I’m tired, and I don’t feel like writing anything new, so have a teaser chapter from the novel I’ve been working on. Keep in mind, this is a draft, but it’s still my original work, and it belongs to me. Don’t steal it.
My story started the day Mark put a bullet in his brain.
Or at least, that’s where I usually start telling the story. Devils get bored easily. It’s an occupational hazard. If there’s no violence in the first three seconds, they’ll stop listening.
Really, it started before that. It started with love. Which is stupid and cliché, I know, but sue me. Everybody up there is looking for love or sex or money or power or all of the above, and for me it was love.
I was working as a dancer when I met him. Not the kind of dancer that’s really a stripper, but not far off either. I worked at this nightclub downtown called Pulse, where they paid me to look sexy on the dance floor and grind up on guys all night. Mark was one of them.
He was there a lot, always alone, never hitting on anyone. He and I, we got a sort of rhythm going. He’d come in around eleven, when there was starting to be a decent crowd but they mostly weren’t drunk enough to dance. That was my busiest time.
I could move my hips in time to the music without any conscious thought, but there was more to it than that. I would scope out a table of guys with expensive watches nursing mostly-empty drinks, and I would dance. I’d really let loose, dance like no one was watching except I knew they were. I could always feel them watching me, right up to the minute that I felt hands resting on my hips. I’d never turn around, just press backwards and let the beat flood through us both, passing back and forth through every thrust and shimmy. It didn’t matter who the guy was, it never did; all that mattered was that I’d pulled him into the thrall of that beat.
Mark stayed out of the way during that part.
It was afterwards that things got interesting, when I’d enticed enough people onto the floor that they didn’t really need me anymore. Then he would come up behind me with a drink, a dirty martini, which he somehow figured out that I love. There wasn’t much of anywhere quiet enough to have a real conversation, but while I was drinking my drink we would shout back and forth at one another. Random things. One night he wanted to know my favorite color (Red. His was mauve. I teased him for liking an old lady color.) Another night he asked if I ever forgot to eat (Never. It didn’t matter what I was doing, when lunchtime came around I ate lunch. He sometimes lived on one meal a day.)
After a few months of that, he asked me out, and of course I said yes, because God, the guy moved slow. Our first date, he took me to a little café and I just kept staring at him, couldn’t get over the novelty of seeing him someplace well-lit and quiet. He had these wispy little blond ringlets that framed his face, completely invisible in the club but under cheery café lighting they were the most adorable fucking thing I’d ever seen. He pulled at me in a way I wasn’t used to.
“Are you happy?” he asked me, halfway through the tiramisu.
“Now, or in general?”
“Both, I suppose.”
I thought about it. Thought about the rush of pounding rhythm and shared body heat every night at the club. Thought about tiramisu melting into sweetness on my tongue. Thought about Mark’s ringlets and the way they made me want to bury my face in the side of his head. Balanced that out against the crap I worried about all the time – making something real out of my life and making my mother proud and making sure nobody called me a slut. “Yeah,” I said to him, and my voice came out surprised. “Yeah, I think I’m really happy. Are you?”
He smiled, making little lines around the corners of his mouth. Then he pulled me toward him and we kissed, and I could touch those little lines with the end of my tongue. It only lasted a moment, since there was a table between us, the angles were all wrong, and anyway, we were in public. “You delight me,” he whispered into the air between us.
So of course we hit it off, started seeing each other a lot when he had time, started living together. He had this super stressful job in an office where he put on a tie and banged on a keyboard for sixty hours a week, and at the end of it all he still usually made it out to Pulse to dance with me. I wonder sometimes if it was my fault. If it hurt him to see his girlfriend pressed up against other guys.
That’s bullshit, though. His problem was not me. His problem was sixty hours a week, and no career advancement prospects, and no family or friends or sleep to speak of. He had work. And he had me.
I thought we were both happy, is the thing. I thought we’d made our own little brand of happy together, with me delighting him and him delighting me. I could have breakfast with Mark, go back to bed and sleep till noon, text him for a while on his lunch break, wander around the city, have a bubble bath, put on sexy clothes, go to work, come home sweaty and tired and half-deaf with the beat still pounding through me, and let Mark screw me into unconsciousness. That was the dream. If sometimes Mark went quiet and broody staring off into space, well, I could kiss him and he’d kiss me back and everything was fine.
Then I came home to find him bleeding.
When I think about being alive, that’s the night I think about. It was my day off – a Tuesday, no one goes clubbing on Tuesdays. I’d gone to get my hair done and grabbed dinner with a couple of girlfriends. I got back around ten, and I wasn’t sure if Mark would be home yet because his hours were like that. I figured if not, he’d probably be back before I went to bed, and I could show off my new haircut. It was an angled cut from my chin down to my shoulders, and it made for really nice hair flipping.
That was what I was thinking about when I opened the door. The lights were on, which made me smile, because if he was home before ten on a weeknight that meant his meeting probably went well and he’d be in a good mood. Life was better when Mark was in a good mood. Lighter. I could spend a really long time just watching him smile.
I think I probably called out his name and he didn’t answer. I dumped my purse on the table and went into the bedroom looking for him.
He was on the bedroom floor. Bleeding all over the laminate. His head was a mess, and the gun was cradled against his chest like something important.
It’s funny, thinking about it now. I know it hurt. I know I howled with the pain of it, sank to my knees next to him and got blood smears all over my hands and thought my chest was going to turn inside out. I know that, but it’s like trying to remember what it was like to look at a book before I knew how to read. Trying to remember watching The Sixth Sense and not knowing the twist ending. The memories don’t play right inside my head anymore, because I can’t feel what it felt like to hurt.
At some point, when I was still kneeling there staring at him, with the thought nagging at my brain that I should maybe do something, look for a note or call the police or mop up the blood or something useful, there was a knock at the door.
Not someone buzzing to be let into the building, mind you, although even that would have been weird on a random Tuesday night. No, someone knocked on the actual door to our apartment. My apartment. Mark’s ex-apartment. Three short, polite raps of the knuckles.
I didn’t get up, because I wasn’t sure I was ever going to be able to get up again, so he knocked again, and when I still didn’t answer, he came in. (Never mind that I’d locked the door when I got home, same as always.)
He came straight into the bedroom. Any half-formed thoughts I’d had about home invaders, when I’d heard the door clicking open, were dispelled when I got a good look at this guy. He wore a neatly tailored suit, not ostentatious, but neat. He had dark hair combed back from his face and manicured fingernails and shiny shoes.
There was a blunted sense of recognition that went through me. My devil. I’d never seen him before, I knew I’d never seen him before, but it still felt like he belonged there in that moment.
He looked down at the-thing-that-used-to-be-Mark, with me hunched over it protectively, and clucked his tongue. That’s it, just clucked his tongue like you might do if you saw someone go to throw out a candy wrapper and miss the trash can. “Well,” he said, “this is a bit of a mess.”
I looked up at him with dull eyes. “Who are you?”
“You poor thing. You thought he was happy, didn’t you? You thought he was going to propose.”
I had thought a proposal might be happening sometime soon. It had seemed like the logical next step after moving in together, and I could picture it, a life with him, maybe some kids a few years down the road. I hadn’t mentioned it to anyone yet, least of all Mark. Didn’t want to be the pushy girlfriend. “Not anymore,” I said.
“Why not?” he asked, all polite interest.
And then I was standing, hurling myself at the well-dressed stranger who had invaded the worst moment of my life. I started pummeling his chest with my fists, screaming things like “he’s dead, who the fuck are you, he’s dead he’s dead he’s dead,” mostly just screaming, until I was sobbing against his neck.
My bloody hands didn’t stain his suit. The neighbors didn’t call to complain about the noise. Consequences had just taken a holiday for the night.
When I’d calmed down a little, my devil patted me gently on the back. “Feeling better?”
“Who are you?” I asked again, asked his Adam’s apple because that was all I could see from my current position.
“I have an offer for you,” he said, not really answering my question. “From the boys downstairs.”
I bypassed the ten million other questions I probably should have asked, and went with, “What kind of offer?”
“What would you give to have your boyfriend back?”
“Anything.” It came out as a long exhale, and I didn’t think about it, just saw Mark’s blood imprinted on the insides of my eyelids.
“Well then, that makes things simple.” He walked over to the body, crouched down, and waved a hand lazily over Mark’s head. The next second, the floor and Mark’s skin and Mark’s clothes were all spotless. The bullet clattered harmlessly away, and Mark’s chest was rising and falling as he breathed. Sleeping. Just sleeping.
I made a small noise deep in my throat, and reached out to touch him.
My devil batted my hand away. “Not quite that simple. You said you’d give anything.” He pulled a sheaf of papers out of the briefcase I hadn’t noticed he was holding. “I need written documentation of that.”
I laid it all out on the bedside table to skim. It was written in pretty impressive legal mumbo-jumbo, but I got the gist of it. “You want my soul.”
“You want my soul? You’re… what? The devil? Is this for real?” My eyes darted back to Mark, asleep on the floor, and I told myself that maybe this was all a bizarre dream.
“I’m a devil, yes, and this is very real. I’ve given you something, and now I’m asking for something in return. You did say anything.”
It’s one thing to say anything when there’s blood on the floor and you wish it were yours. When nothing seems important anyway. It’s another thing to stand there and sign away your soul, even if you’re not really sure what a soul is.
Probably my devil could sense my hesitation, because he pulled the oldest trick in the book. “Then again, if you’d prefer not to…” he waved his hand again and it all came back. The blood, the bullet, the not-breathing. “It’s your decision. I’ll just be going.”
Just like that. He had me.
When I’m talking to some politely curious devil over coffee in the breakroom, that’s usually where I stop the story. Once the soul is turned over, the rest is just details. There is one question they always ask, though. Was it worth it?
It’s a dumb question, because who the fuck knows? Who knows what my life would have been like if I’d woken up the next morning with a soul and a dead boyfriend? I’ll tell you one thing, though. Selling your soul for love, you have to be either selfless or shit-stupid. And here’s why.
Waking up the morning after was the same as every other morning in that apartment. The alarm went off, blasting power chords from the local pop station. Mark groaned and reached over me to smack at the snooze button without ever opening his eyes, and I turned on my side to look at him for a few minutes and get myself psyched up for the day. Once I’m awake, I’m awake.
The sun was spilling in through the gaps in our cheap blinds, leaving thin lines of light across Mark’s face. His forehead was smoothed out in sleep, and his cheek was puddled against dark blue sheets. His ringlets were smooshed too, on the right side, but on the left side they were tumbling down almost into his eye.
This was what I did every morning. I lay there and made a catalogue of Mark’s face, until the alarm clock went off for the third time and he made a sleepy noise, heaved himself out of bed, and pressed a closed-mouth morning-breath kiss against the corner of my lips before stumbling off to shower. Some mornings I’d join him, or some mornings I’d make us pancakes and feel like Donna Reed. But always, first, I took my few minutes to just look at him. I wouldn’t say it was my favorite part of the day, but it was definitely important, something I missed when he was out of town or crashing at the office. It made me feel that pull right around the bottom of my ribcage, the one that meant I was in love with Mark.
I didn’t feel that, the morning after. I took those few minutes, and I noticed everything about him, but I might as well have been looking at the wallpaper for all the feeling it inspired.
I was hovering over him when the alarm went off the second time, my elbows propped on either side of his chest. He startled a little when he opened his eyes. “Hey, sweetie,” he murmured.
“Hey.” I looked into his eyes. They were greyish-blue, and they usually reminded me of the ocean on a foggy day in October when you have to squint to make out the line between sky and water. Usually I wanted to stare and stare and lose myself in that horizon line.
“Kinda creepy there, sweetie. Something wrong?” I shook my head, kept staring, waited for some sort of delayed emotion to kick in. He laughed. “Okay. I guess there are worse ways to wake up.” His voice got a little softer. “I had the craziest dream.”
That was clearly my cue to ask about the dream, but instead I leaned down and kissed him, buried my tongue in his mouth, tasted stale spit and felt the warmth of his soft palate. He was just starting to kiss back when I pulled away.
“Definitely worse ways to wake up,” he said, and craned his neck up for another kiss. I pulled away some more. “Right. Okay. I’m going to grab a shower.” He nudged me out of the way and sat up. “Love you.”
“Love you too,” I parroted back easily, automatically.
We didn’t break up that day, or the day after. It took him a long time to figure it out, because I still kissed him. We still screwed, we still ate and talked and showered together, and I still said the words. I remember in physics class in high school, my teacher tried to explain that if you set an object in motion on a perfectly smooth surface, no friction at all, it will just keep going and going and going. That was me. I was an object in motion, and I didn’t have any reason to stop.
I told Mark to see a shrink. He went on anti-depressants and got better. Sometime after that, we broke up. Sometime after that, I discovered coke. Coke made everything sharper, made my heart beat fast and my fingers feel tingly.
Sometime after that, I died.