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It had been a long and very hot day, Joe thought. A hundred and eight? A hundred and ten, maybe. Not the sort of day for a walk, but walking was what Joe did.
Ever since he'd retired from the machine shop all those years ago, he'd spent a couple of hours a day walking this way and that with Rosie at his heels. She kept time with him pretty well, two quick beats for each of his own. Folks thought he was mad, walking so much, but he knew he wasn't. He kept that quietly to himself, of course, and let them think what they liked. After all, he was the one surrounded by the glory of Creation and in good company too.
Rosie saw to that. She wasn't much of a conversationalist but then, smiled Joe, neither was he. She was a pig, a small one for her breed, not that Joe knew much about breeding pigs. This one had just fallen in with his stride one day and followed along. He didn't know to whom she belonged, or why she was allowed to roam free, but she seemed to have a purpose in her and he let her tag along.
When after a few days she didn't disappear back into wherever, he took care of her. Sometimes he still wondered why in the scheme of things he'd been chosen to inherit a pig, but she was company, in her own way, and he couldn't let her starve.
On this walking day the sun had been beating down onto his wide brimmed hat for what seemed like an eternity. Right now it seemed to be beating right through the fabric onto the top of his skull. Heavens, was it warm. He wasn't the only one feeling the heat, either: Rosie looked even warmer than usual, noticeably so. After all, the darned critter always tanned better than he did.
He looked down at her and she gazed back up with an implacable expression. 'What do you reckon, Rosie,' he muttered. 'You think there'll be somewhere on this godforsaken highway that would give us water?'
Rosie twitched her snout and took off ahead of him. He smiled subtly and followed. It wasn't as if there was much of a choice.
Joe was starting to realise that he was lost. Casting his mind back, he couldn't remember how he'd got onto this road or even where it was supposed to lead. He tried to think back to when he'd set out this morning, but it seemed like a lifetime ago. All he could remember was desert, stretching out on both sides of the road just as it was now. He wasn't even sure why he'd be walking through desert, but eventually he sighed and let it be.
Soon his mind ventured elsewhere. It was a quiet road; that was for sure. They'd passed a few other walkers, who had all seemed a little confused too, come to think of it, but they'd left them a long way behind. He couldn't recall the last time he'd seen a car. Curiouser and curiouser.
Before long, Rosie decided to head off to the side of the road. Sure enough there was a path leading down and it was well worn. Joe wondered briefly who would build a path in the middle of the desert, but figured that there must be a reason. Roads were there to lead somewhere, he figured, and Rosie seemed to like this one so Joe was happy to follow suit. This was as good a chance as any to find something to dampen his throat, after all.
As if out of nowhere appeared the most glorious building Joe had ever seen. He was too stunned at the sheer magnificence of it to even wonder how out of place it was, seemingly stranded in the midst of the bleak desert. It was a sprawling mansion, with floor after floor of ornate decorative architecture. It was part gothic castle, part English stately home, part Baroque church, yet it all seemed to gel into a natural end result.
Presently Joe lifted his hand to consciously close his jaw, which had dropped at first sight, and he followed the pig who seemed to have much more of an idea of what was going on than he did. Rosie led him to a doorway at the side of the massive iron gates. Joe gazed at her for a long moment and decided that knocking on the door couldn't hurt.
'Come in, Mr Bookman,' came the response.
Once again Joe looked at Rosie, who once again gazed back implacably. Something was certainly going on, he thought, and nobody had concerned themselves with telling him. This fellow knew his name, so logically he ought to know more. With that he took off his hat and stepped inside.
The room was sumptuous, though obviously just an office. Books lined two walls and a gigantic fish tank took up a third. In front of the last wall sat a desk, beautifully carved in dark oak. The gentleman in the immaculate suit sat patiently behind it until Joe acclimatised himself, then stood and gently offered him a chair.
'How do you know my name?' Joe asked in a kindly voice.
'Welcome to Heaven, Mr Bookman,' came the reply in a tone even kinder. 'You'll find that we know plenty here. Congratulations for finding us.'
Joe felt that he ought to feel a little more shocked at the sudden news of his demise, but somehow it was the most natural thing in the world.
'If you'd just sign here where I've marked an X,' said the man, presumably St Peter, 'I'll call someone down to show you around. Paperwork transcends the grave, I'm afraid, sir.'
Joe caught his gaze. 'I don't suppose there's too much choice in the matter, is there? If I'm dead, I'm dead, I guess.'
'Well, there's always Purgatory outside. Some refuse to come into Heaven, but most people realise that they've been journeying here for years. Maybe they're just a little surprised that they finally arrived. Or, of course, there's... but we don't need to even mention that place. You're here now and that's what matters. Here's my pen.'
Joe sighed and gazed down at the pig. 'We made Heaven, Rosie. I guess we did something right somewhere. The man upstairs is... well he's no longer upstairs either.' Turning to St Peter, he added, 'Gonna take a while to get used to the idea, huh?'
'You'll soon get settled here, Mr Bookman. It's a wonderful place, as you can imagine. No pets allowed though, I'm afraid.'
Joe looked up. 'Pet? Rosie's more like a companion, a friend. She's no pet of mine; she's her own person. After all, she's the one who found Heaven for me. I'd have walked right on past.'
St Peter looked down sadly. 'I'm afraid that our policy is clear, sir. Set in stone. No pets allowed.'
'Then, sir, we shall have to take our leave,' said Joe. 'C'mon, Rosie, let's go find somewhere a little more hospitable. Chalk another one up for Purgatory. Or maybe even that place we shouldn't mention. Goodbye, sir.'
Returning his hat to his head, he stepped outside, blinded himself momentarily and soon left Heaven behind.
'After all that, Rosie my girl,' said Joe, 'we never did find any water. Do you think you can find Hell as easily as you found Heaven?'
If it was possible for a pig to shrug, this pig shrugged. Joe laughed quietly and let the pig lead the way. He was still wondering how long a journey it would be from Heaven to Hell when they came upon the gates to a farm. Beyond two functional gates stretched orchards as alive as the desert was dead. Both gates were wide open and a cheerful young lady knelt just to the side of them, reassembling the dry stone wall. She waved as they approached.
'Hi, I'm Jo,' she sang, for her words even spoken carried a melody. 'Long journey?'
'You could say that,' answered Joe, 'and I'm a Joe too. If you could offer some water for Rosie here, I'd be happy to help you out with that wall.'
'I'd be glad of the help, to be honest. There's a water trough just over there, and if you hang fire for a moment or two I have lemonade inside.'
'My pleasure,' said Joe, 'and thank you. Oh, and it might sound like a strange question, but I wonder if you could also direct us to Hell?'
She laughed. 'Looks like you've just come from there, Joe.'
'Actually, we've just come from Heaven, but they didn't take much of a shine to Rosie. We're going to see if the Devil himself has better taste.'
'Oh, his Holiness likes animals just fine. Trust me, he wouldn't run a farm if he didn't like animals. They're all His creatures too. This is Heaven, Joe; you've just come from Hell.'
'But...' stuttered Joe.
'No buts about it. It doesn't matter how big your house is if your friends can't come in. Put it this way, you're both welcome to stay here. Now, how about that lemonade?'
To give credit where credit is due, this piece was inspired by an anonymous e-mail forward. Most are a waste of the virtual paper they're written on, but every now and again comes a diamond in the rough.
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