Category Archives: Chuck the Demon

Hell Storm

by Beverly Forehand

 

Mike dialed the 1-800 number and waited. He was surprised at how quickly they picked up his call.

“Battle Realms — Join the Hell Storm today!” said a perky female voice.

“Uh, yeah,” Mike said, “I have a question about the game.”

“Oh,” said perky voice, “I’d be glad to help you in any way I can. Just give me your online persona name and account password and we’ll be on our way!”

“Well, I don’t actually have an account yet,” Mike said, “I have a question about the game itself.”

“Oh,” said perky voice seemingly a bit confused, “Well, this is Billing and Acquisitions. If you have a technical question, I’ll have to transfer you to Technical Support.”

“What I really want to ask about it…” Mike began, but perky voice cut him off, “If you let me know which game you own: Battle Realms, Battle Realms Hell Storm, or World of Hell Storm, then I can transfer you to the appropriate support personnel.”

“I have the agreement page for World of Hell Storm up right now,” Mike said. But, perky voice cut in, “World of Hell Storm it is! Coming right up!” And, then Mike could hear the soothing, but somewhat disturbing lief motif of Hell Storm.

A few minutes passed while he re-read the User’s Agreement and twirled the phone cord before a male voice said, “Welcome to the World of Hell Storm. This is Chuck, how may I help you?”

“Hello, Chuck,” Mike said, “I’ve been reading the User’s Agreement for World of Hell Storm and it seems like—”

Chuck broke in, “You actually READ the User’s Agreement?”

“Yeah,” Mike said, “And—”

“No, wait,” said Chuck, “You read the whole thing?”

“Yeah, and…” Mike started.

“All sixty-six pages?” Chuck asked.

“Yeah, and the thing is, on pages 33, 60, and 66, it seems to imply that—”

“I’m sorry,” said Chuck, “Could you hold for just one minute?”

“I guess,” Mike said, and then he was heard the phone being put down. In the background he could hear a strange buzzing and disconnected voices. He heard Chuck say, “He’s read the User’s Agreement — the whole thing!” And, then more buzzing and “What should I tell him?” Finally, Chuck picked up the phone again.

“Sorry about that, kid,” he said, “I had to consult with my Manager. No one’s ever had a question about the User’s Agreement before.”

“Really?” Mike asked, “That’s funny because I would think that they’d have a problem with it.”

“Have you clicked “Accept” yet?” Chuck asked.

“Well, obviously not!” Mike said.

“Oh,” said Chuck, “So, you’re not actually a licensed user yet?”

“Well, I guess not,” Mike said, “I mean, I bought the game but I don’t have a subscription. I mean, I was signing up but then the User’s Agreement came up and…”

“I’m really sorry, Mike,” Chuck said, “But, I’m going to have to transfer you. I can only help licensed users of the game.”

“Oh,” Mike said, “Its just that this is the second time I’ve been transferred and—”

“The guys in Legal can help you out, I bet. I mean, they wrote the thing, right?”

Mike brightened, “Okay, I guess I can hold.” The music returned and then, almost immediately, a voice picked up.

“This is A. Crowley of Legal and Users’ Services. I understand from Chuck, our newest technician, that you’ve surveyed our User’s Agreement.”

“Yes,” said Mike, “I have and it seems like, well, it seems like, well, that I would actually be signing away my soul. Is that, right?”

“We do encourage all our users to obtain a full understanding of the Users’ License and Agreement before signing, of course,” said A.

“So… I’m right in reading that clicking “Accept” would actually give Hell Storm a legal and binding right to my soul for all eternity?” asked Mike.

“I’m afraid so, Mike,” said A. Crowley, “But, we do believe that seamless game play for only $9.99 per month is well-worth the cost of a single Soul, don’t you, Mike? After all, most people hardly use their souls at all, and the users’ rate for all our Battle Realms products is several hours daily.”

“Well,” Mike said, “I guess if you think about it like that… still…”

“I know, Mike, that perhaps our Users’ Agreement seems a bit harsh to you now, but compared to some other products that charge nearly $5.00 more per month and are subject to server shutdowns and intolerable lag, I think you’ll agree once you try our product is far superior to any of our competitors’ interactive environments.”

Crowley continued, “Have you actually played one of our versions of Battle Realms? Perhaps Hell Storm itself?”

“No,” Mike said, “All my friends have World of Hell Storm, but I’ve never actually played.”

“Ahhh…” said A., “Well, I would be more than happy to offer you a trial subscription for thirty days. No strings attached, of course.”

“Oh,” Mike said, “Really? You could do that?”

“Of course,” A. said, “And, if you’re interested, “I could even sign you up as one of our Beta Testers for Hell Storm Live.”

“I’ve never heard of that,” Mike said.

“Well,” said A.,”Hell Storm Live is our newest interactive version of the game. It won’t be on the market for several years yet, but we are offering a chance for our most loyal consumers to join the Hell Storm a bit in advance.”

“That sounds really nice,” said Mike, “I’d be in before any of my friends?”

“Most assuredly, Mike,” said A., “I can guarantee that it would be an experience to die for.”

“So, what’s Hell Storm Live like?” Mike asked.

A. smiled. It was the kind of smile you could actually hear. “Well, Mike, I think that you really have to be a part of the Hell Storm to really understand. If you’re interested, and, I assure you that many others are, then I could have you connected in no time at all, maybe even today.”

Mike twirled the phone cord some more and re-read the Users’ Agreement. After all, $9.95 per month was a very good deal.

 

Copyright © 2006 by Beverly Forehand


Fair Trade

 

I bet you’re the kind of guy that believes in happy endings. You know the ones where the ordinary guy gets the girl and they both drive off into the sunset. Or, where the good guy wins against impossible odds and finishes the day with his hair still in place and a cheesy smile on his face. It’d be nice, wouldn’t it, if those things actually happened. It would be nice if it was really true that good always wins out and things can’t get worse. But, if there’s one thing that I’ve found in all these years, it’s that if you can’t imagine things getting worse, it’s only because you don’t have a very good imagination.

Things can always get worse. And, in fact, they usually do. At least for me. I have this way of attracting bad luck. Bad karma. Whatever. Some people might say it’s just justice. After all, I am a Demon. And, I guess if the bad guys do always get what’s coming to them, then my future isn’t looking too rosy. And, I’m thinking all this just as I’m looking “what’s coming to me” right in the face. Of course, I keep trying not to look at HIS face because it disturbs the Hell out of me. But, then it always has.

By the way, my name is Chuck. Okay, I know what you’re thinking. A Demon named Chuck? Well, let’s just say it’s not my given name, but it’s the one I use. If I went around giving people my real name, they’d lock me away for sure-unless, of course, I was in California, and then they’d probably give me my own TV show. Besides, I’ve found over the years that it’s best not to give anyone your real name, really. You never know when you’ll need to get lost and having someone know who (and what) you really are can be a huge liability.

For instance, I know, I just know, that when HE says my name, HE’s going to use my real name. And, it won’t be Chuck. And, it won’t have one syllable. And, I won’t like hearing it. And, when HE does speak and HE does say my name, I’m right, and I don’t.

Basically, the gist of our little communiqué is that I’m in trouble. I haven’t been doing my job exactly to specifications. You see, there are rules in Hell. And, there are rules in Heaven. And, there are even more rules In-between. And, that’s the Team I’m playing for now: the Middle. It sounds a little hinky, I know. But, hey, a guy has to make a living, right? I’m a Demon. And, although I’m sure that qualifies me for many great managerial positions in the burger-flipping industry, since I don’t exactly have a CV, I’m not good for much else. Except this. It is, they tell me, the perfect job for a guy in my position. You have no idea how much I hate hearing that. They mean a guy that has screwed both sides and is now, in return, getting screwed.

You see, for this particular job, you have to be an Angel, but only technically. And, you have to have access to Hell — which, technically, Angels don’t, or at least Hell isn’t leaving out the welcome mat if you get my gist. For this particular gig, you have to be able to take people to the gates of Heaven and Hell without going in yourself, of course. Not if you can help it. And, so far, I’ve spent a hell of a lot of time NOT going in either. I don’t exactly have friends of either side. But, both sides do see the practicality in the situation. After all, someone has to escort all those prospective Souls to the pearly gates or the flaming ones — and who better than a Demon who spent a lifetime (several actually) picking up Souls from those poor bastards who made (or thought they made) a deal with the Devil? It’s like the say, only Nixon can go to China, right? Well, I guess only I can go to Hell, Heaven, or both, or neither.

There’s just one problem with my new job. And, given, it is a slight one. I hate it. I mean, I really hate it. I guess I should be the last one to complain since I hated the illustrious job as the Devil’s Bagman that I had before, but at least that was clean. I mean, you sold your Soul. I picked it up. I dropped it off. And the deal was done. The problem with this is — well, there are so many shades of gray. And, sometimes, it just doesn’t seem fair.

Take deathbed conversions. I have a real problem with them. I mean, technically they’re legal and 100% above the board. But, it just doesn’t seem right to me. I mean, this guy goes around doing whatever for just as long as he can and then it’s “Hey, I feel really bad about all that stuff (now that I’m dying), and I was kinda hoping I could take it all back.” And, here’s the thing: they do. I mean, if the guy had been whacked by a car before his tearful “I’m sorry,” he’d been headed for the Nether Regions. But, as it is, it’s a ticket straight to the Bright and Cheerful. In my book, that sucks.

And, what sucks even more, but only slightly, is that I’m here working on Christmas. No breaks. No holidays. No Union — you can sure as hell be sure. Being a good guy sucks just as much as being a bad guy. And, I’m not even sure I am a good guy. Jeez, when you cart most of these bastards off to Hell, they act like it’s your fault. Like they’re being sentenced to Eternal Damnation for a life of kissing puppies instead of kicking them. People suck, generally. Of that one thing I am quite sure.

And, here I am, thirty-five minutes to midnight on the holiest day of the year and I haven’t even had a lunch break. What I wouldn’t give for a nice Big Mac! But people seem to kick off the most around holidays, and especially this one. And, you know what they say: no rest for the wicked — or is that the good? I’m not sure. But, I do know there’s no rest for Chuck. Ever. And, to top it all off, it’s started to snow. With my bald tires and cheap anti-anti-lock breaks it’s just a good thing that I can’t actually die. Oh, did I forget to mention that the windshield wipers aren’t working. Hey, just a little Christmas bonus for Chuck.

Anyway, I get to the (I’m hoping) last pickup of the day and the place is swank. I mean really, really posh. It’s the kind of place that you see on Lifestyles of the Rich and Completely Full of Themselves. The gate has initials picked out on it and one of those little boxes that you have to speak into. Fortunately for me, Death never knocks. So, I just waltz right in without even blowing exhaust on those gleaming gates. I park my piece of crap car that has now fallen into the habit of belching exhaust even AFTER I turn it off, and I walk up to the door and ring the doorbell. Sure, I could stroll right in, but hey, it’s Christmas and even I have some manners. But after a few minutes of freezing my ass off on the palatial front porch, I decide to do a walk-in. And a good thing too, since no one could’ve heard me anyway. I’m not sure anyone was actual compus mentis enough to have put together the fact that ring-ring means someone is at the door. This was a Christmas party done right. And, since I was there for a pick-up, I guess in someone’s case, done to death.

So, I wander amidst the glitterati who don’t really seem to see me. Or maybe they’ve been trained to ignore anyone not wearing a tux or something with sequins. Who knows? I do manage to snag myself a drink, but it turns out to the champagne, which, frankly, I’ve always thought tastes like piss. It was a mistake, you know? Champagne. No one was actually trying to make it. Sort of like a lot of things that happen around here, I guess.

Anyway, I check my list and it looks like “my guy” is actually hosting this shindig. Well, bully for him. At least he’s going to go out with a bang. And, just my luck, but it appears that the guy may not even be at the party. After a bit of investigating, I find out that he hightailed it out of here about a hour or two ago with a couple of “friends.” Well, it doesn’t surprise me. This was starting to look a little bit too easy.

So, I get back in the car, and start the engine, when it hits me that places like this always have pool houses, or golf houses, or some sort of other smaller house attached that would be just perfect for some private time. So I walk around the house — and that takes a while — in the snow until I see the perfectly modeled miniature of the big house done up in the back and with every light blazing. Score one for Chuck. See, it does pay to watch the OC on occasion.

I peck on the window and one of the bottle blondes inside opens the door. She’s a little wobbly and her speech is pretty indecipherable, but I think she’s asking me if I brought the pizza. I don’t really care, so I brush past her and she sits down heavily on the white marble floor. Dead ahead, I can see my guy on the couch with another blonde and a redhead. “You the pizza guy?” he asks in that low tight British accent that lets me know that this guy wasn’t born with the money he’s currently sitting on.

“Do you see a pizza?” I ask.

“Who the hell are you then?” he asks, “Did Marco send you ’round? Sort of a joke?”

I check my watch. Thirty minutes to go. “Look,” I say, “It seems like I got here a bit early. So, seeing as you have about half an hour left on the clock, I’ll just go upstairs and watch TV or I can sit in the car or whatever.”

“All right then,” he says, “If Marco didn’t send you in here, then who are you? Friend of Vick’s?” he asks.

I smile. I’m everyone’s friend, in the end, I guess,” I say, “I’m Death.”

“Is that some kinda threat?” he says, “Do I owe you money?”

“No, really,” I say, and this is the part I really hate, the explaining, “I’m the Angel of Death and I’m here to collect you at 12:01 AM, which looks to be 29 minutes from now. So, like I said, feel free to enjoy yourself.” He looks a bit stunned and I can tell that he doesn’t believe me.

“You sure Marco didn’t send you?” he says. I light a cigarette and just to make I point, I don’t use a lighter. “Cool effect,” he says.

“Yeah,” I say taking a drag, “Seriously, thirty minutes. I’ll even throw in the extra minutes just because it’s Christmas and all.”

“I know,” he says, “You’re one of those Christmas whazzits. Like Scrooge. You know what they call them?”

“Ghost of Christmas presents?” the redhead says.

“Yeah, Ghosts of Christmas Present!” he says, “Like in that movie with Captain Picard.”

“Nope,” I say, “sorry.”

“Are you sure?” he says, “I’ve been drinking a lot. You could be an imagination.”

“Could be food poisoning?” the blonde on the couch beside him suggests.

“Yeah,” he says, “Could’ve been them crab cakes-looked a bit dodgy, they did?”

“I had one,” says the redhead, “I feel fine.”

“Sure,’ he says, “But you see him, too, right? So, like as not, you’re poisoned too.”

“Oh,” she says, “You’re probably right. It’s like mass hallucinations or something.”

“They say mass on Christmas at St. Peter’s,” the blonde says. The other blonde, by the door, hiccups and then falls over sideways. I just stand there smoking.

“Look,” I say, “You can burn up your minutes however you want.”

“It’s like phone service,” says the redhead.

“I paid for extra minutes,” says the blonde.

“Look,” I say, “I don’t want to alarm you, but I’m not a hallucination or too much gin or a bad piece of fish. I’m real. Real as reality TV, which is probably just about as real as you can imagine. And, I’m really sorry to clue you in, kid, ’cause you don’t look like too bad of a guy, but you are going to die and — unlike the rest of the people in this room — you’re going to die in 27 minutes.”

He looks at me like this is starting to get through to him. Then he shakes his head, “No, you’re like, you know, a metaphor. There’s no death — well, okay, there’s a death, but there’s no god or the devil or heaven and hell. It’s all metaphor, you know, like, for the human condition,” he finishes.

“That’s nice,” I say, “Very enlightened of you. And, if it makes you feel better, you just keep thinking that for the next 26 minutes. But, after that, you may change your opinion just a little. You can call IT anything you like. Hey, they call ham bacon in Canada, but that doesn’t change what it really is.”

The kid is no longer smiling. “I’m going to be dead in 26 minutes,” he says, “What of?”

I shrug. “I don’t do causes,” I say, “I just do pick-ups and deliveries.”

“But, I do have 26 minutes,” he says and I nod. The leans forward in a way that I’ve come to recognize. “What happens,” he says, “If, in fact, I don’t get delivered?”

“Everyone gets delivered.” I say.

“Sure, sure,” he says, “Eventually, I guess they’d all have to-but only eventually, right? There could be mix-ups. Delays. You know how it is with parcels, especially around the holidays.” I mull this over. He is right. I still haven’t gotten those cigars I ordered a month ago.

“Granted,” I say, “Things do get lost. Or maybe they don’t.”

“Or maybe they do?” he says. I think about this. It is Christmas. And the kid, who doesn’t seem to be like too bad of a guy — just an ordinary guy, really — is looking younger and younger. And, he hasn’t tried to make any deathbed confessions or pleas for mercy. He’s actually trying to bribe me, which shows he has balls, and I can appreciate that.

“Okay,” I say, “Just suppose that I was willing to delay the inevitable for a bit. Maybe even as much as a month or two?”

He smiles. “Well, seeing as my time is so limited, I doubt if I would have need for a lot of things like money…” I shake my head. “Or jewelry…” I shake again and he frowns.

“What kind of car do you drive?” I ask.

“What kind do you want me to drive?” he says. He waves his hand toward the door and I see a pegboard loaded with keys. Shining keys. Keys with keychains with their names etched on them. Glorious, wonderful keys. Keys to the kind of cars that never belch exhaust and corner perfectly even in a snowstorm.

“Take your pick,” he says, “take them all!” He smiles and I smile back. And, it’s only a minute before I shut the door behind me. Still, I think I can hear him sigh with relief even through the closed door.

The car is easy enough to find. It’s in the attached garage with about a million other perfect cars. It’s cold black with black leather seats and it radiates a kind of serenity that only the most expensive things can. I open the door and it makes one of these happy little beeps, not the dull grinding I’m used to, and I sit down and light another cigarette. I enjoy the slow burn and open the ashtray ever so slightly. It’s completely clean. It’s like this car has never even been driven. And, maybe it hasn’t. Maybe, it has, in fact, just been waiting for me.

I start the engine and it purrs — it actually purrs — and I pull out of the garage. The way I see it, at least it’s a fair trade — or fair enough anyway. And, I guess this is even an honest job. Somebody has to do it anyway. And if Death used to make trades for chess or checkers or gin rummy or whatever, I guess this is just as good. What’s a month or two or six in the grand scheme of things anyway? It all evens out in the end. And, that’s what this job is really all about: in the end.

I take the car to the very edge of town and park at the overhang, right above the city where you can just see for miles. I know he’s down there. Maybe he’s thinking deep thoughts about life, the universe, and everything. Or maybe he’s just drinking some more gin and watching late-night with his buxom trio. To tell you the truth, it doesn’t matter. There’s a whole city down there and they’re all laughing, crying, living, and dying. And, the snow just keeps falling and covering it all.

I sit in the car and watch the snow and the windows aren’t even fogged up. It’s a convertible and I have the top up. And, the temperature is just fine, even with the cold and the snow. You know this is just the sort of car that always has that degree of perfection summer, winter, spring, or fall. It even has heated seats, if you can imagine. Heated seats.

I stub out the last of my cigarette and light another. The smoke swirls up around me and I watch the snow fall across a flawless moon in a perfect sky and its Christmas. And, that seems just fine too. Tomorrow or the next day or the day after that, I’ll have to think about all this: take the car back, take the Soul, or don’t do either. But, for right now, there’s the snow and the car and the perfect cigarette. I check my watch. 11:59.

Sometimes we get what we deserve, or at least what we think we deserve and sometimes it’s the same thing. Even Scrooge got another chance, right? Some say there are no second chances, no last minute reprieves. But, who the hell knows? Maybe there are. Maybe they’re just waiting for us to take them. Maybe anything and everything is possible. Especially on a night like tonight.

And, as I watch, the car’s digital clock flashes to 12:00. Midnight on Christmas Day. They say anything is possible then. Even miracles. Especially miracles. I watch the snow and the stars and the night. And, for this one minute, it seems that that could actually be true.

 

Copyright © 2005 by Beverly Forehand


Soul Searching

by Beverly Forehand

 

I got a funny email today. Funny, as in disturbing. I know what you’re thinking — half the emails you receive in a given day are pretty disturbing. But this wasn’t your run of the mill junk mail even though the caption did read: “LOOKING FOR A SOUL MATE?” Sure, everyone knows where that’s going, right? Only it didn’t.

Right before I hit the delete button, a little caption caught my eye, “Limited Time Special for Demons Only.” For Demons only? What are the chances? So I kept reading. Under the flashing red and white lettering was advertised “ONE SOUL — ORGANICALLY GROWN.” I clicked the link which lead me to a contact page. I made my appointment. And, that’s where I’m going now. So, here I am, in my car — my ragged, piss-poor company car with no air conditioning and the peeling paint around the rust spots — getting up my nerve to go inside.

It’s a garden store. Not a nice one either. It looks like one of those roadside stands that sell tomatoes and melons in places where people marry their cousins on a regular basis. Only, at least, this one has a roof. I can see a kind of greenhouse attached to the side. It looks like it’s held together with duct tape. Duct tape is one thing I know. It’s what I use to hold the trunk shut on this piece of crap car.

I take a deep breath and I open the door. After all, what do I have to be afraid of — I’m a Demon after all. By the way, my name is Carl, but you can call me Chuck. I never really cared for the name Carl. But Chuck — it’s a name you can sink your teeth into. Carl sounds like someone who takes orders (i.e. who I am), but Chuck sounds like someone who doesn’t give a shit (i.e. the guy I’d like to be).

I walk up to the greenhouse/garden center door and knock. The door actually moves with the pounding and then it opens. “Come in,” a voice in the dark says, and I do. He’s sitting there behind the counter reading a paperback book. It’s an old book, Anderson or Howard or some sci-fi crap. I never could understand why people want to read fiction. The way I see it, life is stranger than anything anyone could make up.

He looks up from the book with one eye and I recognize him. It’s that kid. The Kid. I saw him maybe a year ago. He was trying to sell his Soul. Only he didn’t have one to sell. No kidding. It just up and died on him. I guess he was a little disappointed. Oh well, everyone is in the end anyway. I can tell by the way that he’s looking at me that he doesn’t recognize me but he knows he should. That’s what you call Denial with a capital “D.” People have a way of doing that, I’ve noticed.

“Do you have an appointment?” he asks. Looking at me in that tatty way that receptionists use when they don’t think you should be in the building.

“Yeah,” I say, “1:00 right on the dot.”

He smiles and his eyes sort of twitch. I’ve seen that kind of twitch before and it can get you into a Hell of a lot of trouble pretty quick. He puts the book down. “There’s something you should see,” he says. And, he smiles again. The smile slides across his face like wet cheese, and I, Chuck the Demon, almost back away. But just almost. Instead I follow him with his deranged cat smile into the greenhouse. And, then I begin to get really disturbed. “What do you think?” he asks in a breathy way. I peer into the dark, but I don’t have to really peer since the goddamned things are glowing. Souls. He’s growing Souls.

Soul. It’s kind of a funny word, if you think about it. And, what does it mean anyway? Anything, everything, nothing — it depends on who you ask. I know what it means to me — someone without a Soul. It means a second chance. It’s a second chance at what; that’s the kicker. I mean here they are, rows of them, just waiting to be plucked. But I’m someone that deals in Souls, and I can see right away that something here is just not kosher.

“What do you think?” he asks again. But, I can tell that he isn’t waiting for an answer. He’s striding forward to the rows of putridly glowing things. He has them in plastic pots. He picks one up and holds it at eye level twirling the pot so that I can see all sides. “I got the idea from a Demon,” he whispers almost to himself. “You see, he told me that Souls can die. They can dry up just like a house plant. And, well, it got me to thinking. What can die can grow? Right?” He twirls the sickly thing again. “And, grow, grow, grow, they do!”

“What do they grow on?” I asked him. Not really sure that I wanted to know. The things looked like something you find in midnight caves, in ditches, or on the other side of a madman’s eyes.

“Lots of things,” he said, “Lots and lots of things.” He gave a smug little chuckle. “You’d be surprised, I bet, even you.” I had no doubt that I would be.

“How’d you get my name, or my email, anyway?” I asked.

He looked up and for a minute his eyes cleared and he looked normal, almost. “Oh, I bought it on Listfinders.com.”

“You’re kidding, right?” I asked. “What did you do, just type in ‘Demons’?”

He stared at the plant again, “Demons and Soulless,” he said. “You can’t even begin to think of the market. So many, many, many people all wanting just a little Soul. “ He smiled again, but only with his mouth. “I’ve been selling them on eBay, but I decided to widen the market a bit.”

He held out the neon green and purple thing. It looked a little like a slimy geranium. “Are you interested?” he asked. “I can guarantee it for a year. Full replacement if it doesn’t live, but after that, it’s up to you.”

I look at the thing and then at him. It’s no secret that I’ve been interested in a Soul. I even stole one once, but that didn’t exactly work out. Demons can get in a Hell of a lot of trouble for having a Soul. Immortal things don’t get Souls. That’s the rule. Angels, Demons, Unicorns, you get the picture. No Souls. Souls and immortality sort of go together like peanut butter and trout. They’re definitely an acquired taste and just as likely to make you sick as anything. And even with my complete and utter Soul-lust, I don’t like the look of this thing.

He must see that I’m on the edge. So he pulls out the salesman’s smile. It’s a good smile for what its worth. It’s 100% used-car lot quality. All the teeth and a little extra gleam. Only he’s still holding the Soul that’s not quite a Soul. “It’s fine, see,” he says conspiratorially, “I’m even using one myself.” He smiles again and the 100-watt smile starts to twitch. “Don’t worry about the other buyers,” he says, “I have plenty to go around.”

It’s at that moment that I realize horrifyingly that I am not alone. Or I should say, WE are not alone since the Kid is standing there and there’s a table of potted Souls behind me. But in the corner, standing in a shadow that should not be there especially since we are in a greenhouse, is Someone Else. HE steps forward and I almost catch myself saying, “It’s not what you think!” Come on, if anyone EVER says that to you, then they’re right. It’s not what you think — its something much worse.

I bite down on my lip hard and avert what might have been my last words. And, HE says, “Hello, Chuck.” Only HE doesn’t really call me Chuck. HE calls me by my Name. My true Name. The name I’ve spent the last few millennia trying to forget. The name that was the last thing I heard as they booted my ass out of the heavenly regions for good. HE says my true name again and smiles. It’s a nice smile, but I know HE’s not really pulling all the stops out. If HE were, I’d be running by now.

“It seems,” HE says, “that you and I are on the same mailing list.” HE twirls a strand of perfect golden hair around one finger and smiles again. Perfect. Perfection — don’t underrate it. Imagine trying to sock the most angelic thing you’ve ever seen in the mouth or whack him with a sword. You see the problem. You just keep thinking, “Hey, HE can’t be all bad, right?” That’s right before HE jumps on you with all four claws flying. That’s right before HE rips your eyes out and laughs with his perfect laugh and looks at you with his big, blue, completely Soulless eyes. Looking into those eyes makes you think about Heaven and Hell. Looking into those eyes makes you regret almost everything you’ve ever done. Priests should bring a picture of them to every death bed. I cut my eyes sideways and he smiles again. “It seems that you and I,” HE says, “have had a similar epiphany.”

I shrug. Noncommittal is the best I can come up with under the circumstances. HE steps forward into the light or maybe he’s radiating it. Who knows? I’m trying hard not to look. I’m trying even harder not to scream. The Kid is just standing there. Which, in my book, proves he’s a complete nutcase. My Boss suddenly takes notice of him, the Kid.

“Nice,” HE says gesturing around the room, “Very enterprising.” HE chuckles and his laughter actually rings, just like in fairy tales. “I’m surprised We haven’t thought of this ourselves. Growing Souls. It’s almost a sort of Miracle,” HE says and he laughs again and we laugh with him because we have to. Not laughing, not looking at him would drive you mad. And, I know that if I do happen to survive this day, I’m going to be hearing that laugh inside my head for the rest of forever.

HE turns his full attention to the Kid. “I am in the market, so to speak, for a Soul.” HE smiles radiantly and steps toward the Kid. I take this chance to back away toward the tables. Maybe there’s some way out of here. It’s ridiculous, I know. Where in Hell could I go? Maybe, though, just maybe, I’m insignificant enough to forget about. But, then, HE knows my Name. HE’s taken the time to KNOW MY NAME. It disturbs the Hell out of me. And, even though HE’s not looking my way with his eyes, I know HE’s still watching me. It’s just a good thing, I think, that HE can only read hearts and not minds. HE’s not GOD after all. HE’s not omniscient or even omnipotent. HE can only read your heart and all he would get out of me right now is FEAR, mind-numbing, teeth-rattling fear.

I don’t know what HE’d do with a Soul. HE has access to them all the time. But a Soul of his own. I don’t think it would be a good thing. There’s a reason we don’t have Souls. There’s a reason we want them. I don’t really know what either of them are; but somewhere deep inside me I can hear things breaking apart, and I know that I should do something. I’m not really sure what. So, I fall back on what’s natural to me. I’m a Demon, after all, and Demons break things. So, I casually kick over the table of Souls behind me. It’s a rickety affair and it collapses, knocking into the table behind it. I turn and give the remaining tables a shove and watch the Souls fall to the floor.

I hear another pot hit the floor as the Kid drops his Soul and even though the pots are plastic — I could’ve sworn they were all plastic — they shatter. The pots are all shattering and the Souls, the sickly little Souls are dying. They are going out one by one. Their sad little green lights are dimming and this strange blackish, bluish ooze is pooling around the tables and pot shards. The Kid is screaming. Really screaming. And, I turn around and see him on the floor.

There are two perfect scorched sets of hand prints on his neck. My Boss is not smiling. HE is not smiling at all. His lips have that pinched set look that you see on librarians’ faces when they hear loud talking. HE doesn’t look perfect. HE looks a little sweaty and extremely pissed off. HE looks down at the tables and the bits of Souls. “I’ll remember this, Chuck,” HE says. And, I know HE will. I know HE’ll remember it forever. HE turns and walks out the door leaving the Kid screaming and gagging.

All around me Souls are dying and I feel both happy and sick. I have a strange feeling that I haven’t had in a long time right in the pit of my stomach. I try to help the Kid up, but he bites me and slinks off to the corner. It’s been a long day. I need a drink. I need a bath. And I severely need a new job. I walk outside and all four tires on my car are flat. It figures. HE always was petty.

I start walking toward the setting sun just like in those old westerns. I stick out my thumb and a car actually slows down. It’s a white car with blue trim. I can tell right away that its engine doesn’t smoke and leak mysterious puddles in the parking lot. It must be nice to have a car like that. I bet it’s even nice to ride in. I jog a little ahead and the car is still actually waiting. And, that in itself seems like some kind of a miracle. The door opens and I get inside and there’s even air-conditioning.

“Where you going?” the driver asks. He’s an ordinary looking guy.

“Doesn’t matter,” I say.

“It looks like you’ve had one Hell of a day,” he says. I nod, “You wouldn’t believe it if I told you, buddy.”

He nods back and smiles in a nondescript way. “I got an interesting email yesterday,” he says. I freeze in my seat and say nothing. “But I guess that’s taken care of,” he continues.

“I guess,” I say. He nods again, “That’s good.” He flips out a pack of cigarettes and offers me one. “No thanks,” I say, “I’m trying to get off them.” He lights up and takes a long drag, “I got hooked on them a long time ago. Can’t seem to break the habit. It just, you know, helps you fit in.”

He looks at me with his brown — or are they blue — eyes. “We’re going to have to do something about that face,” he says, “and you’ll need a new car.” I look at him for a long time. “You are interested in a new position, I take it,” he says, “I mean I got the impression that you were between things.” I nod. He smiles and starts the engine.

“Good. We can work out the details later,” he says. “The Devil is always in the details,” I say. He laughs a perfectly ordinary laugh, “Oh, not this time,” he says, “not this time at all.”

The car drives smoothly into the sunset and the air-conditioning is just fine. After a while he turns on the radio and there’s not even any static. It has been one Hell of a day, which just goes to show you that life really is stranger than fiction. I take a cigarette from the pack he left on the seat and he holds out the car lighter. I inhale and exhale. The sky is getting dark and the stars look a little brighter than usual. I don’t know where we’re going and I really don’t care. Ahead of us I can see a perfect red convertible and, as we pass it, it starts to rain. “Imagine the luck,” my new friend says, and I do.

 

Copyright © 2005 by Beverly Forehand


Divine Intervention

I quit and that’s all there is to it, really. And I really mean it this time. And sure, I know what THEY always say, “Quitters never win, and winners never quit,” but let me tell you, buddy, that’s all complete and utter bull. I know. I should. I’ve done just about every type of no-good, useless job there is at this point — everything under the proverbial sun — and let me tell you it all sucks. Every time you think you’re a little ahead, just the moment you’re feeling like you’re on top — that’s when the hammer falls.

There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to it, either. Do a good job or do a piss-poor one and it all amounts to the same thing in the end — and that’s your ass on the line. Sure, I just try to do my job. I even try to be a nice guy. And what do I get? “Good job, Chuck,” or “Nice work, Chuck?” Hell, no. All I get is complaints. Well, I’m tired of it. I quit.

But, there’s just one problem. Thankfully enough, it isn’t really my problem at all. It’s just that THEY keep saying I can’t quit. That’s the problem when you’re a Demon — there’s no contingency for quitting, and the vacation plan really sucks, too.

Not that the other side of the coin is a lot better. I mean, I was an Angel, then a Demon, then an Angel — okay, so I wasn’t an up-and-up Angel, but I was the Angel of Death and that does have the big “A” word in the title, right? And now, the way I see it, is I’m unemployed, or between jobs, or comfortably freelance. I’m completely and utterly Chuck for Hire, Freelance Demon (or Angel or whatever.)

The one thing that I am completely and totally sure of is that I’m not going back to that work-a-day grind they call “doing your job.” What did I get out of it anyway? I didn’t even get paid, really. Why bother?

So, here I am sitting on my sofa (and I use that in the loosest construction of the word since this piece of springs and torn cotton can barely be called anything) in my crappy apartment with the paper-thin walls and trying to ignore the doorbell.

You see, I know exactly who it is. I know for a fact that THEY don’t have to use the doorbell — or the door — for that matter. But I keep up my charade just for the sake of my own demonic sanity and keep watching TV and eating chips out of the bag (and from wherever they fall.)

But the doorbell keeps ringing, and the knocking continues, and now I can hear my neighbors pitching hell. They’re wearing me down. That’s their plan. It always has been. I guess it works, because against all my better instincts I find myself answering the door.

And there THEY stand. Both of THEM. Representatives of the respective two-sides-of-the-coin. Not looking too chummy, I notice. But, not looking that ill at ease with each other as you might expect. After all, they’re both in the same business, so to speak. You could hardly have one side without the other.

“May we come in?” Metaron asks very politely, as if I could stop THEM from coming in if I wanted to.

I nod. Because I know perfectly well that THEY are coming in. After all, THEY don’t just show up at your apartment and go away when you don’t open the door.

In fact, THEY don’t usually pay housecalls at all, the way I hear it. Which means that I’m probably in a lot of trouble again. But then again, maybe not. I think that this time, maybe, I’ve finally gotten everything all figured out. I’ve quit. And there’s not really a lot left THEY can do to me.

I have been to Hell and back — and I have to admit that on a really hot day in L.A. waiting in traffic in my rust-wagon of a car with no A/C and no hope of moving for the next hour or so, I have to say, that I might prefer Hell. At least in Hell you get to meet some interesting people.

So, I hold open the door a bit and Metaron nods and smiles back at me and then The Other One pushes past and lights a cigarette. HE takes one look at my apartment, puffs on his unfiltered stick, and says in that buzzing voice of his, “Man, Chuck, this is real crap.”

“Thanks, I guess I wouldn’t have noticed without your astute comment.”

HE takes another drag good and slow and blows smoke right in my face. “Damn you, Chuck,” HE says, “You’re really starting to piss me off.”

“Well,” I say, “I’m sorry to be an inconvenience, but you could always get the Hell out of my apartment and let me get back to watching TV.”

HE just glares and puffs.

And then Metaron speaks. “There’s really no need for all this difficulty, is there?” He asks sweetly. “We can all behave like adults, can’t we?” He asks looking at “B.”

“B.” smiles with his perfectly capped teeth. “Yeah, sure, whatever,” HE says. “This is more your show anyway.”

Metaron nods and smiles again. Then He takes a step forward and adjusts his tie in that business-like way that all middle-managers and HR consultants have down pat. “Chuck,” He says, “This is an intervention.”

“B.” laughs snidely, and I say, “What? A what? What do you guys do all day? Sit around watching Oprah?”

“B.” glares and Metaron smiles sadly with just a little sympathy thrown in, like a talk show host talking to a crack addict. “Now, Chuck,” He says, “There’s no need for hostility. This is for your own good.”

“Oh, I don’t really see how that’s possible,” I say, “I’m perfectly fine here with my TV and my chips.”

“Really? says “B.” snidely, “Well, how fine would you be, I wonder, if your chips were turned to scorpions and your TV sank into the fiery bowels of Hell, huh?”

“I guess I’d just buy new chips and a TV.” I smile and light a cigarette of my own. Metaron looks displeased and pulls out a linen kerchief. Then he sneezes a tiny, disapproving sneeze. “B.” rolls his eyes.

“They’ll be no more talk of scorpions or such things,” says Metaron. “That’s not the way you do these things.”

I half expect him to pull out a “How to Host an Intervention” booklet or maybe “Intervention for Dummies.” I can definitely see how this tactic is appealing to both sides. It has the benevolent condescension that Side A is so fond of and the general annoyance that Side B thrives on.

“Enough of this BS,” says “B,” with a puff, “Let’s just get on with this. Chuck is pissing a lot of really important people off — and by ‘people’ I don’t mean ‘people’ at all. Now it’s time for Chuck to get off his ass and get back to work.”

“Said with little eloquence,” says Metaron, “but nonetheless the truth. We can’t have you sitting here doing, well, whatever it is you do. You have to do something.”

“I am doing something,” I say, “I was watching the game I had taped. That was until you two came in here with your little song and dance. And if you would be so good as to get the Hell out, I guess I’ll get back to watching the game.” I gesture to the still open door.

“It’s not so simple, Chuckie old boy,” says “B.” “Oh no, we have a job for you to do, and you’re going to be a good boy and do it.”

“Yes,” says Metaron, “We don’t expect you to like it.”

“But,” says “B.” “You sure as Hell will do it.”

“And what if I say no?” I ask.

“No one says no,” says “B.”

“No,” says Metaron, “They never do.”

“Never?” I ask.

“Never,” says “B.”

And I know that HE means it. Never. No one says no. Ever.

“So,” I say, trying to sound nonchalant, “What exactly is this job that no one ever says no to?”

“Oh,” says “B.” “That’s the best part.”

“Yes,” says Metaron, “We’ve been instructed not to tell you.”

“Then how, pray tell, am I supposed to do said job if I don’t know what the Hell it is? Maybe in fact I’m doing it right now, huh?”

“You’ll know it when you see it,” says “B” with another drag on his now almost a stub of a cigarette.

“We are terribly sorry we can’t provide more information,” says Metaron, “but as you know, rules are rules.”

“Oh, sure,” I say, “I get that. Rules are friggin’ rules.”

“Yes, indeedy,” says “B,” flicking his cigarette butt onto my ragged green carpeting, “they sure are.”

I stand there just looking at THEM and willing THEM to leave, and finally with infinite and utter slowness THEY do. And suddenly the entire day has just gone stale for me. The TV, the chips, my nice comfy place on the sofa, the annoying pounding on the wall from my neighbors — I just can’t stand any of it right now.

I grab my coat, which is actually really nice, and I check the pocket to make sure I have my lighter and my keys, and then I close the door on the whole sorry day. Driving always makes me feel better — even if it is in my car. I like to be out. I like people. I’m a people-person if you can believe it. I figure that people cheer you up because someone, somewhere is always having a worse day than you.

I get in the car, slam the door with a really satisfying thud, and I’m just lighting a cigarette when I feel Her looking at me through the passenger-side window. She has that kind of intense stare that you only get from lunatics and the Divine. You know how they say that cats can hypnotize their prey? Well, I feel sort of small and furry just looking at Her.

And then She blinks. I know She doesn’t have to, and that makes it a little more galling. She smiles, showing a few too many teeth, all of them pearly-gate white, and says, “Hello, Chuck, I suppose you’ve been expecting me.”

“Does it look like it?” I say, taking a drag.

She smiles again and my cigarette goes out. “They say it’s bad for your health,” She says.

“Who’s They?” I ask, as if I don’t already know.

“We really do have a full day ahead,” She says, “We should probably get a move on.” Before I can say anything more, She opens the passenger’s side door — which I really do remember having locked.

And all of a sudden it hits me. She smells just like she looks — immaculate and expensive like a French Manicure or a new car. And even though getting into a car isn’t exactly the most graceful thing in the world, She somehow makes it look like some kind of dance. And let me just say that the old saying is true. Ignorance is bliss because knowing what you’re dealing with can sometimes scare the crap out of you.

I start to say Her name, but before the words even get out of my mouth or even through the thickness of my brain, She says, “Really, there’s no need for titles here, is there, Chuck?”

Only, when She says “Chuck,” there’s just this tiny echo where I can almost hear my true name, and I have to work hard not to shudder.

“Call me whatever you want,” She says, “After all, I’ve had many names over the years. What’s in a name, eh, Chuck?”

I really want a cigarette right about now, but I fight the urge and turn over the engine. It purrs, swear to God, purrs and starts without a hitch for once in its sorry mechanical life. And then I notice that the A/C is actually working and even the seats seem a lot more comfortable.

Sure. It makes sense. Archangels, they’re the rock stars of the celestial realm. And the one thing that They always demand is perfection. I don’t know what gave it away first — the perfect hair, the tight white leather, or the flaming Sword. A toss-up, really. But, any fool knows perfection when he sees it. So, I shift into “D” and off we go on our merry adventure.

And although I wasn’t really expecting any sort of explanation, I unfortunately got one.

“I know you’re not one for rules, Chuck,” She says, “So I expect this little task will be a walk in the park for you.”

I say nothing and keep my eyes on the road. I’ve found it’s best not to commit early on.

“Well,” She says confidentially, “I have always been one for rules, as it were, and I have to say that I really, really don’t care for this situation.” She smiles. “But, as they say, we all have to do our jobs, whether we like them or not.”

“Really?,” I ask, “And I don’t suppose you could clue me in on just what my job is, could you, Red?”

She smiles, “Red, I like that.” She says, “It’s mildly charming. And well, yes, I guess I could fill you in, as you say. We’re having a problem with the rules — or some of US are, anyway. I should say that I’m wholly against this, Chuck, but I do follow the rules, so when I’m told to do something, I do it. No questions asked.”

“Funny,” I say, “but it sounded a bit like a question was in there somewhere.”

She says nothing but gestures with her Sword, still flaming, but of course, not ruining the interior, “It was so simple in the beginning, wasn’t it, Chuck?” She asks. “Just the Word and the Sword and the Rules. That’s all there were. You obeyed or you faced the Wrath of the Divine. But now it’s gotten, oh so complicated.”

I shrug. “Nostalgia can be a bitch. Life has always seemed pretty damn complicated to me — past and present.”

“Yes,” she says, “I suppose, but at least they used to fear. You know, the common man. We had that, at least.”

I push in my lighter, but it doesn’t seem to be working, and I can only imagine what will happen if I try to light a cigarette on the Sword. Nothing good, I can tell you.

I just drive, and after a while She says, “Stop. Here.”

So I do. We’re in front of a building that looks like it should’ve been condemned, but of course it isn’t. There’s a kid with a dog, both kind of skittish looking, sitting on the stairs outside, but he hustles off when he sees my car stop.

There’s just something wrong with the building that can’t be explained by decay and the general malaise of the place. It’s as if the air has gone bad, and when I look at Her, She has this sad, half-smile on her face. “You know, Chuck,” She says, “They say there’s a place for everyone in Heaven and Hell, but that just isn’t true.”

“It isn’t?”

“No,” She says, “And what do you do when Heaven won’t have you and Hell doesn’t want you?”

“I ask myself that question every day.”

“I suppose you do.”

“I guess there’s some particular reason we’re stopped here,” I say.

Red just sits there, staring ahead. Then finally she nods. “Here’s the thing, Chuck,” she says slowly, “There are rules. You know? And the rules are there for a reason. But then there’s Right and Wrong too. And sometimes when you play by the rules, you can’t be Right or Wrong.” She looks at me with that intense stare and I almost think for a minute that She looks, well, kind of sad.

“So what rule or rules do you want me to break?”

She smiles again. “Always right to the point, eh, Chuck? That’s just it exactly. There’s even a name these Mortals have for it — a loophole, I think.”

All I can think at this point is that I really, really want a cigarette. I just can’t find anything to do with my hands, and this is a time that would usually merit a long drag. Instead, I just put both hands on the steering wheel and look straight ahead.

“I’m not asking you to break any rules, Chuck. Really, it’s not as if you have any rules to break. It seems as if you generally do as you please. And let’s face it, you always have. If you hadn’t, then you might be sitting right where I am right now. There was a time, Chuck…”

“I didn’t know we were here to reminisce. Just get on with it. Whatever it is that you don’t want to do, or you’ve convinced yourself that you can’t do. Whatever it is that you think you want me to do instead. Just spit it out.”

Instead, She opens the car door and steps into the street. And I follow Her into the building. It’s just about what I expected, given the outside of the place. Peeling paint, scuffed floors, graffiti, and that general feeling of utter despair that you get from places like these. There’s a carved a banister at the end of the hall that hasn’t been polished in half a century, and you know that this place really has seen better days. Maybe in the 1920’s it was really something. A real showplace. And the folks that lived here were on top of everything. Even buildings can fall from grace, I think.

So, we climb right up the stairs and walk to the end of the hall, kicking pizza boxes and last week’s trash out of the way as we go. Finally, Red stops in front of a door and nods.

I really take a look. That’s the thing about being what we are. If we want to, we can look right down to the grain. This place had the stink of evil. Real evil.

It’s the kind of place that children and animals shy away from. The kind of place where even the Jehovah’s Witnesses wouldn’t have the balls to ring the doorbell. There’s nothing technically wrong with it, but its “unrightness” hangs in the air like demented static electricity. Even I, Chuck the Demon, don’t want to knock on that door.

But the Angel with the flaming Sword gives me a nudge, and I find myself knocking. Even if I didn’t already know something was wrong, I would when the door opens right up, just like he’s been waiting. Just like he’s glad to see us. He’s even smiling — at least, that’s what I guess that twist of the mouth is that he’s making. And then he invites me in. The Angel follows.

That’s the thing about Angels. Not just anyone can see them. Sure, they can be seen when they want to. But they can’t hide themselves from some: children, saints, and madmen. I can tell by the way that this guy is being careful not to look over my right shoulder that he knows perfectly well that Someone holding a flaming piece of steel is standing right behind me. But he’s deciding to be “nonchalant,” so I figure what the hell, I’ll just play along.

Despite the fact that I’m standing in the middle of his apartment, this guy just keeps smiling. He doesn’t even ask what the Hell I’m doing here, which would’ve been number one on my need to know list. Anyone can see there’s something seriously amiss with this fellow. He isn’t exactly a personable madman. You’d never hear his neighbors saying, “He was such a nice quiet man. I would never have imagined that he could do such things.” One look at this guy just sets you to imagining, and you can tell he’s imagining, too.

“You were the Angel of Death,” She says behind me.

“You know what that entails,” I say. “It’s no more than a pick-up job.”

“Still,” She says, “You are a Demon, Chuck, and you were an Angel. There are some things that are never forgotten.”

I say nothing, but when I turn She’s holding out the Sword. “I could tell you,” She says, “I could show you what is, and was, and is to come. But, I think you already know all that.”

“Its not my job,” I protest. “You know that.”

“Yes,” She says, “I do know. But, it is Right.”

“Then you can do it.”

She just shakes her head. “It’s Wrong, too, and that’s where you come in.”

All the time, the maniac just keeps staring at me and Her and the Sword. Only his eyes move, except for the funny little twist of his lips. I close my eyes and feel the Sword slide into my hands, just like old times, and the flame on it stays true against all odds. “This isn’t fair,” I say to everyone and no one.

And right before I swing she says, “Nothing ever is.”

When it’s done, we walk out of the apartment and I notice that She’s careful to shut the door behind Her. The lock clicks with an unnatural loudness and I realize that I can hear my own breath. Hers too.

The Sword is dull now. I try to hand it back to Her, but She shakes her head. So, I carry it downstairs and put it in the trunk of the car. It lies there, just a piece of gleaming metal. Still, it bothers me a little to close the trunk on it.

We drive for a while in silence. Until I flick on the radio, but we’re between stations, so I turn it back off. She sits, staring dead ahead at first and then turns her head to watch me.

I punch in the cigarette lighter and give it a second or two and then light up. She doesn’t say anything, but I can see her make a polite little cough into her hand. “You did the Right thing, Chuck.”

The thing is, I know that. It was the right thing, but it wasn’t the fair thing. Even though I may break the rules all the time, I know in my little black heart that they’re there for a reason. And they’re there for everyone, good and bad. That’s why they’re the rules.

“This won’t be forgotten, Chuck,” She says.

But we’re in front of my apartment, so I just get out of the car and start walking.

She follows me up, of course, right into my apartment and stands there looking perfect and divine. There’s something so utterly devoid of all reason, of all mercy, of all hope in Her that I just look away.

But finally, I have the courage to say it. “There’s something I’ve been wanting to tell you since we first met,” I say.

The Angel is quiet, but looks at me with that earnest, intense stare that She has, just daring me to continue.

So, I take a breath and figure, hey, what the Hell, so I say, “It’s just this — I really, really hate you.”

The Angel smiles, really smiles, for the first time since I’ve met Her. “Yeah, I get that a lot.”

“I’m not surprised,” I say.

She smirks, “Yeah, well, I bet you thought you were the first.”

I shrug.

“Don’t think this lets you off the hook,” she says, “You still work for US.”

I nod, “Yeah, I guess you Both have me on retainer.”

She turns and walks through the door that I have to say I don’t remember her ever opening, but there it was, open. She stands for a moment in the frame, letting the dramatic lighting of the dying day catch all her best angles. “I’ll see you soon, Chuck.”

I let the door slam before I say, “God, I hope not.” But I know She heard me just the same.

 

Copyright © 2007 by Beverly Forehand


Repossession

Did you ever have a job you really hated? I mean really, really hated. The kind of hate that sets you to thinking “I hope blow a tire or that I plow into that wall before I have to punch in?” The kind of hate that makes you think things like, “I could just throw myself in the compressor — a trip to the hospital is sure to get me out of a few hours of work.” The kind of mind-numbing, stomach-curdling hate that keeps you awake at night thinking about suicide or homicide — but mostly homicide?

Believe me, I know what I’m talking about. I hate my job. I hate it as much as any hamburger-flipping sophomore who ever spit in the grease fryer right before he dipped out your french fries. I hated it so much that one day I just walked out, mid-day, right after lunch. And I didn’t give any notice. I didn’t turn in my name badge or the company car. I didn’t give a flying flip about my health insurance coverage or how vested I was in my 401K. I just quit.

And like any bad employee, I made sure to loot the supply cabinet and carry away a few goodies right before I hit the road. The problem is that, well, there’s really no contingency for quitting my job. You see, my name is Chuck, and I’m a Demon. And the small, really inconsequential thing that I pocketed, was a Soul.

I know what you’re thinking. You just can’t steal a Soul. Well, buddy, you’re wrong there. Hell, people are practically giving them away. The average pack of copy paper probably has more value than the Soul that I lifted. But the thing about that is, you don’t even get away with stealing a sheet of copy paper in Hell. You think Heaven is big on rules? Well, you haven’t seen anything until you’ve spent some time with the Rules and Regulations guys in the Nether Regions. What do you expect — we have all the best lawyers.

Here’s the thing, that job that I hated, the one I ran out on — well, the gist of it was that I picked up Souls. You know, just like in the movies, when this guy says “I’d sell my Soul!” and then there’s some dark, disturbing music and a puff of smoke and then this Demon appears. That Demon, that’s me. Only really it’s nothing like that. I mean, there’s no music or smoke or fiery contracts written on human skin. Sure, once we used to do things all medieval, but that was only because it actually was the Dark Ages. Back then, people used to complain and say, “Don’t you have stone tablets or flaming runes or something?”

You can’t please anybody, ever. Take it from me. I’ve been doing this for thirty-seven hundred years (and sixty-one days, and seventeen hours, and so on… you see, I really do hate my job). Everyone is the same always. A farmer in the middle of the Amazon and a CEO on Park Avenue want pretty much the same thing — more than the next guy. Everyone wants to be on top. But what about me? Us? Demons, I mean. I don’t know about the other guys — they seem to want what the average Joe wants. It’s a dog eat dog, or rather, a Demon eat Demon sort of world. But as for me — I want what the other guy didn’t want: his Soul. Sure, it was just lying around. He gave it to me, didn’t he? Of course, I was supposed to turn it in at the end of the day. But, hey, what’s one less Soul in Hell, right? They’ll probably end up getting it back with my luck anyway.

So, I did the big pinch and grab and got the Hell out of Dodge. But, here’s the thing — you can’t really outrun my Employer. I mean, you think God is omniscient: He’s a busy guy and he has his hands in a lot — and I do mean A LOT — of big pies. But, as for the Other Guy, he’s got just one thing on his mind: staying on top. And he has a million snitches, stoolies, and yes-men to do all the work for him. Sooner or later, someone, somewhere, some Underworld bureaucrat is going to see that one column doesn’t add up, and who do you think they’re going to trace that missing Soul back to? Sure, the guy that didn’t show up to punch the clock. It’s just a matter of time. I knew that from the beginning, but I’m not letting that slow me down. The way I figured it, I only had a snowball’s chance in Hell anyway. So, hey, why not take that chance? What are they going to do to me anyway? I’m a Demon. Send me to Hell?

My only chance is to hold on to this Soul for just as long as I can. If I can do something really, and I do mean really good, then just maybe I have a chance at Redemption. I’m thinking that my best chance is to do something to screw the Other Guy. The Other Side has to be pretty keen on that, right? And, well, being really good isn’t exactly up my alley, but screwing people over comes second nature to the Damned.

After all, I wasn’t always a Demon. I was an Angel once. Maybe not the shiniest one, maybe my halo didn’t exactly glow with virtue, but I was an Angel just the same. I sort of suck at being a Demon most days, and I figure I was exactly the same sort of Angel. I did Fall, right? Stupid, so stupid. You know when your Mom says things like, “If everyone jumped off the bridge, would you do it, too?” Well, I’m a prime example of the guy that would. So, see, kiddies, listen to your Mom, or else, well, you’d probably rather not know.

Here’s the other Ace I have up my sleeve. Hell is full of incompetents, layabouts, and people who frankly don’t give a damn about their jobs. So, there’s a pretty good chance that I won’t get noticed for a while — not a hundred percent, of course, because those number-crunchers live for finding something in column A that should be in column B (See my note on lawyers above — we get the best of everything down here — how do you think they got to be the best?).

Or, here’s the better chance, that they’ll send someone just as piss-poor and disgruntled as myself for the Repossession. That’s something I can deal with. Bribery is not unheard of in the Regions of the Damned, as you can imagine. And frankly, since being in Hell sucks so much, Demons aren’t too hard to bribe. I know guys that would sell their mothers for a bag of chips, let alone chips and a nice frosty beverage.

So, here I am, just waiting. Waiting to be caught and hoping against hope that the Repo Guy they do send is someone I know or at least someone I can deal with. I’d pray if I could, but I’m not really sure who to, and, well, I’m sure that’s a way to get noticed. I mean, I’m not exactly going to send up a few hopeful wishes to my ex-Employer and I don’t exactly think that I have a long-distance calling card for the other Guy.

They say there’s forgiveness for everyone, but, let me tell you, that’s not exactly true. That’s one of those pleasant little lies people like to tell themselves — like the truth always outs, good always triumphs, and there’s someone for everyone. Give me a break. The truth and good are so subjective that half the time I don’t know whose side I’m playing on; and, well, someone for everyone — have you seen some of the people in this city? They say there’s faces only a mother could love, but I doubt that these guys’ moms have left their scrapbooks out on the coffee table if you know what I mean.

So, here I am waiting — expecting — and making my own sort of plans. But, like most things in life, it doesn’t happen the way I expect. I’m sitting in the coffee shop, my favorite coffee shop — you know the one — they have perfect lattes and a guy can just sit for hours. Anyway, I’m just sitting drinking a nice mocha something when I feel a shadow on me. It’s hard to feel a shadow under fluorescent lights unless the shadow-caster is really, really working at it. And this guy was. He had “working at it” practically tattooed on his forehead. I looked up and watched him watch me watch him.

He stood very still, like a cat, letting me take it all in. The perfect suit, the Italian loafers, the haircut that cost more than most men make in a week. Then, he smiled, the perfect smile — the kind of smile that’s the last thing that small furry creatures see right before the paw comes down. He glides over to the table in a way that makes everything else seem graceless and stale and he sits down all in one motion. He smiles again with his tiny sharp teeth and reaches into his pocket. I’m expecting, I don’t know what I’m expecting, but all he pulls out is a Blackberry.

“Nice Blackberry,” I say.

He smiles again, “It’s not a Blackberry,” he says while he delicately fingers the keys on what looks and sounds exactly like a Blackberry. And then he says something that I couldn’t have, wouldn’t have expected not in a thousand years. He smiles, leans forward in that confidential and utterly charming way that some guys have and whispers, “Chuck… congratulations.” He smiles again and leans back folding his perfectly manicured hands on the table. The not-a-Blackberry makes a small humming noise beneath his fingers. And for the first time in a very, very long time, I find myself at an utter loss for words.

I’m the kind of guy that lives by his wits, so to speak. And I tend to pride myself on my ability to think on my feet. But, here I am dumbfounded. Completely and utterly struck with silence, and believe me that’s not something that you want when you have an Agent of the Nether Regions sitting across from you smirking in his oh-so-continental way.

You’d think that at this point in my life, I’d have learned to live without hope or even without the need for it. But, that’s the thing — the really, utterly and improbably thing about us all is that you never stop hoping. Not even when it is completely and totally hopeless to even let yourself hope. Take Hell, for instance. From the PR material, you’d think that it was all fire and brimstone, desert-like landscapes, and moans of the Damned. You couldn’t be more wrong. That kind of Hell would be a helluva lot more exciting that the actual thing. People, after all, thrive on drama — good or bad. The thing that really, really makes Hell, well, Hell, is the monotony.

Everything in Hell is tepid except, of course, the personalities. The water, the beer, the food — are all as bland in a way that not even the English have managed to perfect. You can even order a pizza in Hell. But, you can be sure that somewhere in the moment between opening the lid and taking that first exquisite bite that the cheese has gone from perfection to that slightly clammy, rubbery consistency that only pizza cheese can manage. Ninety-nine times out of hundred. But, then, there’s that once in a millennium perfect slice. Even in Hell, there’s that little bit of comfort, the chance meeting, that one moment when you actually forget just where you are and just how you got there. Hope. There has to be hope. Otherwise, it wouldn’t really be Hell at all, now would it?

So, here I am, looking across from a guy probably one or two steps down from the actual GUY and thinking that there’s some possibility that things could get better for me. You’d thought that at this point in my life, I’d have known better. But, go figure. So, I smile back at him, and clear my throat.

He smiles seeing an opening for himself. He leans away from the table and gestures broadly giving me another chance to admire his ensemble. One thing about these Upper-Level, Lower-Level Guys is that they are always well-dressed. “I think you know your first mistake,” he says.

I shrug. He smiles again, the barest lifting of his perfect lips and rests a manicured hand on the table. “Well, since we are agreed on that point, let me just point out that as mistakes go, it did show a bit of style. And that — especially in someone so apparently lacking in all other style — is appreciated.”

“A bit of an irony, then,” I say.

He smirks again,” You could say that, I suppose.”

So, I sit there and wait. Because I know he wants me to wait. He has the expectant look, like a dog sniffing the air right before a storm. So, I lean back just a little — just enough to look like maybe, just maybe, I don’t give a damn what’s he’s about to say, when really, I have to tell you, I am on pins and needles.

So, he leans back a bit too, but not enough to wrinkle his suit, and then, suddenly he leans forward and says in the most confidential way, “Chuck, if I may call you Chuck?” he says and when I nod he continues. “Well, Chuck, I’ve come to offer you a promotion.” Then, he leans back in his chair and folds his hands and smiles again moltenly and waits. “Of course,” he adds, “We will need that Soul back.”

And for a moment, for one exquisite moment, he almost had me. But almost, like they say, is only good for horseshoes and hand grenades. Almost — just before I see that one perfect bead of sweat on his forehead — he had me. So, I smile back at his smile. A smile that seems a little bit too perfect and tight at this moment. And then I say, “We?”

He smiles again, and I see him swallow, “Of course, we need the Soul back before any advancement can be discussed.” He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a cigarette case full of those little black cigarettes that people with more money than sense smoke and then says, “The Soul’s return is, of course, non-negotiable.”

“And I’d return it to you?” I ask trying to look eager. And he smiles flicks his lighter and says, “Of course.” And he has time to smile just one more time before I reach across and snap the cigarette in half.

“I really don’t think you know who you’re playing with — or, in fact, what you’re playing at,” I say. He leans back against the chair just as far as he can this time and I know that his perfect suit is going to need a trip to the dry-cleaners now — and probably for more than just a good pressing.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he says edgily looking around the room, looking for an escape hatch.

“Free agent,” I say and I drop his crappy black cigarello and lean back myself, “You’re here on your own, aren’t you?”

He gulps and straightens his lapel. “So what if I am?” he asks.

I smile, “I’m not giving it to you.”

For a moment there, he forgets what he is and just how big I am. But, just for a moment. Then, he decides to be tactful. He takes his voice down a notch the way only accountants and lawyers can and he says, “You know you can’t keep it. They haven’t noticed yet, but when they do… I mean, did you actually think, actually, that you could get away with this?”

I say nothing which, I can tell, makes him even more nervous. “I could’ve told, couldn’t I? But, I didn’t, did I?” he says.

“People go missing all the time,” I say, “and, well, you know, Hell is a big place. If you didn’t come back, I guess someone might think that you’d run off someplace — or really, really pissed someone off, wouldn’t they?” I say. I reach into my coat pocket and he flinches. But, I just pull out a cigarette, a real one, and light up. The girl over at the counter gives me a look, but she doesn’t say anything. Counter girls don’t usually say anything to guys like me.

He just sits there ruining his suit some more. I can actually see the sweat puddling.

“Look,” I say, “I’m not going to do anything to you.”

He nods. Then he tries one more time — you have to give him credit for that. “I could hide it,” he says, “It’s not safe here. There’s no place they won’t look for it if it’s missing from the numbers,” he says. And then he looks up and says with the tiniest of voices, “Others might notice too.”

And it’s at that exact moment that I realize that he’s right. There is nothing for me to do with it — the Soul. There’s no place I can hide it. There’s no place I can hide me. They are going to know and they’re going to get it back.

I get up all of the sudden and start to snub the cigarette out on the table, but think better of it and pinch it and put it in my pocket. After all, I’m in here a lot and I don’t want the coffee to start tasting sour.

“Where are you going?” he asks all sheepish, “I mean, what do you plan to do?” I just walk out the door and I can feel his eyes boring into the back of me as I walk to my crappy car and turn over the engine.

I take the Soul out of my pocket and look down at the it. It twines around my fingers in a way that I’ve started to think means it’s happy — like a little cat. It’s started to lose that sad, grayish-green look over the past few weeks. It is, I think, definitely on the mend. And suddenly it just doesn’t seem fair to it — or to me. But, then, what in life ever is. I guess that just about sums it up too. The poor little thing would probably be better off if I just gave it a good chuck off the side of a building. But, then, again, it’s a big ole world out there and you just never know what is going to happen. I guess that’s why I like it sometimes. So, I turn the car out of the parking lot and I slide the Soul back in my pocket. And for once I know exactly where I’m going.

What to do with a Soul? That is the question on everyone’s mind. You can’t keep it — not if you’re me — and you can’t give it away. I know that the only slim chance that ferret-faced little accountant back in the coffee shop has of saving grace now is ratting me out. Because if he doesn’t they’ll know that he knew and he’ll know that they know that he knew. And that always always ends up badly. In the real world, someone would end up in a body-bag, but in the Netherworld, well, there are worse things than dead. Much worse. So I do the only thing I can do now, and I do it quick because I know that he has to be on his way back just as fast as his little perfectly-clad legs can carry him.

What’s the thing that they always say on lawyer-shows — habeas corpus? No body. No crime. They can’t take the Soul and I can’t keep it. And in the end, that makes it simple.

So, I drive my car with its smoking exhaust and chipped paint up to the Executive Suite Plaza. It’s one of those glass buildings — you know, the ones with that perfect golden glow to them. You can almost see your reflection when you walk up, but only almost. After all, most of these guys don’t really want to look themselves in the eye. You don’t get to work in this building by doing things that make you want to give yourself the old square in the baby-blues each morning. And you certainly don’t get to the top floor by being an Angel — or even a Demon.

Most of these guys would do the Nether-Regions proud any day of the week. Hey, they make most Demons look like Boy Scouts by comparison. What’s that old line, you don’t have to convince anyone that there isn’t a God, just convince them they have lots of time… they’ll hang themselves for sure, sure enough. But, these guys, they aren’t your average workaday Joes sinning for spite or laziness. If you want to be on top, sometimes you have to claw your way up, and this building had claw and stab marks all over it. All the way to the top. And I figured, that just about the last thing any of these guys would want would be the encumbrance of a Soul. So, I take the elevator right to the top.

The secretary/assistant/whatever you’re supposed to call the guy by the phone these days tries to stop me, but I can be pretty unstoppable when I want. I just barge right in and he’s sitting there in his leather executive-deluxe chair talking with his phone on conference. I hate that. When they put you on speaker-phone. I really do. He looks up, kind of surprised, like he doesn’t remember me for a minute and then I see it all slide into place and he gets this white spot right between his eyes just like I hit him with a sledgehammer — which is just about what I plan to do.

I have it in my hand. I had it nursed back to health a little, which makes me kind of sad, because it surely was in a sorry state when he gave it up. I figure he’ll be trying to barter it away by the time the clock strikes noon, but I have news for him. He’s already done his deal. This time, it’s his for keeps now. He looks up at me and I almost, almost feel sorry for him. And then I think about his Soul, the Soul that I wanted, that the Guy with the cat smile was willing to risk the wrath of Hell for, the Soul that this fellow here just threw away.

I smile. I pull out a cigarette from my pocket and then I ask him if he has a light. He smiles and I see the sweat beads on his forehead. That $2,000 suit will need dry-cleaning for sure after today. Hell, maybe he just throws them away when they get dirty.

“Was there something missing from our contract negotiations?” he asks, trying to sound smooth, but coming off with a crack in his voice. Another bead of sweat falls down his nose and he wipes it away and then leans forward with the lighter. It’s gold and perfect. I think it has an inscription. It probably says to the best something or other, or to my love, or whatever it is that people have written on lighters.

I nod and I smile. And then I lunge and cram the Soul down his throat. He shudders just for a minute and I almost think that he’s going to cough it up like a hairball. But, then he settles down and I can see it slide down his throat.

“This isn’t what I bargained for,” he says, but his voice is small and distant. I know that Soul has set to work. Its tallying all the things he’s done in the past two weeks while it was on vacation with me. And it’s reminding him of all he’s done and all that he’s planning to do. It isn’t pleased and it’s going to make sure that he’s never quite pleased again.

I smile. I reach down and pick up the lighter and flip on the flame. It says, “Merry Christmas, Daddy! Love Jeannie.” I set it back on the edge of the desk and then I turn for the door. I hear him yelling after me, but kind of half-hearted. He just doesn’t have it in him anymore. I take the elevator down and I drive away. Just like that. Just like it never happened. And maybe it never did. That’s the way things work sometimes.

You get what you want, you lose it, or maybe you don’t. Or maybe you discover it was something you never wanted or all you’ve ever dreamed of. It’s all the same in the end. In a hundred years, a thousand maybe, it won’t matter if the hero won or the villain or even who was which. I tell myself that. But, I know it isn’t true. It does matter sometimes. It matters to the winner who wins, and to the loser. And even if no one else in the world gives a damn, it matters to those two. I don’t quite know who’s which in this one, but I think it matters. I light a cigarette and turn the key. The engine starts up. And I just drive.

 

Copyright © 2005 by Beverly Forehand


Acquisitions

My name is Chuck. I drive a Buick, and I hate my job. It’s not a particularly nice Buick. Its about ten years old and the top lining sags a little so that it hits my head when I drive. I’ve been tacking it up with thumbtacks, but it doesn’t help very much. Now there are lots of tiny sags between each tack instead of one big one.

My job is Corporate Acquisitions. Sure, it sounds important, but it’s not. I’m nothing more than a Bagman. Not even that, I’m a reverse delivery boy. I pick things that people no longer want. I guess I’m sort of like a garbage collector, except they at least get paid holidays and union wages. My Boss hasn’t heard of holidays, and although he may be affiliated with some Teamsters I don’t think that he holds much stock with unions.

Did I mention that I’m a Demon? I guess I should also let you know that my name’s not really Chuck, it’s Carl. But Chuck sounds so much better. I’ve always hated the name Carl, but I find myself answering to it even after all these years of calling myself Chuck. I guess you just get used to things whether you like them or not. Even a crappy job in Acquisitions.

Don’t think that there aren’t any glamorous jobs in Hell; there are, I assure you. But, like everywhere else, it’s all politics and I’ve never been a real people-person demon. Whatever. My motto has always been live and let live, and I guess that’s the real problem. I don’t have any drive. I don’t know how many times I’ve been told that I don’t have any initiative.

I like to go with the flow, enjoy life as it is. That’s what got me into this mess to begin with. It always sounds like a good idea. You know what I mean? There’s always That Guy — you know the one. Perfect teeth, hair that’s never known a bad day, and a way of putting even the stupidest ideas that makes you say, Yeah, that’s going to work. Well, at least I wasn’t the only one listening to him, and certainly not the one with the most to lose.

Today started like any other day. I have a certain number of pick-ups to make, nothing special. I drop off a contract, get a signature or two, stow the Soul, and I’m on my way. A lot of times they back out once they read the fine print or just get cold feet in general, which is fine with me. Hey, it’s one less thing on my list, right?

But the thing that always gets me, even after all these years, is the unexpected ones. I know what you’re thinking: Chuck, you’re a demon, what could surprise you? Well, let me tell you, I get surprised more than you’d think. I bet I get surprised more than the average run of the mill Joe. It always surprises me, for instance, just how dumb and greedy and plain-out mean people can be. I mean, I’m a demon, and I’ve seen Hell and it still shocks the proverbial Hell out of me.

Take this kid, I’m just getting back from a typical pick up job, you’d think he’d be professional about it, but what a jerk. Didn’t even offer me a glass of water and it’s hot enough to fry an egg out here today. This lousy car, company car, doesn’t have A/C. I’m heat sensitive. I break out in hives. That’s why I volunteered for this job. I thought, hey, I’ll be out meeting people, and how bad can it seriously be. I should’ve stayed where I was. I can hear the engine making that low grinding, pinging noise it makes right before it blows. I don’t know jack about cars. I know when one’s a load of crap, but that’s about it.

I have one more pick-up today and then it’s home to my equally crappy apartment. It least it’s cold. I have cockroaches as big as terriers, but it is cold. Also, my neighbor is a real piece of work. He’s one of those people who has no sense of community, you know what I mean? He leaves his garbage outside his door instead of pitching it down the chute. He lets his umbrella drip all down the hallway when it rains, and if he had a dog and it took a crap in the hallway, you can bet it would stay there steaming. Of course he doesn’t have a dog. A dog would be effort. Work. He’s the sort of guy that would trade his Soul if he had any ambition.

I mean, you have to want something to be ready to trade your Soul. Book deal, TV show, money, hot chick, whatever. You have to have aspirations. This guy. He’s not my kind of guy, you know. And, he snores. With the paper thin walls we have I hear every gulp for air. I think he might have that thing, you know, it was on 20/20, sleep apnea or something. He should have it checked out, really. I’d tell him, but he’d just give me that dull stare and blow smoke in my face.

Well, he’d better get his ducks in a row or he’ll end up downstairs; and let me tell you, there’s no solitude down there. It’s wall to wall. And it’s wall to wall with people exactly like him. Not particularly evil people, just ordinary everyday assholes. You know the type. The kind that would watch a puppy drown because they didn’t want to get their shoes wet. The kind that wouldn’t give a guy a quarter to call home. They kind that are just minding their own business.

The problem with Hell, really, is that everyone is minding their own business. All those people who make it a point to pick up the trash, give to the poor, and bake cookies on holidays are somewhere else. So, all you get are a lot of people either minding their own sad, petty business or the busybodies. I don’t know which is worse. The ones that make cruelty for your own good an art or those that would watch a guy get run over in the street without blinking an eye. Just minding my own business. People ought to watch where they’re going. They sure as Hell should.

Well, at least there’s only one more stop today. That’s something. It almost seems like the days are getting longer. I always hear people saying that there’s not enough time, but, in my humble opinion, there’s just too much time. That’s what gets people in trouble. If they only had time to eat, sleep, and do their work, they’d all be fine. But, they have too much time on their hands, and that sets them thinking. Now, they could spend that time with their kids or dogs or helping the community or whatever. But, usually, I’ve found, and believe me, I’ve had plenty of time to mull this over, that they spend it feeling sorry for themselves and wishing they could get something for nothing.

That’s where I come in: the original something for nothing clause. Only, it’s not really something for nothing, it’s something for everything. I mean, a Soul is the only thing a person has that means something. It’s the only thing that lasts forever. You sell your Soul and there’s no Heaven or Hell for you, no reincarnation, no Happy Hunting Ground, no Nothing. There is for your Soul, sure. But, it’s not yours any more.

What, you think the Big Guy is doing this out a sense of charity? Hey, it’s not like he wouldn’t have gotten these Souls anyway, right? I mean, anyone willing to trade their Soul for a big Lotto win, a hit song, or the girl next door is hardly going to be winning the Nobel Peace Prize or vying for Mother Teresa’s seat, right? No way. These guys (and gals, no sexism intended), are out for the Big Number One. But, Souls, divorced from their bodies by consent of the owner, those are a hot commodity. They’re like the ultimate currency in the Nether Realms. I mean, demons don’t have Souls, right? So, what’s the ultimate reward? What’s the really big haul? How does the Boss reward someone that really, really pleases him? You got it. I mean, no problem, right? He’s sure to be getting it back after a while anyway. I mean, we’re not angels, right? At least not any more.

Now, the way I figure it, with my track record, my chance of getting re-ensouled is about the chance of a snowball in Hell. Not that I do anything so bad, really. Maybe I’m late now and then. Maybe I forgot to punch my timecard a couple of times or took a few extra minutes for lunch. Nothing that anyone doesn’t do once in a while, right? But, let me tell you now before you find out on your own someday, they are total perfectionists in Hell. I mean they really cross the t’s and dot the i’s down there. I mean, how could they not: there are so many attorneys and tax accountants, and don’t get me started on the politicians and critics.

So, here’s what I’m thinking, what if I made a dash and grab? I mean, what could they do to me, exactly? Send me to Hell? I mean, once I had a Soul, it would be another chance. And this time, I wouldn’t let anyone sweet-talk me into a really great idea that’s sure to work. I know for sure now that the only thing you get for free is nothing at best and a kick in the ass at worst.

I’ve been tossing this about for sometime, but the problem is that I just don’t want any old Soul, and the ones that are up for grabs are, well, not so great. I mean anyone willing to sell his Soul is a little bit lacking, you know? They aren’t exactly Dr. Faustus with the last-minute conversions. These guys are more than willing to sign on the little black line. Their only complaint is that the experience isn’t Hellish enough. What, no flaming pens or signatures in blood? I mean, what do these guys spend their spare time reading?

I guess this is it. I asked this guy to meet me at the local coffee shop. It’s one of those chain bookstore/coffee things. They have these chocolate coffee drinks that have whipped cream on top. I really love those. Although, I guess I should lay off the whipped cream and sprinkles. I’m not getting any younger or any thinner these days.

I can see the guy inside. One of those corporate types. This one, so the list says, wants to do the trade for the big seat at his company. I think he’s under indictment already, so he probably does deserve the job. I can see him with his head down. Anyone passing by might think he was praying, but it’s my bet that he’s checking his Blackberry.

I walk in and the door does that little tinkling thing. I love that, but the CEO-in training only looks annoyed. You’re late, he says tapping his almost-Rolex with a perfectly manicured finger. This guy is going to fit in downstairs just fine. Hell, he could be running the place in a few years.

Sorry, I say, Traffic. He scowls. I pull the contract out of my briefcase. He curls his lip at the coffee stain I left on the corner. I assure you, I say, that it’s just as binding with or without coffee stains.

He grabs it and starts signing.

You know there’s no rush, I say, You can take your time to read it. He does one of those hand waves at me that people do in traffic trying to will a sullen Buick out of their way. He finishes the signature on the last page and pushes it toward me. So? he says, Is that it?

I nod, Almost. I reach across the table and push my hand through his chest. He gasps a little, but doesn’t move. I always try to be quick. It doesn’t look pleasant. No one around us seems to notice, or, if they do, they don’t seem to care. I pull his Soul out and look at it. It spins, like cotton candy, around my fingers. It’s a sickly brown and green color, like a house plant that hasn’t been watered in a few weeks. I nod at him and put the Soul in my pocket. It’s done, I say.

He gets up, cradling his Blackberry to his chest like a child. He actually smiles, then clicks the unlock mechanism for his car. I hear his BMW chirp merrily in the parking lot and then he’s gone. The door tinkles behind him.

I walk to the counter and order another coffee-chocolate with extra whip cream and sprinkles. I smile at the barrista, and when she’s finished, I walk back to the booth with my drink and put my feet up on the now-CEO’s vacant chair. I smell the coffee. Then I drop the Soul into the frothy mix. Everything is better with a little chocolate. I stretch out my feet and admire the day through the window. I take a drink. It could stand a little more chocolate. I swallow.

 

Copyright © 2005 by Beverly Forehand


Fine Print

The Demon holds a smoldering finger to his mouth and smiles. From where I’m sitting, it looks like he’s smoking a cigarette which I’m sure would amuse him. Everything, in fact, amuses him. He is always giggling and chuckling to himself. It disturbs me. This was supposed to be something serious — selling your Soul — it’s not something to give someone a giggling fit. I eye the small pile of paper in front of me and tap it with the ball point pen. It’s nothing special, just a Bic ballpoint.

“Shouldn’t I sign this in blood, or something?” I’d asked him when he handed me the contract.

That had sent him into hysterics as well. “No, no,” he chuckled, “Ink’s just fine.”

What was worse was that he insisted I call him Carl. It isn’t a very good name for a demon. I’d told him that too, but he’d laughed and said that was fine since it wasn’t really even his name. I expected him to say that his name was unpronounceable or that to say it would turn the moon to blood or something of that ilk, but when I hinted at my ideas he laughed again and said, “No, really, it’s Chuck, but I’ve always fancied Carl.”

Chuck. That was appropriate. What a demon I’d landed with! It was like dealing with a used car salesman or the proprietor of a Shoney’s. There he was again, twiddling his smoking fingers and smiling in that annoying way. “Do you have to do that?” I say glaring at him and his fingers and his ordinary smile.

“Oh, sorry, am I bothering your reading? I could go watch TV or something?”, he says, “You have a TV, right?”, he giggles, “Or do you aspiring writer types only stick to the printed word? A newspaper would suffice. I really like the Sun Times, do you have that?” I glare. “I’ll just nip into the living room then,” he says, “Mind if I have a snack? I could bring you something — a soda or water in a bottle?” I say nothing and eventually he leaves the room. I hear the refrigerator open and close and then the TV comes on with its usual click and blare. He is watching Cops. I can hear the intro. It’s one of those shows that I tell everyone I never watch, but secretly I watch each week with a sort of horrid fascination. It’s like slowing down at an accident scene — you can’t help yourself, but you surely don’t admit to it. I hear Carl or Chuck or whatever his name is humming along with the theme song. I tap the pen again.

The contract looks in order. I guess. I mean, I haven’t ever signed my Soul away before. The contract looks like any other contract I’d ever seen. It looks like the contract I’ve signed for my yearly rental agreement and my car loan. I don’t know what I expected — I mean, I’ve read Faust, hell, I’ve seen enough movies to know that these things should be on human skin or have flaming letters or something. CHUCK said that sometimes the contracts used to be like that, but it was too MGM these days. He actually said that “too MGM.” He’s a demon for Chrissake — or not for Christ’s sake — but for Someone’s. I don’t mind telling you I feel a bit cheated.

“Mind if I snag some chips?” Carl/Chuck yells from the TV room. I say nothing but I hear him getting the chips and then the noise of him chewing them. I can’t believe this! He’s actually eating my chips. Like we were pals or something watching the Titans vs. the Colts. God! This is unbelievable.

And, what’s it for anyway? A book deal. A real one. Not some publisher that prints out of his basement. Something big. Someone big with the words HOUSE in their title or TIME or WARNER. I want people to know who I am. I want my face on Oprah. I want to be the goddamn book of the month! Chuck/Carl actually tried to discourage me. Can you believe that? He’s a demon. This is his job, right? He suggested I try a small publishing house. “There’s always PublishAmerica,” he said, “I hear good things.” I hear good things. Un-frigging-believable. And, he’s still eating my chips. My hard-earned-working-all-day-at-Starbucks-with-hardly-any-tips-from-the-customers-chips.

Just wait till I have my book deal and I hit the bestseller’s list, I’ll march right up to my boss, Sarah, and tell her she can stick my job where the beans don’t grow. I hate coffee. I hate the smell of it and the feel of those gritty little grounds under my nails. I hate that stupid apron and I hate the customers — all of them. I hate the smarmy laptop CEO’s, the hipsters with too many piercings, and the doddering idiots that can’t decide which coffee to buy.

I pick up the Bic and sign the first page. There are six places to sign and date. Carl/Chuck has them all highlighted with a fluorescent pink “Sign Here” sticker by each one. Pink. You’d think he could’ve come up with something more dreadful or fear-inspiring. He told me he bought them at Office One in bulk.

Here’s the great thing about selling your Soul. It’s like a kidney. Or it’s like one kidney anyway. You don’t need it to survive. I figure mine’s shriveled to the size of a coffee bean by now anyway. What do I need it for anyway? Chuck/Carl assures me that most of his “customers” get along just fine without theirs. Its like tonsils, I guess. One quick yank and boom! — no more Soul.

I sign another line and think about all the people I hate. All the people that I’ll have a chance to get even with when I’m rich and famous and wonderful. There’s Sarah with those glittery butterfly clips in her hair. She paints hearts on her nails and listens to Sting. Disgusting. My Brother. I hate him. He’s an investment banker. He’s always going on about charity and helping others and trying to make me feel bad. Mr. Carmichael next door. He’s the sort that always looks at you pityingly. Like he’s better than I am! Like just because he has a wife and two screaming brats and that dog that never stops yipping. I hate that dog too. I should get another piece of paper and start making a list right after I finish signing this. I sign lines four and five. Six is on the last page. I flip and initial a couple of times where Carl/Chuck has kindly also highlighted.

He’s standing in the doorway watching me and sipping Diet Coke with a straw. “You can back out, you know,” he says, “You’ve got till the last line.” I throw down my Bic and it bounces off the table.

“What is it with you? Do you not want my Soul? Do you hate your job or are you trying to get fired or something? I was under the impression that this is what you did,” I yell at him.

He blinks in that slow, manner of a dim-witted bank teller and shrugs. “I just wanted to give you the chance, Kid. No biggie,” he says, “Sign. Don’t sign. No worries.”

I lean over and pick the Bic up off the floor. With a flourish I sign the last line. “There. All done.,” I say, “Take my damn Soul and get the hell out of my apartment.”

Chuck/Carl walks over to the table and sets down his drink. He cracks his knuckles and looks at me. “I do have other things to do today,” I tell him. He just shrugs and continues cracking his knuckles. His fingers begin to smoke again and I can see that his eyes have gone dark. He licks his lips like he’s concentrating and I close my eyes. I feel his hands on my chest and I can feel the fabric from my shirt disintegrating with the heat. Oddly, I don’t feel the heat myself. His hands slip inside my chest and I’m aware of it like you are at the dentist when he has you doped up and is drilling away at a molar. He prods here and there like a woman checking a pumpkin for ripeness. I feel him remove his hands and I open my eyes. He’s frowning.

“I don’t feel any different,” I say.

He shrugs again. “I don’t guess you should,” he says, “Nothing there.”

“What the hell do you mean by that?” I shout.

“No Soul,” he says, “I’ve seen it before. It went and died on you.”

“That’s impossible!” I shout, “Your Soul can’t just die.”

“Sure it can,” he says, “Its like anything else. It’s like a house plant. You starve anything and it’ll up and die.”

I open my mouth gaping like a fish unable even to reply. He looks at me sympathetically and pats my shoulder with his smoking fingers. “Sorry, Kid. Really. I would if I could, you know. No skin off my back, but you have to have goods to deal. Capisci ?” He cocks his head and turns toward the door. I hear his hand on the doorknob. “Thanks for the hospitality,” he says, “Those were some great chips. Who’d think guacamole chips’d be any good.”

“Wait!,” I yell, running toward the door and catching him by the jacket, “What about my deal and the book and everything? I made a deal. I said I’d sell my Soul! You can’t just leave. You can’t!”

He opens the door and steps into the hallway. “I’m sorry, Kid. I really am. But, it’s out of my control.”

I step into the hall after him, but he’s already at the stairs and I feel oddly tired. I lean against the wall and let myself sink to the floor. I have the morning shift tomorrow.

“See you later, Kid,” he calls. I close my eyes and weep.

 

Copyright © 2005 by Beverly Forehand