The rules of getting into Heaven are made less stringent. The whole working on the Sabbath thing is overlooked. All food is made kosher. At the gate, St. Peter no longer has to check your browsing history.
The steady stream of souls that used to pour into Hell slows to a trickle. With no one new to torture, Satan grows bored. To fill his free time, he opens a dentist’s office. He says it’s always been a dream of his.
No one is surprised.
Luis Singermann is Satan’s first patient. He is new to the city and has no health insurance. What he does have is an incredibly painful cavity. Luis saw the dentist’s ad at the bus stop. It promised devilishly low prices. Luis thinks he can overlook the doctor being Satan just this once.
The receptionist is Ann Coulter. She sits behind a desk, filing her nails with a dragon’s talon. You can see right through her to the chair she’s sitting on.
“I didn’t even know you were dead,” Luis says.
“I get that a lot. But I’ve been dead, like, six years. Sign in.”
Luis signs. “But I just saw you on television!”
“Zombie. Have a seat. The doctor will be with you shortly.”
There is no one else in the waiting room. Luis sits down next to a bubbling fish tank. It is filled with what looks like ink. If you stare long enough, you can see shapes moving in the blackness. The only magazines are Golf Digest and Highlights for Children.
The door to the inner office creaks open on its own. Ann, not looking up from her filing, says, “They’re ready for you, Mr. Singermann. Second door on the left.”
Luis heads back. The dental assistant is already waiting for him. A skeleton in a nurse’s uniform.
“Sit, please.” Its teeth clack together when it speaks. Someone has drawn a small mustache onto the skull. “You just need to fill out a few forms before we can begin.”
With a puff of brimstone, Satan appears. Luis screams.
“I’m not offended. I should have warned you,” Satan says. He shakes Luis’ hand. “Adolf, we can save the paperwork for later. The patient comes first!”
The skeleton mumbles something. Satan leans in and whispers to Luis, “If you’re not comfortable with you know who handling gases, I can go get Dahmer.”
“Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea,” Luis says, getting up.
“Nonsense!” Satan says, pushing him back down. “We’ll have that nasty soul extracted in no time. Tooth! Tooth. Force of habit, I swear.”
You tell them to go ahead without you. To have fun, but you really need to study this weekend.
Which is true. Mostly.
Right now you’re taking a break. From studying, not working. While your roommates are away, you decide to clean the house you three rent together. Their idea of housekeeping is putting the dirty dishes in the oven, so this is a job that always falls to you. You don’t mind. It’s relaxing compared to schoolwork.
You have finished vacuuming the first floor and have managed to lug the sweeper up the stairs. You barely start down the hallway before the vacuum quits running. The sound fades, leaving the empty house silent.
You have complained to the landlord about how loose the electrical sockets are—any little tug and the plug pops out—but they’ve done nothing so far. It’s an old house, they always say. You sigh, and start pulling the cord up the stairs. You had probably been close to reaching the end of it anyway.
With one last yank, you have the end of the long black cord in your hands. It hadn’t pulled loose: the cord ends in a twist of frayed wire. It has been cut. By something sharp, from the looks of it.
They sit together in a dark house, at the foot of a dark hill, in the middle of a dark night.
Their house is silent only to them. A stranger would notice the rustling of the pages of the book in the man’s lap, the click of the needles held carefully in the woman’s hands. The wheezy lungs—still working—of the both of them. His exhalations matched with her inhalations. As if they are sharing their very breath. For the past fifty-seven years, they have been. But maybe not for one second longer.
The fire before them pops and dies in one great final rush of air. The lamps flicker out. The dog that lies between the man and woman, its muzzle snow dusted with age, stirs mid dream. It yawns at the new blacker darkness and goes back to sleep.
In this new blacker night, both the man and the woman know they are no longer alone. Someone else sits with them in the dark. The pages stop rustling; the needles quit clicking, both perhaps for the first time in ten, twenty, one hundred years. The man and woman hold their shared breath. They wait for this stranger to speak.
“A deal I have come to make,” says the stranger. “I bargain in shadows; I work only in umber. My work fades in the light like dreams in the morn. Before the fire rekindles, decide. Before the clouds slide from the moon, choose. Make haste in doing so, before you can see clearly once more.”
The man feels the stranger’s breath in his ear, stirring the nest of white wire hairs. The woman feels the stranger drawing closer as it whispers, scuttling across the floor towards her.
“I can rewind the clock. Reverse the flow of sand,” the stranger says, so near to both of them. “Oil your creaky bones; iron your crevassed hides. Plump that once was plump, slim that once was slim. Pleasant memories that faded, the painful ones that stayed in their place, could all be remade or averted. Found again or lost for good. All you must do is agree. Be quick. Be rash. Choose before you can see my face. Decide before you can look in one another’s eyes again.”
The man asks what the catch is. The woman says there always is one.
“In your renewed splendor, you will never meet. Your paths will remain untwined. Your heartaches and your joys will be with others; the packages and parcels you carry now will be handed over to me and forgotten.”
The wood in the fireplace crackles, embers beginning to glow once again. Outside, a wind stirs the clouds. In the dark house, the shadows will soon break apart.
“Choose! Time, like life, grows thin. You must know there is only darkness beyond here. It will soon rise up to meet you as you are. If you don’t let me catch you, the fall is all that remains for either of you. Think! Dusk forever, or the brightness of dawn. A new day, endless possibilities spilling out in front of you in all directions. And the time to take them! To follow them wherever they may lead you!”
The stranger falls silent. The man thinks of his wife, free of the pain of so brittle bones. The woman thinks of her husband with a thump thump thumping heart, able to pump fresh blood to fresh limbs. They both think of a new life for the other, with another chance at all the might have beens.
“I’m sorry,” the woman says. “I am selfish and can’t let you go.”
“I’m sorry,” the man says. “I am selfish and am glad.”
The fire springs back to life. The lamps flicker back on. The stranger is gone. The man and woman are once again alone. Pages soon rustle, needles soon click. They sit together in a dark house, at the foot of a dark hill, at the end of a dark night.
The man and woman think of the other and how even their picked clean bones would feel like home.
“Please,” the man says, his words whistling through an overcrowded mouth. “You must be still. At least twenty seconds.”
The man removes her gag and steps back towards the camera. A daguerreotype type. In the dark, its lens is the dull glow of a Cyclopean eye. The woman is tied to the mattress of her own bed, discreetly, the ropes hidden behind sheets and pillows. If not for the tears, you’d think she was relaxing at the end of a long day.
In a voice hoarse from screaming she asks the intruder, “Why? Why are you doing this?”
The man smiles, his fangs hanging from his mouth like passengers from a sinking ship. “Why, I always take pictures of my food.”
Some say that up to eighty-five percent of household dust is made up of your own dead skin cells. Little bits of who you were yesterday covering your desk. The old you obscuring the picture on your television screen. Everything you once were at the bottom of a sweeper bag.
Some say that up to eighty-five percent of household dust is death. Your death. Take a deep breath. Breathe it in. You haunt your own home without knowing it.
You’ll be happy to know, dust is really comprised of many things. Not just your own dead skin, but your neighbors’. Your pets’. Even perfect strangers’. Take a deep breath. Breathe it in. Your home is haunted by more things than you’ll ever know.
When you sweep the dirt into the dustpan, try not to notice how some of it tries to get away. When you watch television at night, pay no attention to how the dust forms a face on the screen to watch you. When you reach into a dark, dusty corner, try not to scream at the hand that reaches for you.
This, I’m afraid, is simply a fact you must face. Quickly.
She lied about Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. She lied about how carrots help your eyesight, and how touching yourself damages it. Everyone did notice that pimple on your nose, that time, just like you were afraid of. Your parakeet is probably not in Heaven. And, about Heaven, well, we don’t have time for that.
These lies are all understandable. If you were going to live long enough to have any, you might have even told some of them to your own children. You won’t. Live long enough, I mean. You’re already thinking your last thoughts.
As the water rushes over your head, and you’re swirled down like a stray hair or soap sud, you have just enough time to think, “Why lie about being able to fit down the bathtub drain?”
The knife slides through the tomato and makes a solid sound as it hits the cutting board.
Ka-thunk. Ka-thunk. Ka-thunk.
A rhythmic beat that pairs well with the sizzling coming from the stove top.
“Just a side effect from a prescription, that’s all?”
“That’s all,” he says, using the knife edge to scrape the diced tomato into the skillet. A symphony of hisses and pops. “Fancy name for it though. Capgras Syndrome. Sounds like something Rod Serling would’ve cooked up, doesn’t it?”
“It was, darling,” she says, leaning against the counter, taking a long sip from her glass. “It really was like the Twilight Zone. I can’t believe you didn’t—That you would think I was some sort of—of stranger!”
He stirs the slowly browning beef, and smiles. “Not just any old stranger.”
“Worse! Much worse.” Her hands snake around his waist, she hugs him. “Are there really other people with this…syndrome?”
“I’m not one of a kind, but it’s not that common, either, I suppose.”
“And they all think their spouses were replaced by robots?”
“No. The doctor said most sufferers just think someone in their lives—or even they themselves—have somehow been replaced by a double. A duplicate. It doesn’t necessarily have to be robotic in nature.”
“I’m just lucky.”
“Yes, you are. I could have thought you were a very fetching alien. Oh, and before I forget. The doctor wanted you to look over something.”
He takes a sheet of notebook paper from a kitchen drawer and lays it on the counter between them. Written on the sheet is a string of letters and numbers. The characters are scrawled closely together and waver between several lines. They don’t appear to spell or represent anything, but instead seem randomly chosen.
“What is this?”
He hands her a pen. “All you have to do, is copy what it says.”
“What it says? It doesn’t say anything. It’s—It’s nonsense!”
“Exactly! I’ve had my tests for today. This is yours. It’s simple, darling. Just write what it says. A child could do it.”