Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Smelling the Happy







What fills your lungs and clears your head?

Takes you somewhere better, brings you calm?










Fresh brewed coffee.
The spice store up the street.

All the stuff to open and sniff at the local Aveda spa.

A good man, freshly showered with a nice, simple soap.

Minty fresh breath.

Smoke and BBQ'ed meat from a back street rib joint.

Wild lilacs on a cool breeze.

Fresh ink on new paper.

Old books, much loved, with yellowed paper.

A pot of chili on a cold night.

Mulled wine on a colder one.

A baby's head.

The salt-rimmed shore of the ocean.

Fresh cut grass.

Honest sweat on that good man, mixed with the simple soap of his shower.

Clean laundry dried outside your childhood home.

Your mother's perfume (even if it made you sneeze).


Garlic and onions and cinnamon and peppers and cardamom 
and cocoa and chili powder and vanilla
just 
not 
all 
together.


Sometimes, it is very simple things we need, we crave, we seek, when things are not going well. And the memory of scent can elevate us from a dark spot to one warmed by thoughts and pictures of better things gone by. 

I've had a week that has been stained with tears I couldn't hold back, even when I tried with all my might. It's been a week of working behind a closed office door. A week when kindness from others has only served to bring on more tears. Hell, I looked at the big model dinosaur at work and it made me cry. It's a fake dinosaur, for crissakes.

There's this little, angry demon of doubt that has taken up residence in my gut, and as it kicks and struggles from within, it feels like a belly full of broken glass and ragged-clawed cancera cancer of distrust and uncertainty. It's something I cannot change. I cannot change what someone thinks of me. I cannot change someone's belief that I am lazy or useless or untalented. I know it's untrue. And fuck 'em if they can't see that.

This ugly sadness will pass, I know, and I will find myself again in that place where I feel right. Until then, I'll try a little homegrown aromatherapy voodoo to raise my spirits. I will breathe deeply and take in the good stuff, the simple stuff, the stuff that floods me with all the little pools of love.

I worked from home today in blissful quiet. First thing this morning, I made myself brew a pot of coffee just to fill the apartment with a little Starbucks vibe and find a better spot in my skull. I only drank a cup of the coffee, but that didn't matter. It cleared my head and I could pretend people I love were here with me, chatting, laughing, doing nothing and yet everything that makes me feel better.

Now, I'll mix myself some chai, sit on the balcony, and fill my lungs with the spices spinning in the glass. And in the darkness, punctuated by the crickets and owls and fading cicadas, I will tell myself everything is going to be okay. And I will hear those words in your voice. In my mother's voice. In my best friend's sweet voice. In all the voices that matter to me. And I will know I am not alone.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Fiction Night: The Recruiter

As promised, tonight I'm posting some fiction. This is a short story I wrote in 2012 to dip my toes back into "unreal world" storytelling. You are most welcome to offer feedback. (Just be more creative than "You suck!") I have added a copyright statement to my blog to protect my writing. It may not be fabulous, but it's mine, and if you steal, you are going to a very Catholic Hell. 

Catholic Hell... hmm...

Nah, too obvious to go on my list of band names. 

You are welcome to link to this piece, as with anything on my blog, as long as you provide proper credit.

My gratitude again to my friends James "the Letterpress Sasquatch" Quigley, Darren Goldsmith, and the fabulous Javier Grillo-Marxuach for being kind enough to read this and give me feedback. Some advice I took, some I was too full of myself to take, and some I didn't know how to use without making myself crazy.

Gratitude to all the magazines that rejected this and provided some colorful words of disdain, as well. "Awful" and "juvenile" this first try might be, but it makes me want to work harder to prove you wrong!

So, here goes nothing.



The Recruiter



June smelled the demon before she saw him. She had been in deep slumber, dreaming of a slow stroll through a Wal-Mart, shopping for lawn furniture with some generically handsome basic cable actor, when the stench of rotten eggs jolted her awake. Gagging, she sat up in bed, only to discover she could not move her legs. There was a heaviness holding them down, and in the darkness, she could see cat eyes glowing yellow, hovering at the foot of her bed. The feline eyes blinked.

With a shaking hand, June reached for the lamp on the bedside table and clicked it on. She clapped one hand over her mouth, stifling the scream she felt welling up. Don’t wake up the neighbors. Don’t wake up the neighbors! She took some shallow breaths, then rubbed her eyes, blinked, and looked again. The thing on her bed was still there, just watching her.

“Oh my god,” June said, fumbling for her eyeglasses on the table. “What the hell are you?” With trembling hands, she pushed her glasses up her nose and focused on the unmoving figure at her feet. “Jesus Christ,” she whispered, squinting at a leathery creature hunkered down at the foot of the bed.

“No,” came a ragged chuckle from the beast. “Definitely not Jesus Christ.”

“Three biblical references in under thirty seconds! That may be a new record!” The thing chuckled, holding up three gnarled digits. “I’m a demon, June. I’ve come from Hell to chat with you.”

June tilted her head to one side and half-smiled. She glanced at the collection of pill bottles on the table. Helluva cocktail, doc. She squinted at the hideous thing at her feet.

It was maybe two feet tall, with dark leather hide clinging to knobby bones and a pair of goat legs covered in a shabby pelt, stretched out under a distended belly. The skin was so tight, it creaked like a saddle with each breath the demon took. Streaks of slime and waste coated its limbs and torso, and it released great waves of brimstone-peppered flatulence.

“Okay,” June nodded, crossing her arms, wincing slightly at the tenderness under the bodice of her gown. “Riiiiiiight. What do I call you, then, demon? Baal? Beelzebub? Azazel?”

“Alan,” it said matter-of-factly, folding a set of stunted wings against its knobby back.

“Alan?”

“Yeah,” the demon replied, shrugging his shoulders. “Alan. My name is Alan. Problem?”

“Well, no,” June scoffed. “But it makes you sound more like an accountant than a demon.”

“It’s the name I chose for myself,” Alan sniffed, looking down at the scabby flesh on his hands and inspecting his filthy nails. “What’s it to you?”

“Nothing, I guess,” June said, amused by her hallucination. “I just expected something more… demonic.”

“Ah! But you see,” Alan said, dragging his scrawny carcass up the bed, closer to June’s face, “that’s the point! No one expects an Alan to be a demon. It’s so deliciously… mundane.” He found a nice spot on June’s soft belly, and pressed down on her a few times through the quilt, like a cat finding the perfect perch. He tucked his greasy tail under his haunches and stretched out one hairy leg toward June’s face, so a cloven hoof, crusted with what looked and smelled like manure rested on the flatness of her chest.

Damn, these are good drugs, June thought. She plumped a pillow and propped it behind her shoulders so she could better study her hallucination. All the better to see you, my dear. “Alright, Alan…” June decided to embrace the moment. “Just what sort of Hellspawn are you?”

“Low-level,” Alan replied, resting his scabby head on a fist of claws. “Mostly sports injuries.”

“Sports injuries?” June’s brow knitted. “What do you mean?”

“Oh,” the creature chuckled, waving one hand around his face, “you know, wannabe Olympic sprinters who tear a ligament right before a qualifying heat, or the football kicker who gets turf toe and is gonna be out all season? That’s where I come in! They trip up, they say, ‘I’d sell my soul, yadda, yadda…’ and—boom—there I am, contract in hand. Admittedly, I don’t get the big stars or the showy stuff, but a soul’s a soul. And every one I get is a step to bigger and better things.”

“I’m sorry. What’s ‘turf toe’?” June asked. “That doesn’t sound real.”

“Ah,” Alan said cheerfully, sitting up and releasing another noxious blast from his backside. “It’s a metatarsal-phalangeal joint sprain!”

June shook her patchy head, a few tufts of fine hair floating as she moved. “I’m pretty smart, Alan, but…” She waved her hand at industrial strength pharmacy on the table. “Could you please speak in plain English?”

“Ah. Certainly, June,” the demon answered, nodding his head. “I get that. Sure. So… turf toe…” He framed the air with his gnarled hands, as if lecturing to some invisible classroom. “It happens to football players on artificial turf. Some guy gets tackled, another player falls into the back of that guy’s calf while he’s got his knee and tips of his toes on the ground. Toes get hyperextended, and BAM!” He knocked his knuckles together, making them crunch. “That joint is messed up, and that guy is down for the count for a while. Toes… so small, yet so important.” Alan looked down at his own cloven, toeless hooves and the corners of his mouth fell. “Little miracles of balance, no?”

June rolled the demon off her torso like an oversized cat and slowly sat up on the edge of the bed. Purell, she thought, looking at her hands after touching the fiend. She slipped her feet into an old pair of scuffs and appraised the creature intently looking up at her from an unpleasant smear across her bed. “That bedspread is gonna have to be burned, you know,” she said with a measure of irritation. She sighed. “I think I want some tea. How about you?”

Alan uncurled his tail and sat up, his wings rising slightly on his shoulders, waggling like misplaced dog tails. “Really?” He responded with more enthusiasm than was probably dignified for a hellbeast and clambered off the bed. His eyes fell on the rows of pill bottles across the nightstand, and surreptitiously snaked a hand toward them, but June swatted his hand. “Hey! Not for you!” Alan flinched and growled.

June studied her dirtied palm. “Eh, what the hell,” she shrugged, wiping it on the ruined quilt. “So,” she said, rising stiffly, “you cause these injuries and then what?”

“Well,” Alan said, hovering in June’s path, “I arrive, tell them I’m there to help, I can save the season, save their career, make sure they don’t get dropped from the roster… keep the family fed and living in the style to which they’re accustomed—or better… all I need is…”

“A soul,” June finished. “You come for that man’s soul.” June collected a cane from next to the bed, shoved past the demon, and shuffled down the hall toward her kitchen.

“Not immediately!” Alan defended himself, following at the woman’s heels. “I come for it in ten years, twenty… sometimes a whole natural lifetime. They pay with eternal hellfire, certainly. But I leave their families alone, and they live on with the pride of a champion’s glory. It’s win-win, don’t you see? I make my quota, they live a dream.”

“And then they burn forever, right?” June flicked the lights on in the kitchen.

“That is the way it works, June. You play, you pay.” Alan brushed a fly from his face and clambered up onto a farm chair at the kitchen table, balancing on his hooves, wrapping his tail around a chair leg. He looked across the counters, strewn with more pill bottles, and at the refrigerator festooned with reminders for doctors’ appointments and tests. Crayoned cards and children’s collages were pinned to the walls. “Get well soon, Miss Clark!” was scrawled under a rainbow on pink construction paper. Alan frowned.

 “You know, I’m actually a little hungry,” June said as she flicked the switch on her electric kettle. She turned to her increasingly real hallucination. Can you smell a hallucination, she wondered. “Would you like something to eat?”

Alan’s pointy ears pricked up, like a cat that’s heard the can opener turn. He offered a hideous smile of rotting fangs. “I could eat,” he said, trying to hide his eagerness.

June studied the fairly bare shelves. “Doc says it really doesn’t matter what I eat now, of course. Sweet’s pretty much all I can sense…” June paused. “I guess if you’re going down, might as well go down in flames, huh?” She pulled a package from a cabinet and shook it at him. “Oreos? I mean, unless you don’t eat cookies. Please don’t tell me you eat babies or something like that…”

“Naaaaah,” Alan growled. “Most of the time, I feed on anger and hostility, fear and loneliness, pain and misery. Bitter tears are delicious, you know, and the sorrow of cancer tastes like a champagne truffle.” (He refrained from noting that infant flesh was considered a delicacy among his comrades.)

June just stared at the creature planted at her table. “Wow… well, that’s, uh… quite profound. Me? I can’t taste much these days. Chemo fried my taste buds. Except for the little bits of sweet stuff, I don’t eat much anymore, and if I did, I think I’d want some barbeque ribs.”

“Oh, plenty of barbequed ribs in Hell!” Alan grinned. “Of course, they’re human, and barbeque is a particularly cruel form of punishment. Agony makes for an exquisite sauce…” He drifted off, drooling a little, and raised one tufted eyebrow at her.

“I’ll pass. Oreos?” She shook the bag at him again.

“Oh yes!” The demon reached out with lightning speed, snatching the crinkling plastic wrapper from his host. He clawed the bag open and hooked the cream center of a cookie with one filthy claw. June realized she wasn’t going to be eating out of that bag again.

She went to the freezer and pulled out a sleeve of Girl Scout Thin Mints she’d been saving for the right moment. This was probably it. She was talking to a demon in her kitchen, and in the morning, a nurse from the hospice was coming to talk to her about pain management and a morphine drip.

She laughed.

            “What’s so funny?” Alan spewed black cookie dust as he spoke.

“Oh, nothing. It’s just… this isn’t how I figured things would end.”

“Things rarely end the way people expect it, June,” the demon said. “Life’s not a made-for-TV movie. Endings just come. Que será será.” Alan shrugged with a rustle of stubby wings.

     “Wow. A demon who quotes Doris Day songs.” June chuckled as she eased her way into a chair across from her visitor. “Who couldn’t love that?”

“It’s a Jay Livingston and Ray Evans song, June. Doris Day just sang it.”

June raised her eyebrows.

“Hey, I’ve been around,” Alan sniffed, a tinge of insult in his tone. “I know the Great American Songbook.”

“Bully for you,” June said.

“I’m no Philistine,” Alan said defensively.

     “Alright,” June said in the voice she usually reserved for calming children. “So… how do you convince your victims to sign on the dotted line? I mean, don’t you scare the beejezus out of them with this get-up?”

“This is no get-up, June. This is simply who I am. What you see is what you get – true form and all that. And these people are no victims. None of them are forced to sign any contracts or take any deals. They choose. Free will.” He swallowed another Oreo whole. “And when I manifest myself to them, I take on a much more terrifying form, believe me.”

“Good lord,” June whispered. “What form is that?”

“Sports agent,” Alan replied. “Slick suit, scent of overpriced cologne, mirrored shades, manicured, manscaped, and teeth veneered to the nth degree... Bluetooth headset…”

June sucked air through her teeth. “Ooooh, the Bluetooth thing. That’s the worst.”

“I know,” the demon chuckled. “Total douchebag. But they buy it. I offer them the world, and they buy the gates to Hell. Yep. They buy it all. Fame is fleeting. Perdition is forever.”

“Words to live by. You should have that in a counted cross-stitch on your wall. Or on your business cards, at least. So, if your sports agent guise works so well, why do I get this scabby, flatulent thing with horns and a tail?”

“Hey! Be nice!” The demon hissed, insulted. “This is my true form. You should be flattered. And you were raised Catholic, no? I figured a fairly traditional form—all hellfire, brimstone, and pea soup—would make a better impression. It’s actually nicer than the sports agent, trust me. Less sordid. Less… overtly sleazy.”

June nodded. Probably couldn’t argue with that.

“But if your portfolio is filled with athletes, why are you here with me?”

The demon sighed. “I’ve been watching you for a while now. I came for a pro bowler down the hall. Bad wrist. Drinking problem. Gambling debts. Straight out of some bad movie. Wants his moment in the sun. He’s going to get it now.” He stopped to sip his tea and looked at his mug. World’s Best Librarian.

“What happens to him?” June asked, genuinely curious.

“Oh, he’ll make a miraculous comeback, win a few trophies, make his estranged children proud… then he’ll die of a heart attack in his La-Z-Boy in about a decade—”

“Could be worse,” June interjected.

“—and spend eternity in flames. No strikes. Definitely no spares.”

“Wonderful,” June’s nose crinkled. “You must tell these people the most spectacular lies to agree to damnation.”

“Not at all, June,” the demon said. “I never lie. I cannot lie. A contract based on lies cannot be enforced. What I leave unsaid—and what they fail to read in the fine print—is something altogether different. They choose their dreams, and they willfully ignore the consequences. It’s so easy to do.”

“So, again…” June said. “Why me?”

The demon took a deep, wheezing breath. “I saw you at the elevator one day. I could smell the cancer in you. I could feel life slipping away, bit by bit. But you seemed so… serene. I had to see if you had any regrets.”

June offered a wan smile. “I had regrets, Alan, but I let them go.” She shrugged. “It’s been a good life.” She gestured to the photos that filled her walls. June on a mountaintop. June at the pyramids. June surrounded by laughing people on a beach. “I’ve traveled the world. Made some money. Made a lot of friends. Loved some. Been loved... what more do you need?”

“But you have no one now, June,” Alan answered. “No husband, no lover, no children. And where are your friends? You’re only 43. Don’t you feel angry? Aren’t you bitter about the legacy you’ve lost?” The demon laid his left hand over hers, the heat of his flesh almost searing the paper-thin skin of her fingers.

“Come with me and live forever. Exact revenge on all who abandoned you or wronged you. You can spend the years doing the same for everyone like you, left behind by fate!”

June tilted her head back and howled at Alan’s drama, eliciting a knock on her ceiling from her upstairs neighbor.

“You could take care of that one, for instance,” the demon snarled, pointing a claw toward the tiles above their heads.

“No, no, no, Alan,” June continued to laugh. “I have no intention of consigning my neighbor to the abyss. Listen,” she said, “I was really angry once. When I recognized I was going to die, I went through my own modified stages of grief: one stage of shock and denial, followed by six stages of anger. I was pissed off. Really pissed off. Had I known the chemo was going to fail, had I known a double mastectomy wasn’t going to do jack squat, I wouldn’t have gone through it. Could have kept my hair and my boobs and left a pretty corpse. But I fought the cancer tooth and nail, and the thought of victory was worth it.” She paused. “Too tired to be angry now. No point. It only drains what joy is left. No regrets.

“And I wasn’t abandoned, Alan. I sent my friends away. I wanted them to remember me when I was better.  Stronger. They don’t need to see how I am now, so close to my end. I have my books for when my eyes are clear, I have the phone when I have the energy to talk, and my music keeps me company. A nurse drops by once a day. I am content.”

“But what about him?” The demon pointed to a photo of June, beaming, healthy, golden hair past her shoulders, pressed against a handsome man, his arms wrapped around her waist. “The one who ran away when he realized you were terminal? Wouldn’t it feel good to see him in pain?”

“No, Alan,” June spoke quietly. “There’s no hate, no anger. Only pity. He was weak and insecure. That can only be pitied.” She sipped her tea and smiled like the Cheshire Cat. “Besides, he was in such a hurry to depart, he left his MasterCard behind. I hope he’s enjoying his Fruit of the Month deliveries, that subscription to Highlights for Children, and his very generous donation to the Cancer Society.” The demon’s eyes brightened with admiration for the dying woman. “I told you, I have no regrets. Not anymore.”

“Oh, June,” Alan positively glowed and even farted loudly in approval. “You are a woman after my own heart. If I had a heart. You have it in you. Why not come with me? Watch the history of the world unfold. Cull the herd of the weak-willed, desperate, and greedy. No more pain, June. At least, not for you.”

“Well, thank you, Alan,” June said, as if wrapping up a job interview. “But I don’t see being Satan’s minion as a viable career path.”

Alan looked genuinely disappointed, a crooked frown on his face exposing one long, stained fang over his lower lip. He drummed bony fingers on the table. “I see. Well, you can’t blame a guy for trying, right? Perhaps I can come back another time. You might change your mind, you know.”

“Oh, I doubt that. I’m pretty sure I don’t have a future in torture or coercion.” June said. “I’m dying, Alan. Very soon. I should be gone already.”

The demon set down his mug, his awkward grasp spilling orange pekoe on the tablecloth. “I know, June. That’s why I’m here.” He stretched one grubby arm out to her and touched the small scar above her right elbow where her chemo line had once been inserted. It had all been too late. The cancer that flowed through her body was like a steamroller—unstoppable— and it hadn’t mattered where it had started or how many drugs the doctors pushed into her. It wasn’t going to stop. “I want you to know you have choices.” Alan sat back and looked at her, oozing demonic sincerity, a fist of claws under his chin. June halfway expected him to push a brochure over to her. The Afterlife: Know Your Options.

“Milk with your cookies?” June ignored the sales pitch, stood stiffly, and shuffled to the refrigerator. She pulled out a quart of milk in a plastic jug labeled with a smiling cow, wreathed in flowers and cursive script: If it’s daisy fresh, it’s Daisy Dairy! It all seemed so incongruous with everything around her now. She took two fresh mugs from a shelf and returned to the table. “Ever dunk an Oreo, Alan?”

“No, I haven’t. I’d like to. Do you like Scrabble, June?” Alan vanished into thin air, then reappeared a few seconds later with a scuffed box, rattling with tiles. “My clients aren’t big word guys. A lot of ‘hundred percent,’ ‘this is for the fans,’ and ‘push through the pain’… It gets tiresome. Shall we play?”

For hours, the demon and the dying woman talked and played word games, sustained by milk and cookies like children on a sleepover. Alan had a player’s advantage over June, with millennia of words in his head. Yet, he cheated himself now and then to let her win. June knew he was giving her the upper hand.

Alan played “QI” at every opportunity, snatching high points from June, who raised eyebrows at his ability to place those same two tiles together again and again for ridiculous values. “Qi,” June pondered. “Do you even know what it means?”

“It’s Chinese,” Alan said, his eyes fixed on the board. “Means ‘energy’ literally. But it’s more the life force running through you like currents. The Force,” he said, looking up. “You know, surrounds us, penetrates us, binds the galaxy together? Use Google, young padawan.”

“You speak Chinese?” June asked.

“Of course,” Alan replied. “Sports agent, remember? Ever seen those Chinese basketball players? Giants! And people trapped in repressive regimes are more than eager to make a deal.”

The edges of June’s mouth turned down. “That’s cruel.”

“It’s my job, June,” Alan said without hesitation. He shrugged and his wings squeaked against the slats on the chair back. “If I didn’t do it, someone else would. I’m not in charge. I do what I’m told.”

“Only following orders, right?”

“No,” Alan shook his head and fixed her with a gaze that intensified the yellow of his eyes. “Humans have a choice. They have free will. They can decide to be good or evil. Sometimes, they die for their choice. Sometimes, they surrender to evil to save themselves and live another day. Either way, it’s their choice.”

Alan pushed away the board and tiles bounced across the table. He crossed his arms and glowered, the scent of burnt coal rising from his shoulders. “I am outside those rules. All demons are. I have no free will. I am beholden to fallen angels who, in turn, are beholden to God.”

“God?” June leaned in closer to the demon until she felt his hot, rancid breath on her face. “You are beholden to God?”

“We are all God’s children, June. Even the worst of the fallen are his creations. But most of us are not granted the rights his most favored children have. You live, you die, you make your way in the world according to your own design, for humans are beloved of God. You’re your very own ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ book come to life.

“You have the right to have faith in God or believe he is a fiction, or think God is a dog-headed dancing girl for all that matters. He doesn’t care because he designed you to think for yourself. And he relishes seeing what humans do with that freedom.”

“And you?” June asked. “Why can’t you live by your own design?”

“I am merely a servant, June. A low thing. I am immortal, tethered to the darkness and to my task to tempt and try the will of men. I am bound to a list of names that never ends, and my path cannot deviate.”

June leaned back and chewed her lip. “I think that’s a cop-out, Alan. Have you ever tried to stand on your own two feet—“

“Hooves.”

“Fine, your own two hooves. Have you ever tried to refuse an order? Divert from your assigned tasks?” The demon shook his head. “Then how do you know you don’t have free will? Throw out the list! Take a day off! It’s summer, Alan. Do something I’d love to do again—go to the beach and just listen to the ocean. Take the sports agent so you don’t scare the children. Get some baggy shorts and flip flops and coat yourself in sunscreen. Have a hot dog. Dig your toes into the sand.”

“I live in Hell, June. Sunscreen isn’t an issue.”

“Fine,” June said. “But go, take a break. Be your own man. Or… whatever you really are.”

“They smite those who abandon their tasks, June. They find you, and they strike you down with righteous wrath, and you are gone forever. Or so I’ve been told.”

June stared deep into those feline eyes. “But would you rather live forever as a slave, or die a free man? Freedom’s not easy, of course. So many choices and so many mistakes to make.” She sipped her cooling tea. “Ever see Little Big Man, Alan?”

“Of course,” the demon answered. “Dustin Hoffman, Faye Dunaway, Chief Dan George… good movie.”

“Well, remember when the elderly man Old Lodge Skins decides it’s time for him to shuffle off this mortal coil?” The demon nodded. “He says, ‘Today is a good day to die.’ For me, Alan, after this remarkable—and frankly bizarre—night, today is a good day to die.” She patted his hand. “May you someday find a good day to die, too, Alan. Die a free man.”

The corners of Alan’s mouth pulled up into a big grin that showed his rotted gums and threatened to crack the hide on his cheeks. “You’re feisty, June. I like that.”

“I feel good, Alan,” June replied. “I feel better than I have in weeks. Hell, better than in months. God, it’s good to feel this way.”

Alan’s face fell. “You know what you’re doing now, right, June?”

A tear rolled down the woman’s cheek. “I’m rallying, aren’t I? They say some people rally just before the end, don’t they? Dammit, I feel so good.”

The demon looked back down at the Scrabble board, not wanting to see the growing wetness on her face. Seeing his discomfort, June patted his forearm with her fingertips. Alan could feel the fragile quality of her skin, abused, like all her body, by disease and the courses of alien chemicals forced into her cells with no success.

June smiled and collected the tiles scattered on the table. “Let’s just keep playing, Alan. Before I get tired again.”

So they played and talked some more in the quiet of the night. She asked him about things he’d seen (and less about things he’d done) in all the ages of man on earth. She sat breathless at his eyewitness accounts of the great and the awful and the remarkable events that came before. “Human history,” Alan said while pondering the board, “is a patchwork of war and famine and filthy disease, all stitched together with improbable moments of inspiration and invention that propel the world forward and keep everything from falling apart.” 

Alan fixed June with a piercing look from his narrowed, yellow eyes, reached over, and tapped her chest. “That you—or any human—are here today is a miracle, considering how many times you’ve brought yourselves to the edge of destruction. The forward momentum of humanity never fails to amaze me. Then again, your backward falls never surprise me, either.” He bent his head down to the board. “Ah, there we go.” His claws brushed the word LADYLIKE onto the board. “Triple word score. More tea?”

They spoke in Russian and French (“For every one Russian or French tennis sensation,” Alan told his host, “there are dozens of simply awful players, but they all want to be Martina or Bjorn Borg.”) They pondered why so many girls were named April, May, and June, but so few Februarys walked the earth. The demon shared secrets with June: what happened to the Lost Colony of Roanoke, what’s really out in Area 51, the true location of the island of Avalon. He knew she would not tell, nor did she have the time left to share these whispers. No one would believe her anyway; they’d blame it all on the drugs that sustained her in decline.

He told her how demons came to be, born of angels and human women, whom the angels coveted from high above the earth. They called the children Nephilim, and they were once giants among men—champions and heroes—but fell from God’s grace through hubris and violence. “In the great flood,” Alan explained, “While Noah counted animals, most of us perished, but some were left to roam the earth, sentenced to tempt man for seventy generations, until the great time of slaughter and destruction. And that, dear June,” Alan paused to sip his tea, “is where we find ourselves now. Won’t all the atheists have an ‘I’ll be damned!’ moment when the Apocalypse finally comes? Oh—and for the record? Some of them will be damned… but, hey—they’ll have plenty of believers for company, trust me. More cookies, please?”

Alan’s matter-of-fact pronouncement of the coming end didn’t faze June. Que será será, indeed, she thought. “I guess you get what you earn, no?”

“That you do, June. That you do.”

“You’re not a hallucination, are you, Alan?”

“No, June. I’m very real.”

The dying woman sighed. “Alan, I’m tired. Very, very tired. I think I want to go back to bed.”

“Alright, June. I’ll help you.” The demon hopped down from his chair and extended one hand to the woman, curling his claws under as to not cause her harm. June smiled and reached out to lean on him. She did not mind the slime and waste. He did not mind her scars or baldness or lack of breasts. The dying woman leaned on the demon as they walked, and the demon purred at the warmth of the human body against his.

“Alan,” June whispered as she fell back into her bed. “You know what you’ve done tonight?”

“Other than fail to recruit you to our ranks? No, June. What have I done?”

“You’ve given me hope. If there are demons in Hell, there must be angels in Heaven, right? An up for your down.”

“True,” Alan agreed. “There is a Heaven. And despite my best efforts, I know the truth that you are bound for it.”

“That’s nice, Alan. I wasn’t sure before, you know. I wanted to believe, but rational thought being what it is…”

“Free will, June. Keep thinking for yourself. God admires that.” The demon pulled the stained quilt up over the woman and smoothed the wrinkles with his awkward hands, making the awful smears even worse.

“June?”

“Yes, Alan?”

The creature dipped his head, almost sheepishly. “May I come call on you again?”

“Now why would you want to do that, Alan?” June asked, weary amusement in her voice. “I’m not changing my mind about your job offer.”

“It’s just… it’s just that it’s pleasant to spend time with you, June. You’ve been decent to me,” Alan said, sadness in his tone. June could hear his sorrow, and her heart broke a little for the hideous creature. She knew, just as well as he did, her time was done. And if it was true—that there was an up for his down—June wouldn’t see the demon and his triple word scores again. But Alan was right. It had been pleasant, and there was no reason to ruin the moment with the bleak truth.

“Alright, Alan. You may come back to visit.”

“Thank you, June.”

“Alan?” June conjured all the cheer she could. “If you’re coming back…”

“Yes, June?” Alan’s ears perked up.

“You’ve got to do something about your farting. My god, it’s like a mustard gas attack.”

“Yes, June.” The demon giggled a little.

“And Alan?”

“Yes, June?”

“Be your own man. Or… whatever you are.” Yellow eyes glowed, and June could see a jagged smile fading into the darkness.  Weary, the dying woman closed her eyes.

“I’ll try, June.”

Tucked beneath the covers, June looked almost translucent, and her breathing became shallow. Alan watched and listened to her heart race and slow, race and slow. Gingerly, he climbed onto the foot of her bed and curled up into a ball, his tail wrapped tight against his torso. The demon stayed there, silent, listening, until he felt the first rays of sunlight on his back and vanished into the brightening air.

In that space between what is seen and unseen, the demon Alan paused on the stoop of June’s building. Even dressed in the skin of the sports agent, he hunkered down, as if on goat legs. He was merely a shadow passed without note or comment by the Salvadoran man delivering papers to the apartments along the street. A slippered man pulled his jacket tighter around his shoulders as he walked his dog past the building, but he had no clue as to why there was a sudden chill in the air. The dog barked and pulled toward the steps, but his master tugged him away with a shush.

Alan shook out his wings and nibbled on one of the last Oreos he’d palmed from June’s kitchen. As he chewed, a bright beam of light cut through the colorless sky and landed on the step above him.

“Hello, Amon.”

“Hello, Karl. And it’s Alan now. You know that.” The demon spoke without looking at the sharp-dressed man who had appeared over his shoulder at the end of that beam. Tall and handsome in that generic basic cable actor sort of way, he had wings, too, but they were broad and strong and matched the gleam of his ice cream white linen suit.

“I’ll call you Alan if you stop calling me Karl,” said the angel.

“Fine, Karael.”

“So… got yourself a girlfriend, huh, Alan?” The angel smirked.

“It was just a recruiting call,” the demon said defensively. “And besides, she didn’t seem to mind me being there.” He looked up at the angel with sadness. “I think she liked me.”

“No one likes demons, Alan.”

“She did.”

“Go to Hell, Alan.”

“Very nice, Karl.”

“No, Alan. Really. Go to Hell. Sun’s rising. Shift change. Punch. Out.”

Alan found angels smarmy, but, just as he did, they served a purpose.

“Please,” he pleaded in a whisper, “Watch over her. She’s going soon.”

“Yes, she is, demon.” Alan and the angel looked at the figure who had appeared at the bottom of the steps.

“Death.” Both angel and demon bowed heads toward the Grim Reaper, today dressed as a dour, obese woman in scrubs, a hospice ID badge clipped to her shirt, and a rolling stand for a morphine drip in one hand. “Work to be done here, boys. And why are you here, demon? She was never on your list.”

“Alan thinks he made a friend,” the angel mocked.

“No one likes demons, Alan,” Death sniffed matter-of-factly. He turned to the angel. “And Karael, no one likes a smartass, either. Very unbecoming for the heavenly host.” The smirk faded from the angel’s face. “You have tasks, demon. Go about your business. You have none here.”

“Yeah,” Karael said, waving a hand dismissively. “Don’t you have some broken down Field of Dreams pitcher with a bad rotator cuff and shattered hopes waiting for you?”

Christ, Alan thought, angels are assholes. He reached into his suit pocket and ran his fingers across the page of parchment that never left his side, a list of desperate names and crushed ambitions. The paper felt like a lead weight. It always did.

But then, his fingers brushed against the last Oreo he’d stolen from June’s kitchen. He pulled it out and started to pop it into his mouth. Then he stopped and slowly turned the two cookie sides apart. He studied the filling, and his face brightened.

Before his puzzled colleagues, Alan slowly licked the cream side dry. “Yep. That I do.” He stood up and adjusted the sports agent’s tie. “Not today, though. Know what I’m gonna do?” Alan pressed a fingertip into Karael’s chest and tapped him. “I’m taking the day off! I’m gonna ditch this suit, get some baggy shorts and a pair of flip flops and slather myself in sunscreen. I’m going to the beach, Karael, and I’m gonna eat a hot dog and watch some pretty girls. Dig my toes into the sand and listen to the sea. Hell’s not going anywhere. Hell can go screw itself.” The demon cocked his head and saluted Death and the angel.

“You don’t actually have toes, Alan,” Karael sneered as the demon turned and walked away. “He doesn’t really have toes,” the angel repeated to Death, who shrugged.

“HEY!” The angel yelled at Alan’s back with the realization he wasn’t joking. “HEY! You can’t do that! They’ll smite you, Alan!” The angel taunted the fading figure. “You abandon your post and they will find you, and they will smite you, demon!”  

“Perhaps,” Alan said as he vanished into the sunlight, a measure of June’s serenity on his face. “But I think it’s a good day to die.”