Tommy Tottenburg cherubic at six years old despite his temper tantrums, had a very sick mommy. He’d known something was up when Grandma Anne started coming over and flaunted her more angelic side, but nobody would tell him anything. Then Mommy’s hair starting falling out, and Tommy panicked.
As I’m sure you’ll recall from your time as a child, kiddies have a direct line to Satan. Tell them “no” when they want “yes” and the Lord of Flies and nasty scenes at the local deli descends on you faster than you can say Beelzebub. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying Satan personally comes to unleash a personally tailored hell on you for crossing your half-pint of squalling flesh. That would be stretching a figure of speech too far and, frankly, abuse hyperbole. He sends an assistant. They are legion.
So Tommy did was all practical six-year-olds do when their mommies get too ill to keep hissing at the in-laws for trashing the orchids at her wedding and he tried exercising his childish capacity for evil. He suspected that this might not work as smoothly as his usual clothes-shopping induced exchanges, but he didn’t quite grasp the cosmic degrees of difference involved. What can you expect from somebody who doesn’t know the truth about the black market for human bone the tooth fairy’s running?
The usual agent, a ragged teddy bear short an ear it sacrificed to the family terrier in order to settle a territorial dispute (the bear might work for Satan, but Fido was straight from Hell), called up the chain to his manager who in turn called up to the district manager. “This is heavy shit, you know?” Teddy said to cover the awkward silence as they waited on hold.
The manager manager called out to the regional manager who in turn put them on hold for a very long time. Teddy use the opportunity to educate Tommy in the ways of Texas hold ’em. Tommy started counting the cards. Fortunately, Teddy’s manager came on the line before the plush animal could bust a seam in an attempt recover last eon’s wages by force.
“Hey, Teddy?” the local manager, a plastic flamingo in the lawn outside a local drugstore asked.
“What’s up?” Teddy replied.
“Yeah, you need to bring the kid in. A thing like this has to be handled by the boss.”
“Woah. Seriously heavy shit,” Teddy quipped.
Fire and brimstone is a great landscaping move when you want to make your intentions clear to the neighbors, but lets not be fooled by outer appearances. Satan’s addiction to HGTV is rivaled only by his penchant for therapeutic shopping binges at outlet malls whenever his internet connection goes down and cuts him off from his daily fix of icanhascheezburger.com. His interior décor is fabulous.
His office is done minimalist Japanese style with redwood floors and trim, glass furniture and a giant circular sand garden. He’s using stones harvested from the chest cavities of Dickensian villains to build a rock fountain. Have I mentioned the live bamboo grove running along the back wall, complete with pet panda?
At any rate, Abaddon settled down in his black leather ergonomic chair, and offered Tommy a root beer. “I hear you want something beyond the usual.”
“Yes, please,” Tommy said. “I want my mommy to get better.”
“Son, that’s not covered under the standard license for mayhem. We’d have to negotiate a separate fee before I could consider it,” the devil said, a slight glint in his eye. “You got anything valuable? First born kids on the way, a virgin sister maybe?”
Tommy shook his head. “Would my soul be okay?”
Lucifer grinned a thin, ophidian smile and leaned forward over his well-organized desk. “I might. Let me just take a look at its condition…oh.” His shoulders drooped. “I’m afraid I can’t. Sorry kiddo, you’ll have to find another way.”
“But, my mommy!”
A pained expression crossed Old Hob’s face. “I’d love to, but I can’t right now. Do you have any idea of what it takes to find home owner’s that’ll cover Acts of God?”
Tommy crossed his arms and stomped his foot. “No! I’m not leaving until you fix my mommy.” He stomped again, and the floor of Satan’s office trembled, just a smidge.
“Listen kid, I can’t take the only form of payment you have. I just can’t. Do you expect me to do this for free?”
Tommy’s face scrunched into a glare.
“Fine. Done. Spontaneous remission. Off you go.”
Seconds later the Son of Morning had a lap full of blissed out half-pint, its stubby arms trying to crush his chest.
“Yeah, whatever kid. Outta here.”
Once Tommy was safely gone from Hell, resting like a tyrant at peace in his bedroom, Satan leaned back in his ergonomic office chair and sighed.
“That was very generous, my lord,” chirped Beri, his sentient PDA assistant. “Such a dreadful thing he wanted.”
“See to it that any time that kid wants something, he gets it. He doesn’t get back into this office, and nobody touches his soul. Fork it all over.”
“But, my lord, the accounting. This will wreak havoc on the books.”
“Don’t try to bury it. When the audit comes, explain exactly what we did.”
“Yes my lord.”
The Prince of Devils put his patent-leather clad feet on his desk, turned his face up to the glass ceiling of his office, and grinned.
Tommy lived a good life. He nearly effortlessly broke every academic record all the way through school, and positively shattered the athletic ones. His high school lacrosse coach spent the four years of Tommy’s term twittering exuberantly whenever the football coach came by to see the progress of the boy who would have been his star quarterback, if he’d cared about football.
He was wildly popular in college. Beer flowed like water at his parties, where everybody got spectacularly drunk but nobody got sick or woke up hung over. He nailed a top internship on Wall Street for the summer of his first year, and by the time he graduated he already had a reputation worth a fortune.
Senior year he fell in love. She loved him back. They didn’t marry, Tommy didn’t want to marry, but they both moved to New York. They got matching condos right across the hall from each other. It was adorable.
Tommy was thirty-four when his father died, quietly in his sleep. Six months later his mother followed. Both these things were sad, but Tommy was almost relieved when his mother passed. He remembered her dying of an inoperable cancer scattered throughout her lymphatic system. He remembered stomping his foot and making Satan tremble. And he remembered waking up to the sounds of everybody screaming because Mommy fainted while on the phone with her doctor – her cancer was magically gone. It was too easy, too perfect, and he’d quietly feared that maybe he’d doomed her to one of those dreary immortal lives where you curse the person who did it to you that you see in the movies. No, he was ready to let her go.
One perfect summer evening, the weather in New York became oppressively perfect after Tommy moved there, something very strange happened. Miriam, the girlfriend he wouldn’t marry, stopped short, her hand falling from his. Tommy followed her gaze and saw two policemen pushing around a scrawny man wearing dirt and rags. They were cussing loudly, and sniggering as the homeless man tried to slur protests.
“Excuse me,” Tommy called. “What are you doing?”
“What’s it look like. He resisted arrest,” one of the cops said.
“Why are you arresting him?”
“That’s a police matter. Go on about your business, sir,” the other officer said.
Tommy nodded, reclaimed Miriam’s hand, and started to walk on.
“Hey! Hey!” the homeless man cried. “Ain’t you supposed to do something about this? Hey guy, ain’t you s’posed to save me?”
“You should have done something, Tommy,” Miriam said later that night.
“Yeah. I know.”
When it happened again, when Tommy walked away while a John beat a hooker and she screamed after him, “Ain’t you going to do something? Ain’t you?” he started to get scared.
The market slumped steadily downward, but Tommy still did okay. Banks went bust, megacompanies looked for buyers, but Tommy and Miriam kept their condos and went blissfully forward. Now though, now Tommy was worried.
He started to wonder. The trick wasn’t that his mother was immortal, but there had to be a trick, didn’t there? What if he had given up his soul? As he thought about it, it made more and more sense. Hadn’t he always had everything he wanted? It had come with just the right struggle even. Life hadn’t been too easy, so the trick wasn’t there either. He was fulfilled. He was happy. He was the man who had been the boy who’d stomped his foot and tossed his soul to the devil. Happiness just wasn’t on the menu for such a man.
The other shoe would have to drop. Actually, given the length of his streak, lots of shoes would have to drop. A veritable rain shower of footwear would pour down on him at any moment. Oh god, the stiletto heels, they would hurt. He took to carrying a super durable umbrella, just in case. For a little while tall reinforced umbrellas were all the rage as a fashion accessory. The fad ended, but Tommy still clung to his.
On his thirty-fourth birthday he had a mini-crisis and assaulted a seven year-old girl, stealing her Bratz doll and running away with it shouting, “Get on the phone with your manager. I have some heavy shit to take up with the boss!”
“Knock it off. You’re embarrassing yourself,” the plastic demon muttered.
It could have been the great scandal that undid him entirely. What kind of man assaults little girls? “Pedophile!” he could hear it already. “You knew he was too good to be true. Tommy Tottenburg nearly kidnapped that child in broad daylight.”
The headlines reported it as a reaction against the damage to self-esteem the slutty bits of plastic could wreak on an impressionable child. He found out that he was about to be the father of a girl of his own and was overcome with terror at the destructive images abounding everywhere in the world where she’d grow up.
Miriam didn’t tell him about the pregnancy until he got home that night. She didn’t ask about the doll. She also didn’t say anything about selling one of the condos.
Tommy wandered through toy stores, desperate to recapture his connection to the underworld. He whispered to plush Pokemon, muttered at dancing robots and paced before build-a-bear with trepidation and silent pleadings.
“Cut it out already, you’re scaring the kids away,” a pound puppy hissed at him.
“Then send me up the chain,” Tommy said.
“No can do. Now scram. I got to get some work or I’ll be stuck in this hell hole forever.”
Tommy stomped his foot. “I will not scram. I want to talk to your boss.”
The pound puppy glanced to his companion, rolled its eyes, and made the call.
The fire and brimstone were all the same. Satan’s office was too. Satan was different. He looked haggard, weary. Tommy had seen that look on plenty of people. He was standing before a dark lord who was over worked and burning out. Just what he needed, a cranky Slayer of Souls.
Speaking of souls, “What have you done to me?” Tommy demanded.
“Did too,” Tommy insisted.
“Grow up,” the devil snapped. “You’ve gotten everything you’ve ever wanted perfectly, no drawbacks, not hidden misery. You couldn’t have asked for it without botching the terms, but you got it. What’s your problem.”
“I want my soul back.”
“I don’t have your soul, kid,” the devil growled. “I wouldn’t take it, remember?”
“You don’t have it?” Tommy asked, finding that just a smidge difficult to believe.
“Never touched it.”
Relief ran through Tommy. He collapsed into an ergonomic chair with mechanical back massage and trembled a little. “I still have my soul,” he said with wonder. “Then, wait, what’s with the people yelling at me? I’m supposed to do something.”
“Ain’t ya?” the devil asked with a glint in his icy, slitted eyes.
“What do you mean?”
“You think you were made for a fortune on Wall Street and the glory of a charmed life? Your mom was supposed to bite it, remember? Your dad turns drunk with grief, you have one shitty childhood, but when you get old enough to get your revenge. You go out there and fix the world, make it work just so,” and the devil pinched his fingers together, then snapped.
Tommy didn’t understand the gesture. “What do you mean.”
“Doesn’t matter. You’re missing the groundwork now. Even if you tried the same things, you don’t have the credibility to try.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Tommy was getting hysterical.
“Go live your life, kid. It’s a good one.”
“That’s not what I should do.”
“Not really, no,” shrugged the Great Tempter.
“I should be doing something.”
“About what?” Tommy asked.
“Beats me. Hey, did you know that Miriam wants to get married. She’d forgive you for the screaming at toys thing if you married her.”
“Stop it!” Tommy snarled. “I want to switch it. I want to be doing whatever it is I’m supposed to be doing. I think I’ll go crazy if I don’t.”
The desk chair squeaked a bit as Satan slumped down in it. He wasn’t the only thing in the room over worked and under-rested. “Too late. You’ve missed your chance.”
“Give me another one.”
“Oh no, I can’t do that. I’ve given you all the freebies you get already. No more.”
“I doesn’t have to be free,” Tommy said. “I have lots of things I could give you. I’m worth a fortune.”
“Me too. Mine’s bigger.”
“Want a condo?”
“I have Hell,” the devil replied.
Tommy hesitated. “I’ll give you the baby. First born and all that. Take her.”
“I hate kids. They’re always making scenes and getting into trouble.”
“Then what can I give you?”
“You offered it before.” Slitted yellow eyes shone across the glass desk, over a pot of lucky bamboo, and fixed on Tommy. “I’ll take it now.”
“You want my soul?”
“Why now?” Tommy started sweating. Suddenly, the room was very warm.
“Now I’m allowed to take it from you, if you offer it.”
Tommy hesitated. He had offered his soul before, and he hadn’t thought much of it then. But he’d just spent months on a dead panic, half crazy with the thought that he’d lost his soul. He was still reeling with joy that he was the proud owner of one shiny human soul. “I don’t think I’ll do that.”
“But you want things to be different. You should do something, remember?”
“But it’s my soul.”
“Yeah, but you’ll be getting everybody’s else’s. That’s a more than fair deal.”
“No, thanks. I’ll…I’ll go now.”
Tommy fled Satan’s office, went home, and proposed to Miriam.
They had four children. Miriam died, peacefully in her sleep. Grandchildren started to appear. Tommy found himself inordinately fond of his grandchildren – perhaps he was lonely without Miriam. He was taking a walk through Central park, his six year-old grandson and infant granddaughter in tow, when a skinny teenager in baggy pants and a patched jacket blocked the path.
“Wallet, gramps,” the teen instructed.
Tommy warily checked the children, then reached into his jacket and pulled out his wallet. Without a word he tossed it to the teen who took it, then ran away.
“Grandpa? Shouldn’t we call the police?”
“Yes,” Tommy said, but all he could think about was two cops picking on a homeless man. “Police business.” His cellphone was in his other pocket.
“Hey, ain’t you supposed to call the cops? Grandpa?”
“Ain’t you going to do something?”
“No, kiddo. No, I’m not.”
Tommy seized his grandson by the hand and marched straight home.
He didn’t leave his condo again.
Two months later he died, in his sleep, peacefully.
“Hey, yeah, connect me with the boss,” Satan said, the mike on his headset filtering out the sounds of cackling toys in the background.
“You’ll have to hold while I find him,” the voice on the other end replied with crisp, angelic efficiency.
“Don’t take too long. This is some heavy shit.”
“What is the nature of the call?”
“Is this in regard to an ongoing issue?”
“Tell him that I followed the rules and junior still flopped.”
“Yes sir, very well done. I’m putting you through right now.”