Making Deals with Devils

Everything feels like horseshit.

Everything.

I’m adrift in an ocean of horseshit.

Turn on the news? Horseshit. Listen to people talking in restaurants? Horseshit. I called up my brother the other day. We both saw action overseas. If anyone could understand what I’ve been going through, he would. It was right there at the tip of my tongue. All the terrible stuff I’d been through. You know what we wound up talking about instead?

The fucking weather.

What kind of horseshit is that?

I’ve been trying to find a way to talk about it for six months. I got drunk. That was easy. Didn’t work, of course. I even took some of Nana Zebula’s mushrooms and videotaped myself. Didn’t work, though it did scare the hell out of me. Nothing I could do to my brain made it any easier to talk about. I gave up on talking altogether when I found myself trying to yodel what had happened and I started laughing so hard I thought I’d go nuts.

There’s other ways to communicate than talking.

Morse code didn’t work. Neither did braille or sign language. I got to wondering if I maybe sort of accidentally did flag semaphore near a naval base without intending for anybody to see it, if that might work. As soon as I felt that someone was watching the flags kept slipping out of my fingers.

I can write it, a bit: Them.

That’s the most I can write: Them them them.

I saw one of THEM six months ago. I feel like I’ll give myself a seizure if I say more. Nana Zebula said her sister didn’t give up trying to speak and one day they found her in bed with blood gushing out of her ears and she never woke up.

I can talk about not being able to talk about it just fine.

If I try to say more my whole throat sort of seizes up or I think I’m saying something and it turns out I’m saying something else. I hate the idea that the words I end up speaking come from them. It’s like they’re back and fucking with me all over again. It’s easy to see why they have been able to stay hidden for so long. You can’t fucking talk about them.

Maybe I found a trick though. I’m going to give it a shot and see. Every contract, even magical ones, have got to have a loophole.

I’m going to write about what I saw six months ago. But maybe it’s just a story. Maybe it’s not. If I say that, then I think I can write it. Maybe this is all just a story. Maybe it’s not. Maybe this is real and dangerous and you need to prepare.

I’m so tired of living with this that I want to puke it out of me so that the rest of my life doesn’t feel like horseshit anymore.

But who cares?

Lots of people say they care about a lot of shit but I always get the feeling if you hooked them up to a lie detector and asked “do you actually give a fuck?” that try as they might they couldn’t stop those tiny needles from doing a spider dance.

No one cares about devils.

Not until they’ve seen one.

 

*****

 

“You shooting slicker than shit like always, Abby!”

I set the rifle back across my lap, trying not to preen too much that I’d barely even had to line up the sights. Target must’ve been a good fifty yards out. I hadn’t held a gun since the shrapnel got put in my hip but my fingers still knew what to do.

“Rusty, you could charm a swamp water witch into a fairytale princess!” I laughed.

Rusty and I had been shooting bottles since his aunt had guilted us about killing the nutria in the bog behind her house. She did that every summer, when all creatures under the sun were creations of God. Every winter, when the creations of God started crawling into her house, she’d change her mind and declare them rat-devils. Then Rusty and me’d go back to sipping beers on the porch with our rifles on our laps waiting for something to stir in the muck.

“They should have kept you on. Doesn’t matter about your leg. Nobody on this mountain shoot like you.”

I coughed and nodded, sipped my beer, and looked away.

“Shut up and shoot, Rusty. You can’t walk in that muck any better than I can if I win and you have to set new targets.”

He shut up and took his time lining up a shot. An empty Corona blasted apart. The glass sounded like the tinkling of wind chimes through my earplugs.

Rusty was a good guy. Poor and everyone but me said he was stupid as fuck, but a good guy. We’d known each other since grade-school. I’d been a rich kid and he was that kid that came to school every day in matching sweat pants and sweat shirts. Once, I swear he had the same piece of pepperoni stuck to his back for a month.

In second grade, my mom twisted my arm and I invited him to my birthday party. People cold-shouldered him so he wandered off after a spell. I found him in the kitchen by himself. You know what that goofy fuck was eating? Cinnamon Toast Crunch in Ranch Dressing. I shit you not. I about puked, but he kept chomping it down. Even sort of grumbled in contentment. He was the kind of thin you don’t get to be by exercising, if you take my meaning.

I’d sat down across from him, amazed. Maybe it was because of the influence of my grandma, ol’ Zebula, but I’d never been like the other rich kids. I liked spectacle and movement and difference. I liked knowing there were parts of the world I hadn’t never seen before. And I’d never seen a body eat Cinnamon Toast Crunch in Ranch Dressing.

I wanted to know what he’d eat next.

Herring and blueberries with ketchup? Yep. Tuna and whipped cream? Not a problem. He told me that peanut butter, pickle and mayonnaise sandwiches weren’t half bad, and I’d gasped when he dared me to eat one. I took a bite. It wasn’t bad at all.

We laughed.

The other guests heard and came in. They laughed too. But they weren’t laughing with Rusty, they were laughing at him. I’d hated that. Pretty soon they started putting things in front of him and calling him names when he said he was full and it weren’t fun at all no more. I hadn’t meant to be cruel. I’d been amazed by that boy.

The next day, when Rusty came to my house with a couple pistols and asked if I wanted to help clear his aunt’s field, I decided even if he couldn’t tell his letters from numbers, he could tell someone laughing with him from someone laughing at him, and that was the kind of mind almost nobody had.

We’d spent damn near every day together after that until he hadn’t been able to pass the basic skill tests to join the army. He couldn’t read much at all and had no head for numbers but he was only stupid in those very particular senses. He’d wished me well when I got on the bus to leave for boot camp and he’d picked me up from the airport when I got back. Some of the smartest folks I know wouldn’t have had the mind to do that.

“Let’s see if I can’t put a slug through that can out there in the crook of that tree. No scope.”

He snorted.

“That’s got to be a hundred and twenty yards.”

Half of the fun of the game was drunkenly stumbling through his aunt’s bog setting up targets. I’d promised myself when I got back home I’d do that again. I took aim, found my calm center and squeezed the trigger.

I felt my leg spasm.

“You hear there’s going to be a knife show coming through town?”

I’d missed.

I tried not to be offended that Rusty wasn’t trying to offend me, or when Rusty handed me another beer from the ice chest just outside of my reach. He’d been doing all kinds of little things like that. Trying not to let me let on.

“Anyone told ol’ Zebula yet?”

He missed his next shot.

I think he did it on purpose.

Couldn’t do his timetables. Couldn’t tell you much about history. But he had heart enough for a hundred men.

“Nah, I only heard this morning. Ain’t no one had time to go up there and tell her, probably.”

In the end the contest was a draw, which meant we went out in the field together. Rusty knew, I think, that leaving me be in my chair while he set targets would have been the worst thing he could do. So we went out into the field together to set new targets and we both fell on our asses and laughed.

And when we laughed my leg didn’t hurt so bad.

He was only dumb in book ways.

I miss him so goddamn much.

 

*****

 

Ol’ Zebula wasn’t exactly a witch but she also wasn’t exactly like everybody else. She believed in the Almighty and would slap your mouth if you suggested otherwise. But she also wasn’t exactly adverse to a deck of Tarot Cards, lighting candles and all other manner of hexes and jinxes. Her cabin was about a mile further up the mountain than her nearest neighbor, and getting to her nearest neighbor required driving on dirt roads for at least twenty minutes. But there was a knife show. And ol’ Zebula was always to be told about knife shows.

No one knew why.

She was peculiar. I wish I’d thought to suspect. I had no way of knowing she was caught in the same predicament in which I’d later find myself.

Though half the population of West Virginia was likely to call her “Nana Zebula” she actually HAD given birth to my father. Though he didn’t like to acknowledge it much except on holidays. You can’t wear suits and practice the law if folks know your mother’s off somewhere rattling chicken bones around in a cup. She’d had fourteen children. Three of them were doctors. Five of them were lawyers. One was an archaeologist and the rest did stuff too crazy to believe.

“Child!” Zebula said, answering the door. We hadn’t seen each other for three years, “You look hungry!”

She hugged me and ruffled my hair and asked after my health. All the while putting her finger in my mouth to better examine my teeth and plucking out a few strands of my hair. It was only a part of her being her.

As always, Rusty stood by the door looking at his feet and only said, “Ma’am.”

I allowed that I was fine as a body could be when deprived of her cooking and if she had any fresh pies I’d be happy to tuck them away for her.

She laughed at this.

There were definitely trepidations to Zebula’s kitchen. While Rusty had lost none of his appetite and didn’t mind eating the occasional opossum pot pie, I’d grown accustomed to MRE’s and more conventional fare in the last three years. While the woman could cook up a mean pie, and no one with a tongue in their head would dispute it, I was in a minority of people not generally willing to brave meats of unknown age and origin to achieve such sweet deserts.

“There’s a knife show in town, Zebula.”

We heard plates drop and clatter in the kitchen. Luckily nothing broke, because all of Zebula’s plates were microwavable plastic affairs with the faces of presidents on them.

I sighed.

If my mom’s mother had lived close, or for that matter been alive, I’d be having a much more conventional conversation about my experiences overseas and what I’d seen and what my plans were. But with Zebula you sort of had to deal with her eccentricities up front or else she’d stay sore with you for months.

“Where at? When?” she asked, coming out of her kitchen. She had a hex bag clutched in her bony old hands. Probably full of tobacco and lizard bones. I’d opened one up when I was a kid and it still made my stomach turn to think about it.

I looked to Rusty.

“Tomorrow at the church, around noon I think.”

He still wouldn’t make eye-contact with ol’ Zebula. Most folks thought she was a haint. Seeing what I’ve seen, I don’t know that they were far off. I also wonder now if maybe Rusty had a notion of what had driven Zebula batty.

“Big companies? Gerber? United Cutlery?”

“No, seems more like an independently run thing.”

I got a bit of multiculturalism in the army. Or least enough to know that not everyone takes the same things for granted. For those of you who don’t know, a knife show is like… a bunch of people get a bunch of knives and put them on tables, basically. You walk around and you can buy one if you want. When I was twelve, I’d gone to a Knife Show and bought a sixteen inch Bowie knife in a leather sheath with a picture of a deer on it for fifteen dollars while Lee Greenwood was singing “God Bless the USA” on the church speakers. The seller hooked me when he explained that I was getting more than an inch of knife for my dollar, although the damned thing broke a week later.

It’s a normal thing if you live in West Virginia, okay?

“You’ll drive me tomorrow. I must prepare my things. Rusty, I have some pickled hog’s knuckles for you. It’s getting late, sleep here.”

Rusty and I helped ourselves to Zebulas foodstuffs. She didn’t have a refrigerator, although my father kept trying to buy her one, so she had a tendency to have a lot of things that needed eating up. Zebula hadn’t ever had a regular job, so far as I know, so she traded in favors and food and she always had plenty of both held in reserve. Seeing as how I was her grandchild I got my fair share of each. An opportunity like this where you could pick and choose without her forcing some kind of snapping turtle something or other on you was a sacred event.

Rusty heated up something that looked like a a bucketful of snot in the oven. Zebula had given in and let my father buy her one of those when she got too old to split wood for her Franklin stove. I took a jarful of snickerdoodles and some pie.

“At least she didn’t ask about your leg,” said Rusty.

We’d been concerned on the drive over that she’d make me strip in her living room and say chants over me.

“I think my mom may have come out and let her know she wasn’t supposed to talk about it.”

Rusty spooned what I’m pretty sure may have been part of an eyeball into his mouth and nodded.

“That’s right. It’s not something to be talked about. Much better to leave it inside making a mummock in your head. Show your tough.”

His sarcasm wasn’t hard to catch.

“Another few days, I think. But you won’t tell no one. You understand?”

Rusty nodded, grumbling in contentment with his stew the same way he’d done all those years ago.

I’d been home three days and that was as close as Rusty had come to asking me about what put the shrapnel in my hip even though I’d promised him I’d tell. My leg started to spasm but I ignored it. The same way I ignored how it flared up and twitched when I walked so I wouldn’t have to use a cane. Denial is a powerful thing. Not as powerful as what devils do to shut people up about them, but powerful just the same. Strong enough that I can force out this next part without my head hurting. It’s all just a story. It’s all made up.

Or maybe it isn’t.

Maybe you need to keep your eyes open and look out.

When I went to say goodnight to Nana Zebula she was reading out of one of her diaries. Up top there were three lines with bigger writing than the the lines below. They said “Little People, Haints, Boogers.”

I like calling them Boogers most.

Because a booger is something you can pick out and flick away.

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4 thoughts on “Making Deals with Devils

  1. I just got done listening to the narration of this story featured on the the No Sleep podcast episode that came out today. I just have to say, wow. This is a masterpiece. So compelling, and the morals that it argues for are heartwarming and glorious. Despite being a shot story, I still was enraptured by its setting and characters. Ultimately this has to be one of the best short horror stories that I have ever read.

  2. I heard your story on no sleep today and being from WV I was a little apprehensive at first. However, it was an excellent tale and I enjoyed the portrayals in the story. Are you from WV? BTW this is the first time I have ever left any kind of online comment but wanted you to know. Please write more!!

    1. Hey Steven! Glad you liked it! I’m from a place called Aberdeen, WA which is basically the Appalachias of the northwest. Have a few internet friends from WV so I know it’s not all like in the story, but I Worked in the sawmill during summers in between college with a guy from West Virginia and I loved the way he talked (he basically yodeled everything, which I know is not common in WV but he did and it was fantastic). Big man, bigger heart. Working on more stuff all the time!

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