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Bereavement Leave

Bereavement Leave ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(Published in The Dirty Pool literary magazine.)

“I feel like firing somebody today,” Mr. P. said. “Who shall it be?”

“I don’t know,” Mr. C. said. “Go down the list and pick somebody.”

“Well, now, let me see,” Mr. P. said. “We have lots of suckers to choose from. Are there any standouts? Yes, there are many, many standouts. Anybody you’ve found especially offending lately?”

“Ed Boyce spends too much time in the men’s room,” Mr. C. said.

“He has a chronic bowel disorder,” Mr. P. said, “so I don’t think we could get him on that. He might counter with a lawsuit.”

“How about Frank Taplin? I’ve noticed him staring off into space a couple of times lately when he ought to be working.”

“He just lost his wife to an automobile accident. We gave him three days’ bereavement leave, but I think it takes longer than that to get over the accidental loss of a wife. Sometimes it’s a good idea to have a heart, or at least pretend we do.”

Haw-haw-haw!” Mr. C. laughed. “You’re right, of course, as you usually are.”

“Always being right is the thing that got me where I am today!”

“Well, now, let me see,” Mr. C. said. “Who to fire? Who to fire? Betty Ballantine comes to mind. I don’t like the way she lounges around in the break room, showing her legs like a whore in a waterfront saloon.”

“Can’t fire Betty,” Mr. P. said. “She makes the best coffee in the office and her father is on the board at the country club. We don’t want to make him mad.”

“All right, then. How about Florence Smalls? She’s put on a lot of weight lately. That means she’s moving slow and isn’t working as efficiently as she might.”

“Lot of weight is right!” Mr. P. said. “She’s going to have a baby.”

“You don’t say! I just thought she had been eating too many donuts.”

“You can’t fire an expectant mother, no matter how much you may want to. Pick somebody else.”

“I’m starting to get one of my headaches,” Mr. C. said. “Finding somebody to fire is just too taxing! You pick somebody from the list. I’m going to take a little snooze before lunch.”

Mr. P. and Mr. C. believed in their heart of hearts that that they managed the company, but the truth was they did nothing. When there was any real work to be done, they put it off on one of their minions and sat back and took the credit (and the profits), if any was to be taken.

Mr. C. went into his private office and closed the door. Mr. P. continued studying the list for somebody to fire. When he grew weary and decided it was time to take a little break, he called one of his current girlfriends, one Pansy Ruff, on the telephone. Pansy was a failed actress and had spent some time behind bars for cashing other people’s checks.

Mr. P. and Pansy spoke for over an hour about sundry personal matters, including her two pet poodles and the lousy manicure she had from a manicurist who was obviously high on drugs. Then she told him about how she had been taxing her intellect looking at travel brochures, trying to decide on a vacation destination (the French Riviera, Rome, or both?) and grew pouty when he told her he didn’t know when he would be able to get away to join her.

“You don’t know how difficult it is to run a large corporation with thousands of employees,” Mr. P. said.

“Have one of your perky little secretaries take care of things while you’re gone,” Pansy said. She was referring, of course, to the dozens of short-skirted, large-breasted female employees of Mr. P.’s of whom she was jealous.

By lunchtime Mr. C.’s headache was better and Mr. P. had had enough of the office for one morning, so the two of them left to have a steak-lobster-martini lunch at the fanciest restaurant in town.

They made it a rule never to discuss office matters while lunching, so Mr. C. didn’t ask Mr. P. who, if anyone, he had chosen to fire. Mr. C. trusted Mr. P.’s judgment and he knew that Mr. P. would pick somebody who would be crushed at losing his job and would probably cry and throw things, maybe turn over some chairs, and would have to be removed by the security staff. It would certainly spice up the afternoon.

While they were lunching, though, they talked of personal matters. While Mr. C. had a dull, dowdy wife and three dreadful children in the suburbs, he lived vicariously through Mr. P.’s exploits with the opposite sex.

Despite Mr. P.’s penchant for the ladies, he had never married, believing it would be unfair to the female population to confine himself to just one. Also, he was afraid of how expensive a divorce would be for someone of his stature. No, he would continue to make himself available to large numbers of women and keep everybody—but mostly himself—happy.

After two hours of excellent food and drink—and after Mr. P. had ogled all the women in the place under the age of seventy—Mr. C. paid their tab and left.

Once back at the office, Mr. C. retired for a little siesta, while Mr. P. again sat down at his desk with the list. Now that his mind was clear after a good lunch and a spate of martinis, he would find the perfect candidate for termination.

In no more than five minutes, he settled on the name Paul Schiller. Paul Schiller had a German-sounding name and he wore hideous ties with birds on them and the American flag. He kept to himself and didn’t seem to enjoy the three-hour meetings that everyone was required to attend.

Mr. P. couldn’t wait to share the news with Mr. C. He buzzed Mr. C. to come into the main office and, when Mr. C. appeared looking sleepy-eyed, Mr. P. burst out with the news.

“Paul Schiller!” he said. “He’s the one we’ll fire.”

“Oh? Which one is he?” Mr. C. asked.

“He’s an accountant or something. He’s a mousy sort of a short man with a mustache. He didn’t get drunk and act like a pig at the office Christmas party the way everybody else did. In fact, he wasn’t even there.”

“I still don’t know who he is,” Mr. C. said.

“He always keeps his head down and doesn’t try to flirt with any of the ladies.”

“You’ll have to give a reason to fire him,” Mr. C. said.

“Well, word is he uses a lot of soap and paper towels when he’s washing his hands in the men’s room.”

“He must be really clean.”

“And that he has arrived for work five minutes late two times in the last year,” Mr. P. said.

“Well, that was the commuter strike and the snowstorm, I’m sure,” Mr. C. said. “Everybody was late those days!”

“Somebody else told me they saw him put a packet of sugar in his shirt pocket, obviously to take home with him. Now, when employees begin stealing sugar from the company, you know it’s time to take some action!”

“That is so true!” Mr. C. said.

“And, if all that weren’t enough, there’s simply something about the fellow I don’t like,” Mr. P. said. “I think it’s the way he carries himself when he walks. He seems just a little too sure of himself.”

“He’s cocky.”

“Yes, that’s it exactly!”

“Have your secretary show the man in, then, and we’ll get right to it!” Mr. C. said, rubbing his hands together.

Mr. P. and Mr. C. both greeted Paul Schiller with enthusiastic smiles, shaking his hand and patting his shoulder.

“Take a chair, please, sir,” Mr. P. said.

Paul Schiller sat in the large leather chair in front of Mr. P.’s desk, crossed his legs and folded his hands in his lap. Even now, Mr. P. thought, when he’s called into the boss’s office, this Paul Schiller person is entirely too sure of himself.

“What can I do for you gentlemen today?” Paul Schiller asked.

“You’ve been with the company now for about—what?—sixteen months?” Mr. P. said.

“That’s right,” Paul Schiller said.

“And how do you like it here?” Mr. C. said.

“Well, I have to say I’ve found it very enlightening,” Paul Schiller said.

“In what way?” Mr. C. asked.

“I’ve accomplished everything I’ve wanted to accomplish and more,” Paul Schiller said, smiling in a way that Mr. C. found disconcerting.

“That’s fine!” Mr. P. said. “The reason we asked you to come in and chat with us today is…”

“Well, I’m afraid whatever it is, it won’t matter much now,” Paul Schiller said. “I was just typing my letter of resignation when the secretary came and said you wanted to see me.”

“Oh? You’re leaving us?” Mr. C. asked.

“Yes. I didn’t think it would be necessary to give you the usual two weeks’ notice since my work here is finished,” Paul Schiller said, taking a folded letter out of his pocket and placing it on the desk in front of Mr. P.

“No, of course not!” Mr. P. said, not wanting to admit that he didn’t know what work Paul Schiller was talking about because he didn’t know what Paul Schiller’s job was.

“I’ve already removed my personal effects from my desk and said goodbye to my co-workers,” Paul Schiller said, “so I guess there’s nothing more to be said.”

He stood up and shook Mr. P.’s hand briskly and then Mr. C.’s hand and went out the door, leaving Mr. P. and Mr. C. at a loss for words.

“Well, I never!” Mr. C. said.

“That’s very disappointing!” Mr. P. said. “I thought we would at least see a temper tantrum from the fellow and have to call security.”

“You just never know about people!” Mr. C. said, shaking his head.

“Did you ever see anybody with more gall?” Mr. P. said. “He wouldn’t even let me fire him!”

“It takes all kinds,” Mr. C. said.

“I wasn’t even able to make him feel humiliated,” Mr. P. said, “and I’ve always been so good at that!”

“Well, pick somebody else from the list.”

“I’m afraid it’s going to have to wait until Monday. That fellow gave me a headache.”

“I’m going to take a little lie-down in my office,” Mr. C. said.

At four o’clock, with one hour left to go before time to go home, Mr. P. was relaxing in his big chair in front of the window, thinking about where he was going to have dinner and with whom, when he heard a commotion in the outer office. Before he had a chance to go and see what it was, three men, with several others behind them, burst into his office.

“Mr. Cornelius P.?” the tall man in front asked.

“Yes?” Mr. P. said, blusteringly. “And just who the hell might you be?”

“We have a warrant for your arrest, sir.”

What?” Mr. P. said. “I believe there’s been some mistake!”

Mr. C., also hearing the commotion, emerged from his office.

“Are you Mr. Alonzo C.?” the tall man asked.

“Well, uh…” Mr. C. said, unable to go any farther.

“I’m afraid you’re both under arrest, sir!”

“What is this all about?” Mr. P. asked.

“You’ll have plenty of time to ask questions later,” the tall man said. “All we’re here to do is to take you in.”

“In where?” Mr. C. asked, his fingertips in his mouth.

Desperate for a stalling tactic, Mr. P. began grabbing articles and papers from his desk and throwing them in all directions. While the tall man and the others were trying to get out of the way of flying articles, Mr. P. grabbed Mr. C. by the arm and they ran out their private door into the hallway.

“What now?” Mr. C. said.

“I’m not going to jail!” Mr. P. said.

“Me, either!”

“To the roof, then!”

They ran up to the roof, both knowing in their hearts that it was all over for them; there was no way to get out of the trouble they were in. They had been embezzling money from the company for years and it had been so easy. They had no reason to believe they couldn’t go on in the same way forever.

Crying real tears, they joined hands, stepped to the edge, and leapt to their deaths, thirty-three stories to the street. They created an epic traffic jam in all directions and were the top story on the evening news.

While Mr. P. and Mr. C. were sitting in Satan’s outer office, waiting to be admitted to hell, Mr. P. said, “Maybe we shouldn’t have taken quite so much money. Maybe we could have treated people a little better. Showed some humility.”

“I think it’s too late for that now,” Mr. C. said.

“Maybe they’ll let us into heaven if we apologize and promise to do better,” Mr. P. said.

“I don’t think it’ll do any good. Once you’re in hell, I don’t think there’s any getting out.”

“Who would have ever guessed that Paul Schiller was a federal investigator?” Mr. P. said.

“There’s no way we could have known,” Mr. C. said.

“Who hired the fellow in the first place?”

“It was you!

“No, it wasn’t me! I remember now! It was you!

“What does it matter now?” Mr. C. said. “I do hope, though, that I get a well-appointed room with a private bath and a view.”

“As for me,” Mr. P. said, “I’m going to insist on a supervisory position.”

“Yes,” Mr. C. said. “We’ll let them know we’re not going to take this hell thing lying down. We can beat them at their own game.”

“Yes,” Mr. P. said. “We’re two very special and unique fellows. We’re not going to stand for any ill treatment here.”

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

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Baby

Baby ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(Published in the literary journal, Streetcake, Issue 43.)

Louise was gone for three days. When she returned home, she was carrying a bundle in the crook of her arm.

“Where have you been all this time?” Theodore asked. “I was about to call the police.”

“Oh, you silly man!” Louise said. “Where do you think I’ve been? I’ve been giving birth to your son.”

She lifted the corner of the blanket to show him the baby’s face.

“This one has blue eyes,” Theodore said.

“He has your eyes.”

“My eyes are brown.”

“I’m going to name him Nathaniel,” she said. “After Hawthorne.”

“Name him whatever you want.”

“If I give him the name of a great writer, he might turn out to be a great writer himself.”

“Uh-huh.”

“You like that name?”

“It’s as good as any other, I suppose.”

She laid the baby down gently on the couch and took off her coat and laughed.

“Believe me,” she said. “It’s not easy carrying a newborn baby home on the uptown bus. I had to stand up the whole way, holding the baby in one hand and trying to keep from falling with the other. You’d think a gentleman might have given me his seat, but nobody even noticed me.”

“I could have come down and met you.”

“Oh, that’s all right,” she said. “I managed perfectly fine. And, anyway, I wanted to surprise you. What do you think of our new son?”

“He’s, uh…I can’t seem to find the words. I’m speechless.”

“I know! It’s a shock, isn’t it? Seeing him for the first time?”

“Especially since I didn’t know he was expected.”

“But that makes it that much more fun, doesn’t it?”

“If you say so.”

“Now, don’t you be an old grump puss! I’m going to need lots of help from you with this baby. Feeding him, changing his diapers, bathing him, and all the rest of it.”

“I don’t think that baby is going to be any trouble at all,” he said.

“No, of course not! He’s such a good baby! I can tell already, as young as he is.”

Theodore played piano in a jazz combo in a bar, so he had to leave to go to work. “Don’t wait up for me,” he said.

“Have a good time,” she said, “and don’t worry about me. The baby and I will be here when you get back.”

With Theodore gone, Louise was glad to have some time alone with the baby. She carried him into every room in the apartment, talking to him all the while, even though she knew he didn’t understand a word she said. She fed him, bathed him, and put him to bed in the crib at the foot of her own bed.

She slept until one o’clock, at which time she got up and fed him again. After she put him back in his crib and got back into bed, she had trouble going back to sleep. She kept thinking about how Theodore didn’t seem very happy about the baby. Well, men, she thought. You can’t ever tell what they’re thinking or how they really feel. They keep it all bottled up inside.

At two o’clock she still hadn’t gone back to sleep. She got up and checked on the baby and when she saw he was sleeping peacefully she knew the problem wasn’t with the baby but with her. She was lonely and sad. She picked up the sleeping baby and put him in the bed beside her. After that she was able to go to sleep.

Theodore came home about three-thirty. He undressed quietly and got into bed and after a couple of minutes Louise began to cry.

“What’s the matter?” he asked.

“I’m not going to have any more children,” she said.

“Okay.”

“I don’t think you love them.”

“Could we postpone this conversation to another time? I’m very tired.”

“Take Nathaniel and put him with the others. They need to get acquainted.”

“I just got into bed. Can’t you do it?”

“You’re the father.”

He sighed and got out of bed again without turning on the light. He picked Nathaniel up by the neck and carried him out of the room and down the hallway to another room. In this room was a bed with six lifelike plastic dolls lying side by side, all exactly like Nathaniel. He added Nathaniel to the collection and went back to bed.

“Better now?” he asked Louise.

“Yes.”

“And this is going to be the last one?”

“Yes, I think so. Seven is my lucky number.”

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

When He Saw They Were Dead

When He Saw They Were Dead image 1

When He Saw They Were Dead ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(This ghost story I wrote was published in an anthology called Legends: Paranormal Pursuits 2016, by Grey Wolfe Publishing.)

His name was Edgar Delong and in 1921 he was fifteen years old. He had an accident in his sleep and his mother and father wouldn’t stop laughing at him. They called him baby and said he ought to be ashamed of himself. They kept it up all day. Finally he went and got a shotgun they didn’t know he had and, at seven minutes after four in the afternoon, he shot both of them in the chest, his mother first and then his father. When he saw that they were dead, he went up the stairs in the old house to the attic. He found a rope, climbed up on a table and tied one end of the rope to a rafter and the other end around his own neck. After pulling on the rope to make sure it would hold at both ends, he stepped off the table into the void. As he strangled to death he said, “This is the thing I’ve always wanted.”

It was written up in all the newspapers. People loved talking about it, recounting and embellishing all the details. The house where it happened stood vacant for years and was said to be haunted. Weeds grew up in the yard. Small boys threw rocks at the windows. The front porch began to sag. People claimed to hear demonic laughing coming from the house, gunshots and screams.

Finally a man bought the house and fixed the sagging porch, the broken windows, the missing shingles and the peeling paint. He lived with his large family in the house for more than twenty years. Then there were other families after that to put their imprint on the character of the house. The day would come when the only people who remembered Edgar Delong and what he had done were the superannuated.

Edgar Delong still existed, though, in the world the living cannot see. Every day in the house his mother and father laughed at him and every day he went and got the shotgun they didn’t know he had and, at seven minutes after four in the afternoon, shot both of them to death, first his mother and then his father. Every day he heard the startled cry from his mother right before he shot her and the strangled shout from his father. Every day he climbed the creaking old stairs to the attic, tied a rope around his neck and hanged himself. Every day he relived the whole thing, even though he was dead. Every day the same, the days unending.

More than eighty years after the death of Edgar Delong, a writer named Charles Delong rented the house for the summer. He was the grandson of Edgar Delong’s father’s brother and, so, a cousin of Edgar Delong. He had grown up hearing the stories and, when he began researching and writing a book about sensational murders, he knew he had to include a chapter in the book on the Delong double murder and suicide. He believed that by living in the house, if just for a few weeks, he would feel close to Edgar Delong and would understand him a way that no other living person could.

The house proved a wonderful inspiration to Charles Delong. While he didn’t believe in ghosts, he did believe that something of Edgar Delong remained behind in the house. Using newspaper accounts and photos of the day, along with family reminiscences and his own grandfather’s diary, he wrote an inspired and chilling account of the crime, to which he added a personal slant. “I am related by blood to the murderer,” he wrote, “and am writing about his crime in the house in which it occurred.”

He finished his book ahead of schedule and was sure it would be a success. He sent it off to his publisher and began working on his next book, a novel and a complete departure from crime. He still had a couple of weeks on his lease in the Delong house—which technically hadn’t been the Delong house for decades, although he still thought of it in those terms. He stocked up on groceries and planned to spend a quiet time alone.

Except that he wasn’t alone. Edgar Delong, his murderous young cousin, was there in the house with him, watching him, standing behind him, sometimes touching him on the shoulder or the back of the head. Edgar Delong would make himself known to Charles Delong when he believed the time was right.

The house had a soporific effect on Charles Delong. He took to taking naps on the couch in the afternoon, hearing only the ticking of the clock, the wind outside rustling the trees or the faraway barking of a dog. One afternoon during one of these naps he was made to see the thing that happened every day at seven minutes after four. He thought he was dreaming as he saw Edgar Delong emerge from the back of the house bearing a shotgun and walk with it toward his parents as they sat in the room they called the parlor. His mother drew back instinctively and gave a startled cry when Edgar shot her. His father began to stand up and emitted a strangled shout as the bullet entered his chest.

After he had killed them both, Edgar Delong turned to his cousin Charles Delong and said, “It’s always the same.”

Still believing he was dreaming, Charles Delong said, “I don’t understand.”

“Every day the same. They laugh at me and I keep killing them but I can’t make them stop.”

“None of this is real,” Charles Delong said. “You’re a figment. You don’t exit.”

“Maybe it’s a figment to you. To me it’s real and I can’t stop. I want to stop. I want you to help me to stop.”

“How can I do that?”

“Let me come into your body so I can have the means to leave this house.”

“No, I would never do that! It’s impossible!”

“I can make you see it every day. Live it every day. As I do.”

“No, it’s out of the question!”

“You wanted to know what it was like to be me.”

“You’re a murderer. I don’t want to be you.”

“We’re cousins. We’re the same blood.”

“No!”

“I’m going up to the attic now and hang myself, as I have thousands of times before. I want you to come along and watch.”

“No!”

“I think we’ve reached the point where there’s no longer a choice,” Edgar Delong said and raised the gun and shot his cousin Charles Delong squarely in the chest.

The body of Charles Delong wasn’t found for five days. When the police were called in to investigate and were unable to find a murder weapon or a motive, they deduced that the murderer was somebody that Charles Delong knew and had willingly admitted to the house.

And so it continued. Every day at seven minutes after four in the afternoon, Edgar Delong shot and killed first his mother and then his father, after which he climbed the stairs to the attic and hanged himself from a rafter. The only difference now was that he had his cousin Charles Delong there to experience the whole thing with him. Without end and ad infinitum. 

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

A Quiet Evening at Home

A Quiet Evening at Home ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Eunice and Bitsy gave each other an unfeeling peck on the cheek and sat on opposite ends of the couch. Squeamy sat in a chair across the room, crossed his legs and looked down at the floor.

“How have you been, Squeamy?” Eunice asked.

“I have this terrible pain,” he said.

“I think I know what you mean.”

“We didn’t come here to talk about Squeamy’s pains,” Bitsy said.

“Would you like a drink?”

“No, thank you. We didn’t come here to drink, either.”

“What are you here for, then?”

“Now that mother has been dead for six weeks,” Bitsy said, “I think it’s time we discussed some practical matters.”

“Like what?”

“I’ll just come right out and say it. Since she left the house to you, I think I should get all the money in the family annuity, instead of half.”

Eunice laughed. She and Bitsy had had these conversations before, many times, going back to when they were small children.

“Both our names are on it,” Eunice said. “That’s the way mother wanted it.”

 “We both know that mother could be very unfair.”

 “Why didn’t you talk to her about it before she died?”

 “I did. We got into an argument.”

 “What is it you want, Bitsy?”

 “I want you to agree to remove your name from the family annuity so only my name is on it.”

“Why would I do that?”

“Because I deserve it.”

“Maybe I don’t agree.”

“You get the house and everything in it. Don’t you think it’s only fair that I get everything else?”

“I’ve never thought about it.”

“No, doing the fair and right thing would never enter your mind, would it? Or mother’s, either.”

“The annuity is worth almost four hundred thousand dollars,” Eunice said. “Isn’t half of that enough for you?”

“No!”

“Why so greedy?”

“It’s not greed. It’s fairness. And I have my reasons for wanting the money.”

“If you can’t be more specific than that, I’m afraid we have nothing to talk about.”

“I’ve seen a lawyer.”

“What?”

“I can take you to court. I can also get you to sell the house.”

“Why would I sell the house?”

“Because half of it should be mine. You sell the house and give me half the money.”

“Mother left the house to me so I would have a home after she died.”

“You can buy yourself a smaller house that doesn’t cost as much.”

“I was the one who stayed her and took care of her,” Eunice said. “Do you know how horrible she was? She used to scream at me and call me names and throw food at me.”

“Go ahead!” Bitsy said. “Tell me how miserable your life has been. I’ve heard it so many times before.”

“Go to hell, Bitsy!”

“Yes, that’s a fine way to talk to your sister, isn’t it?”

“You left home right out of college and married Squeamy. I stayed here and assumed all the responsibility.”

“My life has certainly been a bed of roses, hasn’t it?”

“If you’ve had an unhappy life, it’s your own fault.”

“If I end up taking you to court—and believe me, I will—all the money from mother’s estate could be eaten up in court costs. Then nobody gets anything.”

“You’re being childish, Bitsy.”

“Yes, it’s easy to say that, isn’t it? It’s easy to ridicule and call me names.”

“What are we going to do with her, Squeamy?” Eunice asked with a little laugh.

“You can’t laugh her away,” Squeamy said. “I’ve tried.”

“Both of you are against me!” Bitsy cried. “You always have been!”

“Did you forget to take your meds, dear?” Eunice asked.

Bitsy buried her face in the sofa cushion and wailed.

“We should try to get along,” Eunice said. “We’re all that’s left of the family.”

“What does that matter to me now?” Bitsy said.

“Why now?”

“Squeamy and I are getting a divorce.”

“What?”

“I don’t love him. I’ve never loved him. I don’t want to spend another day married to him.”

“Is this true, Squeamy?” Eunice asked.

“Oh, he doesn’t know anything,” Bitsy said. “He doesn’t even know that New Mexico is a state. He’s never read a book in his life.”

“You’ve been married to him for a long time,” Eunice said.

“Time lost. Never to be regained.”

“I thought you and Squeamy were happy.”

“I’ve never been happy. That’s why I want the money. I’m going abroad.”

“Abroad where?”

“What does it matter? I only want to get away and live in some other country. I’m going to renounce my American citizenship.”

“That seems drastic.”

“I want half of everything mother had so I can leave this country for good and never look back.”

“Do you plan on writing when you get to where you’re going?” Eunice asked.

“No! I want to sever all ties.”

“Well, all right, then.”

“So, you’ll agree to remove your name from the family annuity so I can have all of it.”

“No. You get half, the way mother wanted it.”

“Do you want me to take you to court?”

“No.”

“Do you want all of mother’s estate eaten up in court costs?”

“Bitsy, you sound like a vengeful child!”

“I’ve been looking to have her committed,” Squeamy said.

“You just try it!” Bitsy said. “Try having me committed. I’ll stick a knife through your heart so fast you won’t see it coming!”

“You would kill me?” Squeamy asked.

“Just try me, you son of a bitch!”

“Time lost for me, too,” he said. “Never to be regained.”

“You’re an ignoramus and I don’t know what I ever saw in you in the first place. I see now that I only married you to get away from my mother.”

“You’re always telling me how stupid I am,” he said. “What about the time you let yourself be swindled out of five hundred dollars by a slick-talking guy at the door?”

“It might have happened to anybody!”

“I didn’t happen to me,” he said.

“I paid for it with my money! It didn’t cost you a cent!”

“What about the time you drove the car through the garage door?”

“My foot slipped!”

“And the time you tried to get a stain out of my suit and made a hole in the material big enough to put my entire arm?”

“It was a cheap suit!”

“It was the only suit I had!”

“You’ve never had any taste in clothes or anything else!” Bitsy said. “You think pink and red go well together!”

“I like pink and red!”

“You think spaghetti is an appropriate side dish to go with turkey!”

“My mother always served spaghetti with turkey.”

“That’s because she’s a moron, too!”

“You leave my mother out of this!””

“This arguing isn’t helping anything!” Eunice said.

“Oh, what do you know?” Bitsy asked. “At least I have a husband. No man in his right mind ever showed the slightest bit of interest in you! You never knew how to dress or how to use makeup, and you were always so self-righteous and moral. Men hate that!”

“I think it’s time for you to leave,” Eunice said.

“Throw a bucket of water on her!” Squeamy said. “That’s what I do when she’s out of control.”

“You do not! Nobody throws a bucket of water on me and lives to talk about it!”

“Do you have your pills with you, dear?” Eunice asked. “Why don’t you take one of your pills and I’ll fix you a nice cup of tea?”

“Don’t you tell me what to do! I don’t take advice from anybody, but especially not from you!”

“You should hear yourself!” Squeamy said. “You sound like a crazy person!”

“Well, who wouldn’t be crazy after living with you all these years? I could kill you for the things you’ve done to me, and no jury in the land would ever convict me!”

“Why don’t you just try it?”

“I’m so glad now I never had any children with you!” Bitsy said. “If they had been the least bit like you, I would have taken them out and strangled them!”

“Squeamy, no!” Eunice screamed.

He had taken a small handgun from his pocket and from across the room shot Bitsy squarely in the forehead.

Eunice jumped up and covered her ears, expecting more shots.

Bitsy slumped over against the arm of the couch. Eunice’s first thought was to try to help her, but there was nothing to be done. It happened so fast, like a lightning flash.

Squeamy rested the gun on the arm of the chair in which he was sitting and covered his face with his hands. “The terrible pain is gone now,” he said.

“Squeamy, what has happened?” Eunice said.

“It was the only way I knew to shut her up.”

“You could have socked her in the mouth, which she deserved, but you didn’t have to shoot her.”

“You’ve always been decent to me. Your mother was, too. I couldn’t stand by and let her cheat you out of your mother’s inheritance. She’s been planning this for years. She was waiting for your mother to die.”

“I’m going to have to call the police now. They’ll take you away.”

“I know,” Squeamy said. “But before you do, might I trouble you for a drink?”

Eunice went into the kitchen and took the good wine, two hundred dollars a bottle, out of its hiding place and, with trembling hands, took down two wine glasses. She took the bottle and the wine back into the room where Squeamy was sitting and her sister lay dead and poured him a glass full, careful not to spill any on the carpet.

“A toast!” he said. “Here’s to happier times for all of us!”

He drank all the wine in the glass and looked up at Eunice and smiled.

“I’m not going to prison, you know,” he said.

He brought the gun to his temple and shot himself dead.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

The Dying of the Light

The Dying of the Light ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp  

The cemetery was a vast city of the dead—also a place of refuge for the indigent, those individuals of both genders that used to be called bums or hoboes. One of them lately in residence was the young female indigent named Vicki-Vicki. Like dozens of others, she hid herself among the bushes and trees and gravestones (hid because she wasn’t supposed to be there) and slept and dreamed and performed bodily functions, including sexual congress with any man possessing the money to pay her. Others like her would pass in and out of her life—speak to her or give her a morsel of food or a pill or a needle—but after they had gone she would barely remember them because her mind was not able to grasp things the way it once did.

The long summer was over. September had passed into October, and the nights were getting cold. Winter was approaching as certain as death. For Vicki-Vicki and others like her, the freezing days and nights without end were as frightening as anything they had ever known.

But winter was still to come. Now it was October and the days without rain were still warm. Vicki-Vicki washed up at one of the ornate angel fountains not far from the front gate. Always she kept her eyes and ears open always for people. She would run if she saw anybody approaching, but if she didn’t have a chance to run she would pretend to belong there as if she had just stopped by on her way someplace else.

She dipped her arms to the elbow and shivered at the chill; brought her wet hands to her cheeks and trailed them down to her neck and chest. Some people never bothered to wash themselves at all but she wasn’t one of those. She liked the feel of the clean water against her skin and wished she might take off all her clothes and immerse herself in it and then sit naked on the rim of the fountain and let the wind and the sun dry her.

She heard a voice and, looking up, saw the face of the stone angel eight feet above her.

“Did you say something to me?” she asked the stone angel.

“I asked you who you are.”

“I’m nobody,” Vicki-Vicki said.

“You must have a name.”

“My name no longer matters. If I was sure I even had a name, I would try to forget it.”

“How long since you’ve eaten?” the angel asked.

“I don’t know. I’m not hungry.”

“This is a terrible life you’ve chosen for yourself.”

“I know.”

“Why don’t you go back home?”

“I wouldn’t even if I could.”

“It’s going to be a long, hard winter,” the angel said.

“Aren’t they all?”

“They’ve called in extra guards for tonight. You know what that means.”

“They’ll crack my skull with a stick,” Vicki-Vicki said.

“And then they’ll most likely throw you in jail.”

“I’ll make sure they don’t find me.”

“Better get out now while you can.”

“Where can I go?”

But now the angel had turned back into a mute piece of stone and wasn’t answering any questions.

A funeral procession was turning in at the gate. Vicki-Vicki ran and hid herself among the trees.

The sky became cloudy and the air cooler. Soon it would be night. She was scared at the thought of the coming raid. She knew of at least two people who had been knocked senseless during these raids. She could hide herself and hope she wasn’t found, but it would be better if she went to the city and got a room for the night. If only she had some money.

A man owed her money for services rendered, but she couldn’t remember his name or his face. He wore a long coat and had a tattoo on his arm. That was the only thing she could remember about him, but now she couldn’t even remember what the tattoo looked like. If she saw a man with a tattoo on his arm, she’d know if it was the same man.

Then she remembered his name was Lesley, or at least that’s what people called him. Most of the people who lived the way she lived didn’t use their real names because they were hiding out and, anyway, they were ashamed.

Lesley had been rough with her. She had been with him two times. At first when she saw him she thought he was good-looking with his pale skin and dark hair, but he had treated her so badly that any good impression she had formed of him was gone.

She was lying on her back on the one of the graves, imagining, as she had so many times before, what it was like to be dead and buried underneath the ground, when she heard somebody cough nearby. Startled, she pulled herself to a sitting position. Twenty feet away was the old woman she knew as Arlene. Arlene had just done her business on the ground and was pulling her pants up.

“Hey, you!” Vicki-Vicki said.

Arlene let out a little yelp and laughed, embarrassed that she could be scared so easily. “Who are you?” she asked.

“It’s Vicki-Vicki.”

“Oh, yeah. I remember. How are you?”

“I’m dying.”

“So are we all,” Arlene said.

“You should try to get behind a tree to do that.”

“What difference does it make? I’ve lost any modesty I ever had.”

“Do you have anything to eat in that bag you carry?”

“If I did, I’d eat it myself.”

“I heard there’s going to be a raid tonight.”

“Who told you that?” Arlene asked.

“A stone angel.”

“Do you think that’s a reliable source?”

“The same as hearing it from God.”

“God don’t speak to me anymore,” Arlene said. “Did I tell you I used to be very beautiful girl?”

“Yeah.”

“We had money. We belonged to a country club. I used to be written up in the society columns.”

“What happened?” Vicki-Vicki asked.

“I was done in, as we all are.”

“Have you seen that man Lesley around?”

“Lesley? I don’t think I know him.”

“He wears an army coat and he’s got a tattoo on his arm.”

“Oh, yeah. What do you want with that bum?”

“Have you seen him?”

“No, I ain’t. If I’d seen him, I’d try to forget it.”

“He owes me money. If I can get the money he owes me, I can get a room in town tonight.”

“Whereabouts in town?”

“The Rainbow Hotel.”

“Oh, that’s a terrible dive,” Arlene said.

“It’s cheap, though.”

“If you get the money for a room, how about takin’ me along? It’s two for the price of one. It’s been a long time since I slept in a real bed.”

“Not if I don’t find Lesley.”

“That ain’t his real name. That’s just what people call him.”

“I don’t care what his real name is.”

“Hey, I just remembered!” Arlene said. “I’ve got some crackers here that ain’t too stale.”

She reached into her bag and pulled out a small pack of restaurant crackers and, tearing the cellophane, took out one for herself and handed the rest to Vicki-Vicki.

Vicki-Vicki nibbled the cracker, finding the taste unfamiliar, and looked off into the distance.

“That angel told me I should go home before winter comes,” she said.

“Well, why don’t you go, then?” Arlene asked.

“My mother’s a drunk and a whore. She beats me. She held me down once and shaved my head. I had to go to school like that.”

“If you was my daughter, I’d treat you better than that.”

“I’m tired of living this way, though.”

“How long has it been?”

“I don’t know. About a year, I guess.”

She ate all the crackers and then she laid on her back on the gently sloping hill and went to sleep. When she awoke, Arlene was gone and it was getting dark. Now she would never find Lesley.

She went to the oldest part of the cemetery with the biggest trees and the oldest graves. Some of the graves were so old that the writing on the stones was too dim to read. There were ghosts flying around, she knew, but she wasn’t afraid of them now, if she ever had been.

Some of the old monuments and aboveground crypts were close together with only two feet or so of space between them. She found a cozy niche where a lot of blown leaves had collected. She burrowed into the leaves like an animal, lay on her back and covered herself up. The leaves had a pleasant smell and she was still able to breathe. It was probably as good a hiding place as any she would find.

She lay very still and breathed deeply. She could see all the way to the tops of the trees forty or fifty feet above her head and beyond that the dark sky. A ghost floated over her head, first one way and then the other, but she didn’t mind it.

The crackers she ate had only made her hungrier. That’s the thing about eating: the more you eat the more you want. If she just stopped eating altogether, she would no longer want to eat and then die.

She slept and awoke to the sound of men’s voices. There would be six or eight men making a sweep of the cemetery. They’d round up all the people like her they could find and call the police to come and get them in a big wagon. Anybody who resisted might end up with a broken arm or a cracked skull.

The voices of the men came closer. They talked and laughed as if they were having a good time. The most fun they ever had. One of them whistled shrilly. It was a game to them.

She was safe. They’d never find her in her hiding place. She’d been through it before. You’re not as afraid the second time as the first.

The leaves crackled near her head. Footsteps. Someone was standing over her. She held her breath, willing the blood to stop flowing in her veins.

“Come on out of there!” came a commanding male voice.

Somebody reached down and swept the leaves away from her face. She pulled herself to a sitting position and looked up into a face she couldn’t see very well. She thought for a moment it was Lesley come to pay her the money he owed her.

“I didn’t do anything!” was all she could think to say.

“You’re trespassing!” the voice said.

“How did you know I was here?”

“Magic,” he said. “You can’t be in the cemetery after it closes or you’re going to jail.”

“I’m leaving.”

“What do you think you’re doing here, anyway?” he asked.

“I was just taking a nap.”

“Don’t you have a home?”

“I had a home.”

“If the others know you’re here, they won’t be so gentle.”

“I’ll leave. I promise.”

“I’ll make a deal with you,” he said.

“You want to kiss me?” she asked.

“Hardly. I won’t take you in this time if you promise to leave and don’t come back. It’s not safe here for people like you. You’ll freeze to death out here in the winter.”

“All right. I’ll go. I promise.”

“Go to one of the shelters in town. There are people there who can help you.”

“I will.”

He handed her a paper sack. She didn’t know what was in it but she took it from him anyway.

“If I see you here again,” he said, “I’ll remember you and you’ll go to jail.”

He took off the jacket he was wearing and dropped it on the ground beside her. Then he was gone.

In the bag were a sandwich wrapped in wax paper and a little bottle of orange juice. She ate the sandwich and drank the juice and then vomited on the ground, more from fear than anything else.

She put on the jacket he had left. It was gray, waist-length on a man but far too big for her. It still retained the warmth of his body. It smelled like cigarettes. She hugged the jacket to her body and shivered. Everything made her sick now, even kindness.

Copyright © 2017 Allen Kopp

At the Rise of the Hill

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At the Rise of the Hill ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(Published in The Literary Hatchet.)

Freddy Chickwell’s mother called him at seven o’clock on Sunday morning, before he was even out of bed.

“I need you to come over right away!” she said.

“I can’t, mother!” Freddy said. “It’s too early. I don’t even have my eyes open yet.”

“You’re going to want to see this.”

“What is it?”

“I can’t tell you on the phone. You have to see for yourself.”

“I’m going back to bed, mother. Please don’t call me until the sun is all the way up.”

“I never ask you for anything,” she said pitifully. “I’m asking you this one thing politely.”

“I’ll come, but only if there’s bacon and French toast.”

“How can you think of food at a time like this?” she asked.

“A time like what?”

He lay back on the bed and groaned. He had planned on going back to sleep but now that he was wide awake, he got up and dressed himself. He hated jumping out of bed and driving someplace first thing in the morning, but it appeared he had no other choice.

As he drove the six miles to his mother’s house, he thought of the different things that might have elicited such a call at an early hour: a large rat (spider) in the basement (bathtub); a bill that came in the mail for a large sum that she says she doesn’t owe and has no intention of paying; Aunt Jeanette has a tumor on her gallbladder; a large crack has appeared overnight in the foundation.

He pulled into the driveway and his mother came out the front door and down the steps, toward his car in a pink terrycloth bathrobe and fuzzy slippers; her hair was sticking out in spikes.

“Prepare yourself!” she said.

“For what?” he asked.

“He’s come back!”

“Who has?”

“Need you ask?”

Freddy walked into the house behind her and there, sitting in the living room in the middle of the couch, was his father, who had been dead for a year. Freddy looked at his father and his father looked at him. There were no words.

His mother motioned Freddy into the kitchen. “What do you suppose is going on?” she asked.

“Who is that?” Freddy asked.

“Who do you think it is?”

“Well, I know who it looks like!”

“He’s been raising all kinds of Cain with me ever since he came back.”

“Why?”

“He says I went off and left him.”

“Left him where?”

“I told him I would never do that.”

“Mother, something’s not right here,” Freddy said. “People don’t just come back from the dead after a year.”

“Apparently some of them do!”

“Is he a ghost?”

“I don’t think so. He ate a big breakfast and then had to go to the bathroom. I don’t think ghosts do that.”

“If he’s not a ghost,” Freddy said, “it must mean he was never dead in the first place. How do you account for it?”

“I don’t account for it! I saw him go into his grave.”

“The only other explanation I can think of is that he’s a zombie come back to eat our flesh.”

“Oh, I don’t think he would ever do that!”

“I’m calling the police,” Freddy said.

“And what could they do?” mother asked. “They’d never believe he was dead in the first place. They’d just think we were a bunch of lunatics.”

“Then call his doctor.”

“He died, too. Right after your father.”

“Maybe he’s a hallucination that we’re both having,” Freddy said. “We were both so poisoned by the man all the years he was alive that we’re being affected by him from beyond the grave.”

“I just don’t know,” mother said. She sat down at the table with her cup of tea, lit a Pall Mall cigarette, and sniffled back tears. “I cared for your father while he was alive—truly I did—and I missed him after he was gone, but now that I’ve become used to having my freedom, I just don’t think I can go back to the way things were before.”

“I’m hungry,” Freddy said. “I haven’t had any breakfast.”

He ate quickly, pushed the plate back when he was finished eating, and fanned away his mother’s cigarette smoke. “Now that I’ve had a little time to think about this dispassionately,” he said, “I’ve decided on a plan of action.”

“What is it?” she asked anxiously.

“We’ll kill him. It’s as simple as that.”

“Oh, Freddy! Your own father?”

“Well, he’s already dead, isn’t he? If you kill somebody who’s already dead, it’s not really wrong, is it? Not really a crime?”

“I’m not sure how the law would look at it,” mother said. “Killing is killing, whether the person you kill is already dead or not.”

“I don’t expect you to do any killing. I’ll do it.”

“But how? I don’t want a mess in the house that I’ll have trouble explaining later.”

“Remember Echo Hill?”

“That old place? I haven’t been there for years.”

“I haven’t, either. If it’s like it was when I was in high school, it would be the perfect place to kill a person that’s already dead.”

“Oh, Freddy, I just don’t know about this.”

“Remember how they used to tell us kids how dangerous it was to go up there because of the air holes?”

“What are air holes?”

“It’s places where you can fall through the earth down into the old mine if you’re not careful. There are probably some new ones that have formed since.”

“That sounds dangerous!”

“Yes, but it’s the perfect place to hide a body. If a body falls down an air hole, it would never be found. The old mine is as big as the whole town and there’s deep water in places.”

“It sounds very forbidding.”

“We can take him for a Sunday drive up to Echo Hill. We’ll get him out of the car and walking around, and—boom!—he’s gone down an air hole. Just like that.”

“And what if somebody sees us?”

“They won’t, and if they do they won’t know what they’re seeing.”

“While I’m getting dressed,” she said, “you go in and visit with your father.”

Freddy went into the living room and sat down in the chair facing the couch. “How have you been doing?” he asked father.

“There’s some weeds growing along the back fence,” the old man said. “Somebody needs to get out there and pull them up, and I guess that somebody is going to be me.”

“I wouldn’t worry about any weeds, if I were you,” Freddy said.

“The whole place is goin’ to hell!”

“So, tell me. What have you been doing this past year?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you’ve been…away, haven’t you? I just wondered what things were like where you were.”

The old man looked at Freddy with something like contempt. “What things?” he asked. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Mother came down from upstairs wearing a yellow pantsuit and matching wig that made her look like Doris Day. “Well!” she said brightly. “How are we getting along?”

“About like always,” Freddy said. “Not much in the way of communication.”

She bent over toward the old man and said very loud, as if being dead for a year might have made him partially deaf, “We thought it would be lovely to go for a little drive! It’s such a beautiful day!”

“Huh?” the old man said.

“Remember Echo Hill? We used to go up there for picnics with Betty and Waldo when we were young.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the old man said. “I never did.”

“Wouldn’t you like to get out of the house? Go for a little drive?”

The two of them together helped the old man off the couch, out the door and into the car. With him installed in the back seat, mother got into the front seat with Freddy.

“I just don’t know about this,” she said as Freddy started the car.

“It’ll be all right,” he said. “I think I know what I’m doing.”

He drove out to the edge of town, past the bowling alley, the abandoned funeral home, the roller rink, a used car lot, a couple of taverns, and into farm country, where there were barns, silos, cows and young horses grazing in fields.

“Not much traffic today,” Freddy said.

He looked in the rearview mirror and saw that the old man was asleep in the back seat, his head lolled to the side.

“Isn’t this fun?” mother said. “I just love going for a drive in the country on a pretty day!”

Freddy came to the turnoff to go to Echo Hill, and it was exactly as he remembered it. “Won’t be long now!” he said.

He took a couple of turns onto old country roads that became narrower and more tree-encroached. Finally, he came to the end of the blacktop and turned onto a dirt road. There was a gate across the road, long-since fallen into disuse.

“Just like pioneering days!” mother said. “This reminds me of my childhood!”

At the big hill, the road was very rough; Freddy slowed to ten miles an hour to prevent any damage to the tires.

Mother rolled down the window. “Just smell that country air!” she said. A bumble bee flew in and she screamed.

After what seemed a very long, slow climb, Freddy came to the top of the hill from which one could see into the next state. The dirt road ended there, so he pulled the car onto a little rise off to the right that seemed dry and firm and didn’t have a lot of weeds growing on it. It was a place where he could easily turn around when the time came.

“How about if we get out here and scout around a bit?” Freddy said, giving mother a wink.

He started to open the door but was arrested by a sound that he didn’t identify, a sound of dirt sifting. Then the front end of the car lurched forward significantly.

“What on earth!” mother said.

Freddy wanted to see what was happening to the front end but, as he put his hand out to open the door, the ground gave way and the car slid downward, front end first, into a hole just big enough to admit one mid-sized car.

Down, down, down went the car, into darkness complete. Mother gasped and grabbed onto the dashboard as if she could arrest the car in its flight. The old man in the back didn’t make a sound. Freddy had a few seconds before the car hit the water in which it all became clear, all the pieces of the puzzle fit into place. Everything that had ever happened—his whole life—had been preparing him for this moment when it would all come to end.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

Know the Devil by His Name

Know the Devil by His Name ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

I was walking on a country road. I didn’t know where I was or where I was going.  Every time I came to the top of one hill, there were more hills stretching ahead of me. Uphill and downhill. My feet ached and my throat was dry, but I wasn’t bothered so much by those things. I just kept walking and believed that, in time, I’d come to where I was supposed to be.

The sun shone and a pleasant breeze cooled my face. Birds sang in the trees over my head. A little fox came out from behind a rock and watched me pass, but when I turned my head and looked directly at him, he was gone. I heard a dog barking faintly a long way off, but I didn’t see a dog or any person a dog might belong to.

Then I heard a wagon coming up behind me. I turned and looked over my right shoulder and there was a man in a devil costume driving a small, neat wagon pulled by one handsome brown horse. The man stopped the wagon and pulled up beside me.

“Where you headed?” he asked.

Having temporarily lost the ability to speak, I pointed in the direction from which I had come.

“Would you care for a ride?” he asked. “I’ll take you as far as I’m going.”

“Do you have any water?” I asked.

He reached behind the seat and brought forth a canteen, which he handed down to me. I liked him already. I uncapped the canteen and took a drink, smiled and got up beside him on the seat. He jiggled the reins and the horse started moving again.

“I’ll bet you never expected to see the devil coming along in a pony cart, did you?” he said with a flash of teeth.

“Are you on your way to a costume party?” I asked. “Is it Halloween already?”

He made a scoffing sound. “Halloween is kid stuff,” he said. “I really am the devil.”

“You’re Lucifer?” I asked. “You’re the angel that God kicked out of heaven?”

“Well, no,” he said. “I’m a devil but not the devil. I’ve never even met the head man.”

“He’s awfully busy these days,” I said.

“Yes, we all are,” he said.

“So, you travel around getting people to sin and, once they’ve sinned, you possess their souls. Is that right?”

“Well, something like that. That’s rather an oversimplification, though. They always have a choice in what they do. We just lead them in a certain direction and the rest is up to them.”

“Now that you’ve picked me up, I suppose you’ll try to get me to sin.”

He laughed. “Oh, I could get you to sin, all right, if I wanted to. Maybe I don’t want to. Maybe It’s my day off.”

“Well, I’ll resist sinning as much as I can because I don’t think I want to go to hell.”

“Oh, it isn’t as bad as people have made it out to be.”

“So, what’s good about hell?” I asked.

“Well, for one thing,” he said, “there’s no pretense of being good and no hypocrisy.”

“Isn’t it awfully uncomfortable there?”

“You get used to it after a while and come to think of it as home.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” I said.

After a few more minutes of moving forward in silence, I realized, or thought I did, what was happening to me.

“Now it makes sense!” I said.

“What?” the devil asked.

“I’m dead and in the in-between place.”

He gave a noncommittal grunt and gave me a pitying look.

“It hasn’t been decided yet where I’ll spend eternity. I’m bad but not bad enough for hell. I’m good but not good enough for heaven. You were sent here to get me to sin. If you are successful, you’ll have a good reason to drag me back to hell with you.”

“Does it look like I’m trying to drag you anywhere?” the devil asked. “You’re free to get out and walk whenever you say.”

“Anytime I find myself in the company of the devil, it’s probably in my best interests to part company with him.”

“All right,” the devil said, stopping the wagon.

“Well, thank you for the ride,” I said. “It was most pleasant.”

I started to get down from the wagon and the devil took hold of my arm at the elbow.

“Wait a minute,” he said. “I have an excellent idea.”

“I don’t think I’m interested.”

“We’re coming upon a city. You’ll love the city and I’d like to be the one to show it to you.”

“What’s the name of the city?” I asked.

“People call it Sin City, but it also has other names.”

“I’ve been there,” I’ve said, “and I don’t care to go again.”

“No, wait a minute!” he said. “There’s everything there you could ever want: theatres, concerts, museums, fine restaurants, beautiful hotels, interesting sights to see, and more beautiful women than you’ve ever seen in one place before.”

“Do you think I’m so shallow,” I asked, “that I can be tempted by those things?”

“I never met anybody before that couldn’t be tempted by something,” the devil said.

“Maybe I’m not like the others.”

“We’ll get you a suite on the top floor of the most beautiful hotel you’ve ever seen. There will be people there waiting to satisfy your every desire.”

“It sounds sinful,” I said.

“But first you need money.”

“There’s the catch,” I said. “I don’t have any money.”

“I know where you can get some.”

“I’d have to steal it, no doubt.”

“It will be easy. I’ll make it easy for you. I have powers beyond your imagining.”

“No, thanks,” I said. “I’ve heard enough. I’m getting out here, if you don’t mind.”

“But I do mind!”

He speeded up the horse to keep me from getting out. I was thinking about taking my chances on a broken ankle and jumping when we came to a little house set back from the road, underneath some towering oaks. He stopped the wagon abruptly, throwing me forward.

“There’s an old lady lives here,” the devil said. “She always keeps lots of money on hand. All you have to do is hit her in the head and knock her out and take her money. I’ll wait right here.”

“That is the most outrageous thing I ever heard!” I said. “I’m not knocking anybody in the head and taking their money!”

“You don’t have to kill her. Just stun her. But if you kill her, that’s all right because nobody likes her, anyway.”

“I will do no such thing!”

“The devil commands you!”

“You’ll have to find somebody else to command. I won’t do it.”

“If you don’t do it, somebody else will.”

“I suppose I ought to go warn her, then.”

I jumped to the ground and went up to the house and knocked on the door. In a moment, a wizened old lady wrapped in a shawl came to the door. When she saw me, she smiled and beckoned me to enter.

“It’s the devil again, isn’t it?” she said, looking over my shoulder out to the wagon.

“He’s a devil but not the devil,” I said.

“All the same to me,” she said.

“He told me to knock you in the head and take your money. I have no intention of doing that, but I wanted to warn you that if I don’t do it, somebody else will.”

She surprised me by putting her hand over her mouth and giggling like a schoolgirl. I had the feeling she was laughing at me for believing what a devil would say. She picked up a canvas bag from a desk and opened it; took out a handful of fake stage money and handed it to me.

“Tell the devil that’s all the money he’ll get from me,” she said, “and a fat lot of good it’ll do him!”

When I went back to the wagon, the devil was examining his fingernails. I climbed back up beside him and handed him the fake stage money.

“Humph!” he said. “I see she’s up to her old tricks.”

“You know her?” I asked.

“She’s just another old devil,” he said. “She’s been at it a lot longer than I have.”

“She doesn’t look like the devil,” I said. “She looks like somebody’s grandmother.”

“That’s how they trick you,” he said. “You can’t always go on the way a person looks. A kind-looking person can be a devil and a horrible-looking ogre can be an angel.”

“That’s the way the world is, I suppose,” I said.

“With me it’s different, though,” the devil said. “I wear this devil costume so people will know who I am as soon as they see me.”

“Well, I’m glad I didn’t have to hit her in the head,” I said, “even if she is a devil. I guess if I had had to hit her in the head, though, knowing she was a devil would have made it easier.”

“Inescapable logic,” the devil said.

He looked at the fake stage money in his hand again and tossed it into the back of the wagon contemptuously and took up the reins.

“If you’ll just stop the wagon by that little bridge up ahead,” I said, “that’s where I’ll get out.”

The devil seemed sad to see me go. “Are you sure you won’t change your mind?” he asked. “The city is fabulous and I know you’d love it.”

“Maybe next time,” I said.

I wondered if I should try to shake hands with him and then I figured it wasn’t appropriate to shake hands with the devil, so I didn’t.

“It’s been interesting,” I said, as I got out of the wagon.

“No doubt we’ll meet again,” he said.

I watched him drive away until the trees and hills seemed to swallow him up.

Alone again, I walked on endlessly. I was no closer now to knowing where I was than when I first met the devil.

Hours later, when I wasn’t sure if I could take another step, I saw a strange sight just off the road among some large trees. It was a staircase. When I went to the bottom and looked up, it seemed to go on endlessly into the clouds. This was what I had been waiting for! The staircase to paradise! I had resisted the temptation the devil placed in my way and now I was being offered the way into heaven!

I took a deep breath and began climbing the stairs. My tiredness disappeared. My legs worked without effort. I wasn’t even out of breath. The only bad thing was that the light was so bright my eyes couldn’t stand it. I took a bandana out of my pocket and tied it around my eyes and kept climbing, climbing, climbing.

And then I opened my eyes. I didn’t remember removing the bandana. I was lying on my back, surrounded by white. Everything was white; I could see the molecules in the air and even they were white. A woman moved into my field of vision on my right and I smiled at her.

“An angel,” I said.

“He’s awake,” the angel said. She moved out of the way and was replaced by an old man, also white.

“Are you God?” I asked.

The old man leaned close to me and looked into my eyes. “Can you see me?” he said. “Can you hear me?”

“Of course I can see you,” I said. “Of course I can hear you.”

“How many fingers am I holding up?”

“Three.”

“You’ve been out for a very long time. We thought we were going to lose you.”

“I finally made it,” I said. “This is what I was looking for.”

“I’m so happy for you,” the old man said, but I could tell he didn’t mean it.

He stepped out of the way and then there were angels on both side of me.

“Keep working with him,” the old man’s voice said, beyond where I could see him.

“I was walking on a country road,” I said to the angel on my left, “when I met the devil. He gave me a drink of water and offered me a ride in his pony cart. We got to talking and after a while he tried to tempt me. He tried to get me to hit an old woman in the head and take her money, but it turned out she was a devil too.”

“This one’s a talker,” one of the angels said.

“All you can do is listen,” the other angel said. “Three more hours of this before I get to go home.”

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp