No one could remember the tree when it had been alive. Some said that it had never lived. Old Myrtle said its roots went straight down to a Hell, and on the right night, when you whispered in its hollow, the Devil would grant your wish if it amused him. Old Myrtle did have the sight, and such things were an everyday occurrence in Rockwood, so most left the tree alone.
There were those who came in the dead of night to whisper to the tree their secret desires. Danny Webster was the latest desperate soul to try. He called the Devil and waited. When the Devil didn’t appear, he called several more times. He could wait all night if necessary and come back tomorrow. He’d come back as often as it took.
“How old are you, kid?” asked the young woman in an Albert Einstein T-shirt and worn jeans.
He didn’t know her, and everyone knew everyone in Rockwood, even if only in passing. She wasn’t remarkable, aside from her eyes. They sparkled in the dark like a cat’s.
“Thirteen,” said Danny. “Are you the Devil?”
The Devil smiled and a star winked out at the sight of her sharp, white teeth. “There is no devil. Not like you think. No gods. There are powers beyond your comprehension. Forces you could never hope to understand. I am not one of those forces. Those forces couldn’t give a damn about you. But me, I’m interested.”
She leaned against the tree.
“Am I the Devil? Close enough. And you’re just a dumb kid. Go home. You don’t want to bargain with me.”
“Yes, I do.”
She ruffled his hair. Her fingers were like claws running across his scalp. “They say youth is wasted on the young. Don’t waste yours bargaining with powers beyond your ken.”
“I thought you wanted souls,” he said.
“What make you think that paltry little bit of eternity in your gut is worth two bits? That’s where it is, by the way.” She poked him in the stomach. “Right there. I could tear it out and show it to you, if you like.”
He backed away, stumbling over a root that hadn’t been there before.
“There are billions of souls on this world right now. What’s so special about yours?” the Devil asked. “Nothing. You’ll borrowed it for a few decades and when you’re gone it will return whence it came to begin anew. And you won’t be going with it. If I told you what its true purpose was you’d crap yourself.”
“I’ll do anything,” said Danny.
She sat beside him and opened a bag of potato chips. She bit one with a chuckle. “No, you won’t.”
“Yes, I will.”
“Eat your dog.”
“You heard me. Eat the whole goddamn mutt. Every organ. Every bone. His eyes. His tongue. Every one of his teeth.”
Danny didn’t reply.
She offered him a chip. He shook his head.
“I get it, kid. You thought you’d come here and sign a contract in blood and I’d fix all your problems. But anybody can give away their soul. It’s easy. Sure, I could take yours and add it to my collection. Stick it up on my shelf and admire it until the rest of time. But I’m running out of space. So why don’t you go home and eat your fucking dog, and we’ll talk.”
Danny mulled it over.
“Not so easy, is it?” she asked.
“Why did you appear if you weren’t going to help me?”
“Boredom mostly. So what’s the problem?”
“My parents are getting divorced,” he said.
“Damn, kid, I’ve heard a lot of stupid reasons to sell your soul, but that’s probably the stupidest.”
Danny said, “It’s my fault.”
“Bullshit,” she growled. Literally. Her eyes burned brighter. An icy wind swept across the desert. Cackling dust devils swirled around them.
Danny slid away from her, but she put a hand on his shoulder. The heat of her skin burned him through his shirt.
“Do you want to know a secret, kid? Nothing you do matters. Nothing. You think your family is falling apart because you were bad? Because you weren’t good enough? If you’d just done this one thing right, gotten better grades, done your chores more cheerfully, hadn’t spent so much time on your Xbox, then things wouldn’t be like they are. But the truth is that most everything has nothing to do with you. You are not the center of the universe. You never will be. Get used to the idea.”
He wiped away a tear. “I just want everything to be like it was.”
“Ah, don’t start blubbering on me.” She tossed away her chip bag, which was promptly swallowed by the earth. “Get the fuck out of here if you’re going to be a pussy.”
He covered his face and kept crying. She turned her back to him and frowned. “All right. Fine. I’ll fix it for you. Just stop whining about it.”
He snorted. “Do I have to eat my dog?”
“Hell no. I like dogs. I’m not a monster.”
“Then what do I do?”
A few minutes later, a car pulled up to the crossroads and came to a stop before the tree. The headlights cast long shadows across the plain except for the Devil, who cast none and was somehow harder to see in the glow.
Danny’s parents rushed out of their car, but the Devil raised her hand. Roots coiled around Mom and Dad’s legs.
“Sorry, folks. Too late. This one’s mine.”
Danny tried to take a step but couldn’t move.
“You can’t take him,” said Mom. “He’s just a boy.”
The Devil snapped her fingers, and the headlights exploded. She pulled a diet soda from somewhere and took a long drink. “I don’t make the rules. Well, I make some of the rules, but others, those are set in stone. A deal’s a deal.”
“Take me,” said Mom.
“No, take me,” said Dad. “Please.”
The Devil smiled in the dark. “Gotta love nobility. Tell you what I’ll do. I’ll trade a soul for a soul. Makes no difference to me. But since you’re both willing to make the sacrifice, how about we split the difference?”
Shadowy creatures spilled from the tree’s hollow. They skittered over to Mom and Dad and reached into their stomachs and pulled something small and glittery out from each. The giggling creatures handed the half souls to their mistress and returned to the tree.
Mom and Dad shivered.
“Cold, isn’t it?” said the Devil. “The kind of cold that can eat away at you in a few years. You’ll figure out how to cope or you’ll wither away and die. Either way, the deal is made.”
The roots released them, and Danny ran over to his parents, who hugged him. Mom and Dad’s hands touched, and they stopped shaking. Two half-souls might make one whole one in a pinch.
“Scram, mortals, before I change my mind.”
The Websters loaded into their car. Danny smiled at the Devil from the backseat. She nodded back with a smile of her own as they drove away.
She tossed away the bit of worthless soul. Things scrambled from the tree to fight over the scraps while she sat, musing on terrible secrets, under the twisted branches until disappearing with the first light of dawn.