“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.