Eleven pm, June 26th 2015. A young man recently turned twenty one stood patiently waiting for The Devil, as was tradition.
Alex stood outside on the front porch, flicking cigarette ashes into his Mom’s flowerbed. The orange glow of the streetlights outside kept the front lawn well illuminated in amber beams, coating even his own angry red embers in an orange glow, like peeking at a hot fire behind a veil of honey. He had just turned twenty one for twenty three hours, and already thought being an adult sucked ass.
The only reason he was at his parents’ house instead of out with his buddies drinking was because his parents had insisted on him staying with them, and letting him go out to party with his buddies the next day. He had told them it felt weird to follow tradition and celebrate the 21st birthday belated instead of on the day, but they insisted — worse, his friends agreed. The guys who were above twenty one (or simply had earlier birthday dates) all agreed it’s best to spend Day One of Year 21 with loved ones and family if you’ve got them, and go have fun the next day. The guys who were below twenty one all said that’s what they would do too, when their time came.
Supposedly The Devil was due to appear on his 21st birthday. That’s what almost everyone said. The Devil would meet the birthday boy (or gal) in some form or other, and try to corrupt the person within 24 hours. Pass or fail, nobody knew. Some passed more obviously than others, like Jesus, God’s own Son. Some failed more spectacularly, like John Wayne Gacy. But none of them knew if their encounter went one way or the other.
Supposedly being the key word here. Alex sat down on a rocking chair that his Mom had kept out on the front porch and stared up into the sky. Thanks to the Internet, he now had access to a lot more information than anyone did in the previous generation, and what he had discovered was that there was large chunk of the population that did not actually meet The Devil on their 21st birthdays — and thus thought the whole tradition of ‘waiting for The Devil’ was a load of bullshit.
One guy related how he waited inside a church for 24 hours, so scared he almost pissed his pants, and was so angry when nothing happened. Others pointed out that he was in a church and thus had proper protection. But then another posted that he disobeyed the tradition, went out partying, had fun, is now forty with a great life. He mysteriously refused to elaborate on his great life, however, leading many — as the Internet is wont to do — to call bullshit.
For his part, Alex didn’t know what to think. All he knew was, he wasn’t alone in expecting nothing to happen.
The door opened slightly behind him. He watched as Anna’s head appeared. “So…nothing?”
Alex looked at his sister and shook his head. “Nah.”
Anna stepped outside, joining her brother. She took care to stand upwind of him and his cigarette smoke. “You’ve got the better part of an hour left.”
“Fifty five…fifty four minutes,” Alex exhaled. “Unless you’re him.”
Anna scrunched up her face and made claw hands. “I am the devil, and I come to do the devil’s work! Renounce your faith, asshole!”
Alex laughed. Anna was three years younger, but shared his scepticism already, to the annoyance of their very religious mother. Presently she leaned back against the wall of the house, a little behind and to the right of her brother.
“You don’t…really think he’s going to show, do you?”
“Oh yeah, and he’s going to bring Chucky Manson and his family with him too.”
“I’m being serious.”
Alex turned to look at his sister’s face and realised that she was. He flicked the butt away. “What’s up, Sis? I knew you didn’t come out here for me.”
“I…I don’t know. Can I…can I see him? Can I be here when he shows?”
Alex shrugged. “I don’t see why not, but I also don’t see why.”
“I just…I just want to prove he’s not real,” Anna took a few steps and turned to face him, leaning back against the railing of the porch. “To myself. So I’m not so…so freaked out about this.”
“And why are you freaking out? You’re not the one with an appointment with the Prince of Darkness.”
“I know, it’s just…” She shook her head, as if she was trying to dispel some notion in her mind. “Dad believes it.”
Alex stared at his sister for a good, long moment. “What?”
“Dad believes it. He says he’s met the devil. He says it’s real and anybody who says otherwise is either lying or stupid.”
“Wait a minute,” Alex leaned forward. “Dad believes this whole waiting for the devil shit?”
Anna just nodded while Alex stared. Diametrically opposed to their mother in terms of beliefs, their father was the most rational and facts based person they knew. He was very concrete, always looking for facts versus hearsay, and he had raised them to be the same. And now Anna was saying this man believed in the Devil, and waiting for him on your twenty first birthday.
“Holy shit,” was all Alex could say.
“I’m…almost sure Dad wasn’t just making it up,” Anna replied, “but I need to know for sure. So I’m going to wait out here with you.”
Alex stared at his sister, then glanced at his watch. Eleven fifty. “We have fifty minutes left. If you can wait that long, and you do not have to, because you’re not twenty one.”
“Look, make fun of me if you want, but I’m staying out here. You didn’t…you didn’t hear what he told me.”
“And that is…?”
“How he met the devil. On his twenty first birthday.”
“Okay, what? Why did Dad tell you about this and not me?”
Anna looked down onto the floorboards. “Mom was there too and she told her story.”
Alex gawped in disbelief. “Same question!”
“Look, I don’t know,” Anna spread her hands out, pleadingly. “They said they’d tell you, but they didn’t think you’d believe them. They said all they can do for you is wish you luck and pray. They said you wouldn’t believe it unless it happened to you.”
“So they told you? Wow,” Alex lit another cigarette. “They must think you’re dumber than I am.”
“Asshole,” she replied. “Look, I didn’t believe it either at first, but hearing Dad’s story…I’ve got to be sure, now.”
Alex exhaled, smoke streaming out of his nostrils. “Okay, I give. What is this story? I’ve got like, fifty minutes to kill.”
Anna sighed, and looked at the ceiling for a moment. Then she looked back at her brother.
“Okay, here goes. Mom told her story first, and it’s just laughable, I guess, but you know Mom. Anyway, she told me she didn’t actually wait for the devil, she had her birthday party right on her birthday itself. She went on about the food, the cake, dancing with Dad and other stuff I guess before she got to the real interesting part. Anyway, Grandpa apparently let her and her friends open up a champagne bottle, and they had a few glasses in the living room, just chatting the night away.”
“Night? Okay, so this must have been a real party.”
“To hear her tell it, it was. Anyway, she said she had only a few glasses, so she says what happened next really happened. Her friends left, and she lay down alone on the couch, when suddenly she couldn’t move. She could look around, but she couldn’t move her head. She couldn’t even move her pinky.
“Then all of a sudden there was this big, black cloud right in front of her, and she kept repeating how scary this cloud was, because suddenly a face formed up in the cloud, and I guess this was The Devil, because she said it had horns and red eyes and fangs and shit. It tried to talk to her but she didn’t understand it, like it was speaking in tongues or something. Well then she said she felt helpless and like she was going to die. A sense of impending doom, she said.
“Then suddenly there was this bright light, on her left, and it asked her if she wanted it to save her. She said it felt like the opposite of the dark cloud, like it was warm and inviting and shit. But somehow she didn’t trust it, and she didn’t answer it.
“All of a sudden she heard the clock strike twelve, and suddenly she could move again. The dark cloud disappeared, and she turned to look at the light, and in a split second she said she saw a handsome man in the light. He gave her the creeps, but before he left she noticed his eyes were red — the same red as the face in the cloud.”
Alex listened intently, and when it was apparent that was end of the story, he scratched his head. “Well, first of all, that would be just like Mom to try to spook people with the whole fire and brimstone deal-”
“I told her that.”
“And, well, maybe Mom just had some sleep paralysis, I mean what she described sounds exactly like-”
“I told her that too.” Anna smiled a bit, not like she was looking at her older brother but like she was looking at a child trying to comprehend existence and reality. “But then Dad told his story.”
Alex sighed. “Go ahead.”
“Dad’s maybe a year, two older than Mom, so this was back when they were still dating. Mom and Dad got into a pretty big fight and they weren’t talking to each other. Hadn’t been for days. Over what, I don’t know, Dad doesn’t even remember and neither does Mom.
“So Dad was going to have his birthday celebration on the day itself, and this makes sense to me because well, he’s Dad, he’s not going to believe in anything he doesn’t have evidence for. In fact the way he said it, he was just like you were now, except his parents really didn’t give a shit whether he waited for The Devil or not.
“So he went out, met up with his friends, had his birthday cake and shit, then they went off to the bar with the intention to get laid and get shitfaced, not necessarily in that order. Mom was supposed to take Dad out for a nice dinner and movie, which I guess was their generation’s version of Netflix and chill, but then they got into a fight, so those plans got replaced with a bar hopping tour. He got in the car with his friends after dinner, and turns out they had a whole map drawn up of their bar crawl. Standing Irish, Broken Pot, Grandpa Auley’s, y’know, all the bars in order. They were going to take all night if it took all night. The driver even declared that the night was a bust if even a single one of them didn’t get laid in the backseat. At this point Dad kind of tried to give the impression that he was young, maybe because he was telling about all this in front of Mom.
“So off they went, one birthday guy and four of his friends. First stop was Standing Irish. Pop, the bartender there, said first round was on the house for the birthday boy. Plan was to get a round of their best beer, try to score by the time the guys finish their drinks, move on. So Dad and his pals scanned the room to find a chick to score with, when suddenly all their eyes fixed on the same one at the bar.
“Uh, Dad went into really really great detail to describe her that I’m not comfortable with, so let’s just say she was hot.”
“Anyway, they all see this hot lady drinking alone. His friends egged him on, saying ‘first score is on the birthday boy’ or ‘if you don’t get laid, we don’t get laid’, y’know, guy stuff like that.So Dad is actually thinking about Mom, or so he says, but remembers they were fighting and thought, fuck it, and went up to talk to her. The way Dad tells it, she was really into him, I don’t know if it was just machismo on his part. They talk and talk, and Dad almost tried to seal the deal before he realised something.
“He had already had some kind of…he says it was a ‘funny feeling’ about that lady. He felt it the moment he saw her, but he kind of played it off as just nerves, or guilt for doing this to Mom. It was like, a queasy feeling, like his gut was telling him something was seriously just wrong and he needed to get out. He couldn’t explain it until he looked into her eyes. They were red.”
Anna paused, shivering from an absent cold. Alex just shrugged. “Maybe she was stoned out of her mind.”
“He…Dad said it wasn’t like that. Her pupils, they were red. Not like she was stoned or whatever, it was like…you know how people have blue eyes, green eyes, that kind of thing? This lady’s eyes were red, and it disturbed him.
“Dad being Dad, he thought nothing of it, he even said he thought it might be a disease or gene defect that it wasn’t cool to bring up, so he just excused himself and tried to re-join his friends — but the lady wouldn’t let him. She kept blowing off his excuses, and just, y’know, kept talking, kept pawing him, keeping her body close to his, and finally Dad couldn’t take it anymore and just got up to leave.
“Guys being guys, his buddies gave him shit for it, but he promised to hook up with the next girl in the next bar. All while they were talking, finishing their drinks, Dad kept a close eye on the lady, and she didn’t do anything, but he swore she was staring at him the whole time.
“So they finish their drinks, thank Pop, then get back in the car and drive to the next spot, which was Broken Pot. You ever been there?”
Alex shook his head. “Standing Irish I know.”
“Yeah, me neither. Dad swears it takes half an hour to walk there, but driving at night takes just over five. So the guys get out, buy a round of drinks, and when they start scanning the room for girls all of them see the same lady, and all of them recognised her from the Standing Irish.
“Now everyone’s on edge. The guys are all realising something weird is up. Everybody’s heard about waiting for the devil, but they’re just like Dad — they don’t really believe, like, The Devil is going to actually show up. Somebody says maybe she ran over here, and one of them checks with the bartender, no, she’s been there all night. So the driver says, fuck it, let’s finish our beers and act cool then go off to the next bar. So they do, but the mood is dead, like nobody’s joking around and nobody’s even talking, they’re all just jittery.
“So they finish their drinks but before they could leave, bartender passes Dad a folded up piece of paper. Dad reads it and it’s just a lipstick stain, over and over again. Guy says it’s the lady who sent it over. Dad’s like, nope, fuck this, and he leaves with his buddies.”
“Let me guess, next bar they see the same gal.”
Anna pouted a bit. “Okay, I don’t see how you’re not the slightest bit freaked out, seeing as this is Dad’s story. Have you ever even heard of him tell this kind of stuff?”
Alex put his hands up in surrender. “Hey, I’m just saying, a pattern’s emerging. Like any story, it obeys story tropes.”
“You want to hear the rest or not?”
Alex looked at his watch and sighed. Forty five minutes. “Okay, yeah, go on.”
Anna shot her brother a look before continuing. “Okay, so anyway, you’re right, they see the same lady. Same dress, same hair, same everything. The gang saw her and didn’t even bother ordering drinks. They just got the fuck out of there and drove to the next bar, and yes, she’s there again, but this time she’s smiling as they see her.
“They’re all freaked out at this point. Driver’s a real trooper though, he insists on having a boozer with Dad. So he says fuck this shit, let’s go get some cases of beer at the store and go drinking at the park until they pass out.”
“And at the store is the same lady.”
“No, they manage to buy like four cases of beer and stuff it in the trunk then drive off to the park. The drive up itself is pretty uneventful, then they make it to the park and try to find a good spot to sit around getting the mood back up. They barely sat down when they all felt, as Dad said, ‘inclined’ to look one way, off towards the fountain in the middle of the park. And that’s when they all saw her again.
“The driver is really pissed off now. He yells at her to leave them alone, this is a private party, blah blah blah, but she just keeps staring at Dad. Driver goes over to, I don’t know, maybe hit her, but then she stops smiling and just has this really, really angry look in her face. Dad said he had never felt emotions radiate from someone before, but that night he felt pure fucking hatred radiate towards them.
“They freak out and grab the beer (of course) and run to the car. Dad’s the last to get in, because he turned to look — and she was running, full on running towards them. She was maybe half a mile away when they all ran, and when he turned she’d covered half that distance. Needless to say Dad screamed and got in the car and they hightailed out of there.”
“Jesus,” Alex breathed.
“That’s not the end of it. Maybe a few seconds after, Driver looks in his rear view mirror and does a double take. She’s still chasing them. Driver floors it like everybody else tells him to, and she’s keeping up. Dad says she even looks like she’s gaining on them. Everybody’s freaking out. One guy starts throwing beer cans at her. One guy starts praying. Driver is running all lights, screaming his head off asking what are they going to do.
“Then Dad recognises the street they’re in, and he tells the driver to head to Mom’s place. Dad wasn’t sure why, or given much thought to leading a potentially dangerous situation right up to Mom’s doorstep, but he didn’t know what else to do. Driver’s got no better ideas, so he drives off towards Mom’s house.
“When they get there Dad doesn’t wait for the car to stop. He just opened the door and jumped, ‘action hero style’ as he said, and rolled on the grass. By the time he’s got to his feet the lady, if you can still call her that, had caught up. He runs at the door, screaming Mom’s name over and over again, but before he could get three knocks in, the…thing grabs him by his shoulders, turns him around, and pins him to the door.
“Dad got a full look at her. She looked the same she always had, which was to say, hot with a vaguely unnatural undertone, and of course the red eyes. She was smiling, and Dad thought it was a bit too wide to fit on her face. And next comes the part that Dad said gave him nightmares for years.
“He was real scared when he asked her what she wanted. She just smiles, and says all he had to do was want her. And she said that in this real creepy whisper, half inside his head, half right next to his ears, and her lips did not move.
“Dad freaks. He just starts crying, shouting Mom’s name over and over again. As soon as he said Mom’s name the thing’s face changes, from smiling to frowning then back to sheer fucking hatred like back in the park. It started squeezing Dad’s shoulders, so hard he thought she might break his arms. Dad thought he was about to die when suddenly he heard Mom’s voice from above him.
“Mom had opened her window, to see Dad being pinned to the door by this lady, crying and screaming. Mom said she knew something was up because she’d never heard him scream like that. Well Mom starts yelling at the thing, telling her to get away from her boyfriend, to leave him alone, she’s calling the cops and all that. The weirdest thing was, when Mom started threatening it, it just seemed to back off. Almost like it was scared of Mom. So Mom just kept threatening it, until it got way off the property line. Then she went downstairs and let Dad and the guys in.
“They were in shock, one guy puked all over the front lawn. Grandpa and Grandma let the guys sleep in the living room while Dad went up to Mom’s room. They didn’t do anything, Dad said, he was too frightened. Terrorised, Mom said. When Dad told Grandpa and Grandma about it, they just nodded and said that was The Devil, and Mom was his salvation.”
Anna paused for a good long while after the lengthy story. Alex just stared at his sister. Knowing their father like he did, this did not sound like something their Dad would tell.
“So,” Anna said, after maybe ten minutes of silence, “What do you think of it now?”
Alex scratched his head. “I don’t know what to think. If…I don’t know, if Dad told that story then…wow. I don’t know what to think.”
Anna nodded, completely understanding. “Now you know how I feel.”
Alex lit another cigarette, his mind racing. He didn’t know what to think, that much was true. Worse, he didn’t know how he should feel. Scared? Anxious? Amused? Apparently the most rational man he knew believed in The Devil, and that he would meet him within half an hour, give or take. How does one act, feel in response to that?
Alex exhaled smoke, shrouding himself like a blanket, as if it would keep the questions in his mind still. “I wonder, though…”
Anna’s eyes narrowed. “What about?”
“Well, it doesn’t seem like the Devil is using very effective methods to corrupt people, if that’s his goal,” Alex shrugged. “Scare the bejesus out of ‘em? Really? That…that kind of shoves people away from you.”
Anna smiled slightly. “So, O tempter of the innocent, how would you do it?”
“A little subtlety goes a long way. Maybe…maybe don’t freak Dad out. I mean, he was arguing with Mom, right? And if she was really his salvation — I’m working based on a lot of assumptions here — then wouldn’t his first approach be the right one, y’know, make Dad cheat, make him realise there’s better out there, then boom, Dad dumps Mom, we are never born, and Dad marries somebody else and Mom marries Jesus or a priest or some shit. Instant success!” Alex felt a little too proud of his conclusion. “So why go about chasing Dad like that?”
Anna frowned. “I guess that makes sense.”
Alex stood and paced. The more he thought about it, the more comfort he was able to draw, settling his mind. “And another thing…why the red eyes? They’re a dead giveaway. You probably don’t want to advertise to people that you’re The Devil, nobody wants to go to Hell, y’know. So hide them.”
“Then how will people know they’ve met the devil?”
“How do people know this thing they’ve met is the devil, anyway? All I have is Grandpa’s word for it. And I guess Mom and Dad by proxy. He doesn’t come up to people and advertise that fact, does he? He doesn’t just go up to people and say, ‘What’s up, I’m the devil, hey let’s be friends’. And if he did, then wouldn’t that defeat the whole purpose, like I said about the red eyes? So he’s kinda stuck. He loses if he tells people who he is, and he loses if he doesn’t. So why even bother?”
Alex stopped. Anna probably reached the same conclusion he did, because seconds after he stopped pacing, she said “Maybe his best bet is to not show, according to you.”
Alex turned, waving his cigarette at his sister. “He has to show, according to you.”
“Not me, Mom and Dad! And I thought you did internet research, y’know, reading up on people who have never even seen anyone, much less The Devil on their twenty first birthday. Maybe he thought of that before you did?”
Alex stared at his sister. “That is disturbing. But, say, I thought he had to appear on your twenty first birthday. Like, it was an obligation, y’know?”
“No, I don’t. That’s why I’m here, to see if it’s true.”
“Well, say he has to. Why so inconsistent? Everyone had to have met him, in some way or another. Why didn’t he appear to some people? Of course, we’re talking about people on the Internet, so it’s all completely anecdotal. And if he doesn’t have to, why show up at all?” Alex shrugged. “I don’t know, it just doesn’t make sense.”
Anna snickered. “No, you’re not making any sense. Dad’s story rattled you good, huh?”
Alex was about to say something when a soft, faint sound pricked his ears. He held up a finger to Anna, motioning her to be quiet. At first all they both heard was the sound of the night; crickets chriping, cars roaring in the distance, the creak of the floorboards underneath them as the house settled.
Then, through a lull in the crickets’ song, they heard it; a low voice, barely above a whisper, as if chanting something.
They strained their ears to listen more closely. Alex thought it might come from the back of the house. Slowly he crept down the front porch steps, intending to investigate. He had barely made five steps towards the side lawn when he heard floorboards creaking behind him. He turned to see Anna standing up and following him.
“Stay here,” Alex whispered.
“What is that? What if it’s him?” She whispered back.
“We don’t know what it is! Look, just…stay back. And get ready to call the cops.”
“Just in case, all right? Where’s your phone?”
“I left it in my room!”
Alex rolled his eyes. The one time Anna wasn’t glued to her phone snapchatting or whatever. “Just…stay back. Be ready for anything.”
Anna nodded, and followed her brother at a short distance as he continued to sneak through the side lawn. His heart beat a quick tattoo, as his mind flashed through the possibilities. A fine time to have just listened to Mom and Dad’s spooky stories. A fine time to have his own beliefs challenged and his mind opened to the realm of possibilites.
A fine time to have just turned twenty one, and be waiting for the devil.
The closer he crept, the clearer he could hear the voice. At this distance, they came to him in broken snippets, mangled phrases and deformed words.
His breathing quickened. He turned to check on Anna, and she seemed as on edge as he was. He turned back and continued, and as he came closer to the back door, the words took form like a genie conjured from a bottle.
“…sixpence upon a crooked stile..”
Alex slowed as he approached the corner. He crept closer to the wall, keeping his back to it. He could hear the voice very, very clearly now. It sounded hoarse and raspy, as if whoever it was had been screaming for a long time before. It was clearly a man’s voice, and Alex could tell from the sound of it how dry his throat was. His voice sped up and slowed down at seemingly random intervals, smashing words together and dragging out others.
“There was…a crooked man an’he walked-a crooked mile. He found crooked sixpence upon a crooked…stile. He bought a crooked cat caught a crooked mouse. And they all lived together in a little…crooked…house…”
As he ended the rhyme, the man started back up again, speeding up and slowing down randomly, his voice never rising above conversational volume. Alex took a deep, long breath. Anna had followed his lead and hugged the wall, inching closer to her brother.
“What is it?” Anna whispered. The man continued reciting his rhyme, uninterrupted.
“I don’t know,” his whisper sounded way too loud. “Let me look. Get ready to run if you have to.”
Breath held, Alex slowly inched his head forward, around the corner.
A man in a black baggy shirt stood a few meters away from their back door. He looked dishevelled, as if he had just woken up from sleep and immediately rushed here. His dark hair was a mess, and the bottoms of his jeans were caked with dirt as if he had walked through a pool of mud. Dry mud caked his feet and sandals, and he was hugging himself, staring at the ground, repeating the same thing over and over again in a conspiratorial tone.
“There was…there was a crooked manandhewalked a crooked mile…he found a…a crooked sixpenceontopacrooked st-stile…he bought…a crooked…catcaughtacrookedmouseand they…they all lived together ina little…crokkedhousetherewasa crooked man…”
Alex drew back, more than a little bit confused. Anna tapped him on his shoulder and whispered, “What?”
“There’s some guy,” he whispered back. “He’s just standing there. Saying this nursery rhyme over and over again.”
Anna’s face told him that it wasn’t what she expected at all. “D’you recognise him?”
“Why would I recognise a crazy guy?”
Anna’s eyes widened. “You don’t think it’s-”
“Stop,” Alex cut her off with a finger held up. “Stop. That is the last thing I need right now.”
“It’s not midnight yet. It might be.”
“Shut up!” Alex listened. The man had paused, but continued the same as he did before. Alex sighed in relief. “Listen, this is what we’re going to do. You go back inside, get your phone, and come back downstairs, indoors this time. Don’t unlock the screen door. Anything suspicious, call the cops. I’ll go and try to talk to this guy, see if I can’t get him to go away.”
“Leave you alone with this guy? Are you sure?”
Alex smiled, a gesture that shocked his sister. “No, I’m not. But I’ve been waiting for forty five minutes, this is the first weird thing to happen today. This is it, Anna, moment of truth. Truth or not, this is when I find out.”
Anna swallowed. “I don’t know, Alex, I don’t want to leave you alone like this.”
“Hence, why you should grab your phone and call the cops. Okay?”
Anna deliberated for a while, then just nodded. She gave her brother a kiss on the cheek, and left as he had told her to.
Alex wished he was as confident as he must have sounded. All this Devil talk had gotten to him more than he thought. What if that was him? It certainly fit the tropes from his parents’ stories to a T. Before you know it he was vomiting bugs on Alex, chanting in tongues, screaming at him to renounce Jesus and embrace Satan.
Alex shook his head. No, that’s not what scared him, he told himself. He’s scared because he doesn’t know why this guy is here. He, like every other human being, is scared of the unknown, and is scared of having somebody invade you at your home, when you’re most vulnerable. Invasion of privacy and security by a total stranger.
Yeah. That was it.
Alex took two deep breaths, mustered up all his courage, and rounded the corner.
The man was still where he was, and continued chanting his strange nursery rhyme. Alex paused, and took large, slow steps towards the man, keeping himself between the house and the rhyme sayer. The other man seemed to pay him no attention. Alex stepped faster, and yet the man gave no response. When he was directly in front of him, between the back door and the man in the yard, he turned to look at the door.
Anna was standing there. She had opened the back door, and left just the screen door closed. Alex wondered if the screen could withstand a crazy junkie’s pummeling. He hoped so. Alex turned back to the dishevelled man, and cleared his throat. The man did not respond, only continuing to recite the rhyme.
“Therewasacrookedman and…and he walked a crooked mile, he found a crooked sizpence ontopacrookestileandhe bought…bought…bought a crooked cat…”
Alex decided now was the time to be bold a bit. He took a deep breath, then yelled out, “Hey! You!”
The man ignored him.
“Bought a crooked cat…caught a crooked mouse…”
Alex decided to try again. “Hey, man, what’s wrong with you?”
The man ignored him again.
“Foundacrookedsixpence…on top a crooked stile…”
Alex swallowed and went up closer to the man. “Hey, c’mon. This is my house. Go away.”
“Can’t go can’t go can’t go,” the man said, apparently finally acknowledging Alex. “Crooked man, crooked man, crooked man.”
Alex was now face to face with the man. He saw a wrinkled, dark face, aged well before its time, possibly due to substance abuse. The lips, stained black from tobacco, kept moving, chanting over and over by himself.
“Hey,” Alex said, right to the man’s face. To his surprise, the man stopped and looked at him. “C’mon, buddy. Go home. This ain’t it.”
“And they all lived together in a…crooked house?” That last part of the rhyme came out as if it was a question. A sad, pathetic question coming from a mind broken by…what, Alex couldn’t tell.
Alex also noticed, now that he had his face right up to the guy’s, that the man’s eyes were red. Not red in the pupils, like Anna had said, but rather bloodshot — like he had one too many of whatever the hell it is he was on. For some reason that brought Alex some relief.
“Yeah, man,” Alex sighed, relaxing. “Go back to your crooked hou-”
“CROOKED HOUSE!” The man shouted suddenly. With astonishing speed, he pushed Alex to the ground, screaming. “CROOKED MAN! CROOKED HOUSE!”
“Alex!” Anna yelled from the back door.
The junkie turned to look at Anna. “Crooked house,” he breathed. Alex inched slowly away from the crazy junkie. “Crooked house! CROOKED HOUSE!”
“Anna, lock the door!”
“CROOKED HOUSE!” The junkie screamed again, and then mercifully ran out through the back gate, still screaming. “CROOKED HOUSE!”
Alex got up and ran to the back gate. Peering through the dimly lit alley, Alex saw the junkie run at full speed, straight into a man who was walking the opposite way. He winced as the junkie barreled right into the poor pedestrian, who immediately gave his assailant a piece of his mind.
“Watch where you’re going, ya jerk!”
“Crooked man!” Alex heard the junkie yell. Then he saw the junkie get back up and continue running, still screaming. “Crooked man! Crooked man! Crooked man!”
Alex continued staring at the quickly receding figure in the distance. Meanwhile, Anna had apparently left the house and had joined her brother at the gate.
“What was that? Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” Alex said, and realised he meant it. All the tension that had built up was gone now. Anna’s stories, the junkie, the anticipation of waiting for The Devil, all gone. Alex laughed, and checked his watch. Two minutes to midnight.
The Devil was a no-show.
“Did you see his eyes? Were they red?” Anna asked, obviously not as relieved as Alex. He nodded.
“Not, like red pupils like you said. Guy was just high.”
“Oh,” Anna seemed a bit disappointed, but Alex could see all her tension dissipate too. “Kind of a letdown. No Devil, apparently.”
“Apparently,” Alex lit up a cigarette. “So, there you have it. The Devil does not exist.”
“Good to know,” Anna smiled. “Well, that’s enough excitement for one night. I’m going back inside. Should I call the cops?”
“Nah,” Alex shook his head. “Leave ’em alone. Nothing happened anyway.”
“Okay,” Anna turned to go inside. Halfway to the house, Anna turned and called out to her brother, “Hey, don’t stay out too late. You got partying to do tomorrow.”
“Alex? Thanks for letting me stay with you.”
Alex smiled. “Don’t mention it. Especially not to Mom and Dad.”
Anna laughed, and headed back inside. Alex turned to look out into the alley one last time. Vindication swept over him like the cool breeze blowing in over the rooftops. The orange streetlights washed over him, leaving him alone with nothing but the crickets and the heavy approaching footsteps of the poor guy the junkie ran into, literally.
The Devil does not exist, Alex thought, glancing at his watch. One minute to go. The Devil does not exist, and I have proof.
“Excuse me?” A voice interrupted him. Alex turned to look. It was the guy the junkie had run into. He looked bad, but Alex imagined it all had to do with getting tackled by an oncoming crazy guy. Everything he wore was grey, from his hat to his vest, to his pants too. Even his shoes were grey.
The grey man continued. “Could I have a light? Must have lost mine, I got hit by some running guy.”
“Yeah, sure,” Alex pulled his lighter out. “I saw. Must not be your night.” He lit the man’s cigarette for him, orange flare illuminating the grey man’s face for just a split second.
In that split second, Alex’s heart stopped.
In that split second that the grey man’s face was illuminated, Alex saw his eyes. He couldn’t explain why he looked into them, later, just that he did. The orange glow of the flame from his lighter illuminated the grey man’s face, covered it up like a veil. The orange veil filtered what colour his eyes really were, but for a moment Alex thought he had seen the same colour on the red embers on his lit cigarette, red covered by a slight tinge of orange. As soon as the moment passed, the grey man’s face went back into shadow, and Alex could see no more.
The grey man took a drag and smiled, tipping his hat at Alex. “I wouldn’t say that. Thank you.” He walked away, leaving Alex dumbfounded in his back gate.
Was that…? No, Alex thought, shaking his head. No. The Devil was a no-show. The Devil didn’t show. He was not corrupted, he will never be, because The Devil was a no-show. That must have been a trick of the light. He was tired. It was late, and he had his nerves frayed by Anna’s stories and the crazy junkie.
Alex flicked his half smoked cigarette off into the street and turned back, remembering to lock the gate behind him. Anna was right. He had a lot of partying to do tomorrow, and he wasn’t about to waste time on whether or not he saw something that was obviously a trick of the light. He was going to go upstairs, get some rest, then put the question about what he just saw out of his mind forever.
He doubted the question would ever leave. It would consume him, eating away at the grey matter of his brain, picking at his resolve. It would linger like a bad smell, never ever leaving like an unwanted guest in his home.
He resolved to try, anyway.
Original /r/writingprompts thread:
[WP] Everyone has an anonymous encounter with the devil on their 21st birthday. He tries to subtly send people on a path of darkness. Today is your 21st birthday.
Hope you enjoyed. Comments and criticism VERY welcome.