“Choose your words carefully. Your next sentence will be your last.”
Who had spoken? Denton frantically searched the room, floor to ceiling, looking for the source of the booming voice. Only he and his wife occupied the private room and his beloved hadn’t uttered a word.
Odd that he didn’t question the voice’s accuracy. Or his own sanity. He simply believed.
The pressure of choosing the right words made him clammy. He swiped at his brow, sending his arm straight through his head. Damn.
No. Did he say that aloud?
His wife scurried to his side and screamed for a nurse. He wanted to reassure his darling, but he clamped his teeth together to keep from talking. If he could speak only one more sentence, he didn't want, “I'm okay,” to be his final epitaph.
He suspected he hovered near death’s trapdoor—even before the booming voice issued “last call.” He was standing by the bed watching doctors work on his quaking body. That pretty much guaranteed his life meter had expired.
He needed to say goodbye to Maddie. He lifted his arms toward his honey. The arms on the bed also reached upward, freaking Denton and sending both sets of his elbows flailing. At the same time, a couple of burly, white-coated men grabbed Maddie and pulled her from the room. A medical team scampered, bumping into each other like rats in a scavenger hunt.
The scene might have been humorous, but Denton couldn’t find anything funny about his own death. Worse, the defibrillator packed a mean zap.
A movement distracted him from his medical emergency and he became aware of a big blob standing next to him. He jumped three-feet off the floor…and kept floating. “Jeeesus!”
“Nope, wrong guy.”
It looked like a man, but Denton couldn't be sure because shadows surrounded the thing’s body. Whatever it was, it wasn’t human.
“I'm dying, aren't I?” Fearing he’d used his last sentence, he gasped. “I didn’t just use my last words, did I? Shit, I didn’t get to say my piece.”
“Relax, Dude. You still get your oratory farewell, but please spare me the soap-box clichés.” The voice wasn’t loud, but it seemed to bellow. “I’ll get rid of the white coats and get the pretty little lady back in here, but don’t dally. Speak your sentence, already.”
Denton winced, not certain if the creature’s goading or another blast from the defibrillator tightened his cheeks. And he didn’t mean his face.
Stiffening, he stared at the sumo-wrestler shaped blob. “Who are you? My guardian angel?” Comprehension sucked the air from his deflated lungs and he squeaked like Richard Simmons, “Wait! I don’t see the light and you’re all gray. Am I going to hell?”
“You're not going to hell. Course you're not going to heaven either. You’ve got a truckload of transitions before your destination is finalized.” The creature chuckled. “And believe me, I’m no guardian angel, but that’s a good one. It’s been a long time since a stiff in the on-deck circle tickled my skeleton.”
“Who are you?”
“Call me Nate. I’ll be escortin’ you to your next state of being.”
“Next state of being? I’m being reincarnated?”
“No way. If folks were reincarnated, you’d be a fish by now, given the booze you’ve consumed in your life.” The creature chuckled, far too amused at his own humor.
Denton balled his fist. A doctor noticed his altered grip and put down the defibrillator.
“He's back. I have movement!” The speaker sounded hazy and distant.
Denton’s mouth gaped, mirroring the state of his hospital gown. He glared at Nate. “Hey, shouldn't I be floating above my body instead of standing here talking to you? Don't I get any of the perks of dying?”
Nate chuckled again. “Can't tell you how refreshing it is to get a sarcastic S.O.B. I get so many whiners lately.”
The creature’s shadow shrunk vertically and widened horizontally. Had the creature sat down?
“Hurry up with those words, Denton. You’re late for retribution.”
“Retribution? You mean like retribution to Native Americans?”
“You don't get retribution, funny man, you make it. It’s kind of like time-out for grown-ups.” Nate chortled. “I crack myself up.”
“You don't get out much, do you?”
“You mean out of body?” The creature grabbed his belly and shadows shook in cadence with his laughter.
He really didn’t get out much.
“Watch yourself, Sonny, I can hear your thoughts.”
“Eh, sorry. But, hey. I was a decent guy. What’s this retribution shit?” Denton covered his mouth, the action sending doctors scurrying around the elevated bed. “Damn, I swore again. That’s bad, huh?”
“Sonny, let go of them earth rules. I don't care if you swear, just don't use the ‘sin’ word. I’m sick of that word. Let me tell you something you should have already learned. There are only two rules: Don't harm other creatures and be content.”
“Don't harm creatures? Damn, that pretty much covers everything, doesn't it?”
“Yep, you humans pretty much screw up everything. Wrong and right are pretty simple in their simplest form. But let’s take a look. You know, you’re lucky you got me instead of one of the other Transition-ers. Most of them don't appreciate humor.”
Nate lifted a clipboard and studied it. “Hmmm. Your ‘Hurting Creatures’ column is not bad, but you pretty much sucked in the ‘Contentment’ column.”
He’d intended to ask what a Transition-er was or did, but that no longer mattered. “What? I was content.”
“Um-hum.” Nate shook his blob of a head.
Denton sucked in air. The body on the bed wheezed. The doctors resumed their frantic action. “Exactly what do you mean by ‘Contentment’ column?”
“Contentment is self-explanatory. You didn’t seem dumb before?”
“I wasn't discontent.”
“Yeah, right. One hour ago, you were annoyed because lunch was taking too long. Last week you thought your car was too old—it’s a Porsche for mercy’s sake. You were never content with your job, your golf game, or your sex life. Need I go on?”
“Wait a minute. There’s a difference between wanting more and not being content. Is wanting a better life a sin?” Shit. He’d uttered the sin word. “I mean, is wanting a better life wrong? That doesn’t seem right.”
“Wrong doesn’t seem right. Another good one, Dent.”
He was really glad the creature found his impending demise so damn amusing. “It’s not fair.”
“Not fair?” Nate spat and little black flakes floated around the room. “What you humans basically mean by fair is—if it ain't going my way it ain’t fair.”
Denton tried to shake his head, but if felt too heavy. At least death wasn't the end he’d expected and he didn’t see a fiery pit. His fear dissipated. “Why is wanting a better life wrong?”
“Wanting is not wrong, not savoring what you've been given is the crime. For example, your golf handicap is, eh, I mean was, a ten, but you never relished your game.”
“So those zombies who go through life with a smile on their face are right and the rest of us are wrong?”
“You mean were wrong, but, yep, pretty much. You see, life isn't, about leaving your mark or making the world a better place. The world and its life forms are pretty amazing without human intervention. It’s rather arrogant of you morons to think you can improve upon the master plan, don’t you think?”
The analogy actually made sense. “But people like me must fare better than bankrobbers and axe murderers. Doesn’t it help that I tried to be a good guy?”
“Sure it does, so don't get your boxers in a wad. Although you're not wearing any shorts, are ye?” Nate slapped at what would have been a knee and his shadows parted. He stopped chortling and frowned. “That's the worst part of this phase. You can't get a decent knee slap.”
An orderly ushered Denton’s wife back into the room. Maddie looked like a ghost.
Nate whispered, “That’s all folks. Get on with your sentence, Dent, and get the last…right. Get it—last rite?”
Denton ignored the deadly humor and gazed at his wife. He had been content with her—she represented the one thing he’d gotten right.
“Yep, you struck gold with her.” Nate had apparently read his mind again. “Funny, but she thought she was the lucky one. Your marital contentment saved you a lot of years in retribution.”
“If I had more time, I'd show her. I’d be content with everything. I don't suppose there's any chance…”
“You're a cheeky bastard. Pun intended.” Nate gurgled. “But, I’m in a good mood and you’ve made me laugh. Tell you what—there’s one sentence you can articulate that will buy you more time in this life. Say the right thing, and I’ll let you live a while longer.”
The room grew brighter and Nate disappeared. Denton’s form merged with the body in the bed. The excruciating pain lessened as he looked into his wife’s eyes. He didn't need to think about what he would say. He gestured for her to come closer.
“I love you.” He touched her face and smiled at the source of his contentment.
Stars flashed and Denton heard a loud buzz. He watched the room, and his wife, move farther and farther away. Without him.
Nate materialized, shaking his blob of a head. “Another sugary cliché—sweet, but no cigar. Let's get you started on your Retribution.”
Denton supposed it really didn’t matter. “At least tell me what I could have said to prolong my days.”
“You disappoint me, Denton. I thought a smart fellow like you would deduce the right words. Didn't I keep harping on simplicity?”
“You should’ve said, ‘I want to live.’”
Denton took a final look at his grieving wife, regretting her pain, but feeling peace. He might be dead. He might not have spoken the words Nate wanted, but…
He’d said the right thing.