14 min read


What if dying was the easy part and hanging on every day a bit harder? What if choosing to stay wasn't free? In this Fantasy Horror short, a small-town miracle worker teaches the living and the dead lessons they would prefer not to learn.
Photo by Jakob Owens / Unsplash


by Cody T Luff

I wasn’t supposed to, not for anyone, not even Sandy. But her dog got hit on the 85 and she was crying when she came into the gas station so I told her I would. Even though I wasn’t supposed to. Sandy and Bernice took me right to where it happened after I hung up the closed sign and shut off the pumps. Old Man Hallsey would be two kinds of pissed with me but Sandy needed me and so I had to.

Something big had hit poor Kevin. I don’t know breeds, all I know is that Kevin was small and had spots, big floppy ears, and he loved to lick the butter off a corn cob at church functions. When we got there Kevin wasn’t much more than red and cold. His body wasn’t a body anymore. He’d gone from a good little dog to something folded and ruined. The girls started crying again, their hands pushing on me and their voices all mingled up, telling me to do the thing. So I did it. And like always, it was everything everyone wanted it to be until it wasn’t.

I put my hands on Kevin and I asked him to come back. Cats were always easier than dogs. They didn’t let being dead slow them down too much. But dogs took things personal and Kevin was pretty afraid to climb back into his body. And I don’t lie when I do the thing. Not like Grandma. I always tell them the truth. It’s gonna hurt. A big hurt. One that doesn’t really ever go away. I guess Sandy was a good reason, enough for Kevin to come back from the other place and crawl into the cold dead thing he’d left behind.

I think everyone expects the thing to clean the bodies right up and for the returned to just jump right back into their lives like nothing happened. But something did, something bad enough that they died in the first place. Kevin didn’t just pop back, he had a lot to make his way through first.

Sandy and Bernice didn’t like what they saw. The way poor Kevin had to unfold himself, for his little body to take its rightful shape, that was just too much for them. Both girls started howling and clutching onto one another. I’d even told them a little about how it would go down on the walk to Kevin but no one ever really listens. They just have a happy ending in mind, not how to get there in the first place. Except by asking me.

I was always sweet on Sandy. She had lots of curly hair and big eyes. I missed her pretty hard when I quit school to work at the gas station. Old Man Hallsey would tease me about her sometimes. But we both knew I wasn’t her type of boy. I was no one’s type of boy. Watching her fight herself over Kevin made me love her just a little more. She swallowed all her fear and reached out for her little dog and took him whole to her. Her dress smeared red and her arms struggled to hold on as Kevin did what he had to do to come back. But she held him to her and when Kevin was all the way back, she was the first thing he saw. He licked her face and all the terrible things that had gathered in her eyes poured out on her cheeks as fat tears. Bernice didn’t stick around to see any of that, she’d run away, her penny loafers making a clap-tap all the way down the street.

I was used to folks not seeing me after I did the thing. They were focused on whoever I brought back. Most were somewhere between crazy with fear and mad with relief. Sandy was probably both things but she reached out one red hand and touched the shoulder of my overalls. She mouthed “thank you” as she held Kevin to her chest. And that was enough. It was always enough for me, really. But it was always surprising to me that so few of them actually thanked me. I went back to the gas station and Sandy and Kevin went home to do the hard work of continuing his story.

Old Man Hallsey was pissed but when I told him what I did and who I done it for, he just shook his head and patted me on the back. You ain’t never gonna learn, he said. No, I said right back. I never will.

Word got around, like it always does. Most folks in town had heard a story or two but there was something different about Sandy and Kevin. Seems like everyone believed it actually happened. That I did the thing and Kevin was back. Folks started hanging around the gas station and at first, Old Man Hallsey was happy as could be. The soda cooler was always empty and he sold more air filters in a week than we had in the year I worked there. It wasn’t until the Rev showed up that Old Man Hallsey soured.

The Rev was the biggest bug in town, Old Man Hallsey told me the day I started at the station. The Rev had a tab that he never needed to pay off, he could pull a coke from the cooler and never worry about change on the counter, he filled up his Delux without ever looking at the numbers rolling behind the glass. If he said something, it was an inch away from law, Old Man Hallsey said. And I think he was wrong about the inch.

I didn’t go to church, not after what the town said about Grandma. No one in my family touched a pew after the fire and even though I was the last one, I planned on keeping it just that way. The last time I listened to a sermon by the Rev, I was nothing more than a pair of shorts and a runny nose. When the Rev walked in on a Saturday, I think it was the first time he’d really had a look at me in a long stretch of years. We were eye to eye and I don’t think the Rev liked that at all.

The Rev wasn’t interested in oil or soda, he was interested in telling me about god’s plan and how I wasn’t a part of it. How Jesus was the only one that could do the thing and I was a damn far throw from being the Son of the Father. So that made me the son of the other one.

Old Man Hallsey wasn’t having it. He argued with the Rev until both men were swelling at their collars. I didn’t listen much, none of this was all that new. Every time I did the thing someone would find me and tell me how unhappy they were that I could do it and they couldn’t. It had been bad enough that Old Man Hallsey had made me promise not to. And I hadn’t, not until Sandy.

That was a long Saturday. Two types of folks blew in and out of the station. The folks that had already asked me to do the thing for one of their own animals and the folks that thought I was the Serpent himself. It got bad enough that two big armed fellas took to punching each other up and down in front of the store. Old Man Hallsey put up the closed sign, turned off the pumps and threw everyone off his property. Except me. He took me in the back, gave me a Dr. Pepper and talked about god for a long time. He wasn’t the same type of believer as the Rev. Old Man Hallsey had been to war on the other side of the ocean. He’d seen things he blamed god for. When he got back, Old Man Hallsey never once walked into a church. He told me he thought god lived in all the places people didn’t. He never asked me what I thought, just talked long enough to fall asleep with an empty coke bottle in his hand. I gathered him up and tucked him away on the little burlap cot we kept in the garage. I thought it was a hard thing for him to go full on with the Rev. Maybe a harder thing for him to think about what that would do to his station.

I still had the keys to Grandma’s. When I wasn’t bunking at the station, I stayed there. I couldn’t afford the power or the water but it was still a roof and no one bothered me there. The black scars of the fire looked like bone fingers buried in the siding. Some nights it was hard to sleep in the place where the town made all their choices about my Grandma. Some nights it was the only place I could sleep at all.

Sandy was waiting in the yard. The dead grass halfway up her legs. Kevin was curled up in her arms and both of them looked as tired as they could be. She asked me if I could talk with her for a bit. She was worried about Kevin. Worried about me and the way the town was swollen with that I had done. I still had a pack of peanuts from the station. We all three sat in the high grass and watched the moon crawl up the sky while we chewed.

I did my best to tell Sandy that Kevin had to make his choice to stay. He had to do it every day from now on. Sandy could love him hard but if that wasn’t enough for Kevin, then the thing I did wouldn’t fully take and Kevin would go away again. The body knows it died. It doesn’t like that very much, Kevin would spend a lot of time hurting.

Sandy nodded and chewed peanuts. Kevin sat between her feet, occasionally looking back up at me. He knew very well what I had done and I think he was deciding if he could forgive me. Most do, at least the dogs and cats.

When I got to the part about Kevin hurting, Sandy started crying again. She asked me if she made a bad choice. She didn’t want her little dog to hurt. I told her I didn’t know. But it was Kevin’s choice now anyway. He’d keep making it until he wouldn’t or couldn’t.

So he’s gonna die anyway, Sandy said. We all do, I said back. Kevin just has a better idea of what comes next.

A big red pickup pulled up to Grandma’s as I was saying my piece to Sandy. A bunch of men from the town jumped out of the back and told Sandy to go home. Kevin tried barking but he was too tired. I handed the last of my peanuts to Sandy and stood up. The biggest guy there had a look I knew in his eyes. He was sweating through his shirt, his mustache twitching over his lips like he couldn’t decide if he should sing or demand.

Where we going, I asked.

You’ll see, they said.

It was a small town. Such a small town that everyone knew their way to the church. I already expected that my time with the Rev wasn’t finished but I do admit I was surprised to be there. The men didn’t touch me as I hopped down from the back of the truck. Sam Perkins was there. Short dairy man, bald as an orange with a mouth that wasn’t built for smiling. He glued himself to my right side, his breathing like he had finished a long mile.

I won’t forget what you did for Kissy, he said to me while his eyes bounced from man to man. We talked bout it and this was the only way. I hope you understand, he said as we made our way into the church.

Kissy was his milker. She went down giving birth to a big old calf named Panama. Sam had Kissy from when he was Sandy’s age. He’d heard some stories so he picked me up from the station and brought me to his dairy. I asked Kissy if she wanted to come back and she did. I think she wanted to see Panama. She stayed for a year, long enough for Panama to take her place. I went back to the dairy and helped Sam put her under the tulips in his back. I never decided if Sam was a good man. I didn’t need to. When he cried as we finished rolling sod, I thought that it was enough for Kissy so it was enough for me.

The church had done some growing since the last time I was there. Lots of gold paint here and there. Some red curtains. The pews were slick, new, like wooden salamanders curling the length of the building. A big group of faces were gathered near the altar. Some I recognized, some I knew from a distance.

The Rev was there, shooing people away from the long pine box laid out on fancy sawhorses. Everyone was sweating, everyone was looking.

I didn’t recognize the woman in the coffin. She wasn’t old but there were enough years written on her face to tell me she’d made it past the halfway mark. The Rev was smiling a smile that simmered between his big teeth.

You have a lot of believers, he said to me.

I glanced around, feeling eyes touching me from every angle. I don’t know what you mean, I said to him.

The Rev made a noise like he’d tasted something bad. You can drop the act, he said, his arms out wide.

I didn’t know what act he meant so I didn’t say anything. I already knew what they were going to make me do. I figured I would stay still and quiet until they said what they needed to say.

The Rev made some noise. Talking about the enemy, about false prophets, about black magic. Some part of him was tuned high, I could see the joy leaking out of him as he puffed and shouted. I didn’t say a thing, not even when folks started glaring at me. I wondered if it had been just like this with Grandma. I bet it had. But she lied. I wasn’t going to do that. Not now, not ever.

Sam interrupted the Rev. He talked about Kissy and teared up. A woman named Monica told them about her parakeet, I didn’t remember its name, just that it was in a real hurry to get back and to stay for a long time. Another man started talking about his daughter’s little dog and that’s when I realized he was Sandy’s daddy. He was tall and thin, dressed in a suit from a sales catalogue. He had a little stutter but he kept looking at me and I could tell that even though he was a little afraid, he was here to defend his daughter. To defend Kevin. I decided I liked him. A lot.

There was an argument about people lying and making things up. Another one about the devil’s magic and one more about things that could maybe be explained by scientists and not priests. It didn’t matter. I knew what was coming. I stared at the woman in the pine box while they were working up their courage to ask me or tell me.

She looked confused, like she didn’t know why she was in a coffin. I could tell they gussied her up some. The lipstick they put on her didn’t fit her and they way her eyes were closed I was sure they’d added a stitch or two to keep them that way. I wanted to skip all the shouting and reach out for her. Put my hands on her and get started. Give them what they wanted and what they didn’t all at once. But folks had to ask. That was the rule, pretty much the only one according to Grandma back in the day. Folks had to ask for what they wanted. And then you could give it to them.

An hour of yelling and sweat and a hard moment where a man put his hands on me and threatened to show me to Jesus before Sam and another fella pulled him away. I could see the Rev was full now, he’d swallowed all he needed to bring his show to a close. Why don’t you prove it to us, he said to the faces in his church. Prove it to us right now.

It’s not the same with people, I told him. I knew what his response was gonna be but I wasn’t lying to anyone. Soft or hard, I promised the truth.

So you can’t do it, can you? he said to me, his big teeth clicking like they wanted to take a bite out of me.

Oh no, I can. People always want to come back, but it’s not what you think.

There was a breath. A big collective sound that sent a little shiver up my back. Only Jesus can raise the dead, boy. The Rev said this with a fire in his eyes. I could feel his hate like lips on my throat.

I don’t raise anyone, Rev, I said. They raise themselves.

The folks in the church chewed on this for a moment before they all looked back at the Rev. He took his cue and puffed up, his hands climbing the air like a mime. No one can unlock the gates of heaven, boy. And no one can empty the halls of hell.

I turned to Sam and Sandy’s daddy and told them they should probably head on home. I was gonna ask this woman back but I didn’t think they’d want to be there for it.

Do you mean to scare us, boy? The Rev’s face was full of veins.

Maybe a little, I said and reached out for the woman in the box.

Grandma always said people were the easiest. The animals didn’t go to the same place. Not that she knew exactly where anyone went but she figured the animals went to a place they recognized or remembered. People, she said, did too, but that’s why they wanted to come back.

As soon as my hands touched the woman’s face, she was screaming. Her dry throat making it a hacksaw hiss, her cold fingers peeling at her sewn lips, lipstick smearing wild. Folks didn’t take it well. They added some of their own screams, Sam and Sandy’s daddy were already at the door trying to pull it wide. Mostly I ignored them. I had my work to do and so I did. I helped the woman in the box pull the stitches out of her lips, picking dry thread until she could open each tacky eye. She shouted names and coughed numbers, almost biting me as I helped. The Rev didn’t run like the others, he stood there, his eyes on my hands as I helped the woman in the box make her choices.

They’re all there, she shouted, thread dangling from one corner of her mouth. All of them, all of them. All together, naked and pressed close. They’re so cold, their skin is so cold, she said as I helped her out of the coffin.

The Rev didn’t move, even when she turned to him, her eyes still half-dead, and screamed that she could see his shadow there. Pooling in the shadows of all the others. All the cold, dead things together like a clot, like a frozen plug of fat and wax.

I did my best to talk to her. Tell her she was back now. That there were still colors and fireplaces and it was just us, just the people of her little town and not all of them, not everyone from the beginning up until now.

The Rev stared into me, his eyes so much like hers. What did you do, he asked me. I gave you what you wanted, I said. And I took the woman from the box away with me, all the way back down from the church’s hill to the station. Walking slowly and talking the whole way, listing everything she could feel and see and smell, showing her how far apart we could be, how she could feel the walls of the buildings we passed and how I would feed her a soda once we were back home. She didn’t remember her name which was normal. Humans don’t remember much of life, just what happens after.

I found Old Man Hallsey still and quiet on the burlap cot, his hands curled against his chest just like the last time. I set the woman from the box on a folding chair and let her rave as I put my hands on Old Man Hallsey. His eyes flickered open, the fear pulsing inside for a moment before he saw my face. He reached out with icy hands and held my face. Thank you, he said, every time thank you.

I helped them both through that long Saturday night. Old Man Hallsey was more experienced than the woman from the box but this was maybe a time too many. Every time he came back, he came back with a little more fear. We all have to choose to stay sometime. Kevin, Hallsey, even the Rev would have to make that choice. But for the time, we had the station, Sandy had Kevin, and the Rev… well he had exactly what he wanted, and I was glad to give it to him.

You finished the story!

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