by Will Musgrove
Crossing our cigarettes like swords, my brother Jack and I cheers to our newly formed almighty. This omnipotent, omnipresent being is just a malfunctioning streetlight hidden behind an oak tree a few blocks away, but we’ve managed to convince Hank, our younger brother, of the existence of an afterlife, of happy ever after. He’s drunk in Jack’s apartment right now staring out the window and asking his new god yes-or-no questions like it’s a holy Magic 8-Ball.
If the light grows brighter, then the answer is yes.
If the light grows dimmer, then the answer is no.
Leaning against Jack’s brick building, we puff on our cigarettes. I haven’t smoked in about a year, but I do tonight for Jack, the oldest. Our two cherries glow in unison, reminding me of an ellipsis missing its third dot. At a distance, to Hank, we’d be yes and yes.
Growing up, Jack and I used to trick Hank into believing all kinds of crazy stuff. Well, Jack would fabricate some out-there story, and I’d ham it up, add credibility, a tradition that continues today. Secretly, though, I figure Jack wants someone to pull one over on him, that he’s jealous of Hank’s ability to fall for the fantastical. Maybe he thinks if he gets Hank to believe in the impossible, then it gives him credence to believe in it, too.
Why else would he concoct all these outlandish tales starring us brothers?
I don’t know.
Jack inhales a long drag. When he exhales, tumbleweeds of smoke roll out of his chapped lips. He lifts a hand like he’s asking a girl to dance and points at a lit lamp inside an apartment across the street. Then he makes the sign of the cross and looks up at the cloudless, purple sky like in prayer.
“Hey, you two,” a faint voice says.
A man, maybe early fifties, emerges from an alley and approaches us with swaying steps. Dressed in an untucked button-down and slacks, he swings his arms outward like he’s either coming in for a hug or a punch. Once he’s next to us, he tilts backward and fires off a finger gun.
“Just kidding,” the man says. “Hey, can I bum a smoke?”
Jack pounds his pack of Marlboros against his palm. Then he removes a cigarette and hands it along with his lighter to the man.
“Hey, I know you guys. You were at the bar earlier. Where’s your other partner in crime?”
“He’s inside speaking to god,” Jack says.
“God, at this hour?”
“It’s a streetlight,” I reply. “He got a little too wasted, so we convinced him a streetlight was god. You know, as a prank.”
The man looks at me like he can’t tell if he’s the one being pranked. Then he shrugs and flicks Jack’s lighter.
“Go to the light,” he says, gazing at the orange flame. “Hell, maybe the streetlight is god. God’s supposedly everywhere, right? I have a better prank story for you. I once told my brother that atoms, the things that make up you and me, that make up everything, are ninety-nine percent empty space and moving. He didn’t believe me, so I told him to look under a microscope. He did, and what do you know, ninety-nine percent empty space and non-stop motion. Well, he turned to me, slack-jawed, and, poof, his atoms scattered. I haven’t seen him since.”
“We should go check on Hank,” Jack says, flicking his cigarette butt into the street. “See if he’s achieved enlightenment yet.”
“Probably for the best,” the man says, returning the lighter.
When we reach Jack’s door, I hear murmuring. Jack hears it, too. A voice we don’t recognize says something, then what sounds like Hank parrots back. Jack flings open the door, and we’re struck by a warm light. Poking through Jack’s window is a skinny, gray pole emitting an electric hum. The end of the pole curves like a shepherd’s cane and has a bright, golden face.
“Really funny guys,” Hank says, gesturing toward the pole. “This isn’t god.”
Jack falls to his knees.
“Why can’t it be god?” Jack says. “For once, why can’t it be true?”
He begins weeping.
I grip his shoulder, and he stands.
I wave Hank over.
“I don’t know, Hank,” I say, winking. “That looks like a god to me.”
The skinny pole’s face sparkles like a cluster of fireflies, and the warm light grows and grows until we’re all forced to shield our eyes.
Will Musgrove is a writer and journalist from Northwest Iowa. He received an MFA from Minnesota State University, Mankato. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in trampset, Rejection Letters, Versification, Unstamatic, (mac)ro(mic), Ghost Parachute, Truffle Magazine, Flash Frontier, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter at @Will_Musgrove.