Last Sunrise

It was always Hank’s favorite time of year. Fall was working its magic over the trees as it picked up where Summer had left off. Yellows, browns, reds and oranges. It reminded him of his youth where colors and even smells were more vibrant. Ah, those smells. People would burn wood and leaves and that old familiar scent would drift over the hills, and when it hit the nose, memories blossomed.

“Looks like rain.” Bob sat next to Hank on the porch of his house, drinking good coffee and looking out over the rolling hills dotted with houses and barns. For the last six years since Bob’s wife, Martha, had passed, this had been their morning ritual. It wasn’t the same as having a warm body to sleep next to, but it helped to have a friend. Hank had never married, but had always held an ember for the one that got away. Not a day passed where he didn’t think of her.

“Yup,” Hank replied. Not much had to be said between the two of them. At this point, Hank mused, they had the rapport of an old married couple, comfortable in their ways and communicating much with few words. He didn’t love Bob like he’d loved Sadie, of course, but like a brother? Sure. He and Bob had been friends since grade school, all the way through high school, going their separate ways as young men, but then finding their way back to where they’d started somehow and rekindling a friendship that didn’t turn to vinegar like so many others; theirs had been more like wine.

“Hear the news?” There was no doubt in Bob’s mind that Hank had heard the news. Getting on in their years didn’t stop them from wanting to know what was happening beyond their own fences, despite the way they sensatialized damnear everthing for that almighty dollar, as Hank’s sister Ruthy had put it. Those words played in his mind anytime he turned the TV box on to catch the evening update.

“Yup,” Hank said. “Not good.” And it wasn’t. It was just the opposite. A meteor the size of a football field was headed right for their quiet little farming community. Not enough to wipe out the planet, North America, or even all of Illinois but Kinderhook and all of Pike County was a’goner. Still, this wasn’t enough to make them pack up and leave, though there was plenty of time for that (even for a couple of old codgers like themselves). No, it was the asteroid two days behind that kept them in their chairs, watching life go by like they’d done for years. That one was a ten-miler, just like the one that had taken out the dinosaurs, give or take. And that was just it — there was no where to run to.

Bob sipped his coffee, and gave a chuckle. “Well, we had a good run, didn’t we?” There was a hitch in his laugh. It was caught on something, alright but it was clear Bob was not ready to become a blubbering mess just yet. Hank was sure he felt the same way. There were tears to be shed, but they would come in their own time. No sense rushing to nonsense. That was his Pop, Big Jim, talking. Another thing that played in his mind in times like these and other times, for seemingly no Earthly reason at all.

“Yup.” A cool breeze was coming in from the North — a sure sign of rain (that and the threatening clouds, and though they were at an age where all the old aches and pains earned in youth would flare up, there was still that same feeling of serenity that would wash over him. He remembered being a young boy and climbing to the top of the tallest tree on the property, wedging himself just right to keep from falling. There, he’d spread his arms out and close his eyes. On days like these, the wind would push past and he was certain that one day he would spread his wings and fly away just like a jay.

“Shouldn’t be long now,” Bob remarked. It occurred to Hank that Bob had chosen to spend his last moments here rather than with his pals at the diner, or his stuffy church friends. He could think of a number of other places where Bob might have spent his final moments. There had been time enough for Bob to catch a puddle jumper to be with his son’s family, but instead he was here. That meant something. Hank looked at his old friend and saw a tear track running down his friend’s face, and part of him wanted to comment or, hell, just pat Bob’s shoulder to let him know he cared, but he thought better. Now he was choking back a tear or two himself.

“Yup.” And that’s when they both saw it. Something was brightening behind the dark clouds that had gathered over them. It was sprinkling now, and soon it would rain. Rain always reminded Hank of Sadie. He thought back to her now, and hoped she was with her family now. It wasn’t regret. No, it was more like the could-have-beens that played in his mind every now and then. On those occasions, he wondered what might have happened if he’d held onto her instead of playing games. But if he was going to start blaming his younger self for things, well, that would be opening up a whole can of worms. Instead, he thought it better to just let things lie. Still, it sent a pang through him and the tears came. At any other moment, he’d have felt a kind of shame for crying in front of another man, but not now. He looked over at Bob and smiled.

Bob smiled back, and gave another chuckle. “Look at us, two old coots crying. Aren’t we a sight?” Hank gave a laugh back. “Yup.” He let the tears come. It was absurd, but he didn’t care. The rain clouds that had swept over the valley had brought a darkness that was now being brightened, just the way the sun does when it finally makes it over the horizon. Soon, bright gave way to the stark light of midday and then it was too much to look at. Both men closed their eyes and waited for what came next. Whether it was heaven or darkness, Hank didn’t know but he was no longer afraid.

He’d lived a good, long life.

Satan Wants A Refund

“Who can I make it out to?” I asked, as the next person in line stepped forward.

A book, my book, landed with a thunk in front of my eyes on the table in front of me. After half an hour of signing copies of my finished work, my wrist was already starting to burn, but I picked it up, opened the cover and held the pen in waiting.

“Uh, I don’t know. How about you make it out to Judas Iscariot? You and that backstabber could talk for hours, I’m sure.” Ah, how could I forget that voice? Satan. So happy he was back. He stood, arms folded, goatee twitching. Just the icing on the cake that was this shit day. I set down my pen, then sighed, blowing out my cheeks and pinched at the sneaking headache just behind the bridge of my nose.

“I thought we had an agreement. One where I never have to see you again, like, ever. Remember that?” I spoke in a pressed whisper, so as not to alarm the people standing behind Satan. On the other hand, how they hadn’t noticed a hulking seven foot tall demon was beyond me. Probably some kind of dark magic.

“Oh, I remember alright,” Satan thundered, blatantly ignoring my attempt at keeping things hush-hush. “And do you remember your end of the bargain? I mean, this is a thing people know. I grant you a wish, you give me your soul. Not difficult. Hitler got it, George W. Bush got it. How’s Donald Trump working out for you? Yeah. Dumb as a rock. Going to be president. Let that sink in. Oh, but what’s that?” Satan held his thumb and finger up, mocking a cell phone. “Mmm-hmm. Right. Oh, is that right? He did what? Already sold it? But only an idiot would sell his soul twice.”

As the ruler of all of the caverns of Hell carried on like a teenager who had been promised the keys to the car for prom and then had them taken away for bad behavior, I leaned over to the right to see how the line was reacting to this. Phones to faces, they seemed far more interested in whatever was happening in their tiny, personal universes. Did I know I’d sold my soul twice? Yup. Did I care? Not unless Satan was going to do anything about it and thus far, he was mostly talk. I mean, sure, I’d wanted the ability to actually finish what I would write instead of endlessly starting things that would never see the public’s eye and I was willing to do anything for it. Some people say they’d do anything to get something they want, but they’re liars. Not me. I would have given anything to get over my little, uh, impediment. The only trouble was that it wasn’t the first time I’d been willing to part with the essence of my being.

I sighed, cutting him off of his tangent about more soul trades with the likes of Sarah Palin and Boris Johnson. “These people can barely tie their own shoes let alone run government in any meaningful way. I mean, really, ‘I can see Russia from my house.’ Who–”

“Satan, are you meandering toward a point here? I’ve got books to sign and my wrist is in dire need of an ice pack.”

Satan’s eyes, built for rage and not so much out-rage, grew as big as dinner plates, and he slammed his hulking red hands down on the fold-out card table, bending it down the middle. He snorted like a bull readying for the charge. “A point? The POINT? I’ll tell you what the point is. You can’t sell a soul twice, jerk face. Everybody knows that. It’s –”

“I didn’t know that.”

“You didn’t know that?” He barked out a laugh that sounded more like a grizzly bear howling in pain. He turned around to the disinterested phone-gazers who stood behind him, the nearest one twirling hair in her finger and snapping her gum, and gestured toward me. “He didn’t know that.” Then he turned back toward me. “EVERYONE KNOWS THAT. It’s in the Bible. Probably. I don’t know. I mean. God, you’re so stupid. Do you even remember who you sold it to?”

Of course I remembered.

Bobby Jenkins, back in the second grade. It was no big deal. When you’re eight, the jury is still out on whether The Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny are real, let alone something intangible like a soul. Bobby had been big for his age. A red-haired, freckle-faced kid who must have been tortured by his older brothers based on the way he liked to hand out beatings to scrawny dorks who loved to read and write fiction. All I wanted was for him to leave me alone in particular. He’d pinned me to the wall just out of view of the teachers during recess, my shirt collar rolled up in his fists. You really want me to stop, McNeil? Sure, I’ll stop. Promise me your ever-loving soul for all eternity and I’ll even make sure no one bothers you again. No more beatings, plus a body guard? Sold! But was I going to tell Beelzybub here? Not a chance.

“Sorry, my head gets lost in my writing. Must have slipped my mind to make room for my stories. You understand.”

At this, Satan’s eyes narrowed. He sniffed the air around me. “I smell something, McNeil. Smells like you’re not only a backstabber but also a terrible liar, to boot. Here’s what I think. I think you do remember. I think that you think that by not telling me, you’re just going to get away with it, you don’t have to go to Hell and you get to live happily ever after. Well, guess what, princess. Old Bobby and I go way back. You think it’s coincidence he had no Dad? That his Dad just went to the corner store for a pack of smokes and never came back? Jesus, you people. You people. You’re so gullible.”

He said this last bit as if waiting for a response, but I had nothing to add. I sat back, folding my arms, and shrugged. Guilty as charged.

“Bobby sold his soul to get rid of his Dad so his old man would stop beating on his old lady. Only, he didn’t realize things would get worse without Old Man Jenkins around to pay rent. Mama Jenkins didn’t graduate high school and was too good to part with her precious little soul, so she did what she knew best to get by. Let’s just say she was no stranger to the oldest profession. Little Bobby didn’t realize it at first but after a while, word spread, and it got back to him. That’s when he would cry into his little pillow for me to come back. And me? Well, I’m a big softy, you know. So I said to the little guy, ‘tell you what. You find me another soul and I’ll give yours back.’ True to his word, he did just that.”

“Yeah, I heard those rumors. I just figured it was people being assholes. Business as usual.” I paused for a moment, thinking. “So Bobby already gave you my soul, what’s got your panties all in a twist? Can’t you just take our trade back and go on your merry little way?”

Satan’s face somehow became more contorted and horrible than usual, and his chest was heaving. “NO.” Books rattled in their cases. “I CAN’T.”

God as my witness, Satan’s lip began to tremble. Was he going to cry? The tiny asshole angel on my left shoulder whispered into my ear the idea of taking a video and uploading it to YouTube for hits. It occurred to me that I might just sell my soul for anything, digital or otherwise. Pouty faced Satan aside, I was very curious as to how my current predicament was going to work out. Plus, the line began to thin behind him.

“And why not?”

Chest hitching, Satan attempted twice before the words would come out. “I made the mistake of giving him his soul first. Before I could take your stinking, shit-for-brains excuse for a soul, Bobby died. Believe it or not, that had never happened to me before and you can bet your soul, it won’t happen again.”

Bet your soul, I mused. Probably a common saying down in the fiery pits.

“That’s right. I remember him dying. The kids in our class said his neighbor’s dog ate him. Didn’t seem impossible then, but thinking about it now…” I nodded to myself as the words trailed off. “So where is my soul now, if Bobby doesn’t have it?”

In what was most likely an attempt at flipping it, Satan grabbed my card table and launched it through the drop tile ceiling. The people who had been standing in line finally looked up from their phones and silently backed away. “God’s stupid, fucking contingency rules. HE’S got it now. And I hope you’re happy, you rotten prick. Actually, no. I hope you die horribly. You get a free pass. Get out of Hell free card. Doesn’t mean I won’t do my best to make your life miserable when I can, but when it’s all said and done, you’re pretty much impervious.”

“So does this mean I get to keep my gift?”

Satan, who appeared to be growing tired of our little discussion, lowered his face so it was mere inches from my own and narrowed his eyes, chuffing smoke out his ringed nostrils. I coughed and waved the tiny cloud away. Then, after a long and very uncomfortable staring contest with Hell’s finest, Satan rose. He pivoted on a hoof, his cloak billowing out behind him — the silky material whipping over my face.

I called after him. “Is that a yes?”

The last I remember of Satan were two middle fingers raised high as he exited the bookstore, the little bell chiming as he left.