This story is by R.J. Numanan and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“Howdy there, my friend! I know, I know: This wasn’t what you were expecting. I know ye have more questions than a nest of millipedes has legs.”
Standing before you is a man in an open and garish print shirt, long cargo shorts slung under a ponderous belly, a hat that can only be described as ten-gallon, and a pair of cowboy boots which have seen better days. He chews on a large cigar, which hangs from the corner of his chapped lips and his words have more spittle than air. To describe this strange man as grizzled would be a kindness.
He removes the cigar from his mouth between two nicotine-stained fingers, spits, and continues. “Name’s Verge. Consider me yer Superstore Greeter to this infernal place.”
Your eyes go wide. His chuckle sounds like grinding transmission gears while he waves you off. “There are a ‘plenty of living things here. Did that church leader of yers forget to teach ye that lesson in Sunday School?”
You shake your head. This Verge waves you off again. “Ye ain’t the first nor will ye be the last, friend. Ye have to squint and look at that book sideways to read betwixt the lines more often than not.”
You continue to shake your head and take a step back. This Verge laughs at you and takes a long draw off his cigar. “We’re all liars of a sort here, friend. I ain’t that lonesome liar though. Sorry to disappoint.”
You start reciting prayers, half-remembered from childhood. This Verge chants these with you, rolling his eyes. When you finish and realize he didn’t cringe or vanish, every hair on your body stands on end and you tremble. Verge claps you on the shoulder, shakes his head, and says, “Just like everything here ain’t filled with the dead, everything here ain’t no demon here neither.”
You don’t know what to make of this. Trembling, you collapse onto the grass by the dilapidated trailer, and burst into tears. Verge shakes his head and wags a cracked fingernail at you. “I’ll be back when yer done caterwauling.”
You don’t know how much time has passed. Suns and moons do not change position in the bruised sky. Any clouds do not change color. The shadows you cast do not change shape. The temperature in the air remains Texas-in-July. You hear the whirl of a blender coming from inside the trailer. What seems like an eternity later, Verge lumbers down the steps holding two jelly jars full of a greenish liquid. He holds out a glass to you as he approaches the spot where you’re kneeling. “Looks like ye could use a drink, friend.”
You look from the extended glass to Verge and back again. You shake your head. You remember something about not drinking or eating anything from the underworld from a required undergraduate class. Verge sighs and says to you, “Ye ain’t from that time and place, friend. Besides, anything having to do with Gluttony ain’t this high up.” He punctuates this by taking another step close to you and shoving the jelly jar out in front of him. A few drops of the liquid spill out and land on the rug next to you. All you see is the liquid darkening the fabric before evaporating.
You look from the extended glass and shrug. You reach out and pluck it from Verge, spilling a few drops on your hand; it does not burn you or burst into flames or cause rot in your flesh. The heat of the place evaporates the liquid from your flesh as fast as it landed there.
Verge winks at you and holds his glass out to you. “A toast?”
You don’t want to insult Verge or violate any unknown-to-you hospitality rites. You weigh this. You extend the glass toward Verge. He winks at you, clinks your glass, and says, “May the Lord Bless ye and Keep ye.” You startle. Verge chuckles as he drinks from his glass; he doesn’t gag or seem to suffer.
You don’t want to be rude. You lift the glass to Verge while he watches you take a sip. Verge beams while he removes another cigar from his cargo shorts, snaps his fingers, lights up, and takes six puffs.
It takes everything in you not to spit it out. You bow over retching. Verge laughs at you. “Others have told me the burn is similar to sucking on a matchbook. That sulfur and red phosphorous taste? Get used to it.”
You turn your head and glare at the corpulent and towering man. “Not if I can help it… Verge.”
Verge blows you a kiss and tucks his cigar back into the corner of his mouth. “Ooo, I caught me a feisty and live one. This will be fun.”
Verge takes another six puffs from his cigar and his smile is full of teeth. “He isn’t the only fisher of men, friend.”
You blubber, “You told me you weren’t a demon!”
“I’m not, friend—”
“—I cast you out!”
Nothings happens. Verge extends his arms and twirls, laughing at the attempt. He turns back to you and says, “I’ll give ye credit for that heap o’ horse apples.”
This frightens you. “What the fuck are you, then?”
Verge’s smile never wavers. “Yer greeter. A poet and historian. A liar. A non-demonic fixture here.”
Verge rolls his eyes at you while he chomps on his cigar. “Ye ain’t special enough to meet the Morningstar, friend. Yer Pride betrays you. Ye hang in the balance.”
You glower at Verge and ask, “So, I am here because…?”
Verge takes another six puffs on his cigar and says, “Pride puts you one place. Humility puts you in another. ‘Pride goes before destruction, and haughtiness before a fall’ and all that.”
“But I am not dead!” You insist.
“This is true, friend.” Verge winks at you. “Only the dead can get to Paradise.” He sips his drink out of the other side of his mouth.
You sit with the implications while sipping from your glass. This time the burn is tolerable. Never one for blended drinks, the saltiness of what Verge handed to you makes you gag again.
The man almost looks apologetic when he says, “I’m sorry. I can’t do anything about the salt. Yer thirst will never be quenched. Ye can choose your level of drunkenness.” Verge’s toothsome smile is feral. “Humility might quench the burn and the dryness. Pride might make ye forget the same.”
Verge leans in and tells you. “‘If ye abide in me, and my words abide in ye, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for ye.’ Say it and I will make them come true for ye, friend.”
You weigh this. You sip from your glass.
An eternity passes before you tell Verge what you want.
Verge inclines his head and says, “Your wish is my command.”
He leaves you kneeling without another word.