The old man tossed his keys on the table and rubbed the back of his neck. “God, but I feel like shit.” He pulled out a chair and sat roughly down. “Probably doesn’t help that I’m over seventy.”
He laughed, then began to cough. He doubled over from the effort. He sat back, breathing heavily. “Hoo, boy. I uh…” Then the moment he had always feared finally came.
It felt as if someone reached through his chest and grabbed hold of his heart. His left arm first burned, then went numb as the hand squeezed hard. “God, no! God, I…” He slumped off the chair.
He crawled towards the phone on the wall. He collapsed halfway to his goal, the hand squeezing harder and harder. The old man passed away on his kitchen floor.
He opened his eyes again after an indeterminate period of time. He was standing. He looked around in a blind panic. Where in the hell was he!
He was… at a lake. A beautiful lake, on a gorgeous summer day. He squinted at the big, blue sky. Not a cloud to be seen. “Hey, Dennis! Well you’re looking mighty fine, ain’t ya?”
The old man stared in disbelief. “Bobby Jackson?” He looked down at himself. He was much slimmer, his hands much younger. “Well, I’ll be damned.”
Dennis looked back up at Bobby. “Is it really you, Bobby? You…”
“Died?” Bobby laughed. “Yep. I sure did. One of those V.C. bastards cut me down while I was taking a nap. At least I woke up here, huh?” He grinned, looking out over the lake.
Dennis nodded numbly. “Ayuh. I remember.” He followed Bobby’s gaze. “Wait a minute…” He turned to Bobby. “I’m dead, too!” He clutched his chest.
“Yeah, I imagine. Turned out alright, though. Didn’t it? You ended up at Elmore Lake instead of Hell Avenue.” He chuckled.
Dennis blanched. He laughed nervously. “Yeah! Sure…”
He turned back towards the lake. The gentle ripples suddenly went out of focus. He felt as if the world was spinning underneath him. His vision blurred and darkened. He tightly closed his eyes.
Dennis clutched his stomach as the spinning slowed. He waited a few beats before trying to open his eyes. When he did, he found himself standing a short distance from a big, red barn.
“Come to help me finish up plantin’ for the season?” A middle-aged gentleman smiled gently at Dennis. “Then again, looks like you might’ve started without me.” He pointed at Dennis’ clothes.
Dennis looked down. Sure enough, he looked somewhat sod bound. He looked worriedly at his outstretched hands. They looked less youthful than they had a moment earlier.
He looked back up at the farmer. “You’re Jack Demple! It’s been what, thirty years…”
“I reckon about so. Time passes funny here. So what tore you down, huh?”
“Oh! A heart attack, I think.” Dennis absently rubbed at his chest.
“Quick and easy, I guess. I gotta say, though… I wondered if you’d end up here the way you were heading…”
A sullen look passed over Dennis’ face. “Oh. Yeah, well…” He gazed off towards the barn. The clouds above it were slowly gathering.
Jack stared up at them. “Well, whatever’s the case, here ya are. I better get to droppin’ seed, though.” He winked at Jack. “Might be rain soon, looks like.”
“Sure, sure…” Dennis watched Jack walk off towards the barn. Both man and building became fuzzy. “Oh, shit…”
He squeezed his eyes shut as the world spun again. He stumbled about a moment later, trying to find his footing. Something was surrounding him, pressing in on his legs.
Dennis opened his eyes to find himself in a field of yellowed grass. The sky above him was gray. The person before him in the distance was his ex-wife. He grimaced. This was feeling less and less like heaven.
“YOU! You worthless piece of shit!” She pushed her way through the tall grass towards him, finger leading the way. “You look like it, too. How in the hell did you manage to live so long?”
Dennis looked down at himself again. His stomach had filled back in, straining against the waist of his soiled jeans. He brushed at his filthy tee shirt with liver-spotted hands.
He lifted his shaking head to meet his ex’s gaze. “I was young…”
She snorted. “Yeah, then you got old and mean. You don’t belong here! You hurt me, Dennis! You’d get drunk, yell at me, hit me…”
Dennis snarled. “You made me do it! I worked my ass off, only to come home and there’d be no dinner…”
“I wasn’t your slave!” Tears spilled from her eyes. Thunder rippled in the distance. “I was so glad someone wizened me up, got me out of there. At least I got a few years of joy before God took me.”
She glared. “You’re a bad man, Dennis.” She jabbed her finger at him. “You’ll get yours. You’ll see. You got a stench on you, and it ain’t coming off!”
Lightning crashed close by. The bright-white light blinded him. His scream was lost in the resounding boom. He squeezed his eyes shut as his ears burned.
He blinked, rubbing his eyes. His vision slowly cleared. He was standing on a highway beside a wide-open field, now.
A short distance away from him was a car parked at a funny angle on the side of the road. Rain started to fall. He gasped as realization flooded his face. “Oh… Oh, God.”
He numbly walked towards the front of the car. He already knew what he’d find once he got up there. He wanted to turn and run in the opposite direction. Something pushed him on, all the same.
Lying on the ground before the car was a bloodied young woman. An ice-cold wind blew across the road, making him shiver. The steadily-falling rain soaked into the woman’s tattered clothing.
The body twitched. Dennis jumped, taking a step back. The woman suddenly sat up, screaming. A deep gash in her cheek made her gaping mouth unnaturally wide.
Dennis screamed in return, stumbling backwards. Lightning streaked through the air in the distance. “Stay… Stay away! I didn’t mean to…”
The dead woman stumbled after him. Her broken leg twisted at an odd angle with each step. “But you did! Drunk driver… Ran me down!”
He turned to run. The woman appeared right in front of him. He screamed. She screamed back. “Drunk! Wife-beater… Wino! Took my whole life away…”
Dennis walked backwards. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry! I’ll do anything…”
“You’ll do nothing!” The woman’s eyes turned jet-black. She began to laugh, blood pouring from her mouth. “You’ll just pay!” She shuffled towards him.
He fell backwards onto the slick road. He blinked at the specter through the driving rain. “No, please! God…”
The sick smile faded from the woman’s face. She slowly shook her head. “God turned his back on you a long time ago.” A pair of black forms loomed behind the woman.
“No… No! I repent! I have sinned! God, forgive me…”
Red, glaring eyes opened in the shadows behind the woman. “Too late, Dennis.”
The wraiths lifted up and over the woman, descending on the old man. The shadowy figures took hold of each of his arms, holding him fast. The road beneath him began to shift and buckle.
The rain hissed off the rapidly heating tarmac. Dennis began to scream as it burned his flesh. The ground violently tore open. Orange light poured out of the fissure.
Dennis hung suspended above the entrance to an immense chamber. Eternal flames burned far below. The heat blistered his skin. Dennis continued to scream.
The wraiths let go. He slapped fruitlessly at the immaterial specters before slipping through the crack. He stared wild-eyed at the woman above before being lost to the fires below.