A man sits along at a bar, remembering his regrets and pouring his woes into another glass of beer. A stranger in white visits him just before closing time to present him with a business proposition. His wildest dreams can come true! All he has to do is kill three people. Join Joseph Shaw on a journey of Love, of Right and Wrong, and learn how we deal with past mistakes with this riveting novella: Two More.
Today’s story has an apocalyptic Oscar Meyer Wienermobile. That is all you need to know. Click on the wienermobile to read “Them Old Pandemic Apocalyptic Blues” by Derek Elkins.
If you’re not caught up with all of the Covid Chronicles, worry not! Scroll on down the page for the latest and greatest from all our Quarantined-and-slowly-going-more-insane-than-they-already-were. While you’re at it, check out pages for Joseph Courtemanche, Jamie Greening, Kathy Kexel, Derek Elkins, Rob Cely, and Dr. Paul J Bennett . There is a strong, non-zero chance you will come away happy.
Did you miss past episodes of the TWO MORE saga? If so, check out Part 1, in which two men keep a bar open late to discuss Murder and Mint Juleps. Check out Part 2, in which a main character loses it and kills someone in a parking garage (which we have ALL wanted to do at some point, am I right?). Check out Part 3, in which someone goes to Seattle and it ruins their life. And Part 4? Part 4 starts ….. NOW.
**** **** **** ****
Jim Becker stood in the parking lot behind the Blue Fern Restaurant. It was 11:20 P.M. and it was cold. In his hand, he held the pistol his father had given him when he turned eighteen.
“Only for protection,” his father told him. “Never to hurt. You hear me, son? NEVER.”
“Never,” Jim said, but he didn’t put the gun away.
The man in the garage. The kid. The pool of blood. The broken bike. He couldn’t get the images out of his head. He hadn’t really killed anyone yet. Not really. Both of those were just … accidents. … Right?”
I’m a scientist, the Devil said. I’m very precise.
Jim still wasn’t sure. What would happen at 11:30? Would some strange-looking guy step out of the restaurant? Maybe a drug dealer or a closeted pedophile or something? Would Jim just shoot him and run away? Is that how it worked?
Could his heart’s deepest desire really be worth all this? And what was the Devil up to, really? Heart’s Deepest Desire? What was this, Jim wondered, a Hallmark Movie?
Could his heart’s deepest desire really be worth all this? And what was the Devil up to, really? Heart’s Deepest Desire? What was this, Jim wondered, a Hallmark Movie?
“Emma would have known what to do here,” Jim spoke to the wind. “She always had a preternatural understanding of how things worked and what was going on beneath the surface of all things.”
He looked at the gun again.
“I wish she were here now.”
**** **** **** ****
Jim returned from his trip to Seattle expecting to find his house either emptied or burned down. Neither would have surprised him. In fact, aliens could have abducted the entire city or an as-yet-undiscovered super volcano miles underground could have exploded and taken out half the country, with his house as the epicenter, and Jim would have shrugged and said, “Figures.”
Instead, he returned to find Emma, busy in the kitchen, making dinner.
“Oh, you’re home!” she said. “Can you hand me the parsley? I think it’s on the second shelf behind the rosemary.” She laughed: a kind of short chuckle that always made Jim smile, even now.
“My mother used to always tell me to keep the parsley front and center. Why, I’ll never know. It was just one of her rules. Rule #2 is you don’t keep taco seasoning next to the curry, but that parsley and rosemary thing was her favorite. Maybe she just hated rosemary. You know anyone who has funny rules like that, sweetie?”
“No,” Jim lied, and handed her the parsley.
“Thanks.” Emma took the parsley from her husband and then, before letting go of his hand, stood on her tiptoes, and kissed him. Nothing special. Just a peck. Then, she turned and busied herself with the next task in her recipe.
“How was your trip?”
“Fine,” Jim said, stunned.
“Anything crazy happen that I should be aware of?”
Jim’s heart skipped a beat.
“Um… no,” He said. “No, of course not.”
“Remember, we have dinner with the FAMILY on Saturday.”
“And your Dad wants to help us fix the door to the upstairs bedroom soon.”
Jim’s phone buzzed. It was Samantha.
“I have a call from work,” Jim said, heading into the hallway.
“Alright,” Emma said as he left. “Dinner in 10.”
“Hi,” Jim said.
“I’ve been thinking about the weekend,” Samantha began. “And I’m not sure you and me would work out.”
“I was thinking the same thing,” Jim said, hoping to put the whole thing behind him.
“I don’t want to lose my marriage, my family,” she began. “And I know you don’t want to lose yours. So we’ll have to keep this between us.”
“No special date nights. No rendezvous at hotels. No stupid love letters. None of that.”
“…Sure,” Jim said. “None of that.”
“But there are always lunch breaks, long afternoon one-on-one meetings, and the occasional conference,” she said. He voice had an edge to it as she spoke. “I can’t wait for those.”
“Uh … Listen,” Jim began.
“Yes?” the voice on the other end was hesitant.
“Um … I had a really fun time this weekend,” he spoke in monotone. “I can’t wait to meet you again.”
“Same here,” Samantha said, breathing out a sigh that sent tingles down Jim’s spine.
“Honey,” Emma called from the kitchen. “Dinner!”
“I have to go,” Jim said.
“See you tomorrow.”
Jim returned to the kitchen, put his phone on silent, and sat down with his wife. They shared dinner together, shared old stories together, drank a few bottles of wine, and sat on the back deck of their small house, watching the fireflies light up the night sky.
Emma took Jim by the hand and led him to their bedroom. She kissed him again. They were intimate for the first time in months, and it was the best sex Jim had remembered having in a long time, perhaps ever.
When it was over Jim held Emma in his arms until she fell asleep, then rolled on his back and stared at the ceiling for hours, watching as headlights from the cars that passed their house drew shadows across the ceiling.
**** **** **** ****
True to their word, Jim Becker and Samantha Upchurch did not pursue each other outside the bounds of the normal workday. It was a nine to five affair full of lunchtime liaisons, mid-afternoon project planning meetings in remote conference rooms, and the occasional offsite excursion for team-building exercises where the team consisted only of Jim and Samantha, and the exercising in question was most decidedly not HR approved.
Things at home seemed to improve for Jim as well. After the blow-up before Jim’s Seattle conference, Emma seem to have come back to her senses. They talked about their days, bought a new kitchen table so they could eat dinner together, and made it down to the Friendly Stop on occasion for Thursday night quiz bowl.
Jim explained away any eccentricities in either his actions or his work schedule with surprising ease.
“Why do you need to go in early tomorrow?” Emma would ask.
“The operations director is in town from London and will be at the office by 6:00 A.M,” Jim said. “He’s a real stickler for punctuality, just like most of the Brits who work for us. I want to make a good impression.”
“Why did you spend so much money on lunch when I packed you a sandwich and your favorite pub chips?”
“That? Oh, the new team makes regular lunch trips, and it’s expected that managers and leaders like me occasionally cover the tab. I know it’s stupid, but it’s part of the culture. It’s okay. We can afford it.”
“You seem different,” Emma asked once, making his heart skip a few beats. “Are you okay?”
“Yes, sweetie. I suppose I have an extra spring in my step lately. It’s because you’re so lovely. Thank you for noticing. I love you so much.”
For a while, Jim imagined he could manage his life this way. Deep down, he knew it couldn’t last and, when it finally all blew up, it would likely be his fault for lighting the fuse. But, for now, speaking mostly in little half-truths that, while not exactly lies, Jim rationalized to himself, certainly did more to keep the peace than anything else in what had passed for their marriage for the last few years. He had his wife at home and his friends-with-benefits, who was not looking or anything serious anyway, during the day.
“The best of both worlds!” Jim told himself at night when he stared at the shadows on the ceiling, wondering why he was unhappy with all of it.
And Jim was right. Things went on this way for a while without even a hint of problems. But, as Emma née Ridenhour’s mother knew all too well, you can’t keep the parsley away from the rosemary for too long. Eventually, they’ll find each other again and mess up your whole cupboard.
The mess started for Jim and Samantha on a Tuesday afternoon in the spring, shortly after they returned from another project planning lunch, and it came in the form of a middle-aged man named Dave.
Dave was so nervous, his comb-over had flopped backward, standing straight up over his head.
“Dude, just so you know, HR’s been asking about you and Sam.”
“What do you mean?” Jim asked. His breathing quickened.
“They’ve been asking if you Samantha have been, you know…” Dave rammed his fist back and forth a couple of times and stuck his jaw out at an awkward angle. “That’s not you, is it?”
“No way,” Jim lied. He lied almost reflexively now.
“Good. Just giving you a head’s up. Keep your head down.”
For the next hour, people walked swiftly past his desk. He could hear them mumbling, shooting furtive glances in his direction as they passed. The experience reminded Jim of the time he went to Hilton Head with his parents as a kid. He’d stand in the ocean, feeling the water rush past him as another wave gathered behind him, then try to run to the beach as fast as he could to avoid the water cresting over him, pulling him under.
Jim could feel the water gathering. He tried to focus on work, hoping that he was just imagining things, that Dave was full of it, that maybe he could leave early and avoid whatever it was his soul told him was soon to come.
Fifteen minutes before Jim had planned to leave, the water crested and broke over his head.
Samantha walked through the main office with a box in her hands. Her eyes were red from tears. She carried a clump of worn tissues in her hand. An HR director – Jim didn’t know her name. They all looked the same to him – escorted her to the exit, then walked straight to Jim’s desk.
“Mr. Becker,” The HR director said. “Please follow me.”
Jim sat on a cold, metal chair as his manager, his director, the HR director who escorted him in, and three additional HR representatives read the charges against him. Several of his colleagues had complained about their relationship over the course of three months. They had been unable to gather any evidence of wrongdoing for quite some time, but when the IT department insisted in installing surveillance cameras in the empty fourth floor conference rooms in response to laptops that had coming up missing, they had all the evidence they needed.
“Ms Upchurch,” the HR director began.
“Mrs. Upchurch,” Jim corrected her.
“Ms Upchurch,” the HR lady shot back. “Samantha and her husband divorced two months ago.”
Jim was shocked. He had no idea.
“Ms Upchurch denied everything until we showed her the tapes. She has taken a leave of absence and will submit her resignation at the end of the fiscal quarter. We suggest you do the same. A formal letter has been sent to your residence, explaining all the details.”
“Wait, what? You sent a letter to my house?”
The HR director straightened her glasses and smiled.
“Yes, Mr Becker. It should arrive tomorrow.”
“But I …”
“But what? Are you afraid what your wife might say?”
Jim was speechless.
“It sounds like you have some important conversations ahead of you, Mr Becker. Security will escort you out.”
The managers got up to leave. “Good day, Mr. Becker.”
**** **** **** ****
Emma Ridenhour was making pot roast and singing to herself when Jim got home. It was a folk song Jim had never heard before. He stood in the living room by himself, listening, and it reminded of the first time he met his wife. The way she danced by herself, the way she smiled at him, the feel of her lips against hers on that first kiss, and many others since.
Jim stood in the living room and cried silently. The wave had crested. The parsley had found the rosemary again. His life with the only woman he had ever truly loved was over, only Emma didn’t know it yet. Jim stood in the living room, weeping. There was nothing he could do to fix the mess he had made or change the only path in front of him.
Jim walked into the kitchen, and told Emma everything.
Three days later, Jim finally cleaned out the crock put full of pot roast neither of them had eaten. He walked to the living room and sat in the space where the couch used to be. The bookshelves, the pictures, all their memories were gone. All that was left was ratty, high-backed chair from his college days, his clothes, and the crock pot full of moldy pot roast he had recently thrown away.
That, and the silence, only this silence was somehow worse because where, in the past, there was hope of renewal. Now, there was no hope.
Jim went down to The Friendly Stop, ordered a few beers, and started telling everyone how happy he was to finally be single again. Everyone but Sean believed him. Sean could see his eyes.
“The last thing I need is another woman,” Jim Becker said, and it was true. He didn’t want another woman. He wanted Emma.
But Emma was gone.
**** **** **** ****
Jim Becker put his gun in his pocket and made his way to the front entrance of the Blue Fern restaurant. Someone had draped a sign over the door that read “The Quarantine Cantina. $2 beers for all non-essentials.”
Jim laughed as the wind blew through his jacket and made him shiver.
“Why couldn’t the Devil have picked somewhere warmer and more well lit?” Jim asked, but no one responded. “I wish Emma were here. She’d know what to do.”
The answer to the Devil’s riddle was obvious. Emma was his heart’s deepest desire. Could it really be true that all he had to do to get her back was take care of the final person on the Devil’s list? Jim had seen a lot in the last twenty-four hours, but even this seemed extreme.
The hooded man in the garage. The kid lying next to his mangled bike. The images flashed through Jim’s mind over and over. Jim Becker wasn’t sure he could go through with it.
He closed his eyes, and what came to him this time was not the constant reel of his past mistakes – of which today’s mishaps were only the most recent examples – but instead, it was Emma. All the pain and death and suffering and loneliness swept away, replaced by pictures of Emma on their wedding day, walking toward him with that sly smile on her face; Emma asleep on the couch with her hand rested against her cheek in a way that always made him smile; Emma, looking into his eyes and saying she loved him again, that all was forgiven, that they could rebuild their lives together, forever and always.
Jim gave in. He allowed himself to believe the possibilities the Devil had shown him. Jim realized that yes, he could kill someone – a very bad someone like the devil said – if it meant he could have his Emma back.
Jim stood next to a lamp post in the rain, watching as the doors to the Blue Fern Bar opened wide and people streamed out into the night air.
“Man in red,” Jim said, scanning the crowd. “Man in Red.”
An older couple slowly made their way down the steps to the sidewalk. They wore green windbreakers and blue jeans. A group of college men screamed good-natured obscenities at each other, moving sideways like a mob toward the parking garage a few streets north. One kid wore a maroon University of Alabama hat but, other than that, there was no one in red.
That’s when Jim saw her. Those eyes. Those lips. That face he could never forget, not in a million years. It was his heart’s deepest desire, his love, his Emma coming down the steps.
She wore a beautiful red dress.
“No!” Jim said, realizing now, almost too late, that it was all a lie. “Oh God, no!” He turned and started to run away, but the Devils’ words came back to haunt him.
This person is on my list. This person will die, whether you do the job or someone else. I’m a scientist. I’m very precise.
“I have to warn her,” Jim thought. He took off running, following Emma down the alleyway next to the bar.
“Emma!” he screamed. “Emma, wait!” Jim ran full throttle now, not aware that he still had his gun in his hand. He caught up to her, grabbed her by the shoulder, and she turned.
A sharp, loud noise echoed off the buildings around them. The shocked look on Emma’s face made him stop, momentarily stunned.
“Jim? Oh my God, Jim? What are you doing here?”
Jim stumbled back and looked down. There was blood on his shirt. Emma stood in front of him, holding a gun of her own. She had pulled the trigger. Jim doubled over in pain, grabbing at his abdomen.
“Jim!” Emma screamed.
His watch started beeping. 11:30. If he didn’t act now, Emma would soon be dead. He tried to scream, tried to tell her to run, but all that came out was a groan.
Emma saw the gun in Jim’s hand. “What’s going on? Were you trying to kill me?” she asked, the pain in her voice almost too much for him to bear.
“No,” Jim said, barely able to speak. “Never.”
Jim finally understood. This had been the Devil’s plan all along. It certainly looked like he was trying to kill her, didn’t it? But looks can be deceiving. Hadn’t the Devil himself said that? Jim wondered if that man in the garage had really attacked the blond woman, or if there was more to the story.
Jim fell to the ground.
“Oh my God, Jim!” Emma knelt beside him, and held his head in her lap. She pulled out her phone, frantically dialing 9-1-1. “Please, God, somebody help me!”
Heels clicked quickly in the alley behind him. The Devil himself had come to finish the job, and all Jim could do was watch.
I’m a scientist, The Devil had said. I’m very precise. The person in red will die at 11:30.
Here Jim was: his formerly white shirt stained a dark, deep red from the blood that pooled around him, seeping into the concrete.
Jim raised his hand, meaning to shoo Emma away, to protect her from all of this. She grasped it in both her hands and kissed him. Jim’s blood smearing across her cheeks.
“Hold on,” she said.
The clicking got closer. Old Scratch, The Man in White, The Lord of the Dead. The Devil stepped over the soon to be deceased Jim Becker, made a show of brushing a spot of blood off of his white pants, and stopped.
Jim closed his eyes, and the last thing he heard before passing from this world into whatever waited for him in the next, was this:
“Hello, Emma. That was your first. You’ve got two more.”
**** **** **** ****
Jim Becker left work early that afternoon. A news van showed up at the garage just after the cops, and plastered Jim’s face on television, newspapers, the Internet, everywhere. He was an immediate celebrity; a big-time hero, just like The Devil said.
“If I have to tell the story one more time, I’ll shoot myself and get this over with early,” he thought. And he still didn’t know what to make of the man in the white. WAS he real? Or was Jim just losing his mind?
“I’ll have to ask Emma when I get home. She’ll probably think this is all funny.” Then he remembered. They were divorced. Emma wouldn’t be there.
**** **** **** ****
The hardest part was the loneliness.
On the outside, Jim and Emma Becker seemed fine, thank you very much. They went to work, visited with friends, and saw their families on the weekends just like every good, suburban couple is supposed to do. They were full of plastic smiles, fake optimism, and just the right amount of energy in the banal stories they shared with work friends and acquaintances to not arouse suspicions that they were, both of them, hopelessly miserable.
Once they returned home from these excursions, the silence enveloped them and, with it, the loneliness.
Jim tried to fill his time with random activities he could obsess over just to keep his mind off his failing marriage. He read every book he could get his hands on, tried to grow a Fu Manchu once until Emma shaved it off in his sleep, and watched hundreds of obscure documentaries with transcribed subtitles.
One documentary about homeless children who lived in the sewers of Ulanbataar, Mongolian to escape the winter cold was the kind of stuff that could rip your heart out, except the translators kept insisting the street signs for “Slow Children Playing” should actually say “Dead Children Playing,” and Jim didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Or even whether the sign had been mistranslated.
He bought an online course on Muay Thai kickboxing, but pulled a groin muscle attempting a head level kick; tried to teach himself Mandarin, but decided he was dyslexic in Chinese; and once pulled out his old high school drum set with the intention of starting a band with some friends at work. That dream went down the drain – literally, it would turn out – when Jim spent three hours attempting to master the tom pattern for the Rush song, YYZ, causing Emma to storm into the room, wild-eyed.
“Oh my God, Jim! Stop it!”
“You’ve been banging on that thing for hours. I can’t take it anymore!”
“I just need to get the transition into the 5/4 time signature,” Jim said as he tapped the edge of his cymbal ever so slightly. “I need to work out the Morse code for the letters in the title.”
“What the HELL are you talking about?”
And off they went again. That fight lasted two hours and resulted in Jim throwing his drum set out of their third floor attic window after Emma told him of course she wanted to support his dreams … so long as his dreams weren’t stupid.
The kick drum broke into several pieces, a few of which slid into the sewer next to their driveway.
“I wonder if the kids in Ulanbataar play music in the sewers,” Jim said, at which point Emma stormed out of the room and didn’t speak to him again for over a month. He slept in the empty space in the attic where his drum set used to be, and locked the door.
Which was alright with Jim. He was finally able to grow that Fu Manchu, although he ended up shaving it again after a week. Emma was right. It was ridiculous, but he would never give her the satisfaction of admitting that out loud. He never gave her the satisfaction of admitting anything then. Not to her. No sir.
At work, Jim was a “rock star,” a real “up-and-coming high performer,” and many other hyperbolic HR terms executives like to use when they don’t know how to peg someone. When his company merged with a logistics firm from Texas, Jim found himself working in a new sea of near-to-middle-aged men wearing Walmart Khakis blue Oxford button-downs with clip-on ties.
“The new blue collar!” a co-worker told him once as he launched into an un-asked-for dissertation about stock portfolio and how amazing his recent picks were. It made Jim want to puke.
But, then, there was Samantha.
Samantha Upchurch was a project manager by trade and a spitfire by design. She wore bright, loud dresses and suits to match her bright, red hair and big personality. She liked to wear horn-rimmed glasses, even though Jim suspected she didn’t really need them.
“I wanted to be a librarian once,” she told Jim and a few team members over cards at lunch, “but there was one problem with that plan.”
“What was that?”
“I talk to the books, but the books? They don’t talk back.”
Her outsize personality got on most people’s nerves, but Jim loved listening to and, when he got the chance, talking with her. The thing Jim liked about Samantha was she asked questions. All sorts of questions.
“You play the drums? What’s your favorite band? You like Dean Koontz novels? Have you read the one about Nazis and time travel? I think Die Hard is definitely NOT a Christmas movie. What do you think?”
Jim didn’t see anything wrong with it. There was nobody else at work to talk to and, of course, Emma wasn’t saying anything. What was he supposed to do? Ignore her? Good luck with that. Samantha Upchurch was many things in life, but she was not one to be ignored.
A few months past the merger and their regular, card-playing lunch group dwindled to just Jim and Samantha. With all that time to themselves, their conversations turned deeper. Samantha was married to an electrical engineer who never seemed to want to help with the kids, and her two daughters, she admitted, were teenagers now and driving her insane.
“Sometimes I wish I could Eat, Pray, Love my way out of all this,” she said. “Except I’d go to Philly instead of India because it’s really hot in Delhi and I LOVE cheese steaks.”
Jim told her about losing the baby and how they were having “a bit of trouble reconnecting.” He put his head down and was surprised when Samantha took his hand. He looked up.
“You’ll make it through,” She said. “You love her.” The statement had the slightest tilt, as if there was a hint of a question. Jim held her gaze for a long moment, wondering if, had the question been asked, he could have answered honestly in the affirmative.
“Yes,” Jim said, pulling his hand away. Samantha pulled hers back, and they both retreated to their desks in silence.
There was still nothing wrong, Jim tried to convince himself. It was probably nothing, and anyway if it WAS more than nothing, Jim would just ignore any such advances in the future. Jim had a rule against relationships with co-workers.
“And also, I’m married,” Jim thought. “So I’ll just ignore it. That’s it. Just ignore it.”
The only problem was Samantha Upchurch was many things in life – a mother, a project manager, a purveyor of strong opinions and, of course, a married woman – but she was not one to be ignored; especially by those who, like Jim Becker, are so willing to remain interested.
Jim and Emma Becker got into one of their worst fights the morning Jim had to leave for a work trip.
Jim had forgotten to take the garbage out the night before and, as a result, the kitchen was covered in ants and smelled like spoiled meat.
“I’m sorry, honey, but I have to get going,” Jim said.
“You always do this to me,” she screamed at him. “You never listen! You don’t care!”
Jim tried to take the garbage out on his way to the car, but Emma grabbed it and they spilled the contents of the bag all over their front lawn. When Emma ran back in side, Jim followed her. As he came in the door, he heard a loud crash on the wall next to his head. He looked down. There was a broken, glass vase at his feet and a shattered rose.
Jim was shocked.
“Emma,” he said. “That was the rose from our wedding.”
“I know,” she said.
After a long moment of silence, she spoke. “I hate you. I’ve never loved you. I wish I had never met you. I wish I had never asked you to dance at the Friendly Stop, wish we had never been married, wish we had never lost … never lost …”
Emma Becker broke down crying in the living room. Jim tried to console her, but she screamed obscenities at him.
Jim Becker slowly backed out of his house, got into his car, drove to the airport, and met his co-workers at a conference in Seattle.
That night, as Jim and Samantha shared drinks at the hotel bar, Jim told her the truth about his marriage. The loneliness, the silence, everything. When he finished speaking, Samantha reached for his hand, but Jim pulled it back.
“No,” he said. “I think it’s time we call it a night.”
“Walk me to my room?” Samantha asked.
They rode the elevator together in silence. When they got to Samantha’s room, she looked up into Jim’s eyes, smiled at him sadly, and walked in.
As Jim turned to leave, he noticed Samantha had left her door open just a crack; enough so a sliver of light from within flashed across his eyes.
Jim Becker stood still in the hallway outside Samantha’s room, staring at the door, thinking. A moment later, he pushed the door open, and followed her in.
**** **** **** ****
Jim considered stopping for either a late lunch or early dinner on his way home from work, and turned left onto Peace Haven Rd instead of his normal trek down Winton. The sun shifted behind the trees, casting slivers of light that danced in his eyes, blinding him. He reached for the visor to block out the sun but, before he could, there was a flash of color and a scream.
Jim slammed on his brakes and the car shook violently before coming to a stop. He leapt out to see a mangled bicycle lying in the street. Next to it was a small child, no more than five or six years old.
The kid wasn’t moving.
Jim called 9-1-1, held the kid’s hand while he waited for the paramedics, and tried in vain to find a pulse. The kid’s blood seeped into Jim’s work shirt, staining it. Jim broke down in tears.
“Hello Jim,” the man in white spoke from behind.
“Good God!” Jim screamed, frightened.
“No … The other one, but I’m happy to congratulate you on your second. Way to go. You’re really on your way!”
Jim was shocked. The bike. His car. The kid. The man in white? It was too much to take in.
“This,” Jim said, looking at the kid’s lifeless body. “THIS is my second?”
“Uh huh, and you made quick work of him, too. I’m impressed. Most people hesitate. But not you. You just plowed right on through.” The man in white made a hand motion like a mack truck driving through a series of barricades. He included the kind of truck mouth noises like a small child.
“You said these people were evil,” Jim said, practically screaming now. “The BAD kind of evil. People who deserved to be removed from society.”
“Oh, they are. Trust me, Jim. They are, indeed.”
“THIS IS JUST A KID!”
“WAS a kid, Jim. You took care of that.”
Jim fought the urge to charge at the man in white, grab him by the neck with both hands, and bash his head against the pavement. He didn’t want to kill people, but this man didn’t qualify. Was it even possible to kill him? If Jim was just imagining all this, the paramedics would arrive to find Jim Becker in the throes of a psychotic break, attempting to strangle a tree or maybe thin air, and take him to the nearest padded room.
That idea struck Jim as just fine. Fine, indeed.
If, however, the man in white truly was The Devil and not just a figment of his imagination, Jim doubted he’d get two steps in before The Devil took him down. It was worth a shot, though. That kind of killing seemed justified at the moment; like Justice, as the man in which said earlier.
The man in white waited patiently for Jim to make up his mind. That soulless smile never left his face.
“I can’t do this. You didn’t say anything about killing kids.”
“I didn’t say you wouldn’t kill kids, did I?”
Jim was about to blow up again.
“What you have to understand about me and The Big Guy Upstairs, Jim, is we’re Gods! We have an eternal perspective. We see events and their consequences played out in the fullness of time.”
“What does that even mean?”
“It means when you look at this kid, all you see is a kid. I look at him and I see what this kid will become. He has the potential to be a mass murderer, a military leader who will slaughter millions, or worse … a politician. You didn’t kill a kid, Jim. You saved millions of lives. Congratulations.”
“He just looks like a kid to me,” Jim said.
“Looks can be deceiving,” The Devil said. “Just ask my third wife.”
“This just doesn’t seem right,” Jim said,
“That’s exactly what SHE said when she caught me with those college girls!”
The devil stepped closer. “It’s all complicated, I know. But you did a good thing. Trust me. This kind of thing is a science and I’m very precise. I know what I’m doing.”
“You said he has the potential to become evil. You didn’t say he WAS evil.”
“Hey. With Free Will, even Science ain’t an exact Science. You know what I mean? The good thing – well, the good thing for me, at least – is most people are not accustomed to exercising their will. They leave the decisions up to other people. Sometimes, they leave it up to me!”
“If I have free will, doesn’t he? Doesn’t he get the chance to choose good or bad, right or wrong?”
“Good question, Jim. But why worry about it now? You’ve got one more to go and, trust me, this next one’s a doozy. I’ve got something special for you, Jim, and – OH!. You’re gonna love it!”
Jim looked at the kid. Five years old. Probably just learned to ride that bike, probably wanted to show his parents he could ride in the street like the big kid he wanted to become and now, because of Jim, would never be. Was this really a mass murdering psychopath? Or was just a kid on a bike?
“I don’t think I can do this anymore,” Jim said
The Devil sighed. “It’s up to you, of course. Like I said. Free will is free will.” The devil stepped closer, put his hand on Jim’s shoulder.
“But you should know. This next person is on my list. This next person will die whether you do the job or someone else. There are a lot of other people who would help me if I asked.” The Devil smiled wide. “A lot.”
“I told you. I’m a scientist. I’ve been doing this a long time. Longer than you know.”
“I like you, Jim. You’re a good man. You make me laugh. And, after all you went through with Emma, you could use a break.”
Just hearing her name made Jim want to break down into tears.
“I’m rooting for you,” the main white said. “I WANT you to make it to the end. And I’m serious. You’re really gonna like this next one.”
“Who is it?”
“Here.” The Devil reached into his pocket, pulled out a yellow Post-It note and handed it to Jim. It read: “Blue Fern Bar. Fifth and Sycamore. Downtown. 11:30. Look for the person in Red.”
Jim flipped the card over. It read: “Hugs N Kisses, Satan.”
“What if I say no?” Jim started to ask, but The Devil was gone again.
“I hate it when he does that.”
*** *** *** *** ***
Jim Becker pulled into the basement floor of the parking garage at work an hour early the next morning. He wore a pair of dark sunglasses, and he had a headache the size of Montana.
“What happened last night?” he thought. “And why do I want fried chicken?”
He shook off the headache as best he could. “No matter. Today, I turn over a new leaf. Today, I start new.”
Jim glanced at the picture of Emma he kept on his dashboard. The one from their trip to Cabo six months after they lost the baby. Emma was laughing and trying to hide behind a beer bottle. Blue Moon was her favorite. She’d thumb little pieces off the label. By the time she was done, the bottle was empty and the label was in tatters.
They were happy then. At least, that’s how it looked in the picture.
Later that night, after the photo, Emma made a comment about Jim’s choice of clothing: one of those old Bart Simpson t-shirts. “Eat My Shorts!” Bart said. That shirt always made Jim laugh.
“You’re not actually going to WEAR that, are you?” Emma asked.
“Why not?” Jim said.
And off they went. Two days into the vacation that was supposed to clear their minds and reset their marriage, and a simple wardrobe disagreement turned into Armageddon. By the time it was over, several dishes in their resort kitchenette were broken along with their naïve perceptions about how easily an expensive trip can solve anything but the resort management company’s desire for additional revenue.
Jim and Emma’s married life turned into a never-ending cycle of fights: long stretches of silence punctuated by a few days of intense, screaming matches. The roller coaster ride was exhausting, Jim thought, but at least those weeks of not talking to each other gave their vocal chords time to heal so they could scream even louder when things picked up again. Silver linings and all that.
Jim had taken to marking their fights by the things they broke. There was the serving tray fight, where Emma threw a large, glass tray they’d got as a wedding gift into the living room wall like a Frisbee. It shattered over the couch, bursting shards of glass into the cushions. They kept finding little pieces of glass in that couch for months afterward, despite having vacuumed it so many times, Jim was sure they’d sucked up more fabric through their vacuum cleaner’s lint guard than was left in the couch itself.
Then, there was the kitchen table fight where Jim once slammed his hand onto the table top, causing it to collapse on an already wobbly leg, breaking into three pieces. They had dinner on the floor the next night. After that, they took their dinners alone, in separate corners of the house. That’s how they ate from then on.
It was easier that way.
There were many others – the unnecessary skateboard fight, the battle of the flannel pajamas, the Jane Austen meltdown – and with each flare up, they grew further and further apart.
It was the silence that bothered Jim the most. Their little house grew so quiet you could hear clocks ticking from their neighbor’s living rooms if you listed hard enough. Jim and Emma went whole weeks without speaking. The mountain of unspoken words deafened the subtext of any conversations that, by some miracle, pass between them, killing any chance they had to truly reconcile.
Ships passing in the night; unaware anyone else is close by.
Six months later, Jim got a promotion, and suddenly found the need to work late nights, even when no real need existed. On many such nights, Emma would be out with friends or pursuing her own hobbies when Jim got home, which he often misconstrued as a slight against him.
“Why should I come home early, if she doesn’t want to see me?” he thought, and would go to bed before she got home just to piss her off.
Despite all this, Jim still loved Emma, still made plans in his mind for their future together, still hoped to one day have kids. This was just a temporary darkness, Jim rationalized to himself. They’d pull through. Eventually.
That was somewhat true in its own right, and Jim and Emma Becker may have eventually worked things out.
If not for Samantha.
**** **** **** ****
Jim sighed and stepped out of his car.
“HELP!” A woman’s voice nearby. “SOMEBODY HELP ME!”
Jim ran across the nearly empty parking garage to find a large man in a pair of faded jeans and a black hoodie attacking a woman next to a minivan. Jim grabbed the guy’s shoulders from behind.
“Hey! Watch it, buddy,” Jim said.
The attacker grunted, pushed Jim away easily. He was a few inches taller at least, and had maybe fifty pounds on him; all of it pure muscle.
Jim threw what he thought was a jab at the man’s head, then followed with a cross aimed at his chest. The man dodged Jim’s punches easily and rushed him, grabbing Jim by the waist. He pushed forward, trying to shove Jim to the ground where, he imagined, the man would pummel him like an MMA fighter.
“I’m about to die!” Jim thought to himself. He crouched, then shoved his body upward, like he was trying to leap over a large set of boxes at the gym. His arms flailed as he twisted, catching the attacker’s chin with his left elbow. The man’s head flew back and the hood came off. Dazed, he stepped back, and let go of Jim’s waist.
They made eye contact. The man looked scared, almost surprised. He didn’t look angry; almost embarrassed to have been caught attacking the young woman next to the van.
He stumbled backward, tried to catch his balance, then tripped over a parking block next to an old Toyota. He fell, hit his head on the pavement with a loud CRACK, and stopped moving instantly.
Jim approached cautiously, afraid the fight would continue. But the man’s eyes stared off into the distance, focusing on something neither Jim nor anyone else this side of eternity could see. Blood began to pool around his head.
Jim looked to his right. The woman had apparently passed out in the commotion.
“Uh oh,” Jim said, and called 9-1-1.
When he hung up, he heard footsteps from behind. Jim turned, and there he was. The man in white.
“Hello, Jim,” The Devil said. “That was your first. You’ve got two more.”
Jim stared at him in disbelief. The morning birds began to sing in the trees next to the parking garage.
“Wow,” the man in white said. “That was unexpected. Most people usually scream something like ‘Holy crap!’ or ‘How the hell did you get here?’ Or sometimes just “AAAAAAH!’”
“What the hell?” Jim said.
“There we go.”
“You’re real? Last night was REAL?”
“The pathetic cry of a thousand college girls,” The Devil said, shaking his head sadly. “Of course I’m real. I’m real, you’re real, that blond next to the minivan is real, and all the blood that used to be in this dead guy’s head is DEFINITELY real. Real and staining my suit.”
The man in white lifted one of his feet in disgust.
“I can’t believe this!” Jim yelled.
“Neither can I! Do you know how hard it is to get blood stains out of a white suit?” The man in white spit into a rag and wiped at a spreading red spot on his pants. “I just had this dry cleaned!”
He futzed a bit more with his pants, grunted in frustration, then continued. “I just wanted to say congrats on doing a great job with number one, but look at this. My suit! This will never come out.”
“What do you mean two more? I didn’t kill anyone.”
“He looks pretty dead to me, Jim.”
“But Murder? I didn’t want…”
“Woah! Wait just a minute there, Jimmy. Murder? MURDER? You didn’t think I wanted you to murder anyone, did you?”
“Until a moment ago, I thought you were just a bad dream. Now, I don’t know what to think. “
“Well, That’s not how it works.” The man in white sat down next to Jim on the hood of of the old Toyota. It dented beneath him.
“All these stories you’ve heard about me, with God as the good guy and me as this malevolent evil force? Those are nice kid stories, Jim. But that’s not the real world.”
“God and me? We’re on the same team! He gets all the good people singing hymns in church on Sunday, making casseroles and cakes for bake sales, and reading bad romance novels about women in bonnets clutching their pearls at anything that might get their engines running.”
“And me?” The man in white looked at the body again. “I handle the rougher crowd. Like Mr. Wanna-Be-Rapist here.”
“Which one am I?” Jim asked.
“You ain’t no Boy Scout, that’s for sure. No bonnets and pearls for you. But you’re not a rapist like this guy. And you’re definitely not a murderer.”
“Let’s call it a happy accident. I’ve been watching you, Jim. You’ve had a rough go of things these last few years. I figured I’d let you in on some of my work and, as a token of my thanks, you get your heart’s deepest desire. Pretty good deal, isn’t it?”
“My heart’s deepest desire?” Jim asked. “What is this, an after-school special?”
The devil laughed out loud. His voice echoed off the empty walls of the parking garage around them. “I knew I liked you, Jim. That’s why I chose you. You’ve got a certain je ne sais quoi.”
“I don’t know. I don’t like the idea of killing people. Like ACTUALLY killing people.”
The Devil stood up from the dented Toyota and stepped closer. “The world is a dark place,” he said. “You don’t see it like I do.”
“What do you mean?”
“A man raping a woman in a suburban garage? That’s child’s play. I’ve seen murder, rape, and worse on a massive scale. I’ve seen grown men – some of them men of the cloth – abuse children in unspeakable ways and, when they were done, they turned around sold those children to the highest bidder, and move on to another. I’ve watched normal, everyday people turn a blind eye as their supposed authorities whisked their neighbors away under cover of darkness merely because of their race or religion, and then pretend that the putrid stench coming from the smokestacks nearby wasn’t what they thought it was; what everyone KNEW it was. I’ve seen people wipe out entire nations – millions and millions of innocent people – because a madman in a party hat told them his version of God said it was holy and just.”
The man in white stepped so close, Jim could smell his breath. Hot mustard gas and roses with a faint whiff of mint.
“I have seen evil face to face, Jim. I have tasted it; felt its incessant beat that drives into men’s brains, drawing them to it, let the tendrils of its smoke fill my nostrils, scintillating my taste buds. I know evil, Jim.”
“Some people learn evil from childhood because that’s all they see in their world. Others get caught up in it due to circumstance or because they lacked the strength to stand against it. But some people, Jim. Some people ARE Evil. Evil to their core. They revel in it; take joy in it. They take Evil to new heights of creativity even I cannot fathom.”
“God says everyone is redeemable, and maybe that’s true for him. But down here, in the Real World, where large men in black hoodies attack innocent women for no reason, those people run rampant. They take advantage of good people like that poor woman over there. Like the people you work with. Like you.”
“Those evil people need to be stopped, Jim. I don’t call that murder. I call it Justice.”
Jim stared at the pool of blood. It just kept spreading. Jim wondered how far it could go, whether it would ever stop.
“I don’t know,” he said.
The Devil stepped back and smiled again. “It’s a lot to take in. I know. But don’t worry. This will all make sense in the end. Trust me.”
Police sirens in the distance.
“Listen, I have to get going. Your next one is right around the corner, so be ready. And buck up, kiddo. You saved this woman’s life. You’re a hero! Enjoy it.”
Hey Folks. Two More (part 2) is coming at you tomorrow (or, since it’s past midnight here, later today). If you’d like to catch up but don’t have the time to sit and read, check out the first installment on my on-the-fly podcast “Story Time With Joe”
Jim Becker spent the final moments of the second-to-last day of his life on a stool at The Friendly Stop Bar & Grille. He was drunk, and he spoke loud to no one in particular.
“The last thing I need,” he said, “is another woman.”
Sean, The Friendly Stop’s bartender, had already locked the door, wiped down the tables, and put up the chairs for the night. He looked at Jim and checked his watch. With anyone else, he’d have gone to his You Don’t Have To Go Home, But You Can’t Stay Here routine, but Jim was a regular, and you don’t do that to regulars.
That was rule #1 in Sean’s Universal Bartender’s Guide to Making Money and Staying Employed. Rule #2 was “Don’t sleep with your customers, or you’ll lose all that money you just made.” Having made these rules part of his personal religion, Sean built quite a successful career over the years following it’s commandments.
“How’s about we call it a night?” Sean said. “Maybe pick up where we left off tomorrow?”
“Just one more?” Jim asked.
“Come on, Jim. I gotta get home at some point. Plus, with these curfews in place for this COVID thing, it’s not a good idea to be out socializing.”
“Just one. I promise.”
They stared at each other, two nearly middle aged men with hints of grey peeking out at their temples. Neither wanted to budge.
Sean liked Jim. He never caused trouble, always tipped well and, most importantly, had an infectious humor that helped spread his proclivity for fiduciary friendliness to those around him.
Or anyway, he used to be that way until a few months ago when Jim’s wife, Emma, left him after ten years of a mostly-happy-but-sometimes-rocky marriage. Since then, Jim made a habit of telling everyone at The Friendly Stop how very happy he was to be single again. All that free time. No more rules.
“It’s the dream!” Jim would say with a wide smile.
But rule #3 in Sean’s book is “You see the truth in their eyes,” and Jim’s eyes told a different story. Jim’s eyes were anything but happy. In fact, by Sean’s estimation, Jim had spent nearly every night since the divorce right here on this stool, staring into his beer, hoping to forget, bit by bit, the woman who meant the world to him.
Sean lowered his head.
“Alright, Jim. One more. I have to go downstairs to get some more beer, anyway.” He tossed a dirty rag into the corner next to some boxes, put the last of the shot glasses into the disinfecting sink. “When I come back, it’s time to go. Got it?”
“Scout’s honor!” Jim made a three fingered Boy Scout salute, and affected a fake, cheesy smile. When Sean turned to leave, Jim’s smile faded. He tore at the edges of the label on his beer and closed his eyes.
**** **** **** ****
Jim Becker met Emma then-Ridenhour fifteen years ago on a random indie music night at The Friendly Stop. This was back when the previous owners still labored under the belief that theirs was an up and coming college spot, not just another random, suburban hole-in-the-wall.
A hippie chick with matted hair and an ancient acoustic guitar was halfway through a song about a girl named Rosie and her supposed True Love when Jim looked across the bar and saw a beautiful brunette dancing by herself: her eyes closed, arms raised to the sky, and a sundress that flowed with her hips like both were choreographed. She danced like she was the only one in the room.
The brunette opened her eyes, looked right at Jim and smiled. Jim walked over and was about to spout a one-liner his college roommate swore never failed (even though it had never worked for Jim) when she cut him off. “I don’t care. Just dance with me. Now.” From that moment on, Jim’s heart belonged only to her.
They danced without stopping for the next two hours. By then, they really were the only ones in the room. The hippie chick packed up to leave and they kept dancing. Sean turned up the chairs and wiped down the bar, and they kept dancing. They moved outside, alone together in the street, and kept dancing still.
Two months later, Jim proposed. Six months later, they were married.
Jim and Emma Becker danced with Rosie and Her True Love at their reception, on their honeymoon, and many early mornings before work that first year together. They danced in the kitchen while washing dishes, they danced on the thick carpet of the office room in the back of the apartment where Jim did most of his work, and they danced barefoot with Rosie on the hardwood floors of their first house, always making sure to mind the spot near the window where Emma once got a splinter in her big toe.
They danced with Rosie when the pregnancy test came back positive, when they found out the baby would be a girl, and after they spent far too much money on that first set of baby clothes, as many expecting parents do.
Rosie was with them every step of the way as they made their way into the happily ever after as the story should have gone. But stories don’t always match the fantasies we lay out for them.
When the doctor said there was a malformation in the spine and their daughter likely wouldn’t live long, they went home in shock. The rest of the pregnancy was difficult, but they persevered in hope that their happily ever after could still come true.
A few months later, only a few hours after their daughter was born, Jim and Emma Becker held little body close and cried. The cried for a long time.
They held a small service, for family only, and when they finally made it back home, Jim and Emma returned to a house full of silence, and a hole in their lives neither of them knew how to fill.
For a while, Jim believed things would be okay, that they could weather any storm so long as they had each other. But time passes; life changes, almost imperceptibly; and the music of our youth sounds strange to old ears.
Jim and Emma Becker had gone to a place where they couldn’t seem to hear music that once brought them together. They slowly grew apart as the years passed until, finally, they called it a day and signed the papers to codify what had already been the status of their relationship for quite some time.
Jim hadn’t thought of Rose and Her True Love for several years as he sat, staring into his beer at the Friendly Stop. He laughed, told stories, and spoke of the joy and the freedom he felt, now that his marriage was over. But his eyes told the truth for those willing to look. The Gospel of Sean spoke true, and we all say thank you, good night, and amen.
**** **** **** ****
Jim thumbed the label on his beer in silence.
The Friendly Stop’s door swung open, banged into the opposite wall, and knocked a framed picture of Ted Kluszewski to the floor. In stepped an older gentleman with a bushy grey beard and a slick, white suit. He looked like Colonel Sanders if Colonel Sanders sold pharmaceuticals instead of fried chicken.
“Anyone here know how to make a good mint julep?” the man said. “I’d kill for one, but no one around here seems to know what they are.”
“’Fraid you’re outta luck, friend” Jim said. “All they got here is watered down beer.”
“The search continues,” the man said as he stepped all the way inside. “Mind if I join you?”
“I think they’re about to close.” Jim glanced at the previously locked door.
“Closing time is my favorite time,” the man in white said. “It’s when you get all the best deals. Nothing warms my heart like discount liquor. That, and a good Mint Julep.”
“Don’t expect any freebies here,” Jim said, returning to his beer. “Sean has a sixth sense about the value of things. ESPECIALLY booze.”
“Oh, I don’t know if he’s that good. He gave you that one for free, didn’t he, Jim?”
Jim set his beer down, and looked at the man in the white suit. The stranger looked right back, not moving an inch. His eyes focused intently on Jim. Jim leaned back as the man white stepped closer. The stranger never stopped smiling.
“Do I know you?”
“Where are my manners?” The man stood up straight, and stuck out his left hand. “Pleased to meet you, Jim. Hope you guess my name.”
“Lucifer. The name’s Lucifer. Sometimes I go by Beelzebub or ‘Old Scratch.’ But you might know me as Satan.” He paused. “The Devil?”
Jim was stone-faced. Then, he laughed out, loud and hard. Jim knew a good joke when he heard one. He couldn’t quite see the punchline yet, but he was sure it was out there in the ether somewhere, waiting for him. “Pleased to meet you, too” he said. “What can I do you for?”
“I’ve got a business proposition.”
“A business proposition, you say?” Jim put down his drink and gave the man his full, undivided, sarcastic, and inebriated attention. “Well you’re in luck. It just so happens I specialize in late night business propositions, especially those made during an international pandemic. Shoot.”
“I need you to kill someone. Three someones, actually.”
Jim stroked his chin and laughed again. “Go on.”
“I need it all to happen in the same day, tomorrow, and I need you to be the one to do it.”
“Sounds reasonable to me. Do you want me to shoot them or should I sneak up from behind and attack? Like a ninja!”
“Whatever works best for you,” The man in white said. “As long as they’re dead.”
“And what did these people do to deserve your wrath? Are they business associates of yours?”
The man in white laughed out loud. “Nice! Good one!”
He sat on the stool closest to Jim. “You’re a funny guy, Jim. I’ve been watching you for a while, and you never fail to catch me off guard.”
“Glad I can be of service,” Jim said as he downed the rest of his beer. He had forgotten to look for the punchline. The man in white still smiled.
“Do we have a deal?” the man in white asked.
“Hold on, now,” Jim Said. “We’re still negotiating.”
“Of course we are.”
“What about compensation for facilitating these poor folks’ untimely demise? You don’t expect me to kill them for free, do you? I have my standards.”
“That’s the best part! You, good sir, will get none other than your heart’s deepest desire!”
Jim affected a serious tone. “I don’t know. I was hoping for a Mustang. I’ve always wanted a Mustang. And maybe some donuts. I like donuts, too.”
“If that’s your heart’s deepest desire, sure.”
“So it could be … anything?”
“How can you make that happen?”
“I’m the Devil,” the man in white said. “I have my ways.”
“Right,” Jim said. “I forgot.”
The steps to the basement started creaking. Sean would be back soon.
Jim stared at the tattered label on his beer. “Heart’s desire, huh?”
“You got it.”
“And how do I know what that is? How do I know you’ll deliver?”
“You’ll have to get to the end to find out.” the man said, still smiling. “So do we have a deal?”
“Absolutely.” The door to the basement opened. Sean was back, carrying several cases of cheap beer. “Why don’t we drink to seal the deal?”
“I’ve had enough. You go ahead.”
Jim turned, and was about to yell out for more drinks, when the man in white spoke again.
“This will be good for you, Jim,” he said “Emma would be proud.”
“What did you say?!”
Jim turned, ready for a fight, but no one was there.
****** ****** ****** ****
Check back next week for Part 2 (of 4)