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Word Count: 883
Sam's job was to collect souls. Many of them didn't know they’d passed on. It was his responsibility to usher them into the afterlife smoothly enough so they’d go willingly. Otherwise, they would insist on lingering in the plains between the living and the dead.
Sam eased his tow truck to the side of the road in front of the broken-down Ford Focus. Hopping out of the diesel, he grabbed his clipboard and ambled over to the dusty sedan. The couple inside were passed out, shoulders leaning against each other, mouths hanging open, the woman bellowing a hearty snore.
He ran his fingers through his greasy hair, then tapped his ignition key on the window. “Hello?”
They jerked awake. The woman fumbled for her glasses and squinted at her watch. Pressing her mouth into a grim line, she pulled a small notebook from her purse and scribbled. The driver rolled down the window.
“Need a tow?” Sam asked and grinned.
“Well it’s about time you got here!” the blond, clean-cut man man snapped, and pushed his door open so fast, Sam jumped back.
The woman scowled and scribbled some more.
Sam shook his salt-and-pepper head and smirked. Yep, these two are going to need a little convincing. “Sorry 'bout that. If you can take the car out of gear before you step out, that would be great.”
Huffing and sitting back down, the man yanked at the stick shift between the two front seats, jiggling it back and forth to be sure it was in neutral.
“And the emergency brake, please,” Sam reminded him.
The cranky man released the brake. Stepping out of the car, he slammed the door and tugged at his grey suit, now wrinkled from sleeping in the vehicle.
Sam handed him the clipboard. “If you wouldn't mind filling this out for me, I’ll get the car hitched up and we’ll be on our way.”
“He wasn't in the mood…to persuade these numbskulls to move on to the sweet by-and-by.”
Once the man grabbed the clipboard, Sam turned his back and shuffled toward the tow truck. “Great. Just what I needed,” he grumbled under his breath. He yanked the chains and straps from the toolbox secured at the rear of the flatbed. He wasn't in the mood to ooze with customer service and charm just to persuade these numbskulls to move on to the sweet by-and-by. It was his last shift of the day and he didn't have the patience. They would just have to deal.
The woman stood at the front passenger tire, frowning and scratching in her pad. Sam shook his head. She scribbled some more.
Sam finished hitching the car to the back of the tow truck and plucked the clipboard from the man's hand. He held the form at arm's length to read it. “Thank you very much…Calvin…and Jessie Wheeler.” Opening the passenger side of his truck, Sam gestured for them to climb inside with an open palm. “Let’s get to the nearest service station and move you two along, shall we?”
Mrs. Jessie Wheeler scrawled furious marks across her notepad, darting her eyes between Sam and the paper, her brows at severe angles. Calvin nodded as he peered over her shoulder, reading the her words.
“I hate to break the news to you, but you’re dead.”
Sam raised an eyebrow, then shut the door behind them when they finally climbed inside. He strolled around the front of the diesel and hopped into the driver’s seat. “Okay, folks. I’ll try to make this nice and simple for you.” He revved the engine to life, ground the gears and pulled out onto the highway. “I hate to break the news to you, but you’re dead.”
“What?” Calvin glowered and glanced at Jessie, who huffed and scratched more into her notebook.
“Yep. I know it’s hard to accept, but it’s the truth. You and the missus died of dehydration back there on the desert road. Running out of gas was the least of your worries. Haven’t you ever heard, don't go into the desert without water?” He shook his head. “Well, there’s nothing for it now. When we get to the service station, I’ll show you where you can check in and move on to the Underworld Processing Center. We’ll get you back in line for your next life.”
“You’re a real piece of work, you know that?” Calvin crossed his arms.
Jessie pursed her lips and continued scribbling.
“What is that you keep writing?” Sam glanced between her and the road as they sped down the two-lane highway.
Jessie smiled for the first time. “Oh, you’ll get to see it all in my report.”
Sam’s brows rose. “Report?”
“Yes, Sam. My report to the Underworld Processing Center.” Her pearly whites shone with satisfaction.
“Huh? Who are you two?”
Calvin chuckled. “Ever heard of mystery shoppers?”
Sam’s mouth dropped open.
“Well, that’s kinda what we are,” Calvin answered. “You kept us waiting on the roadside for ten years, Sam. Ten years!”
Sam gulped. “But, I mean—”
“Your approach to ushering us into the afterlife was sloppy, insensitive and rushed,” Jessie read from her notebook. “We’ve received a slew of complaints about you and it’s about time you were relieved of your duty.”
“But, I was—”
“There’s nothing for it now,” Calvin said, recycling Sam’s words. “Just pull into the service station and hand over your keys. Report to your supervisor for your debriefing.”
We were driving down the 15 Freeway on our way to Las Vegas for a reader convention when I came up with this little tale about Sam. I saw a tow truck on the side of the road and wondered about how often cars broke down in the middle of the desert. Then I wondered how many people have actually died in such circumstances. That's when the writer in me emerged and asked, “What if someone wasn't actually towing cars but instead was collecting souls?” And thus the story was born. If you enjoyed the story…