Perry had always believed that after death, there was only infinite blackness; to find himself, then, in what appeared to be a sleazy cash advance storefront was somewhat surprising.
“Next,” droned the secretary behind the counter, and Perry realized she meant him. “Name, date of birth, and geographical coordinates of your exiting.” Her hair was sprayed and hardened into a style depictive of the 1950s.
Perry glanced behind him; the line snarled out and into a vacant parking lot farther than he could determine. “Excuse me,” he coughed, blinking dramatically, “but … where am I?”
The secretary peeked up then grumbled, “So you saw a line and thought you should cut, huh?” And in a loud voice she called, “We got a breather!” Immediately, two burly women burst from one of the doors behind the secretary and grabbed Perry by the biceps, towing him through another door on the opposite side. There, a terrific gray light blinded him, and the next thing he knew he was sitting across from a man in a windowless office.
“Just a minute,” said the balding man, his wire-rimmed glasses halfway down his nose. He scribbled on a form, before he pitched the folder over his shoulder and toward one of the impossibly balanced piles behind him. It landed perfectly on top. “Now, how can I help you?”
Perry pulled at the loose fabric of his pants. “What’s … happening?”
The squat man flashed a brusque smile and flicked through a tower of folders. He stopped on one that looked the same as every other. “Perry J. Costa,” he read. “Forty-eight years old. Two children. One ex-wife. Heart attack while browsing the Internet at work. Sound right?”
The memories came to Perry like a nail gun to his skull. “I’m” — he panted — “Am I dead?”
The other man cleared his throat then jazzily danced his hands and sung, “They call me Death.” From somewhere, a tinkling sound effect played, but upon its conclusion, Death resumed his sober disposition.
“But you …” Perry began to have difficulty breathing.
“I know. I look like a tax lawyer. Stupid joke.”
All around Perry, the colors of the room seemed to turn soupy, his thoughts like the music of a merry-go-round getting faster and faster, the melody becoming shriller, distorted; the world ingesting him like —
Death snapped his fingers, and suddenly, everything popped into focus, Perry abruptly feeling as though he had taken a couple of his ex-wife’s anxiety pills. “You’re just dying,” said Death. “You haven’t died.” He dragged a finger down Perry’s folder. “Right now, the EMT’s are entering your building. You have until they try to resuscitate you to convince me.”
“To convince you?” said Perry. Though his mind had somehow surrendered to this reality, he could still discern something monumental was approaching.
“Yes,” said Death, “as to whether I put you back in that line or process your paperwork right now.” Perry squinted, confused. “Look,” said Death, and he pulled down a string hanging above his desk. A white screen unrolled from the ceiling like a map kept above a chalkboard. “There’s you,” said Death, pointing to a stick figure with Xs for eyes. “And there’s me.” He pointed to a magnificent drawing of a body builder in judicial robes. “You convince me, got it?”
Death yanked the string and the screen clattered upward. “Persuade me to either relocate you to that line you stood in a couple minutes ago, or to send you on to the next stage in the process.”
Before … whatever this was, Perry had been an insurance adjuster, where he had been the one needing the convincing. “And how exactly” — he wet his lips — “do I do that?”
Death smiled with all of his teeth. “Why, you pass the test.” Pulling open a drawer, Death retrieved a pack of cigarettes and smacked one out. “You mind?” Without waiting for a response, he lit it. “Typically, the test is a three-step process,” wheezed Death, who began coughing after his first drag. “First, there’s the first part. Next, comes the next part. And you’ll conclude with the conclusion. Are you ready?”
“Wait, what? That didn’t —”
“Fantastic!” said Death, and he reached forward for Perry’s wrist, pinned it to the table, then took the cherry end of his cigarette and buried it into the flesh on the back of Perry’s hand.
Screaming. Lots of screaming.
Read all six winning stories from The 2016 Great American Fiction Contest
Not a complete sort of blackness, but the kind that comes when you first turn the lights out and your eyes have yet to adjust. And a few moments later, Perry was able to blink some shapes back into vision. He was treading water — a black and milky type of water — inside of a cylinder that extended upward as far as Perry could see. “Hello!” he shouted. The burn on the back of his hand tingled. “Is anyone —”
“Please, stop yelling,” said Death. He was doing the backstroke in circles around their encasement. “More is always accomplished with quieter voices.”
“What’s going on? What’d you do to me?”
“What’d you do to yourself, Perry J. Costa?” Death rolled over and began doing the breaststroke. For such a squat man, he was remarkably lithe. “You’re now on” — he dipped underwater — “of the test. This here is” — he went under again — “bottom to escape. My best advice” — down he went — “no do-over. Best to save” — he submerged — “drowning isn’t all that pleasant.” He paused his circuit, treading with only his legs.
Perry’s eyes bulged. “I didn’t get any of that!” Death motioned at him to lower his voice, and Perry hissed, “What am I doing here? Where are we?”
Death scrunched his face as though it were obvious. “We’re inside a pen.”
“And you have until —” suddenly, the whole pool slammed to the right, Perry knocked beneath a swell of ink “— until she finishes writing her sentence.” Perry clawed to stay above the liquid. “That means” — and Death mimed writing the sentence: boredom is the absence of a good idea “— you have about 17 seconds.” He grinned. “Good luck, Perry.” Then he slid straight under as though reeled downward by his feet.
Perry groped about the ink (briefly wondering why it wasn’t more viscous) as he scrabbled through his memory of everything Death had said. He was in a pen?! A pen? What kind of ludicrous test was this? The walls jumped forward again, and ink splashed madly.
Escape at the bottom. That Death had said.
With a choppy gulp of air, Perry dove. Beneath the surface, opening his eyes was useless, while the scratch of the nib reverberated monstrously. Again, the pen jostled, and one of the walls smacked Perry, losing his breath and tumbling him in the endless blackness. And once recovered, he had no idea which way was down; however, his body’s reckless need for breath concerned him more. The bobbing of his esophagus. The scraping of his lungs. His jaw pleaded to open, and finally, Perry, thrashing hopelessly, yielded.
Ink guzzled inside his mouth and plunged into his lungs. Spasms across his chest tried to push it out, find air, breathe, breathe, but the horror was resolute. Perry was drowning. And as the blackness outside became blackness inside, Perry became indistinguishable from that infinite darkness.
Until he wasn’t.
When he blinked, there was only blue sky — beautiful, robin egg blue sky — the drowning moments ago, nothing more than a sweaty nightmare. And he was swinging — on a playground swing. His hands around the chains. His hips pinched atop the concave seat. And pumping his legs, the gaiety inside of him thickened into laughter. Until he looked down. For there beneath him was lots and lots of air, the distant ground hundreds of feet away.
“You failed,” came Death’s voice from behind. And when Perry peeped backward, he found his swing set attached and extended from a cliff.
Perry’s hands gnarled around the chains. “Am I … am I dead then?”
Death huffed. “What’s with all the concern about whether or not you’re dead? You failed. That should be your grievance.”
Not knowing why, Perry felt tears coming. “Are you — are you going to process my papers?” He thought about his two children, then, in a way he hadn’t in decades.
“I warned you not to be so careless with it, but that doesn’t mean you can’t claim it.” Perry shot a puzzled glance backward. “Your one do-over,” said Death. “Most people need it for the second part of the test, and that’s why I told you to save it. But technically, you could use it whenever.” Death scratched at his bald scalp. Behind him, a prairie stretched out atop the cliff with a modern cottage a hundred feet back. Above it, there was a large billboard that read: EAT HERE. NOT THERE.
“So … I’m still taking the test?” asked Perry. “I can still convince you?”
Death started doing elegant cartwheels near the edge of the cliff. “Yes. You can.”
“What do I have to do, then?” Hope warmed Perry’s chest.
Pausing his cartwheel, his legs in the air, Death said, “Do a full loop on that swing.”
“What?” Perry peered upward at the bar to which the chains attached. “But that’s … that’s impossible!” he said.
“You asked me what you had to do, and I told you,” said Death, who had begun doing handstand pushups. “Pump your legs, flap your arms, do what you need to make you and your seat flip over that bar.” Death popped back to his feet.
“And … and …” Perry tightened his clasp around the chains. “What if I don’t?”
Death sighed. “Asking yourself why and telling yourself why are the same expressions with different punctuation. Take some advice, Perry: Don’t get so caught up in grammar, all right?” Death stepped toward the edge of the cliff.
“Wait!” cried Perry, and Death did. “How long do I have?”
Death glanced at his wrist where a watch could have been. “As many hours in a day as any man. And don’t worry about the prior life.” Death glanced at his other naked wrist. “Back there, the EMTs are just arriving on your floor. Time’s a bit dilated here.” He pursed his lips as if to say more but instead uttered, “Good luck, Perry.” Then he jumped off the edge of the cliff and rocketed downward beyond sight.
The wind buffeted Perry in the squat man’s absence, and he clutched desperately to the chains. He couldn’t be sure if he was more afraid of falling or failing, but either way he was scared. And for a while, his hips beginning to hurt, his hands smelling like metal, he just sat there. Although the burn on the back of his hand still stung (and this staggering height was most unappealing), everything around him was really quite lovely. The soft glow of the sun, the swish of the grasses behind. And before he realized it, Perry was casually rocking forward and back. He still didn’t understand the purpose of the cottage and billboard, but then again, he really didn’t understand anything that was happening.
Overhead, the sun ticked through the sky, and in time (Perry having swung no higher than 45 degrees) dusk shaded the world pink. Not until now, then, did the anxiety bubble inside of his stomach. Every other minute, he had promised he would attempt the up-and-over. But every time he began, he convinced himself he still had more time.
But the day was almost over. And that was all the time Death had allotted.
Clenching his eyes, Perry began to work his legs outward, inward, outward, inward. But as he rose higher, there came an instant where he lifted out of his seat, and immediately, he slowed his pace. This was absurd! A silly dream children harbored. But the sun was weakening in its fight against the horizon, and soon, darkness would invade.
For some reason, Perry suddenly thought of his childhood dog. His parents had named her Daisy, but Perry always called her Madeline in secret. And because he was the one who spent the most time with her, eventually, she only responded to that.
Slapped back into his seat, Perry realized he had started pumping again. Vigorously. He kept thinking about Madeline — how she loved rides through the automated car wash; how she always looked at you before sneezing. And soon, Perry felt the blast of adrenaline, his body hovering parallel to the ground, his grip fierce around the chains, as he swung backward, ascending, rising until he stared nearly upside down at the cliff behind.
It was now.
With all the velocity he could charge, Perry gunned forward. He closed his eyes as he passed under the bar, soaring forward, upward. And as he felt himself become weightless, he peeked through his eyelids. He was above the bar. Thrill numbed his chest. He had —
Suddenly, his momentum collapsed, and instead of swinging back around, he fell from his seat. The wind gushed by his ears. His eyes rippled with water. He tried to scream, but the surging air smothered his voice. Twisting, rolling, he was helpless to do anything but continue falling. And falling. And falling.
Until he wasn’t.
When he blinked, he was standing on a colorfully lit game show stage.
“Now, who’s ready to play —” The host, Death, dressed in a tuxedo, turned the microphone toward the live studio audience who chanted: “Is. He. Living!”
Perry raised a hand to shield his eyes from the stabbing lights. He couldn’t be certain, but he believed the audience was a collection of literal ducks. And as they opened their beaks to quack, the sound of applause emanated.
“Today’s contestant is Perry J. Costa,” said Death. “Let’s give him a warm welcome, shall we?” All the ducks quacked their claps. “So Perry” — Death turned toward him — “are you ready to play Is He Living?” Still stunned, Perry just blinked stupidly. “Fantastic!” boomed Death. “Let’s get this started by ” — and his voice turned mysterious — “spinning the wheel.”
“W-what’s going on?” mumbled Perry, letting Death guide him toward the back of the stage. Multitudes of colorful light bulbs, like those outlining the featured attractions at old movie theaters, covered the wall. And in the middle of everything was a giant wheel divided in fifths, the numeric spans 0 – 10, 11 – 20, and so forth up to 41 – 50 emblazoned on the sections.
Perry repeated his confusion, but Death ignored him. “As you all know,” said Death, beaming at the audience, “Perry, here, will spin the wheel to select a particular decade of his life. When one’s been chosen, he will then list as many life achievements during that decade as he can. Each event will be awarded points by our three expert judges, and if Perry can score more than a hundred points for that decade, he gets a checkmark.” Above the wheel, there were five empty neon squares. “And if he can pass at least three out of five, he’ll be our grand winner!” The ducks applauded vociferously. “Are you ready?”
Perry gawked around the stage. “But I failed,” he said. “I fell.”
From the corner of his mouth, Death muttered, “You just had to make it over the bar, remember? I didn’t say you couldn’t fall.” Death resumed his persona. “Now it’s time to spin … the … wheel.”
Shakily, Perry raised his hands, the burn there still tingly, and he gave a pull. As it rattled, Perry appraised his reality — drowning in a pen? falling through the sky? a game show contestant? — but before any conclusion was reached, the wheel clicked slowly onto 21 – 30.
“One of my favorite decades!” announced Death. “Now are you ready, Perry?” The 48-year-old began to assemble those years in his memory. “And begin!” Above the wheel and neon squares, the number “15” appeared, counting down the seconds.
“Uh … I got married,” said Perry, his thoughts still a bit sticky. “I had two children. Donny and Mindy.” On the left side of the stage, a brawny woman, the co-hostess, hung slats on a board that listed Perry’s achievements as well as the points each received; right now, he had a total of 46. “I passed the insurance exam and started my career. I bought my first house. I bought my first car.” Those last two only received a combined 12 points. “I … I …” What else had he done? “My business trip in Canada. I graduated college. I —”
“And time!” said Death. “Let’s see what he got!”
The muscular hostess hung a panel with his total score, 103, and above the stage, a checkmark appeared in one of the neon boxes.
“Sneaked by with that one didn’t you, Perry?” The ducks quacked chuckles.
Perry strained to understand the scoring system as the woman emptied the board. A hundred and three points? That was it? At Death’s instruction, however, he gave the wheel another spin, and when it stopped, the audience oohed nervously.
“Ah,” said Death. “The dark years …” The wheel was on 11 – 20.
“The dark years?” said Perry. “That was —”
Immediately, Perry clambered through his memory. There was his first kiss. His first dance. Graduation from high school. Honorable mention in the spelling bee. Perry tried to drag out more memories. Achievements! Think, think! But he kept returning to all the video games he had played, the Internet becoming prolific during that decade. And then of course, this was the era when Perry made his shower-time discovery of “self-stimulation.”
“And time!” said Death. Across the stage, the woman displayed the total: 74. “So close!” And a large X buzzed into one of the neon squares. “Two down, three to go. Give it another spin!” Perry wanted to protest — about what he didn’t know — but instead, simply did as directed and pulled the wheel. It landed on 0 – 10. Anxiously, he tugged on the ripples in his pants. What life achievements could he possibly have from that decade? And when Death commanded him to begin, he froze.
For a few moments, Perry said nothing. That was elementary school. Preschool. When he was a baby. But what life achievements could a baby possibly — “I learned to walk!” shouted Perry suddenly. “I learned to speak! I — I learned to write and play sports and run and read — I loved to read!” The audience cheered on his enthusiasm. “I created the game Lava Hop. In first grade, I climbed that tree no one else could. I got Madeline! I had my first ice cream. I kicked my first goal. I collected bugs and rocks and —”
“Time!” declared Death, grinning.
Perry’s score: 617.
“Wowza!” said Death. “What a round!” The swell of applause from the ducks agreed. “Though maybe you should’ve spread some of those points out, huh, Perry?” But Perry was so enraptured by the glow of those recollections that he didn’t hear Death, and without directive, he went ahead and spun the wheel again.
This time, it stopped on 31 – 40, and all the novel elation that had moments before magnetized Perry, dissipated. Thirty-three. That’s how old he’d been when Kayla left. Sitting on their living room sofa, their children visiting her sister, he’d watched her lips move, say things, make sounds. He only nodded. A menial employee agreeing to whatever his superior said.
“Are you ready, Perry?” This time, Death waited a moment. “We’ll start the clock when you begin.”
Perry stood there, running his lower lip between his teeth. “The divorce,” he said. “There was the divorce.” At the time, he had discounted her withdrawal. Her lessening. Everyone went through phases. “I started working more,” said Perry. Death looked to his co-hostess, but she only shrugged. “I sold my car,” said Perry. Really, though, it was just too frequent a reminder. “I ate out a lot.” On that couch, Kayla had said one thing that still barbed his thoughts before sleep: It’s like you’ve forgotten. Ironically, he couldn’t recall what she was referencing, but every day he’d ask himself, What if I’d just remembered?
“And time,” Death softly said. Beside the empty scoreboard, the woman stood with her hands in her pockets. “Well, ladies and gentlemen,” said Death, “that evens the count at two-two, only the final decade left.” The ducks shifted atop their seats. “Hey,” whispered Death, putting a hand in the middle of Perry’s back. “Even those who try to lay in the sun forever still get burnt.” Perry looked up. “You’ve got another round, you know; might as well make the best of it. Besides, when’s the next time you’ll get to play this game?”
Steeling himself, Perry nodded.
“All right,” said Death, resuming character. “Are we ready, audience?” The ducks cheered. “Are you ready, Perry?” He nodded. “Then let’s begin!”
Perry closed his eyes and began thinking. The most recent decade, these memories were the most plentiful, which also made them the most cumbersome to filter. “I got that gold watch from my company.” This co-hostess awarded meager points. “I — I started writing poetry. A little.” This one earned him more. “I joined that dating website. I bought a bike … though I haven’t really used it. Oh! I started learning French.” The audience’s energy was growing. “I … started cooking for myself. I joined that email thread for ballroom dancing. I went to the symphony and —”
“Time!” said Death. “What a round, what a round.” The audience chattered anxiously as the brawny hostess hung Perry’s total score. “Did he make it, folks?” And when the woman stepped back, she revealed the final tally: 82. “Oh, so close!” Death patted Perry on the shoulder. “You gave it a good run, friend, but in the end —”
“Wait!” said Perry, and the ducks’ consolatory applause trailed off. “Wait. I — I’m not 50 yet. This decade isn’t over.” Death gave him a curious look. “In two years, I learned to walk, speak, and dress myself. What’s to say I couldn’t do something similar with these next two?”
“Well, your trajectory indicates —”
“You don’t know that,” said Perry, finding himself out of breath. “You don’t.”
Death pondered these words. “I’ll have to consult with the judges.” He pressed a finger to his empty ear, nodding and mumbling. After a moment, however, he looked up. “The judges say we still have to count this decade.” The audience groaned. “However, because there are another two years left, they agreed that you could only be judged on what you’ve experienced. So as that’s 8 of the 10 years, you only have to reach 8/10 of the necessary 100 points, which in this case means you passed.”
Death grinned. Perry grinned. The crowd erupted with ovation. Taking Perry’s hand, Death raised it in the air; though, as he did, he pressed his thumb into the burn on the back of Perry’s hand. A fiery pain jagged through his arm, and immediately, the world went silent.
The ducks continued their clamor. Death voiced more congratulations. But to Perry, everything was infinitely mute. A soundproof door shut between him and the world. Death mouthed something to him, and Perry tried to express his inexplicable deafness, but his own vocal cords didn’t even rattle in his throat. Again, Death patted him on the shoulder, smiled, and then hopped down from the stage, walking around it and through a door beneath an illuminated EXIT sign. Alone now, even the voice inside of Perry’s head felt muffled, a heavy curtain severing his consciousness.
He staggered off the stage in the direction of Death. And as he lurched through that door, he caught himself on what seemed to be a bathroom sink.
His bathroom sink.
In front of him was that familiar, large mirror, his ghastly reflection looking more nauseated than he felt.
“Welcome to the third and final part,” said Death. He stood inside the mirror, a mahogany door on his left and right. But behind Perry there was just the olive green wall, the room’s only doors reflected in the mirror in front of him.
“The conclusion to this test may seem simple, but it’s not,” said Death. His voice sounded like it reverberated from every corner. “On my left” — he pulled open the door — “you can return to my office, and we’ll process your paperwork. On my right” — he closed the previous door and opened the other — “I can return you back to the line in front of my store.”
Perry forced himself to stand upright. On the counter was his frazzled toothbrush, while the soap had slipped into the sink. He scooped it back into its holder. The world on the other side of the mirror seemed brighter than the bathroom he stood in. “I don’t want to go back to your office,” said Perry.
“But I don’t want to go back to that line either.” Perry pulled at his pants and Death waited for him to say more. “I mean, do I have to stand in line? Or can I — I don’t know, run around that parking lot or something till it’s my turn?”
Death wet his lips. The faintest smile escaped them. “Congratulations, Perry. You passed the final test.” At those words, it wasn’t simply relief that Perry felt. It was triumph.
“Unfortunately,” said Death, averting his gaze, “the EMTs have already tried to resuscitate you. I’m sorry, Perry. But … but you’re too late.”
Perry clenched the sides of his pants. “But you said …” he mumbled. “You said if I passed, I could—”
“If you passed in time.” Death straightened his glasses. “I am sorry.”
“You’re a liar,” uttered Perry. “You’re a cheat!”
“I respond to many names.”
“No,” said Perry. “No. I passed. You said I passed.”
“And you did.”
“Then put me back!” demanded Perry. “Please put me back.” There was an echo to his voice, those same tones used with Kayla. Anger. Pleading. “Please put me back there,” he said.
Death removed his glasses and pulled a cloth from his pocket. He took his time, wiping every contour of the lenses, before he slipped them back on. “I am never an answer,” said Death. “Only a reminder.” Then he tapped the outside of his pants pocket.
Perry paused. Then stuck his own hand into his pocket. A lighter and a lone cigarette. The two men exchanged gazes as Perry raised the roll of tobacco. Rasped the lighter. Pressed the flame to the end. After a moment, it crinkled red.
“Not everyone gets this opportunity,” said Death.
Perry stared at the lit end of the cigarette and shrugged. “Not everyone wants it.” Then he buried the smoldering tip onto his previous burn.
Screaming. Lots of screaming.
Unlike before, Perry was immobile, the darkness implacable. Had Death tricked him? Was this the infinite blackness Perry had always imagined after dying? He tried to thrash, to move and kick and bite, but every part of him felt so weak.
Then he heard it. Voices.
A zipper undid loudly above him and the interior lights of an ambulance flooded his eyes.
“Oh my God,” said one of the paramedics. “He’s breathing.”
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