Nicholai Conliff

The Devil and I     Short Story

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     The Devil and I disagree, at times.
     He'll show up for breakfast, with hideous dining suggestions.
     Thai food.
     I always comply, often begrudgingly.
     We used to watch baseball together. He's still an avid fan, and keeps me up-to-date on scores and averages about which I couldn't possibly care any less. He jokes about what the "A" in "Oakland A's" stands for:
     Anarchists. Astrophysicists. Alcoholics. Assassins. Arachnids. Adulterers. Amphibians.
     I joke that it stands for "Antichrists." He doesn't laugh.
     Neither of us knows what it's intended to be.
     He visits, in the wake of bone-chilling wind and the wailing of damned souls. It's pageantry--nothing more--I suppose to remind me that he is what he is.
     As if I might forget.
     "The Devil and I" has a nice ring to it. I'm old; I know my grammar well. To say that things are not all bad between the Devil and I, for instance, would be erroneous. He's the subject, I'm the object. It should be "The Devil and me." But it never is.
     Things are not all bad between the Devil and I. We agree on things, generally at times opposite the ones during which we disagree.
     We both genuinely suspected the world was going to end on Y2K. He bought one can of Spam and a six-pack of bottled waters. I drank the water, but the Spam is still kicking around in the cupboards.
     We don't like C.S. Lewis.
     A lifetime-long friendship has its trials and tribulations. A thirty-lifetime-long one has a few more. Things are calm these days; our last big fight was in the '50s of some forgotten century. 17th? 18th? Who knows.
     We attended a witch trial in Connecticut, and I guess my disaffection over the whole thing was offensive, because the Devil and I got into a big, throw-down argument. He didn't think the woman on trial was really a witch; I didn't care one way or another. Retrospectively, I guess, he would have known.
     Today we got together.
     It began when I was sitting in my apartment, as I'm wont to do, finishing a sketch assignment for my night school drawing class. I have a dingy little studio in New York City, and while there isn't much natural light to begin with, I can usually tell when the sun eclipses.
     Nobody else ever notices these astronomical anomalies.
     Nobody notices when the building starts to shake.
     Drawing hands in an earthquake--even one of his may-or-may-not-be-real earthquakes--isn't a skill I've yet developed. I tossed my sketchbook aside, grasped for my glass of milk, unsuccessfully, and watched it crash to the floor as my end table jittered across the room.
     With that, a once-terrifying-but-now-somewhat-trite voice boomed from the bowels of the underworld, up through the city streets, and into my ears. "Victor!"
     I waved my hands, mockingly, as I offered my rebuttal. "Mephistopheles."
     The ugly linoleum paneling on my floor erupted; through it was not broken masonry or the living room of my downstairs neighbor, but a fiery pit. Through it, my friend and eternal master appeared, in an expensive white suit smeared almost black with soot.
     "Dammit," I growled as I examined the gaping hole.
     "That's the idea!"
     He's far more amused by the fact that he's the Devil than, I think, anyone could ever possibly understand. I die--as best as I can--inside each time I unwittingly feed his addiction to puns.
     "What do you want?" I asked, hoping I could still salvage some of my Sunday. After all, I had to go look for a new apartment.
     "Eighty-five," he said. "Eighty-five new restaurants in the NYC metro area. I thought we could try them."
     There's little food left in the world that the Devil and I haven't sampled.
     "Irrelevant," he replied, the first time I brought it up, centuries ago. "Immaterial."
     These dining marathons would be far less irksome were it not for the vague, nebulous-religion-based conversion to veganism he underwent two hundred years ago. It's a tremendous pain to accommodate.
     Sixteen bowls of sprouts. Five baked potatoes--plain, no butter or cream. Some salads. White rice.
     We go somewhere without vegan options? Water. Does he check the menu before going through all the aggravation of getting a table? Yes. Does he make us eat there anyway? Yes.
     Restaurants eight and nineteen had already closed. Twenty-two was actually a pet-grooming salon.
     We were at number twenty-seven. We'd been at all this for days.
     "How is it?" I asked as he downed a spoonful of clam chowder. After restaurant twenty-five, you see, he declared that he was no longer vegan, putting to an end to two centuries of conviction.
     He is somewhat fickle.
     "Divine," he said, smiling.
     "Please," I begged. "The puns...."
     "You haven't touched your pancakes," he observed, interrupting me.
     "I'm really not hungry anymo--"
     "I'll have them!" He had already reached over the table before either of us finished our sentences.
     He chewed. "Not bad."
     "Look," I stressed the word, "I have class in half an hour. Can we do the rest of these later?"
     "Class? What for?" he asked.
     He wasn't really interested. I indulged him all the same.
     "Drawing. I told you last week."
     "You're terrible at drawing."
     "Your concepts of anatomy, shadows...." He shuddered.
     I stood to leave. "Thanks for the encouragement."
     He suddenly grew very concerned. "Where are you going?"
     "Class," I hissed. "I just told you."
     "But what for?"
     I rolled my eyes. I stormed off toward the door while he waited politely at the table with folded hands. He would, as he always did, present the waitress with a choice.
     "Would you like me to pay this bill?"
     The answer was usually one of affirmation, but from time-to-time, someone would humor the stranger's game. When that happened, he would continue, "What would you like instead?"
     They'd joke--ask for plain things like "a million dollars"--and their wish would wind up granted. If he thought the waitress was too attractive, their money would wind up in a safe at the bottom of the ocean. He'd give them coordinates, but I don't think anyone has ever gone looking. There are probably a hundred or so such safes out there these days. He also likes putting things in space, of course. There's a little cave on Mars with two Ferraris, somebody's resurrected mother, a whole lot of money, and a pony inside it.
     He's a philanthropist, and people are appallingly uncreative.
     Seven people have been gifted the ability to fly--miscellaneous superpowers--but they never think to try them out.
     I turned a corner, in search of a train, and ran right back into him.
     "Drawing," he said. "Seems like a waste of time."
     "I'm not strapped for time."
     "... Seems like a waste of time," he repeated.
     "So is eating out at a steakhouse when you're a vegan," I snapped back.
     "Who here is vegan?"
     I was tired of him. I continued walking. The sun was still eclipsed--it had been for days.
     Nobody had noticed.
     My class was uneventful. Uninformative. I was walking home in the rain, feeling no more capable than I had when I'd arrived there.
     The Devil and I have a few things in common; one of those things is a mutual inability to draw. Seventeen centuries is long enough to hone just about every hobby or craft one might pursue, but something about the medium still eludes us both. Some people just don't have an aptitude for it; even our stick figures are crude.
     I had hardly gone two blocks before my friend caught up with me.
     "Learn anything?" he asked.
     I didn't have to look at him. "Something about peanut-shapes," I said. "I've evidently been drawing stick figures incorr--"
     "Would you like me to pay for these?" I heard him say to someone. I turned around; he had stopped at a street vendor and was buying a bag of roasted chestnuts.
     "Two dollars," the vendor replied in a thick Indian accent.
     My friend's eyes narrowed. He fished around in his pocket before looking over to me, helplessly. "Can you get this?"
     I grumbled and produced my wallet, which contained exactly two dollars which hadn't been there previously. I also had three driver licenses for three personas since 1913. I don't have any credit cards--I don't like being in debt.
     With the transaction completed, we hurried onward and started across a busy street.
     "How can you still be hungry?" I asked. It was rhetorical at this point.
     "You were talking about peanuts," he remarked as he popped a chestnut into his mouth.
     And then I stopped dead. In the middle of the street.
     He had almost reached the sidewalk before noticing that I had been left behind. He was about to place another chestnut into his mouth, but hesitated, genuinely concerned. "What's the matter?"
     I was looking him in the eyes as we stood there in the rain. Headlights were shining harshly against us, and passing umbrellas threatened to scratch our faces. I was paralyzed by a memory from a past too distant to be called my own. It had crawled, for no reason I could say, to the fore of my mind.
     I was unsure of whether I should feel grief, excitement, or nothing.
     "I remember," I said.
     What I remembered had been a matter of no small significance about a thousand years ago.
     To preface, I must go back a little further--a few more centuries before that--to when I was around four-hundred years of age. It was around that time that I had fallen into a noteworthy depression and was increasingly at odds with immortality. In the early days, we wandered the world, indulging in whatever pleasures we could find. One of the first--and still most glorious--treats I remember him offering was a goblet of white fluid.
     "Drink it," he commanded.
     I must have done as I was told. I usually did. I also must have made my approval of the beverage evident; he went on to explain that it was cow's milk, tempered by the process of homogenization, and chilled. It was a futuristic concoction. It was good.
     While it was a pretty decent life, I began to notice that most of what we did involved alcohol, women, or--when those things got tired out--milk and men. There are only so many activities in life--only so many sins to commit.
     It got old. Then it got older.
     Chilled, homogenized cow's milk lost its appeal.
     My decline began.
     In any case, it was around the turn of the millennium--about three hundred years later. The Devil and I lived in a little place called Moravia which had recently been absorbed or annexed or otherwise conquered by some Polish Duke. To clarify: my friend didn't live with me, he just visited. Frequently.
     I spent most of my time throwing myself off bridges and trying to behead myself in desperate hopes of ending it all. My friend was busy back then--it was the 11th century, after all--and although I would sometimes go decades without running into him, he would always watch with perturbed fascination as I tortured myself.
     "Czeslaw," he said to me as I sat on the floor, heart in hand, grinding the organ to bits with a dirty blacksmith's hammer. "You've tried this before."
     Ignoring a man is one thing; ignoring a twelve-foot-tall, winged, red-skinned, horned, fire-breathing demon with the unmistakable scent of pure evil hanging in the air about him is something else. I tried my best at both that and suicide. Failed. I resigned myself--at least for a few more hours--to the idea of living forever.
     "Why not take a vacation?" he asked. "Go see something new."
     Getting my heart out of my chest in the first place had been cumbersome and startlingly brutal; speaking seemed to be an art that was temporarily lost on me. Either way, I probably wasn't in the mood.
     "Come on," he insisted, taking my hand and pulling me out the door of my shack.
     A terrible blunder.
     It was the middle of a busy afternoon. Monotheism was a growing trend, and the Moravian villagers had just happened across Christianity. Without that discovery, though, they might still have been rubbed the wrong way by the sight of a twelve-foot-tall, winged, red-skinned, horned, smelly, fire-breathing demon.
     "Curses," he shouted as he realized his mistake from the terrified screams around us.
     I was feeling light-headed, so I sat down. I fell asleep--or unconscious.
     Unfortunately, I awoke. Slightly less unfortunately, but still pretty unfortunately, my two seconds of hand-holding with Beelzebub had catapulted me to notoriety. I was imprisoned by the local despot, and in his efficiency, he'd been performing exorcisms and various death-inducing acts upon me even before I had woken up. It was proof I was cavorting with beasts from the underworld.
     He was right.
     Then came the botched beheadings and bungled bludgeoning.
     Soon after, I was revered as a God.
     Soon after, I was less-revered.
     Soon after, they had gone back to not even liking me.
     I outlived--as I was wont to do--the attention spans of the villagers, and ages passed as my body swung by the neck from a tree. My only intermittent companion was a portly executioner who had served previously as the town baker. He checked on me every now and then to see how my dying was going.
     I was pretty out of it. Hardly noticed when a tall shadow engulfed us from behind.
     I fell to the dirt, free.
     The Devil and I made a hasty escape. We came to a stop on a knoll. He was always gentle--always oblivious--and rarely in-touch with others' feelings, but even he seemed to have some empathy in the face of my sorry state.
     "Are you okay?" he asked as though there was a way I might be.
     "I want to die," I said. It was a phrase I'd uttered before; in fact, it was the only thing I'd said to him in forty years.
     "That's the only thing you've said to me for twenty years!" He was frustrated, and silence hung in the air between us until he finally whipped up some milk. Deviled milk, he called it. I wouldn't understand the reference until about eight hundred years later, and even then, it wasn't very clever.
     I ignored his offering. It might have been the first time I'd ever been so bold.
     "So," he grumbled. "You want to die." His tone was condescending, but it was the first time he'd ever paid even a moment's mind to the sentiment I'd been expressing for centuries. In doing so, he caught my attention, and he knew he had me.
     "Why?" he asked. "You can't be so naive as to think this is somehow my fault." He looked oddly uncomfortable, as though caught misbehaving--as though trying to save face--and sat down beside me.
     "We had a few good years together, right? Everything you wanted, right there and waiting for you...."
     This speech was standardized. It was one he gave me when I was behaving obstreperously or being otherwise generally insubordinate. What he gave me was a gift; the price of my soul was an amazing bargain for the decadent, worry-free lifestyle I'd received in exchange.
     "What did you ask for, again?" He paused. "What did you want?"
     He was taking a new direction with his talk. It was a stupid one. He was stupid. As absent-minded as we both could be at times, he was only challenging me--he knew as well as I did that I sold him my soul for--
     ... I had no idea why.
     "Tell you what," he began, standing up. He was preparing a bargain; I craved for and dreaded what his words might be. "Seven hundred years ago, you sold me your soul. Tell me why, and I'll let you go." He shrugged. "No frills, no excitement--you'll just shrivel up into dust or ashes and whatnot, and go off to wherever it is people go when they die."
     In my stunned silence, he handed the Deviled milk to me. I was dazed, but took it.
     I said nothing for a long, long time.
     He is characterized in a number of ways; almost always, however, my friend is regarded as a liar--a great deceiver--in whom no faith or trust should ever be placed. Oddly, I've only ever caught him in two lies: he once set fire to a wheat field in Sarmatia and didn't own up to it when the owner found us there, and in the early 1990's, he made up a story about beating cancer in an attempt to get on "Wheel of Fortune."
     Honesty has a knack for begetting evil.
     I didn't know the answer. I didn't know why.
     He was pleased--not by my predicament, but by the fact that I was talking to him again.
     "Give it time," he said. "Surely no one could forget something like that."
     "You can't do this to me...."
     "Hey." He took my hand and smiled. "I'm the Devil."
     He was living up to his name.
     I had an obsession. For years, it was all I was. I dug through memories as one might dust off ragged tomes. I thought every thought that one could think; read every book I could find to read.
     Nothing rang a bell.
     Moravia. Save. Pagania. Dioclea. Odra. Utkala. I had lived in countless realms, most of which no longer existed. I thought back through plagues, famines, wars, renaissances; the rise and falls of nations, the waxing and waning of faiths, the birth and death of Gods, princes, priests, poets and peasants.
     Tufan. China. Dvaravati. Kedaram. Tarumangara. The Malays. I scanned through eras and ages, periods and dynasties.
     Mohe. Baekje. Hayato. Kumaso.
     The 4th century. It's a blur now--it was a blur then. I exploited the perks of the Prince of Darkness' company, while he exploited the perks of an eternal slave in the mortal realm. The nature of his perks was elusive to me, but mine involved otherworldly decadence; luxuries befitting of God.
     The Devil and I met in 331 or 332 C.E.
     Eastern Roman Empire.
     What I know of that time comes not from my memory, but from historical texts and modern-day archaeology. I generally assume my life was unremarkable, and that I lived nowhere near the conveniences of advanced road systems or indoor plumbing.
     Immortality had preserved my body, such that I appeared to be in my late twenties--early thirties, maybe. A non-descript age; neither old nor young. I presume I was Christian; by that era, they had finished rounding up all the pagans, and I don't think I was rounded up.
     Family. I'm sure I had one at some point.
     Was I married? In love? How sorry would it be if I sold my soul for that?
     It seemed as though anything for which I might have offered up my soul would have been something with a lasting impact; something that I wouldn't just get bored with and forget after a few days or weeks or years. Then again, I may not have been well-educated, or I may have been impoverished. I may not have known any better. I may have been desperate. Did I sell my soul for a cow? Deviled milk?
     Had I had political motivations? Did I want the Roman Empire to crumble, as it eventually did?
     Was I just a total boor who wished for immortality? There'd be irony there, for sure.
     Did I wish to be able to draw?
     Health? Wealth? Flight? Ferraris? Resurrection of my dead mother? A pony? A cave on Mars?
     "This is wearing me out," my friend said, pulling me from a rambling trance.
     It was 1009 C.E.
     We had recently pushed into Bohmen, a part of eastern Francia. All I ever did was rattle off a list--anything I might think of--of possible reasons I sold my soul.
     "It's about the memory," he said, eventually. "You need to remember--not just guess."
     It didn't seem fair.
     "Satan," I pleaded like a fool. "Help me. Please...."
     He was busy starting a cooking fire--trying anyway. In his previous, fire-breathing incarnation, that would have been easy, but he had recently transformed into a large, black, one-eyed rabbit equipped with useless paws.
     "Why don't you help me?" he yelled, fumbling with a piece of flint.
     I was mad. So mad that I stood up, marched toward his fire pit, and kicked it, scattering his tinder and precise circle of stones.
     He was speechless.
     He looked up at me.
     I had been unwise.
     As my body burst into flames, he began barbequing over me a small rodent he had impaled on a stick. Right around the time I extinguished myself, he seemed content with his meal's cook-through. He calmed down a little as I lay panting in the dirt.
     I said nothing.
     He finished his dinner.
     "I'm sorry," he eventually offered as he appeared over me.
     I said nothing.
     "Are you sure that you've done everything you ever wanted?" He sat down beside me. "Here we are, sitting in a field, eating wild fruit and undercooked field mice ever since we left Moravia. Surely your mood suffers."
     I shut my eyes. Spoke in my own time.
     "I've had luxuries. They don't matter."
     "You don't miss those opulent days?" he asked.
     "I could have any life I want."
     "I suppose you could. Life--and ones feelings toward it--are often quite fickle. You should know that by now." He shrugged. "I'm as old as the moment I was dreamt into existence--older than cities or men or the hills on which they live."
     For some reason, I was listening.
     "And you don't see me moping around, lamenting my permanence," he added.
     I stopped listening. It was a crude thing of him to say.
     "I don't care about you," I replied.
     "Not at all?" He seemed intrigued.
     I was sick of him. Sick of his complacency. Sick of his attitude.
     "Get up," he commanded me.
     I didn't move.
     He noticed.
     He grabbed me by the collar with his big, black paw and dragged me off toward a nearby stream.
     "You're in for a lonely eternity without me, Henry." He drank, lapping up liters of water with a single flick of his thick, blackened tongue. "Do you feel lonely now that all those fourth century concubines we called friends and lovers are dead and buried in the past?"
     "You're not listening to me," I hissed.
     "Because you haven't been saying anything," he snapped back.
     "What would it matter?" I asked, boiling over with rage. "I don't remember, Lucifer, and I'm never going to remember. Why would anyone knowingly choose this kind of hell? I'd sell my soul just to be rid of you!"
     I wrestled from his grip, and feet splashing through the water, stormed off.
     "Where are you going?" he called after me.
     I said nothing.
     "... And to what end?"
     The Devil and I did not meet again for almost seven hundred years.
     I wandered. I found things to do. I avoided doing anything.
     Sporadic bouts of suicidal fury.
     Made friends. Lost friends. Lifelong lovers of whom I soon forgot the names.
     More plagues. More religions. More nations.
     The discovery of a new world in the west. The Devil and I had always presumed it was an endless sea.
     The natives were destroyed.
     More plagues. More religions. More nations.
     Nothing new to see. Just the same old things.
     I started learning how to draw. Spent a lifetime in study, in the company of masters, and failed. Wasted a lot of paper.
     Planted a forest in an act of contrition.
     Watched it grow.
     ... And missed my friend. Disgusted as I was to admit it, I secretly hoped he'd return.
     With each passing day, the likelihood dwindled that I'd ever recall the nature of our deal. The march of time ground memories deeper into the mud.
     It was subtle. Backward. Unpleasant.
     Life was lonelier without him.
     "You mean that?" a hopeful voice called out from behind me.
     I spun around. I had been alone, but behind me now--more or less occupying the whole of the small tavern in which I was seated--was a monstrous, pulpy, pus-oozing, skull-encrusted nightmare, staring down at me with a thousand rotting eyes.
     At first I was shocked--then annoyed. Annoyed that he read my mind, and annoyed that he'd come back.
     The tavern keeper vomited--then passed out.
     "What do you want?" I turned away.
     "For you to stop all this stubbornness." He leaned some part of his bulbous, festering form in close to me; perhaps it was a head, or perhaps it had no human analog.
     I had started with none, but still lost patience. I screamed, "What is wrong with you? What do you get out of all this?"
     He drew back.
     Examined me.
     "What do you mean?"
     "You know what I mean. You and I. Why show up now? Why this moment?"
     There was nothing special about the day. I had thought no less than a hundred times already that maybe, just maybe, I missed him. Those instances had gone ignored.
     "On what basis do make these awful decisions?" I demanded. "How can my misery possibly still amuse you after this much time?"
     He was quiet for a while.
     "Your misery?" he finally asked as though it had never occurred to him before--as though it was a shock.
     I just shook my head. He was hopeless.
     "Is that what I do? Make you miserable?" He sounded hurt--almost devastated. "People's opinions just get harsher and harsher. The books and lore chronicle an ever more wicked evil. Everyone dreams of a malevolent beast who tortures and toys with souls for amusement." He looked at the tavern keeper, awake, but huddled and bawling in the corner. "Right?"
     "Leave him alone," I said. The tavern keeper and I had been acquaintances for maybe fifteen years or so.
     "What now?" my friend asked. "Have I become some nemesis from which you must defend the townspeople?" He paused. "What do you call yourself these days?"
     "Go away," I said.
     "Terrible name. I'll call you Benjamin," he replied. "Ben, I'm sorry things have gone as they have...."
     I stood. I didn't believe him.
     I left.
     "Ben," he called after me. "I likely would have come sooner...."
     I was well on my way down the road before the sound of cracking wood came from behind me. The tavern disintegrated as my friend attempted to move and follow me through the door. He had a few scaly little legs, but he wasn't walking so much as slithering after me.
     "I spent about two hundred years as an amorphous, ethereal mist. Another century as this hideous little horned hobgoblin--you would have laughed at the sight."
     He reached out a withered appendage from which dry flesh crumbled.
     He took my shoulder.
     "I'm trying," he said. "I really am. I'm trying to give you the time you need--with me, away from me...."
     I stopped. I didn't really want to, but I did.
     "I'm doing my best," he added, pathetically.
     I turned to him. He was wearing the remnants of the tavern, and somewhere in his thousands of eyes was a hint of genuine heartbreak.
     "I don't mean to be this way," he said.
     All around us, people were starting to stare from windows, doors and alleys. It was one of his least-anthropomorphic forms to date, and yet he ignored the watching eyes. He didn't care if they saw.
     He reached out another inhuman appendage. "Here." He offered me a glass of Deviled milk.
     "What makes you think you can buy me like this?" I grumbled at him.
     He had no face with which to smile, but still somehow seemed to be. "Well, you know--I bought you once before." He paused. "And I know better now than to ever buy from you again."
     "That's not funny," I said.
     It was a little funny.
     I took the glass.
     Years passed. His predictions came true. I indulged in royalty and riches.
     It was the early 1700's. The quality of most things had improved dramatically. The quality of women had, for sure.
     Men hadn't changed much.
     Drinks were better. Nothing like Deviled milk.
     I found philosophies--ideologies--that eased my fear and depression over immortality. Most religions conceded that the corporeal form was a transient one, and that life was a poor second to what might be in its wake--these were uninteresting to me. I knew, personally, a supernatural being, and yet had less reason than anyone on earth to prescribe to such beliefs.
     I could spin self-actualizing gibberish that soothed me, at times, but to think of myself in geological terms often undid any progress I'd made. What would happen to me when the earth was bare? Or when the sun went out? Perhaps I'd have gone mad by then. It seemed odd I hadn't yet.
     Maybe I had.
     "You know, don't you, Baphomet?" I asked my friend.
     "Know what?"
     "Why I chose this."
     An eyebrow rose. It was nice--for the first time in ages, he had eyebrows, and it afforded him a diverse selection of facial expressions that had been long since impossible.
     He was a sort of half-goat-man-thing.
     He hated it.
     "Call up the servants--they'll make something else. My potatoes are iffy anyway," he replied. "Did I tell you, by the way, that I'm going vegan? No more animal products--seems rude, being half of one myself so much of the time."
     "No," I corrected him. "I'm talking about, you know, that thing...."
     He was oblivious.
     "Immortality," I said.
     "You're not immortal," he said before taking another bite of his sub-par potatoes. "You just have to tell me why you sold me--oh, I get what you're asking...." He paused. "Of course I know why--how else would I know you haven't gotten it yet?"
     I hesitated.
     "It never happened it all," I said, suddenly. "This is all a joke. It never even happened. There's nothing to remember!"
     His mouth dropped. He looked stunned.
     It was a shot in the dark, but... had I actually guessed right?
     "No," he said then, smiling. "Nice try."
     I wondered now and then if he was manipulating my memory--suppressing it so as to keep me. It was probably within his nebulous abilities to do so. I called him out on this possibility. He dismissed it.
     "Do you really still think about that, Mary?"
     I had a girl's name. Figured I should try it out.
     "Of course I do, idiot."
     "You're not having a good time?"
     I leaned back in my chair. "There are good and bad days."
     "Life," he said, emphatically, before shoveling a fork-full of potatoes into his mouth. He chewed, absent-mindedly.
     For him, the conversation had ended.
     It had not for me.
     "Was it for a good reason?" I asked.
     "When I sold you my soul." I had to steer him back to the topic. "Was it for a good reason?"
     "That's subjective, wouldn't you say?"
     "What do you think?"
     "I thought it was a grand notion." He shrugged.
     I stared down at the food in front of us. The meal covering every inch of our ornate dining table was no doubt destined to be wasted, what with his proclamation of veganism. The whole thing had probably cost more than most people made in a lifetime back then.
     "You think everything is a grand notion--everything is a good idea to you," I grumbled.
     "What's so wrong with that?" He seemed to be scanning the table for something that suited his diet.
     "Did I do the right thing--I mean, really, from the perspective of a human being?" I asked. "I'm not like you, you know. I was something else once."
     He gave up his search. Ate more potatoes.
     "Would it matter what I said?" He paused. "You know we've had this conversation before--almost exactly. Years ago. I've tried both answers on you already."
     He was probably right. We probably had. We'd talked so much, I'm surprised we had anything at all to say anymore. What hope did I have of ever going back fourteen hundred years if I couldn't remember such recent events?
     I wasn't hungry. I was never hungry, but I was even less hungry now.
     He ate everything he could.
     Mostly potatoes.
     We used to hunt. His veganism put an end to that.
     We took up less violent sports.
     I was usually better than him.
     Later, we hired the most skilled, visionary painter of the era to instruct us in the art of figure-drawing. Both of us failed miserably in every attempt.
     We paid him. We monopolized him.
     He grew frustrated with our lack of growth.
     We'd pay him more.
     Eleven years of his life were spent this way. He produced nothing of his own in that time--wasted talents on the Devil and I (me. I know.)
     He was fabulously wealthy, but stricken with age. The years in which he might have made a name for himself were lost.
     He died unmarried. Without heirs to his fortune.
     Fewer plagues. Fewer--but louder--religions. More nations.
     Wars--with ever more distasteful beginnings.
     The new world resented "the crown."
     I had vague memories of before there was a "crown."
     A plague or two. Screaming religions. Stagnant nations.
     We moved to Connecticut.
     The local church--in affiliation with the local angry mob--had taken to ousting suspected witches now and then. It was a tired trend, and a practice we thought had died out, but these were old-fashioned people.
     They mostly picked on elderly crones--especially if they couldn't be accounted for on the night a goat ran away or a child caught the measles. If they had no religion, the wrong religion, or not enough of the right religion, that often was good enough too.
     I remembered before their religion existed.
     I met a woman, as happened now and then.
     Together for years.
     Then apart.
     She was a troublesome anomaly to the townspeople--a wealthy old woman who cavorted with two strangers who never went to church.
     The mob came for her. The Devil and I watched with little compassion. The mob had made as strong a case against her as they had anyone else.
     "You're going to sit back and watch this, William?" my friend challenged me.
     "I wasn't really watching," I said, turning the page of a book.
     "That woman was your monogamous whore for years."
     I said nothing.
     "And you don't care?"
     "Maybe she really is a witch," I replied.
     "When did you become so out-of-touch?" he asked.
     "If you're so worried," I countered, "why don't you go save her? Blow something up."
     "That's not the point," he hissed.
     I looked up from my book. "Maybe she wants to die."
     My irony was lost on him. He grumbled and left me, but I wasn't in the mood to read any longer.
     I wandered outside. Watched as my former lover stood, tied to a post, looking terrified--yet resigned--knowing death was near.
     She didn't know how good she had it.
     She should be so lucky.
     It sounded like something my friend would say. I was turning into him, and meanwhile, he was acting more and more like me.
     "What!" he gasped. He was next to me. He was privy to my thoughts. "How dare you drag me to your level. The only good there ever was in you was compassion--so much for that, huh? It's no wonder you don't have any friends."
     "All my friends are dead."
     "So make some new ones," he hissed before every house and tree around us burst into flames. The proprietary members of the mob shriveled into dust.
     The witch's noose unwound. She was freed, and fled.
     In time, the chaos organized; a controlled effort was made to subdue the inferno.
     "A friend," he began finally, "is not a transient thing. Time does not undo their meaning. Death does not erase them."
     I was quiet.
     "Time may be distracting--disorienting--but on its own it changes nothing. You have a lot to learn about compassion," he paused, "and humanity."
     My house was one that burned.
     We left.
     One notable plague. Outlandish religion. One nation--briefly two--then one again.
     Indoor plumbing.
     Electricity. Refrigeration.
     Deviled milk at every corner store. He was furious. Intellectual property theft.
     A peasant's life soon rivaled the sin-riddled, God-like decadence the Devil and I once enjoyed. Such inflation led me to wonder for just how little I'd traded my soul, when all he'd ever given could now be bought with money.
     1913 C.E.
     We bought a car.
     Someone invented flight.
     My friend wore red pajamas; carried a plastic pitchfork.
     War. More war. Further wars just for good measure.
     Nuclear proliferation made him nervous. Space travel filled him with joy.
     And then we watched television. Ate food. Sought out a fish recipe from twelve hundred years ago.
     He was vegan. I did the taste-testing.
     And then we were on the streets of Manhattan, standing in the rain.
     The stoplight changed. Cars sounded their angry horns. Self-important road-rage.
     My friend lowered his hand from his mouth; he didn't eat the chestnut.
     He looked at the cars.
     Looked at me.
     "What do you remember?" he asked.
     I was nothing, yet real. My form, at best, was pestilent flies alone on a windswept moor.
     I had always been there, and had always been lost.
     I beckoned to the silence and void.
     It was summer. 331 or 332 C.E.
     Corporeality--a fragile meat became me. Sunken eyes and brittle bones. I was little more than a corpse....
     Eternity was crushing me.
     I met a man.
     All I knew was envy. Envy for man, envy for compassion, envy for anything real.
     Envy for flesh and sin.
     He understood. Understood I had been there longer than him, longer than Rome, longer than the moor itself.
     A soul traded hands.
     Humanity for devilry.
     Cars aggressively dodged about us. My friend looked terrified.
     "What did I give you?" I asked. "In exchange for your soul."
     He was quiet. More quiet than he'd ever been.
     "I'm the Devil," I said. "I was jealous of men. You sold me your soul."
     He was still quiet.
     "What did I give you?" I asked again.
     He was quiet for a long time. The stoplights cycled--once or a hundred times more--before he at last replied.
     "I like to think it was an act of compassion," he said. "But I doubt anyone is that kind." He paused. "I don't remember."
     Now the silence was mine.
     "Something silly, I'm sure," he finally added. "And all I have left is you."
     Again we stood, saying nothing. The details of our swap were obscured by the haze of time. Memory, supernatural powers, and so on were likely part of the deal. The Devil--I--had existed since first dreamt, and was spared that bleak, eternal past by the man before me who had given all that he was.
     What lay ahead for my friend was likely what was left in my wake.
     Terror. Eternity.
     "You want to die," he finally said, echoing a concession from long ago. He wasn't self-righteous, or frustrated, or any titled emotion.
     He was bound to a promise: destroy his own soul--and me along with it.
     He reached a hand to my chest.
     I was about to be free.
     ... But I took hold of his wrist.
     Smiled. His hand was trembling. Between two fingers was a rain-soaked chestnut.
     I thought of sleep.
     I thought of nothingness.
     "No," I said, working the nut from his hand. "There are eighty-five new restaurants in town this week...."
     I popped it into my mouth.
     His face, familiar yet elusive--never the same day-to-day--was looking back with hopeful, human eyes.
     "... And we've only tried thirty of them."

THE DEVIL AND I. Copyright ©2009 by Nicholai Conliff. All rights reserved.