This piece of flash fiction appears in the March issue of The Wagon Magazine.
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“Got any change?”
The young couple before him averted their gaze and continued walking. Chris sighed, sat down beside his stolen shopping cart and watched traffic coast up and down Sepulveda Blvd.
He reached up to adjust the frayed, weather worn beanie on his head, and to wipe a slimy streak of brown sweat from his forehead. The day was hot, and boy, what Chris would have done for some air conditioning.
Ah, well. He deserved this. He couldn’t say why, since most of his life had been one misfortune after another, but somewhere in the back of his mind he believed he must have had his fair share of luck, that now all he was doing was paying it back.
Balance. A sorrow for every joy, a broken bone for every healthy year. It was as if the universe were run by an omniscient, omnipotent accountant with a cosmic ledger to balance before the day was out.
In fact, in a previous life, Chris had found a way to cheat that ledger, to enjoy a lifetime of good fortune without any of the corresponding bad. Or so he’d thought. Turned out, the accountant had been watching the whole time, and like a dutiful IRS agent, he’d ensured Chris would pay his debt with interest.
“Hey, Mister, got any change?”
A man in a dark flannel suit stopped, turned and crinkled his nose. “Get a job.” And then he moved on, leaving Chris to wallow in the heat of Los Angeles.
Oh, did he have to pay.
At the end of his original life, Chris had sat before the Great White-Robed Bureaucrat himself.
“It appears you have a negative balance,” and Chris had just sat there in the man’s office, gazing outside as other souls passed through the celestial gate and into the next life.
“There’s interest, of course,” the accountant continued, punching buttons on an antiquated calculator. “And penalties.” More buttons.
Chris watched a woman with gray hair pause on the threshold of two worlds, biting her lip. An angel stepped up beside her, nodded, and a moment later the woman turned and went through.
“That amounts to two and a half lives,” said the accountant behind his desk, double checking his work. “Of course,” he mused, “You really can’t have half a life, can you? We’ll just round that up to three and refund the difference when you reach the other side.” And then he nodded, satisfied. “Sign here.”
Chris signed and waited to be born again.
In his first makeup life, he was the child of an addict, grew up in a crack house, became an addict himself and spent the rest of his life rotting in prison. In his second, he was a refugee from the Middle East, denied a visa by every country that interviewed him. He died of malnutrition at age forty-five.
Absent the occasional dream or moment of déjà vu, he was never aware of his past lives. But every time he died, after his life had flashed before his eyes like an old-fashioned movie reel, there was that damned bureaucrat to remind him how much time he had left.
Now, Chris was on his third life, and unbeknownst to him, he would spend the rest of it believing his fortune was just on the other side of the horizon.
“Got any change?”
A woman looked down at him in her suit and tie, had pity and threw sixty-seven cents into the coffee tin beside him.
“God bless you, ma’am,” and he meant it.
He stared down at his day’s earnings, a total of $3.27, and allowed himself to smile. Soon enough, he thought, his luck would change.