The Gift of Sight

When Daniel Peterson was a young man (Danny), he supposed that some day he would be one of the world’s greatest authors and his name would go down in history. His imagination, if given proper time to fully bloom and wander, could produce vivid landscapes and characters that seemed like they’d been plucked from reality and immortalized in words. This wasn’t just his own opinion, but more or less an opinion shared by the few he dared share his incredible stories with. Friends would read his short stories and ask, “This stuff is great. You should write a book.” Of course, the trouble with book writing was that you needed to be able to keep at something for weeks and Danny had enough trouble getting the stories he did write out of his imagination bubbles and onto paper. The problem with imagination bubbles, he thought, was that any distracting sound was enough to pop them. And getting them back rarely worked. They were like good dreams, complete with moods and soundtracks that, once gone sometimes never returned. Well aware of this, Danny resigned to writing short stories on the side and teaching during the day. Teaching, after all, paid the bills; writing, not as much. Sometimes would magazines would send the check, there would be a note included that asked for “more just like this one!”, and questioning whether he’d thought about writing a book. And as Danny got older, got married, had a kid and settled down, his teaching seemed to wax while his writing waned. Still, in the attic of his mind, his gift sat waiting with worlds to explore. But reality persisted.

Once the Petersons had saved enough money to buy up a house, they wasted no time. Susan Peterson, Danny’s wife, had spent months shopping for just the right one. It has to have Dormer windows, and a big front yard, and a big backyard, and, … The list had gone on, and though Danny had been convinced she would never find such a house, particularly in their price range and in Orange County, California of all places, Suzy had always been full of surprises. Looking back, it had seemed like a whirlwind between the walkthrough of the house, the offer, the back-and-forth with the owner who never showed up to anything, the signing of so many papers he thought his poor wrist might snap before the pen, and finally carrying his wife over the threshold.

Danny thought back on this often as he and Suzy spent the Summer months renovating the house, taking care to pick a color scheme and picking furniture that was pleasing to the eye yet didn’t take away from the charming character of the old Craftsman home. Though neither of them had so much as built a dog house, they found that with the help of guides and the Internet, fixing up the house wasn’t so bad. And to Suzy it came naturally. I think in a former life, Danny had once remarked, you were a carpenter. And it was a good thing, too. Since they’d used all their savings and then some to buy the house, there was nothing left for help. So, wall by wall and room by room, they breathed life into the old home. A carpenter who can raise the dead — Danny joked another time — have you ever tried walking on water? This had served to lighten the tension they’d had since finding the seemingly immovable bookshelf from one of the upstairs bedroom. Suzy thought it was an eyesore and wanted it gone, but Danny had taken a liking to it. After a brief disagreement, which ended with Danny shrugging and saying, “Happy wife, happy life!”, he had tried to remove the bookshelf with a crowbar only to find it seemed glued? No, cemented to the wall. Even with Suzy’s help, Danny couldn’t budge the damned thing. Finally, Suzy threw up her hands. “Honey, welcome to your new office,” she’d said. “I’m going to have a shower.”


He had loved the idea of an office so much that within a couple of weeks, Danny had indeed made the bedroom into an office, ugly bookshelf and all. With visions of long afternoons spent writing dancing in his head, he settled in. Up on the wall went some of his awards, along with the case that held his first check (which he promised himself he would only cash if he didn’t get paid for anything afterward; of course, he had). Though the school year was ramping up and much of his time during the day was spent in preparation, his evenings were spent in his office, reacquainting himself with his old flame. And though he found the fire still burning within him, he found himself frazzled, distracted. Just like they had before, bubbles would come and drift him off to far off places and though he feared age might dull that old thrill, he found that it did just the opposite. However, being an adult, life was fraught with interruption. Suzy, loved to mull over the day with her husband, was had been their custom since time out of mind. Benjamin Peterson, then only two, loved his Daddy with all his little heart and was used to beginning and ending his day with hugs and kisses. Rather than push his family away, Danny again resigned to fitting his favorite hobby into the remains of the day.

Weeks went by like this and though he put on a sunny face for Suzy and Benny, a little piece of him — that tiny Sun that burned with the promise of adventure — began to dim, stinging his heart as it did. A few times, he’d tried to sneak off to different parts of the big house, but little Benny thought of this like a game and would wander through the big house calling out for his papa. He even considered going somewhere quiet like a library or a park, but he knew this wouldn’t work in any long term sense. No, he decided, it was time to face facts.

It was on the afternoon that he’d made this decision that he was going through all his old books which he’d carefully placed on the bookshelf (which his wife had lovingly dubbed “the barnacle” ) that he saw something peculiar carved into the wood. A sort of spiral shape that looked like a tribal tattoo adorned by young people who seemed to have no idea that they’d grow old and their skin would age with them. He brushed his fingers over the odd symbol and wondered how he hadn’t noticed it before. As he instinctively placed his palm over the symbol, he heard a deep rumbling sound coming from the other side of the bookshelf and then the shelf — a shoulder-width section of it — moved noiselessly away from his hand.

Part of him (the part that wasn’t convinced this was a dream) expected to see Benny’s room on the other side, but instead he found what he could only figure to be a hidden closet. Anything bigger would have pushed into his son’s room and he or Suzy would have noticed the difference at some point. Still, what was revealed by what little light spilled into the room seemed to betray the idea of just a closet. There was a coolness the seemed to breathe out of the room. After a moment, from somewhere inside the space, a light flickered on. From where he was standing, Danny could see a room similar in size to the one in which he was standing, but his mind was having trouble processing. This should have been Benny’s room. He was sure of it.

And yet.

Inside, there no real walls to speak of, only bookshelves (which looked just like the barnacle itself) that went up to the ceiling all filled from end to end with books of varying heights and widths. The light that lit everything was warm, almost … inviting.

Danny called out. “Hello?”

He found that his mouth had gone dry and he was struggling to swallow. Not knowing what to expect, he stepped closer so he could peak his head into the room. Though rationality told him it should be deserted just like the rest of the house, his rational mind was also busy at work trying to interpret what the very presence of this space could mean. Toward the back wall, he could see a hulking oak desk, with ornate carvings that went all the way down the legs to the claw feet, which sat on top of a beautiful Persian rug. Everything in the little space was perfectly clean and remarkably free of dust. In the corner to his right was a big leather chair with a reading light. The light in the room itself came from a large chandelier which hung from a height of no less than twelve feet off the ground. As Danny moved further into the room, searching high and low for any sign of danger, the warmth of the place brought a calm over him. There was warmth and something else. Ah yes, that was it. Quiet. A quiet so heavy, he could hear his own breathing, his own heartbeat, the thrumming in his ears. “What the hell is this place?” he wondered aloud and the sound seemed loud, but muted. Like the little film school recording chamber he’d been inside at his University. That place had been sound proofed, and this place had that same quality to it. It occurred to him that he should go back outside to examine the house from there. But, turning around, he discovered the door had disappeared and in its place was another bookshelf. His heart skipping a beat, he immediately moved to the shelf and instinctively grabbed for some kind of a lever or handle, but found none. Then he remembered the symbol and searched for it, before finding it well hidden on the under side of one of the shelf boards at chest height. Again, the sound of heavy boulders scraping against each other and then the door began to move gently toward him. Once he was safely back in his office, the door seemed to sense his absence and closed itself.

From outside, he looked the side of his house. He compared the distance between his office window and Benny’s window. This is impossible, he thought. And it was. Between his office and the bedroom, there was a distance of maybe twenty-five feet and they were centered in each room. He supposed the room itself had been at least fifteen feet by thirty, give or take for the shelves. It just didn’t make any sense.

On his way to go back upstairs, he passed Benny who was busy playing with LEGOs on the ground while his favorite TV show played in the background, and Suzy who was on the phone with someone.

“Hey Danny,” she said, taking the phone away from her ear. “Everything OK?”

Though the golden rule of their relationship had been No Secrets, Danny hadn’t even considered whether he should tell Suzy about his discovery. Indeed, part of his mind already had designs on the new room. Oh the places we’ll go, Danny. He hesitated at the bottom of the stairs, gripping the newel post.

“Yup. Everything’s fine.” And he began dashing back up the stairs, wiping the cold dew of sweat that had gathered on his forehead. Danny hated lying to his wife, but he thought he should at least have the chance to investigate the place a bit more before spilling the beans. Just a little while. Just as Danny reached the top of the stairs, he heard one of his favorite sounds in the world, though it was the last thing he wanted to hear at the moment “Daddy! Daddy, waaait!” Benny was calling to him from the foot of the stairs, and he heard the unmistakable sounds of his little footsteps clambering upward. Thinking of disappointing Benny made Danny’s heart sink a little, but then he had an idea. “Come and find me, Benny!” he said, and dashed toward his office to disappear into his newly found hiding spot.

Once inside with the door closed, the light came on immediately and he listened on the other side for the sound of the telltale tiny footsteps. But he heard nothing. He even dared to call out, “Benny! I’m in heeeere,” but there was no response. “Benny?” Only dead silence and the smell of ink from books, leather and something else his brain couldn’t put a label to. After waiting a few moments, he imagined two scenarios playing out. In one, Benny was searching the rooms upstairs for his father and after not finding him, erupting into tears. In the other, Benny searched, got distracted by the sound of the TV coming from downstairs and headed back down, losing all interest in the game of hide-and-seek. Since he couldn’t bear the thought of hurting Benny’s feelings, he settled on the latter.

He turned to face the room and decided to investigate it a bit more thoroughly this time. Looking at his watch, he saw that it was around five o’clock; that left at least an hour before any talk of dinner would come up.

While the room was still quite foreign to him, he’d already started developing a sense of ownership over the things it contained. He walked over to the cushy chair behind the desk and plopped down (no stale farts of air wafted up to meet his nose, just the smell of new leather). The old man selling the place had been peculiar, not wanting to meet the people buying it even once, but that had been fine with Danny. Preferable, even. But now he wondered in earnest who the guy had been and whether this had been his place, or had it belonged to someone before him? Looking around again, it was hard to tell. The books lining the wall seemed to range from very old and, Danny supposed, valuable to very new. He leaned back into the chair, getting a feel for its arms, imagining himself spending long hours in this chair, drifting away into story after story. Nothing in the room quite matched his taste, which was more midcentury modern, but it did have its own sort of medieval style. The desk was large and probably weighed a few hundred pounds at the last. Danny ran his hands over it and felt the cold wood under his hands. His hands ran under the desk and along the underside, where he found an indentation that seemed like a hidden pull-handle. So, he pulled. Out came a drawer with a variety of inks, pens, pencils, paper and a peculiar thing that caught his eye.

Thinking it must be some coincidence, but then brushing away the idea in favor of the more likely explanation that someone had written his name after purchasing the house, Danny stared at the envelope that sat on the right-hand side of the drawer. Given everything he had gone through in the last hour — a hidden door in his office, a door that led to a hidden room, the kind of room he’d read about in books. No, this wasn’t quite a wardrobe and there certainly weren’t any fawns or lions hanging out. And there wasn’t an assortment of never-ending hallways and corridors like in House of Leaves, but something about this place felt like it buzzed with the same energy that those stories had promised. Only, rather than imagined, this place was very real indeed. With a hand that Danny was surprised to find had a bit of a tremble in it, he picked up the envelope and turned it over. It was sealed with red wax with a giant “P” stamped into it, just like he’d read about in books and had even seen in movies. This made him smile. Maybe it was because the child in him supposed it really was addressed to him and that the seal was put there by someone of great importance, which made him feel silly for indulging. Maybe it was just the whole absurdity of the situation. Danny rifled through the drawer and pulled out a letter opener, which resembled a sword, complete with a caduceus — two tangling snakes — around the handle and wings that made the hilt. Danny could only laugh. “Curiouser and curiouser,” he said to no one. The muted room offered no reply, not even an echo.

Danny tore into the envelope, and pulled out a single sheet of paper that seemed to ripple with its own kind of light, before coming into focus. He set the envelope carefully aside and flattened the paper out on the desk, so he could read it under the light cast by the chandelier. In the middle of the paper was a rune that looked very similar to the one he’d used to get into this place and around it was written the following:

Dear Daniel,

I hope this letter finds you in good health and in good time. So you have found my library! Cozy place, isn’t it? I’ve spent countless hours here, tucked away from the world outside. On the shelves, you’ll find my life’s work. While it may seem like a great deal to you upon first glance, it feels like I’ve only just gotten started. This place will do that to you as well, I suspect. Time … works differently here.

As I’ve seen the shadows of who you are and who you will become, you will forgive me to leave specifics out for the time being. All I can tell you now is that this place is a gift to you. Like me, you have the gift of sight! Use it wisely.

Now for some bad news, I’m afraid. To get into this place, you’ve been in contact with a rune. This is our family’s rune, in fact. While in this case, it acts as a simple door from your home to the pocket dimension in which this library sits, it has also sent out a beacon — a signal which anyone tuning in can listen for. If the wrong people should pick up on this signal, they will come for you and when they do, you will have to signal for me and I will come at once to get you.

However, the dreadful beasts that have given chase to me in the past have long been dormant, so you most likely needn’t worry much. Just know, that if the Earth should begin to tremble like there is an earthquake and you hear the distant sound of what sounds like the wail of women in mourning, they are well on their way. Do not go to your neighbor. Do not go to the police. Come directly to this room and find the volume labeled, “Inferno.” Inside, there is yet another rune that will signal for me.

Well, I must be going now. The gift of sight is like a cup filled to the brim, but I have drank it to the very bottom and I must go out to to refill it!

Your uncle,

Pendleton J. Peterson

Thoughts swirled around Danny’s head like someone had pulled the plug on reality and it was draining into the empty silence that filled this room. The part of him that had seen elaborate pranks being played on people in TV shows with hidden cameras wanted to show he was wise to their tricks, and so he let a smirk form on his face (Ha! I knew it all along, guys!). The other part of him — the child that held that burning sun that yearned for adventure — ferociously hoped all of this was true, even if that meant the damned Dementors (or whatever they were) were going to start hunting after him. The words in the letter did seem to explain this strange place away, but in a manner that made no sense. In fact, “sense” was quickly becoming a fluid concept.

After reading the letter over a few more times, he closed his eyes and leaned back in the chair, taking in a deep breath, then letting it out in a slow exhale. Shit’s getting weird, he thought. Now would be a good time to let Suzy in on this little mystery, before they come to take me away (Ha-ha!). Given the ominous tone of the letter, the idea of “they” had taken a dark turn from the men-in-white-coats to the earth-shaking-beasts-that-will-steal-you-away and Danny did not like the size or shape of that. Not one bit.

Danny took a moment to look around the room and spotted the book his “uncle” had mentioned. It had one word in block letters down the side: Inferno. He got up from the chair and moved toward it, almost touching it but then remembering the shit storm that might rain down on him for just touching things in this place. He decided better, and instead went to the bookshelf to search for the exit latch rune, which he found in short time. Once more: heavy rock sounds, then the door opened without so much as a whisper. As it opened, however, the rumbling sounds of what could only be an earthquake were shaking the house. Darkness had fallen outside and he could hear them. The sounds like the wail of women in mourning. Only words didn’t do this “sound” justice. It was a piercing and echoed over the city, which was being jostled like they were all on a train going over zig-zag tracks.

Now, his mind was racing but he could only think of his wife and son. “Susan!” Danny called out, screamed out. “Benny! Answer me!” He dashed down the hall, looking quickly into each room as he went, aware that he should be holding onto something in an earthquake but finding that he didn’t care. He continued calling out for them as he dashed down the stairs, almost tripping — a fall that would probably snap his ankle at such a steep angle — but catching himself on the banister. There was no response, and he found that instead of moving toward him, the sounds were moving from him. Then he heard Susan’s voice calling thinly from in front of the door, which stood wide open, rattling on its hinges. Danny threw himself down on the ground, searching her for open wounds or injuries. “Benny,” she breathed. “They took… Benny.” She was curled into the fetal position and her skin looked icy blue, like she’d been climbing to the top of Mount Everest. With an arm that seemed already stiffened with rigor mortis, she attempted to reach out for Danny. “Where … were you? Where..” Her eyes rolled back into their sockets. He checked her pulse, but found none.

He began to weep and cradle Suzy. “No, no, no, no,” he said. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.” And for a while, his mind … went away. And he cried. He cried until his throat burned. He cried until those horrible siren voices faded into nothing and the earth stopped trembling. A warm Summer breeze blew in threw the open door and his thoughts turned to Benny. Then he remembered the letter.

He remembered Inferno.

Knit-witted Knights

“Squire, help me!” said Sir Kevin, his voice muffled by the metal which formed his knight’s helmet. “I can’t get this ruddy thing off me head!”

Six of the kingdom’s most fearsome knights had been called forth to slay the great and terrible dragon that had been terrorizing the land. And six knights had been killed, roasted in clear view of all who looked on in horror and then eaten. Slowly. The king had been losing gold reserves at his various stock-houses for nearly a year since the appearance of the “blasted flying lizard” and now he was down to the last tenth.

Being the seventh knight, Sir Kevin had wanted to look his best for the king in his shiny new armor. Unfortunately, he’d tried the helmet on the morning he was called to see the king, but as soon as he’d squeezed his helmet on, it was stuck tight. Before he or Isaac could remove the helmet from his head, the king could be heard roaring from the other side of the great doors that led into the palace hall. “Open the doors!” And open, they did.

“You are such an ass,” Isaac sighed.

“I’m having the damnedest time hearing you, squire,” Sir Kevin responded, “Please speak up!”


“Oh. Yes. Right you are, squire. Right you are indeed. Well, if we can’t get this thing off, I suppose we’ll have to make do.”

As Kevin and Isaac strode up to the set of thrones occupied by King George and Queen Martha, the king looked beyond them as if to see who else might be available, but none else appeared.

“Your highness,” Sir Kevin shouted through his mask, bowing before the king. Isaac followed suit.

Puzzled, the king looked to his queen. “What in the devil did he say, Martha?” And the queen responded, equally puzzled, “I’m sure he’s just saying hullo, George.” At this, the king pondered for a moment, then bowed his head to acknowledge. “Sir Kevin, I presume,” he said, pausing before adding, “Eh.. do you go everywhere with your helmet on?”

Isaac, realizing Sir Kevin was essentially hard of hearing this morning, spoke on the knight’s behalf. “Your highness, Sir Kevin feels that one must always be ready for action. He is of the mind that precious time wasted dressing in the heat of battle is poor planning indeed and does not well increase the odds in one’s favor.”

The king chewed on this a bit, and though it seemed an unfamiliar taste he seemed to accept it, more or less. Sir Kevin leaned over to Isaac, his armor squeaking and squelching as he did, then in a stage whisper told him, “Do not speak on my behalf, boy. The king has asked for me and not you, so bite your tongue before I cut it off!”

“Very well, sir,” Isaac said, then mumbled something under his breath. Sir Kevin straightened and faced the king once more,

Looking reluctant, the king decided to continue. “As you are well aware, there is a dreaded beast that threatens our very livelihood and the life of the king and queen. The dragon wants after the last of our gold and I intend to stop it before it can do any more damage. Brave knight, are you willing to take on this quest and slay the beast for the good of us all?”

Sir Kevin, unsure of what the king had said at all and only hearing a few clips and phrases, saluted, bringing his heels together and his hand to his brow, clanging like cooking pots banged with spoons. This seemed to upset his balance for a moment before he returned to his straightened position.

The king continued. “Excellent. Then be on your way! And might I add, dead is good, but the deader the better!” At this he gave a small clap, and bid the two farewell.

Isaac clapped the knight on the back, as they turned to leave. Sir Kevin gave the squire a playful punch in the arm. “Ready my horse for battle, boy! And find me two jousting sticks!”

Isaac looked back with a sheepish smile, rubbing his shoulder which was starting to bruise (as well as his ego). “Indeed, Sir Kevin! It shall be done,” he said loudly, so as not to be reminded with another punch. He turned to leave, but paused and turned back. “I’m sorry, sir, but what are the jousting sticks for?”

“I may not have heard all the king said, but I got the important bits, and most important of all was the last thing the king said.”

“And what was that?” (again, shouting)

“You heard ’em as well as I did, ya runt,” Sir Kevin said, gesturing a thumb to his chest, “He wants yours truly to knit that dragon a sweater! In a week’s time, that dragon is going to be looking fit as a fiddle, he is.”

It took Isaac a moment to piece that one together, but suddenly it clicked. The phrase “deader the better” had struck him as particularly odd, but then again, King George was an odd fellow. Isaac opened his mouth to say something, but then thought better. This ought to be glorious, he thought.

And off he rode on his horse to find two jousting sticks, and presumably, a lot of yarn.

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.