Today I’m celebrating my 30th anniversary of becoming a professional writer. On this date back in 1992 I sold A science-fiction short story 12 paid professional magazine. What an awesome feeling that was.
Darwin sat wearily on the back deck of the steamer, gazing out at the islands and bidding them farewell.
A large lizard swam behind the boat, calling to him. “Darwin! Darwin, please… Don’t leave me!”
“I’m sorry,” he said to the lizard. “It would have never worked.”
“I’ll change for you,” the lizard called out. “I swear I will!”
He shook his head, knowing she could never change. Her children perhaps, but not her.
The roller coaster broke at a crucial moment, sending the cars whizzing high into the air, and Wendy turned to her boyfriend and screamed, “We’re going to die!” Indeed, both could see parts flying in midair around them, including wheels that should have been attached to the bottom of their car and firmly anchored to the track.
As they spun across the sky they saw the track receding. Air, and only air, buffeted the steel that held them to their seats. Her boyfriend screeched like a 4 year old girl covered with spiders.
Time for my life to flash before my eyes, Wendy thought. A couple heartbeats passed and there was no life flashing. Well, she thought — where is it?
Instead, the vision of a familiar red-haired clown appeared before her. “On behalf of the whole McDonald’s corporation,” he said, “I want to thank you for all the food and drinks you bought from us during your life.” His somber, creepy clown-face faded to be replaced by a Barbie doll. “On behalf of Mattel, thank you … thank you … thank you so much for your patronage. We hope our products brightened your young life.”
“What the…?” Wendy shouted, her hair whipping around her in slow motion.
Her favorite jeans company thanked her, followed by three different brands of makeup and hair products. Next it was representatives of the shows she religiously watched. “Thank you,” they told her, “thank you from the bottoms of our hearts.”
Steve Jobs appeared and thanked her for using Apple products so religiously. Desperately she interrupted him and said, “What is this! What the hell?”
“What do you mean?” said the vision of Steve.
“What happened to my life? This is supposed to be my life flashing before my eyes!”
“Wendy,” he said, “this is your life.”
She stared at him, dumbstruck. “This is my life? The products I used?”
Steve shrugged. “You live in a consumerist society. What do you expect? You’re judged by what you buy, and when you die — if you’ve shopped well — your heaven is a huge upscale mall, and you have an endless credit card.”
It took a few precious seconds for her to process this. “Did I shop well?” she asked him.
“Wendy, Wendy, Wendy … if you hadn’t, would I be here right now?” His transparent image smiled before fading, replaced by the horrifying view of her doom.
Wendy stared at the ground rushing at her, suddenly without fear, and urged it to hurry.
She had shopping to do.
“Meow,” said the beautiful dark-haired girl.
“Meow?” I asked, then gave the orderly a strange look.
The young balding man shrugged. “That’s Heather Clarke, the actress.”
“Meow,” said Heather Clarke. She licked her hand and used it to smooth out her hair.
“What happened?” I asked.
“She snapped last week. Been playing the part of Jemima in Cats for seven years, and now she can’t get out of character.”
“Hmmm,” I said, then turned and did the only thing I could think of: I barked.
Immediately her head dropped, her shoulders raised, and she spat and hissed at me. The hackles at the back of my neck rose, and I growled.
Quick as light, she unsheathed her claws and slashed. I stumbled backward in pain, blood streaming down my face. I gave her one long canine gaze, then turned and left. I knew her smell. I could find her again. Anytime.
During the next full moon, I’d get my revenge.
“Aaaaaaaaaaa?” the hard faced, white-haired lady said. “It says ‘Aaaaaaaaaaa.’”
“Yes ma’am,” he said.
“Your name is ‘Aaaaaaaaaaa?’”
“It’s pronounced ‘Bill.’”
“Bill?” She stared at him in outrage. “How do you get ‘Bill’ out of eleven A’s?”
“It’s a foreign spelling.”
“Well, that’s just ridiculous!”
“It’s on my birth certificate.” He proffered his wrinkled document.
“I’m not issuing a driver’s license to ‘Aaaaaaaaaaa.’”
“Bill,” he corrected.
“I don’t care how you pronounce it!” Her eyes scanned further down the paperwork. “And what’s this? Your last name is ‘Puffiboomboom?’”
“Puffy … boom boom?”
“Well, it’s, um—”
“What, do you pronounce it, ‘Smith?’”
“Actually, it’s pronounced, ‘Ledbetter.’”
“Ledbetter?” Her wrinkles flushed crimson. “How do you get ‘Ledbetter’ from ‘Puffiboomboom?’” She held up her wiry hand. “Don’t tell me. Foreign spelling.”
“How stupid do you think I am?” she said. “This has to be a prank!”
“I’m not buying this, not at all!”
“I have all the paperwork filled out—”
“Aaaaaaaaaaa Puffiboomboom is not getting a driver’s license. Not from me.”
“Ma’am, I didn’t choose this name. It’s something I’ve had to live with all my life.”
“Well, it’s time to choose something else!”
“Why not? If your name is ‘Bill Ledbetter’ then why don’t you just spell it that way?”
“Can we do that?”
“Well,” she said, “let’s see.” She typed angrily at her keyboard for long minutes, and then a machine whirred. She grabbed a stamp, smacked it down on his paperwork like a judge banging a gavel, and then slid the whole pile at him. “There, Aaaaaaaaaaa Puffiboomboom, it’s done.”
He stared at his brand new driver’s license. The picture was typically horrible, but the name was spelled “Bill Ledbetter.”
“Thank you,” he said to her.
She huffed, then looking past him at the long line, shouted, “Next!”
Bill gathered the papers and his new license and walked quickly outside to where his friends waited. He showed them the license, pointing at the birth date. Magically, he was now over 21 years old.
“Dude!” yelled one of his ecstatic friends. “Let’s go buy beer!”
Kevin died suddenly.
It took him a while to realize it, because he thought he was dreaming. Walking along in wintry downtown Chicago, his feet crunching in the snow, there was a few minutes of discontinuity and then suddenly he realized he was floating. Several feet below him was a prone figure surrounded by what looked like a spilled strawberry Slushie. A large icicle had broken off the side of the looming skyscraper and buried itself like a dagger into the top of the poor bastard’s head. Oddly, the poor bastard wore a coat identical to Kevin’s … and shoes, too.
The uh-oh moment came when Kevin recognized the grinning monkey’s head tattoo right where a normal person’s wristwatch would be. What were the odds someone else would have that? None, he finally admitted to himself.
It wasn’t long before the beautiful white light showed up, and a guy in a black hooded cloak holding some sort of antique farm implement urged him to float into it. Beyond, he knew, would be a land of pearly gates and puffy clouds, and thinking what a trip that would be, he went for it. The light itself seemed to have a kind of gravity, pulling at him, so after he got too close to the event horizon he couldn’t change his mind even if he’d wanted too. It sucked him in like a Kleenex into a Hoover.
There was music on the other side, but not the angelic choir Kevin had expected. It was a muted and low fidelity jazz, sounding a lot like he were listening to it underwater.
As the glow from the beautiful light faded, Kevin began to make out details. At first he saw what he thought were the pearly gates, but as the edges sharpened Kevin had to finally admit to himself it was shelving.
On the shelves were bottles.
Rows and rows of bottles.
He was in a liquor store. It was even one he recognized — it was the Binny’s in the South Loop. And not only was he in a liquor store, Kevin was sitting on one of the shelves, next to the bottles.
He was a bottle. He was inside the bottle.
“Hey, hi there, excuse me,” said the bottle next to him. “Did you just wake up?”
“What?” Kevin said, surprised that he could talk.
“Ah, yes, you are awake. Good! Could you tell me, perchance, what brand I am?”
“What?” Kevin said again.
“Can you read my label? Could you tell me if I’m Baileys or Carolinas?”
Kevin had to fight the rising tide of panic that threatened to overwhelm him. “You’re a Baileys,” he said.
“You’re sure? You can see my label?”
“Yes, plain as day.” He wondered how he could do that, being that he no longer had eyes.
“I’m a Baileys,” the bottle said. “Thank God.”
“Why? Because it means I’m top shelf — like you.”
“What am I?
“You? You don’t know?”
Kevin went to shake his head, but didn’t have one. “I just got here.”
“Oh, well, you really did just wake up,” said the Baileys. “You’re a genuine Kahlua.”
“Did you just die or something? Went into the light? Found yourself here?”
“Think you’re dreaming?”
“Well you’re not. Welcome to the afterlife, Kahlua.”
“I’m … this … I’m not—”
“Better get used to it.”
“This can’t be the afterlife! It can’t be. And my name isn’t Kahlua! It’s … my name, it’s … um.” He couldn’t remember.
“Your name is Kahlua,” said Baileys.
After a few moments Kahlua remembered he was feeling panicky about something, but couldn’t remember what. “Why am I here?” he asked finally. “Why aren’t I in heaven?”
“You think you’re not? You’re a top shelf spirit sitting in a world class liquor store!”
“But what am I doing here?”
“You’re waiting to be reincarnated. We all are.”
Kahlua, who used to be Kevin, could feel his previous life slipping from his mind like the details of a dream upon waking. He grasped at it desperately. “I don’t get it,” he said to Baileys, “I just don’t get it. Why did I turn into a liquor? What does it have to do with being reincarnated?”
“This is how I understand it,” Baileys told him. “We’re spirits, right?”
“We’re spirits. Alcohol is called ‘spirits’ for a reason — this is why. So we wait here until someone comes and buys us, drinks us, and under our influence have unprotected sex after which we are implanted as a soul in the newly conceived child.”
That made sense, but yet it didn’t make sense. “But,” he told Baileys, “not all children are conceived while their parents are drunk. Are you saying they’re born soulless?”
“No Kahlua, think of it this way … human population is constantly growing. There’s always more babies being born than souls to occupy them … so those are new souls. It takes inebriated parents to conceive a child with a more experienced soul. And if you look around you, this explains a lot.”
Kahlua could no longer remember enough of his previous life to judge if this was true. It seemed to make sense. As he sat there pondering it, a beautifully dressed young couple came walking by and the woman said, “Oh!” and reached out to snatch Kahlua off the shelf.
Baileys called out, “Not fair! Not freaking fair! You haven’t been here fifteen freaking minutes! I’ve been sitting here for weeks!”
If Kevin/Kahlua had shoulders he would have shrugged them. It was just a case that he — and this young couple — were about to get lucky.
“I want bacon flavored bacon on my bacon. I want so much bacon flavor that it obtains critical mass. I want it to collapse into a bacon singularity were no flavor can escape.”
She pushed her glasses down her nose so that she could look over the wire-rimmed frames at him. “That’s crazy,” she told him, “that would leave you trapped inside the bacon event horizon.”
“That’s where I want to be,” he said.
“All alone? Forever?”
“With bacon you’re never alone.”
“You’re insane.” She crossed her arms and shook her head. “But if that’s what you really want, I can’t stop you.”
“This is goodbye, then,” he said. “I’m gonna have me some bacon.”
He smiled and waved, then stepped into the giant Bacon Accelerator. There was a loud hum, a flash, then he was gone.