Five Dollar Soul
I was looking through my sock drawer when the devil showed up in my room.
“Fuck off,” I said.
I could see their reflection in the moody, warped window of my apartment. Instead of standing, they had materialized sitting on my bed. On my bed. The goddamn nerve.
“Surrendering ownership of your soul has this funny little clause that comes with it,” said the devil. “What’s yours is mine, now, Julian.” I could hear that smile.
They laughed. “You can’t even try to come up with something original? There are so many phrases, so many combinations of words that your kind have never uttered. Not once! Wouldn’t you want to at least attempt to make a claim to one of those?”
“I’d much rather have a day to myself, thanks.”
“Oh no. That one’s millenniums old.” I turned now to face them. They were always a little different, but always a little the same. “Try again?”
Simple black suit, black tie, white button-up shirt… The most remarkably unremarkable facial features, but somehow put together in a way that even I couldn’t deny were beautiful. Today, their eyes were green.
They caught me looking and smiled. I turned away.
“Why bother with the jacket?” I asked, commanding my hands to look busy tidying up the desk. There was nothing to tidy.
I huffed. “I mean, you always take it off anyway.” No response. I looked back over to the bed, only to find them standing at the dresser, looking through the sock drawer. They had, of course, taken off the jacket, their sleeves rolled up to their elbows. They were smiling, but it was different now.
“You knew exactly what I meant,” I growled.
The devil dropped the pair of socks they’d been examining and turned to me. My feet tried to turn away, retreat to the corner, to the doorway, but I turned them back again.
“Of course.” Their voice was so soft. So gentle. “Of course I understand. I always do.” Their hands raised slowly and landed on my shoulders, like a pair of birds. Outside, the rain started its impatient tapping of fingers on metal.
The devil leaned forward, forward, until their face was almost against mine. Then, in a whisper they said, “That’s what makes it so enjoyable to fuck with you.”
Without realizing it, I had closed my eyes. When I opened them, the devil was gone.
Somewhere in the world, they were laughing.
. . .
“Could’ve at least had the decency to take your jacket with you.” They’d left it hanging on the bedpost, and I had a feeling they weren’t in a rush to get it back.
So what was I supposed to do with it?
The easy answer was to toss it in the garbage. But then it would still be somewhere. It would still exist.
I could burn it. Shove it in the oven, set it at 450 for thirty minutes… But there was no way my fire alarm would ever allow for that. Being in an apartment complex complicated things for me. My smoke alarm revelled in yelling at anything, which would be fine, but its job was to set off all the alarms on the rest of the floor. I’d given up on toast months ago.
You could wear it.
“Fuck no,” I said.
Had that been my voice in my head or theirs? A shiver threatened to crawl up my neck and I held myself tight until the feeling passed.
I would ignore the jacket until it was gone.
But dusk came, and then the cold, tight dark blue of night which eventually threatened morning hours. It was still there. And I was not going to sleep in my bed with it there on the corner. Somehow it felt like the jacket still held the devil in it, like it was somehow a deflated mannequin of them.
Fuck it, my mind sang. Fuck it, fuck it, fuck it.
I’d had images of myself all day using chopsticks, a spatula, something to keep myself from touching the fabric. I ended up picking it up with my hands.
It’d be all the more satisfying to them if I pretended it was anything other than a jacket. And that’s all it was. A jacket.
One of its sleeves clenched in my right fist, my left hand set the oven to 451. Out of the corner of my eye, the jacket resembled a kid being dragged along by a parent, hanging loose in defiance as it was pulled across the cheap linoleum floor.
I hesitated for a moment, only to wonder whether it’d be better to give the oven time to preheat.
I opened up the oven door and tossed the jacket in, buttons clanging sadly against the middle rack. The oven door was heavy enough and happy to pull itself closed. I set the timer for thirty minutes, and then went straight to my fire alarm to gut it of its batteries.
The chilled window in my living room kept me company while I waited for the oven to do its work. All too soon, the timer gave a shrill beep for my attention. I had spent the full half hour imagining a hellish red-grey smoke billowing out from the oven door, but when I returned, it was… normal. No smoke. No hellfire. No devil sitting on my kitchen counter wearing a smoldering jacket and a new nose, ready to scoff at my frail attempts to be rid of them. Nothing.
I looked down at the oven’s display. It’d gone up to 451, like I’d told it to. I hit the “cancel” button to put its screaming to rest. Without taking my eyes off of the oven, I reached into the nearby drawer that stored my oven mitts. I put them both on and opened the oven door with caution.
There was almost nothing to say that the jacket had gone in there at all. For a moment I thought that maybe the devil had poofed it out of the oven, made it disappear so it wouldn’t have to endure all the pain of burning alive, except there was a thick black mass frozen mid-drip from the rack. The plastic buttons, I realized. They were all that was left.
“Huh.” I closed the oven, took off the mitts, and stood there for a moment.
Was I crazy? I had just burned a jacket in my oven.
“Crazy people don’t know they’re crazy,” I told myself. I was fine. And fuck was I exhausted. Turning the kitchen light off, I stumbled back into my bedroom and collapsed on my mattress, not even bothering to pull myself under the covers.
. . .
The hellfire was here, and my body knew it before I did, waking me up coughing. In less than a second I knew two things at the exact same time.
First, I had forgotten to turn the oven off.
Second, I was going to die.
“Third,” came a voice, “it’s all your fault.”
“Oh, Julian.” I almost didn’t bother looking for them, but I did. Their voice had changed. “I almost wish I was capable of pity, just so I could pity you.” It was lower.
A dry, heaving pain pushed itself out of my lungs, forcing me into another bout of coughing. I fell out of my bed onto the floor, holding myself up on my hands and knees. My body crawled forward, knowing the way to the front door before I had thought up an escape plan.
Except the kitchen was in the way. That’s where the heat was coming from. I could feel it in the floor. I could feel it in my eyes.
My head swiveled in the other direction, towards the windows. Rain. Cold air. Escape. I started to crawl that way, only to have my palm come down on something hard and metal. It rolled out from under me, and my chin banged on the floor.
Eyes almost level with the ground, I saw it. One of the batteries from the smoke detector I’d been so smart to forget about. And behind the battery, two feet.
It was them, except –
“What do you think?” The devil flashed a grin at me. They – he – was wearing my pajamas. The same ones I was wearing now. The same shirt. The same hair. The same eyes.
The same voice.
“Speechless? That’s understandable.” He faked a cough, putting a hand – my hand! – up to his mouth as he did.
“You –” I inhaled two, charred lungfuls of air before I could do anything more with my indignation. It was worse than the heat growing behind me, worse than my watering eyes, almost worse than the thing standing in front of me.
He bent down as I pulled myself back up onto my hands and knees.
“No. You,” he said. His eyes were steady, holding mine in place. They were so green.
I could waste my dying breath calling this motherfucker out for what he was, or I could get myself to the window.
My hand was lifted off the floor before I had the chance to move it myself. All in one movement, he rose to stand and brought me with him. Single-handedly, he held me up by the collar of my shirt off the ground. There was no air up here. It was all smoke. I felt like I was hanging. He was my height – my height exactly – and yet I might as well have been ten feet off the ground. I would never get to the window.
I was drowning in smoke, but I could see him perfectly.
All emotion was gone from his face. I was trying to wedge my fingers in between his hands and my neck, trying to find some purchase, but there was nothing. He started towards the kitchen. My legs kicked.
I felt the fire behind me, but I could see it in front of me. It was in his eyes. The green had burned out, leaving a hungry red burning black around the center. My face had gone red now, the blood rushing there, a silent crowd of spectators begging for oxygen.
A smile that didn’t reach the eyes. “Jackass.”
As he threw me into the fire, his eyes flashed green.