by Eric J. Marschall © 2002

Albert bent down over the toilet and filed off the last bit of the heel spur that had been bugging him since he’d arrived. His toes made a hollow clanking as they shifted on the porcelain.

“Much better,” he said, wiping it down with a towel. “That’ll do just fine.”

He glanced into the mirror, turning his ivory skull back and forth, then raised the towel to wipe away a bit of soot that had gathered where his jawbone joined the rest of his head.

“Scrubbing, bleaching, buffing, and it’s still not all gone,” he said, but realized that as it was in the air like a thick dust, it had to settle somewhere.

The sun was setting beautifully over the mountains as Albert stepped from the porch of his grey ranch for his evening bike ride. Two or three doors slammed shut. He scanned the neighborhood from the end of his cul-de-sac, looking over all the grey houses, but did not find the source of the noise. He never could.

He mounted his bike and pedaled down the empty street. Some curtains were violently pulled shut as he rode by, and the corners of others were turned as some quietly watched.

Down the street about four houses, the shape of a small child lingered near a white picket fence. Its bones were blackened, small fields of beige interspersed with hard patches of charred flesh. Just as he was in front of the house, the screen door banged open. The dark skeleton of a woman lunged out but was quickly halted by the sight of Albert riding by directly in front of her house.

“Dara…Dara! Get in here! Don’t look at that…that….” She fell to the ground with a CLACK-CLACK, putting her dark hands to her darker head.

“Hello,” said Albert, cheerfully waving.

The woman shrieked, burying her face further. The head of the child perked up and followed Albert as he moved down the road.

The houses on the right gave way to a small, orange lake and, beyond it, the mountains. The sun filtered through the soot in the air and painted everything a glowing crimson.

The people had never been very friendly, even before Albert had polished himself, but they were getting more scared as time wore on. Afraid of his brightness, his clarity of form, they had shut themselves off to live their own dark existence of grimy bones and pity.

It had always surprised Albert that cremation had been a sin on Earth, but was even more perplexed by the comfortable accommodations in the afterlife, and that no one enjoyed them.

As the road turned around the pond, he pedaled a little faster, as he did every evening, wondering if he was really in Hell, and if his betterment was a road to salvation.

x x x

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