"The Three Deaths of Devin Ochre" is an interpretation of the classic tale "The Three Billy Goats Gruff." It is one of the stories included in The Gruff Variations, a charity e-anthology edited by Nebula-winning author Eric James Stone. The anthology includes writing by Shannon & Dean Hale, Dan Wells, Rick Walton, Lisa Mangum, Mary Robinette Kowal and many, many others! The Gruff Variations is available from Smashwords, Barnes & Noble online, and amazon.com.
Devin Ochre died exactly as he'd planned--in bed, sleeping, with no pain--as though the universe itself was afraid of disobeying his will. His secretary discovered the body, sighed, and made herself breakfast before calling anyone. Mr. Ochre, whose soul was still lingering in the corner, spat several expletives at her and told her she was fired. This was the first of many things he realized he could not control once he was dead.
As he drifted formless on the wind, he wondered idly where he was headed. Other ghostlike spirits appeared occasionally, joining him in a stream toward the unknown. As he drifted past a coffee shop, he reached out to take a doughnut from a woman who was trying unsuccessfully to keep three small children from running in every direction. She seemed to be having a rough day, but it couldn't be nearly as bad as waking up to discover you're dead. The sweet-smelling pastry slipped through his nebulous fingers and he cursed again.
Within a few hours, he joined a long stream of the dead. They came from every direction and seemed to converge on the same spot. He willed himself forward to see their destination--a large bridge that hung over a deep chasm. As the crowd slowed to form into a single-file configuration, he nimbly pushed his way past the rest of the apathetic crowd to the front of the line.
A large creature stood at the entrance to the bridge, consulting a book and smiling at a woman. It--she, apparently--was half woman, half goat, and at least a foot taller than Devin Ochre. A small chain dangled from her ankle like a leash, making it impossible for her to move more than a few feet away. She looked up from her book and scowled.
"I've been expecting you, Mr. Ochre."
"You want to tell me what's going on here?"
The woman sighed and started speaking mechanically. "Welcome to the after life. You have died and are now preparing to be sorted."
"Sorted? What do you mean?"
"You know," she said, a touch of impatience coloring her words now. "Heaven? Hell? Sorted."
"Oh," said Mr. Ochre, breathing out. "Just point me upward."
"That's not exactly how it works. You've watched too many movies."
"Okay, okay. Just point me in the right direction."
"Mr. Ochre, it's not that simple. Didn't you read the signs while you waited in line? Oh, let me guess. You skipped to the front, didn't you?"
"Maybe," he said, squinting at her suspiciously.
"Okay, I'll summarize for you, Mr. Ochre. You are dead, yes?"
"So you've come to be sorted. Those who are ready for heaven are sent on their way across the bridge to all sorts of lovely paradises, blah, blah, blah. Those who are irredeemably evil are burned into hell."
"No bridge to hell?"
"No, much worse than that. You don't want to know. Anyway, then there are the rest of you. The majority. The spiritual middle class, so to speak."
"I've never in my life been described as middle class, you old goat."
"I'm a faun, Mr. Ochre. I suggest you take a more polite tone if you don't want to sizzle for eternity."
Mr. Ochre rolled his eyes and stood with arms folded across his chest--or at least as close as he could come in his present condition.
"Where was I? Oh, yes, the spiritual middle class. The rest of you aren't ready for heaven yet, but we figure you aren't quite bad enough for hell. So you get to start over."
"I beg your pardon?"
"You've heard of reincarnation?"
"You don't often get second chances in life, Mr. Ochre. However, you do get a second chance in death. We'll see you again in a few years and see if you're ready then."
"Now hold on, goat, don't I get a second opinion? I've given millions to charity. Doesn't that get me some kind of first class ticket to paradise?"
"Hardly, Mr. Ochre. If you'll excuse me, I have a few thousand other souls waiting to be sorted."
"So now what?"
"I'm glad you asked. Into the river." She pointed down the ragged cliffs toward churning, black waters below. "It will carry you back to the world of living. The river is unpredictable--you can land anywhere in time or space. Wherever you land on the banks of the river is where you will find your reincarnation. You won't remember this conversation or anything about your past life, so I hope you listen to your conscience--that's your past self trying to tell you something important."
"My 'conscience' tells me I'm not jumping off a cliff," protested Devin Ochre.
"Yes, I'm afraid you are." The faun's impatient face softened for a moment before a wicked smile spread across her face. "I hope your next life brings you everything you so richly deserve."
"You've got to be kidding me. You want me to jump off a cliff so that I'll, uh, not be dead anymore?"
"I don't have time for this, Mr. Ochre. Goodbye."
The faun bent down to the ground, placing her hands on the dirt and thrusting her muscular legs into Mr. Ochre's chest. Although he wasn't solid, he felt the impact soundly throughout him as he flew over the edge of the cliff into the raging river below. As it tumbled over him, he felt a thousand voiceless souls reaching out to the banks of the river, trying to escape. He pushed them to the side as a large castle came into view, reaching out and grasping to pull himself out of the current.
He felt strange pressure coursing through him as his soul was sucked into a tiny body. The impact knocked him out for a moment and then his memory went completely blank.
Outside the castle, in a small muddy hut, the town woodworker blanched at the sound of his wife's labor pains. A few minutes later, his son slipped into the world and began to scream.
"Gavin!" bellowed the town woodworker. "Where are you?"
His heavy footsteps pounded through the hallway until they stopped right outside the door to Gavin's bedroom. Gavin cursed quietly, tucked away a pouch of coins he'd stolen earlier that day, crossed his arms, and grimaced as his father entered the room.
"What is this?" asked his father, brandishing another bag of coins--ones he had hidden inside a rusted pot months earlier during a similar moment of alarm. He had apparently forgotten to take them out again when the coast was clear.
"Uh, a bag?" asked Gavin, trying to sound nonchalant.
"It's a bag of gold coins."
"Good day at work?"
"No." His father scowled at him. "This is more coin than I earn in a year. Where did you get it?"
"Don't lie again, son. We both know the truth and I can always tell when you're lying."
"Fine. Then what do you want me to say?"
"I want to know where you got this money." The woodworker paused, his face softening as he looked down at his son. He sat down on the bed next to him, precariously close to the coins hidden beneath the blanket. "No, I don't want to know where the money is from. It would make me sick to know of it. I'll take it to the church tomorrow and let them give it to the poor."
Gavin grunted, but knew there was no point in arguing. Anything he said would just make the matter worse.
"Son…" began his father, scratching his head. "I've done everything I could to make you see reason. The only thing I haven't done is say this: you're old enough to make your own choices but you won't be cheating people under my roof. So I think it's time you find yourself a job somewhere else and … maybe you can straighten your life out."
"You're kicking me out?" Gavin gasped.
"You're a man now. Start looking around now, and when you find something that suits you--"
"No, if you want me out, I'm leaving. Now." Gavin stood up quickly, ready to leave the room until he remembered the small pouch of gold that was hidden. He needed that money now. He paused awkwardly, then said, "If you just give me a few minutes to pack my things, I'll go. I'm sorry to be such a disappointment to you." He hung his head, sniffing slightly, and glancing at his dad out of the corner of his eye.
"No, son, don't say these things. I just worry about you. If you aren't careful, you'll end up with a knife stuck in your back one of these days. You're making enemies." The woodworker shifted slightly to the side, and the coin bag jiggled loose. It fell onto the floor loudly. Gavin and his father stared at the bag, then at each other.
"I guess I'll be going now," said Gavin, grabbing the coin bag quickly and saluting his father before ducking out the door and into the cold night. He headed toward the shack of his friend and partner, Olick. He didn't trust him, exactly, but knew that Olick would give him a place to sleep. Before he got there, someone stepped out of the shadows behind him and stuck a knife between his shoulder blades before he could react. Gavin gasped and fell sideways to the ground, staring up into the face of his friend, Olick.
"Sorry, Gavin," said Olick, taking out the knife and plunging it in again lower down. "Times are tough for all of us, aren't they? You shouldn't walk about with coins like that. Like a trumpet in this silence."
Gavin only had a few moments to reflect on the irony of his father's too-late warning before he passed out.
This time, a meaty satyr stood at the head of the line. Black hair and fur covered nearly every inch of his body from the top of his head down to his hooves.
"Next!" he yelled as Gavin pushed his way to the front of the line.
"Ah, Gavin, I've been looking forward to this," he said. "Or should I call you Devin?"
"Why would you call me Devin, beast?"
"Ah, let me refresh your memory." The satyr blinked and a lifetime of memories rushed into Gavin's mind. He was suddenly Devin Ochre and Gavin the woodworker's son, two people twined into one mind.
"Whoa," he said, taking on the accent of his previous life. "So that's it, huh? Ready to point me upward and onward then?"
"Hardly," replied the satyr.
Gavin started to twitch nervously. "Then, what? It's not like I've done anything that bad. You can't possibly send me the other direction."
The satyr leaned forward, speaking right into Gavin's face. His breath smelled like mustard and decomposed flesh. "I can do whatever I want. That's my job." Thunder boomed overhead, and the satyr leaned back slightly. "Er, okay, maybe we'll give you a second chance."
"That was my second chance," said Gavin, cursing himself as he realized this was not the time to argue with goat man.
"Are you familiar with baseball?" asked the satyr.
"A little," said Gavin slowly.
"Three strikes and …"
"Three strikes, you're out."
"Exactly. You have one more chance to redeem yourself, Ochre. Use it wisely. And may the river bring you to somewhere in time and space that gives you exactly what you deserve." Before Gavin had a chance to reply, he found himself falling toward the river.
"Ouch," he said as he splashed into the murky depths.
Settlement 3V97 floated over the red planet lazily, gathering data and sending out probes. Simulated to look like a suburban neighborhood back home, the two square miles of 3V97 were just starting to show signs of Spring. Small simulated crocuses popped through the dirt outside each home. Nobody was admiring the crocuses, though. The entire city was gathered at the medic center, waiting to hear the news.
Mayor Nived gasped raggedly, each breath painfully drawn in and then out. He knew his time was up. Even 24th century medicine couldn't fix his heart this time. Maybe if he'd been back on Earth, but the medic center on 3V97 wasn't equipped for this kind of thing.
"What did you say, Mayor?" asked one of his assistants, a petite blonde woman with tears running down her cheeks.
"I said … I've lived an … evil life, Rana." Every word was painful as the heart tried unsuccessfully to pump enough oxygen to his head.
"No, don't say that," said Rana. "You've saved this settlement dozens of times. You're a hero, sir. You inspire all of us."
Nived grunted, then began coughing. If only she knew. Every action he'd taken had been calculated to make him look like the "hero" he was today: always fair in his duties as mayor, always ready with the right answer in the terralab, always the one to stay two steps ahead of everyone. Of course, he'd stepped over everyone who got in his way. He'd been careful, too. Nobody had even suspected the truth behind Asher's "accidental" death two months ago. Asher had stumbled on Nived in the lab one day at an inopportune time, discovering what a charlatan Nived really was. He didn't live long enough to expose him, though.
"We found him!" said a voice outside Nived's medic station, pulling him out of his reflections.
"Quiet!" hissed Rana. "Don't you know--"
"No, this is important," said a chubby young man, coming into the room and bowing to Mayor Nived. "Sir, your honored friend Asher will be avenged."
The others in the room gasped. "Avenged of what, Jimi?" said Rana. "He was careless, he fell…"
"No," said Jimi. "He was murdered. And we have found the killer. I knew the mayor would want to know this good news immediately. Asher was your dear friend and colleague, was he not?"
"Yes…" gasped Nived, head swirling. "Who…?"
"One of the newbies from 9D4, sir. He looks like an innocent kid on the outside, but he's a cold-blooded murderer. We have the proof."
Nived frowned, digesting this information clumsily. How could they have proof that this newbie from 9D4 was guilty, when Nived himself had committed the crime? His heart thumped quickly three times in his chest and then stopped for a few seconds altogether. His breath failed him and he felt as though his body was being sucked away from him before the pulse resumed. He was going to die. He knew he was going to die, and so was the newb from 9D4… unless Nived confessed. Why not? He'd spent a lifetime building up a mountain of sins to create his facade of virtue. Maybe if there was some kind of life after this one, which he doubted, he'd get a little redemption for saving the newb's life and reputation.
All it would cost him was his own reputation. And who needed that after they were dead? Nived breathed in deeply, holding up his hand to silence the others. He looked into their red-rimmed eyes, adoration pouring down on him. They loved him--or the person they thought he was. And like a drug addict, he sucked it in, savoring one last high.
"I…" He could barely speak. "I'm … glad you found the … truth. I can die in peace."
"Seriously?" said a thin faun with pink-dyed hair and several nose rings. "You seriously said, and I quote, 'I'm glad you found the truth' before kicking the bucket? That's super classy."
"Those people revered me," said Nived calmly. "How could I take that away from them?"
"Super classy," she said again, blowing a large bubble from a wad of bright blue gum. "You realize that guy three yards back is the guy you totally didn't save? Yeah, got the death sentence for supposedly bumping old Asher off into oblivion." She beckoned toward someone in the line. A young man with wavy blonde hair and blue eyes came forward, looking to each side nervously.
"Yes, uh, ma'am?" he said before noticing Mayor Nived. "Oh! Sir!"
"Yeah, don't get all excited about Nived here," said the satyr. "He's the reason you're dead."
"But, I… I'm sorry?"
"Don't stress yourself too much trying to figure it out. Just cross the bridge there. Welcome to heaven, blah, blah, blah…"
"Go-o-o-o!" bleated the faun. The newbie from 9D4 blushed, nodded at Nived and hurried across the bridge.
"Okay, nice chatting with you," said Nived. "I'll just go catch up with him while we--"
"Oh, yeah, you don't remember yet, do you?"
"Devin Ochre? Gavin? Three strikes, you're out? You are a real piece of work, you know."
In a flash, Nived became Devin Ochre and Gavin again. Three lives. Three chances to prove he wasn't the ogre this young faun was making him out to be.
"Well, crap," said Nived. "No pass into never-ending paradise?"
"Nope." The faun grinned.
"You shouldn't look so happy about someone going to hell."
"Oh, yes, I should. Welcome to hell."
"Welcome to hell. This is it, Mr. Ochre. You get the dream job of giving each of these slobs their fate. But don't worry, the pay is great. Well, okay, there is no pay, but the perks are fabulous. No, wait, there are no perks. At least the hours are 24/7 and the line never ends. Ever. You'll love it."
"Simple, Ochre. You had three chances. You failed. So you're the new sucker that gets to have this dream job, and I'm off for a vacation in Kabul before I get reassigned to some other torture. Enjoy yourself, Mr. Ochre. And thanks for relieving me."
The faun was gone and the line of people looked expectantly at him. A large book appeared in his arms, weighing them down. A small, crystalline chain attached itself to his ankles, just above his newly-formed hooves. He sighed.
Juliana Montgomery was a Trustees Scholar at Brigham Young University, where she majored in Communications Theory. After years of boring herself to tears with factual writing (and a very brief stint as a Computer Science teacher), she has recently returned to her life-long love of creative writing. She recently finished her first novel, a science fiction adventure for young boys, and has started research for a fairy tale retelling and a YA urban fantasy novel. She was the organizer of the 2012 Writing for Charity event (with the fabulous Kristyn Crow) and loves to make new friends. You can find her online athttp://blog.geekuniverse.org, https://www.facebook.com/witandwhimsy, and on Google+.