Ear Rumbling

Tensor_tympani-muscleEar Rumbling is the voluntary control of your Tensor Tympani muscle in your ears. I never knew this was a rare ability, I’ve been ear rumbling ever since I was a kid. Back in my younger days I would do it during class thinking that it was the beginning stages of telekinesis and that if I concentrated hard enough I could move things with my mind (I got bored in school a lot). I never managed to make anything move with my mind, no matter how hard I was rumbling my ears.

If I do it for too long it gives me a slight ache behind my eyes because I have to strain some of the muscles in my neck and face to make it work with my eyes open.

Now that I think about it, I must’ve looked pretty stupid in class, straining my face and neck as I stared at the pencil sharpener in Mrs. Gordon’s class in third grade, trying to make that damn handle spin.

 

The Week Before Christmas

(semi-autobiographical retelling of The Night Before Christmas)

‘Twas the week before Christmas, and all through the stores,
Shoppers were buying up presents galore,
The clerks stacked impulse buys near the register with glee,
In hopes of desperate shoppers arriving on Dec. 23.

The children were finished, their presents bought weeks before,
And mom’s been done shopping about a month, maybe more.
But Dad he had waited, unsure what to buy.
He had no excuse; other than to say he’s a guy.

When the last shopping day came, Dad’s pulse it did jump,
At the thought of becoming a non-present buying chump.
So away to the garage, to his car he did haul,
And made haste on his way to the local shopping mall!

Miles from the mall, Dad’s plan hit a snag,
From the snarl of traffic making his travel time lag.
With his time running short, and plans falling apart,
Dad turned in a beeline to the Super WalMart.

The traffic still slow, but with driving skills slick,
Dad navigated his way through the traffic jam thick.
As rapid as molasses to WalMart he came,
Dad screaming, and honking and cursing their names,

“C’mon Chevy! Go Honda, that light’s turning red!
On Nissan! Are you turning? Get a move on I said!
Put your foot on the gas, if you time it just right,
I won’t have to wait another (expletive removed) light!”

As leaves and food wrappers in storm drains collect,
Due to autumn’s cold fingers and fast food eater’s neglect.
Into the parking lot Dad’s car finally did grace,
As ten other cars jockeyed for the last parking space.

And then, in an instant, an open space did appear,
Dad laid rubber to the road, racing every car near.
He pulled into the space, as passersby they did frown,
Dad sprinted to the door, knocking the Salvation Army guy down.

Dad dressed in his jeans and collegiate football sweatshirt,
Grabbed the last shopping cart not completely covered in dirt.
The left front wheel did spin in no particular direction,
As he hastened to peruse the store’s last minute selections.

His eyes, how they furrowed! His preparation? Not very!
The pickings were slim! He had no time to parry!
His lips were all frowny as he pondered each row.
Hoping to find something that he could wrap with a bow.

The last of his fingernails he gnawed in his teeth,
As Dad searched every top shelf and every one beneath.
Of the gifts he would buy, he still had not a clue.
But with time running short, there wasn’t much he could do.

Then Dad saw an option sitting on the store shelf,
And he shrugged when he saw them, in spite of himself.
“It’s not the perfect gift,” he thought in his head,
“but it’ll save me some horror of gift opening dread.”

He spoke not a word as he picked his selections,
And, for good measure, tossed in some chocolaty confections.
And by swiping his Visa through the card reader slot,
Dad finished his shopping, believe it or not.

Dad sprang to the lot with his gifts in the cart,
And away he drove off from that Super WalMart,
But he exclaimed as he drove off these last minute shopping facts,
“Buy gift cards for all, and hot cocoa sampler packs!”

“You Don’t Know Me.” – Short Fiction

(Short fiction from a writing prompt on www.reddit.com/r/writingprompts)

Tim turned the collar of his ragged coat up against the wind, but the fabric was so riddled with holes it didn’t make much of a difference. He shivered as he held up his sign on the corner of 5th and Vine. Shivering may be a good thing actually, he thought. Might coax a few more dollars out of people’s pockets.

It was December, but no snow, not yet thankfully. A few blocks away he could hear the Christmas music accompanying the people ice skating in Fountain Square. He tried to get closer so he could get a few more donations but the police shooed him away. With all the improvements made to downtown, the police shuffled homeless away from the city center during holidays or big events. Too depressing for people to be reminded of the homeless problem, it was bad for business and bad for the city’s image.

A cold wind bit at his lower legs. The fabric was worn so thin on his jeans that they were almost down to thread. He looked down at the money in his jar. $8; if they didn’t have another pair at the shelter, he’d have to spend money on a good pair to get him through the winter. The closest Salvation Army store was north of town, quite a hike but one he’d have to make if he didn’t want to get frostbite this winter.

“God bless you sir,” Tim said, almost robotic as a woman in her fifties dropped some change in his Utz pretzel container that was his latest incarnation of a collection jar. The logo had been ripped off revealing strips of white paper where Tim had written “Please Help, God Bless” in crayon on the side.

“Excuse me,” a voice male behind him said as he tapped his shoulder. “I was hoping you could help me find someone?”

Tim turned around, almost dropping his sign as he made eye contact with the boy. The boy was maybe in his late teens or early twenties, with sandy blonde hair, green eyes and freckles on his nose. He averted his eyes, staring down at his feet.

“Don’t know that I can help ya, son,” Tim said.

The boy leaned in, moving his head to get into Tim’s line of sight. Tim turned around back to his spot on the street corner, his shivers now accompanied by a few drops of wetness on his cheek.

“Grandpa?” the boy said. “Grandpa, it’s me, Timothy.”

Tim sniffed and took a deep breath before speaking. “Sorry son, but you don’t know me.”

“It’s you, Grandpa. I know you. We’ve been looking for you. It’s okay now, everything is okay. We want you to come home again.”

Tim’s eyes glistened as he stared out into the street, his stomach turning in knots as the lump in his throat made it hard to talk. He managed to speak, just above a whisper.

“You don’t know me.”

The boy put his hand on Tim’s shoulder, “Grandpa…”

Tim turned around grasping the boy’s arm and pushing him against the building, screaming as he pressed his face into the face of his grandson.  “I said you don’t know me, boy! You don’t know me! YOU! DON’T! KNOW! ME!”

Tim shoved the kid, turning to grab his tip bucket as the other people on the corner stared at him. He fled, running down Fifth street and crossing into an alley, working his way down to the overpass where he had been sleeping. His eyes burned with tears as he slumped down on his piece of cardboard, shoving the money from his collection bucket into his pockets.

He reached into another pocket, pulling out a plastic bottle of vodka and a torn photo from Christmas three years ago, the last time he had seen his family.  Tim pulled the bottle to his lips and took a long, deep drink staring at himself in the photo. A single tear fell on the picture before he crumpled it up and shoved it back into his pocket.

“You don’t know me,” Tim said, sniffing and wiping his eyes.

Cheap Heat (Short Fiction)

wrestling ring

Jesus, where am I?

Brody opened his eyes. He was lying on a weight bench, his head throbbing.  Above him hung a banner of some no name high school in who gives a shit Georgia. Preston Bulldogs, it read. A high school gym, it was coming back to him now. The banner was flanked by the typical motivational bullshit you’d find in pretty much every high school weight room. “The pain of discipline is nothing like the pain of disappointment” “Pain is weakness leaving the body.” ”Go hard or go home.” If his head didn’t hurt so much, he would’ve rolled his eyes.

Brody got the notice of the gig the night before from a booker he worked with up in MidValley South Wrestling. Brody had driven down from Nashville to Atlanta for a Chikara show; he wasn’t booked for a match, just hanging around to see if they needed him. He wasn’t a big draw, but he had name recognition from his run in the WWF back in the 90s. Sometimes he’d get lucky and get put on the card, but they had a full show scheduled. He even offered to put someone over in a squash for $50, enough to cover his gas and a meal for the ride, but they turned him down.

Brody set up a stand in the parking lot to sell shirts after they told him he wasn’t going to make the show, managing to sell a couple to a few old school fans before security shut him down.  That’s when he got the call about the gig in Preston. The heel for the main event match had cancelled due to a MRSA infection in his leg so they needed someone quick. It was a fundraiser show for the athletic boosters, but the pay was decent: $200 plus money for a hotel room, and he would get a table for signing autographs and to sell his shirts and DVDs.

He drove all night, fueled by some cheap Molly he traded for a few shirts and even cheaper gas station coffee to arrive at Preston High School at 8am for a 1 o’clock show. Since he didn’t need a room his hotel money just rolled into his pay, turning a $200 gig  into a $300 gig. He met with the guy he was wrestling, a babyface who spent a few years as a Gaijin in Japan and was looking to make a name for himself on the Indy circuit that he hoped would parlay into a WWE tryout. The kid had the size and looks to make it on the bigger stage, but was still pretty green in the ring. He was a good talker though, which was important. If you can’t talk and get a crowd invested in an angle, especially a small crowd gig like this, then you weren’t going to put on a good show.

They worked out the finish, deciding Brody would go over due to heel tactics but the ref would reverse it and restart the match and the kid (Sterling? was that his name? Brody couldn’t remember) would get him in a crossface and Brody would tap out. Brody was the bigger star, but he was also the bad guy, and in small shows like this the babyfaces get the win. Brody knew his role was to get the crowd to hate him and help put the kid over.

Brody sat up, his head still pounding.  Across from him the sign that read “Go Preston! Beat Rockdale!” hung from a single thumbtack on the bulletin board by the football sign in sheets.  He could hear the crowd stomping in the gym next to the weight room as the undercard tag match was taking place. Brody didn’t know who they were, just that it was a team of luchas against a couple Ring of Honor has beens. The luchas were going over, doing their flippy shit finisher that crowds like this ate up.

Brody hadn’t even noticed that he wasn’t alone in the weight room until he heard the sound of metal plates clanking together as someone loaded up the incline bench. He looked over to see his opponent warming up, getting his chest and arms pumped for the match. Back in his younger days Brody would do the same, but at 46 years of age with two reconstructed knees his prematch routine consisted of chewing three Oxycontin and chasing it with Mountain Dew.

Brody walked over just as Sterling (that was his name, his singlet and boots were emblazoned with it, and a monkey for some inexplicable reason) pressed the bar from the rack. He had three plates on each side of the bar as he sped through eight reps. Jesus, this kid was a monster. Outside he heard the crowd clapping and stomping in a steady rhythm, meaning one of the luchas was about to make a hot tag. Crowds like this are easy to work. As expected the crowd popped with a huge cheer as the tag was made.

“Luchas are about to go home,” Brody said as Sterling re-racked the bar. “You ready to blow the roof off this place?”

Sterling nodded, feeling his chest as he flexed. “We’re lucky you were available to step in on such short notice. Our booker was scrambling trying to figure out how to work this show being down a heel. They talked about dressing up one of the other guys in a rival mascot costume and just have me beat the shit out of him for fifteen minutes. You ever have to do something as stupid as that coming up?”

Brody laughed. “There are worse ways to be booked than squashing a rival mascot, kid.”

Sterling’s face was smooth, not the crisscrossed mess of scars that littered Brody’s forehead from years of hardcore matches. He could tell the kid about the show in Mobile back in ‘91, when a fan stabbed him with a broken bottle after beating down a babyface. Or the time in Dayton back in ‘89 when he was knocked out in the ring and guys took turns breaking fluorescent light tubes across his back. There were still some promotions where that shit happened, but extreme matches are less the norm these days.

“I grew up watching you,” Sterling said. “You had a run with the belts didn’t you? Like around 96?”

“Yep, me and Outlaw Joe,” Brody said. They had traveled doing shows together, they were a decent draw up until Joe died. Three years ago, no four. Overdosed in the hotel room the night before a match in Charleston. In the gym the crowd chanted along with the count… one, two, ohhhh! Save by the heel partner. That was the last false finish, after a flurry of flippy shit the luchas were going over and then Brody was on.

“We’re up,” Brody said as the crowd made the three count. “You better hang back so they can’t see you when I come in.”

Sterling stood up from the bench and extended his hand. “Let’s give them a show.”

Brody shook his hand; it was a bit too firm. First the shiny boots, then the prematch warmup with a shitload of weight, and now a firm handshake. The kid was going to stiff him in the ring. Brody smiled as he popped three Oxy into his mouth, then decided a fourth was needed. He washed it down with a flat bottle of Mountain Dew. Kids gotta learn.

Brody walked down a narrow hallway from the weight room to the doorway of the gym. Marty, the booker was there holding a mic. He extended it to Brody as he walked up.

“Two minutes and keep it clean,” Marty said. He was dressed in a tux, as if dressing up somehow lent an air of professionalism to a wrestling show in a high school gym. Brody peered through the small window of the door, it was a packed crowd, maybe a thousand or more.

The lights in the gym dimmed as opening guitar riff of AC/DC’s Thunderstruck played over the soundsystem. The crowd clapped along as the announcer spoke.

“And now, ladies and gentlemen, your main event! First, weighing in at 247 pounds…”

Brody smiled as he thumped his palm against his belly. I haven’t been 247 in a decade he thought.

“He is a former world tag team champion from Chicago, Illinois, Brody Thunder!”

Brody stepped into the gym just as AC/DC started chanting Thunder, and soon the whole crowd was chanting and cheering along. He was getting a babyface entrance, but he’d soon turn that around. Nothing was more fun than getting a crowd that wanted to cheer you to turn against you.

Brody made his way into the ring, running the ropes and posing for the crowd before his music cut and he was left standing in the ring as the crowd chanted “Thunder!”

“Hello Preston Bulldogs!” Brody screamed into the mic, erupting the crowd into another frenzy. Mention the town name, easy cheap pop. Usually it was the babyface’s job to milk the town name for a pop, but Brody figured the more he built them up the more they’d boo him when he went heel on them.

“I drove in last night from Atlanta just to see you, just to come put on a show for the Georgia famous Preston Bulldogs. And as I drove in last night over the War Memorial Bridge, down Main Street past Dooley’s Pizza, I said to myself, ‘Brody, does this look like a town that needs a little Thunder in their lives? Does this look like a place that’s ready for Brody Thunder to call down the Thunder and Lightning in the ring here and tear the roof off this gym?’  What do you say Preston Bulldogs, are you ready to get Thunderstruck?”

More cheers and chanting of “Thunder!” Even in his medicated state last night driving in, he managed to glean enough information about the town to work into his promo. The crowd was into him, and he was so over that it was almost funny when Brody took the wind out of their sails.

“No, you’re not ready,” he said as the “Thunder!” chant came to an abrupt, confused halt. “I look at this crowd of peanut farmers and I wonder why Brody Thunder wasted his time driving here. I mean come on Georgia! I thought you were famous for your peaches, but when I look at the women in this crowd, all Brody Thunder sees is pits.”

Brody could see it materialize in their faces as it sank in that he was insulting them. The boos grew louder as he amped up his attack.

“Maybe Preston isn’t ready for Brody Thunder. Maybe Brody Thunder should go somewhere he’d be more appreciated. maybe Brody needs to head to a real town, like Rockdale!”

If anyone was on the fence before, they turned white hot against him at the mention of the rival town. The boos were deafening, and a few people even threw trash at him in the ring. Brody picked up the balled up popcorn bag and threw it out of the ring back at the crowd.

“Now you’re throwing trash? Just what I would expect from a low class city like Preston. You don’t deserve to see Brody Thunder. You don’t deserve…”

Brody was midway through the ropes when the kid’s music hit, Guns n Roses Welcome to the Jungle. Sterling stepped through the doorway into the gym and the crowd went nuts for him. After the setup Brody did, even Vladimir Putin could’ve came through those doors and the crowd still would’ve cheered.

“Battling out of the blue corner, weighing in at 278 pounds he is a former Japanese super heavyweight champion from Stillwater Florida, Gorilla Sterling!”

Gorilla, Brody thought. That explains the monkey on his singlet.

Sterling stepped into the ring as the crowd cheered. He posed from the corners, flexing and pointing to the crowd before stepping down and staring Brody in the face.

“You know, Gorilla Sterling grew up in a small town much like this. Gorilla Sterling had a blue collar mom and dad who worked late shifts, night shifts, overtime, time and a half, double time, all the time! Whatever we had we worked hard to get! Maybe Body Thunder doesn’t understand how we do things here in the South!”

The crowd cheered. Brody played his part as the shocked heel.

“ What do you say, Preston?  Should I show this Chicago thug a little down home, Southern justice?”

More cheers erupted. Sterling turned his back to Brody to address the crowd.

“Once I lock in the Gorilla Vice, Brody Thunder won’t…”

Brody kicked him in the back, knocking the kid down. He stomped him down as the crowd booed. Brody didn’t go too stiff with the kicks, just enough to sell the attack. The kid went down as he was supposed to, selling Brody’s offense. Maybe the kid’s going to be okay, Brody thought.

Once Sterling was down and rolling on the canvas in pain, Brody did a couple mocking poses for the crowd as another shower of boos rained down. Brody rolled out of the ring and dragged the official in, berating him to start the match even though his opponent was still dazed by Brody’s kicks to the back of his head. Although he was reluctant, the official signaled for the bell.

The match was over; all they had left to do was wrestle it.

Putting All the Pieces Together

puzzle pieces

For the past decade or so, I’ve lived my life in a fractional manner.

When I first started blogging, I had read multiple stories about employers firing someone over what they had written online. So my plan was to keep a buffer between the day job public me and online writer me. Hence the creation of my penname Chris Carlisle (I used the Johnny Knoxville method of selecting a stage name, using my real first name and hometown).

As Chris Carlisle I went on to have a mild amount of success with my writing, and even parlayed it into a regular online writing gig for the better part of three years. But even as I was experiencing this success, I didn’t make it public or share it with many of my family and friends. I maintained separate social media accounts for writer me and public me with different sets of friends on each.

There were some rare occasions where writer me and public me crossed paths. One time I was published in a local paper under my penname, and they included my photo in the byline. The next day at work I was approached by a coworker who had read it. His response was positive and he even made the point to email my article to the rest of the office.  When I saw the office-wide email come through with a link to the article, I almost had an anxiety attack. It felt like my Donald Trump-esque border fence had been breached.

It was all a game in reconciling who I was and my perception of how others perceived me.  While this was going on it probably isn’t a huge shock to learn that I was dealing with some severe depression. I wasn’t happy with who I was, where I was going, and I needed ways to escape and be “me”, not a complete me, but a piece of me.

Writing was my personal escape, and even though I was sharing it out in the open, it was with a different set of people than the ones I saw day to day. They only saw me as the guy who wrote about trying to get his cat to take Prozac (that’s a true story) or how difficult it was to throw away a trashcan (also true). They didn’t know about how I disappeared into the internet and video games to escape from my job, my marriage, and myself.

Whenever I wrote, I went to great lengths to hide my work in progress. Whenever someone walked behind me while I was typing on the computer I would alt-tab out. I still do that to this day. The words coming out on the screen are still raw and often need tweaking, so in my mind reading my words as I type them was akin to opening the top of my head and looking through my brain. I don’t want questions about what I’m writing while I’m writing it.

Maybe sharing that information would have staved off a few fights and hurt feelings, but when you’re dealing with depression fighting was easier than opening up. It was easier being a moody, primadonna asshole who didn’t want to share his writing than own up to being depressed and withdrawn to the point that I needed my online persona as a release from the day to day.

It’s taken some time, but I’ve reached the point where I no longer need to have that barrier, so I’m merging them together like Power Rangers forming a MegaZord.

Writing is a part of who I am. I may not be able to build a house or fix a car, but I can create a world and a character who resides in it. I can give that character strengths and weaknesses, give him friends and enemies, and find entertaining ways to mess up their shit.

That’s who I am, and that’s what I enjoy doing.

This is Hell, after all

hell2

Tom didn’t know how he got here. He remembered stalking the woman through the parking lot, waiting for the right moment to make the grab. Her Coach handbag dangled from her elbow as he tagged behind her, pretending to text on his phone to lessen suspicion. He waited until she exited the parking lot onto the busy sidewalk of Broad Street before making his move. He walked up, bumping into her as he slipped the purse off her arm and ran. He remembered hearing her yell as he stepped out onto the street, and then the sound of a horn. Was that a bus? Sounded like a bus. Then everything was quiet, everything was dark.

And now this.

Tom was wearing a grey jumpsuit, standing outside of a gray building with no windows on a street lined with buildings of the same design. The street stretched on for miles into the haze in both directions. Above him the sky was a lighter color gray filtering the light shining through.

Am I dead? Tom thought. He took a deep breath, feeling his lungs expand. Could I be breathing if I was dead? Is this really air?

Tom walked toward the building. There were no signs, only a revolving door leading to a lobby. He considered walking to one of the other buildings but they all looked the identical. What if this one was “his building”, and after checking the other buildings he didn’t remember which one was his? If he was dead, he didn’t want to end up an aimless spirit lost in purgatory because he lost his building.

Tom stepped through the revolving door and entered a small lobby leading to a receptionist’s window. The walls were bare except for a single painting of a dog, hanging askew. There was a small alcove with a table that had a few magazines on it, all 1970s issues of Sports Illustrated. Tom walked up to the receptionist’s window and pressed the buzzer. When the window opened, a small red creature with black horns greeted him.

“Jesus!” Tom yelled, stepping back.

The creature cocked an eyebrow as it spoke. “I get that a lot. Honestly, we don’t look a thing like each other.”

“Where am I? Is… is this Hell?” Tom stuttered, staring at the creature. Besides the red skin and horns, its eyes were all black with no pupils. It was dressed in a forest green blazer that had a nametag clipped to the lapel. Whatever it was, it’s name was Nybbas.

The creature was standing on the receptionist’s chair in order to reach the window. Tom could see its little cloven hooves digging into the fabric trying to steady itself as the chair tried to swivel under him.

“Didn’t the dog tell you?” Nybbas said.

Tom looked around behind him. “Dog?”

Nybbas snorted. “Dammit, that dog… always running about, he’s supposed to guard this place! We put one of those Invisible Fence collars on him, but does he care? No! Just runs right through it. I told them he needed a collar for each head, but procurement wouldn’t authorize buying more than one. Just give me a sec, okay?”

Nybbas plopped back down in his chair and picked up his desk phone and dialed. “Lydia? Nybbas. Cerberus is loose again, you need to call Thade down in… you need to call, Lydia. No, you do. Because you’re in charge of him. Yes… no… Lydia, he won’t listen to me. No… Lyd… Lydia… when the big guy finds out… Uh huh. Yeah. What’s that? Are you serious? How far can he run? Is that really your response right now? We’re floating on a lake of fire, Lydia! Just call Thade. Call Thade, Lydia. That’s your job. Thank you.”

Nybbas set the phone back on the cradle and stroked one of his horns between his fingertips. “I can’t deal with this shit today.”

Nybbas sat like that for a few minutes before Tom coughed, reminding him of his presence.

Nybbas looked up and spoke. “Oh, new guy. Yeah this is Hell. Let me pull your file up. Name?”

Tom cleared his throat, his voice shaking a little. “Tom Northrup.”

Nybbas typed his name into the computer. “Let’s see, new arrivals, ah! There you are! Theft, Lord’s name in vain, general dickish behavior. Wow! Got popped by a bus after lifting some old broad’s purse! This isn’t your day, bub.”

“So that’s it, I’m dead? And in Hell? Nothing I can do about it now?” Tom felt a lump in his throat as his eyes watered. “I’m still just a kid! I’m too young to be dead already. I have so much still to do, and mom, oh shit my poor mother…”

“Oh boy, we’ve got a crier,” Nybbas said. “Listen, Hell isn’t so bad. You ever hear the expression that history is written by the victors?”

Tom nodded, sniffing as he dabbed his eyes with his shirt collar.

“In a nutshell, that’s Hell,” Nybbas continued. “The Bible talked this place up like a real shithole, but what else was the big G supposed to do? Had to keep you humeys in line, didn’t he?”

Tom took a deep breath and straightened his shirt, his collar damp from wiping his tears. “Doesn’t matter much now anyways, does it? I’m here.”

“There’s the spirit!” Nybbas said. “And look, since it’s such a slow intake day, you’re going straight up to meet with Satan.”

“I’m meeting Satan?” Tom asked, his voice shaking.

Nybbas nodded. “You should be honored! Most humeys have to wait a week before they get to meet him.”

Tom stepped away from the desk, looking back at the revolving door.

“Don’t get any ideas kid,” Nybbas said. “Outside that door? Still Hell. Run for a hundred miles in any direction? Still Hell. And on the off chance you do make it to the edge, there’s the whole lake of fire you’ve got to deal with. Runners never make it, and it just pisses everyone off. Don’t make me have to call Lydia again. You’d really be busting my balls if you did.”

Tom gave the door another glance before stepping back to the window.

“Good call, new guy.” Nybbas stood back up on his chair and leaned out the window. He handed Tom an envelop. “Before you go up, this is your new resident packet. It has your badge in it, that’s what you use to get back to your quarters after you meet with Satan. Just put it in the slot in the elevator and it will do the rest. After he gives you your punishment, the key will update with that information and take you to your punishment site when the time comes. Got it?”

Tom opened his packet, pulling out his badge that was attached to a lanyard made of braided horse hair.

“The lanyard is a bit itchy, but this is Hell.”Nybbas said. “Just put it in your pocket, no one really cares. This isn’t the other place, we’re not big on rules. Just don’t lose it.”

Tom stuffed the badge and lanyard in his pocket. The rest of the packet were typical welcome literature, phone lists, and a FAQ page.

“Big guy is ready for you,” Nybbas said. “Step on the elevator and insert your card in the reader.”

“Elevator?” Tom asked. “But there’s no…”

When he turned to look, one of the walls of the lobby had opened up, revealing an open elevator door. Tom stepped into the elevator, which was all black and had no controls other than the card reader. Tom slid his card through it; the door dinged and closed behind him. Just before the door closed, Nybbas called out to him.

“New guy! When you meet Satan, be sure to…”

The door closed.

Be sure to what? Tom thought, as the elevator started moving. Up or down, he couldn’t tell.

The elevator played an instrumental version of We Built This City by Starship. As the elevator moved, the thought occurred to Tom that maybe the elevator was to be his torment. He was claustrophobic, perhaps he would spend an eternity trapped in an elevator? His breathing quickened and his heart thudded against his ribcage (or was that just in his mind?) as the elevator continued its journey.

Just as he was about to break, Tom heard a ding as the door opened. A great red serpent pushed its head into the opening of the elevator. Its fangs dripped with venom as it looked into Tom’s eyes, its tongue darting between the gap of its front teeth. It let out a horrible hiss, causing Tom to cup his hands over his ears and curl into a ball on the floor of the elevator.

It spoke in a deep, raspy voice that rattled in Tom’s chest and felt like his ears were going to pop.

“Welcome to Hell!” it boomed, followed by maniacal laughter. And then poof, it was gone.

Tom looked up from his fetal position to see a humanoid demon with red skin and long black horns pointing at him and laughing. The demon was dressed in a business suit with his hair pulled back in a ponytail. The well dressed demon almost fell over and was holding himself up against the wall of the elevator, pointing and laughing.

“Your face right now,” he said in between laughing fits, “oh my God that’s priceless! You didn’t piss your pants did you? No shame in that, no shame at all.”

Tom wasn’t sure. He looked down and didn’t see any wetness, so he shook his head no.

“That’s good then, save you a bit of embarrassment wetting yourself the first time you meet Satan. Which is me, hello.” Satan did a half bow. “Then it would be all awkward the next time you saw me, you’d be wondering if I’d be telling everyone that you pissed yourself when you left the room. Which I would if you did, but since you didn’t I won’t. Alright, come on now, up with you.”

Satan reached out for Tom to take his hand.

“It was just a joke, rather funny one I might add” Satan said with a beaming grin on his face. Tom reached out and Satan pulled him up onto his feet.

“In case you were wondering about the snake thing, Revelation 12:9 ‘The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world’, so it’s kinda required. His orders.” Satan pointed up, rolling his eyes. “Well, not really. My idea. I get a kick out of it, it’s a good icebreaker.”

Satan led Tom to a seat in front of a giant desk in the middle of the room. Satan sat in the chair on the other side of the desk, leaning forward, his elbows on the desk as he rested his chin on his fists.

“Well here we are, I’m Satan, this is Hell,” Satan said.” And you’re…?”

“Tom Northrup,” Tom replied.

Satan gasped. “Did you say Tom Northrup?”

“Yes.”

“THE Tom Northrup?”

“I, I guess so?” Tom stuttered.

“Oh wow, this is big. Real big. We’ve been waiting for you.”

“Really?” Tom asked.

Satan nodded. “Oh yeah! Biggest new arrival since Hitler.”

Tom’s jaw dropped. “Me? Really? I wasn’t that bad, was I?”

“Oh yeah, we’ve got a huge file on you, Tom,” Satan said, as he leaned down and lifted a hefty file from the bottom drawer of his desk. “Everything in here says you’re a bad dude.”

Tom was stunned. Sure he, stole a few things and wasn’t the nicest person, but was he really that bad?

The devil leaned forward, talking just above a whisper. “Wanna know what it says about you?”

Tom nodded. The devil opened the file, shaking his head and clicking his tongue as he turned the pages. His face shifted from disgust to shock with every turn of the page.

“I can’t tell you everything in there, for reasons of security, but can I ask you something?”

Tom nodded.

“What was it like diddling all those puppies?”

Tom furrowed his brow. “Does it say I did that?”

“Yeah! Right here,” Satan said, pointing to no page in particular.

“There must be some sort of mistake, I never…” Tom said, but was interrupted by Satan laughing and smacking his hand against the desk.

“I got you again!” Satan said. He wiped tears of laughter from his cheek, one sizzled as it landed on the desk. “You’re easy, Tom. If that IS your real name. And it is, I know because I’m Satan and all that.”

Tom exhaled. Or at least he thought he did; he still wasn’t sure about the whole breathing thing.

They sat in silence, the devil staring at Tom, smiling. It was an awkward silence, Tom unsure if he should say something or if Satan was just looking him over. Tom glanced around the room, avoiding Satan’s gaze. The walls of the office were bare, except for a giant window along the side. Outside, gray buildings stretched for miles in every direction. Off in the distance, the glow of fire rimmed the edge of the buildings.

“Do you like boats?” Satan asked.

“Boats?” Tom repeated, puzzled by the question.

“Yeah, boats. Were you much of a boater in life?”

“No, I can’t say that I was,” Tom answered.

“Oh, that’s too bad,” Satan said.

“Why?”

“Oh, no reason,” Satan said.

More silence. Satan picked up a pen and began drawing on the cover of the folder.

Tom grew up in a Southern Baptist household, and even though he hadn’t been to church since he was eleven he recalled the fiery sermons his pastor gave describing Satan as this great deceiver, liar, and tormenter. Satan was a monster. He devoured souls and tormented them for eternity in a lake of fire. At no point in his Sunday school studies did the devil scribble crude drawings of cats with gigantic dicks on a folder.

This reminded Tom of what Nybbas had told him about Hell: history is written by the victors. Maybe Satan was kicked out of Heaven because he was annoying, and he was sent to work in the warehouse like he was the retarded son of a wealthy business owner.

Then again, maybe none of this was real and what Tom was experiencing was the last gasp of firing neurons in a dying brain.

“So, what happens next?” Tom asked, breaking the silence.

“Huh? Oh,” Satan said, like he almost forgot Tom was sitting in front of him. “Tell me about your life.”

Tom cleared his throat. “Well, it was pretty normal, I guess. I was born, went to a small school out in the country, graduated high school and went to Duke University…”

“Blue Devils!” Satan exclaimed. “That’s like me, but you know,” Satan gestured to his face, “Blue.”

Tom nodded. “Yeah, that’s the one. My dad went there so he got me in. I didn’t really have the grades or demeanor to succeed. I got mixed up with drugs and flunked out, ended up disowned by my parents and living on the streets. Then the last thing I did when I was alive was steal a lady’s purse, ran out into the street in front of a bus and now I’m here.”

The devil shook his head. “You were only 23, right?”

Tom nodded. “Yes.”

“Quite the wasted life, wasn’t it, Tom?”

Tom’s eyes welled up with tears again. Whether this was real or not didn’t matter, he did get hit by the bus and was either dead or dying. “It’s not how I wanted things to go. I just got mixed up in the wrong crowd, one thing led to another and I ended up where I was. That’s not how I wanted my life to be, and now… it’s too late to change anything.”

Tom was sobbing, burying his head in his hands.

“Oh, this is awkward,” Satan said, he walked around his desk and stood in front of Tom with his arms outstretched. “Come on, bring it in for a hug.”

Tom shook his head. “I’ll be okay.”

“You sure? Might be the last one you get. This is Hell, after all.”

Satan was smiling, his eyebrows raised as he bounced on his knees, enticing Tom to accept his hug. Tom got the feeling that Satan wasn’t going to move until he agreed, so he stood up and leaned in for a hug. Satan squeezed him tight in his arms, stroking Tom’s hair.

“There you go, buddy,” Satan said.

This is too fucking weird, Tom thought as he felt Satan pat his back. Then he heard humming. Tom recognized the song, but he had to be mistaken; there was no way Satan would be humming that song. Tom’s certainty of the song was confirmed when Satan began singing the chorus in a soft falsetto, stroking Tom’s hair.

Hold me closer tiny dancer.
Count the headlights on the highway.
Lay me down in sheets of linen.
You had a busy day today.

Satan released Tom from the hug and looked down at him. “How’s that? Doing better now?”

Tom nodded, still a bit dumbfounded by what just happened.

After releasing Tom from the hug Satan returned to his chair.

This has to be a dream Tom thought as he sat back down in his seat. There’s no way Satan is this…

Weird? Incompetent? Lonely? All of the above?

“So now,” Satan began, “your assignment. Your eternal damnation for a lifetime of sin. Are you ready for it?”

Tom took a deep, possibly imaginary breath, then nodded.

“You can’t just nod, you have to say, ‘I’m ready’.”

“I’m ready,” Tom replied.

Satan cleared his throat.

“Your punishment,” Satan began, pausing for dramatic effect after each clause. “For all of eternity, which is until the end of time, and then after that, and then even after that, will be… pitchfork cleaner!”

Satan was trying not to giggle. He shoved his fist against his mouth as he looked at Tom.

“Pitchfork cleaner?” Tom replied.

“Yep,” Satan said, stifling his giggling as he spoke. “Your job is to clean all the pitchforks of all the lesser imps and demons.”

Satan was shaking, biting his lip.

“All of ‘em.”

A small giggle broke through.

“All the pitchforks.”

Tom sighed, then nodded. “Alright then, when do I start?”

“You start…” Satan let out a burst of laughter. “You start… never! Because that’s a joke! I got you again!”

Tom shrugged. “Yeah, you got me good that time.”

“You were all, ‘pitchforks? I don’t know!’” Satan crossed his eyes and threw up his hands. “That’s you, that’s what you looked like.” He crossed his eyes and shrugged again. “’Pitchforks? I don’t know!’ Priceless!”

Satan slapped his hand on the desk and laughed. Tom just sat and waited for him to finish.

“You’re a good sport Tom,” Satan said. “Hey, tell you what, you wanna help me prank the next guy?”

“What, really? Can I?”

“Sure! Let’s do it!”

Satan hit the intercom button on his phone. He looked up at Tom, putting a finger to his lips to shush him as he tried containing his laughter.“Nybbas, is that you?”

“Yeah it…”

Satan cut him off. “Are you there, Nybbas? I can’t hear you.”

“Yes, this…”

“Nybbas? Can you hear me? It’s Satan.”

“I can-”

“Nybbas! Nybbas! Can you hear me Nybbas?”

A heavy sigh came over the intercom as Satan chuckled. “You can hear me, can’t you sir?”

“Got you!” Satan said, laughing. “That never gets old, does it?”

Another heavy sigh came over the intercom before Nybbas spoke. “Nope. Never.”

“Nybbas you can send the next one up.”

Satan stood up from behind his desk and ran over to the elevator, motioning for Tom to join him. “This is going to be good!”

“So what about my assignment?” Tom asked.

“Oh yes, about that,” Satan said. “I’ll be honest with you Tom. Hell is a pretty boring place for me. You wanna just hang out? Help me welcome new humeys?”

Tom shrugged. “Sure, why not?”

“Great! Let’s get ready for the new guy. Where is your pitchfork?” Satan asked.

Tom shook his head. “I didn’t get a pitchfork.”

“Did you already lose your pitchfork? That’s pretty serious Tom, you need your pitchfork.”

“But I didn’t get one downstairs, they just,” Tom began, then noticed that Satan’s eyes were bulging as he bit his lower lip to contain his laughter.

“Is this another joke?”

Satan laughed, smacking Tom on the back. “You catch on quick.”

That’s how it works, right?

I noticed a particularly long eyebrow hair jutting from my brow during my drive this morning. A few attempts were made at stoplights to either tame it into line with the rest of the brow or pluck it for trying to stand out. I was unsuccessful mid drive to remove it, so rather than create an accident I waited until I got to my desk so I could deal with this nonconformist strand with my full attention.

Even then, I spent much of the morning trying to grasp it and yank it from its home in my brow, but it continued to hold firm. Granted, this wasn’t the only thing I did this morning, but it did put a dent in my Monday productivity. After many frustrated attempts, I successfully managed to pull it free.

And then, at that moment of victory, a small voice in my head says, “if you eat it, you will absorb its power.”

While that is odd enough, what I find more odd is that another voice didn’t pop up advising me not to share this information to the general public.

No, I didn’t eat it.

Yet.

I could use the power surge right now.