Glenn sat on the corner of his bed, staring at the squiggles on his bedroom wall. He’d never noticed the pattern. From where he sat it looked like columns of skulls being consumed by worms.
“How long have we had that wallpaper?” he asked, walking over to examine it up close.
“About five years,” Amanda shouted from the bathroom. “Why?”
“I’ve never really looked at it before,” Glenn replied. “Are those supposed to be pineapples?”
“What’s wrong with pineapples?” Amanda asked as she scurried from the bathroom to the closet, and then to the bed, arms laden with shoe boxes.
“Nothing’s wrong with them,” Glenn said. “I just didn’t remember them being there.”
“I’m surprised you remember me as much as you’ve been working these last few years,” she said, stretching out her legs to make an appraisal of the black loafers she’d just slipped on.
“I’ll have plenty of time to get reacquainted with you and the wallpaper now that I’m officially retired,” Glenn said walking over to sit beside her. “What are you getting all dolled up for?”
“I wouldn’t say this is ‘all dolled up,’” she said. “What do you think of these?”
“I think they’re shoes,” Glenn said, earning an elbow in the ribs.
“Do you think they’re too casual for the council meeting, smarty pants,” she said, lifting her feet and wiggling them for him.
“Council meeting? What council meeting?” Glenn asked.
“The one I’ve attended every Thursday for the past year,” she said, twisting around to check the alarm clock on the night stand. “The meeting I’m going to be late to if I keep sitting around discussing the wallpaper.”
She leaned over to kiss Glenn on the forehead and got up to leave, checking her hair one last time in the mirror over the dresser before heading out the door.
“When will you be home?” Glenn shouted. She shouted something back, but his hearing wasn’t up to the task of deciphering it. From the window, he watched her pull off in the BMW he assumed he’d bought her, but couldn’t remember seeing before.
“Well, it looks like you’re on your own today, Glenn,” he said to himself. Now it was time to harvest the fruits of all those years of labor. He finally had time to enjoy life, starting with breakfast, a real breakfast, consumed at the table and not behind the wheel of a car. He went down to the kitchen and started a pot of coffee. He would drink it from a real ceramic mug, not a Styrofoam cup, and he would have exactly as much cream and sugar as he liked. He found a mug in the cabinet and discovered the pots and pans under the sink, when he realized he didn’t have the slightest idea of what to do with them. He left them where they were, pulled a bowl down from the top shelf, and filled it with cereal.
His best years lie ahead, he thought as he chewed on a tasteless wad of nuts and flakes. After a few minutes, he gave up, spitting the cereal back into the bowl and rinsing the residue off his dentures with a mouthful of coffee. Returning the box of cereal to the panty, he scanned the shelves for something he could eat, straining to read the labels through bifocals that should have been replaced years ago. He removed the glasses and wiped the lenses on his sleeve but it didn’t help anymore than it had the other thousand times he’d performed the ritual. He was able to recognize a jar of peanut butter, but left it on the shelf after making out the words ‘All Natural’ at the top of the label. Defeated, was about to close the pantry and go back to his coffee when he noticed the calendar hanging on the inside of the door. He could see nearly every square was covered in red ink. Holding his glasses out in front of his face and peering through them, he could just make out the names of all the places where his wife had appointments and the times she had to be there. He saw she was playing tennis on Tuesday, and had to be at the dog groomer at noon on Wednesday. It looked like she had several appointments on Thursday, though he couldn’t quite make those out since she’d written smaller to fit them all in. On Friday night she was playing bridge with someone named Amy. She was going to leave him alone every single day!
He dropped down into his seat at the table and drew in a deep breath like he used to do before making a presentation to the board of directors. He started to reach for the mug to wash away the sand building up in his throat, but jerked his hand back, hiding it under the table when he realized it was trembling. It took him a second to realize nobody was there to see it. At the office he had never been alone. Even in his office he had been surrounded by the constant buzz of his coworkers as they rushed up and down the hall and recited sales figures on the other side of paper-thin walls. Now there was only the sound of his own beating heart and the nervous tapping of his slipper on the kitchen tile to remind him he was alive and not already moldering in the vault of the mausoleum he’d purchased with his quarterly bonus several years ago. Brushing his bangs back off his forehead and tightening the belt on his robe, he shuffled off, seeking the sound of human voices.
The television took up nearly an entire wall in the den, and could display any program being transmitted anywhere on Earth with the press of a button. The problem was figuring out which buttons to press. Perched on the edge of the sofa, he studied the plastic wand in his hand, trying to make sense of it. The television had always already been on when he came home, and, on the rare occasions when he had stayed up to watch, his wife had always selected the programs. It didn’t help that he couldn’t see the symbols printed on buttons.
“Don’t even know how to work your own TV,” he said in disgust, throwing down the controller. He would have to have Amanda show him how to work it, if she was ever around long enough. But was that how he was going to spend his days, staring at a screen while the world went on without him? It suddenly dawned on him he had no idea how he was going to fill his time. He had never cultivated any hobbies, or friendships outside of the office. What did he do before the endless hours of board meetings and sales pitches? He’d played baseball, and he remembered he liked to swim. That had been before decades spent sitting behind a desk had withered his muscles and fused his spine into an inflexible rod,
Amanda returned home just after three in the afternoon to find Glenn on the patio, staring at the empty bird bath. The fifth leaning up against the leg of his chair was nearly empty.
“That bottle sat on the shelf for almost two years, and you empty it on your first day of retirement?” she said, standing over him with her arms crossed over her chest. “I hope this isn’t a preview of things to come.”
“I couldn’t figure out how to work the TV,” he said, glumly, his words trailing off as his head fell forward onto his chest. She caught him and pushed him back before he fell out of the chair and then went to get a blanket to put over him.
Two weeks passed and Glenn had emptied nearly every bottle in the liquor cabinet. He’d mastered the television remote, but the achievement brought little satisfaction. Watching pretend people live pretend lives depressed him, all the more so because their experiences still seemed more real than his own. On this particular day, he had promised himself he wouldn’t drink, that he would go out and into the world and find new purpose, but he knew he would end up asleep in the chair on the patio by the time Amanda got home, just like he had every other day. Amanda had suggested fixing the leaking faucet or working in the garden, but he paid people to do those kinds of things. He hadn’t slaved away his whole life just to become a common laborer. Besides, he had no idea how to fix a faucet, and if he owned tools, he had no idea where they would be. Then he remembered the attic. Hoping to find something to contribute to the Women’s Association charity drive, Amanda had suggested he help her sort through the decades of accumulated debris. He could do that. It might even be fun exploring the relics.
The attic was full of stacks of boxes, neatly arranged along the walls. Some were already there when they bought the house thirty years ago. He remembered intending to go through them, but, like most things that didn’t involve the company, he never got around to it. Had he been up here since they first moved? If so, he couldn’t recall when. He did remember the old trunk in the corner though. It was the one item up there that definitely belonged to him, at least it had before he abandoned it, along with the rest of his life, for a desk and a six-figure salary. He exhumed it from the stack of boxes and pried open the lid.
The baseball glove he’d used in high school sat on top. He slid it on and covered his face with it, inhaling deeply. The leathery scent was mingled with a trace of mildew now, but it was still powerful enough to transport him back to a time when his legs were strong enough to carry him around the bases and his eyes could focus on a ball whizzing at him from the pitcher’s mound. He lowered the glove and pounded it with his fist, imagining the impact of the fly ball he’d just caught, and then pulled his other arm back to throw out a runner on a pretend first base. His shoulder yanked him back to the present, refusing to perform the motion. He dropped the glove back into the trunk and tried to rub the stiffness out of his arm. How long had it been since he’d thrown a ball or went for ice cream sodas after a winning a game, or done anything of the things that make life worth living? He’d set it all aside to work for a better future that never came.
He didn’t bother to see what else was in the trunk. He shut away the memories to seek distraction in another stack of boxes. The box he selected seemed to be one of the leftovers from the house’s previous occupants. It was full of doll clothes. He and Amanda had never had a need for dolls, having put off starting that family they’d always talked about until it was too late. He set it aside in the stack for Amanda to go through, and opened the box it had been sitting on. This box contained books. Never much of a reader, the titles meant nothing to him, though he suspected there might be some monetary value to them. The books looked old but most seemed well preserved.
Near the bottom of the box, he found a thick, leather bound volume. He lifted it out and set it on a box by the window where he had more light. When did books have brass hinges and locks? There was no writing on the cover, but something was embossed on the front. Unable to make it out, he ran his fingers over it. It seemed to be a five-pointed star inside of a circle. As his finger completed its course around the circumference, he felt a tingling like an electric jolt that shot up his arm and penetrated the muscles of his chest. He stumbled back to lean against the wall and slid two fingers across his wrist until he found a pulse. Finally satisfied he wasn’t experiencing a heart attack, he left the book where it was, climbed out of the attic, and headed straight for the liquor cabinet.
The next afternoon, Glenn was back in the attic with the tools he’d picked up at the hardware store that morning on his way to the optometrist. Examining the book through the lenses of his new bifocals, he saw the figure on the cover was indeed a pentagram. Wasn’t that some kind of satanic symbol? He went to work on the lock, carefully prodding the keyhole with his screwdriver so as not to damage it. Worried about affecting the value of the book, he considered taking it to a locksmith, but his curiosity wouldn’t wait. He had to know what was in it. Besides, he thought, if the book was truly valuable, the fewer people who knew of its existence the better.
Maybe I should have been a safe cracker, Glenn thought as he heard a click and the latch popped open. Despite having no idea what he was doing, he had managed to pick the lock with little effort. It was almost like the book wanted to be read. He shook off the notion, which he found inexplicably troubling, and lifted the cover. The pages were some kind of parchment and were edged in red. The words, written in a flowery script with brown ink, were mostly unfamiliar to him, though he recognized a few from the Latin he’d been forced to take in high school. Marking a page in the middle of the book there was a folded paper of more recent vintage. Unfolding it, he saw, scrawled across it in English, five underscored words, “The Path To Ultimate Gratification,” followed by a warning about losing your soul and a promise of unlimited power.
Glenn had never been superstitious. It wasn’t that he didn’t believe in ghosts or demons, or even religion. He had just never given it much thought. His parents had dragged him into church a few times when he was young, usually around Christmas, but as an adult his interactions with the divine had been limited to the blasphemy that sometimes accompanies a stubbed toe. Now, he found himself intrigued. Though fairly certain his efforts wouldn’t be rewarded with power, unlimited or otherwise, he resolved to translate the book. If nothing else, it would get him away from the television and the liquor cabinet.
One day, about two months later, Glenn was finishing his second cup of coffee while Amanda consulted the calendar on the inside of the panty door. Finding the square corresponding to the day’s date devoid of red ink, she filled a mug from the cabinet with the remainder of the coffee and sat down at the table across from Glenn.
“I was thinking we could spend the day together,” she said. “Maybe go shopping in the antique district and then get some lunch.”
“I’d like to, but I have work to do in the attic,” Glenn said, his attention focused on the notes spread out before him.
“What is it you do up there all day?” she asked, reaching for one of the sheets in Glenn’s stack of papers only to have him snatch it away before she could slide it to her side of the table.
“I’m fixing it up into a study,” he said. “It helps me pass the time.”
“You can’t take a break for the day?” she asked. “It isn’t like when you were with the agency. You’re not on a deadline.”
“I’m afraid I’m stuck here. I’m expecting a package. I’m pretty sure I have to sign for it. You’ll just have to go antiquing without me.”
After his wife had gone, Glenn retreated to the attic with his Latin dictionary. He’d installed a window unit to keep it cool, and positioned a floor lamp next to a chair brought up from the den. Getting the chair into the attic had proved more of a challenge than the real task he’d assigned himself. He’d been surprised at how quickly the Latin had come back to him. He was almost ready to summon the forces of evil, specifically, a demon named Belphegor. Glenn had bypassed the more powerful demons and the spells promising wealth and power linked to them, selecting this particular demon because the qualities attributed to him served his purpose. He had a plan that involved more than the typical devil’s bargain.
Glenn pulled back the throw rug he’d bought just in case Amanda came up to check on him. On the floor, drawn in red chalk, was a circle, the circumference of which was lined with arcane symbols. He’d planned to wait until midnight, but, thinking about it, decided there was no reason a demon couldn’t be summoned in the afternoon just as easily. Besides, it would be better to do it while Amanda was away. He donned the ceremonial robe he’d purchased online from a costume shop and lit the candles.
Flames shot up in the center of the circle as Glenn recited the incantation and the stench of sulfur filled the attic. Glenn choked, and pinched his nose between his thumb and forefinger, but continued to recite the spell.
“I am bound to your will and must do as you command,” a voice bellowed from within the flames. “Know you that the price will be your immortal soul?”
“I’m aware of that clause,” Glenn said. “I agree to that and all other provisions of the contract.”
“Then what dost thou command?” asked the demon.
“In a minute,” Glenn said. “First tell me, how do you like your job?”
“My job?” asked the demon, stepping out of the flames to confront Glenn. Pot-bellied and with asymmetrical horns, he didn’t impress Glenn as being particularly fearsome.
“Yes,” Glenn responded. “How do you like making deals with mortals, punishing the damned, and whatever other duties your position entails?”
The demon thought about it for a second, unsure of how much he should say, before letting out a long sigh.
“Tiresome,” he said. “I’ve been doing the same thing since the dawn of time, and I loathe every second of it. Is that all? Does my answer satisfy our bargain?”
“No,” Glenn replied. “I’ve summoned you, not to issue a command, but to offer a proposition, though if you refuse I suppose I’ll have to compel you. Trade places with me.”
“Trade places?” asked the demon.
“Yes,” Glenn replied. “I take over your duties and you take my place on the couch. Of course you’d have to promise not to mistreat my wife.”
“Mistreating humans would be one of the chores falling on your shoulders,” the demon answered. “I would be pleased to be divested of such onerous responsibilities. Your wife will have no reason to fear me.”
“Then it’s a deal!” Glenn exclaimed. “When do I start?”
The demon crossed its scaly arms over its chest and tapped its cloven hoof.
“I’m not sure such a deal is permitted,” it said. “I’d have to check.”
“Let’s leave Legal out of this,” Glenn said. “It’s all here in the book. You have to do whatever I say, and in exchange I hand over my soul. It’s cut and dry.”
“I’d be free,” said the demon.
“And I’d have something to do,” said Glenn. “It will work out for both of us. I can’t stand another day of this retirement. I need to get back to work.”
Belphegor glanced over his shoulder at the flames and then gave Glenn a nod before hurriedly raising his arms and bringing them back down, creating a blinding flash.
“Have a good day dear?” asked Amanda as she walked over to stand beside sofa. Glenn looked up from the bowl of popcorn in his lap and gave her a shrug.
“Any plans for tomorrow?” Amanda asked.
“Nope,” Glenn replied with a grin. “I won’t be doing a damned thing.”
Lamont A. Turner’s work has appeared in numerous online and print venues including The Stray Branch, Mystery Weekly, Mystery Tribune, Cosmic Horror Monthly, Dark Dossier, and other magazines, podcasts and anthologies. His short story collection, “Souls In A Blender” was released by St. Rooster Books in October 2021.