by Ally Malinenko
The devil looks exactly as you imagine. That is the first thing you should know.
“Right here,” he said, pointing a long fingernail at the paper in front of him.
“And then that’s it?” she asked.
“And I get whatever I want?”
She wiped a few stray hairs from her warm forehead. He tapped his finger again and though she wasn’t entirely sure she thought she saw him roll his eyes as if this was a daily occurrence. And then it dawned on her, to him, it was.
“What happens afterwards?”
“After what?” he asked.
“After I die.”
“I own your soul. Look, I will give you everything you will ever want in life. Anything. You want it, it’s yours. Material possessions; new house, new car. Done. Physical changes; bigger boobs, smaller waist. Done. Fantasies; being the envy of all your friends; amassing power and wealth. Done. Honestly,” he said with a slight chuckle. “And when you die your soul belongs to me.”
“What happens then?”
“It’s like a great big pleasure cruise. Lots of laying around, doing nothing, being waited on by my servants, occasionally be forced into banal conversations with other passengers and listening to over enthusiastic conductors slaughter classic doo-wop tunes.”
She couldn’t tell if he was joking.
“Okay,” she said. She held the pen over the line and just before touching the paper it dawned on her how quickly she was willing to sign away her immortal soul. She had often been accused of not being a believer. You know those people who wait outside of grocery stores to convert someone in the summer heat while their tub of coffee ice cream slowly melts into the same oblivion the believers won’t stop talking about. She was that person you always see stuck talking to them taking handfuls of leaflets as you skirt by thinking, Thank God that wasn’t me, your ice cream soon to be safely tucked into your freezer at home. But though she had never been a believer per se, she often let her mind wander to the potential of life after death, as any creature capable of foreseeing their own demise. And not once did it ever dawn on her that she would wind up in Hell. Yet here she was, on a perfectly average night, fantasizing about how her life could change if she signed on the dotted line.
“Wait,” she said, pulling the pen away again, eliciting another groan from the Devil. “But during my life, you know before I die, will you be needing anything? I mean, am I going to have to do your bidding?” she asked, her pen wavering over the line.
The devil sighed. “How did they all figure out this question?” he asked, to no one in particular. He concluded, correctly, that there must be some sort of leak from the inside that he would have to undoubtedly get to the bottom of. Someone needed to keep their little demon mouth shut. He looked at her. “Yes, on occasion, I might ask a favor or so from you.”
“What kind of favor?”
“Oh, the usual. New recruits, creation of bridges, that sort of thing.”
“Creation of bridges?”
“Yeah, it was sort of necessary in the past but I haven’t needed any in a while. Look, I wouldn’t really worry about it, okay?”
“What would you need a bridge for? To get to the world of the living?”
The devil held up his hands in exasperation.
“Do you really think I need a bridge? I mean, here I am. No bridge in sight,” he said. She looked around the sparse landscape. She did not stand at a crossroads, as is often considered a popular place to parse out one’s soul. Nor was she at a carnival fairground, where seedy characters of every nature might seduce a distraught young woman. Not that she was distraught, technically speaking. Or for that matter, young. They were not near a cemetery or a potential gateway of any sort. Instead she was in the parking lot of the mall that she worked at. Nor was it the first or last day of the month, or during the waxing or waning moon or midnight or 3:00 am, a purportedly known witching hour. It was a Tuesday. And it was nearly 7:10 which meant she was going to be late visiting her elderly mother at the retirement home which would lead to the inevitable accusation her mother always made that the woman didn’t even love her enough to visit her in the hell-hole that she had put her in nearly five years ago.
“The bridge,” the devil continued, “is a rather easy way to set up a toll.”
“A toll?” she said.
“Yes. Like a tax. For instance, I believe it is common around here to pay a fee of some sort in order to get to the other side of a bridge or tunnel. Is that not still the case?”
“No, I mean, yeah, we pay tolls.”
“So you collect money?”
“No darling, I collect souls,” he said again tapping at the paper in her hand.
“As a toll?”
“Pretty much. In the past, I used to have my faithful create bridges and whomever passed would forfeit their soul.”
“Wait a second. So anyone who went over this bridge automatically gave up their eternal soul without even knowing it?”
“That seems a little unfair.”
“Well it was a rather difficult bridge to create and quite breathtaking to behold. Anyone worth their salt might have taken a look around and said to themselves, you know, this seems to go against the very nature of physics. Maybe I should think twice before crossing it.”
“That’s just wrong.”
“Be that as it may, I have the right to not play fairly. That is sort of my thing.”
“So do I have to build a bridge?” she asked. The woman didn’t have the foggiest idea how to build a bridge. She imagined there would be engineers involved. And zoning permits. The whole thing was starting to give her a headache. Maybe this wasn’t a good idea. Maybe there were going to be a million little loopholes and she would wind up doing way more work than just giving up her soul. She put the pen in her mouth and chewed nervously.
The Devil reached over, removed the pen from her mouth, and wiped it on her sleeve. He put the pen back in her hand.
“You will not have to create a bridge. It seems that in the end it was determined that the relative unfairness was too great and I was getting greedy, which let’s be honest, is sort of a joke, and collecting too many souls without doing any work, so, now, it’s all gotten a bit more complicated.”
“Complicated in that I’m standing in a bloody parking lot in a bloody mall explaining the whole thing to you!” he roared, dropping his voice to such a decibel that the woman could feel it in her very bones, in every cell of her being, in the very fibers of whatever her soul was made of and she shook from the intensity of it.
“My apologies,” the Devil continued. “I will not have you build me a bridge or steal babies or any of those other rumors you have heard.”
“Yes, it’s too easy. Their souls come right out. There is no challenge. Even I can admit to that as a sort of cheating.”
The woman swallowed. She felt the weight of the contract in her hand. In stories it was always a single sheet of paper. This felt like a phone book and was covered in a degree of legalese.
And then a thought hit her.
“What if I wanted to?”
“Wanted to what?”
“Build the bridge.”
“Excellent. By all means, build a bridge.”
“I mean for you,” she said.
“I figured as much.”
“Okay,” she said and, with a quick movement, as if her body had to move faster than her brain, she signed the paper.
“Thank you,” the devil said snatching it out of her hand. “Now the fun part. I think we should start with all this,” he said waving his hand over her body.
Twenty years later, she stood at the center for a bridge on the outskirts of town, waiting for her brother. As she gazed around the familiar landscape she knew she had picked the ideal location. There were trees, craggy mountains, a steep gorge, a small bubbling stream fifty feet below. And the bridge itself, stone arched, like a woman’s back mid-tumble. Every season was breathtaking. It was perfect. It was romantic. And it was hers.
The first person had been the hardest decision. It took her a while to track him down. She had not seen him since high school but when they finally met up for coffee she was amazed that he smelled the same as she remembered. It was like going back in time. He still had the easy laugh, only this time when he laughed it was with her. She frowned about his divorce and rubbed his hand that he left on the table. Every hour, he told her how amazing she looked and she smiled a sheepish smile. Indeed, she had changed, hadn’t she? Blossomed, if you will. Her face no longer pale and pockmarked. Her hair shiny. Her waist thinner than it was in high school.
She waited awhile before bringing him to her bridge. She wanted it to be a special night. The stone echoed under his shoes.
“It’s absolutely gorgeous,” he said. “I can’t believe I grew up in this town and never knew this was here.”
“It’s easy not to notice things,” she said looking down over her hands at the drop below them.
“When was it built?” he wondered running his hands over the smooth stone work.
“Oh, I have no idea,” she said. “Probably a long time ago.”
“Doesn’t it seem like it was built by monks? I heard there was a monastery around here a long time ago.”
The woman chuckled at this and grabbed his hand. “Come on, let’s go,” she said leading him across.
She was nervous. She had no idea what would happen. Would it be immediate? When he got to the other side, would he vanish? Would he shrivel up and die? Would the devil show up? Would there be screaming and pain and misery?
But instead, to her mild disappointment, they just crossed, continued down the path, toward the waterfall. He seemed fine. As if nothing had happened. She worried that it didn’t work.
Later that night, as he slept next to her, she removed the heavy band of papers from the nightstand, flipped through to the back and saw, underneath her own name, his. She smiled, and snuggled down into bed.
The others had been easier.
She checked her watch again. Her brother was nowhere in sight. She glanced over at the gazebo on the other side of the bridge. Everything was set up. A giant banquet table, the food was waiting. The tables decorated with the same flowers she had used on her wedding day, ten years ago.
She heard the crunch of gravel on the road and the chatter of voices, bickering, exhausted-sounding voices growing. Her brother arrived, with his wife and their three kids. In front of him they pushed their elderly mother, now wheelchair bound.
“How did you find this place?” he said gruffly.
“A friend told me about it,” she answered. “It’s wonderful to see you.”
“Yeah, you too, sis. I mean, it was a pain in the ass to get out here, but hey, I’m glad to see you.”
She smiled. That was typical of him. She kissed each of them on the cheek, thanked them for coming, and she ushered them over the bridge.
One by one.
Next came her father.
Then her stepmother.
Her sister and her sister’s family.
Two aunts and six cousins.
Then the long line of friends that she had only in the last ten years been able to accumulate. Good friends. Who loved her for her kindness, her tact. Friends who weren’t jealous even though she had everything they could possibly want. They loved her too much to envy her.
And she thought about each name that was being added to that list.
Her husband made a toast. It was touching, about family and love being the things you can count on. The things that go on forever. About how lucky he was. About how lucky they all were.
“Happy anniversary to the love of my life,” he said as she felt the tears gather.
Everyone smiled, clinked glasses and drank. And she thought to herself how beautiful it is that they would always, always be together. Not even death would take a single loved one at this table. Not from her. They would all be reunited. She had made sure of that.
ALLY MALINENKO has been lucky to be published in numerous online and print journals. Her first book of poems, entitled The Wanting Bone was published by Six Gallery Press. She currently lives in the part of Brooklyn the tour buses don’t go to.