Gwendolyn Kiste's character tries to save her husband's soul from hell by going on a date with the Devil.
Worse yet, my attire didn't matter. I might as well have arrived naked. I would be that way soon enough.
In the back of the closet, my wedding gown peeked out of its faded preservation box.
"How about you?" I said to the sleeve that tumbled through a tear in the plastic.
Wearing white to perdition - now that was irony I could appreciate.
But ultimately, I settled on a strapless black number. Two inches too short for work, it hadn't left the hanger in five years. Plus, I liked the way it fit, and the ensemble was for my benefit, not anyone else's. A speck of pride in myself, and at least I could pretend the underworld hadn't broken me. Not yet anyhow.
Ready at last, I retrieved the talisman from my dresser. Only it wasn't a talisman per se. It was a poker chip. A plain one too except for the incantation etched in flaking gold on the chipped red plastic.
Grip this chip or give it a flip; Either way leads straight to my crypt!
I rolled my eyes. Crypt didn't even rhyme with flip. And it was outdated slang.
"Gag me," I said.
As if on command, an inexplicable plume of blue smoke dissolved my body and carried me to the underworld. All the way there, I coughed in protest.
Moments later, the smoke and I arrived on a black rock that dripped with what looked like tar but what I assumed were tears from lost souls. Or maybe just vomit from last weekend's kegger. I always figured hell hosted wicked parties.
"Frank better appreciate this," I muttered and started across the rock.
But I didn't get far. A nasty patch of dark goo caught my stiletto. Flailing and cursing, I struggled to free myself, but something besides the black gunk held my foot in place. I kneeled to the ground. Trapped in the tar like a mosquito in amber was part of a pizza crust that my heel had inadvertently speared.
"Adds credence to that kegger theory," I said. "And I could use a beer right about now."
As I yanked my footwear from the slime and leftovers, an army of goblins surrounded me. Spiky hackles raised, they bore their teeth and jabbed their atlatls at me. This fearsome display might have been scary if they hadn't each been an inch tall. Still, there were enough of them to do some serious ankle-biting, so when they pointed the way down a dim, serpentine hallway, I genially followed.
The corridor terminated in a grand vestibule that overflowed with tables and chairs and suits of armor and, of course, the biggest four-poster bed I'd ever seen.
The Devil stood from his wing-backed chair, his arms outspread. "Celine, I'm so glad you made it."
I halted, examining his thin, thirtysomething figure. "You look different," I said.
He smiled. "Better or worse?"
"Better, I guess."
The day of my husband's funeral, he had been in the guise of an old man with a black cane. While I was mourning next to the casket, he slipped me the poker chip and whispered, "I can help you save his soul."
Between the dark eyes and lackluster demeanor, I knew he was telling the truth. That, and there had been the nightly dreams of my husband in torment and the Devil explaining one quick dalliance on my part was all it would take to rescue my beloved.
The whole gambit might have terrified me if not for my husband occasionally complaining how the goblins' methods of torture tickled.
Now in the hellish room, I kept my distance from the Devil, so he retreated and stoked the fireplace. I doubted any flames in the underworld actually required tinder, but it was a nice homey touch.
What was less homey was the accoutrement in front of the fireplace. In lieu of a traditional bearskin rug, there was one made of human skin.
Glaring at him, I pointed at the obscene furnishing.
"Oh, that old thing. I use it to scare the freshman class of minions every year. It's only rubber." He kicked the edge to reveal a phony underside. "Come see for yourself."
I shook my head and backed against the nearest wall. But more goo found me there, and I was caught like a mouse in a glue trap. With a hundred goblins heaving and hollering from the ground, we pried my body off the paisley wallpaper. By then, the Devil was halfway across the room to assist, and I thanked the pint-size critters for helping me before the so-called Prince of Darkness got to take the honor.
"And how was your voyage here?" he asked as he shooed the endless stream of goblins out the door. They sang a strident tune while they departed, and although I was never sure, I could have sworn it was "Free Bird".
"It was quick," I said and hoped the main event that evening would have an equally short running time. "Are we ready to get started?"
"Would you like to see your husband first?"
"I don't know," I said. "That might make this more awkward."
"Okay," the Devil said, "but he's requested to see you."
I rolled my eyes. "Fine. Bring him in."
An invisible slot in the wall shifted, and like a plastic mole in an arcade game, my husband popped his head out.
"Hi, Frank," I said.
"Thank you again for doing this, baby." He puckered his lips for me to kiss him, but I just sneered, so he pretended to study the ceiling instead. "Have you signed the contract yet?"
I raised an eyebrow. "What contract?"
The Devil chuckled nervously. "We'll get to that soon enough, Frank. I want her to feel comfortable here first."
"Comfortable in hell? Seriously?" I exhaled. "I just want this to be over."
We loitered in silence for awhile, the Devil on his supposedly phony human rug, me near but not touching the wall, and Frank's head bopping up and down.
I stepped closer to the slot and peered at my husband. "Is the rest of your body in there too?"
"Oh, sure," he said and ogled himself. "Hello, down there."
Frank laughed. Frank always laughed at his own jokes.
Swaying from side to side, the Devil regarded me. "Did I hear you say you wanted a beer?"
I kicked the sulfur-shined floors. "I never said that."
"No?" He smiled and snapped his fingers. On the wall, a cloud of blue smoke took form and revealed me attempting to free my heel moments earlier on that rock.
"And I could use a beer right about now," my distorted facsimile said in a voice like a half-broken synthesizer.
"You should adjust the levels on that thing," I said.
The Devil shrugged. "My sound guy's on vacation," he said. "So don't expect too much from the evening's mood music."
"Don't worry," I said. "I'm not expecting much from this evening at all."
"Way to spoil a guy's self-esteem." The Devil crossed to the liquor cabinet. "How about that drink?"
I shrugged. "Why not?"
He handed me a brew, which opened on its own the instant I took it from him.
I swigged the ice-cold beer and rocked in place. "Can we please get started? I have to work in the morning."
The Devil nodded, and the slot slid back, concealing my husband somewhere in the bowels of hell. I emptied my drink and warmed myself near the fire, even though I wasn't cold.
"You must be pretty used to this," I said.
The Devil watched me. "Used to what?"
"One-night stands with bereaved women," I said. "I bet you're like James Bond with a spade-tipped tail."
"Not quite." The Devil blushed and hid his sinuous tail behind him.
"Don't lie," I said, trying to ignore the absurdity of demanding honesty from the Prince of Lies. "I bet you use your preternatural powers to seduce scores of women."
"I did one time," the Devil said. "And that girl left me a millennium ago. Claimed she was going out for more pomegranates." He inspected me in earnest. "Don't be a fool like me and fall for that one."
I laughed. "And here I thought everyone knew about that old pomegranate ruse."
The Devil and I looked at one another and then flushed in unison and glanced elsewhere in the room.
"Are you sure you want to do this?" he asked.
"Frank was a good husband," I said. "Good enough anyhow. And eternity's a long time to suffer over anything."
His glass empty, the Devil fumbled through the liquor cabinet for another drink. "Speaking of, would you like to hear his list of offenses?"
I shrugged. "Sure."
An elongated piece of papyrus materialized, and the Devil plucked it from the air.
"Let me see," he said. "During his lifetime, your husband told 409,567 lies, shoplifted 347 times -"
"347 times? What did he steal?"
The Devil scrutinized the tiny font. "I'm sorry, but my records don't include the quality of the items pilfered, only the quantity."
I nodded. "Go on."
"Several instances of animal cruelty -"
"Animal cruelty?" I squeaked.
"- including one death of a cat."
At that, I stomped my foot. "Call him back right now."
The invisible slot slid to one side, and Frank poked his head through. "Hey, honey. Done already? I wouldn't take the Devil for a two-pump chump, but hey."
"Hey, yourself," the Devil said. "Your wife wants to talk with you about one of your transgressions."
"Oh," Frank said and crinkled his nose. "Which one?"
"You killed a cat?"
"Oh, that, " he said, almost sounding relieved. "I was like ten. And Bobby Smith killed it, not me. Plus, it was an accident. Something about an experiment with a box he saw on an old physics program." He shook his head. "Besides, I just watched."
"So much better." I turned to the Devil. "What else has Frank done?"
The Devil glanced at his list and grimaced. "You're not going to like this one," he said. "Six noonday assignations with one Penny Miller."
"I knew it!" I smacked Frank on the nose. "You told me over and over again, 'Baby, I'd never do that to you, especially with your best friend.'"
Frank bleated. "What was I supposed to say? She was a good time?"
"Forget this," I said and brushed a wayward fleck of goo from my dress as I started for the door. I wished I'd worn a coat, so I could grab it with flourish off some pentagram-laden coat rack. That would make a far more ceremonious exit. But I had figured extra layers in hell would just be gauche.
"Wait," the Devil said. "There's something else."
"What?" I clenched my jaw. "Did he screw my sister too?"
"No, he -"
Frank grimaced. "That old hag? No way."
The Devil sighed. "You two, please -"
I charged Frank's head. "Did you seriously call my little sister Missy a hag?"
"Stop, both of -"
"You're damn straight I did," Frank said. "And I'd do it again too if -"
"Listen to me!" the Devil bellowed, and the whole room lit up in red to punctuate the sentiment.
Frank and I quieted at once.
"He does love you," the Devil said to me, his voice and the room reverted to normal. "That's the one offense that can't be leveled against him. It's the reason he can use you as a mulligan. If he didn't truly love you, then our tryst would mean nothing."
"Oh, our tryst will still mean nothing," I said.
"I mean in the grand scheme of the heaven and hell system," the Devil said, scowling.
I returned to the doorway, desperate to leave but entranced with Frank's big blue eyes pleading with me, the same way he always did when he wanted something. Though while we were married, it was usually just takeout wings or a new video game. Not whoring out your wife as a get-out-of-hell free card.
"Fine," I said. "I'll go through with it."
"I love you so much, Celine," Frank said. "We'll be so happy together in heaven."
"With what I'm thinking about you right now, don't be so sure I'll make it there," I said and advanced to the bed before waving my hand at the Devil. "Now get my husband's head out of here."
The invisible slot closed, and the Devil went to the desk next to the fireplace. He pulled out a stack of papers and displayed them for me.
"This is the contract. All ten pages of it. I had my people be as thorough as possible to answer any of your questions."
I blinked at him. "Like what kind of questions?"
"For example," the Devil said as he sat on the bed next to me, "your soul is in no way in jeopardy over what you and I do. What happens in hell stays in hell."
"Great," I said and skimmed the hundreds of lines of legalese.
"Would you like a lawyer present? We have plenty down here."
I scoffed. "As if I trust any of the attorneys in hell."
"Whether they're here yet or not, this is their ultimate getaway." He smiled, and his tail flicked against the bed sheets.
"No, thanks," I said. "I can read for myself."
I reviewed every page, my gaze darting up occasionally to gauge the Devil's reaction. He grinned at me each time I looked at him, which only added to my unease.
"As you can see," he said, "this is no Rosemary's Baby deal - which never happened by the way. If you get pregnant in the next six weeks, I promise I have nothing to do with it."
I examined the fine print. He was right. The "No Pregnancy" clause was delineated clearly in five separate sections.
"So this truly is no-strings-attached sex?"
"Sure is," he said. "A good time, and nothing else. You know, except -"
My eyes narrowed. "Except what?"
"Maybe I could call you sometime. Not in an official contractual way or anything. Just to say hi."
"That's the last thing I need," I said. "The Devil sniffing around my place of employment or my apartment building. You'll get me fired and evicted."
"You're right," he said and nodded. "Sex. Nothing else."
"Good," I said before cutting open my finger and dripping on the dotted line.
The Devil took the contract and held it in the air. He chanted something in Latin, and all ten pages vanished.
"Are you ready?" he asked.
I inhaled, realizing I had stalled for as long as I could. "Sure," I said and reclined on the bed.
His eyes wide, he watched me for a moment. "Would you prefer if I looked like something else?" He transformed into my husband. "This perhaps?"
"No, that's really weird," I said and shielded my face. "The way you were is fine."
With a quick ripple of light, he retreated to his former self. His tail tapping against the floor, he moved toward me, but with my arms taut, I held him at bay.
"Maybe we can dim the lights first," I said.
"Alright." He snapped his fingers, and the room went completely black. Completely black except for the dozens of red eyes peering at us through the gloom.
"What's wrong?" Another crack of his fingers, and the lights returned.
"What were those red eyes? They were everywhere!"
He shrugged. "Wayward souls. Common as dust mites down here."
The exit on the other side of the room looked extra enticing, but I remembered Frank's pleading blue gaze.
"Let's just leave the lights on," I said.
The Devil drifted toward me and kissed my neck, though it was less a kiss and more slobber.
"You're so beautiful," he whispered.
I sighed again.
His hands fumbled with the back of my dress. "How does this thing work?"
"Really?" I stared at him. "You control millions of damned souls but you can't work a common zipper?"
"It's not the zipper," he said. "It's this weird little clasp at the top. What is that thing anyhow?"
"Here," I said and unhooked it.
He returned to salivating on my neck, then moved to my shoulders and back. I stymied my sighs since they were becoming so frequent, I feared I might hyperventilate.
But something else suddenly distracted me. Down the hallway came a strange braying. It was like that of a canine but deeper and with the oddest echo.
The Devil wrenched away from me. "Oh, no."
A beast the size of a small bear - or two bears or even three - galloped into the room and sprung onto the bed. It gawked at me with all six of its eyes.
I screamed and pinned myself against the headboard. A bad choice considering the goo situation. The Devil helped pry me from the black slime.
I plopped back onto the mattress. "Three-headed dog," I said as the creature sat between us. "Of course."
The goblin brigade scurried into the room, tittering some kind of arcane apology.
The Devil shifted to the end of the bed. "Could you please get Cerberus out of here?"
After thoroughly sniffing the area, the dog(s) licked my face, which given the trio of tongues, was something of a smelly waterfall. Still, their kissing technique was more debonair than their owner's.
"He, um, they are adorable," I said and patted each head.
Using a bone - one that bore a striking resemblance to a human femur - the goblins lured the dog(s) across the room and down the hallway.
"Where were we?" Sidling up beside me, the Devil put his hand on my cheek, but the canine slobber hadn't entirely dried, so his palm slipped to my ear.
We laughed and fell backward on the mattress.
"This isn't going so well, is it?" he asked.
"Maybe not the best," I said.
"If you don't want to do this -"
"It's not that," I said. "Well, it is that. I mean, I don't want to do this. But I'm here because I'm willing to."
"It's just -" I rubbed the slobber from my face. "It's just I've never been the type for casual sex. Not that I think there's anything terrible about it." I paused. "Unless it sends you to hell."
"It's overcrowded here as it is," he said. "If casual sex damned you, we'd need to buy real estate from upstairs, and they hate it when that happens."
The Devil ran his fingers through a few strands of my dark hair that had fallen across his shoulder. I sighed and wondered how disappointed Frank would be if I backpedaled on the deal.
"Let's try again," I said. "I agreed to this. Contract and all."
"Yeah," the Devil said, "but I won't hold you to that."
"Why not? It's signed in blood."
"Eh," he said. "Blood's not so binding. It's more symbolic. Like 'Oooh, you signed in blood. Oooh, I own you now.'"
"Even so," I said, "I want to keep my word."
I moved toward him, but before my lips met his, he grabbed a handful of my hair and pulled it.
Wailing, I jerked away from him. "What the hell was that?"
His jaw slack, he mumbled something before saying, "Well, I thought -"
"Thought what?" I smoothed my mussed hair.
"I heard Frank's new girl has been telling everyone how she loves when he yanks her hair. I figured maybe that was one of his major moves in the bedroom."
"Frank's new girl? Frank has a new girl?"
"Oops," the Devil said and bit his lip.
I pointed to the wall.
He sighed and brushed his arm through the air. The slot opened, and out popped Frank.
"Thanks so much, Celine," he said. "Thanks for everything."
Hands across his face, the Devil rested on the edge of the bed.
I took slow steps toward my husband's head, which I wished was disembodied. And by disembodied, I meant severed.
"So," I said. "You're dating someone new? Already?"
"Well, um, time passes different here," Frank said. "To you, it's only been a couple months. Down here, it's been centuries."
"Common misconception." The Devil glanced up, his tail swishing across the mattress. "Time's equal everywhere. I don't know who came up with that relative time crap, but it's not true. It's been nine weeks to you since Frank died. And it's been nine weeks here."
"Dude," Frank said, "you couldn't cover for me?"
"Um, no," the Devil said. "I punish people. Not enable them."
Frank scoffed. "You don't enable people? Then what's with the bottomless keg every weekend?"
The room flashed red again. "You dare defy me? Do you want your alcohol privileges stripped?"
I giggled as Frank stared at a patch of goo on the floor.
"So other than the red strobe lights, why exactly do you want to leave here?" I asked. "You've got a new girlfriend, granted one condemned to hell, so I wouldn't plan on too much monogamy. Then again, you never planned on that, did you?"
The Devil snickered. "Burn."
Frank whimpered. "I just - I just figured Heaven would be better."
"Why? So you could hook up with angels instead?" I looked at the Devil. "Why didn't you include 'new girlfriend' on his list of offenses?"
"I told you what got him condemned here," he said. "You didn't ask what he'd done since arriving."
"And now I don't care." I crossed my arms and popped my hip. "Deal's off."
Both men groaned.
"Please," the Devil said, his black eyes swirling with distant color. "Please reconsider."
"My mind's made up this time," I said. "I'm not going to be harangued into something like this over a man who screws my best friend, hates my sister, and finds a new girlfriend the first chance he gets."
"In my defense, your sister hated me first!"
"Who can blame her?" I said. "I wish I had her good judgment."
"But I thought things were going pretty okay between us," the Devil said.
"If by okay, you mean completely and hopelessly awkward."
"Yeah," the Devil said. "Like I said, it's been awhile. I'm always so busy with work, this whole art of seduction sort of eludes me."
"Maybe you should take tips from my ex-husband," I said. "He seems more than a little skilled in the seduction department."
Frank's head swiveled in the slot like a berserk windup toy. "Celine, please."
I turned my goo-covered back to him. "Make him disappear," I said.
The Devil waved his hand, and the wall closed with Frank caterwauling the whole time.
"Are you sure I can't change your mind?" the Devil asked once we were alone. Or mostly alone. Frank continued whining somewhere in hell.
"Listen, you're not so bad." I hesitated. "No, actually, you're really, really bad. But you're at least honest about it, which is better than certain people I know."
I glared at the wall, and from behind his invisible slot, Frank muttered something, but the brimstone muted the sentiment.
The Devil squinted at me. "So this is goodbye?"
"For tonight," I said. "But if you're game, I wouldn't mind getting a drink sometime. Just not here. I don't want him popping out at all moments, ruining everything."
"I can still hear you," Frank's muffled voice called.
The Devil beamed. "I know this fantastic bar right along the River Styx. Your GPS will never find it, but I could give you directions."
"Sounds great," I said, and he wrote everything out for me, using the most elegant calligraphy and aged papyrus and even sealing it all with wax. I hoped it was wax anyways. It could have been more of that weird goo.
"Just remember to turn left at the Elysium Fields and then go straight once you see the ATM machine. But don't talk to the guy with the boat. He's a real rapscallion."
"I think I can manage," I said. "How's next Saturday?"
"Saturday's perfect. There are no mandatory floggings on weekends, so I'll be available all evening."
"Saturday then," I said and smiled.
The blue smoke swirled around us, but before it transported me back to my apartment, I leaned in and kissed his cheek. With all the debris in the air, it was hard to tell, but I was almost sure he blushed again.
I decided to keep the dress. For sentimental reasons.