By Jeremy Podolski
I won’t tell you how I died, and they can’t tell you why. The debriefing, though, was harsh. I expected St. Peter and a handshake, maybe a glass of wine and some beef Wellington, but apparently the dead are far from heaven’s upper class.
Instead, I got the penitentiary treatment, whisked down a gutter gray hallway by two burly escorts whose violent shoves were so frequent that my obedient march looked more like a drunken gallop. By the time we reached a windowless door, stamped with the word “ANOMALIES” in bold silver, I was sore and ready to spit fire.
The door swung open with no more than a glance from the oaf on my right, who thrust me into an unfurnished room that smelled of overheated circuitry. The enclosure was seamless, like the inside of an egg, and not much bigger than a minivan.
“Go to hell!” I yelled, but they were gone before I could turn around.
I dropped hard to the concave floor in a tangle of tawny arms and legs. After minutes that felt like hours camped in blackness behind covered eyes, I raised my lids to notice I was wearing the same dark jeans as the day before. The pair with the cigarette burn on the right thigh and (fishing into the back pocket on the same side) six neatly folded bills – $600 in all.
“Huh,” I said out loud. “I guess you can take it with you.”
I was contemplating possible conversion rates for my liquid assets when I felt the floor – no – the whole room moving. My egg-cell pivoted until it was on end, and I slid like a greasy yolk to the wide bottom. The light, which was already an uncomfortable glare, intensified to the point I shielded my face out of reflex, but it did little good. I could barely stand or see.
The first blow caught me by surprise, knocking me off my unsteady feet and causing an awkward fall that forced my chin into my own knee. Pain like electricity shot through my jaw and reverberated off my clenched teeth. Still blinded, I sensed the hand that reached for me, but I had no evasive maneuver to consider. I only tried to brace myself with an outstretched arm. Around it wrapped long fingers like hot knives that seared my skin down to the nerve endings, and I collapsed to the floor in a heap.
“You are not supposed to be here,” said the owner of the hand still squeezing my forearm like a tourniquet.
Although the pain warped my vision as much as the light, my eyes were beginning to adjust. I stole an upward glance, expecting to see a menacing archangel or a creature born of vengeful imagination. Finding an ordinary-looking man leaning over me was uniquely unsettling.
Remaining supplicatory, I growled, probably too defensively: “You think I’m in control? I’m not the goddamn queen bee, here. This isn’t my show.”
“LIES!” His voice projected like a turbine, launching me into the curved wall behind, and I struggled to gain my footing as the room shuddered in the wake of the eruption.
“I don’t think we’re working from the same script,” I said, slowing my speech, trying to strike a compliant tone. “I may have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Who knows, maybe it was the right place at the wrong time. But shit happened, and I’m here. And, to be honest, I’m starting to think this place is a few heavenly choirs shy of utopia. Where am I really?”
The man clasped his hands at chest level, as if praying.
“Let’s just say you’re on a detour as opposed to… the grand tour,” he said, slightly calmer but still smoldering with concentration.
“Riddles. Beautiful. I suppose that’s why I’m tasting blood instead of gorging on ambrosia or whatever you guys eat up here?”
He took a half-step closer. A surprising hint of lavender wafted from the wide, charcoal lapel of his sharply cut suit.
“Your death was… unexpected,” he said after a palpable pause. “That means protocols were broken. And when protocols are broken, someone is to blame.”
I started circling then, hoping to maintain ownership of my space. “Well, I don’t know who would have the ability or the nerve to sidestep your operation. This is a maximum security outfit. Nobody’s hacking it.”
“True, we are adept at enforcing our rules. Yet, we’ve built our walls around a jungle. So, every now and then a snake,” he stopped to inspect me from head to toe, “may slip between the cracks.”
The temperature of the room was escalating, but not a single bead of sweat formed on the smooth, bronze head of my captor. He simply continued his unabashed stare.
“Whether or not I’m a reptile is debatable, but any crack I slipped through wasn’t of my making,” I said. “I understood I’d be exposed to risk. I didn’t sign on for treachery.”
He grabbed me by the bare shoulders. This time, his hands were cold as ice.
“Then why are you here,” he hissed, “when there is no basis for your demise, no itinerary for your arrival, and no knowledge of your destiny having changed?”
“Listen!” I shouted, whirling out of his grip. “I can’t be the victim AND the villain!”
And I knew, then, that I had him. It wasn’t that my lie was particularly convincing or that it was delivered with indisputable authority. I could just feel the momentum of the confrontation change. I caught a tremor in his steely gaze. A twitch in the muscles of his taut forehead. There was some key connection he failed to grasp, a critical gap in knowledge he could not bridge. He no longer had a choice.
“Go,” he said. And nothing else.
The new corridor I entered appeared endless, but I could tell that it widened as I walked toward a warm light in the distance. I was alone, so I took off my black tank to wrap around the burns on my arm. I doubted they would ever heal in the conventional sense, but I didn’t think I needed to worry about that anymore.
Much of my life had been hijacked by worrying. About others. About myself. About the rules. The worry cripples you, and the rules keep you from ever healing. And you believe that’s just how it is. There is no alternative. That’s life.
But the truth is, despite what they tell you, there is more than one way to get into heaven.
TerribleMinds.com Flash Fiction Opening Line Challenge
This short story is a response to a November 2013 flash fiction challenge posted by Chuck Wendig on his Terrible Minds blog. The opening line of my story was contributed by Allison Rose. Thanks, Allison, wherever you are.