Authors: Martha Brockenbrough
To Adam, Lucy, and Alice, always.
You have been selected for membership in SRPNT, the Soul Rehabilitation Program for Nefarious Teens (Deceased). This bold endeavor addresses the growing problem of crowding in the lower levels of Hell. Since its inception, SRPNT has saved hundreds of lost souls, making it one of Heaven's most cost-effective interventions.
But you're not here because you care about costs! Let us not mince words! You're here because:
1. You are dead;
2. You were a troublemaker in your earthly form; and
3. Your only alternative is an eternity spent in one of the nine layers of Hell.
This is your last chance to save yourself from Perdition.
How well you tend the soul in your care will determine your fate.
Good luck and Godspeed!
If you think it's terribly expensive to warehouse a person in prison, try locking up a soul for eternity.
We know you're not much for big words. Guess what? Soul rehab is all about increasing your vocabulary. There's more to language than four-letter words. So get used to big ones like
, which means everlasting punishment that sinners like you endure after death. It also refers to the physical location of Hell. It comes from the Latin
, which means “put to destruction.” So don't be fooled by our glowing heads and handsome robes. Beneath our attractive exteriors lurks a pure love for God that is not only bright but also lethal to the wicked.
We're just kidding about that Godspeed part. If you attempted that, you'd burn to a cinder in seconds.
Chapter 1, Subsection ii:
The Ten Commandments for the Dead
I. THOU SHALT NOT COMPLAIN ABOUT BEING DEAD.
a couple years before my cousin Mike shot me in the forehead with an arrow, my eighth-grade homeroom teacher brought two cartons of raw eggs to school.
“Who can tell me what these are?” Mrs. Domino said. She was wearing her second-hottest skirt, the one with the cherries on it. Score.
I shot my hand up because that was an easy question, and if I answered something right at the beginning of the week, I could go the other four days without opening my mouth except to breathe.
“Jerome?” she said.
“Those are eggs.”
I put my palm out so Trip Wexler, who sat next to me, could give me some skin.
“I am sorry, that is incorrect,” Mrs. Domino said. Then Trip Wexler left me hanging.
She called on Darcy Parker, who was all, “Those are our egg babies? We get to take them home? And look after them for a week? You told us about them last Wednesday? In health?”
Darcy looked right at me when she answered, like she was getting extra points because I'd messed up again, but here's what I think. Someone who is an encyclopedia with a decent set of legs doesn't need to answer a question with a question.
“Very good, Darcy,” Mrs. Domino said. She turned and sort of swished to her desk, and I tried not to stare directly at her behind, which was tough because it was pretty much at eye level and ever since that one time I'd seen her on a weekend at a car show when she was wearing jeans and a flannel shirt tied at the waist, I was thinking of her more in a Bible sense than a schoolbook sense. I looked at Trip Wexler's shoes instead, which helped because he had drawn pictures on them of the Devil with nunchuks.
Mrs. Domino picked up a stack of assignments and gave one to each of us, and when she got to my desk, I dropped mine on the floor. I was hoping she'd pick it up, because,
But she didn't. She just gave me a look. I slid down in my desk until I was low enough to reach my assignment, only I couldn't sink far enough, so I had to slide back up and then get out of my chair and bend over myself.
The sheet had all the rules of the egg-baby drill, but I just skipped to the cartoon on the bottom, which is how I found out about the prize for keeping our eggs alive: two free passes to the Uptown Cinerama.
I was all, “Sweet!” because the new Schwarzenegger movie was opening soon and there was no way my dad was going to give me money to watch, even though, back then, it was the coolest movie ever on account of the special effects. Everybody would be talking about it. My plan was to take Mike, and maybe the two of us could scrape up enough change out from under the floor mats of his mom's Honda and maybe also from her purse to get popcorn and Coke and Reese's Pieces too. It would be epical.
Mrs. Domino clicked back up to her desk and picked up the first carton. She opened it and held up an egg.
“Each of these eggs has a number on it. When you return your eggs on Friday, we will be able to see who succeeded and who failed. If you lose or drop your egg, please â don't even think about trying to sneak a new one in. I can tell the difference between my handwriting and yours. Part of this assignment is integrity, so I expect you to exercise some.”
I wasn't sure what she meant by that even though she was looking at me when she said it. Jordan Muscovy tried to exercise his egg by tossing it over his shoulder and catching it behind his back. It cracked and oozed goo all over the checkerboard floor.
He was all, “Can I have another? I wasn't ready.”
“Nope. There are no second chances with babies,” she said. Her lips went all tight around the
word and I remembered she was on a waiting list to adopt one from China. She used to talk about it a lot, but not so much anymore. While she finished chewing out Jordan, she kept
putting eggs in the hands of other kids. “Maybe you'll remember that next time someone entrusts you with something so fragile. Now go get Mr. Moder, please.”
Jordan leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest and glared for a minute before he got up to find the janitor. He kicked the garbage can on his way out and it clanged over, and everybody in the room knew he'd get detention. Other kids were a lot more careful after that. Darcy stuck her egg in a pink pencil box she pulled out of her backpack. She took the pencils out and put in a bunch of Kleenex. She had everything in that pack. She was a Slurpee machine and a porn display away from being 7-Eleven.
Mrs. Domino ran out of eggs right before she got to my desk, so she had to go back for the second carton. I took a break from staring at her skirt and looked out the windows, which were so fogged up with eighth-grader breath, it seemed cloudier outside than it really was.
She finally put an egg in my hand. It was coolish and heavier than I thought it would be, and the shell had sandy-feeling little bumps on its fat end.
“Number thirteen,” she said. “Good luck.”
Like I'd need luck! I was totally going to win without. I put the egg in the pocket of my hoodie and decided to call him Thirteen, which would be an awesome name for an actual baby, or for a band if you combined it with another word like
. Chain Saw 13. Rockin'.
Mrs. Domino handed out the rest of the eggs and reminded us to store ours in the fridge at night so they
wouldn't get all rotten. Someone asked if we could boil the eggs or if that was cheating.
“Would you boil a baby?” she said.
I thought about saying I wouldn't put a baby in the fridge either. But one more note in my file and it was detention for me too, and I didn't want to be in a room with Jordan because I valued my life.
After school, Mike came over and we were hanging out in the front yard under the oak tree. I almost forgot Thirteen was in my pocket, which would've been a disaster because we were tossing a football back and forth. I for sure would've smashed him because Mike was the kind of guy who threw really hard at your stomach. But I remembered in time and put my egg on a pile of crunchy leaves instead.
Mike nodded at it. “Snack or egg baby?”
Mike was two years ahead of me, and he remembered a lot about school, but never useful things like what to say to the lunch ladies to get bonus Tater Tots.
“Egg baby,” I said, trying to look the right amount of cool and bored. The trick is to keep your mouth open a little.
“I remember when we had to do that.”
“You keep your egg alive all week?” My face was sweating warm, and the cool air felt good. Smelled good too, like wet apples or pumpkins. I caught the ball, and my body slipped into position â¦ fingers on my left hand tight but not too tight, making the perfect L around the belly of the ball, twisting my shoulders as I brought it back.
Sometimes, I can still feel what it was like to throw a ball, a million complicated moves you couldn't think about without screwing up. You just had to believe you could do it and let go, your throwing hand curving forward like the sun does across the sky, your shoulders rotating like a planet across your body as you step into the pass. Maybe that's how God felt creating the universe, making everything spin in all sorts of ways just before letting it go and watching what happened.
I once tried to explain that idea to Mike.
“Are you kidding?” he said. “Or drunk?”
“Yeah, duh. Obviously. Both.”
I never mentioned it again, but I was onto something. I know it. There's something major in the way you can launch a ball into someone else's orbit like it's your own crazy moon.
Mike chucked the ball back and it smacked right into my hands, so hard my finger bones rang. “My egg baby lasted about two seconds. I threw it at a car right after school got out. It was totally sweet. I pegged a minivan full of Cub Scouts, and their mom pulled over and started yelling at me and I pretended like I didn't speak good English and offered to sell her my pants for twenty bucks. Let's do that with your egg too.”
I looked down at Thirteen and realized how much I didn't want to chuck him at a minivan. He was my egg. Mine.
“No way, man.” I moved my right leg so I could put more mustard on the pass. “I'm gonna take care of him all
week. The prize is movie tickets. Me and you are gonna see
“Right on,” Mike said. He bobbled the ball and it bounced off to the left. He looked annoyed that he had to run after it, which is probably why he drilled my gut with a tight spiral. “What's the plan for this weekend?”
We put the football down and talked about maybe sneaking into a laser Floyd show and trying to meet older girls. This cat came up to us and was all crawling in our laps and bumping its head on our chins, which is when Mike said, “You can make a bomb out of laundry soap and cat litter.” That was the same cat that later got my soul into all the trouble and I wished a thousand times I'd told it to scram way back then.
But I didn't. I just said “cool” to the idea of a cat litter bomb.
After a while of tossing other ideas back and forth at each other, it got too cold to be outside, and the sun was mostly down, so we went in. I put Thirteen in the fridge, and Mike and me watched TV until my dad came home, and Mike said he had to make like a nose and run. It took me a couple seconds to get the joke, but when I did, I laughed until my stomach muscles cramped.
Thirteen and I had a good week together. I took him to school and sat him on my desk so he'd have a good view of things. I skipped my appointment at the orthodontist on account of I didn't want to scar him for life. And I could tell he really liked it when I cranked the tunes in my
room, especially the Lynyrd Skynyrd. If you look at an egg or anything long enough, it will let you know what it's feeling. That is a fact.
Then on Thursday night, our last night together, the night before I was going to win the tickets, I went into the kitchen to make myself a ketchup and pickle sandwich on white bread and found Thirteen in the sink. Or what was left of him, namely, his shell. It was broken into two big pieces, with a couple of little chips hanging down around his middle. I went up to my pop's La-Z-Boy, where he was sitting with a plate on his stomach, chewing on something.
“Did you eat my egg?” I didn't even need to ask because I saw the yellow goo smeared on the plate. Alls I could think of was that it was Thirteen's heart.
“What do you mean, your egg?” He swallowed. “You mean the one in the fridge?” Pop was watching the news about the war in the desert, so he didn't even look at my face when he was talking. He hadn't changed out of his coveralls, but his work boots were off and I could see part of his big toe through a hole in his sock.
“It was the only egg in the fridge,” I said.
“Well, I made a Doug McMuffin out of him.” Doug is my pop's actual name and Doug McMuffins are his version of the McDonald's thing.
“But it was my egg.”
“Don't blame it on me, buddy. If it's in the fridge, it's food, and it's fair game. That's your rule, by the way. The one you made after you ate all my kielbasa. âYour' egg was in the fridge next to the beers and cheese. Anyone woulda thought it was up for grabs.” Pop had a string of
cheddar hanging from his whiskers and I wished he'd use his sleeve or a napkin or something to wipe it off. He changed the channel to sports, and cheering noises came out of the TV set.
“He had a number on him. It was for school.”
“Sorry, kiddo. Didn't know. Not the end of the world. Nobody died or nothing. You can tell your teacher he was delicious.” He flashed me half a smile and rubbed his eyes with the thumb and forefinger of one hand. Then he stuck the plate out for me to clear.
Afterward, I took my sandwich into my room and ate it on my bed, even though the bread had gotten soggy. I looked up at the ceiling, where I'd taped a Schwarzenegger poster that I'd swiped from the mall. I shouldn't have left Thirteen in the fridge all by himself. Duh. I should've put him in a box, or taped a note on him, like Darcy would've done. I should've known Pop would eat him. Anybody else would've figured that one out. But it was too late for me. It was too late for Thirteen. There are no second chances with egg babies.
At school the next day, I didn't tell Mrs. Domino it was my pop who ate my egg baby. Even with how things were at home, I have a rule about not ratting because I don't do that to family, no matter what. So I told her I did it, and that it tasted excellent. Because if you're going to get in trouble anyway, you might as well go out in a blaze of glory. That has always been my style. Which explains a lot about the thing that happened later with Heidi.