Norman Wimperlick stood in the remains of his house, his face limp with shock, his arms hanging listless at his sides. He had been asleep only moments before when a terrible jolt threw him from the couch. The next thing he knew, he was standing in the midst of shattered lumber, exposed wires, and broken plumbing spewing water from his walls. Yet all he could think was, How the hell am I going to clean this up before Marilyn gets back?
There was a knock at the front door. Without thinking, Norm walked over to it and forced it open against fallen paneling and a torn hinge.
The sight of the man on the other side was almost as shocking to Norman as the destruction of his house. The man was tall and blond, completely nude and devoid of body hair, and sported an immense pair of ivory wings nearly as large as he was. His body glowed with a light so glaring it was hard for Norm to look at him directly.
“Norman! Welcome to Purgatory’s Price!” the winged man said, his voice deep and glib like a radio announcer. “I am Azrael, your post-passing agent and Purgatory negotiator. I’m also tonight’s host!”
A spotlight suddenly beamed down on Azrael as game show music blared from some unseen source.
“What?” Norm asked. Mild laughter rippled through an invisible audience.
“I’m sorry to have to tell you this, Norm, but the time has come for you to pass on.”
Norm looked at him, dumbfounded.
“Let me put it another way, Norm. You’re dead. And you’re tonight’s contestant on … Purgatory’s Price!”
Applause rang through the shattered home.
“I’m dreaming,” Norm mumbled, turning to find his couch. Laughter erupted from somewhere, like the laugh track of a prime-time sitcom.
“No, Norm, you aren’t dreaming! This is the bomb, baby! This is the real thing!” Azrael put his hand on Norm’s shoulder and pushed into the house. “Just look over there.” He pointed to a collapsed portion of the living room where rafters had fallen. Norm saw a foot sticking out of the rubble – his foot. “You see, Norm. You’ve finished your life here! You bit the big one! You’ve passed on the ol’ flame! You’ve….”
“You mean I’m dead?”
A wave of laughter passed through the invisible audience.
Azrael leaned against a bookshelf, careful to avoid a smashed lava lamp. “Norm, remember when you bought this place three years ago? Remember how you thought the side of the mountain gave you such a view? Well, you forgot to ask the realtor about the stability of the cliff face. All the recent rain brought it down!”
Norm raised his hand to his lips. “It can’t be! How could I die now? I’m in the prime of my life!”
“Actually, Norm, you would have died next year from mad cow disease, anyhow. It’s better this way. At least you went out sleeping. Besides….” Azrael pulled a big box out of thin air, wrapped in gold foil and an oversized bow. He handed it over to Norm. “You’ve just won a consolation prize!
“Gabriel, tell us what he’s won!”
“Well, Azrael,” a deep-voiced announcer said from somewhere, “Norm has won a collection of Cloud 9 Cosmetics.” The audience cheered. “These fantastic products combine the pleasing fragrances of earthly pleasures with the soothing touch of angel tears. The skin cream has an added ingredient of aloe to ease the pain of those pesky Purgatory fires! You’ll feel fine with Cloud 9, by Angelco! Back to you, Azrael!”
“Let’s all hear it for Norman, everyone!”
The audience applauded loudly, cheering and whistling.
Holding the golden package in one hand, Norm stared forlornly at the splintered walls and furniture, trying to make sense of the situation as pungent mud oozed through the shattered living room window.
The applause died down to an expectant murmur. “So, Norm,” Azrael said, “any questions before we begin?”
“Begin what?” Norm’s eyes were wide and tearful.
“Purgatory’s Price, of course. The ethereal game show which pits the recent dead against the fiery torment of Purgatory!” Azrael raised his hands. Suddenly the room was filled with ecstatic synthesized organ music and canned sound effects. Disco lights danced on the splintered walls, and the crowd clapped and whooped in anticipation.
“A game? Now?”
Azrael waited for the applause to die down. “The rules are simple, Norm. For each point you earn you’ll be rewarded one prayer. The more prayers you get, the fewer eons you’ll have to spend in Purgatory.”
“Someone hasn’t been a good Catholic!” Azrael said, raising an eyebrow and eliciting laughter from the audience. A dictionary appeared, falling into Azrael’s arms. “Let’s see…. Ah, here it is! Purgatory. ‘A place of spiritual cleansing for those dying in the grace of God but having to expiate venial sins, et cetera.’ Do you have any venial sins, Norm?”
“I don’t even know what ‘venial’ means.”
The dictionary disappeared. “Oh, you know, they aren’t the ‘mortal’ kind. They’re pardonable, given an eon or two of torment. You ready to start the game?”
The music started again.
“Now, it’s easy to play,” the angel said. “I ask you a series of questions, and if you get them right, you get a prayer. Ready?”
“How many questions?”
Norm’s jaw dropped. “Are you serious? That’ll take forever!”
“That’s why it’s called eternity, Norm!” More laughter. “Then there’s the Bonus Round!”
“What sort of questions are these, anyhow?”
“Simple stuff. What is the average rainfall in Paraguay? Who is credited with the invention of the tube steak? What chemical laxative is appropriate for use with hedgehogs? That sort of thing….”
“Couldn’t we make it simpler? I mean, I don’t know those things! Couldn’t we just play Scrabble or something?”
The audience oohed and awed.
“Well, I don’t know…. We haven’t done that sort of thing since Richard Nixon challenged me to a game of golf.”
The crowd started chanting “Do it. Do it.”
“All right. All right. I think we can bend the rules….” The crowd erupted into a frenzy of applause.
“What happened with Nixon?” Norm asked.
“The old chap was doing pretty well. He was one under par at the 216th hole when he hit a horrible slice. Went over the rough cut glass and out into the ever-burning forest. He started cursing a blue streak. That’s when he used the ‘G’ word in vain. Too bad! Oh well, we all knew where he was headed, anyhow!
“Okay, Norm, get your Scrabble board!”
Norm rushed over to the closet, now exposed with its door blown off, and shuffled through the games that had fallen to the floor. Finding his target, he carried the time-honored board game over to the akilter kitchen table and set it up.
“I’ve got to warn you, Norm, I was the three-time Scrabble champion at the All-Seraphim Challenge last epoch!”
“I’ll keep that in mind…,” Norm mumbled.
Norm drew the lowest letter to start. But the board suddenly quadrupled in size as he started to place his first word, gumbo.
“Oh, I forgot to tell you. There are a few minor modifications to the game.” Azrael’s voice suddenly sped up. “The board is four times larger, there are four times more letters, and there are an additional twenty I’s, eight fewer U’s, and six extra Q’s. Of course you can’t look up words unless they’ve been played, and any phony word is a lost turn. There’s also a two-minute time limit per play. Every point you earn is another prayer. We’ll keep it in English, just to be fair. Agreed?”
Norm just stared back, still holding his G tile for gumbo.
“Great,” Azrael concluded. “Let’s begin.”
The two played at a feverish pace. Each word ended with a thunderclap. The audience cheered each move. Azrael had pulled far ahead after two-thirds of the tiles had been used.
“Your move, Norm. Time’s almost up on this move!”
“I know, I know!” Norm put an x on a double word space, simultaneously joining an a and an o to make ax and ox. “Ah ha! Twenty prayers!”
Azrael smiled and put all of his letters on the board.
“Ouguiya? What’s that?” Norm asked.
“That’s the monetary unit of Mauritania. Twelve prayers — including a double letter score — times three for a triple word makes thirty-six, plus fifty for using all my letters, plus two for the word aa, makes eighty-eight prayers. That brings my total prayers so far to 2400. You have 1253.”
“I thought we couldn’t use foreign words!”
“An ouguiya is an ouguiya no matter what language you speak.”
“And dare I ask what an aa is?”
“That’s a type of lava, Norm. You’ll be seeing plenty of it soon.”
The game continued, and Norman’s muscles hurt from the tension. He started sweating despite the chill from the muddy floor. The crowd had started applauding again, with the occasional cheer or whistle.
“Azrael? What is the point of all this?” Norman asked. Azrael looked up from the seven-letter word he had laid down, sjambok. The audience suddenly got quiet. “I mean, how is playing a game supposed to have value in the afterlife? Why not judge me on the virtues I had when I lived? I did a lot of things I’m proud of – helpful things. Don’t those carry any weight?”
Azrael’s wings fluttered. The room was completely quiet except for the creaking of boards and the splashing of water from busted pipes. Suddenly Azrael jumped up, lights flashed, and the audience went hysterical with cheering. “You’ve just won the main round, Norm! Congratulations! Realizing the importance of life is the first step toward Heaven!
“Gabe, tell him what he’s won!”
“Norm, you’ve just won an all-expenses paid trip to Heaven!” The crowd stepped up its applause. “Accompanied by all the family and friends you’ve missed since they died, you’ll enjoy ten days and nights of tranquility aboard the H.H.S. Chastity. Following Purgatory, you and your deceased loved ones will sail through the Pearly Gates in style with ten restaurants, shuffleboard, and two Olympic-sized pools! Enjoy a wide range of exotic foods such as ambrosia and manna and view your life on the oversized screen that comes with your luxury suite! Enjoy your cruise, Norm!”
The audience began whooping and cheering again.
“You mean I’m not going to Purgatory, now?” Norm asked.
“Well, possibly, Norm, you still need prayers. But you haven’t played the Bonus Round yet!” Just then the lights came back up and dramatic, synthesized music echoed through the room. “Are you ready for the next step, Norman?”
“I guess so.”
Azrael took Norman’s hand and dematerialized with him, the house vanishing around them. They re-materialized in a cathedral full of people dressed in black. The duo hovered near the ceiling, and Azrael pointed toward a coffin.
“My … my funeral?” Norm said.
“That’s right, Norman!” There was a distant ding ding ding ding ding in response.
Norman looked down at Marilyn and their daughters. “I’m so sorry, Marilyn.” He whispered and looked around. “Everyone’s here! All my family. All my friends from my old home in Kentucky. And there’s Coach Barrick. I didn’t know he was still alive!”
“Not for long, Norm. Ready for the Bonus Round?” Norman nodded. “The object of the Bonus Round is to gather as many prayers as you can get. You only need 330 more to get out of Purgatory, Norm. Just a few more, now!”
“How do I do that?”
“It’s simple. All you have to do is close your eyes and think of the good things you’ve done for people. At that moment, those people will remember them. If they decide to pray for you, you get their prayer plus five bonus prayers! But you only get one hour. Ready?” A digital scorekeeper appeared over Norm’s head.
Norman shut his eyes and began remembering all the good deeds in his life as the heavenly audience began shouting words of encouragement. Norm remembered when he asked Marilyn for her hand in marriage. He had gotten down on one knee and produced the ring from his leisure suit pocket. It was the cheapest diamond he could find, but it put them in debt for a year. Just then Marilyn began praying, her head lowered behind a veil. The scoreboard dinged.
Norman was strengthened and thought about the birth of his children. Unprepared for their appearance after delivery, he saw them as they came out and pronounced, “Oh my! We’ve given birth to aliens!” in a weak attempt to inject humor. Lucky Marilyn didn’t remember that! he thought. But it was one of the happiest days of his life. The twin girls had been born healthy. To his surprise, his daughters began to pray with their mother, something Norman had never known them to do.
The digital readout dinged again and read eighteen. “That’s eighteen prayers, Norm! Keep going!”
Norman was surprised at how fast the memories were coming: the elderly woman he volunteered to take care of who always called him “sonny boy,” the scout troop he led (and got lost) in Yellowstone, the friend he helped move to Duluth, the cousin he took to the hospital when he Super Glued his hands together, the homeless man he gave his umbrella to before he realized it would hail. The prayers were rolling in, and he was up to two-hundred.
“You’re doing great, Norm! Ten more minutes!” The audience was cheering loudly now, drowning out the funeral ceremony below. Norman thought hard to get more prayers, thinking back to his childhood: saving his friend’s pet turtle from bullies with BB guns, swimming across Mary’s River to rescue his neighbor’s terrier, fixing his sister’s Wet My Undies doll.
The readout read 324. “Only six more prayers, Norm! One more memory!” The audience began counting down in unison: ten … nine … eight … Norman thought really hard. He was out of memories and grimaced. He couldn’t think! four … three … two …
“My birth!” Norm yelled as a buzzer went off, “I was my own gift to my mother!” He remembered the scent of his 10th birthday cake from his boyhood kitchen. Come and get it, she had said.
Far below, Norman’s 80-year-old mother was weeping, her head bent low in prayer.
“You’ve won, Norman! YOU’RE THE NEXT WINNER OF PURGATORY’S PRICE!”
“I am? You mean I’m not going to Purgatory now?”
“That’s right! Let’s hear what he’s earned, Gabe!”
“Norm, you’re the winner of Peace of Mind!” The audience went wild, finally appearing in vast, translucent bleachers around the ceiling of the cathedral. “Peace of Mind is from God & Son, makers of the hit emotions Happiness, Sympathy, and many others! You’ll enjoy an eternity of easy thinking, truth, and no worries as your destiny comes to face you. You’ll bask in the warmth of knowing that all major needs and ambitions have come to a close with no loose ends! Enjoy your Peace of Mind, Norm!”
The crowd went wild again as the cathedral faded away. A glowing gangplank appeared, leading up to a radiant doorway crowded with the ghostly figures of long-dead loved ones.
Azrael gestured toward the gangplank and motioned for Norm to go up it. “That’s right, Norm. You’re the winner! Enjoy your prizes!” Norman smiled shyly and walked slowly up the plank, golden box of Cloud 9 Cosmetics in hand, until he was swallowed by the luminous doorway.
“Thanks again for watching, folks!” Azrael said to the unseen audience as the scene shifted to a burning car on a road lined by corn fields. “Our next player is Alice Schwartz of Iowa. Her Tesla exploded! Alice! Welcome to Purgatory’s Price….”
Copyright Jason A. Kilgore