Black Petals Issue #107, Spring, 2024

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BP Artists' Page
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(After) Life is What You Make It: Fiction by Richard Brown
Gauche Cuisine: Fiction by Gordon L. Stewart
Here's to Forgetfulness: Fiction by Roger Johns
Insights Into the Trajectory of Human Cetacean Communication: Fiction by Andre Bertolino
Mal Ojo: Fiction by M. N. Wiggins
No Dark: Fiction by Bill Dougherty
Overtime: Fiction by Dennison Sleeper
A Cut Above the Rest: Fiction by Roy Dorman
Resemblance: Fiction by James McIntire
Sign of the Times: Fiction by Liam A. Spinage
The Attic Party: Fiction by Michael Fowler
The Renovators: Fiction by Hillary Lyon
The Balance: Flash Fiction by Rick McQuiston
Bawk Dark: Flash Fiction by Michael C. Jessen
The Incident With the Mismatched Man: Flash Fiction by Charles C. Cole
Radio Tower: Flash Fiction by Blair Orr
Take Me With You: Flash Fiction by Steven French
Slippery: Flash Fiction by Cindy Rosmus
Where Dead Babies Come From: Poem by Nolcha Fox
302 Asylum Avenue: Poem by Joseph Danoski
Another Story: Poem by Joseph Danoski
Home Repairs: Poem by Joseph Danoski
A Creepy Leap Year: Poem by Kenneth Vincent Walker
Funeral Memorial: Poem by Kenneth Vincent Walker
BatGrl: Poem by Casey Renee Kiser
Twin Flame: Poem by Casey Renee Kiser
Shadow Play: Poem by Simon MacCulloch
Dark Ride: Poem by Simon MacCulloch
Leviathans of the Void: Poem by Christopher Hivner
Sunbursts: Poem by Christopher Hivner
Into the Eyes: Poem by Anthony Bernstein
Airtime: Poem by Peter Mladinic
Gloria: Poem by Peter Mladinic
The Sorcerer: Poem by C. Walker
Frozen Eve: Poem by C. Walker

Richard Brown: (After) Life is What You Make It

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Art by Sophia Wiseman-Rose 2024

(After) Life is What You Make It

 

Richard Brown

 

 

 

 

Abdul-Ghafar arrives early to the gate. There is only one person waiting; an elderly woman, sleeping in a wheelchair parked at the end of a row of seats. Abdul-Ghafar takes the seat next to her, glances around, and switches his luggage with hers. Luckily for him, they are identical. He begins to silently weep.

          George Clemency approaches the gate’s waiting area with minutes to spare. Many of the seats are taken, and there is a line forming at the desk. He joins the line, checks in, and makes sure he’s about to board the right flight. He finds a seat across from a disabled elderly woman and a man with tears in his eyes. George thinks he looks middle-Eastern, then chides himself for stereotyping. He puts his earbuds in his ears and looks at the airplane parked at the gate through the windows. His playlist starts in with ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’. Dylan, not Guns N Roses. He thinks of himself as a traditionalist.

          The airline employee makes the announcements, and the passengers get in line to board. The sleeping woman is wheeled onto the boarding ramp, along with her luggage. If anyone notices that Abdul-Ghafar does not join the line, they don’t care. Fresh tears fill his eyes as he looks at his watch. He sets the timer for 50:00 and presses Start. All this planning… the deceptions and trickery… and when it comes to it, I can’t make the sacrifice to see the bomb onto the plane myself! Something nags at him; some small detail, but he is too caught up in self-chastisement to pay it heed. The luck! Somehow getting the components through security… then the woman with identical luggage… Allah forgive me! I should be on that plane! He doesn’t move from his seat, though. His tears spill onto the thin airport carpeting.

          Four minutes later, George Clemency is stowing his carry-on into the luggage compartment across from his seat, and Abdul-Ghafar finally pays attention to the detail that keeps nagging him. He remembers his eyes filling with tears as he started the timer, and the display was seen through double-vision. He checks the timer again… 0:02. He jumps to his feet, and all noise stops. A soft whump! Comes from outside the windows, followed by the windows exploding into the terminal. Flames bloom in the air around Abdul-Ghafar, and then… nothing.

          George pushes himself up onto his elbows and looks around. He is in some kind of hospital room, laid on a table. Not a bed, he thinks, and looks ahead in dawning horror. There is another table, with another body prone on it. There is a sheet covering the body, but it appears to also be in the act of sitting up. As George watches in mute terror, the body sits up through the sheet. No, George sees, not the body! He can see plainly that the body is still under the sheet, but he can also see the appearance of the person who must be under that sheet.

          A young man, probably in his mid-twenties, with short, spiky hair and a scruffy jawline, swings his legs off the side of the table and hops to the floor. “Hi. Looks like we’re dead, don’t it? I thought there’d be a tunnel with a light at the end, but at least it’s not too hot in here, right?” he says with a smile.

          His words sink through George’s shock like a stone through water. Yes, he thinks, I’m dead, and his calm is suddenly restored. “Right,” he returns the smile, “but I never believed in all that, anyway.”

          “No?” the kid asks. “What do you believe happens when you die?”

          “Nothing, I guess.” George says. “The body rots away, and our minds just disappear.”

          “I don’t think we’re talking mind-to-mind,” the kid laughs, “These are our souls. Oh! There’s the tunnel!” The young man points to a wall. George sees the tunnel, and a bright light at the end of it. There are distant figures silhouetted in the light, beckoning. “Let’s go!” the kid says, and starts away.

          George attempts to follow him, but he can’t seem to move his feet. He looks down and discovers that, though he can separate the rest of his… soul?...from his corpse, his feet are firmly planted in his dead flesh. “Wait! Help me!” he shouts. He looks up at the retreating figure of the young man and sees other spirits walking toward and through the tunnel. He recognizes the sleeping woman from the wheelchair among them. When the last of them enter the tunnel, it closes and vanishes.

          George struggles with his feet. Neither of them will come out of his body. They don’t even feel slippery. It’s as though everything but his feet had died.

          He notices movement across the immense room. The Middle-Eastern man from the plane (George winces as he catches himself assuming the man’s ethnicity when he really has no clue) is struggling up from his own dead body and taking in the situation. In moments, he is on his knees and praying fervently.

          “Mister, I don’t want to be dead,” a tremulous voice says behind him.

          George twists around and sees a plain, but not unattractive, girl huddling against the wall. She’s sitting on the floor, knees drawn up to her chest, hands limp at her sides.

          “I’m with ya on that,” he says as three living people enter the room. One is an African-American woman in a white labcoat who reminds George of Michelle Obama. The other two are white men (though George detects Hispanic heritage in one’s genetics – and quickly admonishes himself for noticing each person’s racial identity first) in black blazers and blue ties. The trio cross purposefully to the praying man’s body.

          “I’m going to Hell. Everyone says so, and I know they’re right,” the quivering voice behind him says.

          George tries to say something consoling, but he finds himself listening to the living conversation further down the line of tables.

          “This man was responsible?” one of the agents asks.

          “He was found holding the timer. He also had the luggage belonging to one of the passengers. He obviously switched suitcases with her,” the other agent replies.

          “Okay, Doctor, you know this is practically a formality. The case looks like a clear-cut case of terrorism, but we need to rule out the influence of drugs…”

          “That will come out in the toxicology reports,” the pathologist tells him.

          The agent continues as though there was no interruption, “…and we also need information on the explosive device for future security measures. You say he suffered shrapnel impact? We’ll need autopsies performed on all such victims. Start with him, though, as some of the chemical components may have entered his system prior to the event.”

          George sympathizes with the pretty pathologist as he tries to imagine how she’ll decide who didn’t receive shrapnel damage.

          “My parents always said I wasn’t good enough to go to Heaven,” the girl on the floor says.

          “Huh?” George is startled into remembering her. “That’s terrible, but some parents are just crappy. You can’t go believing everything they say,” he says.

          “My teachers and siblings all said it, too. Even the neighbors told me I’d end up in Hell,” the girl sobs.

          George tries to imagine such an environment, and is shocked again by a bloodcurdling scream. He twists toward the sound and sees that the pathologist is in the process of making the large Y-incision in the praying man’s corpse. The scream is coming from the praying man’s soul, as an identical slash appears on his torso.

          The agonized screams go on for hours as the doctor spreads open the abdominal wall and removes internal organs for inspection and tests. George takes a certain satisfaction in the man’s suffering, even yelling curses and things like “Take that, asshole!” from time to time. Even he has to turn away, though, when it’s time to remove the skullcap and brain. The screams continue through it all.

          Someone wearing scrubs enters the room and wheels one of the occupied tables (they’re all occupied, George notices) away. George takes a moment to inventory his surroundings. The room has four autopsy tables on each side (three, now, on the side opposite George). The wall with only three tables in front of it is sectioned neatly into squares, each with a small handle. Souls are randomly squirming through the small doors into the room.

          The main doors into the room are to George’s right. When he looks at the other end of the room, he sees a cloud opening up to reveal what must be close to a hundred young women. A dozen of them hurry to the spectral form of the bomber, lying on his back on the floor, moaning and wailing. They carry him into the cloud, and disappear.

          “What the actual fuck, man!” he exclaims. “He still gets his seventy-whatever virgins? That settles it; this isn’t real.”

          He twists to look at the girl on the floor. “So what did you do that was worse than bombing a plane full of people? What was so bad that you’re going to Hell?”

          “I smoked pot,” she murmurs.

          Her answer startles a harsh bark of laughter from him.

          She stares at him with wide, fearful eyes. “I went to parties and drank alcohol, too,” she adds.

          “Miss, if that’s the worst you’ve done, you’ve got nothing to worry about! That guy-“

          “I had premarital sex.” Her whisper carries to him perfectly.

          He pauses to watch as the pathologist starts in on another cadaver, this one already vacated by its soul, but one table nearer to George’s body.

          “Lady, that’s nothing. Par for the course, these days, actually. Maybe better than par. That scumbag murdered hundreds of people! And he still got his Paradise!”

          She shook her head. “I remember him from the waiting area. He was crying so much. I don’t think he wanted to do it. Maybe he was coerced into it.”

          “True, buddy,” says a voice next to George’s table. A middle-aged man sits, also attempting to free his spirit-feet from his dead body. “There are other possibilities, too. Who knows what he was taught all his life? Most of us here were taught to be good, little assembly-line workers for an industrial age that died out fifty years ago, but we don’t even question it. Should his soul be judged based on what his mind was molded and conditioned to think?”

          George gapes at him, stunned to be outnumbered on this issue. “Look, none of it is real, anyway! There is no heaven or hell, no Paradise, no bright light, no demons with hooves and pitchforks! I’m in a coma and dreaming all of this, or maybe I am dying, and this is one last desperate attempt by my mind to hold on to life.” At this, another scrub-wearing attendant enters the room and wheels away another corpse.

          “What are they doing?” George asks no one in particular.

          “Disposing of the bodies, is my guess,” the other man replies.

          “Disposing, how?”

          “Sending them off to funeral homes if they have families or burial plots. Cremation for the others,” the other man says.

          “But they haven’t been autopsied yet,” George protests, in confusion.

          The other man chuckles. “No way she’s gonna dissect all of us. Like you said, there are hundreds of us. She’ll do a reasonable sample of us – looks like our side of the room, at least – and call it quits. I’d really like to free my feet; I’m next in line.”

          “Why are you and I stuck to our bodies?” George asks.

          “I’m no expert, but maybe it’s because we didn’t believe in an afterlife,” the other man replies. “I was an agnostic. I didn’t know what to believe, so I never made a choice.”

          George turns to the girl on the floor. “There you have it! Start believing in a different outcome! You don’t have to go to Hell.”

          She lifts her face, seeking that dim glimmer of hope that George’s words offer, but just as quickly shakes her head and resumes staring at her knees. “It’s too late,” she says. As though on cue, a great tentacle creeps from the wall behind her and entwines her, its black, purple, and gray suckers attaching to her spirit, dragging her into the wall. George has a fleeting memory of Disney’s The Little Mermaid and the scenes with Ursula, the Sea Witch. The girl screams anew with each sucker that touches her. Then she is gone.

          “Her- her parents did that to her,” George stammers. “Her parents, her teachers, her neighbors… they made her believe that thing is her fate, and now that’s what she has to endure for… what? Forever?”

          “Supposedly,” the other man says. “The soul is eternal.”

          An attendant approaches the other man’s table and unlocks the wheels.

          “Wait!” George yells. “What’ll happen to you?”

          “I have a burial plot,” the man answers. “If I can’t free myself, I expect I’ll spend eternity staring at dirt. I’m only five-seven.” Then he, too, is gone.

          George strains to pull his feet free of his corpse, checking the pathologist’s progress. She is entering notes into a computer, having finished with her previous autopsy.

          George hears heavy footfalls in the hall outside the room. The doors swish open.

          The pathologist sets scalpels and a bone saw on a stainless steel tray next to George.

          The attendant approaches as she pulls on latex gloves, but hesitates.

          George watches each of them in turn, eyes wide with fear. Take me out of here! He thinks at the attendant.

          “Go ahead,” the pathologist says. “One less for me to do.” The attendant nods and steers George through the doors.

          Relief washes over George, until he remembers that he has no family; no burial plot.

          He watches the corridor darken, notices the sparse lights flicker.

          He is brought to a large and presumably heavy iron door set into a brick wall. The door is swung open, and George is unceremoniously shoved inside an unlit furnace. George screams for the attendants to wait, there’s been some mistake… but the iron door clangs shut. Blue-white jets of flame shoot into the chamber, and George incinerates. The pain is unendurable. When George was a child, someone accidentally spilled a cup of hot coffee on his bare shoulder, scalding him and giving him second-degree burns. That coffee was the silky caress of a lover compared to this devouring, full-length, invasive and penetrating conflagration.

          As his flesh melts to his bones, and his bones char and crumble, his soul shrieks. The shrieks continue after the flame jets have been turned off and only ashes remain. 

         With no body to attach to, and no destination… and incapacitated in any case by agony, the soul of George Clemency remains in the furnace. When the next body is brought in, the torment begins again, reinvigorated.

Richard Brown is a multi-genre author who has contributed to Black Petals twice before (issues #91 and 96), and is currently working on two novels – a dark psychological thriller, and a young adult fantasy/adventure. He and his Guide Dog haunt the Pacific Northwest, rain or…well, rain.

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