allow private reflections in the beginning, and then they get the folding chairs out at the last minute. This organization would give me ample time, hopefully, and privacy to sneak into the casket.
Thankfully, I am able to sneak into the back room of the funeral home through the back door undetected by the Morts, or the small throng of funeral-goers I hear from the other side – sounds like it’s going to be a great funeral!
Also thankfully, the chairs are already set up so I don’t have to worry about the Morts coming to set up. But, I still need to hurry. The muffled sounds from the other side of the curtain are getting louder as more grievers arrive.
That means it’s almost showtime.
I remove the skeleton (whose face is made up and clothed in a suit), set it in the nearby closet where the chairs are stored, and settle myself in the casket. Rather than closing the lid all the way, I stick a ball of cotton (from a loose stitch in the casket liner) under the lip of the lid. This creates a narrow gap from which to see and hear. Also breathe through. I don’t want to suffocate in my own coffin!
As soon as I shut the lid on the cotton ball, mother and father Mort enter the room. They are in mid-conversation about “skeletonization” of humans. Apparently, Wikipedia doesn’t have an entry on “spontaneous skeletonaization – post-mortem” - Ma Mort says she will add the entry later.
The lid suddenly opens with the sound, feeling, and smell of the Morts breathing heavily above.
I really want to plug my nose.
“What – I thought you said he was skeletonized, Sheela?”
“I thought he did!”
She’s eating something.
“I even remember clothing a skeleton – and not in this suit!” Earlier that day, I had rummaged through the house for a suit. I knew I didn’t have time to switch with whatever the skeleton might be wearing. I am in one of Jacob’s. It does not fit very well. A little loose around the midsection.
A crumb of food falls on my face.
“Well, whatever did happen it unhappened.” Mrs. Mort mumbles. “He doesn’t smell very good. But it doesn’t look like he went sour like the Lanchaster kid.”
There’s a spraying sound and a scent of sun-dried-linen or dew-laden-morning-in-the-country, or some other fascinatingly-named aroma.
The lid is closed with the ball of cotton gratefully kept in place, and never noticed. Just in time for me to wipe linened dew spray from my face and avoid a sneeze.
After the Morts leave, the burgundy curtains are pulled back and mourners flood the room to sit. It is curious, however, that the casket isn’t left open.
The same thought must have gone through my mother’s head.
Very faintly, I hear my mother’s wonder carry across the room. There is the sound of chair screeching and scratching and shuffling on the floor; with the distinct “feeling” of someone briskly walking toward me.
You know the feeling.
The thin beam of light once penetrating the lining of my coffin is suddenly blocked. The coffin starts shake. The lid begins to lift and fall back down.
“No, no – I can handle it” Mom says fumbling with the lid. The Morts didn’t have trouble, but they must be accustomed to lifting casket lids.
The lid is again lifted, slowly, creaking open with echoed grunting from my mom. A breeze of fresh funeral home air dissipates the now stagnant spray can atmosphere. My eyes are closed, of course, but I can sense the lid is being held aloft – hovering above.
I squint. Barely. There Mom is, leaning above me with eyes sorrowfully reddened. She is holding the casket open with one out-stretched arm, and using the other to blot her tears in her sleeve. The person at her aid has left to the gatherers beyond.
“This is as good as any other time to end my act” I think to myself. I definitely have her full attention.
So, without further ado: my eyes grow wide and my mouth becomes agape in smile. I quickly sit up at waste height with my head just outside the casket, and not more than an inch from her own. Her eyes are still shut, even as I move.
Silently, I mutter to her: “what’s for dinner?”
Not surprisingly, or at least I shouldn’t have had been surprised, her eyes grew slightly larger than my own. And, her yelp was slightly (more than slightly) louder than my mutterance – with no stupid grin.
The lid slips from her grasp, as she tumbles backwards into the quickly aghast crowd. Now, nothing holds the coffin lid upright. Good old gravity takes over, and the lid falls hard with a “snap.”
Although there were many “clanks” and “ows” from Mom toppling over fold-out chairs, the “snap” sound is not of her, or even the casket breaking in some way.
No, the snap was the sound of my neck.
After casket the lid brutally fell upon it.
At about the same spot the plastic skeleton had been labeled. At least I didn’t suffocate.
Johnny sits in silence, concluding his story by snapping a twig for effect.
He appears more worn out than before he started. Mr. Ash Cat has a tongue wagging and floppy ears now. “This is Mr. Ash Dog….” Johnny trails off in thought.
“Now, I sit here once again – dead – in my own private piece of Hell.” Johnny flails his hand about toward the hills and its many guards atop.
“This is the final piece of my story.”
I know it.
“Why am I back in Hell?”
I don’t know that.
“A technicality, no doubt, on the suicide forms. My prank was neither suicide nor homicide, and certainly of no natural cause. So, I am sent here.” He looks skyward. “Damn Human Resources.”
He again wanders off in thought, and throws to his side part of the snapped twig.
“But, I digress.”
He X’s out the ash dog-cat with the other half of the snapped twig.
“Still realizing – remembering – my past two fates, I cannot blame anyone other than myself. God stated in his court order, it is a rarity for a soul to remember two pasts…. But, I’ve been once again aware of my first, short, happy life.”
He digs his bare toe into a small pile of ash, and then takes the stick and points behind himself without looking.
Behind Johnny is a small, obscure, but lovely bungalow house with a sitting porch. I had taken notice of the house, but at the same time I hadn’t given any notice at all.
“I am not alone.” From the porch, Jonathon walks out to the front steps. Shea appears in the front window, waving to Johnny (or us?). Although Johnny is still facing me, he knows she is there and he smiles for the first time during his story.
“My family is here too.” I see that. He still smiles and waves from behind his back.
He has a goofy smile.
“In this strange Heaven of mine, God did allow us to be together. Jonathon died from his wounds soon after my -” he contemplates “- third death.”
“In a bad-happy way, Shea succumbed to grief and age shortly thereafter, and joined Jonathon in Heaven.”
Johnny rises from his sitting place. He tosses the broken stick aside and finishes his thought. “This was both their heavenly wishes – not to be in Hell, of course, but for the three of us to be together. At least … if not for just a little while.”
“Being a technical Hellion for ‘suicide,’ I could not be copied to their Heaven. So God, and Lucy, struck out a deal and set aside this place in Hell for us to fulfill Shea and Jonathon’s wishes.”
“With my parents from two lives ago.”
His first parents are now standing in the window adjacent to Shea. They are holding Trivial Pursuit Junior Edition.
Johnny looks at me and shrugs. “God’s idea. But it’s okay.”
I ask of his second parents.
He reminds me they are not dead. So they wouldn’t be here.
He starts toward the house a little. “Only two days and I’ll be alive again. As who, or what, or where I do not know. Nor, as God says and ‘guarantees,’ will I remember these past lives. I will never know once again my first and second mother and father.” Johnny stares up into the darkness above and breathes in deeply. “Nor Shea. Nor Jonathon.”
Johnny looks again to Jonathon, who is bellowing “meat loaf” in a deep voice while waving his father toward the house.
“Nor Shea, nor Jonathon,” he resonates.
He glances at the ash cat-dog once more. “Or maybe I will?” He grins goofily once again.
He walks away whistling and kicking dust.
It’s time for Johnny’s belated dinner.
- End -
Brian L. Avery