Tell Time: 11 minutes
Scare Rating: 4 of 5 Frights
Pat opened the left-hand drawer of his writing desk and gazed into its deep cavity. It was the drawer where he kept his near-final manuscripts. His Very-good-writing-but-not-yet-ready-for-publication stories. At least, according to the pink rejection slip an editor had stapled to one of them. Another said, Tight market for this kind of fiction, but you have a great talent and voice – keep trying! There were more where he had kept trying; too many more. Each message was meant to be encouraging, but the number of them, accumulated in so many years that had passed since he’d started, comprised of hours wasted for nothing, sent a different message.
On top of the pile was his latest manuscript; it didn’t have a pink slip.
“Yet,” Pat muttered.
He thumbed through it absent-mindedly, its pages illuminated by an antique desk lamp and the flickering yellow flames from the wood stove in the corner. In the light, he caught glimpses of words that instantly conveyed scenes from the story into his mind. He chuckled at one, remembering a gaffe that his least-favorite character had made – while also knowing that a key plot twist later in the story would hinge on that unfortunate utterance. A new scene furrowed his brow – the main character’s rival in the story had deceived their mutual love interest, and she’d ran into the scoundrel’s arms for comfort and reassurance. Liberal humor throughout and a surprise hook ending – hallmarks of his style – were at their best in his latest attempt.
“Not bad, Patrick B. Johnston,” he told himself with due satisfaction. “Not bad at all …”
But was it good? And if it rated as good, was it good enough. Would his best effort ever be good enough to crack into the publishing world, to validate unrequited years slaving at his keyboard late into the night, spinning words of his own after spending just as many hours crafting clever copy for the account executives at his day job in the advertising department?
His college creative writing courses had set him on a path to be a writer: by his definition, a published, successful, affluent, influential, respected capital-W Writer. It had not prepared him for seemingly endless years of frustration, disappointment, and insecurity, joyfully plying his craft and steadily improving the edge on his talent, sure – but doing so for an audience of one (two, if his mother was counted), for an eternity, as it would seem.
Pat lightly traced his fingertips across the face of the large manila envelope setting on the desktop. It was addressed to Ace Publishing, and the cover letter already slipped inside it assured their editors that his latest effort would be their next best seller. “Or not,” he said. He startled himself with the words; by how loud and how bitterly he’d said them. He swept the envelope off the desk and shoved it into the drawer, before slamming it shut.
It was late, and this self-flagellation wouldn’t help resolve anything. He got up, stirred the red coals before shutting the fire doors on the dwindling flames, and shuffled to bed. He would decide what to do with his manuscript – and his writing ambitions – tomorrow.
Pat’s sleep was fitful. His angst followed him into his dreams, where he met the Devil. Yes, THE Devil.
“Pat, it doesn’t have to be as hard as you’re making it,” the Devil chided him. The dreamscape setting was a surprise – it was on a park bench, on a clear, sunny spring day. Families and couples, squirrels and birds frolicked in their own ways, all of them oblivious to the red-suited, sulfur-scented cartoon character from Hell who had strolled down the curving tree-lined sidewalk with purposeful intent to sit beside the writer and make his pitch. Satan may as well have been a dog walker taking a break, as far as this audience was concerned.
“You’ve seen other writers rise to fame and fortune – fame and fortune just as deserved for you as it is for them, of course,” the Devil said. “How’d they do it while you can’t? Good timing? A lucky break? An aunt in the business? Catching a fad on the upswing? Or did they really all just out-work and out-write you? Do you really believe that nonsense?”
Everything that he heard, Pat had already thought at one time or another … and with the same bitter resentment that the Devil slathered on top of his words. It was easy bait to take.
“I can offer you a shortcut … and if you’ll take it, I won’t even need your soul in return – who can claim such a deal from the Devil? Here’s what I’ll do for you: the next manuscript you submit will be published, and will rise to the top of the best-seller charts. You’ll instantly attain fame, fortune, influence, and all that other worldly stuff you’ve been chasing after for all these years.”
“Of course I will,” Pat replied dryly – only in a dream would he dare mouth off to the Devil. “All my hopes and dreams will come true, blah, blah, hot air, etcetera. But what do you want out of the deal? I mean, what do I have to do for you?”
“Very little, really. Just this: the words in the book that you ‘write’ won’t be yours; they will be mine. I’ll dictate every ‘jot and tittle’ of it to you; I simply need human hands to set it to paper. Indeed, had I thought of you sooner, I might sooner have had a bible of my own centuries ago!”
“Beyond vanity – and there are publishers for that sort of writing – what will such a work do for you?” Pat asked. With some hesitation, for fear of what the answer could be, he added, “and what will it do to the world?”
“It’s always been about my vanity, my dear man!” The Devil exclaimed with raucous laughter – and a no-kidding slap to his cartoony knee. “As for the world; it will do with it what it will do with it – what should either of us care about that? Though I’d point out to you that since the world is clearly already on its way to Hell in a handbasket, I don’t see what further harm my little book – I mean, your book – could cause.”
Another voice entered his head. “Don’t seek to get rich quickly; that way leads to ruin!” and “Do the right things in the right ways; you’ll get the right results in the right timing!” Suddenly, that voice wasn’t disembodied in his head, but now was coming from a bluebird that had landed on the top of the park bench behind his shoulder. The Devil was oblivious; that amidst the birdsong came forth still more aphorisms, wisdom, guidance. These were things – lessons – that Pat remembered from his Sunday School classes, that his teachers had shared with him decades earlier. These new words fit the context, certainly – but they were unsolicited … as out of the blue as they were out of a bluebird. Just as out of the blue as the Devil’s sudden appearance, too. It was all so puzzling, but Pat just chuckled – he was able to reconcile the quirkiness to the nature of dreams, and would have been less surprised if God himself stepped down from Heaven to offer his perspective firsthand.
Pat was intellectually interested in the debate, and if he was conscious, would perhaps not admit to being as personally intrigued by the offer at hand. As such, he listened to both sides intently, trying to weigh the two arguments he was now hearing.
“Beyond the immediate fame that will come to you with this first title, it will establish your name, and springboard you to a lifetime of future publishing success,” The Devil was still laying his case on thick, pushing to close the deal. “You’ve always said you just needed a break; that if only people would see your work among the crowded marketplace of literature, you’d be able to break through to the other side. Our first collaboration is a wrecking ball to all the institutions that have held you down for all these years, and every future work that you write will …”
“I’ll do it,” Pat interjected.
“Oh saints-a-falling, thank you! As a writer, you are one of the few that can appreciate what a gift from God that writing truly is – putting down for eternity your thoughts, ideas, and ambitions,” the Devil prattled on. “With your help, I’ll finally be able to capture for an eternal audience my deepest thoughts, my most warped ideas, and my darkest ambitions.”
“I said, ‘I’ll do it,’” Pat said, forcefully … and grimly.
“What have I done?” Pat muttered to himself as he slowly crawled back to consciousness. He felt filthy both inside and out – feeling physically as if he was coated with pitch tar and greasy dirt; the kind of soil that a bar of pumice soap couldn’t cut through. And even if it got his skin clean, he’d want to crawl outside of himself and scour every bit of his insides, too.
His eyes were still only open slightly, letting little light in. On the desk, he saw the product of his demonic-inspired efforts: a thick stack of printed pages, neatly collated per the Devil’s instructions. Dark, odd-shaped characters stood in stark relief against the otherwise alabaster-white pages, though the side of the ream of paper bore a yellow-tinged stain, reminiscent of sulfur.
He slowly panned the room; the fire had long since gone out, but his companion remained with him still, a look of pride and mocking smeared across the ruddy hues of his face. That image brought the entire memory of the past few – how long had it been? Hours? Days? He didn’t know how long it’d been, but the memories of every moment rushed back over him in an instant. He was sick, and barely found his wastebasket in time.
“Typical response,” jeered the Devil. “That’ll do. Get some rest; I suppose you’ve earned it,” he added, with some degree of put-on sympathy. After all, he still had need of the man’s services. “Would you do me an additional favor, then? In the morning, put the manuscript in the mail to your publisher, and that will be that!”
The man passed out as the Devil faded away, the sound of laughter fading with it, but not quickly enough.
It was launch day, and Pat sat at his table at Caruther’s Books on Fifth Avenue, signing copies of his first published book. Critics had roundly praised the novel for its clever plot meanderings, realistic characters, and insightful observations that applied to humanity and the world. Pre-release publicity had set early demand for the book on fire, and the line of eager readers and immediate fans traced its way almost to the front door of the store.
Within that line, book in hand to be signed, was a family character, though his appearance was much less cartoony than the last time he’d showed his face to Pat.
“Congratulations Pat,” said the Devil suavely. “Can I ask you to inscribe my book? How ‘bout this: ‘Dear Satan, my number 1 fan. I couldn’t have done it without you!’”
“Hey Satan, glad to put down some more words for you,” Pat said. “But it won’t be those. Because I did do it without you.”
The Devil’s face turned dark with confusion; what was this human talking about? More significantly: outside of Dreamsville where they’d made their bargain, why was Pat being cocky, defiant, and frankly, fearlessly smart-alecky – in rebuffing him?
“Whatever are you talking about, dear man?!” the Devil retorted.
“Haven’t you even read the book you’re holding? Or any of the reviews for it? Or have you been too busy making touchdown dances on the one yard line? This isn’t our book, and it certainly isn’t your book. It’s my book.”
The Devil’s jaw dropped ever-lower with every word Pat said. Disbelieving, he flipped open his copy and scanned it, looking for the marks of his demonic ‘brilliance’ to appear on the pages. None could be found. Instead, there was Pat’s best writing effort to date, true to the critic’s praise on the cover, “Possibly THE ‘Great American Novel’ for our century!”
“But … what? … And if not my words, how did you come by this great success?”
“I scribed your novel, just as we’d bargained,” Pat said. “Then I put it in the fire and burned it – to ash and ruin where it was made to stay for eternity.
The Devil’s face darkened; its normal red tinge was nearly black, and a sulfurous smoke rose from the weave of his tailored suit. Outside, the sky darkened with a fast-approaching storm.
“As for my success? I guess that since I decided not to give up on doing the right things, I was still around to gather the right results at the right time.”
Angered to have been played as a fool – bested at his own game – The Devil roared. At the same time, a bolt of lightning struck the asphalt drive immediately in front of the store. The guests in the line screamed and looked outside.
When they calmed down, the strange-smelling man with bad manners had disappeared. Smiling with satisfaction, Pat took the book from the next customer in line, and inscribed it with a personal message to one of his many new, longtime fans.
To read more spooky short stories like this one, check out Fear Naught Tales: Spooky Stories to Read and Tell!