by John Gregory Hancock
Burt was raking leaves when an elephant sat on his chest, ran down his left arm and crumpled him to the ground. Heart Attack. The Life Lotto. His number was up.
Badda bing badda boom.
It made sense in oh so many ways. He ate like a barbarian, never exercised, sat on his butt all day at work, and came home to park said butt again on his sofa all night.
He never met a stick of butter or pound of bacon he didn’t like. Really, it was all like the brochures. Cardiac Arrest was on his tour map of the Amazing Life of Excess. Complete with dessert.
Yes, AND YET he still felt horribly cheated. As if he alone should have been able to wheedle out of consequence, deftly sidestep cause and effect. He tried to tell himself he had so much to live for, but then again he remembered sitting on his butt all day totaling up one column of numbers after another, and coming home to tally up bowls of chips, ice cream sandwiches and stale cans of beer. In the grand scheme of the universe, who’d notice one accountant less? He didn’t even have a wife to spend his insurance or take ballroom dancing lessons with a hispanic teacher named Rodrigo after he clocked out.
The elephant was still stampeding, though, so he struggled to hope some neighbor saw him fall and had a pair of paddles hooked to their riding lawnmower and could run over and jumpstart his ticker. Somebody? Anybody? He couldn’t even tell if he was breathing. He was lying on his chest, having fallen on the rake so the teeth were tickling his ear. His head pointed off his right shoulder so the world was sideways. The sideways world was empty. Damn the sideways world. What did he ever do to the sideways world?
How long was this death going to take? It seemed forever but he guessed it had only been seconds. Hard to tell. His watch was on his other wrist. He couldn’t move. The elephant was quite emphatic about that.
His point of view was a diminished rectangle, half of which was hogged by the ground. Into that view stepped a very large clawed dog’s foot. He smelled sulphur, and well, dog poop. Burt silently wondered whose dog it was and why wouldn’t it bark and bring help, already?
“I’m nobody’s dog, really.”
That was a bark, but it sounded like words and a coffee grinder at the same time. This dying thing was messing with his brain.
“Nah, you’re still lucid. It’s just that nobody really claims me as a pet. I claim them as my prey.”
One slavering dog tongue lowered into his rectangle of vision, and then another and then... Hey, wait a minute, he thought. What the heck is going on around here?
“Oh sure, you accept a talking dog just fine, but three heads is what throws you. Yeah, yeah, I got three heads. I would tell you their names but I’m the alpha dog head and I don’t want to.”
Cerberus? Burt thought weakly. Really? Guardian of the Underworld? The elephant pounced on his chest again, doing the lambada or something, as if to use percussion to beat out the message: YES! YES! THE THREE-HEADED DOG!
“I want you either to bark for help, now, or leave me alone.”
“Yes, well, that’s sort of everyone’s wish list. You can forget that. I’m here to shred your soul.”
“Look, I don’t have all day. I have to schlepp here, shred your soul, trot you straight to hell, come back to grab the next person. It’s an assembly-line sort of thing. If one part causes a problem, it has ripples of repercussions behind that anomaly which gums up the whole production line. You’re not going to turn out to be a problem for me, are you? I sure hope not. Cause I make it harder on people who junk up my conveyor belt.”
“I’m a little too busy dying here to plan sabotage,” Burt complained. Just then the elephant that was his heart attack did a back flip, and nailed the dismount onto his back.
The dog’s foot dug its claws into the lawn, puncturing leaves, dredging up mud and straw-colored fall grass. Hot saliva dripped from three tongues. It sizzled like bacon on the ground. Then there was a great “hrumph” sound and then the parts of the dog Burt could actually see stepped away from his field of vision. Hello again, sideways world, he thought.
“Wait, what... What are you doing?” Burt asked.
Burt felt a tug on his backside, then a sharp and intense crushing pain on his lower extremities. He began to black out from the pain.
* * *
When he next became aware of becoming aware, he wasn’t on his lawn anymore. That was the bad news. The good news was the elephant wasn’t in him anymore. So that was a relief.
Back again to bad news: where he was now was not like his lawn. Bellows of fire gouted out all around, and the jet-black ground was crunchy beneath him. Not really fun-crunchy, like a candy bar filled with nuts. More like broken glass-bits crunchy. Less fun. And, he was barefoot, so there’s that.
“There, now, wasn’t so bad, was it?” graveled Cerberus. He loped overhead until he circled three times, and plopped down in front of Burt. The cavern shook mightily from the weight. Even sitting, the creature was close to three stories tall. Two of the heads licked various body parts while the dominant one tilted its head and stared at him. Backlit by flame, Burt thought the dog looked even blacker than it had on his lawn. Clearly, the Guardian of Hades was relaxed about the whole thing. Burt, however, was the opposite of relaxed. Unlaxed? Hyperlaxed? Anyway.
“So... This is Hell, I suppose.”
“This?” The huge dog looked around. It ducked when a side fissure shot out a huge billow of fire. One of the other two heads whimpered. “This is just the gateway. The waiting room, to give you a more human metaphor. Cerberus only brings your soul here.”
Burt noticed the dog was speaking of itself in the third person. It seemed wildly appropriate for a three-headed dog. Probably the only time it had ever been appropriate in history. Except maybe Siamese twins.
“So, if this is my soul, why am I still pudgy and flabby and whatnot?” He wondered aloud, poking his belly fat.
“Souls expand to fill their containers. Um... ” The creature thought about it. “Okay, here’s the thing: you’re used to your physical body, and your soul uses that as a frame of reference in coming up with a manifestation in the afterlife.”
“Seems a bit unfair. I was hoping that I’d, oh, I don’t know, come out a little more handsome. A little more in shape.”
“Miracles are not my department. I come, I shred, I transport. If it helps, those that go ‘upstairs’ shed the manifestation completely and become these really weird mind-energy things.” The dog shuddered. “Not my cup of tea. Besides, they’re really boring at parties. It’s all ‘I’m holier than the new guy’ and ‘I found the secret of enlightened spiritual continuity’. That sort of rot.” Its long tongue rolled out of its mouth, dripping viscous saliva.
“I can see where that might get annoying,” Burt offered.
“But now, if you go ‘downstairs’, well then, boy howdy. You’re given a manifestation that’s even more human than human. You feel things exponentially more intensely and your fleshiness is only more so. You could register unheard-of levels of pleasure and excitement.”
“You can receive pleasure in Hell?”
“Okay, so no. Strike that. You could receive untold pleasure if it was on the menu, which it’s not. Mainly you get the agony, the mayhem, the ripping out of your entrails and being forced to eat them, your assorted acts of humiliation and chafing. That sort of thing.”
This last bit of information stunned Burt. Terrified, he wailed a bit and gnashed his teeth. Which was a surprise to Burt because he didn’t even know how teeth-gnashing was performed up until then. He looked around, but there wasn’t a red-flashing ‘EXIT’ sign anywhere. This was getting real. Too real. He had to come up with something fast, because assorted chafing was not his favorite thing.
“Okay, okay, so, so... How do I get to go upstairs? I mean, what can I do? Is there a secret handshake, a confession of error, um... a ‘Get out of Hell free’ card? I’m desperate!”
Cerberus rocked on his hind legs and laughed. His massive tail wagged back and forth, knocking down a stalactite, which fell into a fire pit and immediately vaporized.
“It’s times like these when I actually kinda like my job.” The gargantuan canine finally stopped laughing and calmed down. Or at least the dominant head did. The other heads still snickered. “This is the ‘can you help a brother out’ stage. I love this! No, really, I do. C’mon, let’s see what you got. This’ll be a hoot. Keep in mind, kid, the most cunning lawyers and slimiest con men in history all tried to renegotiate a better deal.”
“I take it they all went to Hell anyway?”
“Yes. Each to their individual permutation of it.”
“Wait, what? Well... Um, ‘they’ have different versions of Hell? How does that work?” Burt wondered.
“Okay, listen up. You’re running out of time. The deal is whatever is the worst possible thing that you could ever imagine is what Hell is going to be to you. Since people imagine different things, it’s adjusted accordingly. So wow me. Show me what you got to renegotiate. This should be good.”
Burt mulled over his options. Reluctantly, he realized that his negotiating skills were not that impressive. The best thing he could claim was being a wiz at finding tax dodges and accounting loopholes to help clients avoid what they owed. “Wait a minute...”
He closed his eyes, and re-imagined a new version of his worst possible Hell.
* * *
Manny was the clumsiest oaf Manny ever met. And he knew a lot of clumsy people. Seems every way a person could injure themselves, or break something valuable, Manny had done.
This time was both. He was in the Art museum and had leaned an arm on something. He was yawning and not paying attention in the first place, because he was bored to tears following around his girlfriend, feigning interest in ancient gewgaws and bizarre abstract paintings. Who paints a paper clip? You can buy boxes of them for real. He figured he’d better get a crapload of brownie points for this one.
So, back to the leaning incident. Here’s how it happened: Manny leaned against what he thought was just a wall, but turns out it was a stone facade of an Egyptian burial chamber. Technically, it was a reproduced facsimile of the wall, but oddly, even fake facades cost a bit of real money to produce. And they weigh a lot.
Because it was hollow concrete instead of stone, it weighed less than actual stone, but concrete is still a pretty big deal if it falls on you. And this one fell on Manny. Manny was feeling the big deal of the concrete. It might as well have been stone.
As he felt himself slowly being crushed, he saw a portly guy walk up with a clipboard sporting a pocket protector. He knelt down so Manny could see him better.
“Hi, Manny. My name is Burt. I’m a CPA, that stands for Certified Public Accountant, and this is my dog,” suddenly all the light was blocked. “And he’s here to shred your soul.” Burt smiled. “I just have to record it in this-here column, and then subtract it from that-there column when you get delivered. It’s a tedious job. I tell you, it’s sheer Hell.”
And then the portly guy winked at him.
Copyright © 2012 by John Gregory Hancock