Fiction: 25 Christmas Eves, part 1

I'm sorry: did I give you the impression this series was entitled 25 Christmas Eves simply because it contained 25 stories about Christmas Eve? That's nowhere near confusing enough! In addition, it's also the title of the series's longest story, a sort of magical realism piece I'll be sharing over four nights.

By: Erin L. Snyder

PART 1
It would have been somewhat inaccurate to say that Hector Stewart did not want a red bicycle with silver handlebars for Christmas, but no less accurate than to say he did. Hector did want a bike eventually, but there was little rush, particularly since he wouldn’t have a chance to use it until spring. The fact he’d have no other opportunity to get a bicycle before then was little consolation, nor was the knowledge there’d be nothing he’d rather have when May finally came around. Because Hector was eight, and at eight May is as distant from December as college or retirement. It is a future beyond sight, beyond imagining.

What Hector wanted was a pair of skis. Sleek, incredible, nearly magic. Skis. He’d first come across the idea reading one of his brother’s comic books. A special agent had out-skied three Russian agents who were after him. The way he’d rounded corners, dodging between trees and slipping through panels had enchanted Hector. He’d become obsessed, taking books out of the library and asking his parents questions about the sport constantly.

But his parents mostly just seemed annoyed. And they’d begun slipping hints into conversation about bikes. Yes, four months earlier he’d complained constantly about the lack of a bike. How Josh, Nathan, Piper, Carl, Michael, Dave, Larry, the other Dave, Martin, Steven, and Alexander all had bikes (he wasn’t actually sure about Martin, but he found it extremely unlikely his parents would research the matter, so he’d included the name for added emphasis). But September had been a long time ago.

Unfortunately, he didn’t have a list of ski-owning friends to add weight to his argument. He’d asked around, and it turned out that none of his friends - not a one - owned a pair. His argument lacked gravity, and he was fairly certain it had fallen on deaf ears.

So, with what promised to be the most disappointing Christmas of his life looming, he knelt down to pray. “God,” he said. “I know you’ve got, like, hunger and disease, and I’m blessed to have a home and food and all. But there’s nothing I want as much as a pair of fibreglass skis. If there’s any way you could make this happen, I’ll never ask for anything for myself ever again. If you could give me a sign, I’ll be grateful forever.” Hector opened one eye and looked around.

Zilch.

He sighed and closed his eyes again. Then he clenched his hands together tighter. “Jesus. I know this is your birthday, but I really, really want those skis. If there’s any way you could make that happen, I swear I’ll do my best to follow the commandments.” Again, nothing.

Hector went down his mental list of archangels and saints, still with no results. He was ready to give up, when he had one more idea. There had to be other saints and angels whose names he didn’t know. So he focused once more and whispered, “Look. If anyone’s out there, the thing I want more than anything is a pair of skis. If there’s any way - any way at all - please, just send me a sign.

There was a muffled thumping sound inside Hector’s closet, and he jumped up, startled. He tiptoed over to the door and opened it carefully, half expecting a new pair of skis to fall on him.

Instead, he found the devil.

You may be wondering how Hector knew it was really the devil standing before him, as opposed to someone else with red skin, goat legs, and small horns extruding from his head. But if you’d ever stood in front of the Prince of Darkness yourself, you’d understand: you just know.

Hector’s mouth was dry. He’d never seen a demon before, let alone Lucifer himself. He was surprised to discover that he wasn’t really scared. It helped that the devil wasn’t all that threatening. Sure, he was larger than Hector, he leaned on a pitchfork, and his tail - which swished back and forth - had a barbed end that looked more than capable of skewering someone much larger than Hector, but he didn’t look upset or violent. In fact, he seemed to be taking such extraordinary care not to disrupt the inside of Hector’s closet, that Hector couldn’t fathom the devil hurting him. Also, he was dressed in a fanciful tuxedo, which made him seem even less imposing.

Nevertheless, Hector swallowed uneasily. “Hi,” he said, as nonchalantly as he could manage.

“Hello,” the devil said back, before clearing his throat. “It’s Hector, isn’t it?”

“That’s right,” Hector said.

“Ah. In that case, Hector, would it be all right if I came in? Or out, as the case may be. It’s stuffy in here.”

Hector stepped back, making room for the devil to step through. The two looked at each other silently. Hector finally asked, “Do you want to sit down?” He motioned to the chair that tucked under his desk.

“Yes, please,” the devil said at last. He hurried over, pulled it out and sat down. “Now then. This is usually awkward, so I’ll simply come out and ask. Do you know who I am?”

Hector nodded.

“Ah. Very good. Yes. Even so, I need to make this official. Rules and all. Hector Stewart, I am the devil. It’s my understanding that a few years of Catholic School have given you some understanding as far as to what that means, but please, if there’s anything you’d like clarified, do not hesitate to ask.” He paused, but Hector just stared back. “All right then. Let’s move on. Next manner of business. I’m required to inform you that you are in no physical danger, nor are you compelled to enter any kind of arrangement against your will. Any agreement is contingent on your free will, however once you’ve made such an agreement under said willpower, you must abide by it, providing the other party - in this case, me - delivers on their end of the bargain. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“I think so,” Hector said.

“Good. In that case, we can proceed. I understand you’re interested in obtaining an object, a pair of skis, and have not been satisfied with other avenues of obtaining them. Is that true?”

“Yes,” Hector said.

“Would you like me to get them for you?”

At this point, Hector had to stop himself from nodding. It was true he wanted the skis, but he’d paid enough attention in Sunday School to know he was treading dangerous terrain. “For what?” he asked.

The devil bit his lip. “It would be for your soul, Hector.”

“Oh,” Hector replied, thinking. He really wanted the skis, and he was relatively sure that whatever consequences arose from selling his soul to the devil wouldn’t come to pass for a long, long time. But somewhere in the back of his mind, he imagined lakes of fire and blood; monsters and torment unending. “No. No, I don’t think so.”

The devil scratched his goatee. “I can see your point. Market value and all. You’re right, a soul’s value does exceed that of most any pair of skis. I’ll throw in something extra: I can increase muscle mass in your legs and arms, as well as lung capacity by fifteen percent. It won’t make you Olympic class, but it would give you a strong edge getting started.”

“I’m sorry,” Hector said. “I just... I don’t think my mom would want me to.”

The devil chuckled. “I can certainly understand that.” He stood up and stretched his legs. “I should be going then. Quite a few other people to see. Unless... is there something else you might want? Either instead of or in addition to the skis. Some toys, perhaps?”

The situation was unlike anything Hector had ever confronted. “I... I don’t know,” he said. He felt there ought to be, but his mind was an utter blank.

“Unfortunately, I do have to be going,” the devil said. Suddenly, his face lit up, and he snapped his fingers. “I’ve got it, Hector. Why don’t I come back next year. By then you’ll have had a chance to think the matter over, and we can renegotiate. What do you say?”

“Okay,” Hector said.

“Next year, then,” the devil said, vanishing in smoke and mist.

Over the next year, Hector prepared two Christmas lists. One was a list given to his parents, containing a number of books, desired toys, and even some records he had little chance of receiving (“There’s something about these new... musicians,” his mother would say, concerned). He’d thrown that together mostly for show, however, and had little investment in its contents.

He’d also prepared a second list, one that no one had seen. He’d come up with several ideas, most of which he’d wound up crossing out. Among the items that had been on the list but were now partially obstructed by scribbles were:

A rocket ship.
A live dinosaur.
My own movie theater.
The city of Chicago.

Then, at the bottom, underlined and circled two times, he’d written, “a time machine.”

Hector sat quietly on his bed. Occasionally, he’d glance over at the clock, but it barely moved. Finally, the devil arrived in a coalescing pool of dark fog and darker energy. Hector was a little surprised he didn’t opt for the closet again, but it was their second encounter.

The devil looked around to regain his bearings. Then he said, “Hi Hector.”

“Oh. Hi,” Hector said.

“So,” the devil began. “Have you given any thought to what you might like?”

Hector nodded.

The devil smiled in a manner that was surprisingly non-threatening. “And what did you come up with?”

Hector held out the list, pointing to the only item left. The devil took it from him and looked at it for several seconds in quiet contemplation. “I see,” he said at last. “Hector... I’m sorry, but time machines don’t exist. Not really. That’s not something I can get for you.”

“Oh,” Hector said.

The devil perused the list, squinting to read the other items despite their obfuscation. “I actually might be able to get a dinosaur,” he offered.

“A brontosaurus?” Hector asked, someone energized.

“No. No, I don’t think there are any of those left. Besides, that would be... too obvious. It would have to be a small dinosaur. I don’t think they’ve discovered and named it yet. I’ve always just called them rat-chickens. They’re about yay tall, with tooth-filled beaks and.... I don’t suppose that’s something you’d be all that interested in negotiating for.”

Hector shook his head.

“I can’t help but feel somewhat responsible for this predicament,” the devil said. “I should really have been more specific. I can do a lot, but there are limitations. I can’t make something that doesn’t exist suddenly start. Also, it needs to be something that... I don’t know how else to put this... something that I can get to you. I mean, I can’t just have a rocket ship land on your front lawn. People would ask too many questions, and someone would take it away from you. You see what I’m saying?”

“I understand,” Hector said.

“Can you think of anything else you might like.”

Hector considered his options, but his mind was blank. The truth was, he’d really had his heart set on getting his own time machine.

“I see,” the devil said. “Maybe we can pick this up again next Christmas Eve. Would that be all right?”

“Okay,” Hector said, as the devil vanished just as he had the year before.

“I’m not sure if you can do this,” Hector - now ten - said to the devil on the third Christmas Eve they met. “I mean, I know you can’t do things that don’t exist, but... a lot of people say you don’t exist.” He took a breath, somewhat afraid the devil would laugh at him. “Are genies real?” he blurted out.

The devil did not laugh. Instead, he answered frankly, “No, I’m afraid they aren’t.”

“Hmmm. What about, you know, wishes? Could you give me three wishes for my soul?” Hector asked.

“I suppose that gets complicated. In a sense, whatever we agree upon will be a wish. Or even multiple wishes. But we need to agree on what those wishes are beforehand, because there are limitations on what wishes I can fulfill. And also because otherwise you could always just ask for your soul back as the third wish, and I’d be left high and dry.”

Hector nodded, biting his tongue. As a matter of fact, getting his soul back would have been his third wish. His plans had been somewhat railroaded now. Once again, they failed to reach a consensus and postponed negotiations.

The next year, when he was eleven, Hector had his heart set on owning his own pet dragon. He actually debated the issue when the devil informed him they didn’t exist: they are, after all, mentioned in the Bible. This lead to a philosophical discussion about the nature of truth that went a bit over Hector’s head. But the upshot was no dragon for Hector and no soul for the devil.

By year five, Hector had grown up somewhat. The importance of “now” had faded, and the question of what he’d one day become had taken on new importance. And what twelve-year-old Hector wanted to be was an astronaut. The devil was excited, of course - that was certainly something he could work with. But then came the fine print.

“I want to be the first man on Mars.”

The devil didn’t veto that out of hand. In fact, he said something he hadn’t done before: “I’m going to have to check on some things first. Could you give me an hour?”

Hector agreed, and the devil vanished. The expression on his face when he reappeared made it abundantly clear that the news wasn’t good.

“Sorry. I had my analysts run the numbers, and there’s no way I can promise that. It’s extremely unlikely anyone will travel to Mars in less than fifty years. We can make you an astronaut, but... I’m not sure we can even guarantee you a trip to the moon the way things are going. You’d be able to spacewalk, but....” He trailed off when he saw the look on the child’s face.

Hector was devastated. While this was hardly the first Christmas Eve he’d met with disappointment, it was the first time he’d gotten his hopes up this high. Even so, he remembered to politely thank the devil and agree to meet the next year.

The sixth Christmas Eve they crossed paths, Hector was starting to think more seriously about his future and the rare opportunity these meetings were presenting him with. He had finally learned something about himself: he was fickle. It baffled him that he’d failed to figure this out sooner, but at least he got it now. If he’d received a dinosaur on year two, would he really still want it? He no longer wanted to be an skier or an astronaut, either. Whatever he wanted now - whatever his true heart’s desire was - why should he think it would still matter to him by next Christmas Eve, let along for the rest of his life?

This didn’t cause him to dismiss the meeting as futile. On the contrary, he now saw the opportunity for what it really was: the chance to ensure whatever whims life brought to him, he’d be ready.

“Twenty million dollars,” Hector said, even before the devil had a chance to ask the question he was answering.

The devil burst out laughing. “Oh, Hector. I’m so sorry. I don’t mean to laugh at you. It’s just...” he held up his palm while he regained control. “Please, I’m actually impressed by your initiative and your enthusiasm. But I’m afraid that’s quite a bit more money than any soul’s actually worth.”

For his part, Hector was a little taken aback by the devil’s reaction. He’d been led to believe souls were priceless from what he’d heard in church. “Then how much is it worth?” he asked.

“Your soul, right now? About a hundred and fifty thousand dollars.”

“Is that all?” Hector asked.

“I suppose you are old enough we can start discussing the economics at play. You see, a soul’s value increases or decreases in value as time goes on. Most depreciate, in fact, as it becomes more and more likely a person, well... is going to wind up with me regardless. People who live exemplary lives can wind up with souls worth three or four hundred thousand by the time they mature, but that’s rare.”

Hector considered the amounts in question. A hundred and fifty thousand dollars was a lot of money. Probably enough he’d be able to survive on it for years, maybe even for the rest of his life. But he knew he couldn’t travel the world, buying whatever he wanted, without a lot more.

“I’ll be honest with you,” the devil said. “Most people who take the money don’t end up happy. Money’s something you might get on your own. Getting a talent or changing how people see you... that’s something only I can provide. It’s a more fruitful line of thought.”

“Next year?” Hector asked.

The devil smiled. “Next year,” he agreed, before vanishing.

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