Monday, October 29, 2018

October News

Hello, friends! I just have a couple of things to share with you this month.

The first is, Necropolis, (The Order of the Four Sons, Book V), is now available in paperback, $12.99 on Amazon. The transition from Createspace to Amazon's new print-on-demand platform wasn't nearly as painful as I thought it was going to be. Now you tactile-types can have a book you can actually hold in your hands!

Purchase here

Read the synopsis and excerpts here

The second thing is an ICYMI: I posted a new horror short for Halloween called "Last Suppers." It's the tale of a sin-eater living in the 1980s Midwest. Read it here.

Thank you, as always, for reading. Wishing you all a Happy Halloween, a joyous Samhain, and feliz Dias de los Muertos!

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Short Story: Last Suppers

I was twelve years old when I found out, quite by accident, that I am a sin-eater. I was at the kitchen table, eating a bowl of Fruity Pebbles (Mom was never much of a cook), and trying to do my math homework. Mom and my older brother, Jesse, were fighting again, because Jesse was in trouble with the law. Again. For four nights running, he hadn’t come home, which already had Mom pretty worked up. Then, that morning, a sheriff’s deputy had come a rapping, rapping at our trailer door. Of course, it had been at 8 a.m.—just after Mom had gone to bed. (She worked the graveyard shift doing emergency room intake.) The sheriff wanted Jesse to come down to the station for questioning. Jesse was sixteen then, and already had quite the record: vandalism, shoplifting, possession. Then, of course, there was all the stuff he got up to that the boys in brown didn’t know about: drinking, dealing, fighting, joyriding. He carried a butterfly knife, which, back then, was illegal in the State of Kansas. Oh, he was quite the budding offender, my brother. He’d already served I don’t know how many hours of community service and done a four-month stint in juvie. Mom and I were already pretty much resigned to the idea that he was going to do hard time one day. Probably sooner rather than later.
Anyway, on this particular evening, he’d come sauntering in as Mom was getting ready for work, and they started going at it, snapping and snarling like dogs in a fighting pit.
I put my headphones on and turned the volume up. But eventually, even Nikki Sixx couldn’t drown out the sound of those two hollering, and my brother’s voice filtered in through “Wild Side.”
“God, why don’t you mind your own business for once? You old bitch.” He shoved her.
Mom’s lower back struck the edge of the sink and she almost fell sideways. Clutching at the countertop, she managed to hold herself up, but just barely, her upper body twisted, one leg sprawled to her left, the other bent at the knee. She looked up at him, too hurt and startled to speak.
Jesse took a step back, his features working, trying so hard to look tough, to look like he hadn’t instantly regretted what he’d just done.
“Get out,” Mom said in a low, choked voice. “Just… get out.”
“Aw, Mom—”
“I said get out!” Suddenly, she hauled herself up and shoved him back, hissing, “And don’t you ever come back. I’m done dealing with you, do you hear me? I’m done.”
Jesse tried reasoning, he tried sweet-talking, but Mom wasn’t having any of it. She pushed him towards the door. It was a good thing he’d never taken off his jacket, because the February night was bitter.
Jesse stood in the doorway for a moment, looking around the place where we’d grown up: the tiny living room with its shabby furniture; the worn carpet and mismatched lamps; the kitchen, where I was still seated at the table, eating my sorry dinner from a plastic bowl. His eyes didn’t seem to alight on any particular thing, just took in the general state of the place. Then, looking at the wall, he said, almost too low to hear, “Sorry.” And with that, he left.
Mom sank down on the sofa to cry.
I, meanwhile, had not moved from my chair. I was too stunned, and not just by the ugly turn the argument had taken. At some point, while Mom and Jesse were still at the yelling stage of things, I’d spooned some Fruity Pebbles into my mouth and had started to chew. Then, I’d gotten so caught up in the goings-on, I’d stopped chewing. The cereal had just sat there on my tongue, slowly dissolving into sugary mush as I gawked at my nuclear family unit, like I was some kind of spectator, detached from them. At last, by some odd, cosmic coincidence, just as Jesse got around to making his apology to the wood paneling, I finally remembered to swallow. Though by that time I wasn’t the least bit hungry anymore.
But when I swallowed, something happened. I can hardly tell you what. In my mouth, that wad of cereal transformed into something larger, heavier, richer. It no longer tasted like sugar-coated rice. It tasted like every delicious thing I’d ever eaten, like chocolate-covered cherries, like bacon double cheeseburgers, like cinnamon-crusted roasted almonds, like shrimp scampi, like a rare steak, like hot apple cider. (My twelve-year-old palate was terribly limited to diners, fast food joints and frozen cuisine.) It surprised me so much, I almost choked. But eventually, the bite slid on down my gullet. I felt it make its way behind my breastbone and settle happily into my belly, which instantly made me feel that warm, sleepy, sated sensation I associated with the post-Thanksgiving Day feast. 
Well, with any good scientific endeavor, one must attempt to replicate results, right? So I took another bite of cereal to see if it would happen again, that magical infusion of flavor.
I’ll tell you what did happen: eventually, the sheriff caught up with Jesse. Turns out, one of Jesse’s friends rolled over on him for selling crank. Jesse did another, longer stint in juvie.
But when Jesse got out, he was completely different. He didn’t move back in with us; they released him to a halfway house for minors. While he was there, he got his GED. He went out and got himself a job as a fry-cook over at the Waffle House. Once he turned eighteen, he moved out on his own, started taking odd jobs as a handyman.
Now, at the ripe old age of twenty-seven, he has his own contracting company. He has a house and girlfriend and a baby on the way. He and Mom are even on good terms again. They’ll never be the bestest of buddies, but nor are their visits confined to holidays and funerals.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking it was getting locked up that did the trick, that the system really works after all, that kids like Jesse can get scared straight. If you think that, you don’t know fuck-all about young Jesse Andrew Simmons. Nothing short of supernatural intervention could’ve made him go legit.

* * *

That night in the kitchen was just the beginning. That transmuted bite of cereal did more than just get digested and nourish my body. Something exceptional had bloomed in my soul. I felt a shift somewhere inside, as if my organs had reshuffled themselves into a new physiological constellation. Of course, I didn’t know what it meant. Not at first. It took me some time and research to figure out what I was. It would be years before I saw the impact my condition had on my brother.
In the meantime, I saw very quickly how I affected kids at school. In my small town, the middle school had only a couple hundred students. Everyone in my grade ate lunch at the same time. People who sat at or near my table became exceptionally well-behaved. In most cases, this was not something that was immediately apparent to anybody. One girl, who’d been one of those sticky-fingered kids that pocketed candy bars at the check-out lane, had graduated to shoplifting-- lipstick, costume jewelry, the occasional cassette tape. You never would’ve guessed it, though, because she was otherwise a polite, upstanding seventh grader, one who played softball and babysat the neighbor’s kids.
I ate her sin and the stealing stopped. 
Then there was this kid named Brian Connelly. At the beginning of the year, he’d been the most insufferable little shit. He liked to knock people’s books out of their hands in the hallway. He kicked the backs of girls’ legs and pulled hair in class. He threw spitballs. He annoyed the teachers whenever and wherever possible, tossing Mrs. Hill’s grade book in a urinal trough, rubbing Vaseline on the windshield of Mr. Barnes’ new Honda. Brian picked on the slow, the fat, the dumb, the different. Just your typical adolescent bully, in short, and after I ate his sins with chicken nuggets and a chocolate milk chaser, he stopped. I mean, he didn’t become a choir boy or anything. I doubt if he ever became the sort of guy who’d hold the door for you, but he stopped tormenting people. After that lunch period, he went back to class, sat at his desk, and hardly made a peep. The teachers were suspicious at first. After a day or two, they decided he must be on drugs and some concerned phone calls were made to his parents. When drugs were ruled out as the cause of his sudden change in disposition, they had him talk to counselors. Eventually, they were satisfied that he had simply decided to settle down and behave himself. However, his new politeness did not preclude flunking out of seventh grade. I heard he wasn’t even able to hack it in summer school, so they moved him to some sort of alternative program up in Johnson County. After that, I went on to junior high, and lost track of him.  
Not all the sins I ate were classmates. Not all were so innocuous. A neighbor in our trailer park had a liking for child pornography. A boy in the eighth grade class tortured small animals. I could give you fifty other examples from my middle school years alone, but you get the idea.
I figured out pretty quickly what was happening, I just didn’t understand why. So I went to the library and started researching, and guess what? I still don’t know why. No bolt ever came from above, no visions of six-winged seraphs or burning bushes to clue me in. But the library is where I learned of my peculiar vocation’s origins in England and Scotland. Apparently, sin-eating was not looked kindly upon back in those days. It was only for untouchables—dwarves, cripples, mental defectives and the like. In exchange for a cup of ale, a hunk of bread and a few shillings, they agreed to take on the sins of a person who had recently died. It’s funny when you think about it—these people were willing to cleanse your eternal soul for pocket change and you looked down on them? Ingrates.
Sin-eating was the sort of work that arose during times of famine, when the prospect of a meal must’ve been damn near irresistible, especially if employers weren’t exactly beating a path to your door. From what I read, the church didn’t approve of the practice and denounced it as heathen.  
Nonetheless, the tradition carried over to America, specifically to Appalachia. I don’t know much about my ancestors, but I know my dad’s family came over from England and settled in West Virginia sometime in the 1800s, so that fits the timeframe. They lived there for a few generations, then my great-grandfather migrated to the Midwest.
That’s about the long and short of it. Honestly, I’ve found precious little written on the subject. None of the books say anything about sin-eating being a trait or an ability, like what I seem to have. None of them say anything about it being hereditary, though I couldn’t swear to it that I’m really, actually descended from a true-blue sin-eater. And, for what it’s worth, I am not a dwarf, cripple, mental defective, or anything like that. I’m a very average person.
The strangest thing is, none of the histories say anything about eating people’s sins while they’re still alive. The original sin-eaters, it seemed, ate food that was passed over a corpse (yuck). Also, according to the histories, once the sin-eater did his job, he was stuck with those sins forever. He would go to the afterlife bearing somebody else’s guilt, which presumably meant that he would take whatever punishment was meted out. A sort of spiritual whipping boy.
Obviously, I have no way to know for sure, but I don’t think that’s the case with me either. I don’t think I keep the sins I eat. They pass through my body, same as anything else I stuff in my maw. And anyway, I don’t really believe in hell or purgatory. I guess I’m a good person—I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t even hardly curse. I’m not a particularly religious person. Mom used to take us, every now and then, to a Presbyterian church. We put up a Christmas tree every December and hunted Easter eggs every spring.
Despite having lived with this condition for eleven years, I don’t have sin-eating down to an exact science, by any means. It does seem to work better when I break bread with the sinner, and it’s best if the sinner actually touches the food I’m about to consume. Sometimes, I seem to clear them of all sins, sometimes only a few. Sometimes they seem to be cured of their sinning ways permanently, sometimes they go back to it. Which, you know, it’s not my place to judge. All I know is, I shouldn’t run out of sustenance anytime soon.
I can always tell the minute it works, too-- something behind the sinner’s eyes changes. They seem lighter, more relaxed, relieved of their burden. I have found that if I hold the food in my mouth and close my eyes, I can see what it is that they’ve done. (That’s how I knew about the girl who shoplifted.) Not every little detail, mind you, but a pretty good picture. I have also found that each sin has a particular flavor. Theft is sweet and smooth, like custard. Adultery and sexual sins are sort of smoky-juicy-spicy, like this excellent grilled chicken I had once from a Mexican street vendor, served wrapped in corn tortillas. Lying is cool, like mint. Murder tastes like wine, tart and overwhelming. Also, it makes me a little drunk.
Can I live without eating sins? Sure. My little talent doesn’t prevent me from eating and enjoying regular food. But I find that if I go too long without eating sins, I get skinny and a little sick-looking. But why should I bother to abstain? I’m not hurting anybody—quite the opposite.

* * *

Over time, some people have realized what I can do. They tell their friends. Word gets around.
Before you know it, I’m a sin-eater in the old-timey sense. I attend funerals and eat the food offered, though I refuse to eat stuff passed over a dead body. (Thanks, but no thanks.) I visit hospitals, group homes, mental wards. I signed up with a volunteer organization that allows me to visit prisons. People try to pay me, but I won’t take their money. All I’ll accept are the meals, and occasionally, travel expenses. I go to Leavenworth and out to Hutch fairly regularly, and once, all the way up to Omaha. I do accept gifts. People love to give me religious tchotchkes, angel statuettes, medallions, crucifixes, stuff like that. I’ve received more portraits of Jesus than I can count, numerous copies of The Last Supper. I quietly donate those items, but I keep the handmade scarves and sweaters, eat the homemade pies and jams.
I guess it was inevitable that some people think I’m some kind of—well, they use words like: prophet, witch, mystic. “You’re doing the Lord’s work,” they tell me. I don’t know about any of that. I decline offers to be the star attraction at traveling revivals, interviews on late-night radio talk shows. I get real antsy when groups start to form, ready to build me a church. (The Church of the Angel of Mercy outside Mound City was created for yours truly. I’m told it has a regular congregation of around forty people.) I move and change my phone number often, but somehow, the zealots always seem to find me. One time, I had this guy sit outside my apartment with a guitar, singing “Redemption Songs” over and over, until the neighbors called the police.
More than a few have compared me to Jesus, which makes me especially uncomfortable. I can’t heal the sick or walk on water or anything like that. I doubt very much that I will return from the dead. I can’t see the future or talk to spirits.
All I do is eat.

* * *

So, from that long-ago February night when I ate the sins of my brother, fast-forward to now. I’m twenty-three. I work the drive-through at a Taco Bell in a town not far from where I grew up. I see my mom at least once a week, and talk to her on the phone nearly every day. At the moment, I share an apartment with Heather Adams, my childhood best friend. Both my mother and Heather know what I can do.
I keep to food service jobs because it means I can work evenings, which frees up my days to go wherever I’m needed. I keep a stash of emergency snacks in my purse—animal crackers are probably my favorite, but I’ve been known to use M&Ms, Goldfish, anything transportable and easy to share.
Then, one afternoon in early October, a woman named Nancy Whittle came to the apartment to see me. I invited her in for coffee, as I usually do. She told me her son, Jeremiah, was on death row in El Dorado. His execution date had been set for April 10 of the coming year. Holy Week. She wanted to know if I would come eat his sins.
I smiled and said, “You bet.”

* * *

Now, as you can imagine, it’s not easy to get on the death row visiting list. It took a few months to get through all the bureaucratic rigmarole. So by the time I actually set out to meet Mr. Whittle, it was February again. It was only about a two-hour drive to El Dorado, but, believe it or not, I’d never been there—to the prison, I mean. In my own little corner of the world, I had more than enough sin to keep me busy.
The pre-dawn highways were empty of anything except diesels and slush. When I got to the prison, I signed in and went through the usual pat-downs and metal detectors. A guard even donned a pair of gloves and searched my hair, making sure I had nothing hidden in its (unremarkable, brown) depths.
There were three other people waiting to visit with inmates. We all got herded across the grounds, to the building that housed the visiting area. The four of us chose tables and waited for the guards to bring the men out, one by one.
They brought Jeremiah Whittle out last. I stood up to shake his hand. “Maisie Simmons.”
He nodded. “Nice to meet you.”
The handshake went on a bit longer than usual as we sized each other up. Jeremiah Whittle was in his forties, tall, and maybe five pounds over skinny. He had wheat-colored hair and blue-gray eyes, his face angular and clean-shaven. Just your average male denizen of flyover country. Give him a pair of jeans, work boots and a Carhartt, plunk him down at the local rib shack, and he’d blend right in.
On the other hand, there was something almost unearthly about him, especially dressed in that white death row uniform. It wasn’t just that he had a certain reedy attractiveness-- it was the look in his pale, unblinking eyes; the way he carried himself, calmly taking a seat and folding his hands on the table.
I sat down across from him and we said nothing for several minutes, just studied each other.
I wasn’t allowed to bring food into the visiting area, but I had about eight dollars in quarters in a plastic baggie. I nodded towards the vending machines. “Can I get you something?”
“Why not? My mother’s the one buying.”
“No, it’s my money.”
“But she is paying you.” His tone held a hint of a question. He’d taken note of my decidedly unfashionable ensemble: Walmart blue jeans, worn tennis shoes, hand-knitted sweater, military surplus pea coat.
“No,” I said.
He considered that a moment. Then he glanced at the vending machine. “Pretzels.”
I nodded and went over to buy them—inmates weren’t allowed to purchase anything for themselves. “Anything to drink? Coffee? Coke?”
He shook his head. “I don’t do caffeine.”
“Oh. Well, there’s root beer. Or lemonade?”
“Lemonade, please.”
I fed the quarters into the machines then returned to the table, pushed the snacks towards him. He eyed me for a moment before popping the tab on the Country Time. “You’re not what I expected.”
“What were you expecting?” I asked, genuinely curious.
“Someone older.” He took a sip. “I guess I was picturing that old lady from Poltergeist. You know who I’m talking about? The midget?”
“I know who you mean. Zelda Rubenstein. She used to do the voice on the Skittles commercials.”
“Really? That was her?”
“Taste the rainbow,” I rasped in an extremely poor imitation.
“Huh. I never knew that.” He opened the bag of pretzels and crunched one between his teeth. “So, how does this work? I guess I should let you know up front, I don’t believe in this shit.”
“Then why are you doing it?”
He shrugged. “I look at it as hedging my bets. And my mom wants me to. And… why not? You know they keep us locked up in these little rooms, no bigger than a parking space? So if I have a chance to get out and talk to somebody who’s not a CO or another inmate, I’m not about to say no.”
I nodded. He didn’t talk like a country boy. He didn’t drawl or drop his G’s. His manner of speaking was measured and precise. Educated. I didn’t know if that meant he had some college under his belt, or if he’d learned a lot after ten-plus years of sitting in a cell with nothing to do but read and think.
“So tell me about it,” he said. “What’s going to happen?”
“All I have to do is eat something. It works best if you pass the food to me, like one of those pretzels there. But you don’t have to.”
“Pass the bag to you, or actually pick one of the pretzels out with my fingers and give it to you?”
“With your fingers is best. But like I said, you don’t have to. I can get something for myself out of the machine. Either way, I eat, and your sins transfer over to me.”
“That’s it?”
“That’s it.”
“And what will I be like afterwards?”
“Hard to say. I just met you.”
“Give me some examples. What were people like before and after your intercession?”
I rattled off some of my more recent success stories, though sooner or later, I always trot out Brian Connelly. Jeremiah listened. Then he asked, “Does it hurt?”
“Not that I know of.”
“Well, what if I don’t want you to take my sins for me?”
I blinked. No one had ever asked me that before. “Why wouldn’t you?”
“Because they’re mine. They’re a part of me.”
“I’m not gonna twist your arm. If you want me to leave, I’ll go.”
“I didn’t say I wanted you to leave. We’re just talking hypotheticals here. What if I was meant to be this way? What if I’m just a bad person?”
“I don’t believe that.”
“You don’t have to. The important thing is, I believe it—I know it. It took me a long time to get here, to accept who I am. Why should I trade that in now?”
“Most people find some peace in surrendering their guilt. But again, I’m not here to convince you. I’m not a salesman. That’s not what I do.”
“I guess what I’m mainly concerned about is, if I don’t want you to do this, you won’t do it? It has to be voluntary?”
“That’s right.”
“It didn’t sound like it was voluntary for that kid you went to school with. How many times did that happen? How many times did you take someone’s sins, fundamentally altering who they are, without even bothering to ask their permission?”
Again, he took me aback. “I don’t know… lots of times probably. But I didn’t hurt them; I helped them.”
“Did you, now?” He peered at me. “I wonder.”
Now I was starting to get rattled. “Look, do you want my help or not?”
“I’ll admit, I’m curious to see if you can take something from me that I don’t want taken.”
“I help people,” I insisted. “It’s why I’m here.”
“All right.” He held a pretzel out to me. “Go ahead.”
I took the pretzel and put in my mouth, as I’d done a million times before. For just a second, the salt flavor tingled on my tongue, then crescendoed into notes of gunpowder, smoke, cold, frozen custard. I saw a cash register. A guy about my age with his hands up. A police car. An icy sorbet, black cherry, something woodsy, Merlot.
By the time I bit down, the pretzel had mostly dissolved. “Armed robbery,” I said. “You killed the cashier. Then a cop surprised you.”
Unimpressed, Jeremiah said, “It’s all in the court record.”
I finished chewing and swallowed the pretzel. As soon as I did, I knew something was different. I felt something pull away—not violently, just a tug, but the weight I was accustomed to feeling when partaking of someone’s sins disappeared. In the back of my throat, the flavor turned to plain salt again.
Amazed, I looked at him. “How’d you do that?”
“I told you, I don’t want to give my sins away. I don’t want to give any part of myself away. Not yet. But I’ll tell you what: you know my execution date is set. You come be a witness, and you can do it then.”
I hesitated. I’d been around plenty of terminally ill people, but I’d never actually watch somebody die before. I wasn’t sure I wanted to. On the other hand, it seemed wrong to deny a condemned man such a request. “All right.”
He nodded. “I get a last meal two days before. I’ll save you something from that.”
“What are you going to have?”
For the first time, he smiled. “Ham. Mashed potatoes, green beans, olives, deviled eggs. Some good hot rolls. And carrot cake. I’ll save you a piece.”
That sounded reasonable to me. We shook on it.
Before they took him back to his cell, he said, “It was nice to meet you, Maisie Simmons.”
“Thank you,” I replied. “You weren’t what I expected either.”

* * *

Over the next two months, I ate very few sins. Only when people insisted. I couldn’t get Jeremiah’s words out of my head. Did you, now? I wonder. I wasn’t exactly starving, but I had to tighten my belt another notch.
Two months later, I did as I promised. I came back to watch Jeremiah die.
He was transferred to Lansing for the execution. They really do schedule them at one minute after midnight. I’d heard it was because the prison wants to have plenty of time to deal with any last-minute problems or appeals. A death warrant is only good for one week, so there’s not a lot of room for error.
I was taken to a viewing area adjacent to the execution chamber. Nancy Whittle was there. She looked like she’d already been crying for days. She’d brought a travel package of tissues in her purse and used them all up. I sat beside her and patted her back. There were a few reporters there. And then there was a grim-faced older man. He did not introduce himself to me, but I heard him talking with one of the reporters. His name was Everett Brown, and he was the father of the young man that Jeremiah Whittle had killed, here to see justice done. The man scowled to see me consoling Mrs. Whittle.
A guard came out and brought me the piece of cake wrapped in a napkin.
When they brought Jeremiah into the chamber, I wondered just how much of that last supper he’d eaten. In two months, he'd shot right past skinny and gone to gaunt. His cheekbones were so sharp, they looked like they could draw blood, his eyes sunken and shadowed. The white, pajama-like pants could barely stay up, clinging to his jutting hip bones. Blue-green veins stood out on his arms, dark and thick as moonseed vines.
When they asked him if he had any last words, he turned to the glass and said, “I’m very sorry for everything. Mr. Brown, I hope my death brings you some consolation. Mom, I love you very much. You deserved so much better than this. And Maisie?” I started, surprised to be addressed. “The cake’s probably a little stale now. But bon appetit anyway.” He turned to the warden. “Okay. That’s it.”
As they strapped Jeremiah down to the hospital table and gave him the first injection, the one that put him to sleep, I took a bite of cake. He was right; it was definitely on the dry side, the cream cheese frosting crumbling and stiff. I’m sure Jeremiah hadn’t had any tinfoil or anything in his cell to wrap it properly. But it was the sweetest thing I’d ever eaten. I tasted regret. I tasted sorrow. I tasted self-knowledge. I tasted the ham, the creamy mashed potatoes with country gravy. The green beans and slivered almonds cooked with bacon and onions. The piping-hot sourdough roll with a golden, crunchy exterior. The brine of olives. The bitter rush of black coffee, the first he’d had in ten years. I understood then why he’d given it up—he’d tried to eat as clean as possible while living in his solitary cell. Sleep was hard enough to come by without fouling it up with stimulants. But now, sleep would come, assisted by the killing drugs.  
All told, it took him about eleven minutes to die. At first, I couldn’t see any change as they administered the next two injections, one to stop the lungs, the other to stop the heart. He gasped for breath a few times. Then he just slipped away. But I knew before he passed that the sins had carried over this time. He’d let them go.

* * *

Afterwards, I did not stick around. I had no more comfort to give anyone.
As I stumbled blindly back to my car, I had to stop once or twice, bent over, legs spread, waiting to vomit. I had never vomited before—you have to have a strong stomach to be a sin-eater. But now, my guts twisted and my gorge rose, the cake threatening to come back up. What would happen to Jeremiah if it did? Or was he tugging at his sins, part of his essential self, from wherever he was?
Either way, I choked it back.
It was nearly two a.m. by that point. I shouldn’t have made the drive home, I should’ve stayed at the motel where Mrs. Whittle was staying. But I couldn’t bear the thought of trying to get through the rest of that night in a strange place. I wanted the reassurance of my own bed, of knowing a friend slept in the next room.
It’s a miracle that I didn’t wreck my car. The only thing that saved me was the lateness of the hour, the almost total absence of other people on the road.
I got home after four. Shed my jacket, belt and shoes and crawled into bed. I can’t remember a time when I was so exhausted.
Around six, I heard Heather get up and go about her morning routine. She was a schoolteacher, so she had to be out the door by 7:30.
Around 8:30, the front door opened again.
Everett Brown stood in the doorway to my room. He had a gun in his hand. “Is it true, what they say? Did you take Whittle’s sins so he can get into heaven?”
I sat up. “I don’t know if he’ll get into heaven or not. I don’t even know if there is a heaven. But yes, I took his sins.”
“He should burn in hell.”
“What if there is no hell?”
“There has to be, for people like him.”
I shrugged.
“If there isn’t, then what do you do?”
“I like to think I help people here on Earth. Being relieved of the weight of guilt is important. ”
Everett shook his head. “What you do, it's not right. It's not natural. The guilty should suffer. I never believed in this kind of thing before my son was taken from me. But evil and demons exist, and you’re one of them. You helped someone like Whittle. You live on pain and suffering.”
I opened my mouth to argue. But I wasn’t so sure anymore what the truth was. So I just shrugged again. “Maybe you’re right. All I know is, when I see people are in a lot of pain, I try to help them, regardless of who they are. I can see you're in a lot of pain, Mr. Brown. Please—” I nodded to the pack of animal crackers on my nightstand. “Let me help you.”
His lips peeled back from his teeth. “No. I’m not falling for any of your tricks. And my suffering’s my business. It's all I've got left of Aaron. You go to hell. Let the devil deal with you.”
Who knows? I thought. Maybe he will.
I didn’t have time to say anything else, though, because Mr. Brown pulled the trigger, and ended my life. It ended so much more swiftly than Jeremiah Whittle’s.
In that fabled microsecond before death, when your brain goes into shut-down mode and you have time to review all that you’ve seen and done, I had time to wonder if an afterlife awaited me. I’d been asked so many times about heaven and hell, if they exist, and if so, what are they like? Would I see God the Father and Sonny Jesus sitting at His right hand? Would I be judged for the sins I’d consumed, as well as my own? Whatever that looks like—Osiris weighing my heart, Minos circling his body with his tail, St. Peter the heavenly bouncer? Or do you just get reincarnated, like a video game—Sorry, Player One. You lose. Play again, Y/N? And the answer is invariably and eternally Y.
And I keep returning to the same answer I’ve given so many times: I don’t know. Guess I’m about to find out.
In my mouth, there was a last taste of licorice, oily and cloying.

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