The Devil's Bargain

May 20, 2020

The walls were rough-hewn stone, cold, unaffected by the fire of wrought iron torches that cast dancing shadows. The room was large enough to hold a hundred people, yet empty and oppressive, nothing but the damp encased in stone. It felt like a crypt ripped out of the medieval and made eternal, a place where science and technology had been forgotten, a place where gods and devils still roamed.

I could not recall how I’d gotten there, nor how long ago. I stretched my memory and found only this place. God’s clock had stopped, grinding to halt all that could be and turning a moment into eternity. I stood entombed in that moment, all memory and hope nothing but a dream of change.

Then the moment evaporated.

I stood in a stone room as one of many, whom I dubbed the nameless. We were orphans, abandoned and alone no matter our numbers. We had names, but they didn’t matter. Names are for attachment, and we’d long since consumed the truth of the world’s transience. Now is all we ever have, and the past a lie we tell ourselves to make sense of the moment.

Some stood in clumps, bound by culture; others stood alone. A few cried quietly, though I’m ashamed it was merely background noise, even to a boy of fifteen.

I approached a group that looked to offer the illusion of safety. A boy with blond hair spoke in earnest, eyes intense, arms in sharp gestures, while others nodded. I recognized the dynamic and stopped close enough to be mistaken as part of the group, but not so close to default in. The blond boy’s eyes flicked to me for a moment before returning to the others. He never missed a syllable.

The moment evaporated.

“Where are we?”

A girl stood beside me, hair black and disheveled, eyes crystal blue and innocent. She did not belong; innocence never survives, and so she was to me an aberration, her very presence an assault on this place.

To this day I see her eyes every time I close my own.

“I think we’re in hell,” I said.

“Oh.” She looked around, eyes wide, arms wrapped about her body, and I regretted my words. Then she said, “but do you remember dying?”

“No,” I shook my head, “but I recall breakfast.”

She giggled, then slapped a hand over her mouth as several children turned toward her with pleading eyes. She’d broken the unspoken sacred: This place was not for laughter.

“It feels like I’ve been here forever,” I said.

She nodded, looked around, and then stopped on the animated blond boy. “He thinks he knows.”

I shook my head. “He seeks only an audience.”

Her smile thinned. “He seeks the power to hurt others.”

And the boy had it, though not by right or will, but by virtue of grabbing for it. And that power consolidated itself as a lure, bringing in others on the promise of false warmth, as though they could ward off the cold damp by belief alone.

It’s why I had stopped at the periphery. False or not, such groups were dangerous to those too close, more so to those outside.

“What does she seek?” The girl drew my attention to another squatting in the corner, head down, thin-blond hair spilling over arms wrapped around bony knees.

“She seeks the power to hold others at bay.”

She nodded, and continued to scan the room until her eyes stopped on another, one I had not seen before. “And him?”

The boy stood tall in torn clothes, posture poised, black hair slicked back against pale skin, eyes imperious as though to defy all the world at once. I saw dignity desperate to pretend its paucity was nothing but vestments, and reflect nothing of the soul.

“He seeks esteem.”

She nodded. “And him?” She pointed at another.

This boy looked normal in every regard: average height, average build, average face, easy to miss; but the eyes were empty. They were eyes that sought to consume, to fill a bottomless void. He stared at the blond girl in the corner as though he possessed her.

“I don’t like him.”

She shook her head. “No.” She looked at another one, a girl this time. “Her?”

The girl was leaning against the wall, hair brown and straight, a round pleasant face, clothes nice but not expensive, eyes unfocused and far away.

“I don’t think she believes she’s here.”

The girl beside me smiled. “No, I don’t think so either.”

She scanned the room again. “And her?”

This one had blond hair in tight curls, blue eyes that were intelligent and calculating, clothes a size too small, a touch too revealing. She watched the blond boy with casual interest.

“She would start wars if she could.”

The girl beside me nodded. “Maybe she will.” Then she looked at me. “You’re so observant, but what about you?”

My hair was brown, as were my eyes. I was thin, but not overly, tall but not too much. I didn’t know what others saw when they see me, but few rarely do. I’m calculated, careful, and observant. I’m not a bad person, nor am I a good one; I’m pragmatic, and as much a product of this world as I am the child of parents I never knew.

“I want to see more.”

She smiled and nodded, as though I’d given her a good answer.

I turned to her. “And you?”

She looked at me with those crystal eyes, eyes I cannot seem to forget. Her mouth moved but she spoke words I can’t remember no matter how I try. I know I heard them; I know I recognized them; I know they’re there, somewhere beyond reach, words bigger than me.

The moment evaporated.

A man stood before us. He was tall, rail thin, black hair, hollow face, tallow skin, hawked nose, grey eyes. He wore a black suit, modern but with a flair of antiquity. He stared at her and I hated him, hated what his eyes offered. I hated him in that eternal moment like I’d hated nothing else before, like nothing else after. But there was no before, and there was no after.

The moment evaporated.

I looked around, alone as I’d always been. I watched the groups, how they moved, how they placed themselves, and how the dynamics of power shifted about the room. The blond haired boy was talking, but more had been lured by the offer of safety. The blond girl with curls stood in his view, splitting his attention between the group and her. The average boy was next to the girl in the corner, hand on her knee, eyes kind and inviting. The girl with brown hair hadn’t focused her eyes.

The moment evaporated.

I looked around, alone as I’d always been. The blond boy was turning red, his group agitated. The girl with blond curls stood by him, her eyes outward. The average boy stared at her. The girl with brown hair hadn’t focused her eyes.

The moment evaporated.

The blond boy was yelling, his face twisted in anger. Two in his group were throwing fists while the others watched. The girl with blond hair had stepped away. The girl with brown hair hadn’t focused her eyes.

The moment evaporated.

The blond haired boy was yelling, red-faced, spittle flying; his group fought among themselves. The girl with brown hair hadn’t focused her eyes.

The moment evaporated.

Silence consumed the room as I stared at the girl with brown hair. She was the only one I didn’t understand, for this place was not a place that could be ignored. I feared those unfocused eyes; I feared that she did actually see this place, and had simply marked it as unimportant.

In my mind, she looked up, then looked through me. Panic engulfed me. I didn’t exist.

The moment evaporated.

I looked around, alone as I’d always been, in a shadowy stone room with flames burning from wrought iron torches.

The moment evaporated.

“Who are you?” the tallow man said.

The words weighed like stones on my mind. I felt confusion as the weight pressed out thoughts I’d long ago forgotten, deep truths that formed who I was from forgotten memories. They were defining moments, just as real as this one, and just as eternal.

They were not what I expected.

We remember the big things easily. Critical junctures, lost loves, new hates, hard choices, traumatic experiences: these all embed themselves into our minds, burned there by our very emotions. But equally as important were the small choices, inconsequential, that yet somehow managed to form the basis of all we are.

“What is your heart’s desire?”

The words burrowed inside and wormed their way through me, seeking out a truth to consume. I tried to hide from the worms and protect the forgotten memories that made me who I was, but I was vulnerable and I didn’t understand.

A memory was consumed, a piece of me lost; I was exposed and vulnerable.

The moment evaporated.

I sat on a rough benched table, a stack of parchment before me. The pages were thick, long, and narrow, the words written in a small, elegant hand. These were dozens of pages I’d read a dozen times in an attempt to consume the truths hidden within. The hollow man stood behind me, patiently watching over his hawked nose.

The pages contained something I wanted, something I needed. I searched for it like it was the only precious thing in the world. I sought a wrinkle, a skip, a miss, a hole, an absence in the binding of words. The hollow man had made to me the greatest of all promises, yet I knew the true reward was within the pages, if only I could find it.

“Most do not read the contract,” the hollow man said in an impatient tone.

I was not fooled. This moment was eternal, and I had all the time in it. I turned back to the first page. It was, at its core, a simple contract of exchange: product delivered now, payment made on death. The rest of the contract dealt mostly with what delivered now, payment, and death actually meant.

It was anything but simple.

The product, in particular, was complicated, for the contract required only the highest quality. A single gold coin would be delivered immediately, though I had trouble believing anyone would be stupid enough to barter for such a meager thing. Other products would take a lifetime to deliver, and so would only be received in the precise moment prior to payment, death; the contract made very clear the two were intimately intertwined.

Of particular interest, death could not come before the product was delivered, and so one could literally sacrifice their heart’s desire to avoid an early death, or even extend life for a product with a long gestation. I casually wondered how many had done so; but I believed the hollow man on one point: most did not read the contract.

Several pages were devoted to the arbitration process involved when two people’s products conflicted. There could, for instance, be only one ruler of the whole world; and so given such an obvious contradiction, the “highest quality” product is a split to give each the highest possible satisfaction. A lot more of the world suddenly made sense to me.

I finished the stack again and realized the thing I’d been looking for wasn’t there.

I turned to the hollow man and nodded my ascent.

He snapped his hand out and grabbed mine, a knife suddenly in his other hand. He cut my thumb to the bone and squeezed until blood flowed down my arm. He pressed my thumb to the first page, then the second, then the third. By the sixth I wondered how my thumb could bleed so much; by the tenth I began to wonder about blood loss.

He pressed my thumb to the last page and the world froze, stuttered, and lurched. A crack thundered, resounding through my chest.

The hollow man snatched my hand back from the contract. “What did you do?”

He picked up the stack of parchment and flipped through it, his eyes intense as he scanned the pages. He appeared to relax when he reached the last page, though I detected a hint of confusion on his face. It was gone a moment later.

He turned back to me with a smile that didn’t touch his eyes. “Signed and sealed.”

The moment evaporated.