If Greg had known what momentous events the day would bring, he would have tried to get more sleep. But when the sisters hit the lights at Saint Bart’s Mission for the Homeless, he and his forty-nine roommates rose and stretched in unison, greeting the day with the same underwhelming vigor as the one before. Greg pulled on an old army jacket he’d found three days ago, patted it down as he fastened the zipper, and ran his tongue around his parched mouth. God, he needed a drink.
He had just folded up his mat when a hand tapped his shoulder. “Excuse me, sir, could I have a moment of your time?”
Greg turned. A man towered over him—a tall, pale man—wearing a black microfiber trench coat and a smile that sent a chill through Greg’s body. It wasn’t the smile of a salesman, nor of anyone trying to impress. His teeth were a sickly yellow, narrowed by wear, and gleaming in the stark fluorescent light. They were the kind of teeth that would frighten small children, the kind that would jolt an awakening drunk into his morning moment of clarity.
The man cleared his throat with a deep, rumbling cough, then spoke with a voice as smooth as an English butler’s. “My name is Klonk, and I’d like to offer you a job—that is, assuming you have no pressing engagements.”
If there was one thing about Greg’s current situation he didn’t regret, it was that his life was now utterly free of pressing engagements. No bills stacked upon his desk, no beeper clamped to his waist, no meetings with the partners, no car to polish, no lawn to mow, no family member whose heart he had yet to break. Yep, Greg had cleared his schedule for the foreseeable future. In fact, he could think of only one task commanding his attention this day. “You’re in luck, mister,” he said. “The liquor store doesn’t open ‘til noon.”
The stranger gave a polite laugh, punctuated it with another heavy cough, then wiped away his grin. “I’ll pay you twenty-four thousand dollars for twenty-four hours of your time.”
Suddenly, the moisture returned to Greg’s mouth, and he licked his lips as if he had smelled an oven-baked pie. Twenty-four thousand—that was enough to provide a break from the daily routine he’d come to know so well. Hell, with that kind of money he could rent a hotel room by the month, order his favorite bourbon by the case, and drink until he had forgotten what a disappointment his life had become.
He wondered what the stranger would ask him to do for such a price. Greg had stolen from the best of them in his day: corporations, municipalities, volunteer fire departments. He’d done it in grand fashion, too, armed only with a briefcase and a sympathetic client at his side. One more theft wouldn’t bring on Armageddon. But Greg did have his limits.
“We’re not talking murder here, are we?”
“It’s nothing like that.” The thin man leaned forward. “Have you ever wanted to play God?”
Greg looked at the rickety cot that had cradled his body for the past two months, then back to the tall stranger. The tall, rich stranger. “Where do I sign?”
The thin man smiled. “Just close your eyes.”
. . .
When Greg opened his eyes, he stood amidst a field of cars both old and new. Narrow-eyed men with clipboards roamed between rows, kicking tires, peering in windows, and jotting down numbers that were painted across the windshields. Greg knew this, somehow, although he couldn’t actually see what they wrote.
A hand pressed against his shoulder, and the stranger’s stale breath spilled upon Greg’s neck. “Look around. See anything familiar?”
Greg turned to the stranger. “What? I’ve never been here before.”
“No, but something of yours is here, waiting for you.”
Greg gazed out across the lot, suddenly hopeful for what he might see. Then his eyes took over, acting on their own as they took snapshots of each vehicle then moved to the next as if by automation. Although he spent no more than a millisecond looking upon any one car, he found that he could remember each one in vivid detail—even the ’69 Mustang parked a hundred yards away—right down to the date on their inspection stickers.
A moment later, he found what the thin man had wanted him to. Seven rows to his right, wedged between two Ford Explorers, its windshield shining in the mid-morning sun, sat a gunmetal gray Jaguar XJ-6—Greg’s baby, lost to the bank three months ago . . .
The auction started at noon, and as the bidders waved and nodded away the hour, Greg moped on a bench next to Klonk. “What sort of job is this, watching some wholesaler buy my dream car for pennies?”
“They won’t take it, not if you don’t let them.”
Greg shook his head. “How do you mean?”
“Remember what I said earlier, about playing God for a day?” The thin man pointed to the crowd, then whispered. “Guide their actions. You can do it—you’re God.”
Again, the smile. “Try it, and see,” Klonk said.
The auctioneer stampeded through the bids in typical auctioneer fashion, although to Greg the pace seemed slower than it had just seconds before. As Greg looked across the crowd, his attention shifted to specific individuals as if by instinct, moments before they raised their hand to bid.
Seventeen hundred, the auctioneer bellowed, and then a man down front ran a finger over his ear. Seventeen fifty, and another man pointed to the sky. Eighteen hundred, do I hear eighteen hundred? and a short, pudgy fellow near the back waved a French fry in the air. All of this Greg saw and heard, a split second before it actually happened.
He noticed an old man sitting in the third row, saw him bid, then willed the man’s hands to stay in his lap. They did. He tried it on another. Then another . . .
The auction moved quickly now, visibly dumbfounding both the auctioneer and the bank representatives. When Greg’s Jaguar came up for bid, he looked to Klonk, who was sporting that same repulsive grin. “Can I get a small advance?”
“I trust you won’t need much.”
“Nope,” Greg said, and flashed his own wicked smile.
Minutes later, Greg had regained his prized possession with one well-timed bid.
Klonk nodded his approval. “You’re coming along just fine.”
“Thanks,” Greg said. “But somehow, I thought there’d be more to it than this.”
“I assure you there is.” Klonk clasped his hands behind his back. “I brought you here merely to show you what can be done. Soon, you won’t be buying cars; you’ll be changing lives.” He drew the corners of his lips even higher than before, revealing not only his awful, rotting teeth but also the reddened, swollen gums that held them in place. Greg winced at their sight, yet Klonk didn’t seem to notice. “But playing God requires a certain amount of preparation. If you’re going to fill the role of Supreme Being, you’ve got some difficult work ahead of you.” Klonk looked Greg up and down. “First, heal thyself, if I may borrow a phrase.”
Greg flipped his car keys around his middle finger, then held them in his fist. “You’re saying that in order to play God, I’ll have to clean up my life?”
“You wouldn’t want God to direct world events while in the midst of a drunken haze, now, would you?” Klonk said.
“Wait a minute.” Greg took a step backward. “You didn’t say anything about this before.”
“You didn’t ask.”
“But I’m not sure . . . “ Greg gazed at his tattered shoes, suddenly unable to look the stranger in the eye. Every night at the Mission he had whispered into his pillow, lamenting how he had tangled with the demons of this world and lost. While he lay there among his fellow lost souls, listening to the sound of his body’s slow decay, he had secretly wished for a chance just like this. But now that it had arrived, Greg wanted to shy away from it. In fact, he wanted to run. Straight to the liquor store.
“I understand exactly what you’re feeling,” Klonk said. “You may not believe it, but there was a time when I, too, thought I had sunk too deep into my own misery ever to be of use in this world again. Many people see themselves that way.” His eyes brightened as he spoke. “It takes a brave soul to rise above one’s own circumstances and see people through the eyes of God. It’s a scary thought, I know.
“Which is why I’ll make you another offer.” Suddenly, the keys vanished from Greg’s hand and reappeared in Klonk’s. He gave them a jingle, then held them out in his palm. “You can walk away right now, take your cherished car and drive toward the horizon—you’ll lose it soon enough anyway, I promise. It’s only a matter of time.
“Or you can take the next step, continue down the path you’ve started, and become a part of something big for once in your life.”
Greg reached out for the keys, then froze. He knew Klonk was right; if he didn’t take this chance, another would never come. Sure, he’d have his car now, but even with its speed it couldn’t distance him from his shame. His hand started to tremble, just like it did when he had reached for his first drink. He stared at it, then at Klonk and his godawful smile.
“Come, Greg. Play God with me, and we’ll change the world, one life at a time.”
Even more than his words, it was Klonk’s grin that settled Greg’s decision. He wondered why a man with such horrible teeth showed no reservation in revealing them to the world. Klonk appeared to be a walking contradiction, still bearing the marks of a downtrodden past yet wearing them with pride, as if he knew a secret that made it all seem insignificant. Greg craved to know that secret now, even more than he wanted a drink.
Slowly, he let his arm fall back to his side. “What do I have to do?”
Klonk slid the keys into his pocket, then winked. “Just close your eyes.”
. . .
When Greg opened his eyes, he was standing beside Klonk in an elevator bound for the twenty-fifth floor. The reflection in the polished steel doors showed an image he barely recognized—his hair trimmed and combed, his face shaven, his gaunt frame wrapped in a slate colored suit. He wavered at the sight, but Klonk caught him by the arm, steadying him.
“We resume here, now, at Feldman, Hirsch, and Soren.”
Greg shook out of Klonk’s grasp. “No way. I can never show my face here.”
“Yes you can. You’re different today—invincible, all-knowing, all-powerful, remember?”
Again, Greg looked down at his shoes. If indeed Klonk was correct, Greg had no internal sense of it. His insides churned like a den of snakes at the thought of what awaited him here. His last visit had been a catastrophe, from his opening curse-riddled soliloquy to his painfully brisk escort from the premises. And now he remembered every second of the encounter, even the parts he had previously been too drunk to register.
“Don’t worry,” Klonk said, resting a hand upon Greg’s shoulder. “You have the power to make things right. You have command over everything and everyone you see; their fate, as well as yours, is in your hands.”
“So I could turn Soren into a pillar of salt, then?”
“I suppose.” Klonk sighed. “But that wouldn’t help get your job back.”
“Sure would make me feel better,” Greg said.
“This isn’t about revenge.” Apparently to reinforce his point, Klonk showed his yellowed teeth as if they were the finest porcelain.
The elevator doors parted, and Klonk pushed Greg out to the law office lobby. “Now is your chance; guide his thoughts.”
Greg looked back, his chin quivering. “I need a drink.”
Klonk leaned forward. “No, you don’t. You’re God.”
. . .
Greg sat facing the solid mahogany desk that had once held his own nameplate, waiting for his old nemesis to enter. Images of the transgressions Greg had committed within these walls crowded his field of vision, reminding him of the part he had played in his own dismissal. He pressed his hands to his face, hoping to clear his mind. To his surprise, it did.
And when Soren strolled into the office and flung himself into a chair, his thoughts preceded him. Instantly, Greg sensed the man’s mood, his emotions, and his intentions without even looking at his face. It was as if he stood peering into the window of Soren’s mind, gazing with perfect clarity at each thought as it took shape.
What Greg saw took him by surprise. Soren hid it well, quietly rocking in his oversized executive’s chair and favoring Greg with a patronizing stare. His steady hands glided across his desk as he pretended to sort through a stack of files, and his forehead remained unwrinkled and dry. Even when he spoke, there was no hint of what clawed at his insides. Had Greg not been playing God, he never would have noticed what Soren was so desperately trying to conceal: that behind his outer wall of confidence lived the exact same demon that had torn Greg’s life apart.
And it had lived there a long time; long enough to rearrange the furniture, paint the walls, and make itself at home. Soon, it would grow fat and restless, emerge for all to see, and introduce itself to Soren’s every friend and foe, ensuring his eventual downfall.
Soren pondered this scenario as he sat regarding Greg with an outward expression of pity. At his core, he was actually studying Greg, attempting to gauge how far he had fallen. Yet to any passerby they were merely two former coworkers enjoying a casual chat. The audible conversation was as meaningless as it had always been; words passed between them like cards in a game of gin. The only real interaction took place inside Soren’s head.
Greg started with a suggestion: that given his own fall from grace, he really didn’t look that bad. And hey, he’s gathered enough courage to crawl back in here—into the office you claimed for yourself just minutes after his dismissal—to face the company that had finally given up on him. You’ve gotta admit he was a damn fine litigator; he brought in more than his share for the firm year after year. It wasn’t like he did anything illegal, either; he just had a bad couple of months, is all. Heck, everyone else liked the son of a bitch, at least before he came to work that last day. I bet if you gave him another chance, you know, offered to let him start again at the bottom, he’d get right down and kiss your shoes, just like you always wanted.
Besides, if he doesn’t make it, you’ll never have a chance once your time comes. . .
. . . and you know it will. Just as sure as he’s sitting there, you know your time is coming.
Gradually, Soren’s features softened, and with as much grace as he could manage, he extended his hand across the desk. “Tell you what, old friend. I just thought of a terrific idea. . .”
. . .
Greg strode back to the elevator, and after he willed the doors to open, stepped inside. He wasn’t surprised to find Klonk waiting there.
“Enlightening, isn’t it?” Klonk said.
“More than I could have imagined.”
“You realize, all of this is a waste of our time unless–”
“I know,” Greg said. “Believe me, I see it now.”
Klonk erupted in a short, phlegm-filled chortle, but said nothing.
When the elevator doors closed, Greg instinctively reached for the lobby button, then stopped. “Sorry, old habits. Where next?”
“Search your thoughts; you already know.”
And he did. Greg took a deep breath, and closed his eyes.
. . .
Before him stood a large wooden door painted Georgia clay red. A pinewood deck creaked under his feet. Above, a ceiling fan wobbled, as if exhausted from years of battling Mother Nature. The in-laws’, of course. Greg opened his eyes.
As early as yesterday, the thought of returning here would have sent him into a binge of self-loathing. For it was here, two months ago, when given the choice between his family and The Bottle, he had hesitated a moment too long.
But now, bolstered with the confidence that came with his new powers, he stood ready–anxious, even–to knock on the door.
Klonk’s hand found Greg’s shoulder once again. “And now, the true test of a God-Becoming: Sense her deepest thoughts, know her actions, but allow her to act as she will.”
Greg turned, but Klonk had already vanished. Suddenly, the front door swung open, and little Katie stood before him, pure and glowing, just like every other five-year-old girl who had ever graced this world with a smile.
Through her eyes Greg saw himself as the father he had always hoped to be—strong, compassionate, rising to least ten feet tall. Yet he recognized the image for what it was: the wishful vision of a child. Little Katie had been sheltered from the truth, Greg now realized, and somehow, knowing this only deepened his shame. Much as he would have loved to grab her, hold her, and render all the kisses he had failed to give in the past, he knew Klonk had delivered him here for a more pressing reason.
“Is mommy here?”
She was, and the two of them sat outside, under the laboring ceiling fan, talking until the sun retired from the sky. Greg listened intently to her every word, while at the same time he relived each moment of their past through the eyes of his beloved.
Her memories painted a picture he never could have seen with his own eyes: long, quiet nights spent by the phone with the covers tucked under her chin; the inevitable laundry days, when each pocket she turned out revealed a matchbox from a different downtown bar; cocktail napkins strewn carelessly across the nightstand, bearing phone numbers scribbled in pink lipstick; and lastly, the arguments—the 3 A.M. arguments that sometimes brought the cops—where he had combined his litigation skills with his alcohol-induced logic in an effort to tear her heart to shreds.
All at once Greg thought of using his power to erase each hurtful memory. As God, he could remove each wound, mask his terrible actions, make it as if none of it had ever happened. She would look at him again as she had when they were dating, and he could enjoy the inherent trust that came with a relationship made new. But to do so would be the ultimate selfish act, he realized, one that only would ensure more painful memories to come. Instead, he sat listening as she voiced her sorrows, seeing with her eyes, feeling with her heart, and guiding nothing but his own thoughts.
When she had finished, he looked into her eyes, and made a promise he finally knew he could keep: “I’ll never drink again.”
They held each other tight, and when Greg sensed the perfect moment, he leaned in for a kiss. She turned away, but squeezed his hand and held it to her cheek.
“Come visit next weekend,” she said, blushing, “and we’ll see how things are.”
As he walked down the driveway, toward the vanishing horizon, Greg smiled at his shoes. “I can do this.”
“Sure you can,” Klonk said, suddenly at Greg’s side. “What have I been telling you?”
“Thanks.” Greg slapped Klonk’s shoulder and sighed. “You know, I don’t think I’ll collect my wages after all.”
“That’s good, because you haven’t earned them yet.”
“What do you mean?”
Klonk stopped, then crossed his hands behind his back, grinning as only he could. “I’m afraid you misunderstood my offer. Your assignment begins tomorrow; today was all mine.”
. . .
Tuesday morning meant business as usual at the law offices of Feldman, Hirsch and Soren. Receptionists and assistants crowded the coffee stations, composing the latest rumors while watching the Folgers drip. Nearby, paralegals checked messages and Yahoo accounts from the relative privacy of their own desks. Feldman and Hirsch were busy planning lunch while lounging in their own overstuffed chairs. And at the end of the hall, behind his closed office door, Soren paced around his desk, contemplating its top drawer and the flask hidden inside. God, it was only nine; he’d never needed it this early.
He wondered, would this be the day when it all fell apart? Would his mouthwash fail him during a meeting with Hirsch, or would Feldman barge into his office unannounced, catching Soren mid-swig? Already his wife had grown tired of pretending, as proven by the note she’d left last evening. And as he completed another lap around his desk, Soren knew Judgment Day at the office was looming. He was slipping; no use in denying it anymore. There was only one thing he could think to do about it.
He had just settled into his chair and was reaching for the drawer when a hand tapped his shoulder. A familiar voice arose from just behind his chair. “Excuse me, old friend, could I have a moment of your time?”
. . .