This story is by Stephanie Newbern and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Ossie panted as he raced around the corner to the bus station. BUS TO HEAVEN, NEXT RIGHT, APPROACHING IN SEVEN MINUTES, the sign read. His lungs wanted to explode, but he ignored it.
Been late everywhere my whole life, he brooded. At least I can be on time for this!
Ossie checked his watch. A few more seconds, thank heavens. Well, I’ll thank God personally when I get there. My miserable life, finally behind me.
Just in time. As the bus doors shut, the driver shook his head, “Sorry, buddy.”
“But my ticket says 3:30!” Ossie argued.
“We’re full!” said the driver. “Try the next one.” He drove off.
Ossie’s throat tightened as the bus departed. Story of my life, he ruminated while kicking a rock with his shoe.
Seventy-two years old. Not the first time Ossie missed his chance of going to heaven. He almost worked himself to a heart attack twenty years ago. Work was all he knew. Yeah, I just HAD to become that CEO. OSWALD JAMES HARRISON III, 1949 – 2021, EXCEPTIONAL BUSINESSMAN, LIFELONG FRIEND, the epitaph read. He heard through the grapevine the gathering at his funeral was crowded. But he didn’t buy it.
What did I do besides be a workaholic and couch potato? Nothing! Even my wife had enough after nine years. Never stepped foot in a church. Should I even try going to heaven?
Ossie removed the photo of his retirement from his suitcase.
Never even had kids. The wife thought I’d make a lousy dad, he fretted, throwing the picture away. No legacy. How do I explain my purpose when I get to heaven? IF they even take me?
Ossie watched two families of four pass by, and two couples strolling, jovial as could be. He struggled to restrain the rising lump in his throat. They’ve got all the time in the world, he lamented.
I’ve gotta defend my place in heaven, Ossie declared.
Correction: I WILL defend my place.
Next bus due in four minutes. Four crawling minutes. Ossie’s feet straddled the loading curb. Maybe they’ll hurry if they see how anxious I am.
Ossie took a final look around, soaking everything in. Wait ‘til I tell my soon-to-be new friends about this.
Then he noticed someone hurrying toward the station. Unable to make it out, Ossie couldn’t avert his gaze.
A scrawny man, about mid-thirties, stormed in. He had disheveled thinning hair, a T-shirt, a black blazer, holey jeans, and white sneakers. He flung his backpack on the ground, pacing frantically. He appeared not to be aware of his surroundings.
“Wow,” the man roared into his phone. “Some friend you are! You’re telling me I have to write another business proposal to that jackass before tomorrow morning? I’m just getting home from working eighteen hours straight! And my wife confides in you she wants a divorce after nine years? Before Christmas? This is the first I’m hearing of it! You’re supposed to have my back!” Fumbling in his pockets for a cigarette, he sighed, “Baby, you’re all I’ve got left,” before lighting it.
Ossie’s eyebrows furrowed, recalling a similar day, around Christmas Eve. The one time he cancelled the getaway cruise. Because who slaps divorce papers on Christmas? Who demands work on Christmas? Ossie gnashed his teeth. I need just one more cigarette before I leave.
While holding the lighter, Baby, you’re all I’ve got…, his thought paused.
The cigarette slipped out, as his jaw dropped. No way! That’s me! From 1984!
Ossie watched the man flop onto the bench, hang his head, and run hands through his hair. He cracked his knuckles, a nervous habit Ossie recognized all too well.
This can’t be happening. How can my younger self just happen to be here? Right now?
The bus pulled up, and honked, startling Ossie.
“Your ticket?” the driver demanded.
“C-c-could y-y-you wait one second?” Ossie stammered. “I-I just…”
“Nope, got people waitin’ buddy.”
“B-b-but, I’ll be right back, I promise,” Ossie protested. “I only wanna…,”
“Look! A lot of people need to go. Now!” the weary driver repeated. “If you miss this, the next one won’t be around for…,” he glanced at his watch, “…who knows? Could be an hour. Could be never. Ain’t you heard about the admission limits now in heaven?”
Ossie tried to reason, “Can’t go. I need to help me, umm, I mean…help him. If it’s the last thing I do.”
The driver shrugged. “Your loss.” The door closed. Ossie’s forehead dripped sweat as the bus departed again.
If it’s the last thing I do. An oxymoron if ever there was one.
All quiet in the station. Just Ossie.
And…Junior! Yeah! That’s what I’ll call him!
I don’t know what I’ll do but I got two seconds to think of something. Ossie approached Junior from behind. Junior’s head still hung. He massaged his temples and cursed under his breath. Completely unaware.
Don’t scare him off! Ossie warned himself. He remained still.
Junior snapped out of his trance, spinning around. “Who’s there?”
My junior is talking to me! Ossie mused.
Junior shivered. Whatever was there made him uneasy. His throat clenched. “Whatever’s happening, stop right now. It’s creeping me out.”
Ossie pleaded. Look at me, your future, wretched self is right here! No words came out. Why can’t I talk to my own mini-me?
Junior inched backwards and his eyes widened. “It ain’t funny no more. Whatever you are, stay away from me!”
Can’t do that. You need me. I wish we could talk!
Junior stopped and stood up straight. Clearly, the thing near him wasn’t going quietly. “So, you wanna play games now? You trying to mess with me too?”
Ossie’s lip quivered. No. Can’t you see I want to help!
“Sure, why not,” Junior answered his own question. “Everybody’s messing with me.”
As Junior sank onto the bench in exhaustion, a photo slipped from his pocket. He scowled at it.
“Everybody except her,” Junior seethed. “Leaving me after nine years together? I’ve done nothing but work my ass off. That’s the thanks I get!” He ripped it into pieces. Removing a bottle of Jack Daniels from his pocket, he took a swig.
Ossie jumped, startled. That’s odd. I never drank. Think, idiot, think! He urged himself. Ossie’s heart leaped into his throat, while watching his younger self pace the floor again.
Junior pounded his fist and sank his teeth nervously into it. “I’m so messed up. I hate my life. It’s too much and I can’t do this anymore!” And with nostrils flaring, he bolted out of the station.
Ossie’s eyes widened. Hey, wait! He took off after Junior, but his legs buckled before he reached the doorway. Dammit. He wheezed. Don’t stop now, go after him!
Junior sprinted, then paused, trying to catch his breath. “I hate my life,” he repeated, whimpering.
Hope I can catch him. Good thing I wasn’t a runner.
With head tucked in his hands, Junior staggered down the sidewalk, to the intersection. Ossie spotted a car from the opposite direction.
Oh no, God help him! Ossie panicked. He held his breath, clenched his fists, squeezing his eyes shut. I can’t look!
Junior stepped off the curb. A horn blared, the car swerved, and Junior lurched back, as if by a jolt. The motorist cursed at him, as he drove on.
Ossie opened his eyes to find Junior slumped against the lamppost, head relaxing on his chest. Ossie felt like he didn’t breathe in the last five minutes.
Ossie raised his head. This is not who Oswald James Harrison III should be. This kid’s goin’ places. But it ain’t gonna be DOWN! He squeezed his eyes shut, harder than before.
Junior stirred from his daze, disoriented. Was he asleep for ten minutes? An hour? He couldn’t be sure, but something jostled him awake. He noticed a crinkled note shoved into his pocket. Curious, he snatched it open to read:
I’ve been there. You got this.
“Look at me.” That voice startled Ossie, as much as Junior. He whirled around.
Did I just say that? Ossie gasped.
A faint figure of an elderly man appeared. Junior blinked. The figure was still faint. “Who are you?”
Ossie wanted to say I’m the answer to your prayers.
“Doesn’t matter,” Ossie said.
“But…,” Junior began.
“No, I talk. You listen,” Ossie ordered. “I’ve watched you tonight. I’ve been in the same boat as you. It ain’t worth it, kid. Want some advice?”
“S-s-sure,” Junior stammered, thinking of nothing else.
Ossie leaned in, inches from Junior’s face. He held up the torn piece of the picture of his wife.
“Forget about following your passion. You only get one chance at life. So live it well. And grow up.”
11:56 p.m. That familiar horn honked. The “HEAVENBOUND, VERY LAST ONE” bus arrived. Ossie rejoiced.
“Gotta skedaddle! See you around, kid.”
As Ossie turned away, Junior called, “Wait! You’re not by any chance my…”
Ossie beamed, “Yep! Baby, you’re all I’ve got left!”
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