Fiction: 25 Christmas Eves, part 4

This is the conclusion of the title story of '25 Christmas Eves'. Please note this only concludes the STORY, not the series: there will be more fiction tomorrow night, same Christmas channel, same Christmas time. If you missed parts 1, 2, and 3, you'll want to give those a read before proceeding.

By: Erin L. Snyder

PART 4
The following year was even better than the one before. Hector took a job in the video store just as business took off. He was promoted to manager soon after. And, even better, he met Laurie.

Laurie was one of their best customers. She came in almost daily to rent some old monster movie or science-fiction flick. She’d ask him questions about films he’d never heard of, and he found himself pretending he’d seen them, just so he’d have something to talk to her about. Then he found himself taking home movies as soon as she returned them. And then it was movies he thought she’d be interested in before she got to them.

Pretty soon, they were going to the movies once a week to catch old flicks at midnight showings in theaters Hector hadn’t known existed. Were they even dates? It was so informal, he wasn’t sure. After a few months had passed, he thought he was ready to make a move, but he never got his chance: she beat him to it, and then they were a couple.

“I really like her,” Hector explained to the devil. “A lot.”

The devil smiled. “It’s always discouraging to see you looking so upbeat,” he said pleasantly. “Discouraging, but... good,” he added with a wry smile. “I take it we won’t reach an agreement this year.”

“I don’t think so,” Hector said. “Guess I’ll see you next year.”

When the next Christmas Eve rolled along - the sixteenth they’d met up - the devil found Hector pacing around an empty parking lot blowing into his cupped hands to keep warm.

“Hector! Is everything alright?”

“Oh, hey! Yeah,” he laughed. “Actually, everything’s fantastic!”

The devil looked around. “Where are we? Gas station?”

“Place closed a few years ago. I wanted someplace no one would show up, you know. Remember Laurie? I told you about her last year? We moved in together six months ago. The apartment’s pretty small, and the walls are paper-thin.”

The devil nodded. “It sounds like everything’s going well.”

“It is,” Hector replied. “It really, really is. I... can I show you something?” He ran over to his parked car, opened the passenger-side door, and reached in. He flipped open the glove compartment and pulled out a small box. He removed the lid and showed the devil what was inside.

“Hector... she’ll love it.”

“I wish I could afford more, but I don’t think she’ll mind. You think she’ll say yes?”

“They almost always say yes,” the devil said.

“I’m going to give it to her tonight,” Hector said, closing the lid and returning it to the glove compartment. I thought about waiting until tomorrow, but I think this is better.

“Congratulations,” the devil said, with a grin.

“Thanks,” Hector said.

They talked about various things for a while: the growing video industry, ongoing diplomatic tensions between heaven and hell, politics, books they’d read, and complaints about traffic patterns, both Hector’s about the freeway and the devil’s from interdimensional shifting. Finally, the conversation petered off, and the devil said, “I should get going, but good luck tonight.”

“Thanks,” Hector said. “Sorry we never got around to discussing my soul.”

“Oh, think nothing of it! You’ve got bigger things on your mind this year. We’ll take it up again next time.”

“Yeah. I want to give it more thought. But I’ve been thinking I might want to do something for people. My life’s been so good, I kind of want to use it to give something back. I mean, if that’s even allowed.”

“Of course it’s allowed. It’s your soul: you can exchange it for whatever makes you happy. For a lot of people, that’s charity. I’d say, roughly ten percent of the spirits I buy are sold to benefit the less fortunate or the environment or a loved one. Just last week, I helped a lovely old lady trade her soul to ensure the survival of her church. Things like that aren’t unusual at all.”

“Oh,” Hector said, a little disappointed. “Well, I’ll give it some thought for next year.”

By the next year, Hector’s interest in philanthropy had evaporated. When the devil appeared, Hector was sitting in a small office, reading a magazine. “Hi!” Hector said, setting it down.

The devil looked around at the room. There were pictures on the wall - nothing expensive, but all framed - and there wasn’t an empty can of beer or soda in sight. He smiled and said, “I told you she’d say yes.”

Hector laughed and offered him a chair with an open back where his tail could hang unimpeded.

“Thank you,” the devil said, accepting the offer. “So, where is Laurie?”

“Party at her sister’s,” Hector said. “I told her I’d meet her later. I’ll get in trouble for being late, but at least it gives me an excuse to make our appointment.”

“I’m glad things are working out so well. Are you still at the video store?”

“Yeah. It’s going pretty well. I’m starting to think I could probably use a change, though. I could use more money with the baby on the way--”

“Baby?” the devil asked, surprised.

Hector grinned. “Laurie’s three months pregnant. It’s scary, but it just....” He stopped, looking for a word.

“It changes everything,” the devil said.

“Yeah. Everything. Do you have any kids?”

“Oh, no. Nothing like that. I’d have liked some, I think, but it’s... it’s different for us.”

“Sorry. I hadn’t meant to pry,” Hector said.

“Don’t give it a second’s thought,” the devil said. “I don’t mind talking about it. Everyone - human, demon, angel - has to make do with what we’re given and what we can get. I’m very happy, I think, all things considered. But, if I have a regret, it’s that I can’t have children.”

“It’s exciting,” Hector said. “I have no idea what to do. It’s so strange. I don’t know what kinds of diapers to get or where you even go to find out about diapers. Then there’s the name. Laurie wants to name him Marvin if he’s a boy, after this comic writer she likes. But I don’t want to do that to the kid. ‘Hector’ was bad enough - believe me. I’m thinking something simple. Steve, Mike: something like that.”

“I’m sure it will work out,” the devil said. “These things generally do.”

“Maybe you can help,” Hector said. “Like I said, I could use a better job.”

They negotiated for a while, but it was a path they’d been down before. Any job the devil could have traded him had some caveat: the hours would have kept him from his family, it was too tedious, or the pay just wasn’t quite good enough. So they parted as they had sixteen times before.

The scene in Hector’s office was mostly unchanged from the year before, save that it was a little messier. Hector, however, was very changed. His beard was trimmed back, and his hair was short. And there was one other difference - he wasn’t alone. Cradled in Hector’s arms was a sleeping baby.

“He’s beautiful,” the devil whispered, standing over Hector’s shoulder. “I assume Laurie’s resting, too.”

“She was exhausted. I told her I’d watch Stan tonight as an early Christmas present.” Hector’s voice was muted, too, and he rocked the baby as he spoke.

“Clever,” the devil said.

“I thought so,” Hector replied. “I look good, I can make our appointment, and it even gives me a chance to show him off.”

“You must be so proud,” the devil said.

“I really am. Between me and Laurie, I think everyone at the video store is sick to death of the pictures and stories. But I could care less: I’ve got about a dozen rolls of film, and I’m using up every one of them in the morning.”

The baby started to stir. Slowly he opened his eyes and looked at the devil. For a moment he lay still. Then he tilted his head, opened his mouth, and began crying.

“Oh. I’m sorry,” Hector said. “Really.” He lifted Stan up onto his shoulder, stood up, then started to move around, trying to lull him back to sleep.

“No. That’s all right,” the devil said. “I should get going. I don’t want to scare the boy.”

“I really am sorry,” Hector said.

“Nonsense. We’ll talk next year,” the devil said, before vanishing in his usual way. Stan stopped crying, instantly enchanted by the swirls of smoke and mist left in the devil’s stead. He giggled until the colors faded, then he began crying again.

The next few Christmas Eves were likewise uneventful. There was always something Hector wanted - the first year it was to own a house; the one after that, his own business - but he never seemed interested in closing the deal, even when the devil made a very generous offer to set him up with his own video store with the potential to spin out into a chain. Hector’s heart simply wasn’t in the negotiation, perhaps because he suspected he’d wind up with these things anyway - and with good reason: a promotion for him and a new job for Laurie put them in a house before Stan turned four- or perhaps because he was getting older and starting to think more about the future after the future.

But mostly it just seemed like life had given him new priorities. Most of the visits weren’t spent on tempting offers or bargains: they were monopolized by Hector’s stories. He never brought Stan with him again, of course, but Hector always brought out the photos. These weren’t “the year Hector wanted a new home” or “the year he wanted to be his own boss,” but rather the year Stan took his first step or spoke his first word.

The devil, to his credit, never pushed or rushed Hector. He seemed content to hear the stories and see the pictures. He still made offers (he’d have been remiss in his duties not to); in fact, he came as close as he ever had when he casually suggested Hector consider a college fund one year. That got the bargaining going, with Hector pulling out his calculator to check interest rates. Pretty soon, the pot was sweetened with promises of guaranteed admittance to certain schools. In fact, had the devil been able to promise Stanford, he’d have left with a signed parchment. But Stanford is a hard school to get in, and the devil’s counter-offers just weren’t good enough. It seemed a trivial detail, but it was enough to derail the discussion, at least for the time being. Nevertheless, it was real progress, and the devil left encouraged that this line might lead to a resolution. He’d return the next year, after brainstorming options to perhaps sweeten the pot a bit more.

That was the twenty-third Christmas Eve the devil met with Hector. He left him in his study, an expansive, clean room containing a typewriter, an oak desk, and a bulletin board where Hector had pinned a number of drawings Stan had given him over the years.

When he returned on the twenty-fourth year, he found a very different scene. Hector’s office was disheveled; papers everywhere, half-eaten plates of food were sitting on his desk, and the scent of alcohol was prevalent. Hector’s beard was a mess, and there were rings under his eyes. He was sitting almost completely still facing a second chair.

The devil sat in front of him. Hector barely recognized him. The devil paused. “What happened?” he asked softly.

Hector didn’t blink. “He’s... it....” his eyes began tearing up, then he bit his lower lip and locked his jaw. “If I offered you my soul,” he said, “could you bring my son back?”

The devil opened his mouth but didn’t say anything. Instead, he shut it a moment later, then grew stern. He closed his eyes and concentrated. A moment later, he opened his eyes, then placed a hand on Hector’s shoulder.

“I had to be sure,” he explained. “Listen to me, Hector. You’re in shock now, but you’ll understand later. I can’t bring your son to you, not in any capacity, because his soul is not in my power.”

Hector’s resolve faltered, and his head slumped to the table. He wasn’t exactly crying, but he was utterly drained, utterly empty.

The devil rose to his feet. Then he patted Hector on the back gently. “I am so sorry for your loss,” he said.

Hector didn’t notice him leave.

It was raining on the last Christmas Eve the devil came to visit Hector. It was a slow, heavy rain, the type that reverberates when droplets drum against the air conditioner, the type that permeates the air so nothing truly feels dry, even inside.

The devil appeared as he always did in Hector’s office. Hector had cleaned himself up: his beard was neater than it had ever been, and he was wearing a nice, button-up shirt with a vest. But he still seemed sad.

“Hi,” Hector said. “Glad you could make it.” He had a pair of glasses in front of him and a bottle of whiskey in his hand. He removed the cap and poured. He took one for himself and offered the other to the devil. “Sorry it’s not something more festive,” he said.

The devil looked him in the eye. “Ah. I think I see.” He accepted the glass and took a sip. Then he cleared his throat. “I’ve dealt with tens of thousands of men over the years. Maybe hundreds of thousands. You get a feel for things in that time. You can feel it after a time, when a deal’s about to close or when it’s going to fall through once and for all.”

I’m sorry,” Hector said. “It’s just... I’ve never really cared for my soul. I never really believed in heaven. I mean, is an eternity in clouds really better than in fire? I thought about that a lot after I met you.”

“You’re smarter than most who devote their lives to the subject,” the devil replied.

“But I do know... I know I want to see my son again.”

The devil smiled. “I know you do, Hector. I’m sorry we never reached an agreement, but I want you to know that I’ve enjoyed these meetings. Time well spent is never time lost, damn the business end of things.”

The devil extended a hand, which Hector shook. Both looked as though they might say something, but neither did for the longest time. Hector didn’t mention his marriage and whether he thought it would survive. The devil didn’t mention any other appointments. Neither said a thing about the weather or politics or movies or theology. They simply sat together and finished their drinks. Hector poured himself another and offered the devil a second, as well, but Satan declined.

“Thank you, but I really should be going.”

“You won’t be back next year, will you? I mean, we could keep meeting, just to talk.”

“I’m sorry, but I can’t. There are--” he cut himself off with a sigh and a smile. “I’m afraid I simply can’t,” he said instead. He stepped to the center of the room, then turned back. “Oh. Hector. Before I go, there is one thing. Beneath your tree, when you have a chance. No need to wait for morning.” He smiled one last time, and then he was gone.

Hector sipped his drink before leaving his study. In the living room, beneath the plastic Christmas tree Laurie had bought the year Stan was born, there was a long, thin box which hadn’t been there before. On the lid, he found a simple note. The penmanship was meticulous: “Think nothing of it - just a parting gift from an old friend.”

Inside was a pair of silver, fibreglass skis.

Comments

  1. Really excellent story. I do have one question, though. Is the ending supposed to be ambiguous?

    ReplyDelete
  2. I'm assuming you're asking if I was trying to imply that the gift closed some sort of verbal contract, thus making his soul the property of the Devil.

    The answer is no. The ending was intended to be straightforward, though it's really hard to convey that when you're writing a story about the Devil. I included the note on the gift (I'd rather have left it out) to try and point the reader away from that interpretation, but I know it's a hard sell. Everyone's always waiting to see how the Devil stacked the deck to win: in this case, he hadn't.

    Now, whether that was because he couldn't or he chose not to... that I wanted ambiguous.

    ReplyDelete
  3. That is certainly how it comes off, and it's way better without the ambiguity as to whether the Devil gets Hector's soul. The "parting gift" line does imply the Devil never expects to see Hector again. It probably wouldn't have bugged me if I wasn't me with my particular neroses. At some point near the end, I became worried that I wouldn't be able to love the story because it wouldn't have the happy ending that it wanted. Because obviously it was really about their friendship, and it would have felt like a cheap bait and switch. Still, I assume the possibility that the Devil is going to turn around and be evil is part of the story's complexity. In any case, this is kind of a masterpiece.

    ReplyDelete
  4. "Masterpiece." I like that.

    I don't think you're the only one who'd suspect a bait-and-switch here. Stories about the devil almost always end in one of two ways, and both involve a hidden strategy and a battle of wits or skill. If I'd have been reading this instead of writing it, I'd have been anticipating (and dreading) a twist like that, too.

    ReplyDelete

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