Original Fiction by
T he old man dressed like a silent film star: black and white suit, shiny shoes, a cane, and even a top hat. The hat sat on the bench and the cane leaned against the back of it. His head of curly white hair moved like a Bobblehead doll.
“Tickets! Get your tickets to heaven!” he shouted from beneath his full white beard.
I groaned. Like this city needed another nutcase. The seedy parts of town were practically the whole town now. Fed up with cokeheads, needlers, and meth mouths, decent citizens shifted until moving away. Most of those remaining who weren’t users did the selling.
Sure, I used. My habit didn’t affect my day-to-day life, though. I wasn’t one to flaunt my enjoyment of something that others grew to depend on, so I didn’t use around people with addiction problems. I could handle my coke habit.
This guy had to be on something. Not meth. He had pearly teeth. Probably wore the suit jacket because tracks lined the inside of his arms.
“Did I mention these tickets are free?” he said as I passed by.
I stopped in front of him, stared without embarrassment, and dropped my book bag on the concrete. It was getting heavy.
“That’s right.” He looked straight at me. “These are tickets to heaven and they are free. All you have to do is take one.”
“Really?” I tried to feign excitement, but it came out sarcastic. “What’s the catch, old man?”
“Catch?” He guffawed. “No catch. I hand out tickets to anyone willing to take one.”
“Okay, I accept.” I kept a straight face.
He snapped his fingers. “You seem like the kind of person who wants to know where she’s going when she dies.”
So this was the catch. I had to listen to this old guy preach. “Uh-huh. Sure.”
“Here you are, miss. Your ticket to heaven.”
I looked at the laminated postcard he delivered into my hand. In gold letters at the top, One Way Ticket To Heaven was written in calligraphy. Below it read, This ticket is not refundable, for once given, it shall always exist as the holder’s ticket even if lost, stolen, or destroyed. At the very bottom, John 3:16 was written in red block lettering. I knew that was from the Bible, but didn’t know what it said. Stuff like that didn’t interest nor stick with me.
I flashed him a peace sign and went on my way.
Oddly, I did feel a little different, like I’d gained an extra spring in my step. My backpack seemed lighter. Even if I didn’t think this was a ticket to heaven—as if such a thing existed and was handed out by crazy old men near college campuses—I had a sense of security, the idea that I need not fear death. Why? Because I could always say, “You can take my life, but you can’t take away my ticket!”
That moment lasted from that stretch of sidewalk where I’d met the old man to the house on the corner of 8th and Main. I walked up the porch steps to the door. Everyone inside enjoyed a snort or two daily. Me? Three days a week at most.
Standing there, ticket in hand, the strangest thing happened. Something like a knot twisted up my intestines while I looked between those gold letters and the doorknob. Could I have fallen prey to the old guy’s lunacy? People like him think they’re doing the world good, but most of the time, they’re nuttier than the heavy addicts I knew with wild, shifty eyes.
But nothing about him appeared vindictive or deceitful. He really believed he had tickets to heaven. And why not? Who says who gets to go to heaven and who doesn’t? Why not this old man who seemed to want everybody to go?
I knocked twice, paused, and knocked twice again so they’d know it was me.
Dwayne answered the door and gave me the once-over. You’d think I was a stranger the way he examined me.
“Can I come in or what?” I asked, impatient for my fix.
“You seem different.”
“Different than what?” I snapped.
He gave me one of those, “Girl, don’t mess with your dealer,” looks.
I turned on the charm, gave him a smile, and flashed a wad of cash. “This familiar?”
He finally let me in. Like walking through an invisible wall, I hit the cigarette smell. At the moment, no one smoked inside, but enough people had over the years to give the place a permanent odor. A few familiar faces lounged on the back porch, which I could see through the window.
Dwayne handed me the stash while I handed him the cash. In the living room, I sat next to Ruby, the oldest woman I’d ever seen come to this house. She must’ve been eighty years old, or fifty years of hard partying. She wiped her nose.
“You mind if I do my lines here?” I asked.
She waved like she was on top of some float in a parade and didn’t have a care in the world.
I still had that ticket in my pocket, and decided to make it useful for more than sending souls to heaven. I placed it face down on the coffee table and used the credit card Ruby had in front of her to stack up two parallel white lines of pure cocaine.
With a rolled dollar bill, I snorted each line, feeling instantly high and great and fantastic. No feeling ever came close.
I glanced at Ruby, who still waved like she was a princess. She pointed with her non-waving hand toward the table.
I looked down and froze. My ticket, now free of white powder, had more writing printed on the back.
This ticket belongs to AMY HAYES.
My hands trembled. I was stunned, but must be seeing things.
“Better not leave that here. Must be important if it has your name on it,” said Ruby.
I wasn’t hallucinating. But how did that old man know my name?
I picked it up and examined both sides. Nothing changed on the front. It still listed all that crap about how losing it wouldn’t matter. The red letters at the bottom jumped out at me again, and I had to know what it said.
“Dwayne, you own a Bible?” I hollered.
He strode into the room. “Do I own a Bible?” He lost the don’t-mess-with-the-dealer face and broke into laughter. “Girl, I’m Baptist. ‘Course I got a Bible.”
From a shelf, he pulled out a thick book, and a mound of dust came with it.
“Apparently, you haven’t read it in a while,” Ruby remarked.
Dwayne glared at her while handing me the book.
I flipped pages with no idea how to find any verses. The Bible was a lot longer than I thought.
Dwayne crossed his arms, tapping his biceps with his fingers. “What you trying to find?”
Between his lips, he blew out a pffft sound. “That’s the verse everybody learns when they are five.”
I looked up at Dwayne, annoyed by his know-it-all smirk. “Fine.” I smacked the dusty Bible shut to emphasize Ruby’s point. A tiny mushroom cloud erupted from it. “What does it say?”
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. So whoever believes in him will not die but have eternal life.”
“Perish,” Ruby said.
“It’s perish, not die.”
“Same thing. Whatever, Ruby. You done? Then you can go.” Dwayne aimed his fist at the door.
She raised her thin arms. “I didn’t mean anything by it.”
“Dwayne, what does this say?” I interrupted with the ticket’s backside facing him. I wanted to make sure high Ruby and I weren’t having the same hallucination.
He squinted. “It says, ‘This ticket belongs to AMY HAYES.’”
I lowered my arm. “That’s what I thought.”
I marched back up to that old man, still up to his mischief. It was all I could do not to punch him in the nose. “Excuse you,” I said, my finger in his face and my nail very close to his eye.
He stepped back and his eyes brightened. “Hello, again! Would you like to sit and talk?”
“No! I want to stand here and ask what you think you’re doing?”
“I’m handing out tickets to heaven.”
“Right, yeah. Got that.” I flicked my ticket against his forehead.
He flinched, dropping his smile.
“What is this doing with my name on it?”
His next reaction surprised me because I didn’t think anything could bring that fake smile and twinkle in his eye back so quickly. “It’s your ticket. You accepted it.”
“No. I mean, yes. I took this pre-printed ticket from you, but how would you know my name?”
I ignored that lie. “How would you even know I’d take it? I wasn’t going to at first.”
“Really,” he insisted. “I didn’t know your name before I just read it on the ticket. I didn’t know if you’d take it or not, either.”
I dropped my book bag, tapping my foot impatiently. “You’re telling me these aren’t all pre-printed with names on the back?”
“See for yourself.” He handed me the stack.
I flipped through them, examining a few closely. They all looked the same as my ticket on the front. But on the back, each one had the words This ticket belongs to and a blank space.
“Have you given anyone besides me a ticket?” I asked.
“Sure. I gave that fellow one just a minute ago.”
I followed where he pointed with his cane. A guy wearing a black jacket and jeans strolled some fifty yards away.
“You stay right here,” I ordered and ran to intercept him.
“Sure thing!” the old man hollered.
“Excuse me!” I waved.
The guy glanced back over his shoulder. “Yeah?”
Whoa, he was hot. I stopped jogging and walked up next to him. “Hi. Sorry, you don’t know me,” I panted, catching my breath. Some incendiary cologne scent wafted around him that made me want to kiss him on the mouth. “I took a ticket to heaven from that psycho over there. For some creepy reason, my name is on the back.” I showed him the front, and then flipped it.
“Huh.” He looked amused and pulled his ticket out of his pocket. When he turned it over, his jaw dropped. “Okay, that is creepy.” He held it up for me.
This ticket belongs to MAXWELL MAVENWOOD.
I bit my lip. “Your name is Maxwell Mavenwood?”
His face flushed. “I go by Michael, my middle name.”
Maxwell Michael Mavenwood. He must’ve had dumb parents.
“So what’s the gag?” he asked. “Did he pay you to make the trick seem real?”
“Pay me? No! I don’t even know him. I took it as a joke. He was so sincere and pathetic and I sorta wanted to believe it could be a ticket to heaven, but then I saw my name and it freaked me out.”
“We’re in Dr. Linton’s sociology course together.”
I stared but didn’t recognize him. It was a big class. “Sorry. I didn’t know that.”
“Yeah, sure. I guess you’ve had your laugh with Grandpa or whoever. Tell him I don’t get the joke, but I’m glad to provide amusement for you two.”
“I’m at the butt of the joke, too. I just had to know if anyone else’s name was on their ticket. Now I know so I’ll just leave.” I stumbled away, the good feelings from the drugs fading fast. A bad sign. This Maxwell Michael Mavenwood, whom I now thought of as M3, along with the old fart, managed to ruin my high.
I didn’t care what else he had to say, so I kept walking.
“Please.” He was right at my shoulder, and he touched it.
“Get off.” I shoved his hand, which was, I admit, unnecessary.
He held up his arms in surrender. “I’m not trying to hurt you. I want to know if you’re being honest with me.”
“Would a liar tell you if they’re lying?” I asked.
“I guess not. But if you don’t know him, why are you going back over?”
I hadn’t noticed where I was going, but I knew why. “I need my backpack. And answers.”
“Can I come?”
“I don’t care.”
“Then I will.”
We approached the old fool together. “Hello!” His stupid smile was so genuine. “Nice to see you both again. Do you know each other?”
“I was about to ask you the same question.” M3 was getting on my nerves.
“I met Amy a half hour before I met you, Michael.”
“Really.” I shot M3 a warning glare. Not sure what I would do, but I wanted him to wonder. “Are you going to explain how this works?” I waved my hand over the ticket stack. “How do the names suddenly pop up on the back?”
The old man picked up his top hat, tipped it, and put it on. “They become your tickets when you accept them.”
I stared, waiting for more. “And?”
The old man looked confused.
“If it’s some card trick, bravo,” I said. “Just tell us that’s what it is. You don’t have to say how you did it.”
“But I didn’t do it. I only hand them out.”
“Then who puts the names there? God?” M3 didn’t sound sarcastic. More like he genuinely thought God was a possible option here.
“Yes. God does that part.”
I glanced at M3. He looked pensive and seemed more patient than I was.
“Listen, old man, I only took one to mess with you,” I said. “Therefore, why would God print my name on it? If he’s God, he would know I didn’t really believe.”
“Maybe you believed long enough for your name to appear. But it’s a good question to ask God himself.” He smiled as if this was the easiest of all my queries.
“Do you talk to God?” M3 motioned toward the bench. The two of them sat.
I rolled my eyes. I wasn’t going to stay long enough to need a seat.
Nutcase took off his hat again. “Sure. I can talk to him for hours, and he listens.”
The student nodded patronizingly.
This was giving me a headache. “Are you for real? No one spends hours talking to God. Why would they? It’s not like he answers back.”
“He does. Just look at your card.”
I reflexively glanced down at my hand, my name staring back at me.
“That’s no parlor trick. You accepted a free gift from God, and now your name is on it claiming ownership of the ticket.”
“But what if I didn’t mean it?”
“That is tricky.” The old man tapped his cane on the concrete. “From my understanding, once the gift is accepted, there’s no returning it.”
“You don’t want a free ticket to heaven?” M3 now smiled the same silly grin as the old man. But his was steamy and made my knees weak. Still, I didn’t want any of this rubbing off on me.
“I want to go to heaven like anybody else. It’s just a dumb idea that you have to have a ticket.”
“Come on,” I said. “Were you serious when you took it? Didn’t you just want this old guy to stop talking?”
“Honestly, I was serious,” M3 admitted. “That’s why I got so defensive when I thought you two were laughing at me.”
I turned to the old man. “You are just one person in one city on one street in the entire world where billions of people live. How are you supposed to make sure everyone gets a chance to accept one of your tickets?”
“I make sure I ask every person I see.” He seemed proud of his persistence.
“I see what Amy means,” said M3. “Are there a bunch of you guys all over the world? Like the Gideons? Maybe the Heavenly Ticket Holders?”
“Ha!” The old man chuckled heartily. “I spend a lot of time talking to God. He really does respond. The more time I spend with him, the more I know him and can differentiate what is just a thought in my head. Sometimes he speaks through other people, sometimes through the Bible. There are many ways God speaks to us.”
Get to the point, I wanted to say.
“Two years ago, I heard his voice. It doesn’t happen often, but boy, I paid attention. He told me to go out and spread the news about eternal life through his Son. I decided to pass out the tickets as a conversation starter. In the morning, I make the tickets, asking God to show me where I should hand them out. I’ve been to several different areas in this city and others.”
“He shows you?” I asked, still skeptical.
“Sometimes I read the paper and see cities overrun with drugs and poverty, and I sense God wants me to go there.”
“That’s most places,” I said.
“There are more difficulties for people than ever before. I saw an article about the high rate of drug overdoses in this area, and I knew this was where God wanted me today.”
Did he know about my habit? Everybody did drugs. The trick was finding someone who didn’t. M3 looked like a straight edge, but most likely he smoked pot or did some other casual drug.
“You print these yourself?” he asked.
“I designed them, but a shop near my house prints them. At first, I didn’t know that God sometimes fills in the names. A place to write your name seemed like a nice way for someone to make it their own. For some, like you two, God does that for you.”
“This has been helpful. Thank you.” M3 shook hands with the old man. “Will you be here tomorrow? I’d like to talk more.”
“That would be wonderful. I’ll be at the north side of town near the mall’s food court entrance.”
As M3 walked away, he waved.
I gave a polite wave back. Did he really buy what the old man was saying? Had it all been a joke on me?
“Won’t you sit a moment? I can tell there’s more on your mind.”
He patted the seat, reminding me of my grandpa. When I was little, he coaxed me to sit beside him the same way and told me funny stories. That was before drugs and boys and all things complicated.
I dragged my backpack over, sat, and stared after Michael. He had a nice backside.
“You seem uneasy about what I’m doing.”
You think? “I just don’t understand. It’s so far fetched.”
“Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction.”
I thought about all the truths of my existence. It would make one juicy and disturbing novel.
So many questions piled quickly in my mind. How would everyone on earth find out about Jesus? What about those who lived in the Amazon jungles and had no contact with outsiders? Except that wasn’t my excuse. I had a choice whether to accept or reject what this old guy said. When I died and stood before God, if he was real, I couldn’t say that no one had told me. For a moment, I guess I had believed it was a ticket to heaven, causing my name to appear. But my doubts remained. “Look, I want to know if this thing I’m holding is real. Yes, it’s a real laminated piece of paper, but is it really a ticket to heaven? I can’t bring myself to believe—as much as I want to.”
“What’s stopping you?” His expression turned eager as he made a gesture of questioning with both palms raised.
“I’ve seen too much. The real things in this world are usually the dark and ugly things that you wish weren’t real. Stuff like this is fantasy.”
“There is darkness in this world. No doubt.” He raised his finger, pointing toward the heaven I desperately wanted to believe in. “There is also light. It is real, too.”
“I get it. Jesus is the light, right?”
“If you didn’t hand out tickets, but just told me about Jesus, all I would have to do is say that I believe he died for the sins of the world after his perfect life and then rose from the dead, and that means I’ll go to heaven when I die?” It sounded so simple, yet there was also something profound about it. I didn’t have to be perfect to get into heaven because Jesus was, even dying for all the bad things I did.
“Precisely!” The old man smiled. “The ticket is merely a symbol. It’s something tangible to grab onto. I never imagined God would perform a miracle with them, but he must know that’s what some people need in order to help them believe.”
Was it really that easy? “Wouldn’t I have to give up things I really like to do?” Like my habit?
“Did God tell you that? Or did you tell yourself that? In fact, God has the opposite message in the Bible. He wants you to come to him just as you are. It really is a free gift, this ticket. No catch, no gag, no strings. Now, if you decided to ask God how you should live the rest of your life until you go to heaven, he might have something to say about cocaine use, for example, but that’s because he wants you to live a long, healthy, and blessed life. Just like a loving parent would. He wouldn’t have you miss out on all the wonderful things he has for you.”
My eyes widened. “How did you know?” Was God telling him all my secrets?
“Know what?” He tilted his head, acting ignorant.
I clamped my mouth shut, suddenly irritated. “I guess it’s pointless to ask. God told you, fine. It’s not like I’m an addict. It’s totally casual.”
“Ah.” He leaned back, nodding. “I was speaking hypothetically. But following that topic, you could choose to live just how you are living now until the day you die, and he will never revoke the ticket. He promised that. Some people say it must mean the person never accepted God’s free gift if there is no evidence that Jesus changed them, but I’d rather not attempt to judge people like that. If you truly accept Jesus into your heart, it’s between you and God how you behave while you’re on this earth. However, there are consequences to bad behavior.”
Like an out-of-body experience, I saw myself sitting on that bench talking to the old man in the suit. Was it the drugs? I didn’t think so. I felt like something else was watching me and drawing me closer. God, maybe? Jesus himself? It wasn’t like me to concede to other people’s theories, but seeing my name miraculously appear on a ticket to heaven really affected me. More than I even knew how to explain. I stared at the postcard, at my name, and realized that I wanted to make it a reality.
“Okay. I’m not promising anything. I’m not one to follow rules easily, so God has his work cut out for him if he wants me to give up coke. But I’d like to go to heaven, and I believe Jesus is the ticket, so I accept him.”
The old man parted his lips, widening them into a genuine grin of happiness. A glistening tear formed and rolled down his cheek, caught in his beard. Then he hugged me. I let him. It felt like hugging my grandpa. His beard tickled my neck.
He leaned back, holding my shoulders. “Amy, welcome to the family of God.”
I’d like to say that my heart changed instantly and that I gave up cocaine the next day. But that wouldn’t be true. However, I did get clean six months later, which was a miracle in and of itself. Probably a greater miracle than my name appearing on the ticket. I never knew how dependent I really was until I tried to stop.
Max helped me get through it. He lets me call him Max even though everyone else calls him Michael. He didn’t care much for M3 when I said it to his face.
At first, he seemed like nothing more than eye candy. But he and I have a lot in common. He quit smoking pot (called it!). Only took him a week. He’s got a good sense of humor, and I appreciate his logical personality. He’s a good kisser, as expected, and he’s extremely kind. Like, chivalrous, and I didn’t realize how much I would enjoy that. We started officially dating a couple of weeks ago, now that I’m clean. That was my rule. We went together to the church Dwayne mentioned. Bad experience. No wonder Dwayne only goes on Christmas and Easter. Nobody talked to us. They passed the offering plate over our row three times, and each time we passed it back without adding to it. The usher started turning red, and I couldn’t help bursting out laughing. I’m surprised they didn’t ask us to leave. The fire and brimstone crap really didn’t work for me, so we won’t be going there again. We had a good laugh, at least. We’re visiting Gabriel’s church next Sunday. That’s the old man’s name. We have lunch with him once a week.
I often ask God why he put my name on that ticket when I hadn’t fully believed yet. He hasn’t answered me, but I’m following Gabriel’s example and keeping the lines open.
Bria Burton’s speculative fiction has been featured in anthologies such as Welcome to the Future and magazines such as The Colored Lens. She leads the FWA (Florida Writers Association) St. Petersburg Writers Group, a critique group, and serves as an FWA Board member. At St. Pete Running Company, she’s employed as a blogger. Her website is www.briaburton.com.