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A Cosmic Appeal

by Charles C. Cole

Rex’s girlfriend, Petulia, called from the garage. “Rex!”

Rex was standing at the bay window in the darkened den, toggling the floodlights switch on and off, watching for a reaction from the still, foreboding shape in the grass.

“There’s a big black dog in the yard,” she said. “Should we call the police?”

They kissed. She squeezed his hand.

“It’s not a dog, darling,” Rex said. “And the police can’t help us.”

“But it might have rabies, whatever it is. Just what you don’t need in your condition. Or it might be a stray. I mean, why should it hang out here, of all places, so far off the beaten path?”

“It’s my stygian escort,” Rex explained.

“Your what? Are you going somewhere? I thought you’d stopped all heroic measures. Where are you going?”

“To Hell, apparently.”

“Not you,” she countered. “I can think of ten others, and those are just friends and family. But not my white knight.”

“It turns out, sweetie, I was not very reputable when I was a boy. I thought I’d made amends, raised lots of money, given significant amounts to charity, probably saved a few lives along the way. I certainly opened a few doors for people who otherwise had no hope. But I guess some things you can’t fix.”

“Are we talking about your health?”

“If you’re ready, here’s my deathbed confession. It’s a little early, before I start forgetting in a fog of medicated pain management. Write nothing down, and feel free to forget anything I tell you. It’s just the temporary balm of contrition that I’m hoping for anyway.”

“Are you trying to chase me away?” she asked.

“If your tender ears can handle it: for starters, as a teen, I robbed from the parish priest, religiously. It wasn’t a lot. It was from the collection basket. I was an altar boy. It was ten to fifteen dollars a week for twenty-five weeks. Hey, I was working for free. I rationalized the exchange.”

“Did they find out? Are you in trouble? You’d think there’d be a statute of limitations.”

He laughed at her sincere defense. “They never found out, but someone was watching, keeping score with indelible ink. And I lied to my mother when I promised I would only drink one-half of one beer at Bill Wellman’s New Year’s party.

“Then there was the business about photocopying the chemistry final in my junior year. I just wanted to pass. And going all the way with Paula Browning after the senior prom when I knew I didn’t really love her, I’ve always regretted that. I wish I’d been a better person.”

“But all those things were so long ago; they aren’t who you are now.”

“I used to think I could escape my past, but the proof is in the yard.”

“Your escort?”

“Now that we’ve gone public that I’m going to die soon, and with that lovely letter to the editor in last week’s paper, they wanted to be ready.”

“Who?” she asked.

“I had a call while you were out. A professional courtesy. Heaven and Hell have had a tremendous imbalance over the years. Only serial killers and pedophiles have been going to Damnation, while the accidental criminals of passion and desperation, motivated by poverty or a lack of options, were being advanced to a better, more forgiving, higher plane. It’s led to unexpected overpopulation in one realm and shocking underuse in another.

“A convention of theologians and ethicists, both alive and deceased, decided it was time to swing justice the other way. They advocated their cause to the highest court, asking for more conservative interpretations of evil and consequence.

“Now I am in the first wave of venial sinners — the ‘white liars’ — to offer restitution with severe after-life unpleasantries. Tortures and pains once the exclusive providence of mortal sins are to be shared by the doers of petty, less grievous acts. Bad deeds, once remitted by prayer and good works, will now be wholly owned by the Big Fellow.”

“That hardly seems fair,” said Petulia. “It’s like you’re paying for their mistake.”

“I suppose in another thousand years, with the celestial balance restored, the system will swing toward the libertarians once again.”

“Are you saying that animal out there drooling for a human soul is your personal hell hound?”

“Well, the rules are new and, to avoid confusion, the office in charge of incorporeal travel thought it best to send a guide dog, as it were, so I wouldn’t accidentally ascend to the more popular destination in these cases.”

“Very considerate of them. Very thorough,” said Petulia. “So it’s just going to wait out there in the yard until the end?”

“Until the beginning, you mean.”

“That’s one perspective,” she said. “Do you think it’s that soon? I mean, they wouldn’t send someone along if you still had several weeks or months to live, would they?”

“That would certainly take the fun out the whole ‘Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die’ ideology.”

“I know I shouldn’t think like this. If it’s not from this world, would it be a sin to use your shotgun on it, like a coyote?”

“I don’t know if it would be a sin, but I doubt very much that bullets could harm it. We could try. Why don’t you go upstairs to the closet in the spare bedroom? The shells should be in the top dresser drawer.”

When Petulia had left the room, Rex stepped out the back door, calling to the hound. “I’m afraid you’re unnerving my girlfriend, old boy. My legal papers are in order. Why don’t you just take me and get this over with? I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.”

The phone rang in the house, then stopped. Petulia called out, “Rex, wait!”

He turned to her.

“There’s been an appeal. They think it will take years to resolve. You’ve been reprieved.”

He looked back for the hound, but it was gone. “False alarm,” he said. “This time.”

Copyright © 2014 by Charles C. Cole

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