Necrophone by David Price
by David Price
Synopsis: What if an app could allow you to communicate with the dead while they await judgement? Steven Cross spent $1.99 in the app store and was granted the ability to call his newly-passed Grandfather, a World War II vet, while he was stuck in a reflective stage of death and feared damnation to hell.
Red light on. Okay, it’s blinking, recording. Deep breath, look into the camera … let’s do this.
Hi, my name is Steven Cross, and some weird stuff has happened to me lately. It’s really shaken me up, kind of made me question the truth of … well, of everything, I guess. What is reality, you know? I’m still not sure. I still wonder if I’m losing it, or having some sort of psychotic break. And it’s made me wonder how much I can trust my memory, so I thought maybe I should make a record that explains what’s happened to me so far, just in case. In case of what, I don’t know. I’m just feeling more paranoid lately.
All right, let me start this story where it begins, with the death of my grandfather.
I hate funerals. It’s the finality, you know. This is it, your loved one is going into the ground for good, or at least until the gates of hell open up and the dead rise again. Still, if there’s one thing worse than funerals, it’s wakes. I really hate wakes. What’s with the open casket, would you tell me? I don’t get it. What is the deal with everybody standing around in a room with a dead body surrounded by flowers? It’s morbid. Look, I know the person is dead; that’s why I came to the wake in the first place. So let’s just close the casket and put a couple of pictures near it, you know? It boggles my mind that we pay people to put makeup on corpses so they look good enough for public viewing. Doesn’t anyone else see anything wrong with this?
You see, my grandfather was ninety-nine years old when he died. That’s what I’m talking about here. He was ready to go. His wife, my grandmother, died twenty-four years ago. That’s a long time to live without your spouse. They were married fifty-one years too. Imagine that: you’re married for fifty-one years, your wife dies, and you live twenty-four more years. I can hardly grasp that. My grandfather lived almost a hundred years, spent half his life with his wife and just about half of it without her. And there wasn’t a day after she died that he didn’t miss her. He told me that, more than once, on my all-too-infrequent visits.
We never visit our grandparents enough, do we? It’s like we think, despite all evidence to the contrary, that they’ll live forever. They’ve always been there, you know? Maybe his house had something to do with it. I don’t know how long my grandparents lived there, but it was a long, long time. It wasn’t that big. I still don’t know how my mother and her sister and brothers all grew up there at the same time. And over the course of my life, going there for holiday visits and whatnot, the house never changed. Well, at least not in any significant way. I suppose there were repairs from time to time, but nothing major. Nothing was ever remodeled.
When you walked in the side door (they didn’t use the front door as a regular entrance), you entered a kitchen that could have existed in 1955, with green Formica countertops, painted white cabinets, and a yellow linoleum floor. There was a small, square wooden table with a couple of old metal and green vinyl chairs, but I never ate at it, as far as I can remember. Dinner was served in the dining room, which was dominated by a long walnut table; there was just enough space left over to walk around the table. It sat eight comfortably, ten not-so-comfortably. The dark wood chairs had a kind of lattice back, and the flower pattern printed on the red-satin padded seats had long since faded away. Only two of those rickety chairs had armrests, and those two special seats were placed at the ends of the table. There was a built-in china cabinet in the corner of the dining room, nothing fancy, just kitty-cornered into the wall and painted white.
Despite the dining room table seating ten, at big family gatherings I still had to sit at the kids’ table, a folding card table set up in the living room, until I was well into my twenties. Man, I hated the kids’ table. I couldn’t wait to finally get a place at the big table. Of course, I didn’t realize there’s only one way to get a seat at the big table—someone has to die.
The most memorable thing in the room, though, was this piece of furniture that was like a cabinet, long as the table and on legs. I’m pretty sure my mother calls it a buffet. It seemed like my grandparents kept everything in there, from paperwork to pictures and bottles of booze. Anything of importance was kept in that buffet.
After my family flew in from various parts of the country for my grandfather’s funeral, we spent the night before reminiscing at the house. We sat around that dining room table drinking forty-year-old scotch that Gramps must have been saving for some special occasion. Maybe he was saving it for us, for that night. That’s sentimental, cool, and creepy, all at the same time. We went through my grandfather’s stuff, mostly family pictures and paperwork. It’s amazing how many memories are collected in a lifetime, and it all seemed to fit in that buffet.
As I sorted through some of my grandfather’s papers, I noticed something about expenses for the cottage he’d built up in New Hampshire. The handwritten message on the back, though, was far more interesting. It was the first draft of a last will and testament dated the year his wife died. It said that, since he wouldn’t be around much longer, he needed to make sure his affairs were in order. I guess when his wife died, he felt closer to his own mortality.
I passed that will around until all my cousins had a chance to look it over. Everyone had that feeling that something had directed me to that paper, as if it was something we were meant to see. Maybe it was supposed to say something like “Don’t be sad. I’ve been ready to die for a long time.” It was as if Gramps was speaking to us from the other side.
All right, so at the wake, everyone and their brother showed up. Death for a ninety-nine-year-old isn’t too sad. We should all live that long, right? If you haven’t accomplished what you wanted to in a hundred years, you weren’t even trying. My grandfather was not a lazy man, so I’m sure he checked off all the stuff on his bucket list. The sadness comes at the funeral itself, when you realize that the strong, opinionated, crusty old man that you all loved for so long is now gone, and you are never going to see him again. It’s the aching pain of loss.
My brother wanted to deliver the eulogy. He has a good heart that way, but everything happened so fast that he didn’t have time to write anything down. So at breakfast I got a notebook, started writing, and I continued to work on it at the funeral home. I was a pallbearer and I was supposed to help carry the casket out to the limo, but I was too busy writing that eulogy for my brother. It all worked out, because my brother delivered one heck of a speech. People laughed and cried at all the right parts.
Just family attended the church service, which is why funerals are different. A much smaller crowd shows up to bury the body than to remember it. My grandfather was a World War II vet, so there was a flag-folding ceremony, and a soldier played taps, which was gut-wrenching. Unlike a wake, there’s closure at a funeral.
How final is death, though? Religions have sworn to have that answer for thousands of years. Mediums claim to communicate with the dead. Is there a heaven, nirvana, or afterlife? Are we reborn? What about all those near-death, light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel experiences? I never really knew what to think about that life-after-death stuff. It all sounds like bunk to me, but on the other hand, so many people believe in it that maybe there’s something to it. I’ve always wondered if human beings actually have souls. If so, does the soul travel to some mystical plane, populated with beings of light? Can souls get stuck on Earth and become ghosts? These questions become more important after you’ve lost someone close to you.
I bet you’re wondering if I went to a psychic or something. It wasn’t like that. My wife got me this new smartphone for Christmas. A few days after we buried my grandfather, I was sitting in his house in the rocking chair he had received as a retirement gift, taking a break from packing up the detritus of a long life, and I started fiddling with the phone. As I scrolled through the App Store, one particular app, called Necrophone, caught my eye. It didn’t strike me right away what it was, but I clicked on it to see what it did. According to the description, the Necrophone app was a device to speak with the dead.
I read over the bizarre description. It claimed to be the number one app in the spirit world. Use this app to get one last chance to say good-bye to loved ones, it said. There were restrictions, of course. The app would only work within one lunar cycle of the deathday of the person you were intending to contact. That was the word it used, deathday—kind of like the opposite of birthday. Apparently, there is a waiting period for spirits before they transition into their next incarnation. Your belief system contributed to how the spirit was “sorted” after death. It read like a lot of mumbo jumbo to me, so I scrolled down to the bottom. The company was Higher Powers, and the app was updated on the date of my grandfather’s death. It was version 999.0 and had a five-star rating with over one billion reviews. All this for only $1.99.
I downloaded the app, not really expecting much. When I opened it up, it asked for the full name, birthday, and deathday of the soul I wished to contact. It reminded me that the app would only work within one lunar cycle of the deathday. I decided to test that claim and entered a date from three months ago. Sure enough, I got an error message: “The date you entered is not within one lunar cycle of today’s date. The soul you wish to contact has moved on.” I corrected the date and received this message: “Availability has been confirmed. To contact the spirit, press SEND.”
I stared at that last line for a while. I got out of the rocking chair and paced around the small living room, I’m not sure for how long—could have been seconds, and could have been hours. What started as a joke didn’t feel so freaking funny anymore. This felt real. I finally sat down in the old orange recliner chair—Gramps’s chair. The matching couch was across the room from me. Was orange upholstery cool, back in the day? The Red Sox were playing on the TV. Gramps had always loved baseball, so it seemed fitting to have it on while I sorted through his stuff. I’d muted the volume, but since my grandfather had been hard of hearing, the closed-captioning continued to scroll across the screen.
My finger shook over the Send button on the phone. What if it worked? I realized that thought terrified me. What do you say to the dead, and what do they say to you? How do the dead feel about being dead? It was stupid; the whole thing had to be some kind of prank. The screen would go black for a few seconds and then a screaming zombie would jump out. That’s probably what would happen, so why be afraid?
I pushed Send, and a voice answered. “Hello? Is this … God?”
“What? I mean, no, this is Steve. Gramps, is that you?” I replied.
“Steven? Number One?” That’s what my grandfather called me every time I visited, because I was his first grandchild. Here comes Number One. A wave of vertigo hit me, so I sat down before I fell over. “How did you … how did you get this number?” he said. “I am pretty sure I’m dead, Steven.”
My breath hitched, just like I was a little kid again. I swallowed hard and tried to pull myself together. “Yeah,” I cleared my throat. “Yeah, Gramps, you died … in your bed. We buried you, um, three days ago.” God, this was so hard. I coughed to cover up a sob.
“Three days, you say? Has it been that long? It could have been three hours or three weeks; I have no sense of time here.”
“Oh.” I struggled to think of what to say to him. “Uh, is it better, where you are? Have you met Gram, and your brothers?”
“I am all alone here, Steven. I have not seen anyone since I arrived.”
“Oh, well, are you in a tunnel, or something? I think you’re supposed to go into the light.” Why did I just say that? If he went into the light, my chance to talk to him would be lost.
“No, I am not in a tunnel, and there is no light, Steven.”
“You’re not? Uh, where are you then? What’s it look like?” Maybe I was supposed to use the Necrophone app for some higher purpose. Maybe I was supposed to help my grandfather find his way.
“I am in a room. There is no light, although I can see just fine. There is a chair in the center of the room and a small table beside it with a telephone on it. There is a door on one side of the room. On the other side of the room, there’s an elevator.”
I looked up. The closed-captioning continued to scroll over the baseball game. Someone on the opposing team, the Tigers, had just hit into a double play to get the Red Sox starting pitcher out of a bases-loaded situation and end the inning. Fenway went wild. “Wow.” This was surreal. Was I really getting a description of an afterlife waiting room from my deceased grandfather? “Have you tried the door?”
“I have, Steven. It is locked.”
“What about the phone? Maybe you could call out to let them know that you’re there and the door’s locked?
“The telephone has no dial tone. It appeared not to function at all until you called me.”
“What about the elevator?”
“I am afraid to push the button, Steven.”
“Why? Just make sure you push the up button, right?”
“There is no up or down button, only a call button.”
“Oh. Well, maybe you can choose the direction once you get inside? I bet it has one of those old-fashioned levers inside, or maybe an elevator man.”
“Somehow, Steven, I don’t believe you get to choose the direction of the elevator. That’s already been decided. If there is an elevator operator, then he must be Charon. Do you remember who that is?”
“Yeah, I do.” Gramps had shared his love of mythology, especially Greek mythology, with me at an early age. “He’s the ferryman on the River Styx who brings souls to the land of the dead.”
“Yes, he does.”
“Ah, well, what are you worried about anyway, Gramps? You’ve been a decent, hardworking man all your life. You were a great father and grandfather. I’m sure the elevator will take you up.”
“I’m not so sure about that, Steven.”
“Why would you say that? I’m sure it’s all about the big picture, not every little detail.”
“This is not about little details, Steven. It’s about the war. I did things that I’ve never mentioned to anyone. When we came back, we all told ourselves that it was war, and these things were best forgotten. We carried on and made lives for ourselves. Some days I even managed not to think about the things I did over there. But now that I’m here, the war is all I can think about.”
“I don’t know what to say, Gramps. You said that you were lucky and never saw any action.”
His voice wavered. At first, I thought I was losing the connection, but then I realized it was a mixture of sadness and guilt. “I lied. I lied to protect my family from what I did. I lied to myself to forget the horror.”
I stood up, my nerves making me jittery. This was unreal. I reached up to run my fingers through my hair, and found I was still wearing a baseball cap. I took it off and tossed it onto the orange couch. Gramps hated it when you wore a hat indoors.
There were family pictures all over the house, but the living room was especially covered in them, on the walls, on the shelves, and over the mantel of a fireplace that had never been used as long as I’d been alive. I picked up a picture that was fairly famous in our family. Myself, my brother, and our three male cousins were behind the house at an old tree. My youngest cousin, who couldn’t have been more than four at the time, was on his brother’s shoulders. My brother sat on a low limb, and I hung upside down from that same limb. Our other young cousin stood in front, hands behind his back and smiling gleefully. Gramps had taken that picture. A tear escaped my left eye and rolled down my cheek. “What about forgiveness? You believe in that, don’t you?”
“I did when I was alive. At least I told myself I did. I always had some doubt. As I wait here, it feels as though a man is judged by the worst of his deeds, not the best.”
This call had taken a turn for the worse. My dead grandfather was afraid of going to hell. What was I supposed to say to console him? I didn’t know what he did in the war, and I didn’t want to know. If he believed it was enough to put the fate of his immortal soul in jeopardy, who was I to argue otherwise?
It occurred to me that the app said it would only work for one lunar cycle after the deathday. “Gramps, I got this …” He wouldn’t know what the hell an app was. He didn’t have a cell phone, or a computer, for that matter. “I got this thing on my cell phone. It’s an app, which is like a computer program. It’s how I contacted you. According to Necrophone, I can only contact you for one lunar cycle after you died.”
“Interesting. Do you have a point, Steven?”
“Well, I was thinking that at the end of twenty-eight days, maybe the door unlocks.”
“Or maybe the elevator doors open,” Gramps said.
“Yeah, I suppose that could happen too.” I didn’t know how to offer any more hope than an unlocked door could provide. My phone had been getting warmer, heating up during the entire conversation, but now it was almost too hot to hold. Communicating with the spirit realm must have taxed the battery. “Gramps, I think my phone is overheating. It might shut off on its own. If that happens, I want you to know that I didn’t hang up.”
“Listen, Number One, will you be able to call me again?”
“I think so, as long as the app doesn’t stop working and my phone doesn’t burn up. This is so unreal, you know?”
“I understand. Promise me something, then. Call me every day until those twenty-eight days have passed. It will help me count off the time that I have left here.”
“I promise, Gramps. I’ll call you every day.” I had no idea if Necrophone would work again, but I hoped it would.
“Excellent. Good-bye, Number One. I love you.”
“I love you too, Gramps.” Trickles of salty tears ran down my cheeks. I wiped them away self-consciously. “I’ll call you tomorrow, okay?” My voice cracked, just a little.
“I look forward to it.” The line went dead. I wanted to call him right back, to make sure it was real, but the heat was so intense that I couldn’t hold the phone any longer. I put it down and the screen flickered out. Crap. I hoped my phone wasn’t fried. Replacement smartphones weren’t cheap, and somehow I knew that Necrophone wouldn’t be in the App Store again. That was a once-in-a-lifetime shot.
In a couple of hours the phone cooled down. When I tried to turn it on again, however, nothing happened. I hooked it up to the charger and the empty-battery screen appeared. Well, at least that was something. Maybe it wasn’t completely cooked. I watched some TV, trying to keep my mind off what had happened. I checked the phone every so often, and according to the battery meter, it was charging. After a couple of hours, it showed a full charge. I pushed the power button and turned it on. I called my brother, just to see if it worked. I didn’t tell him about the conversation with our dead grandfather. I scrolled to the last page and the Necrophone app was still there. Okay then. Tomorrow, I would see if it worked again.
I didn’t mention the incident to my wife when she got home from work. I decided not to tell anyone. It felt like a secret, one that I shouldn’t share. I was the secret-bearer, and any wrong move could take it away from me. Necrophone was for me and me alone. To show it to another person, or even talk about it, would break the spell.
To my surprise, I didn’t dream that night, or maybe I just didn’t remember any dreams when I woke up. I thought about my grandfather all day while I was at work. I tried to remember the times we spent together when I was younger. It wasn’t that easy; the memories seemed to blend together.
When I got home, I opened the app, stared at the Send button again, and froze. I’d felt this way before. Twenty years ago, a bunch of us drove to a quarry to dive off an eighty-foot cliff. Staring over that cliff to the still water far below terrified us. No one wanted to be the first to jump. Well, I’d always wanted to go skydiving, so I kicked off my shoes and jumped. I counted on the way down. One Mississippi, two Mississippi, all the way to seven before I hit the water. Now, you’d think that the second jump would be easier, right? It wasn’t. The second time felt like tempting fate or spitting in Death’s face. I wanted to prove I had more nerve than that to the girls, though. I jumped four more times before we decided to stop for the day.
I looked at the Send button just as I stared off that cliff, daring myself to tempt fate, twenty years ago. I mustered up the courage to jump off again. He answered on the first ring.
“Yeah, hi, Gramps. How’d you know it was me?”
“You’re the only one who has called me. Why did you call back so soon?”
“It’s the next day, Gramps. It’s been about twenty-four hours since we talked.”
“Has it really? It seems like I just talked to you a few minutes ago.”
“No, Gramps, it was yesterday.”
“Hmm, I have been lost in my memories all that time. You’ve heard the phrase ‘My life flashed before my eyes.’ It seems all I can do here is reflect on the past. It’s so vivid, Steven. It’s like watching the movie of your life.”
We talked about the New Hampshire cottage that day. My grandfather built it himself, with help from his brothers and brother-in-law. There were so many memories associated with that place. I talked about all the times I helped him work on it. My grandfather always woke up with the sun and drank coffee while reading the newspaper. After he was done with the paper, he cooked bacon and eggs. We’d stumble out of our rooms when the smell of sizzling bacon woke us, usually around seven. Gramps would greet us with a hearty “Good afternoon!” Yup, that was my Gramps. “Good afternoon” at seven in the morning.
After finishing whatever chores he had for us, we had the rest of the day to ourselves. If we didn’t mess around, we could get our projects done by ten or eleven in the morning. Then we could spend the rest of the day at the lake. The best memories I had with my grandfather were of those summers. Sure, there were memories of holidays and vacations mixed in there too, but the cottage dominated my thoughts of time spent with him.
He remembered every last detail of those summers. Gramps talked about a time I barely remembered when I was sixteen and climbed up on the roof to kill a hornet’s nest. I went up there, armed with hornet spray, and doused the nest until the can was empty. A couple of angry hornets chased me off the roof. The next day I went back up and knocked the lifeless nest down. He didn’t laugh at the time, but Gramps told me that every time he thought about the face I made as I ran from the angry hornets, he chuckled to himself. I never knew that.
It got easier to make that call every day. I looked forward to it. Eventually we ran out of memories we shared, but he had plenty more that didn’t involve me. Gramps told me all about his fifty-year marriage to his wife and all the compromises a man has to make to keep the peace. He told me about the difficulty of raising four kids with very different personalities and trying to make sure they all turned out all right, working a couple of jobs to support those kids and give them everything they needed. He talked about his dreams too. He did a good job fulfilling those dreams. His biggest regret was that he buried two of his own children. Living to the age of ninety-nine can have that effect, though. If you make it to such a ripe old age, you’ve outlived many of the people you knew, maybe even some you raised. That was the hardest thing
I considered those talks a blessing. I mean, who gets a chance to do that?
Three days before one lunar cycle had passed, Gramps told me that he’d worked up the courage to go over to the elevator.
“Did you push the button?” I said.
“No, I just stood there and listened. It moves. I heard it going up and down. Occasionally I heard whimpers or crying. One time I heard laughing. At times, in the distance, I could hear the faint sounds of joyful singing. Other times I heard wails and moans. I’m scared, Steven.”
“Well, you shouldn’t be, Gramps. I know so much more about you now than I did before. You were a good man. You were a great son, brother, husband, father, and grandfather. Not every man can hope to have lived the life that you did. It was an honest life. If there is a God, what more can He ask from one of His children?”
“I still have not told you what I did in the war.”
“I know, I know, but how bad can it be? No matter what it was, I’m sure God forgives you. Look at all the good you did. Look at the family you raised. It has to be enough.”
Then he told me about his actions during the war. His war crimes, I guess you could call them.
The next day I tried to learn as much as I could about the Catholic Church’s definition of mortal sin. According to the church, committing a mortal sin was serious and considered a grave offense. Mortal sins were the ones that sent you to hell. The more I read about them, the more depressed I got. I suspected that Gramps already knew all this stuff, which was why he was worried. Man, the Catholic Church had a lot of rules, and things were not as clear as I’d hoped. There was all this stuff about being excommunicated at the moment of committing the mortal sin, remission, penance, and other confusing ideologies. One thing was clear: if you died in a state of mortal sin, you went to hell directly upon death. Since Gramps was in that waiting room, his own personal purgatory, I assumed his soul’s fate wasn’t set in stone.
I talked to Gramps later that day, but there was a weight between us now. I knew what he’d done in the war and why he worried that he might be punished for it. We only had a couple more chances to talk before his time would be up. I told him I was doing all I could on my end. I read something about plenary indulgences, which was how the Catholic Church once allowed the wealthy to buy their way into heaven. What was even stranger was that it was unclear if this practice still existed. Pope Pius V had banned indulgences five hundred years ago, but there were rumors that the church had reinstated this controversial practice, perhaps due to the poor world economy. One article said that these indulgences could be purchased for loved ones who had already died, and that this would ease the transition from purgatory to heaven. Oddly, indulgences reminded me of the fare paid to Charon for passage across the River Styx and into the realm of the dead.
If you had asked me about all this stuff a few weeks ago, I would have scoffed at it and called it a bunch of crap. Things were different now. I told Gramps that I had an appointment with a priest in the morning to discuss this whole indulgence thing and see if it was for real.
I met Father Benoit in his office in the rectory. “You’re not a regular here, Steven Cross. This must be important. What can I do for you?”
“Ah, well, good question.” I had rehearsed this in my head but now it sounded too stupid to say. “My grandfather died recently.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry for your loss, Steven. How old was he?”
“Well, he certainly lived a full life. Was he a strong-willed man?”
“Then you must be in need of some spiritual guidance. When such a steady patriarchal presence departs, it is not uncommon for the surviving family members to feel … shall we say lost, for a while. I will do my best to help you through this difficult time.”
“Ah, that’s not exactly it, Father.”
“No? Well, give me the whole story then, and I will see what I can do.”
So I did.
Well, sort of. I didn’t mention Necrophone, of course, but I brought up the whole thing about the war and my grandfather’s fear of dying in mortal sin. Father Benoit asked me how I knew what my grandfather had done in the war, so I told him it was a deathbed confession.
“Yes, mortal sins indeed,” Father Benoit agreed. “Did your grandfather ever confess these sins to a priest and do penance?”
“He did, but he felt like the penance wasn’t enough, and that he was never truly absolved. He was terrified on his deathbed, Father.”
“Hmm, well, what do you think I can do now? He’s been dead for a month. If your grandfather was concerned, he should have spoken to his own priest. I wouldn’t worry, though, Steven. If the rest of his family loved him as much as you obviously do, I’m sure his good works absolved him in the eyes of God.”
“Yeah, well, he wasn’t as sure about that, or he wouldn’t have been so scared. Father, I’ve done some research. What about plenary indulgences?”
“Indulgences? The church banned those hundreds of years ago, Steven.”
“I know that’s the official stance, Father, but according to some sources on the Internet, the practice still exists.”
“You can’t believe everything you read on the Internet, Steven.”
“I know. Look, let’s cut to the chase, okay? My grandfather told me about a CD he had that nobody knows about. His last wishes were that I cash it in and buy one of these indulgences, just to make sure he didn’t go to … you know, the wrong place.”
“And how much would this CD be worth?”
“Fifty? And you would be willing to sign this over to the church?”
“As long as the church keeps quiet about it, yes. The rest of the family might not understand, but I promised my grandfather I would do it.”
“I see. You will need an appointment with the bishop. I should be able to get one for you in a few weeks.”
I panicked and blurted out, “No! It has to be tomorrow morning. His time is almost up.”
Father Benoit raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean, his time is almost up?”
“Um, uh … he specified that this had to be taken care of within twenty-eight days of his death.”
“Then why did you wait until the last possible moment?”
“I … I couldn’t find the CD.” I wasn’t very good at this lying-on-the-fly thing, but I was doing my best. “And since he asked me this on his deathbed, I wasn’t sure it really existed. It … it wasn’t where he said it would be, but I found it yesterday, so I called you. Can you please get me an appointment tomorrow morning? It has to be morning.”
“This is most unusual,” Father Benoit said. “But considering how serious the matter is, I may be able to get you an appointment with the bishop. Give me your phone number and I’ll get in touch with you after I’ve made some calls.”
My grandfather was very nervous now. I told him about my consultation with Father Benoit, who would arrange a meeting the bishop. Fifty grand was nothing to sneeze at, not even if you were the Catholic Church. I had a lot to do in very little time, but I was all in. Gramps put his trust in me and I promised to succeed. I hated hearing him like that, in fear for his immortal soul. It broke my heart.
I waited and waited for Father Benoit to call, but he didn’t. My wife could tell I was agitated, so I told her I was having trouble with a customer that was driving me nuts, which was believable enough. And at 9:45 p.m., my phone finally rang.
“I’m sorry it’s so late, Steven.”
“No, no, it’s okay. Do I have an appointment with the bishop?”
“He has agreed to meet with you at eleven thirty in the morning. Don’t be late. The bishop is a very busy man and he’s squeezing you in between appointments. I gave him all of your details and he said he’d take care of it.”
“Really, he’s going to grant an indulgence?”
“That’s correct, provided you fulfill your end of the bargain.”
“Oh, I will, don’t worry. Thank you so much, Father Benoit. You’ve taken a huge load off my mind. You’re a lifesaver.”
“Glad I could be of service, Steven. Take care.”
“You too, Father. Thanks again.”
It occurred to me that the whole indulgence thing could be one giant swindle. I’d focused so much on getting one that I hadn’t considered it before. Did the church really have the power to grant salvation with a piece of paper and a nod? Was I going to waste fifty thousand dollars?
The bishop told me that an indulgence was a very unusual request in this day and age, but not completely unheard of. He had a very official-looking document from the Vatican, signed, sealed, and delivered. It granted Gramps full redemption and remission into the church. The bishop also said it guaranteed his admission into heaven, but there was a catch. He told me that he wouldn’t give it to me until the mortal sins were confessed to him. Normally the sinner did this, but in the case of indulgences, a family member could act as confessor. So far, I’d avoided thinking about it, never mind speaking about it. The bishop gave me no choice, so I told him.
Gramps’s unit was in Belgium during the bloodiest American campaign of World War II, the Battle of the Bulge. The second day of the conflict, German forces captured the U.S. Seventh Armored Division near the town of Malmédy. SS Colonel Joachim Peiper gave the order to have more than three hundred American POWs shot and killed, a decision that would later have him executed for war crimes. The American army was outraged.
Two weeks after Malmédy, Gramps’s unit captured sixty German troops in the Belgian town of Chenogne. The prisoners were locked inside the town hall, but the American soldiers wanted revenge.
Gramps was on guard duty when some angry soldiers stormed over. They were pissed about the Malmédy massacre and they intended to exact their own pound of flesh. The building was torched with a flamethrower, all sixty prisoners still inside. The whole unit watched the building burn, listening to the piercing screams of sixty men. Gramps shot a few of the prisoners as they tried to jump from windows. It was impossible to cover up, so the Allies reported that the German POWs were shot due to an order to take no prisoners.
That was Gramps’s war crime. He shot and killed German POWs trying to escape from a burning building. The bishop accepted the story I told as confession of the mortal sin and granted me the indulgence. I left his office.
In all the excitement, I’d left my phone at home. I had to rush back to call Gramps and give him the great news. He had died at 2:07 in the afternoon, so his twenty-eight-day cycle would be over in a couple of hours. But an eighteen-wheeler rolled over on the interstate and left me stuck in a massive traffic jam. I would never make it in time. With my car’s GPS I calculated an alternate route home. The problem was, the new route wasn’t a highway, and it went through a bunch of cities. All the red lights I hit drove me nuts. I rocked back and forth in the driver’s seat, saying, “Come on, come on,” as the minutes ticked away. It was going to be close. I almost ran over a woman pushing a baby carriage across the street.
I got home and called Gramps with only minutes to spare. “I got it, Gramps! I got it! Did anything come through on your end?”
“What do you mean, Steven?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I thought you might get a gold coin or something, to give to the ferryman, you know?”
“No, nothing appeared, Steven, but I’m sure that’s just myth. You didn’t fail, that’s what is important. I don’t want to burn like those German prisoners did.” Over the phone, I heard a mechanical whirr.
“The elevator is coming for me, Steven.”
I had doubts again. I wanted to tell him not to get on that elevator. I wanted to scream that I thought we just got scammed, but I couldn’t do it.
“The doors are opening. I love you, Number One.”
“Don’t hang up! Leave the phone off the hook as you go in. I want to hear it.”
I heard him greet the elevator operator, who I imagined as Charon. I heard the doors closing and yelled, “I love you too, Gramps!”
“Good-bye, Steven,” I heard distantly. I strained to hear as much as I could, I tried desperately to detect another sound, and then I heard it. Far, far away, there were voices. They were so hard to make out, so distant, so faint.
There was a click, and one of those recorded operator voices said, “Thank you for using Necrophone. We hope that you had a positive experience and would consider using us again in the future.” I didn’t think so.
In the light of day, I like to think those were the voices of joyful singing, and it cheers me up to imagine Gramps reunited with all the family that went before him. He deserves salvation.
But when I lie down at night, in the dark, I think those voices were the wails and moans of the damned, and I shiver, my eyes moist with tears. I’d never been one to pray, not even when I was a kid. I pray every night now, afraid of the judgment that will one day be passed on my life.
So that’s it. I don’t know what’s real anymore. I used to be more grounded, putting my faith in science, in stuff I thought I knew to be true. But now, paranoia has crept into my soul. Did I talk to my dead grandfather on my smartphone? Did I really spend fifty thousand dollars on a piece of paper supposed to get him into heaven? Does all that religious stuff that I once thought of as simple superstition actually have some merit? Mortal sin, Purgatory, plenary indulgences, that stuff can’t be real. Can it?
If You Enjoyed
Dead In The USA
by David Price