The bullet struck him in the forehead when he stopped to look back. Jeff Book went down like a ton of bricks. A woman screamed. People scattered for shelter behind cars or hid in storefronts.

A light rain diluted the blood that spilled on the sidewalk, feeding it into the nearby storm sewer. The ambulance arrived, and a paramedic immediately went to work on him. The last thing he heard was, “He’s flatlining,” Jeff was rushed to a nearby hospital and immediately went into surgery, where he died on the table.

The tunnel of light.


It was all true.

Jeff went to Hell. Standing at the River Styx, he watched the lost souls drown in the inky black water. He immediately went to his knees in repentance. Why hadn’t he believed Mrs. Krump when she told him his evil ways would lead him to Hell? Jeff remembered at the time that he laughed at her, even mocked her.

The sound of the lost souls’ anguished cries as they tried to grab the ferryman’s boat floating in the river faded into the background when a remarkably good-looking man presented himself and assessed Jeff.

“Nice head wound. You are a difficult case. We are in negotiations for you, so I am going to place you on hold for the moment.” He pulled a pick from his pocket and casually cleaned his nails, oblivious to the torturous screams around him.

“Negotiations?” Jeff asked.

“Yes, it seems you have been equally good and bad. Both sides want you. One of us will have to let you go. Of course, there is the off-chance you could recover from this unfortunate incident.”

“You call being shot in the head an unfortunate incident? If I have any say, I think I would like to go back to the place I was before I got here.” The man laughed at Jeff.

“Would you be willing to cut a deal?”

“A deal? What sort of deal?” Jeff would do anything at this point not to cross that river.

“You present a soul to me, and I might be able to overlook you the next time we meet.” Jeff would not commit. There was that off-chance that he could survive this, or that the other team would still take him. Jeff knew there would be no chance to join the other side after making a deal with the man who told him to call him “Bub.” He could sense the impatience, and when Bub snapped his fingers in Jeff’s face, Jeff found himself in Heaven standing at the pearly gates.

A choir of angels sang. It made him cry from the beauty of their voices. He couldn’t believe he was going to make it to Heaven! He had secrets, but figured God must know those secrets, too. Just as he was about to pass through the gate, a former high school friend named Matt pointed his finger at Jeff.

“You don’t belong here.” Matt snapped his fingers. Jeff was pulled back into his body in the hospital. The pain was excruciating; he had survived the off-chance.

When Jeff left the hospital, he had a large sinkhole in his forehead, just above his left eye, where the bullet entered his skull that fateful day and tore away a large portion of his face.

The drug deal went wrong so quickly that Jeff took off. Hester raised his gun. Jeff made the mistake of looking back; the bullet split through his skull, but missed lodging itself inside his brain. Perhaps that stop and turn saved Jeff’s life. The shot took off the front of his forehead, instead.

The doctors felt confident Jeff could look presentable. The first surgery was to insert a piece of plastic over the hole in his skull. With further operations, they hoped to make Jeff look normal again.

He was a changed man, as anyone could imagine after taking a bullet to the head. He waffled back and forth, thinking about what he had experienced, fully aware he was in a tug of war between Heaven and Hell. His life needed to change.

The gunshot was not random. The bullet that re-contoured his forehead was meant for him. Now that he survived, he still lived in fear. Hester took delight in reminding Jeff he could do this to him again every time he called him. Next time, he wouldn’t miss.

Jeff thought about moving away. How far would be far enough? All he wanted was to be left alone, have his face repaired, and walk away from this mess. Jeff had even considered doing more with his life now that he realized how easily it could be taken. Perhaps he could make amends.

Arriving at his home, he was met by his neighbor, Mrs. Wenniger. Jeff’s head pounded as he opened the door to his apartment.

“Jeff, I have been keeping your mail.” Mrs. Wenninger went back to her apartment and brought back a sizeable-banded bundle.

“Thank you, Mrs. Wenniger.”

“Rita,” she insisted, her hair dyed red to match her lips. Jeff did a double-take. Had Rita’s eyes turned green like a cat’s? Had she licked her lips with a tongue that was forked? He couldn’t be sure. He must be hallucinating. Jeff closed his eyes, trying to focus.

“Rita, yes. Again, thank you,” Rita continued to talk, but Jeff escaped into the privacy of his apartment, closing the door in her face. He threw the bundle of mail on the counter. Exhausted, Jeff flopped on the couch. The headache was fierce. There was nothing he could do during the debilitating pain but to try to sleep. He grabbed a glass of water, took a couple of pills, and went to bed, still unmade from a few weeks ago. Had it only been three weeks since he was shot?

His dreams were restless. He found himself standing rooted to the spot, unable to walk away from the River Styx. The man who told him to call him Bub. His red eyes seemed to pierce Jeff’s mind. Then there was Heaven, the singing, and his friend Matt, who drowned when they were swimming in the river as high schoolers. Matt was caught in the current and carried off.

Jeff dreamt of pushing Matt on the rope swing they’d tied on a tree next to the river. Pushing Matt as hard as he could, his friend laughed as the rope went higher. When Matt let go, he flew in the air far beyond the pool’s safety near the bank. He couldn’t stop himself from being caught in the river’s current. Jeff wasn’t a strong swimmer; he couldn’t put himself in danger to save his friend. He stood frozen on the riverbank, watching Matt struggle to keep his head above water while Jeff called his name. Matt screamed for help, just like the lost souls in the River Styx.

Jeff jerked awake, breathing hard. He swung his legs over the side of the bed and put his face in his hands. He inhaled deeply, trying the relaxing techniques he was taught in the hospital. Though he felt they were useless, they helped him catch his breath and slow his thoughts.

When his heart rate returned to normal, Jeff went to the bathroom. He caught his face in the mirror, knowing he was a freak of nature, flipped off the light, put his arm over his eyes, and cried.

During the pain, Bub visited him, asking for a soul. Jeff tried to ignore his request. He found himself thinking about ending it all, but he was raised Catholic and felt if he committed suicide, he faced an eternity in Hell. He would be handing his soul to Bub without a fight. Jeff had to seek forgiveness for his sins. The sin of being non-committal when he watched Matt being swept down the river, the crime of selling drugs to feed the addictions to those lost souls on the streets, the sin of thinking about who he would hand over to Bub to save his soul. Jeff still thought about the escape clause Bub offered him. If he handed over someone like Hester, for example, then asked for forgiveness, would he still be allowed in Heaven?

Wouldn’t handing Hester over to Bub and then ask for forgiveness negate his repentance? He couldn’t go to sleep. He opened his Bible, one that he stole from a motel room placed by the Gideons. He came across the Lord’s Prayer. He read it over and over.

Jeff was supposed to meet Hester today. He told the man he was still sick, that he had more surgeries ahead of him. Hester didn’t seem to care about any of that. He felt Jeff was his get-out-of-jail-free ticket. No one but Jeff knew Hester was the shooter. The cops ruled the shooting as random street violence because Jeff didn’t have a record. As far as the cops were concerned, Jeff was a squeaky-clean computer programmer who worked from his home. He had the pay stubs to prove that.

He rode the subway to their meeting spot. Hester was late, forcing Jeff to wait in the park. People looked at him with odd stares. He tried to put his hand over his forehead in an attempt to hide his disfigurement. This was the first time Jeff had spent any time out in public. It taxed him to do this.

Hester arrived, sitting next to him, and slid a folded newspaper across the park bench.

“What’s this?” Hester’s face did not hide his shock when he saw the Grand Canyon that was now Jeff’s face.

“Holy shit!” Hester said, and then looked away. Jeff could see the very sight of his face made the man sick. A man who killed people for a living. Jeff opened the newspaper and saw the gun.

“What’s this for?” Hester didn’t look at him but spoke, looking straight ahead.

“This is the last job I have for you, and then I let you go. I can’t use you with a face like that. You will scare everyone off. You know who I am talking about when I say the name of the man you will take out. James Victor. The gun is unregistered, untraceable.” Jeff shook his head.

“I can’t do that. I saw my future. I died on the operating table. I saw what Hell is like, and I won’t do it.”

“In that case, I will use this gun on you, my friend.” Hester stood up, bending over to pick the newspaper off the bench. Jeff needed to buy some time. He put his hand out, preventing Hester from taking the gun. Hester chuckled; his eyes glowed red. He blinked; did that just happen? When he looked up, Hester was already walking toward the park entrance. Reluctantly, he took the folded newspaper, and tucked it into his pocket.

Now what was he going to do? If he killed James Victor, Jeff would go to jail and then Hell. If he killed himself, he would go to Hell. If he turned in both James Victor and Hester, he might have a chance of going to Heaven, but he would be dead in a very short time.

The third choice became more favorable to Jeff. In all cases, he was dead, but at least in the third choice, he could go back to the place he couldn’t forget. There would be no more surgeries or punishment. Jeff wanted to go to Heaven.

He hurried across the busy street into the police station. Jeff sat across the desk from the detective sliding the weapon ahead of him. The flustered detective could not believe his coworkers allowed a man to walk into his office with a loaded gun. He put the folded newspaper in his desk drawer and listened to Jeff’s story. All of it, the drug selling, the shooting, Hester wanting him to kill James Victor with the gun he’d just surrendered. Jeff wanted to get his face fixed and get the heck out of Dodge.

“You know you are eligible for a sizable reward,” Detective Morris told him. Jeff thought about that money and how he could get his face fixed and agreed to help the detective.

He wore a wire. Did it pick up his heartbeat that pounded out of his chest?

“Why haven’t you killed James Victor as I asked?” Hester scolded Jeff when they met in the park again.

“I just haven’t found a way; you know how heavily he’s protected.” Hester nodded, knowing what James Victor’s everyday business was.

“Get the job done or I will shoot you again and make your right temple match your left, you freak!”

“I’m going to need some money to leave to get my face fixed. I can’t just do this without some compensation.” Hester sneered.

“How much? What’s it going to cost me to get rid of James Victor?” The police had enough. They arrested Hester right on the spot. Jeff knew the same thing was happening to James Victor at that instant.

“I will kill you,” Hester shouted as the police escorted him out of the park.

The sizable reward was given; he longed to plunk it down on plastic surgery, but there was a catch. Jeff felt terrible about his sister-in-law, who was left with nothing. His brother John died by Hester’s hand, leaving Laura with a small child and no way to support him. Jeff arranged to meet her at her apartment.

He handed the reward money over to her. Laura was grateful to Jeff, but she also felt guilty. She had already betrayed her brother-in-law to save herself. She knew that Hester’s men would be waiting for Jeff when he left her apartment.

Jeff felt better about himself, more than he had in a long time. His brother would be pleased that Jeff provided for John’s wife and child, happy he could help his sister-in-law. He was also a little sad that he was not going to get his face fixed.

As he walked down the alley, someone whistled. Jeff turned around looking in the direction of the sound. The gun aimed squarely at his face took him out. Per Hester’s wish, the right side of his face now matched his left.

Standing before the gate, he heard the singing angels, remembering their comfort. He had beaten Bub at his own game. Matt stood at the entrance. Jeff started to cry uncontrollably, filled with deep remorse.

“Matt, I am so sorry, please forgive me, but I couldn’t swim; I was afraid.” Matt pulled him close and whispered in his ear.

“I know that, Jeff. I would have done the same. I have forgiven you, and so has God. You took those crooks off the street and gave Laura the money instead of using it for yourself. You got your ticket into Heaven.”

“What?” Jeff couldn’t believe what he was hearing.

“Jeff, you know the Lord’s Prayer and the line that says “on Earth as it is in Heaven?” You prayed so many times that you would have done something to rescue me. And so many times you have asked for forgiveness. God has heard your plea. You will go through my drowning again, but this time, you will rescue me. It will be you, who drowns, not me.”

“But I get to stay here? No River Styx, no Beelzebub?”

“No, my friend. Your entire miserable life ends that day in the river. Your slate has been wiped clean.”

Matt snapped his fingers and disappeared. He was back at the river. Jeff was able to climb on a rock and drag Matt to the shallows, but in the attempt, he slipped off and headed down the river, forever remembered as a hero. Drowning wasn’t so bad. He found himself back in Heaven.

He looked at his hands; they were the hands of a young teen, He touched his face, finding his forehead was smooth and flat. Jeff was overcome with emotion. Every bad thing in his life forgiven when he rescued Matt, and all the other things never happened.

He was startled to see Hester at the gate. The remnants of a towel around his neck. No doubt James Victor had his goons take care of Hester in jail. His hand raised involuntarily as he pointed at the man and snapped his fingers.

“You don’t belong here.”

Hester was gone; he found himself in Hell, which is where he truly belonged.