“Okay,” I said, sitting up in bed and putting down my copy of Mein Kampf. I gestured at the tall, black-robed figure that stood on my right, a scythe in his skeletal hands, and strangely, a bongo drum stuck in his belt. “I get that you’re Death. But who are you?” I gestured at the short, chubby figure on my left.
“I am Life.” He wore blue bib overalls and a red plaid shirt, with a straw hat partially hiding his tanned, round face. He too had a bongo drum at his side, with a loaded burlap bag slung over his shoulder. “Or at least the current one, since the last one got knocked off.” He sighed. “It figures you don’t remember me.”
“That’s because everyone’s a new-born baby when you give out their souls,” Death said. “When I show up, they’re scared to death, so of course they remember me.”
“Ooh, the memorable Mr. Death,” Life said. “You get all the interesting conversations with people trying to justify their sorry lives. Me, all I get are crying babies.”
I looked back and forth at the bickering beings. “Why are you both here?”
They exchanged glances. “You are a problem,” Death finally said. “You were scheduled to die seventy years ago, during World War II, but since you hadn’t been born yet, I skipped the appointment. Then, thirty years ago, Life came along and delivered you, as scheduled. But what do we do now? You’re supposed to be dead!”
“How could I be scheduled to die before I was born?”
Life sighed; it seemed a major trait of his. “You’re about to invent the world’s first time machine.”
“And the last,” Death added. “Caused a huge hassle at headquarters. Took lots of red tape to close that loophole. Now whenever someone invents a time machine, I show up, and problem solved.”
“You kill him?”
The two exchanged looks. “Duh!” said Death. “But you missed your appointment with me.”
“And you’re just now getting around to fixing the problem?” I asked.
Life let out a resounding sigh. “You wouldn’t believe the stonework. I keep saying we should have a stone-free office, but no, every time someone’s born, we have to quarry another slab of rock and carve with a chisel all the pertinent facts of that person’s life.”
“I get carpal tunnel just thinking of all the hours spent hammering away,” Death said.
“It’s really quite inconvenient,” Life said. “But the big boss isn’t big on change.”
“Can you forget your problems, and focus?” I exclaimed. “You say I’m going to invent a time machine?”
“Of course,” Death said. “And then you’ll die a horrible, painful death, tortured by the Nazis after you try — and fail — to kill Hitler. Or rather you already did. Except you didn’t. It’s very confusing.”
“Killing Hitler,” Life said, shaking his head. “Such a cliché.”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “I’m going to die a horrible, painful death? Are you sure?”
“Of course,” Life said. “Whenever someone’s born, they’re assigned a bongo drum. See, here’s mine.” He held up his bongo. “Our underlings bang on a person’s bongo until one side rips. However long it takes, that’s how long you’ll live.”
“If the left side tears first,” Death said, “you’ll die comfortably in bed. If on the right, you die a horrible, painful death.”
“It’s a strange system, but it seems to work,” Life said. “No one remembers how it got started. Of course, we’re VIP’s, so nobody bangs on our bongos.”
“Now, back to the problem,” Death said. “We need to kill you seventy years ago. So if you could take us back in time with you, it’d be appreciated.”
“We can’t wait much longer,” Life said. “The repercussions are bumping down the eternal timeline, and the big boss is getting impatient. That’s why he sent both of us, to make sure the problem is resolved.”
“I think I have a solution,” I said.
“Really?” Life exclaimed.
I held up my hand. “Look at this.” They both leaned in. That’s when I lashed out with both hands and grabbed their bongos.
“Hey!” they cried together. Death raised his scythe and Life unslung his heavy burlap sack — I never did find out what was in there, and I’m hoping it wasn’t unborn babies — but they were too late. I put my fist through the left side of each of their bongos. After all, they were just doing their jobs.
Both figures disappeared, presumably to die comfortably in bed and be replaced by new personnel. As to me, the time machine was in the closet, ready to go, but now I’d have to rethink my plans to kill Hitler. Forget the bomb idea, which apparently wasn’t going to work. Maybe I’d bring back an Uzi.
Larry Hodges, of Germantown, MD, is an active member of SFWA with over 40 short story sales, over half of them since summer 2008. He’s a graduate of the six-week 2006 Odyssey Writers’ Workshop, the 2007 Orson Scott Card Literary Boot Camp, and the 2008 Taos Toolbox Writers’ Workshop. He’s a full-time writer with three books and over 1200 published articles in over 100 different publications. He’s also a member of the USA Table Tennis Hall of Fame (Google it!), and once beat someone while using an ice cube as a racket. Visit him at www.larryhodges.org.