Friend of the Devil

November 1, 2016 at 11:57 pm (Short Stories)

Charlie Beamer

Charlie Beamer stepped out of his office into a chilly October rain. He had expected this, somehow, even though he hadn’t checked the weather. Charlie was a pessimist, and as a pessimist he assumed that since his day had started so poorly it would only get worse. He had a newborn son with a bad case of croup, and he hadn’t had a proper night’s sleep in two weeks. He’d been tied up in meetings all day, and his project had its funding cut. To make matters worse he had gotten stuck at the office late, much later than usual. He had just missed the 5:45 pm bus. So now, as he looked at the rain from under the awning of his building and shivered in the October wind, he was not at all surprised to remember that he had forgotten his umbrella at home that morning. He popped the collar of his jacket up against the rain and set out  towards the bus stop.

He walked slowly feeling the rain soak his hair and face and inwardly relished his own misery. He almost enjoyed the pit of despair that was his life. So when he arrived at the bus stop, dripping wet, he was secretly a little pleased to find that a homeless man was stretched out across the bench, fast asleep and taking up all available space.

“Isn’t this just perfect,” he muttered to himself as he edged underneath the shelter of the bus stop without getting too close to the sleeping man. He was already plotting about what he would tell his wife about his day. He imagined she would be appropriately sympathetic and possibly she would wash the dishes and put the baby down without rousing him from his recliner.

Charlie didn’t think he had ever seen someone as filthy as this man on the bench. His clothes were stained with mud and what appeared to be garbage. There was also an odor coming from the sleeping man that was unlike anything Charlie had ever smelled. It was like a skunk had fallen into a dumpster and perished. For a brief moment Charlie wondered if the man was dead, but then  he stirred, saw Charlie and sat up.
“Sorry,” the bum mumbled, “have a seat.”

Charlie obliged, seating himself on the very edge of the bench and holding the collar of his jacket over his nose in an attempt to block the stench. It didn’t work very well. From the corner of his eye, he could see the other man watching him from underneath a worn out stocking cap.

Charlie’s phone rang. He was sure it was his wife. She was probably calling to see why he wasn’t home yet. She was probably tired of watching the sick baby alone. He decided to ignore it and reached into his pocket to silence the phone. He just wasn’t in the mood. He looked down 6th street to see if he could see the bus coming in the distance. Nothing. He leaned against the side of the bus stop and pretended he couldn’t smell the man on the other side of the bench.

“That’s a nice suit.”

Charlie was startled. He looked down the bench at the bum who was leaning over resting  his elbows on his knees. His long matted hair obscured his face but it was clear that he was talking to Charlie.

“Looks expensive.” It sounded like he was trying to give Charlie a compliment. Charlie didn’t take it as a compliment; now he was afraid of being murdered at a bus stop for his suit. Charlie doubted the man would fit his suit, as the bum was much taller. He began to think maybe he should call his wife back.

“Very nice suit” the dirty man emphasized, but he didn’t look at Charlie. “I used to have a suit like that. It was gray though. Nice suit. Kinda suit a man can feel proud of.”

There was something strange about his voice. There was no hint of emotion, no variation, no change. His voice seemed flat, dead.

“What happened to it?” Charlie asked, against his own better judgment. He already assumed the man had sold it for alcohol, or worse.

“I lost it.” The man’s voice still didn’t vary in tone or pitch as he said this, but Charlie felt a very real sense of loss conveyed.

“I had money once. I wasn’t always like this. Once I was like you.” The bum said, staring into the rainy streets. “I had it all.”

“What happened?” Charlie asked. He was already here, there was no harm in listening a little longer.

“I’m going to tell you this once. You don’t want to hear my story. I tell everyone this same thing. If you ask me again I’ll tell you. But I can promise that you don’t want to hear this.”

“You can tell me,” said Charlie, who was very curious now, although he wouldn’t admit it, “I’ve probably heard worse.”

“Well,” said the stranger in that same monotone voice, “It started when I made a deal with the Devil…”

 

The Stranger’s Story

I wasn’t a very special kid growing up. I had two older brothers and they always seemed like they were good at everything and smarter too. School seemed to just make sense to them but I never seemed to catch on. Math and Science were just the names of two more circles of hell for me growing up. My family wasn’t a rich family but when my oldest brother Ben got accepted to college, my dad presented him with a savings bond and sent him out the door proudly. Same went for Stephen when he came of age. He got his acceptance letter in the mail and dad gave him a hug and a savings bond. Dad didn’t hug us much, but I could tell he was proud. When I was finally old enough I sent out an application to every decent school around and, one by one, I watched rejection letters come back. I got accepted to two community colleges but everyone knew that wasn’t the same. Dad clapped me on the back and said “cheer up kiddo” or something like that and said that maybe construction wasn’t such a bad job after all. There was no savings bond. My brothers graduated and I laid pavement. My brothers married and I moved into a basement apartment in the city. My brothers had children and I splurged for basic cable. Eventually I quit the construction gig and got a job at the Brightman building down the street as a janitor (“Hey!” Charlie interjected excitedly, “that’s where I work!” Then he decided he probably shouldn’t have told this stranger where he worked. The bum just nodded and continued.). I worked there for six years. I made enough money to pay the bills and even go out once a week or so and have some drinks. But that wasn’t the life I had wanted or expected. My brothers were comfortable with their families and their lives. Lives that I had wanted and dreamed about. They had families and houses and I had an apartment on the south side with a rat problem. I’m ashamed to admit that it ate at me. I was mad at them for the opportunities they had had and I was mad at myself for not being able to accomplish what they had. I was bitter and unhappy, and so, I began to drink more. Even when I didn’t have the money I found a way to drink. I lost my job for that. I lost my apartment because I lost my job and before I knew it I was on the street.

I made it ok on the street. I was a friendly dude. I managed to get by. You pick up little tricks that make things easier. But I was still homeless. I could have gone to family but I hadn’t forgiven them. Then one day I was lying down here in this very bus stop. I remember I was trying to take a nap. It was pouring down rain, sort of like today, and I was wet and cold. It was about this time, maybe a little later, and the number six bus pulled up and this man climbs off and sits right down next to me. I knew him immediately, as if I had known him all my life, but then I guess I had in a way. He was the Devil. I remember the way the rain drops didn’t touch him as he got off the bus, they just disappeared, as if they couldn’t bear to touch him. I wasn’t surprised either, somehow wasn’t shocked by his appearance. It was as though I’d known all along he’d be there. He wore a pristine white suit, white shoes with black spats, a red tie, a bright red top hat and the prettiest carnation I’ve ever seen in his button hole. I just stared at him and then I realized that he was staring at me too. He smiled at me and I swear to you, I’ve never seen such a friendly smile as the one the Devil wears. His whole face smiled at me, but especially his eyes. If I had looked through a peephole and just seen one of his eyes looking back at me, I would have known he was smiling. So anyway he just looks at me and says, “Jonathan.” That’s my name by the way, I’m Jonathan.

(“Oh! So sorry, I’m Charlie”, said Charlie and shook hands with Jonathan in spite of himself. Jonathan’s hand felt cold and more than a little dirty. Charlie wiped his right hand surreptitiously on the bench beside him. “It’s nice to meet you, Charlie” Jonathan said flatly, and continued his story in the same unchanging voice).

Anyway, the Devil looks at me, smiles that smile and says “Jonathan. It’s nice to see you today. I understand you have a problem.”  I guess I knew he would have known my name. I asked him what he thought my problem was. He didn’t answer, just asked about my brothers. I told him they were fine, just tried to change the subject you know. But he kept bringing it back up, asked about their families, their jobs, their educations. He asked each question so innocently, but each one had an unspoken indictment of me. He would ask me a question and it would emphasize that I was just a bum sitting in a bus stop to get out of the rain. Each time I answered a question I got more and more angry, but not with him, it was so hard to be angry with him, with that smile and all. I got angry with my family for not caring enough, for not helping me out, for not giving me more.

Finally he stopped asking those questions about my family and he looked me right in my eyes. He stopped smiling and he was as serious as the grave.
“And you Jonathan? How are you doing?”
I was fine I told him. I was going to go get back my old job I told him. I wasn’t tied down to anyone I told him. This was the good life.
The Devil looked at me very seriously.
“Why do you feel like you need to lie to me Jonathan?”
I told him I wasn’t lying.
“Jonathan, do you know who I am?”
I said that I thought I did.
I guess he didn’t think it was good enough. So he told me who he was. He gave me all of his names – Shaitan, Beelzebub, Satan, Lucifer, The Great Deceiver, The Beast, The Adversary and more. Names I didn’t recognize, names I couldn’t pronounce. With each one, his voice grew deeper and deeper. When he finished, his voice was like the roar of a tornado.
“AND YOU DARE LIE TO ME? HE WHO KNOWS YOUR DARKEST FEARS AND SECRETS?”
I had never felt so afraid in my entire life, but strangely I also knew he couldn’t hurt me. It was just like standing on the other side of the fence of an enraged pit bull. My heart trembled inside  and then he smiled again. When he smiled it seemed like the sun came out again and I forgot about the anger of a moment ago. That’s when he offered me his deal.
“I can make you rich, Jonathan. I can make you ten times as wealthy, ten times happier than your brothers. Prettier wife, faster cars. You don’t need college. You have the potential right inside you, you just need me to bring it out.” I was tempted. You won’t hear me tell you otherwise. This was everything I’d ever wanted. But I also went to Sunday school as a kid, so I knew you couldn’t trust the Devil. I told the Devil no. I told him I couldn’t do it. I needed my soul, I’d just have to work a little harder and maybe stop drinking so much, and maybe not smoke any more pot (“I knew it!” thought Charlie) and I’ll be ok. The Devil looked thoughtful and then he looked at me and he told me “I tell you what. I’ll let you have it all! On a trial basis, full refunds available! If you don’t think it’s worth the price, I’ll return you right back to where you are now.” I couldn’t find a way that worked out badly for me. At least I would get a few months of easy living out of it. We shook hands. I even made the Devil swear on a Bible like he was being sworn into office, because the Bible has power over the Devil.

When we shook hands the sun popped right out of the clouds. The rain stopped and even though it was February it got warm enough for me to take my coat off right there. I knew big things were going to happen.

It started small, I found a dollar. I bought a Coke at McDonald’s. They were having some Monopoly game or something and my cup had Boardwalk on it. The rarest piece they had. I pulled another cup out of the garbage and it had Park Place. Just. Like. That. I had won a million dollars. I knew I would be successful. I had the Devils word. That bastard had sworn on a Bible and he was going to pay up. I started a business, a janitorial service. I don’t think there has ever been such a successful janitorial business. Everything we did turned to gold. We got anonymous donations, we got huge contracts, we got government grants, it was ridiculous. So I spread out. I started buying and selling stock. I made money hand over fist. I was in all the best clubs, I knew all the best people, but something was still missing.

Then I met Her (for the first time, there is an almost imperceptible change in the Jonathan’s voice at these words. His voice is still flat, his tone unchanging, but for the briefest moment, there was almost a quaver). She was beautiful. I won’t tell you her name. I can’t tell you her name, even to speak it seems an insult to her memory, but all you need to know is she was everything a woman was supposed to be and more. She was my world. We were married. She got pregnant and the next thing I knew I was holding twin boys. I was a father. She was a mother. We were a family. I was rich and happy and had everything I wanted.

As I stood outside the nursery in the hospital staring transfixed at my babies in their bassinets I realized that someone was standing beside me. It was the Devil. He smiled at me. His eyes smiled at me.
“Hi Jonathan” He said, voice as smooth as melted butter, “you remember me don’t you?”
Then he introduced himself again. He went through all his names, each one resonating in my ears a little louder. Each name had a weight, generations and generations of fear and terror. These were names that were never meant to be said. These were names that could curse a family and their children and  friends just by speaking them. There were names that aren’t even known. I remember all of them. And the whole time he smiled at me that winning, cheerful smile that told you everything was going to be just fine.
“Well Jonathan, it looks like the trial period is up.” He said, “I’m sure you found it more than satisfactory?”

The Number Six Bus

“So you just let it all go!” gasped Charlie “You let your family go and went back to your life on the street?” He had been sitting entranced by the story. The fantastic story seemed impossible but Charlie had been drawn in. Jonathan laughed for the first time. It was a hollow sound, there was no mirth in it, no joy.
“How could I? I wish I could have. But I would have given anything for them.”
Jonathan put his head in his hands and scrubbed them through his hair in frustration.
“I took his deal. I looked him in those smiling eyes and shook his hand and took it.”
“But” Charlie asked, confused “why are you here then?”
Jonathan turned and looked up at Charlie. He pulled his hair away from his face and for the first time Charlie could see his eyes in the light of a street lamp. They were like hollow white holes in his face. The pupils were rolled backwards only the barest sliver of them showing at the top of his eye, there was no life, no spark. They were the eyes of a dead man.
“He ate my soul in front of my kids as soon as I shook his hand. Right there in the hospital hallway. I swear as I felt every emotion and every feeling rush out of me, his smile got just a little bit brighter, a little more real. He left me like this, dead but still moving around, thinking, acting like I’m alive. My wife couldn’t stand me. She shuddered at my touch and cried when I looked at her. She took her own life two days after she got back from the hospital. The police officers were horrified by me too. They thought that I had something to do with her death. I guess I did in a way. They couldn’t convict me but they took away my children. It’s the eyes, Charlie.” He smiled at Charlie, in the worst mockery of a smile that Charlie had ever seen. There was no emotion behind it at all.
“They can’t bear to look at my eyes. Or touch my skin.” He grabbed Charlie’s hand and Charlie squealed and yanked away. It was cold and clammy. Lifeless.
“So they took my children. My stocks crashed. The IRS audited my business and they took everything. Back taxes they said,” he shook his head almost with disbelief.
“So here I am. That old goat was true to his word but both paths led right back here. Back here to this same bench.”

Charlie had scooted as far to the edge of the bench as he could, as he was teetering just slightly on the end.
“Why are you still sitting here then?” Charlie asked.
“I’m waiting for him” Jonathan said, and he stopped staring at Charlie. His head drooped back over his knees again. “I want him to take me.”
Charlie cleared his throat slightly. “Ahem. Won’t he… you know… take you to…” he trailed off.
“Hell? Yeah. Or at least I hope so. I don’t expect you to understand, but I’ve been sitting here for twenty years. I’m an empty soulless wreck who is incapable of feeling anything. At least in Hell, at least there, I might stand a chance at feeling something.”
Charlie realized vaguely that the bus was idling in front of him the driver staring down at him impatiently.
“Well, looks like that’s my bus, good chatting with you Jonathan. I’ll be running along then.”
Jonathan just sank his head a little lower. As Charlie stepped onto the bus he turned around and looked at the pitiful man. “If you’ve been here for twenty years why haven’t I seen you here before?” He asked.
Jonathan didn’t raise his head. “Because I only come here at the right time. I only come for his time. That’s when I’ll meet him eventually.”
Charlie turned and took another step inside the bus, the driver was holding out his hand impatiently. He turned over his shoulder and asked, “What do you mean his time?”
This time Jonathan looked up. He stared right into Charlie’ eyes with those dead white eyes and responded calmly.
“His bus. The number 6 at 6:00 on 6th street. You know. His number. I’m here every morning, every night. He’ll come eventually.”
“Oh.” Charlie gulped and handed the driver his bus pass. The man grunted as he stamped it and handed it back. The bus  started moving while Charlie was still walking towards the back. The soulless man on the bench still stared at him with empty eyes. Charlie opened his phone to call his wife. He would like to hear her voice, and maybe, even the  baby’s croupy cough.
“Hello, Charlie.”
Charlie looked up. There was only one other passenger on the bus. It was a man sitting in the back row, wearing a white suit with a red carnation and a red hat. His legs were crossed and he carried a cane that he tapped against his spats. He smiled at Charlie, and Charlie could swear it was the most genuine smile he had ever seen. Even his eyes seemed to smile.

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