I wrote this flash fiction to read at the Tenth Mad Open Mic: Captured Words in Madrid on May 22, 2013. I began writing with a few goals in mind. The story needed to fit within the three-minute time limit. I knew from experience that self-contained pieces get the best audience reception at an open mic – so it needed a beginning, middle, and end – and that audiences love humor. And according to Scott Adams, author of the comic strip Dilbert, everyone loves cute animals.
They say all dogs go to heaven, and it’s true – all dogs, most cats, and even the occasional goldfish for reasons known only to God.
As for human beings, perhaps God had a reason for sending a woman named Phoebe to heaven. She had expected to go down rather than up with such certainty that when she arrived at the afterlife, she mistook it for hell, especially when she saw all those damn dogs cavorting around. Surprisingly, the clouds of brimstone smelled pleasant, a bit like incense.
She saw a lot of dogs and a lot of happy people – demons, no doubt – and a few cats, which were almost as bad as dogs, and a sort of golden floating spark, which she took for evidence of hellfire. Since she had nothing to hope for, she leaned against a bank of clouds, weeping and waiting for a demon to approach and torment her.
Instead a dog sat down in front of her. “Why?” it asked.
Talking dogs? Well, given the locale, anything could be possible, and a misstep might bring special punishment, so despite her antipathy to all things canine, she answered:
“Why shouldn’t I be sad? I’m here.”
“Why?” the dog repeated.
She had never thought dogs were smart in life, and perhaps they were as dumb as rocks in the afterlife, too. So she said, as a test, “I committed a traffic infraction with horrible consequences.”
“Traffic? You played in traffic? Bad human, bad, bad.”
She knew she could never explain traffic regulations to an animal that understood the world by means of smelling butts. She said anyway, “I was parking illegally in a handicapped spot when I was hit by a truck.”
“Did you have your head out of the window? Bad human. Bad.”
Phoebe felt both deeper despair and supreme vindication. Dogs were in fact idiots – but they also seemed judgmental and they might be prone to punishment.
Out of nowhere, a ball appeared at the dog’s feet.
“We play here,” the dog said. “I can play fetch with you. We can have fun!”
Then she understood. The dog was a demon – all those dogs were hellish demons, as she had always suspected – and her torment would be to play fetch for eternity.
They say we make our own heaven or hell on earth, and it’s true. We can even make hell out of heaven and suffer endless torment merely because it meets our expectations. This is the difference between human beings and all dogs, most cats, and the occasional goldfish.
By the way, the dog thought Phoebe was great, and it played blissfully. For eternity.
— Sue Burke