Dinner is Swerved

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic

Plimshaw Inc.
Part 1: Toast of the Town
Part 2: A Whole Brunch of Trouble
Part 3: Dinner is Swerved

Collectively referred to as "Plimshaw Inc.", I am considering either expanding these into a full-length novel or novellas, or possibly a graphic novel. What do you think?

Dinner is Swerved

(Toast of the Town Part 3)

 

Death and doughnuts. Both intertwined; a fatal fusion where I stand at the epicenter. Why me? What had I done to earn this living nightmare? In the beginning I thought I happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, but after repeated exposure to numerous bizarre events, I was beginning to suspect that it was more than that. So were the townspeople and the local news, who noticed that Mel and I were always at the center of those events. We were quickly becoming the local pariahs, with folks crossing the street to avoid us and looking away whenever we ventured close. My dark speculations would have to wait, however, there were far more pressing matters at hand.

“Welcome to What’s Your Beef?, would you like to try our new bacon flavored milkshake?”

The voice blared from the drive-through speaker, startling me so badly that I almost reflexively stomped on the gas pedal and rear-ended the car ahead of me in line.

“Bacon flavored what? Eww, hard pass, sweetie! Give me a number five combo with fries.” The abrasive voice from the speaker assaulted me again with the cost and instructions to pull forward to the second window, which I did happily, if only to escape the audio onslaught. Three minutes later, the headlights of my Geo Prism were cutting the chilly night air, winging back toward my hotel. The phone on the seat next to me rang, and I routed the call through the car’s audio system.

“Hey honey, how are you and the baby doing?” I asked.

Mel’s gruff voice sounded over the speakers. “Does this thing have an off switch? It screams more than your mother did when I signed her up for the Jenny Craig diet plan that one Christmas. And don’t even get me started on changing its diapers, Christ, I almost threw up all over this kid the first time.”

My temper began to flare. “Melvin H. Plimshaw, ‘It’ has a name, and if I hear you refer to him as an ‘It’ again, I will have my mother come over to stay and help you with ‘it’ for the rest of the week, so help me God!”

There was some surly grumbling on the other end before Mel said, “My bad. Murphy is doing fine; we’re playing together right now.” The sound of crinkling plastic followed a soft, moist slap. My husband laughed hysterically; Murphy began crying in the background. For a split second I was confused, but it did not take long to put two and two together.

“Mel, are you ‘Cheesing’ our baby?” More crinkling, but this time the plastic sounded different. Again, a soft, moist slap accompanied by Mel’s laughter and Murphy’s wailing.

“Um, no? I mean, strictly speaking, no. The uh, first time was a slice of cheese, but the second time I switched to a slice of bologna. The bologna sticks waaaay better, probably due to its clammier texture. Okay, now for the last one.” Mel grunted and I heard what sounded like a jar lid rolling around on a counter. A squishy –thwap!- later, Murphy was shrieking, and from the sound of it had pushed his little bowl and sippy cup off the highchair.

“Oh shit, I think I was supposed to use a sliced pickle, not a whole one. Makes sense now. The whole gherkin just bounces off his face.”

“WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?! WHY ARE YOU THROWING CHEESE, PICKLES, AND DELI MEAT AT OUR BABY?”

Pissed didn’t even begin to describe my feelings at that moment. I vomited a scorching verbal tirade at Mel that flayed his skin three shades whiter than it originally was. Not satisfied with his confused stuttering, my mouth spewed a torrent of molten fury which succeeded in neutering his vocal cords, rendering him mute. I hoped my tone conveyed the realization that our baby would be better off if we sent him to live with the Reverend Jim Jones along with a bottle of Kool-Aid rather than stay one more night with Melvin.

I banged my face against the steering wheel a few times to clear my head and silently cursed the COVID-19 pandemic. As a department store assistant manager, Mel’s job wasn’t considered essential, but as an RN, mine was, so he was the one who was staying at home with our five-month-old baby.

“Easy honey, I saw the ‘Cheesed Challenge’ on YouTube, and according to the experts, there aren’t any negative effects. Mostly. To be honest, I did not watch the whole video, but I got the general gist of the message. And our li’l Murph really seems to enjoy it! Except for the pickle, that was totally my bad. I should have used a bread and butter pickle slice instead of a whole Vlasic. I gotta say, I put a nice spin on it before it smacked him right between the eyes! If I’m not mistaken though, these are tears of joy coming from our little prince!”

“Well let me put a really nice spin on this, you moron:  I’ll show you an endless supply of ‘negative effects’, and I promise you won’t shed tears of joy if you continue to throw things at our baby’s face!” Melvin exercised his Fifth Amendment right for a few moments before deflecting.

“We both miss you honey; it sucks that you won’t be home until Friday night. I don’t understand why they can’t get someone else to go instead of you.” Mel sounded annoyed and inconvenienced, as opposed to a husband missing his wife. No doubt taking care of Murphy was pulling him away from playing video games online with his buddies.

“We already discussed this. Palm Beach was hit hard by the outbreak and is short on medical personnel. We’re only a couple of hours away, so it makes sense that I go. You and Murphy will be fine, and my mother is only a phone call away if you need anything. And please, do something about our front lawn, the HOA has been calling every other day to have you clean it up. From the street it looks like our house has been abandoned, the weeds are so tall and that dead tree lying across the front walk.”

“I’ve been working on it all day, I mean, in addition to taking care of the kid, er, our baby. It hasn’t been mowed yet, but I’m tinkering a bit and modifying the mower to get peak performance from it. You won’t recognize the yard when you get home, I promise!”

Sheesh, that’s exactly what I was worried about. I didn’t recognize our house after Mel disposed of the Abyssal Waffle, burning it down with twin Elon Musk flamethrowers. Our homeowner's insurance couldn’t take another hit like that.

“Just don’t destroy the house this ti-” I started to say, just as a dark figure lurched from the trees and staggered to a stop in the middle of the road. The brakes locked up as I crushed the pedal underfoot and yanked the steering wheel hard to the right. The Geo Prism slid off the shoulder of the road with a loud squeal, narrowly missing the slight form as the car spun almost ninety degrees on the gravel. When the dust settled, the headlights illuminated an old man down on his hands and knees, wheezing heavily. Mel’s voice was frantic over the phone. “What happened, are you okay?”

“I’m fine honey, but I’ll have to call you back in a few minutes.” I ended the call with Mel and collected my wits. Yanking the car door open I pulled up my face mask, grabbed the first aid kit on the seat next to me and sprinted back to the man in the road. “Sir, are you okay? I almost plowed into you! Do you need an ambulance?” My phone was in one hand ready to dial 911, the first aid kit was in the other. The man held his hand up, indicating that he needed a second to catch his breath. When the wheezing finally subsided, he slowly worked his way back to his feet, despite my insistence that he remain motionless on the ground. He assured me multiple times that he wasn’t injured, then asked that I help him over to my car. “I’m just old, is what’s wrong with me. Nothing is broken or damaged. I became disoriented out here in the dark and stumbled over a rock into the road. Fortunately, though, you didn’t hit me, so it all balances out in the end or will, I hope. That remains to be seen. How rude of me! Forgive my manners, my name is Richard. Richard Munslow. I’m sorry I almost caused you to crash!” I shook his hand but continued to support his frail body with my arm around his shoulders until he was seated in the Prism.

“Let me take you to the nearest hospital Mr. Munslow, so they can check you out and make sure everything is fine, okay?” Richard shook his head and smiled.

“Please call me Richard. No need for a hospital, the only thing injured is my dignity. And if you wouldn’t mind, could you please drop me off at my home instead? I only live a mile or so from here. If it’s not an inconvenience, of course.” My repeated recommendations for a hospital visit were met with stubborn resistance, until I finally gave in.

“Fine, it won’t be an inconvenience at all, Richard, but only on the condition that I stay with you for at least 30 minutes to monitor your condition and assure myself that you’re okay before I leave. If I don’t think you’re okay, I’m calling an ambulance. Deal?” Noticing the take-out bags from What’s Your Beef? on the back seat, Richard smiled and said, “Deal, as long as you allow me to feed you dinner. Something more substantial than that.” he motioned with his head toward the back seat. Typically, I wouldn’t drive a stranger home and stay for dinner, but the old man seemed harmless, and didn’t trigger my creep-meter. That, plus the pepper spray in my purse gave me confidence. Richard gave me directions to his house which I punched into my phone’s GPS, and soon we were on our way.

The drive to Richard’s house started quietly; my passenger insisted he would answer all my questions after we sat down for a hot meal. And then a curious thing happened. Hail began to pelt the Geo with an insistent fury; it sounded and felt as if we were caught in the middle of a meteor shower, but instead of rocks or icy chunks, my poor car was being bombarded by biscuits, and not the soft, flaky variety. No, these were dense hockey pucks that rocketed into my car with the force of a meteor swarm. The sound was deafening, an incessant hammering of Beelzebiscuits on metal that annoyed me worse than Melvin’s snoring, which, if I’m being completely honest, has made me consider putting a pillow over his face most nights while applying pressure. Richard, far from seeming disturbed by this strange turn of events, calmly looked over and loudly asked, “Rather odd, wouldn’t you say?”

“Meh. I’ve seen a whole lot worse, believe me! And they’re not trying to kill me, which is a plus!” The biscuits rained down harder; the windshield cracked, and fist-sized dents cratered the Geo’s hood. “I stand corrected, Richard.” The hailstorm was so intense that my visibility was reduced to a few feet in any direction. Driving over the biscuits piling up on the road felt as if we were four-wheeling over rocky terrain, and I was beginning to feel more than a little worried.

“Not much further now, around this bend on the right you’ll see a large oak tree with a white mailbox under it. My driveway is just past the tree. We’re almost there, Miriam, it will be fine.” Richard’s voice was so gentle and reassuring that I believed him for a second. The biscuit barrage then became so intense the roof above us started to buckle inward, and I don’t know which unsettled me more--the hailstorm or the fact that Richard knew my name without me having given it to him when we first met. Both concerns flew out the window when the car’s tires lost traction on Hell’s Hardtack and we careened off the road into the mailbox and oak tree. Instinctively I threw myself over Richard, pulling him down and covering him with my body as much as possible. The crash threw us both forward into the deploying airbags, which then propelled us backwards. The seatbelt strap cut painfully into my shoulder, and glass rained inward from the side windows. Biscuits hammered my back through the broken windshield, knocking the wind out of me. As quickly as the chaos erupted, it died to an eerie stillness, punctuated only by the chirp of crickets and the heavy smell of coolant. Weak light glowed from the dashboard, bathing the interior of the car in red, though how much of the red was blood had yet to be seen.

“Oh God--Richard? Please tell me you’re okay!” Groaning, I pulled myself off the diminutive form beneath me, shaking glass shards from my hair. With the back of my arm, I wiped blood from my eyes, which streamed from a nasty cut on my scalp. Nothing seemed broken, and a quick once-over revealed no body parts had detached themselves. Richard stirred in the seat next to me, slowly unfolding his body and sitting back against the seat. Carefully wiping broken glass from his clothing, he gave a soft chuckle and likewise checked to make sure everything was still attached. “This old carcass is still in one piece; trust me when I tell you it won’t be a car accident that did me in!” Richard’s body seemed to give off a dim blue glow that dissipated after a few seconds. I decided it was either a trick of the moonlight or shock was setting in.

“Well, on the plus side, we’re here! The storm has abated, so we can hobble to the house and clean up a bit before dinner.” While Richard spoke, I rummaged around the back seat for the first aid kit, wincing as I applied a bandage to my wound. Cleaning and disinfecting it would have to wait. Richard managed to work his crumpled door open and staggered out of the wrecked vehicle, and since my door refused all attempts at being peeled open, I followed suit. My car was clearly wrecked, I would have to call a tow truck and my insurance company as soon as we got inside. I didn’t want to risk being caught outside should another bread barrage start.

The house stood back 50 yards from the road, a small, neat cottage complete with a white picket fence and porch with a rocking chair.  Arms linked, we supported each other down the length of the driveway as the adrenalin faded and fatigue set in. In the absence of the carb-loaded cloudburst, the night was beautiful. Crickets chirped, the moon glazed the landscape in a white frosting of light, and the smell of baked bread permeated the crisp, fall air. “Maybe we should grab some of those and serve them with dinner.” mused my companion, gazing down at his bread-strewn front yard.

“After what we just went through? No thanks, I’m starting my Atkins diet today.” We reached the front door and Richard pulled a key out of his back pocket. After unlocking it, he flipped a light switch just inside the door and ushered me in.

Richard kept a tidy house, sparse and simply furnished. A round table with two wooden chairs stood in the center of the kitchen, covered with a blue linen tablecloth. The living room had a beige sofa and love seat with a rectangular coffee table between them. Heavy, cream-colored drapes adorned the windows, and save for a painting behind the couch of a young woman surrounded by four children, no other pictures graced the walls. I stopped in front of the picture while Richard moved around in the kitchen behind me.

“Your wife and children?” I asked. Richard stopped what he was doing, remaining silent for so long that I turned to see if he was okay. He stood immobile, gazing over my shoulder, transfixed by the picture.

“They were, yes.” His hand trembled, almost dropping the silverware he was holding. “All of them have long since passed through the gates of Heaven.”

“I’m so sorry Richard. They’re such a beautiful family, you have my condolences.”

“The Almighty saw fit to take them from me, as punishment for my sins.” he said in a low voice.

“Oh, I doubt you could have been that bad of a person for Him to do something like that!”

“Nevertheless,” he continued, “I have been judged and found lacking; everything has been taken from me. For my transgressions, I am to languish for eternity in Purgatory. Thus, I have dedicated my whole life to ensure that others would not bear the same fate as I, barred from the realm of Heaven. Since I am branded an irredeemable sinner, let me then bear the yoke of others’ sins to relieve them of their spiritual burdens that they may attain glory on high.” This conversation had taken a weird turn, but clearly the man was grieving for his family and after momentary reflection, I had to ask myself if this was any stranger than the rest of the night had been so far.

“So...are you some sort of priest, or a social worker? You seem like a really nice guy, Richard, I’m sure you’ll be reunited with your family when it’s your time. I’m not on board with that whole ‘Purgatory’ thing, so don’t you fret over it. Ooh, I need to call my insurance company, AAA, and my boss before it gets too late!”

My host snorted. “Priest? Nay, they condemn my ilk, most of them anyway. The Reverend Norman Morris was the exception, however. Come, let us break bread and talk further. We’re running short of time. You can make your calls afterward.”

I tried to insist on making the calls, but my host wouldn’t hear of it until after dinner, and I was starved. Richard motioned me over to the table, which bore two bowls filled halfway with amber liquid, a loaf of coarse sliced bread, and a small velvet pouch. Two place settings completed the ensemble. I plopped into one of the chairs, stubbing my toes on something under the table. “Oh, I’m so clumsy, I didn’t mean to kick you Richard!” My host winced momentarily as I started to lift the edge of the tablecloth and patted my hand in a reassuring manner. “No apologies necessary, Miriam. Say, would you mind serving the bread?” I had been closely observing Richard since entering the house, alert for any signs of trauma. Up until now he seemed fine, but now he looked nervous and agitated.

Dropping the tablecloth, I deposited a slice of bread on each of our plates and motioned toward the bowls. “What kind of soup are we having?” I asked, still observing his behavior.

“This is a tradition from the Old Country, my dear. The bowls contain ale, not soup.” Richard picked up the bowls and held one out. As I took it from him, I was happy to see that Richard’s hand was steady, both pupils looked normal, and he no longer displayed any signs of agitation.

“A toast, Miriam. To new beginnings for both of us!” Raising our bowls, we clinked them together and I took a sip of the ale.

“Not bad! I usually drink Bud Light, but I could get used to this stuff!”

Richard smiled at me across the table and motioned to the bread. “Please, tell me how my first attempt at baking bread turned out. I made it earlier today, and despite recent events, I’d like your opinion. Oh, but first, would you humor an old man and say a prayer first? It’s written on the slip of paper in here.” Richard slid the small pouch across the table to me. Reaching inside, I felt the paper, along with some coins and something small and rectangular. Thunder rumbled in the distance as I withdrew my hand, and unfolding the small square of parchment, I squinted to make out the handwriting. I cleared my throat and read:

“I give easement and rest now to thee, dear man. Come not down the lanes or in our meadows. And for thy peace, I pawn my own soul, Amen.” I munched on the warm bread as I spoke, savoring the texture and flavor. “Not bad! For your first time baking bread, I’d say you nailed it! The prayer, on the other hand is it another tradition from the Old Country?  Not very upbeat, in my opinion, it gives a ‘buh-bye and don’t come back now,’ kind of vibe.” Thunder pealed overhead, rattling the walls and windows, and I took another sip of ale.

“Miriam, I need to apologize. These ‘anomalies’ that happen around you and Melvin—neither of you are the catalyst. It’s me, I am the source of those anomalies, but since I have been shadowing you closely for quite some time now, they affect both of you as well. I’m sorry, but this is the only way I can rejoin my family. My soul cannot move on until a new vessel has been selected.” Richard’s spoke hurriedly. The bread was a dry lump in my throat as I forced myself to swallow.

“Selected for what, exactly? What’s happening here, and why on earth have you been watching us? Are you some sort of stalker or something?” Dread laced my voice and I rose quickly from my chair, knocking it over backward. Richard jumped up from his chair as well.

“We’re almost out of time Miriam, it’s all on the flash drive in the pouch. Suffice it to say, as the last Sin-Eater, my soul cannot move on burdened with the countless sins of others until a new candidate has been chosen. You are that candidate Miriam. If the legacy of Sin-Eaters does not continue, countless other sin-ridden dead will return to Earth in the form of ghosts, spirits, and as you have seen, manifestations of diabolical baked goods. My weakened soul bleeds out more sin with each passing moment, I cannot contain them much longer. Please Miriam, accept this burden that I might be reunited with my family and the world kept safe from evil.”

“Oh, Hell no! And why me? Mel seems better equipped to do this sort of thing. Look at how he handled that demonic waffle and the giant Danish, doesn’t that make him a shoo-in for the job?” I hated myself for sounding desperate, but I was. Battling baked goods on the daily had only until recently been a dietary choice. Fighting them to the death was another matter entirely.

“Let’s just say that your husband is, well, ‘deficient’ in his execution of judgement and decision-making capabilities. Refresh my memory on how he handled the situation when a pair of bats flew into your house through an open window?” I cringed inwardly remembering the incident.

I sighed. “Melvin strapped machetes to all of the ceiling fan blades in the house. Then, armed with two badminton rackets, he chased the bats around, finally swatting them into the spinning razor-edged fans. He finished with a truly horrific victory dance in the middle of the living room wearing only his Fruit-of-the-Looms. It took me two weeks to get the blood and gore from the walls and carpet, and now those tighty whities are his favorite pair of briefs. They’re almost impossible to peel off him when it’s time to do the laundry. I honestly can’t remember the last time I saw them in the wash, which is almost scarier than that bat incident.”

Richard smiled and pressed on. “Uh-huh. And Mel had a beautiful vegetable garden planted in the back yard until the deer, rabbits, and other adorable denizens of the woodland behind your property discovered that it was their free take-out service. Mel handled that using somewhat unconventional methods. Humor an old man, and please recount the events of what turned out to be an incredibly tragic summer?” Sweet baby Jesus: that was one summer I did not want to remember, ever.

“Please Miriam, it is imperative that you understand why I’ve selected you.”

“I still don’t understand exactly what I’ve been selected for!” I snapped back. This scrutiny of my personal life and the assumptions upon my availability for whatever task was necessary for me to undertake were beginning to wear thin, but I answered Richard.

“Fine, if you must know, Mel had spent a lot of time and effort on that garden, and when the local wildlife started to eat his crops, my husband rigged the sprinkler systems with pressurized napalm, motion sensors, and crème brulee torches. The screams of those animals being coated with flaming gel was horrifying, and the smell of burnt flesh lingered for months, but no animals ever ventured onto our property after that. Mel still refers to it as ‘Operation Blistered Badger’ and insists the collateral damage to his garden was worth the body count and the neighbors never speaking to us again.”

“I saw drone footage of the whole ordeal from one of your neighbors on YouTube. I imagine if Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez collaborated on a remake of Bambi, it would still be tame in comparison to what transpired in your back yard last July.” Richard’s thin frame shuddered with the recollection.  “Miriam, I want you to know that I took no pleasure in naming you my successor as the last Sin-Eater and relinquishing my duties to you, but it was absolutely necessary. I died 114 years ago, yet my spirit has been shackled to this world since then. I am finally free to join my family, and countless tragedies will be diverted and lives saved through your efforts. This selfless sacrifice on your part made it possible, and I thank you. Take the pouch and look at the files on the flash drive, you’ll want to keep the monthly quota in mind lest you experience ‘sin bleed out’, which you’ve already experienced these past six months. It will only get worse as the missed quotas build up. Oh, and don’t forget to log in your Sin-Eating tally, it’s the only way that money will be deposited into your bank account. Organization and accurate record keeping will be the keys to your success.”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, mister! I didn’t agree to this, I’m an RN! I can barely schedule anything in now, what with my workload being so crazy, plus a newborn and a man-child for a husband. You’ll just have to find somebody else!” Richard exhaled and sank back into his chair. His body briefly glowed light blue then deflated like a balloon, yet his voice continued to speak softly from everywhere and nowhere:

“Ah, but you have agreed. The bread, the ale, the prayer spoken over my body. You have been paid, and I am absolved…” and then he was gone. Completely. As in, one minute he was sitting across from me albeit deflated, and the next the chair was empty. Did he slide underneath the table? I ripped the tablecloth off in one smooth movement, leaving everything on it undisturbed, then screamed. Underneath the glass tabletop was a child sized coffin, sans the lid. Crammed unceremoniously into the coffin was Richard’s body, the real one. From the looks of it, he had been dead for a long time. Personally, I might have purchased a longer table so that I could fit a full-size coffin under it, thus sparing myself the indignity of being folded like a human pretzel into such a small space, but hey, he wasn’t a large man to begin with. Or maybe he landed a sweet Groupon deal on the fun-size model. My head was spinning, I was confused and scared. What was going on here and what was this all about? I grabbed the pouch from the table, collected my purse and staggered out of the house. The fog in my brain was intensifying and I couldn’t think straight. The cool night air would clear my brain and my laptop was in the back seat of the ruined Geo Prism. If it was still in one piece and functional, maybe the flash drive would offer some answers. What wasn’t functional was my head. No sooner had I reached the Geo, than my legs buckled and my vision blurred. This isn’t so bad! I thought to myself on the way to meet the ground, I’ll just take a short rest and process everything that’s happened so far. Velvety darkness surrounded me while the crickets serenaded me to sleep.

The sunrise was glorious, splashing swashes of red, orange, and yellow across the horizon. Wait—sunrise?! Holy Mother of God, had I really fallen asleep or passed out? Mel would be worried sick about me, and I needed to get my car out of here so no one would think I was the one who killed Richard! Rummaging through the back seat of the Geo, I found my laptop

and plopped it on the back trunk. Next, I emptied the contents of the pouch next to it. The flash drive was there, along with an old coin. To my relief, the laptop powered on although the screen was cracked. Plugging the small drive into a USB port, I fished my cellphone out of my purse and dialed AAA to have them tow my car, then called my husband.

“Jesus, where have you been? You said you were gonna call me back in a few minutes and that was 12 hours ago!” Mel sounded annoyed.

“Well, um, where to begin...” I started. “First of all, I’m okay, thank you for asking. I hope the same can be said for our little angel, how is he doing by the way? Oh, and I’m having some minor car issues. I’m fine physically, but I can’t say the same for the car. I lost control in a freak storm, and I do mean ‘freak’ storm, and dented the front end just a tiny bit. I don’t think I’ll be able to drive it out of here, so I’ll have AAA tow it back to the house. I just texted my boss and told her I wasn’t going to make it in to work anytime soon because of this teensy-weensy little fender-bender, and she said she’d get my shift covered. Um, so yeah, it seems I’ve also been recruited into the ranks of Sin-Eaters Anonymous, which might cut into my free time from here on out. More on that later though.”

“Glad you’re okay honey! Murphy is fine, and your mother swung by to check on us and decided to stay for the weekend. I’m also doing fine, thank you for asking. Did you send that battle-axe over to punish me for the cheesing thing or because I strapped Murph’s baby carrier to the ceiling fan and made him a carnival swing ride? And what did you say about eating? I’ve got a bottle suspended from a small tripod over Murphy’s head right now, so he’s eating and relaxing at the same time! I was thinking about taking it on Shark Tank to see if I could get an investor, this thing is genius--hands-free baby feeding! And with me being laid off yesterday, we could sure use the money!” My phone made a beeping sound indicating an incoming message. I pulled the phone away from my ear and saw that AAA was only 15 minutes away.

“Wait, I didn’t get those last few parts Mel? I’m sure I didn’t hear that clearly; our signal is breaking up. What was that about the ceiling fan, and being laid off? Are you making static noises with your voice to cover up that last part and get me off the line? I swear, if you hang up on me, I will reach through this phone and beat your ass twelve ways to Sunday!” The line went dead, and I almost felt bad for yelling at Mel. Almost, mind you. Thunder crashed overhead, and lightning streaked the sky with jagged bolts of white. My laptop screen was cycling rapidly through web pages on its own, a victim of the storm perhaps, which might also account for my phone’s current state. And while the line going dead probably hadn’t been his fault, I still questioned my husband’s parenting choices sometimes.

A sharp crack sounded behind me, launching my frazzled body three feet off the ground. Steeling my nerves, I turned to behold whatever spectacle played out behind me. Had a lightning stroke touch down, or perhaps a tree branch snapped off under the previous withering barrage of biscuits? Oh, that I should be so lucky!

No, a yawning black pit stretched across the lot where Richard’s quaint house once stood, expelling a fetid miasma that wafted heavily over the surrounding landscape. A vile blanket of stench, indescribable save that it bore the taint of corruption and evil dating back to the dawn of time washed over me; knees weak, I dropped to the ground, adding the contents of my churning stomach into the mix. I dragged the back of my hand across my mouth and regained my feet, still woozy from the awful smell. Grabbing the laptop and my purse from where they sat on the trunk of the Geo, I moved across the street to a spot where the stench hadn’t reached and plopped down under a tree. The laptop had ceased its erratic behavior, so I accessed the flash drive and saw a folder named Sin-Eating for Dummies. Richard had a sense of humor, it seemed. I clicked the folder and saw three sub folders:

 

  • Sin-Eating: A Brief History
  • Timekeeping
  • Sin-Eating Instruction Manual

 

The gaping portal to Hell looked peaceful enough at this moment, exuding a cloud of stomach-wrenching putrescence which discolored the air above and around it, so I opened the first sub folder. Indeed, the history of sin-eating lay within, including the whys, wherefores, and how’s.

COVID-19, it seemed, had increased the importance of Sin-Eating exponentially. With the nationwide lockdown in effect, there would be no one to administer Last Rites to the dying, nor would anyone be able to able to purify the souls of any babies who died unbaptized. Everyone was ordered to ‘shelter in place’ and self-quarantine, isolating themselves from the world around them. Sick family member in the hospital? Your chances of visiting them are zero. Elderly people on the cusp of death in nursing homes? Say goodbye on Zoom, that’s as close as you’re going to get, assuming they can even navigate Zoom. The dead were on their own.

The Sin-Eater, however, was being paid to absorb the sins of the deceased to ensure their ability to enter heaven, and to that end were duty-bound to clandestinely take whatever means were necessary to fulfill the covenant. Legal repercussions were solely the responsibility of the individual undertaking the contract, so discretion was required. Toward the end of the article, I was surprised to see Richard Munslow’s name mentioned. Huh, the old guy wasn’t kidding, he really was the last Sin-Eater and had died in 1906. I felt a little less guilty about almost running him down and banging him up when I tangled with that tree; I mean, if he was already dead, how much more damage could I have done to him?

I opened the Timekeeping subfolder next, which contained information regarding payment (consisting of a flat fee modified by travel expenses and other criteria including, but no limited to degree of difficulty and legal ramifications). I was pleasantly surprised to read the terms and conditions.  Glossing over the monthly quota and consequences for not meeting them, I scanned the file until my eyes hit solid numbers.  “Oh my, that’s a nice chunk of change, and wired straight to our bank account even!” I exclaimed aloud to no one in particular. Momma was going to give the Amazon driver some overtime and job security in the near future, it appeared. Also included were links to the Sin-Eater Online Network (had Richard deputized other Sin-Eaters as well and if so, why did he still need me?) and timekeeping/quota spreadsheets. The old fellow seemed to have it all figured out, which was both a blessing and a curse. How I was going to work this unwanted gig in around my other job wouldn’t be easy, but it would be necessary to keep paying the bills, since Mel was now officially unemployed. Oh, and I suppose sparing humanity from the wrath of sin overload was also a good reason. It was time for a woman to step in and clean up the mess made by mankind!

The Instruction Manual was brief, outlining the ritual from the payment to setup to prayer, including regional variations, acceptable modifications, and acceptable creative deviations. After briefly scanning it, I ejected the flash drive and stuffed it in my pocket.

I leaned back against the tree and inhaled a deep breath. The whole sin-eating thing was going to drastically change my life, but I wasn’t sure if it would be for better or worse. Exhaling slowly, I was relieved when a AAA flatbed tow truck rolled up and parked behind my demolished car. Mel and I would be having a serious talk later, after my demolished car was taken care of.

“Hi, I’m Chuck!” the driver stepped out of his truck, waving as he crossed the distance between us. “What in tarnation happened here?” he asked, wide-eyed as he stared at a sea of biscuits carpeting the landscape and the gaping chasm beyond the wreck of my car. Chuck was a grizzly bear of a man, large in stature, with a beard falling past his chest. His eyes and smile were open and honest, up until he blanched at his surroundings and looked, quite frankly, scared.

“No clue! I was driving to work, it started to hail dinner rolls, then after I lost control of my car and hit the tree, that big hole opened up.” My explanation was basically the truth, omitting why the two phenomena occurred. I doubted he would believe me even if I told him why. Chuck grunted, eyed the pit suspiciously, and began pulling a cable from the back of his truck.

“I don’t like the looks of that,” he spit on the ground and motioned toward the pit with his head. “Let’s get your car loaded up and get ourselves out of here lickety-split. I can drop you somewhere, since you won’t be driving this thing any time soon.” He proceeded to hook the cable under my car and adjusted a couple of levers on his tow truck to account for the slack in the line. While he was doing that a car pulled up, and Mel stepped out, grabbing a large duffel bag from the back seat. He waved the driver off and turned to me.

“You Lyfted all this way? What are you doing here Mel, who’s watching our baby, and how much did that Lyft just cost us?” My husband noticed me eying the bag over his shoulder.

“No, Miriam, I didn’t stuff our baby in this bag, although in the spirit of complete honesty I did briefly consider it. If his diaper had leaked while he was in here, I’d never be able to get the smell of pee and poop out of the bag, so I asked your mother to watch Murphy while I came out and checked on you. I got worried and had a bad feeling in my gut after our last phone call. At first, I thought it was just gas; you know what dairy does to me, one glass of milk and I’m crapping cottage cheese for a week. But I had a nagging feeling that something wasn’t right, so here I am!” Mel spread his arms to either side and stood beaming. Looking at the bandage on my head, then at the unnatural surroundings, he gave a low whistle. “And I was right. Geez, honey, looks like you’re having a bad night. You okay?” I hugged him tightly, happy and reassured now that he was here.

“I’m doing fine, but we have a lot to talk about when we get home.”  The discussion about Sin-Eating, Mel’s unemployment, and the application of deli goods to our baby’s face needed to wait until I had a few glasses of wine in me. I started to ask Mel what was in the duffel bag, when a bus pulled up suddenly. Sunshine State of Mind Tours was plastered along both sides, and no sooner had the bus stopped then dozens of people began streaming through the open doors. Half of them milled about, marveling at the carpet of dinner rolls, while the other half wandered over to the edge of the foul-smelling abyss. Very few were wearing masks, but besides a few crinkled noses, no one seemed bothered by the putrid stench wafting from the chasm. Probably because they all have COVID-19 and lost their sense of smell. I thought to myself.

“I wouldn’t get too close!” I yelled to the crowd, attempting to usher them back from the yawning portal. People can be stupid, and these folks were no exception. No matter how hard I tried to impress upon them that it wasn’t safe, nor was this a tourist attraction, none of them paid me any heed. Phones appeared, snapping pictures and taking video as the gawkers talked amongst themselves, speculating as to what they were witnessing. Mel shrugged and shook his head in disgust, then I saw his head jerk to the side as he looked over his shoulder. “Oh crap!” he muttered. Yet another bus pulled up next to the first one, this one sporting a logo showing a little girl in a wheelchair with the words One Last Wish over her.

“What the heck is this, Miriam?” Mel asked me.

Wincing, I answered him. “These are sick children Mel. I mean, really, really, sick. As in, terminal. One Last Wish takes them around and fulfills a wish for each of them before they die.”

Something was happening at the edge of the pit. The crowd was cooing with delight and crowding together closer to the edge.

“OMG, they’re adorable!” I heard a teenage girl yell.

“Mel, tell the bus driver not to let any of those children off the bus, I have a bad feeling about this!” Mel nodded and hurried off. I pushed my way through the crowd toward the pit, and as I got closer, I saw what had captivated the onlookers. Three panda cubs had crawled over the lip of the chasm, rolling around, looking adorable as only baby pandas can. Small children materialized near me at the front of the crowd, some with crutches, others in wheelchairs, some with their bald heads covered with baseball caps or hats, and I felt my blood boiling. Mel had one job, one job, and he couldn’t even do it correctly. That’s what you get sending a man to do a woman’s job, I suppose. “Get back, it’s too dangerous here!” I yelled at the crowd, using my ‘mom arms’ to keep the children from getting too close. The throng of tourists surged forward, completely ignoring me to get closer to the small cubs.

“MELVIN PLIMSHAW!” My cry was lost amidst a sea of loud voices, each vying to be heard above the others. Chuck pushed through a tight knot of men directly in front of me, frustration etched across his face.  

“Look, I truly sympathize with your predicament here ma’am, but I had to undo the tow cable There’s just too many people in the way for me to get your car up on the bed of my truck, and if one of them trips and hurts themselves, my company would be looking at a lawsuit and I’ll most likely git fired.” Chuck spit off to one side and continued. “I can wait around here for another ten minutes or so, but then I have to skedaddle. Boss-man is breathing down my neck to move on to the next call.”

A red haze settled over my vision. Slowly I inhaled, taking a deep breath that would serve as the catalyst for what would surely be an Extinction Level verbal beatdown on all biological matter within a two-mile radius. My lips and teeth parted, ready to disgorge the black, roiling violence building like a tempest inside my body, and then -Poof!- it disappeared, replaced instead by a cold, knot of fear in the pit of my stomach. The crowd parted enough for me to see Mel, fumbling with his duffel bag where he stood near the edge of the pit, just a few feet away from the panda cubs.

Something was wrong, and I gasped in horror as my gaze shifted past Mel to the young man standing to his left. One of the panda cubs had climbed up the twenty-something’s back, then chewed a bloody hole in the back of his head and was wearing the man’s head as a mask. The abomination also plunged its stubby little arms into the poor guy’s shoulders, controlling the torso as if the man were a giant meat puppet. The crowd hadn’t noticed the demon-puppet’s jerky, erratic movements, even when its flailing arms pushed a woman into the pit. Mel was strapping whatever he had pulled from his duffel bag onto his harms, and legs, then shrugged on a harness. There were plastic canisters running up his legs and arms, with two more on his back and chest. All of them were interconnected with vacuum cleaner tubing. He was holding a strange contraption that looked like some sort of rifle with a bunch of barrels set in concentric rings. Mel was down on one knee, manipulating a few small switches on the underside of whatever the gizmo was that he was holding when I ran up to him.

“Mel, why do you have a dozen Diaper Genies strapped to your body, and are those hoses from my vacuum cleaner?” Mel glanced over at the still-flailing baby panda-boy hybrid, then up at me.

“Hey, Sunshine! Uh, so I wasn’t entirely truthful about tinkering with the lawn mower, and yes, but I can reconnect whichever hoses don’t melt to your vacuum. I was working on this!” Mel stood and thrust his gun whatchamajiggy into the air, beaming like a proud father.

“And what, pray tell, is that exactly?

“This, my dear, is a rotary-barrel tee shirt cannon capable of unleashing 30 flaming diapers in six seconds! I’ve been saving all Murphy’s dirty diapers since he was born for just such an occasion. My nethers get all tingly every time I touch this thing!”

“It’s a good thing then, because that’s the only thing you’ll be touching if you don’t put my Hoover back together, and I’ll wager that tingly feeling is going to go away quickly when I find out how much you spent on all those Diaper Genies!” My withering gaze settled on a spot between my husband’s eyes. If I concentrated hard enough and focused my anger, perhaps I could burn his prefrontal cortex to a crisp, lobotomizing him to a childlike state where he’d be easier for me to control. Abort! Abort! He’s already a giant man-child, you might make him even worse! The fantasy crumbled, bringing me back to reality. The smile left my face when I saw what was happening along the edge of the smoldering fissure. “Mel!” I yelled, pointing over his shoulder. Mel whirled and dropped to one knee, pulling the trigger on his cannon. -Foomp!- A flaming ball of dirty diaper flew from one of the barrels and struck the closest panda square in the face. With a hideous shriek, the cub thrashed about blindly, head completely engulfed in flames. I casually sauntered over to the pain-crazed creature, then hip-checked it over the edge of the chasm, trying to be discreet. If a video of me pushing a baby panda tiki torch over a cliff went viral, it might not bode well for my nursing career. That effort was wasted, however.

“That crazy guy just set a baby panda on fire, get him before he kills the other two!” someone in the crowd shouted. Screams split the air, and while half the crowd ran around like chickens with their heads cut off, a large group of them converged on Mel.

“Miriam, get those gimpy kids on the bus, I’ll handle this!” The crowd was in full-blown panic mode, and I watched helplessly as two people were accidentally shoved into the fetid abyss by fear-crazed tourists.

“On it!” I told him. Mel flipped a lever and began lobbing dirty diapers at the group of men and women rushing to overtake him. The barrels spun up with a whirring sound, then began spitting white (and brownish green) destruction. I gave a small sigh of relief that he had disabled the ‘flaming diaper’ mode, but the fermented, small projectiles seemed just as effective. Wherever they hit they stuck, driving the recipients to their knees in a gagging, retching fit of spasms. Dozens fell before the onslaught of fecal obliteration, making it easier for me to wend my way between the fallen bodies as I corralled the children back on to the One Last Wish bus. It only took a few minutes to do so, but as the last child was ushered into the bus, I noticed that the sound of the tee shirt cannon had stopped. No doubt Mel was working the crowd with some other gadget he had put together in our garage.

“Wait here! I called up to the driver, only to see that the seat was empty. Crap, they were probably out in the crowd too. Climbing into the bus I faced the scared children. “Everyone, stay seated, I’m going to go find your driver and get you kids out of here, everything will be fine!” 

A few adults had made their way back to the bus, chaperones for the children, and after getting the name and a brief description of the driver I plunged back into the stampeding mass of people to find him. The panda-boy hybrid was dragging those closest to him to the edge of the pit then throwing them in; I shuddered to think how many it had killed so far. An older man in the crowd was cradling the remaining panda cub in his arms, wandering out of sight through the crowd, and I made a mental note to find him and the small, furry, black and white demon he was holding later. Right now, I had to find the bus driver, then Mel, to help him get the rest of these people out of here. Mel and I found each other first, or rather, I found him squirming from underneath a writhing dogpile of angry people. His tee-shirt cannon and prosthetic legs had become detached, presumably somewhere at the bottom of Mob Mountain, and he looked up gratefully as I grabbed him by the back of his belt and hauled him clear of the fray. “I had it under control!” he insisted, sounding almost hurt.

“Uh-huh.” I grunted, lugging him over to the wreck of my Geo where we both plopped down and caught our breath. “I have to find the bus driver for the kids’ bus, then we need to get all of these people out of here, Mel.”

“Look honey, I’m no use to you without my legs right now, so take me over to the One Last Wish bus and I’ll drive it out of here myself. There’s a couple of golf clubs in the back of the Geo that I can use to manipulate the gas and the brake pedals. You’ll have to round up the rest of those people since they’re unhappy that I char-broiled that panda. And maybe you should drive the other bus, since I saw that driver decapitated a few minutes ago.” I nodded in agreement and added:

“Is that really a good idea, you driving a bus with golf clubs? I’m sure we can find someone else to do it.” I asked, opening the trunk of the Geo and handing Mel his golf bag.

“No, look at these people, they’re either hysterical or angry beyond reason. I wouldn’t trust them to tie their own shoes. He pulled a couple of clubs from the bag and held one out for me to see.

“Besides, that’s why they call this one a ‘driver’, honey!” he said with a smile. Groaning inwardly, I took the two golf clubs he extended to me, then grabbed him by the back of the belt with my other hand and hoisted him off the ground. “Relax! If I can take out Satan’s Waffle and a Death Danish, I can certainly drive a bus while legless!” I lumbered through the crowd, headed for the One Last Wish bus, and glanced over toward the gaping chasm.

“Mel, that guy with the panda stuck into his back needs to be stopped, he’s on a killing rampage!”

“After I’ve moved the bus away from here a short distance we can come back and take care of the scare bear. I’m going to refer to it as a ‘Manda’ from now on Miriam; part man, part panda. I’ve been thinking about what to call it for a while now and just figured it out. Sounds pretty cool, huh? Feel free to use it from now on when referencing that beast.” I smacked the back of his head.

That’s been your biggest concern, what to call it?” I looked at my husband in disbelief.

Mel shook his head and said, “Not entirely. I’ve also spent some time thinking about where we should eat dinner when this is all over. I’m starved!”

By the time we reached the bus, I was completely winded. Mel didn’t seem to weigh any less without his legs, and my back was feeling it. I threw him up into the driver’s seat and handed him the golf clubs.

“We’re going to move you away from here to a safe spot!” I reassured the children who, remarkably, were taking this whole thing better than most of the adults.

Luck was on our side; the driver had left the keys in the ignition. Lady Luck was also a dirty, filthy whore, because when Mel turned the keys in the ignition, nothing happened. Muttering under his breath, stared through the windshield for a few moments before saying, “Change of plans. Honey, I’m going to need you to run and grab the line from that tow truck and bring it back here. I’ll hook it up and steer the bus while you pull us out of here using the tow vehicle. It will be safer than unloading and reloading all the kids onto that other bus, and we’ll still come back for the rest of these idiots. Those still alive, that is.” I nodded and exited the bus while my husband lowered himself from the seat and slowly stumped his way down the stairs behind me. I dragged Mel around to the front bumper and ran for the tow line. The Manda was wreaking bloody havoc among the tourists, tearing limbs off, crushing skulls like overripe melons, and biting huge chunks of bloody flesh from them. A few brave individuals tried to overpower it, but the demonic creature was too strong. A violent, bloody death awaited any foolish enough to approach it. To make matters even worse, the panda that Mel had set on fire and I had booty bumped into the abyss was clambering out of the rift, its head a twisted, charred lump of flesh. This didn’t seem to be a handicap, as it swiftly began running through the crowd, hamstringing men, women, and children with its razor-sharp claws, then dragging the crippled unfortunates over to the edge before pushing them in. Every time one of them went shrieking into the foul-smelling void, a small creature clambered out of the pit. The blocky, rectangular critters were brown with a thin white stripe running around their rectangular bodies, sporting six segmented legs each. One would easily fit in the palm of a hand, were it not for a nasty fang-laden mouths rabidly latching on to anyone unfortunate enough to wander too close. Hurdling bodies and dodging demons, I reached the tow cable, grabbed it, and ran. One of the pint-sized demons threw itself onto my back and bit my shoulder. “Ow!” I tore the creature off and crushed it in my hand, looking down at the gooey mess while making a beeline for Mel. “Well doesn’t that just figure!” I laughed and threw the mangled creature down. Blood stained my shirt, but I ignored the pain and kept running until I reached the bus. I would bind the wound if I ever found my first aid kit again.

“You okay?” Mel asked, noticing the blood. Doubled over and wheezing from exhaustion, I wordlessly handed him the tow cable and gave him a thumbs up. Mel took the end of the cable and scooted under the front of the bus, securing the hook. “Ready to roll!” he proclaimed, pulling himself back up to the front bumper. I tucked Mel under one arm and entered the bus, plopping him in the driver’s seat. Mel put the bus in neutral and I kissed him before turning to leave the bus. He might be a knucklehead most of the time, but he was my knucklehead, and if we couldn’t pull this off, it might be the last time we saw each other.

“I think I’ll call that burning bear ‘Pyro Pooh’. Oh, and be careful honey!” he said before I started down the bus stairs. Yup, total knucklehead. I froze midturn, eyes wide.

“No, no, no! Mel, we have to do something!” Mel followed my gaze out the front windshield to the lip of the pit and he groaned. The Manda, as Mel referred to it, had cornered a young couple and their child up against the tow truck. Clearly it suffered from a case of ‘roid-rage: the once diminutive cub had now grown to the size of a Ford Focus, gnarled all over with rippling sinews. It swiped at the family with one wicked claw and missed. With a shriek of tearing metal, the claw sunk into the side of the tow truck. Ducking under the other claw, the family ran while the Manda struggled to free itself. Bracing both feet against the vehicle’s door and pulling with all its might, the Manda managed to jerk the stuck appendage free, pushing the tow truck precariously close to the edge of the chasm. The family, meanwhile, managed to run straight into the open arms of the Pyro Pooh, which had been approaching from the other direction. The igneous ursid had quintupled in size, towering above the petrified family. Raising both claws, it prepared to simultaneously disembowel and behead them all with two precision blows. “NOT ON MY WATCH, MISTER!” my voice boomed across the distance separating us at a decibel I usually reserved for Mel when he wasn’t paying attention or was daydreaming about whatever went on inside that head of his. Both panda’s heads jerked to face me, buying the trio between them a few more moments of life.

“Mel, I’m sorry, but we’re going to have to pull off a Big Lebowski, they’re too far away for anything else!” Mel began to whine, and I didn’t blame him, he knew what was coming.

“Miriam, I only did that because I got our team kicked out of the league and thought it would make them less angry. This will never work!” It hadn’t fixed anything then; they had kicked Mel off the team, but with a little bit of luck and skill it might fix our current dilemma. Roughly twelve feet separated Pyro Pooh and Manda, who were both around 65 feet from Mel and me.

“Yea, well you know, that’s just like, uh, your opinion, man!” I told him. Grabbing Mel by the belt, I jumped out of the bus and started jogging toward the pair of pandemonium pandas.

“This aggression will not stand, Miriam!” he yelled up to me.

Between gritted teeth I said, “I’ll forgive what you did to my Hoover. You know how much I loved that vacuum cleaner!” Mel grumbled a bit more before wrapping his arms around his leg stumps and compressing himself into a ball shape.

“Fine, the Dude abides.” Mel resigned himself to his fate, and just in time. The two demons began to turn their attention back to the diminutive trio quaking before them.

“HEY BOZOS—NOBODY MESSES WITH THE JESUS!” I took three running steps while pulling the arm carrying Mel back and let my husband fly. Like a human bowling ball, Mel rolled across the ground, picking up speed from the slight downhill slope. I could hear him cursing the entire way, but he continued to tear across the ground toward the pandas. Offended at being dubbed bozos, both demons turned to face me and took a couple of steps in my direction. Neither one noticed Mel, who had taken the opportunity to thrust both arms out to flip them double birdies. And here I accused him of not being able to multitask.

“LOOKS LIKE A 7-10 SPLIT HONEY!” I shouted to Mel’s rolling figure. He stopped flipping the bird with one hand and gave me a thumbs-up. Three seconds later the human bowling ball hit the pins; Mel’s hurtling torso slammed into Pyro Panda’s legs, audibly snapping them at the knees before catapulting the Hell spawn down into the pit from whence it came. Mel’s balled-up body changed direction and continued its course of destruction, ricocheting laterally into the Manda. The monster’s ribs crunched under the impact, flinging the bewildered beast into the tow truck. Metal crumpled and flesh tore, splashing copious amounts of greenish blood everywhere, yet the abomination managed to regain its footing immediately. My husband’s momentum carried him into the Manda’s broken frame again, this time clipping its shoulder. Manda soared into the empty expanse of the abyss to join his brother venting a shriek of rage that seemed to go on forever.

The family of three bolted after Mel knocked Pyro Pooh out of the game, and I prayed they were still alive somewhere on this battlefield. Mel uncurled his form and leaned against the tow truck. “That’s how it’s done, baby! You just ‘wifed’ them off the face of the Earth!” he called over to me, banging the side of one fist against the tow truck for emphasis. The ground collapsed beneath the front tires, which were already precariously perched on the lip of the crevasse, and I gave a startled shriek when the tow truck disappeared into the Stygian darkness below. Mel had thrown himself to the side, away from the edge, but he didn’t realize the full scope of what was happening yet. The One Last Wish bus whooshed past us both, following the tow truck’s descent. Mel had attached the tow cable and put it in neutral; the last thing I saw before the bus went over the edge were the wide-eyed faces and little hands pushed up against rear window, faces contorted with silent screams before disappearing into foul darkness. I stared mutely. “Oh Mel, what have you done?!” Is this why they shun Soul Eaters? Not only because we absorb so much sin that we’re beyond redemption and are receptacles of all that is foul but also as a result of how we acquire those sins? Is the cost our humanity?   

Mel stood staring into the noxious void, muttering under his breath, “I didn’t mean for it to happen, it was an accident. We can still save them. I can fix this. It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. They were sick anyway, right? Already on their way ou-”

“Mel!” Only one word, but it cracked like a whip. He was losing it, and now was not the time. Mel swung his head around at the sound of my voice, eyes vacant, lower lip quivering. He looked deflated and beaten. Putting my hand on his shoulder I said, “They’re gone. All of them. Not just the children. Look around!” It was true, a handful of small brown demons were dragging the last of the tourists into the chasm. Blood, viscera, and the detritus of the once-living mob littered the ground. Mel turned away, eyes fixed on a spot somewhere in the distance, mumbling to himself once again. He was hurting, the guilt threatening to overtake him, yet I could think of no words to console him. I too, was finding it hard to cope with what had just happened.

A few yards away I spotted his prosthetics, bloodstained but otherwise undamaged. They were easy to spot without the writhing pile of angry men covering them. Scooping them up, I tucked them under my arm and headed over to Mel. He was now lying on his back, gazing into the endless expanse of sky above us. A rumbling issued from the fissure, growing in volume and intensity. The lip of the chasm crumbled beneath the Geo, sending it to join the tow truck and bus.

“Mel, it’s about to hit the fan, we have to go.” My husband remained unmoving, face devoid of any expression. Peeking over the edge, I could barely discern movement. Something was coming up the steep walls. A whole bunch of somethings, if my eyes didn’t deceive me.

“Mel! Come on, get up, it’s about to hit the fan!” Mel’s eyes found mine, and I could see that tears streaked his face.

“We have a baby. Those were somebody’s babies too. Push me over the edge, Miriam. Please, I deserve no less!” My suspicions were confirmed. Scores of small, brown, rectangular demons scuttled over the lip at the far end of the gorge, yet still Mel hadn’t moved. The roiling carpet of demons undulated slowly across the ground toward us, and I finally knew what to say. 

“Look, it happened. We can’t change that, Mel; we can’t bring them back or fix this. But there is something you can do, and we owe it to those children to try.” His eyes regained focus, and pushing himself up to a sitting position Mel asked, “What do I need to do?” I noticed he didn’t make eye contact with me as I helped him attach his prosthetics.

“This is a classic case of ‘sin bleed out’, we need to reach our quota and rebalance the scales.”

My husband cocked his head to one side. “Sin bleed out? Quota? What are you talking about Miriam?”

“Never mind, I’ll explain it later. What I need to know is this: are you hungry?” Mel’s interest level piqued.

“Starved. I skipped lunch on the way over here and I can feel my blood sugar is low. You know how I get when I’m hungry!” I did know, and I was counting on it.

“You get hangry, don’t you, honey? Your need for food all-consuming at that point, isn’t that right?” Mel’s breath turned ragged.

“Yes. Must.Find.Food.Now!” Mel was working himself into a frenzy. I pointed to the demons.

“This is your lucky day Sunshine. Those demons are Devil Dog snack cakes, with pretzel stick legs. I’ve seen you eat your body weight in one sitting of both. There isn’t a restaurant for miles, and we won’t be getting lunch anytime soon, so if you want to eat you know what you have to do. Avenge the children. Give ‘em Mel, baby!”

Funny, save for the fiendish food related attacks in the past year, Mel typically had the energy level of roadkill. Watching him spring into action now was intoxicating, despite our current circumstances and the destruction of my beloved Hoover vacuum cleaner. Bouncing to his feet, Mel waded into the oncoming horde, arms spread wide as if to embrace them all.

He was as a god among snack cakes; where his mighty orange Converse fell, Devil Dogs exploded into mushy goo, whatever was unfortunate enough to fall into his grasping hands was scooped up and jammed into his cavernous maw and masticated to a fine pulp. When he decided to chew of course. Mel had a bad habit of tearing off chunks of his food and swallowing them whole, like a shark, which served him fine right now. Throwing his head back, Mel roared a primordial battle cry that had echoed through the ages, the timeless Howl of the Hangry. Rooted to the spot, I watched him stomp and chomp his way slowly to the center of the pack, a towering inferno of violence with an appetite for destruction and refined sugar. Scores of demons were obliterated, Mel was to junk food what Godzilla was to Tokyo. Satan’s snack cakes clambered up his torso, covering him in a mountain of enraged chocolate cake, and my heart briefly caught in my throat. A fist punched upward, out of the spongy, cream-filled mound, followed by a resounding belch that quaked the landscape. Most of the Devil Dogs tumbled from Mel’s body lifeless; the ones lucky enough to still be in one piece scrambled for safety as far away from Mel as possible. Oh, he was a terror to behold, was my husband! His body was splattered from head to toe with chocolate cake, and his face was a death mask of cream filling and chocolate resembling a pastry chef’s version of a skull. Wild-eyed and beyond reason, Mel continued to rage, seeking and destroying any and all unholy confections that crossed his path, yet the remaining Devil Dogs had rallied and brought reinforcements. For every one Mel ate or annihilated, two more crawled out of the Hellhole.

“Ha! You’ve just been ‘double ampu-teabagged!” Mel yelled, summersaulting forward off his prosthetics and landing crotch-first on one of the tiny tasty-cakes. Then, gripping one detached leg in each hand, he spun in a tight, fast circle, executing a whirlwind attack that flung demons far and wide, splattering them against the surrounding landscape.

I bolted for the Sunshine State of Mind tour bus, hoping I’d find what I’d need. Despite the overwhelming odds, Mel was holding his own, but I knew it was only a matter of time before his strength flagged and he would be pulled under. We needed to end this fast, and I hoped against all odds I’d find what I needed on the bus. “Aha!” Frenzied rummaging through all of the personal belongings left on the bus had yielded a viable option. It wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, but the Sin Eating manual had allowed for some creative license with respect to taking care of business, so it would have to do. Hastily backtracking, I left the bus and ran back to Mel. He was clearly struggling, his face was etched with fatigue, every movement clearly draining whatever reserves were left. He managed to reattach his legs at some point, and the demons had withdrawn to a respectful distance, surrounding him with only one break in the ring: the edge of the chasm.

“Mel!” his head snapped to face me. “I need you to listen to me and repeat everything I say!” Mel cocked his head quizzically and shrugged. “Okay, but this seems like a bad time to hold open mic tryouts for spoken word, don’t you think?” The circle of Devil Dogs tightened around Mel, preparing to attack.

“Or a stand-up comedy routine, Chuckles, so quit yer yapping and pay attention!” To be fair, I doubted any time would be a good time for Mel’s stand-up comedy; most people didn’t think he was as funny as he insisted he was. And nothing about our situation was funny right now. Mephistopheles’ morsels launched their attack, throwing themselves at Mel.

“Say it, Mel: ‘I give easement and rest now to thee. Come not down the lanes or in our meadows. And for they peace, I pawn my own soul, Amen!’ Say it!”  The unholy wave of wickedness slammed into Mel, who, during the brief respite, had gotten his second wind. The crunching, squashing, tearing and noshing commenced on both sides. My spouse’s ability to inhale large quantities of junk food was always impressive, but damn, this approached ‘legendary’ status! Memory retention, even short-term, however, is not his forte, but after repeating the phrase three or four times, Mel finally got it. After ‘Amen’ left his mouth, I tossed him the juice box I had found in a cooler on the bus. “Catch!” I yelled. Mel caught the juice box with one hand without even turning to look at it. There was no need to tell him what to do, after tilting his head back, he crushed the grape juice container over his face, greedily gulping the contents. Mel was taken down to his knees by the sheer weight of the attack, struggling to regain his feet. Bloodied, battered, and bruised, he was forced to the ground again and again.

“One last time baby, you can do it! You have to do it—don’t leave me, Mel!” My voice cracked and I could feel hysteria setting in. The thought of losing Mel was too much. Fishing the small pouch that Richard had given me from my pocket and emptying the coins into my hand, I yelled again. “Once more, just once more Mel—catch!” I threw the coins into the mound of demons. Mel was no longer visible, covered by the goodies from Gehenna. I couldn’t tell if he was still alive or dead, and then it was all over. The demons were gone in the blink of an eye; there one minute, gone the next. Mel lay face down in a pool of his own blood, unmoving. His clothing was in tatters, with lacerations covering every inch of skin that I could see.

“No!” I ran to him, rolling him over so that his head lay cradled in my lap. Wiping the blood and snack cake remnants from his face, I sobbed uncontrollably, rocking backward and forward, my tears showering his face.

“Was this supposed to be my allowance for the week? ‘Cuz I gotta tell you, I can’t buy a cup of coffee with this.” Mel raised his arm and opened his hand, revealing the glistening coins I had thrown.

“You suck!” I flicked the tip of his nose with my finger. “I thought you were dead!” Stuck between laughing and crying, I ended up having a choking fit. Mel’s head fell from my lap and struck the ground.

“Ow! It sure feels like I’m almost there!” he groaned. He sat up and we both looked around us. The demons were gone, and so was the gaping portal to the nether world. Save for my trashed car, an abundance of biscuits and blood littering the ground, it was as if it never happened.

“Well, at least we still have a ride, let’s get out of here.” I said, helping Mel to his feet. He nodded, and slowly we worked our way to the bus. “There’s a first aid kit on board, let’s get you fixed up a little.” I said. Mel grunted his approval and plopped down into a seat while I attended to the worst of his wounds. He still looked like crap, but at least most of the bleeding had stopped. He tried to stand up, but I gently pushed him down. “I’ll drive, you get some rest.” The bus fired up at the first turn of the ignition, and I breathed a sigh of relief. “So, good news, bad news. Which one do you want to hear first?” I asked as we pulled away from the site of so much suffering. Driving the bus wasn’t too difficult, and the five or six mailboxes I flattened along the side of that desolate, country road were already in bad shape when I hit them. The mailperson, if not the owners, would at least appreciate my expediting the replacement of those sorry receptacles I hoped.

“Hit me with the good news.” Mel said.

“Well, the good news is that we stopped the forces of evil from overrunning the countryside, saving countless lives. Minus all the tourists and those sick children you sent to oblivion. Too soon? Sorry! And more good news—I remember you saying something about being laid off, but don’t you fret, I managed to secure a job for you!”

Mel winced at the mention of the children, then looked dubious. “And uh, what’s the bad news?”

Beaming radiantly, I told him, “You now work for me, I’m your new boss!”  Mel observed a moment of silence for his ‘unemployed’ status before asking, “And what is the nature of this job, exactly?” It was a long ride home, so I took the opportunity to explain everything Richard had told me to Mel, and then had him access the flash drive on my laptop.

“Tidy setup he has going here, although it’s a bummer for you, having to be a Soul Eater while resuming your nursing gig and taking care of a new baby. There aren’t enough hours in the day!” he said.

“You’re absolutely right, Mel! But I think there’s been a misunderstanding, honey. While I would certainly be happy to assist on the somewhat ‘trickier’ cases, this is all you. ALL you. As in, you don’t have a job and I already do, so suck it up, Buttercup! As your boss, I promise to be firm but fair. Even though we’re married, I will not allow nepotism to color my decisions. Just like our marriage, my word will be law, although I will entertain constructive input regarding our cases. Any questions?”

“Why do they assume food form when attacking us?” Mel asked.

“They befoul the Eucharist, and mock what we do as Sin Eaters.” I replied.

“Yeah, but that doesn’t explain why they were doing it before we were Sin Eaters, Miriam.”

“I suspect it was because of Richard Munslow’s proximity. He was shadowing us, sizing us up for the job and they knew, or at least suspected.” I told him.

“Well, at least I got a meal out of it!” Mel grumbled.

The next few miles were spent in silence, both of us wondering what the future would hold. Our reveries were interrupted by a loud -thud!- followed by a string of curses.

“Found the third panda!” Mel yelled.

Mother of Mary, I assumed it had disappeared with all the other demons! After the old man had run past me earlier carrying the baby panda, I had forgotten about them completely. He must have thought to hide in the bus, but I hadn’t seen either when we initially boarded.

“There’s also some guy under the seat too, or at least part of him!” Mel grunted, then it sounded as if a scuffle had commenced.

“Mel! Let me pull over so I can help!” I couldn’t see them in the rearview mirror, they must have been grappling under the seats.

“I got this, sweetness! Oh cool-I also found a pair of Mickey Mouse ears under here. Dibs!”

“You sure, Mel?” In answer, Mel slid out from under a seat, dragging his legs in one hand and a large, wet lump in the other.

“Yup! I used the intestines from that dead guy to wrap the little bear up. I think I’ll call him ‘Covert Cub’, ‘cuz he was hiding from us. Pretty good, huh?” Mel looked pleased with himself.

“It’s not a pet Mel. That thing isn’t going to live long enough to have a name, and if it did, it would be ‘Rubbish Cub’ because we’re gonna take him out with the trash, kapeesh?” A light on the dashboard blinked rapidly. “Oh poop, we need gas in a bad way. Or diesel, whatever this thing runs on.”

Mel pulled himself up into a seat and scanned the countryside beyond the road, Mickey Mouse ears perched jauntily on his head. The hog-tied panda struggled against its rubbery bindings, threatening to tear free at any moment. “Over there, Miriam, below us, a gas station!” To our left and right, steep, grassy slopes were visible, with our road winding down the hillside between them. The gas station was a few turns below us, and I figured we could always coast the distance if we ran out of fuel.

“I have an idea, but you’re not going to like it.” Mel said.

“So, this won’t be different from any of your other ideas…” I reflected.

“Hardee-har-har. Everyone’s a comedian! Look, I’m pretty sure it will get rid of this thing, but we need to act fast.” He nodded toward the demon cub, who had managed to free one of its legs. Reaching under the seat, Mel grabbed a handful of intestines. “There’s miles of this stuff under there!” he marveled. He wrapped more coils around the combative demon, then secured it to an upright handhold. Grabbing more fistfuls of viscera, he strung them across the aisle, securing the ends to the seats before recovering his prosthetics. Waddling to the back of the bus, he unhooked the safety latch and pushed it open an inch.

“Pull over and switch places with me.” I looked at him and raised an eyebrow.

“Is that really a good idea?” I asked.

“Nope! But then, most of them aren’t!” he quipped.

I pulled the bus over and we changed places. “Now, I need you to go lay on the other side of those guts I have stretched across the aisle like ropes. Rest the soles of your shoes on them and keep your arms folded in front of your head.”

“I love you Mel, but you want me to go lay face-first in the aisle while rubbing up against human entrails? God knows what’s on that bus floor, and those innards are moist and gross looking too!”

“No time to argue!” Mel started the bus back up and wedged his prosthetic legs so that they pushed down on the gas pedal. The bus lurched forward, picking up speed as we barreled down the road. Hurdling the stringy barricade of bowels, I threw myself face down, arms folded in front of my head and feet braced against intestinal ropes. I felt something grab my feet and pull.

“I got you babe. Brace yourself for impact!” Mel shouted.

“Brace for what? And why?” Mel’s weight came down on my back, and his fingers laced themselves in my hair. We shot forward down the aisle, crashing through the back door of the bus. My arms exploded with pain upon contact, and Mel had better hope they were broken because if they weren’t, I was going to whup his ass twelve ways to Sunday. Together we sling-shotted clear of the vehicle, sailing through the air over the edge of the hill. The bus continued at high speed in the other direction, plummeting off the road into the gas station below. A fireball shot skyward, followed by a deafening explosion.

“Demon down; I repeat, demon down!” Mel hooted with excitement. My level of enthusiasm was much lower. We touched down to earth, me screaming the entire way, Mel riding me like a boogie board. Sure, I should have been elated that the demon was gone and we were still alive, but after hitting the ground I found it difficult to appreciate the little things. Open mouthed from shrieking, I ate dirt, grass, bugs, and rocks in large quantities. And the fun didn’t stop there, no it didn’t! I continued to slide down the grassy slope headfirst, catching every tree, boulder, and bump on that hillside. A big part of me wondered if Mel was steering me into them by using my hair as reins. After the first few hundred yards I went numb to the pain, but not numb to the fact that Mel was having a good ol’ time land surfing. It crossed my mind that I could buck him off, but I simply didn’t have the strength or energy to do it, I was less a surfboard and more of a wet towel he was riding to glory on top of.

An eternity passed before we finally stopped at the bottom of the hill. Mel climbed off my back and rolled me over. “You still with me Miriam? Did you see that? We did it! That was awesome!” Through swollen eyes and a haze of dirt I glared daggers at him. “That gleam in your eye tells me you’re feeling the same thing! Ooh, here, let me help you with that!” Reaching over, he grabbed my nose and snapped it back into place. My howl of pain was stifled by his other arm pressing down on my face. “I don’t think it was supposed to be lying sideways across your cheek like that.” Groaning unintelligibly, I reached for his throat. Mel grasped my hands in his own and said, “I agree, honey. If you had slid the extra hundred yards or so, it would have been better. We would have landed in the parking lot of What’s Your Beef?, maybe even tobogganing into the drive-through! I’ll bet you’re as hungry as I am, aren’t you? Whataya say old girl, do you have it in you to go the extra mile? Sure you do-- that’s my little trooper!” He started to roll me back over on to my face, and while What’s Your Beef? doesn’t sell hot dogs nor are they a Subway, I still managed to put a foot long between Mel’s buns, with an extra helping of canvas and laces.

My husband was right about one thing; it would have been better if we had made it to the drive-through of What’s Your Beef?. I hadn’t eaten since yesterday and was starving, so I sent him ahead to order our food, nursing my sore foot after booting his tightly compressed torso  rolling head-over-stumps down the hill. Sounds harsh? Yea, well you know, that’s just like, uh, your opinion, man! I don’t’ think I went too hard on him. Destiny had chosen a new path for us both, and who knows what the future will hold for Plimshaw Inc., the two newest sweethearts of Sin Eating?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plimshaw Inc.

 

Plentiful sins and almost dead?

We’ll eat them with a side of bread!

 

 

Call now to book your free appointment:

1-800-CHEW-SIN (1-800-243-9746)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Submitted: April 16, 2021

© Copyright 2021 Zane Cray. All rights reserved.

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