NOT QUITE HEAVEN
By: Richard Jeter
Somewhere in hell, our dad was having a good laugh at our expense.
Back on Earth, he had to settle for his disembodied voice coming out of the tape recorder perched precariously on my brother's lap.
"If you're listening to this, I guess I'm dead."
We hadn't seen our dad in ten years. He'd spent most of our childhood in jail, and then we, having been shorted by both nature and nurture, spent stints of our young adult lives in prisons he had passed through. Some people still remembered him. Those people had a real distinct tendency to punch us. A lot.
Then, one day, without the decency to call ahead or anything, he just up and died.
Edgar got the letter, on account of him having an address, but I had my trailer set up on his north forty. It wasn't long before we were at the card table in his kitchenette, doing shots of Jack and debating if we were mourning or celebrating.
"I pulled a job for some fellas, for a cut. But it was more difficult than disclosed, so I decided it was only right that I receive extra compensation."
We were cleaning out his room at an Extended Stay near Des Moines when Edgar found the recorder, tucked beside the Gideon Bible in the nightstand, where dad hid his money because "thieving room service never touches those things." Edgar pressed play on a lark. That was our first mistake.
Now, it was all Edgar could do to keep hold of it. Each and every rut and pothole on County Highway 6 was treating everything in the cab like an off-balance dryer. Including the suitcase full of cash behind our seats, caked in dirt, zipper busted, worth more than both of us put together.
"I am inclined to believe they did not agree."
A glance at my side view mirror revealed nothing but beige dust, thrown up in plumes behind our frantic retreat down a road with only a vague memory of being paved. There was a crack, audible with the windows rolled up, and the mirror exploded in a cascade of silvered metal.
"Christ, Pete! I think they're shooting at us!"
Edgar's command of the obvious was confirmed when our rear window shattered, tempered glass crackling ominously like breakfast cereal before giving way entirely. Loose bills swirled up and out of the suitcase, destined for confused farmers to find lying among the corn.
"If they have decided get rid of me, rather than let the bastards have their money back, I want one last chance to do right by my boys."
The first cache had been buried at the base of an old grain silo off CR6, beneath an antique Nebraska license plate from the shambles of our childhood in Lincoln.
In our struggle with the dry topsoil of a hot Iowa summer's day, we never saw the black sedan until it was nearly on us. The yawning portal of the tinted passenger's side window slid down to reveal a scarred face, gimlet eyes dark as the glass they'd been peering through.
"Afternoon, gentlemen. Think you have something that belongs to us."
Acting on prey animal instinct, Edgar threw his last shovelful of dirt in to the man's face. I chucked the newly extracted Samsonite in to the back of the cab, busting the zipper on impact. We peeled out. They followed.
"But you're gonna have to do exactly as I say."
The directions to the second drop point seemed simple, sitting in that hotel room. Now, barreling down a dirt road toward the first intersection in miles, under active gunfire, I had my doubts.
"Edgar, is this my turn?"
"They! Are! Shooting at us!"
"I AM AWARE, am I turning here or not?!
"I thought you knew!"
"REWIND THE TAPE, DAMMIT!"
A few seconds of whirring. A click. The tape recorder slipped off Edgar's lap as he pressed play. He leaned forward to fish it out of the floorboard. Distracted, I drove straight through a miniature replica of the Grand Canyon. Edgar's head struck the dashboard with a crack, and he stayed slumped forward.
A bullet hole blossomed on the front windshield, the slug passing through the space Edgar would have been occupying if upright. Small favors. There is silence from the recorder. I turn left on blind faith and adrenalin.
This road was modern, smoother, but the loss of my dust screen made me target practice. I floored the gas and began erratically swerving across the blessedly empty asphalt, when an odd, strumming refrain began somewhere beneath me.
I don't know where my brother hit play on the tape, or what my father recorded over, but from the depths of my floorboard, John Denver is singing "Take Me Home, Country Roads."
Be it my hysterical laughter, the jostling of my serpentine maneuver, or the healing powers of Mr. Denver, a concussed Edgar groaned and stirred to consciousness. I am relieved, although not as relieved as when the abandoned Sinclair station comes in to view.
We fishtail in to the weed-choked parking lot and around the back with so little warning that the sedan has to spend precious seconds circling around. The key is in the outer pocket of the suitcase, like dad said. I grab it and sprint to the door while Edgar wrangles the suitcase itself.
"We can make our stand inside, if we can--"
The door opens before I touch the lock. In the doorway, grinning, is our father, reeking less of decay than expected. More like cheap liquor. I stare, open-mouthed, confused.
"Ha! Not yet. But thank you boys for fetching my money so I didn't have to deal with--"
The sedan rounded the corner, doors flying open before the suspension stopped rocking. My miraculously risen father turned a baleful glaze toward us, and suddenly we were five again, waiting for the belt.
"This is exactly why I never brought you two on jobs."