by Denise Winters
Hannah skidded to a halt. Her bike stopped, but her heart beat a thousand miles an hour. She tried to calm her breathing. She was getting too old to be scared of haints and demons, of monsters that lurk in the shadows. It didn’t take her long to realize this had all the beginnings of a story she would keep to herself. Not because she could swear up and down this man had appeared out of nowhere, had just up and been standing in space that was once nothing but the intersection of a much used bike path cut in the grass and a not often used dirt road. And not because she was somewhere she wasn’t supposed to be on her way to somewhere she wasn’t supposed to go.
She knew she would keep this story to herself because if she told anyone what she saw she would take a trip to one of the hospitals over in Pensacola or Mobile, one of the hospitals that people rode too in a drugged stupor so heavy they drooled and usually didn’t often come back from. Two cloven, furry feet were obscured in shadow and smoke that snaked from the ground beneath him and swirled around her like the elongated fingers of a grasping hand. Hannah dropped her bike and tripped over it trying to get away. She scuttled to her feet and tried to turn and run. The smoke scared her more than the creature. Hannah kept her balance well enough to move a few feet, sure that if they touched her she would be dragged down to wherever that thing had come from.
“Just a minute sweetheart.” It doffed its hat to her and executed a slight bow with all the finesse and sincerity of a carnival barker. “You don’t have anything to fear from me.”
Hannah kept running, forcing herself to look back in front every few steps. She wished she had held onto the bike. But in her defense, those were demon feet. And the smoke, good Lord up above, the smoke. Her skin crawled with gooseprickles at the thought of it. The only thing that made her slow down, made her take more furtive glances over her shoulder, was that the beast was not giving chase. Instead, it stood as though glued to those crossroads.
Hannah stopped and turned around, her arms tense at her side and her heart still beating against her chest like a woodpecker. But she slowed her breathing enough to keep from passing out, and the smoke hadn’t spread any further.
“In Jesus’ name what do you want?” It was what her mudea had always told her to say if she ever saw a haint or demon. Those words were supposed to make it speak any message it might have and be on its way without trying to harm or scare nobody.
The demon tilted its head and studied her, a faint smile drawing its thin lips up into a wicked little half-moon. Hannah took a step back, and went to turn around but found she couldn’t bring herself to do it. She wanted to know what was happening, even though fear became a lead ball in her stomach and caused her legs to hollow.
“I just want what you want Hannah.” The half-moon mutated into a Cheshire grin that caused the lower half of the demon’s face to disappear. “And I know you don’t want any harm to come to yourself.” Its smile widened and it held the hat to its chest in a mockery of offering condolences.
Hannah raised an eyebrow. This did not seem like no Prince of Lies, or even a Baron or Knight of one. The insincerity and coniveness was as plain as daylight in the creature’s every move. Hannah relaxed a little more, enough that her stomach didn’t feel like it had shifted the weight of her gravity, enough that she thought she could run without her legs shaking and her feet tripping over themselves. “Or your grandpappy.”
There went the calmness. The knot of iron in her stomach returned like an anchor dropping and brought her to her knees, her throat constricting from air struggling to get in and bile struggling to get out.
“What you want with him.” She felt her whole body convulse and she felt coldness pass over her from the inside out. “Whatever you think you get me to do,” she shook her head and tried to stand.
“You misunderstand little darling. “ The creature spread its arms out in front of it and made a patting motion with its hands. “I’m offering you a chance to save his life, and maybe his soul.” The thing put its hat back on top of its head and placed its arms akimbo. Leaning forward and speaking just loud enough to be heard over the distance that separated them, it said, “And it won’t cost you nothing.”
“Nothing.” Hannah gulped down air, trying to calm her stomach and keep her breathing steady. “I ain’t gonna have no kind of dealings with the devil, so you right, it won’t cost me nothing.” Saying that was like a balm to her forehead. Getting it out there made her less afraid. She was sitting out here in the middle of a field, chatting with the devil, and he wa’n all that scary truth be told. She knew better than to let him trick her into a deal, and didn’t seem like he could hurt her any other way.
The thing leapt in the air like somebody had lit a fire under its feet. “You be careful what names you go throwing round.” It looked around the field, its head swiveling from side to side and even up in the air. “I ain’t what you said I am, not exactly. Well, not at all actually. I’m a little lower down in the hierarchy.”
Hanna got to her feet. She looked at her bicycle, laying there within arm’s reach of the demon. She decided she wasn’t so unafraid of the creature as to try and get it back, not today. Not while that thing was there, and likely not ever. She would tell her grandmother that she had been out here and had a tumble. Better to take the whuppin for being out here than to try and go anywhere near that little crossroads by herself. She turned to go.
“Wait girl Don’t you even want to know what I got to say.” Hannah could recognize how guile sounded by the lack of it in the creature’s voice now. Gone were the hoity-toity inflections and accents. Instead the demon sounded like a used car salesman at the end of a bad day in a bad week, or a child suddenly convinced its parents would leave her in the store if she didn’t stop showing out. “I mean it, I know where you was headed. You just win back something I gave away and your granddaddy will live and I promise that his soul won’t end up down below.” Hannah stopped in her tracks and snapped her head around. “Plus, you just try and win it back I promise he’ll live, and beyond that his soul will be in his hands.”
She should keep right on walking. Nothing good came of making deals with devils or demons or any type of creature that popped into existence out of nowhere at a crossroads with goat’s feet. But she didn’t keep going, instead she turned around and strode back towards the demon, just out of reach of the oscillating tentacles of smoke,
“How you so sure he gonna die?”
“We know who on their way. And trust me sweetheart, that no good granddaddy of yours is on his way.” The demon sounded a little bit relieved but tried to cover it up. His words were like the baby steps of a stalking predator trying not to scare away its prey. “But it don’t have to be that way. Not if you just do what you planned to do anyway.”
“Which is?” Hannah crossed her arms, going for indifference, reluctance, and interest tied together. Instead she felt as though she just looked nervous, wary, scared, and worst of all resigned.
“Girl, you win that fiddling contest.”
“Fiddling contest?” Hannah threw her hands in the air and stepped back. She stomped in a tight circle before facing the demon again. “What business you got in a fiddling contest?”
The demon bowed its head and rubbed the back of its neck.“Well, I gave away something that wasn’t ‘xactly mine to give away. If you win that contest little girl, you get it back for me, and your granddaddy keeps his life and his soul.”
To be continued…
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