But in the end, when it’s your turn to be judged, you’ll get what you f**king deserve—you son of a b**ch. It was just another night closing the pizza shop while listening to Knocked Loose, his favorite hardcore punk band for the time being. Both registers were closed and the day’s cash was stowed in the safe. The trash was taken out, each step to the dumpster punctuated by the chugging guitar. Damn, this is a good song, thought the closer as he slowly bobbed and shook his head to the pacing of the drums.
It was time to do the final walk-through before turning off the lights and locking the doors. He walked through the kitchen to see if the back door was locked: check. One of the sinks had a runny faucet that hadn’t been fixed in months. Its dull pitter-patter echoed off the nearest wall.
What was that… It sounded as if a door moved or maybe the mop hit the floor. It better not be a drunk from the Junkyard. They always stumble in from the bar next door just two minutes before closing to order an extra-large with all the toppings. Maybe it was yet another sad, drunk soul confused and wandering in after business hours. A little peeved at this thought, the closer paused his music and quickly walked to the front. The mop was still sitting against the wall. No drunken idiots were meandering through the storefront. Shrug.
Turning off the lights always required grabbing a crusty old nine iron and jamming it behind a fridge where the light switches hid. One had to get it just right to line it up and have them all flick down in one motion. “Gotcha, b**ch!” Now it was time to set the alarm, clock out on one of the computers, and lock the front door. On the security number pad, he began the code sequence: 8—“WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING, SHANEY?” The voice erupted like the muffler of a Harley. The closer shook violently with every neck hair and nerve taut. He immediately looked in every direction, but the chance of spotting the person was slim in such low light.
“Pick up or delivery?” the nearby voice murmured with a higher pitch. It hung onto the last syllable for what seemed like an eternity before changing into a clownish chuckle. The closer’s vision still hadn’t adjusted to the darkness. Frantically, he thought of what to do next. All of the kitchen knives and heavier cooking utensils were in the back. At that moment, he realized he had his Kershaw pocket knife stashed in his rear pocket. His left hand became numb as if he had been sitting on it for hours. What the hell?
“TOUCH THAT PUNY KNIFE AND I WILL GUT YOU LIKE A TROUT, BOY.” The voice was menacing, the worst thing he’d ever heard, even in the movies. It came from the opposite direction and caused him to lose balance with how fast he spun around.
“Wh-who are you?! What do you want?! How do you know m-my name? Do you want the money in the safe? Is that it? There’s three-hundred bucks in there. T-take it all!” His voice was quivering. Fear had entered every vein. His stomach felt ripped out, hollowed.
A collected calm came over the voice. “I have no name and I owe you nothing. If you’re good, I’m evil. But, Shane, are you really good? If we wrote down everything on paper, how good would you be?”
The voice sounded familiar now. It had been changing each time as if morphing through different impressions of people he knew. The first voice sounded just like his late stepdad who passed away back in 2016. The second sounded like an old friend that stopped returning his calls long ago. The most recent sounded like an old bandmate that went missing in the Adirondacks last autumn…
His eyes finally adjusted. Across the dining area he could see the faint outline of a body in the moonlight. It was shapeshifting ever so slightly.
“What are y—.”
“Don’t ask questions you don’t want answered.”
“W-why are you here? Why are you implying I’m not a good person? Are you gonna kill me t-tonight?”
“I’m here—I’m here because I am your liaison. Good, evil, eh. Who knows? I am not The Judge. You’ll be seeing him shortly. As for killing you, well, looks like you didn’t need my help.”
The alarm was triggered shortly after an incomplete code was entered.
The store manager arrived in his pickup truck nearly plowing through the storefront.
Before leaving his home, the manager checked the live camera feed. He saw the closer lying unconscious on the ground with a pool of blood encircling his head. The manager nervously dialed 911 before speeding off.
“Where am I? Why’s it pitch black and cold? It was super muggy tonight…”
“You’re in Stasis 33; rest stop for the newly dead.”
The closer’s face did an impression of an iceberg.
“I’m not dead. No, no, no, no. This has to be a dream. Wake up, wake up you bastard!”
“Yes. You are dead. The Judge will give his word shortly. Whatever he says goes ‘round here. Sorry, but that’s how it is. I just work for the man.”
“Work? What is this? Where am I, really? I don’t believe your stupid ‘Welcome to the Inception Limbo place’ BS! I refuse to listen to this crap. Besides, my head really hurts now.”
“Your coworkers did a half-assed job mopping the floor. You were walking toward the alarm system and slipped. You slammed your right temple into the corner of the counter. Blood everywhere.”
This gave the closer pause. He pondered. Time was irrelevant in this place and what felt like a few minutes could’ve been a year. Who really knew? By now, his body was immobilized. His consciousness merely existed, somewhere, and was still hanging on despite feeling his thoughts and memories beginning to fade.
“Welp, better me than someone else.”
“What makes you say that? Better you?”
“Sure. Experiencing the death of others is the deepest pain one can feel. I wish death to no one, not even so-called enemies. Eventually, death comes for us all. It’s just—it’ll be hard to stand at the funerals of everyone I love someday. I’ve been to countless cemeteries and I’m not even thirty yet. Well, I guess I won’t reach thirty.”
“So, you would rather die than anyone else you know? Don’t you ever think of the consequences for them if you die? Do you think you’re some kind of martyr if you go before them? You’d rather die to avoid the visceral pain of loss and grieving and have your loved ones experience it instead for you.”
“I—I’ve never really thought of it like that. Huh… It seems as though pain, white-knuckle, deep-chest sobbing pain is inevitable for everyone.”
“Kid, I’ve seen it all. In my business, it’s a job requirement to be emotionally vacant.”
The closer felt his eyelids progressively gain weight.
10:31PM — Segundo City Hospital, E.R. Room 33
The on-call surgeon, blood caked on his latex gloves, noticed twitching of the closer’s eyes, lower lip, and left hand.
His eyes shot wide open.
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