by Roland King
A chance meeting in the woods
|This is an October 2018 Short Shots Contest Submission
Very few ever wandered far enough along the trail to reach my cozy little bend in the road. Meandering, wayward, or downright lost, they always let out a sigh of relief when they glimpsed my home at the bend. To them, my home appeared from the empty road as a place of peace, a place of rest, but very rarely a destination they sought. There was only ever one who came to look for me.
It was autumn, just as the crisp leaves began to settle from their branches in the losing battle with gravity shared with their soon-to-be-cousins, the snowflakes. In each leaf was a tale painted in different shades. The ground was covered in so many leaves that no one could come down this trail without being heard from far off, yet my special visitor was the first and last to ever sneak up on me.
He came mid-morning, though the light seemed to darken through the window when I heard the fence squeak as he opened the gate. I peered out the window. He should never have made it this far. No one sneaks up on me.
I observed with trepidation the fact that as he walked up the small path up to my house that split off from the bend in the road, his footsteps left no sounds. The leaves would not even crush. He was not floating, yet somehow his steps seemed so light that he did not quite tread upon the earth.
I emerged from the house and stood on the threshold before he had come halfway up the path. It was a passive show of authority on my part. I did not want him to assume he had the upper hand and had caught me unaware.
“Mornin’, m’lady,” he said with a tip of his bowler hat in my direction. There was a jauntiness to his voice that suggested familiarity despite the fact we had never met.
“Good morning, sir,” I said, maintaining the formality his greeting lacked. I gave him a quick curtsy as well but did not bow very low.
He seemed to notice this and cleared his throat. “I’m sorry to intrude.”
I gave him a slight nod and stared back at him without saying a word. I certainly was not going to engage in small talk. He stared at me expectantly for a moment and then continued. “I don’t suppose you were expecting me?”
He was fishing for a victory; I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction, “Should I have been? I hear no fanfare,” I stated, making a show to look around the empty yard. “No one was sent ahead to announce your arrival. This is hardly a trail that Kings or men of importance wish to find themselves on.”
He shrugged his shoulders, “True, I am not a man of royalty. Though I am also certainly not your common man. My cup is full from a different kind of wealth.”
He was a braggart, that much was clear. Hubris is ugly in a man. “I would ask then what brings you to my home?”
He smiled, his eyes shifted to the doorway behind me. Perhaps he presumed I would invite him in; he was sorely mistakenly. “I assumed you would know but perhaps my reputation does not precede me as I had hoped. My reputation must not quite be as well-known as yours.”
I was tiring of this conversation, “Do you require something of me or do you wish to present me something? My time is precious.”
He chuckled, “If I strike you as a traveling salesman touting his wares, then you would be sorely mistaken.”
I smiled. “They speak of Death in these woods. Are you perhaps an assassin? A man who deals in the price of a life?”
“You’re not so far off,” he said with a knowing smile. He was baiting me.
“Your business is your own,” I replied. “As is mine. Unless you wish to do business, I have matters to attend to.”
That chuckle of his returned. “It’s true that I did not just come for a social visit but I certainly do have some questions for you particularly about this plot of land.”
Now he was making me curious as well. His smile was meant to hide his intentions, but he could hide nothing from me. Nevertheless, he had my attention now. I was willing to indulge him.
“Go on,” I said.
“This trail of yours,” he said, turning back towards the gate and putting his hands on his hips. It’s just perfect. Look at the leaves. This place is like a postcard! The very image of this stretch of road could inspire a poem; of that I am certain.” He turned back to me, his hands dropping from his hips. The smile faded ever so slightly and his eyes grew steely. “In short ma’am, this is a prime piece of real estate.”
“Well I thank you for the compliment,” I replied, “But if you’re here to make an offer then you will be sorely disappointed. This has been my home for many years and I am not about to part with it.”
“I imagine then that you might be unwilling—” he stopped short. There was a rustle of leaves from somewhere down the road. A crunch that was the unmistakable sound of footfalls in the leaves. It sounded like two people.
My visitor’s eyes narrowed. He began to speak quickly and with urgency, “You know who I am. I know you do. Your casual mention of Death earlier was tongue in cheek at best but hardly subtle. You are correct; I deal in death and no one deals any better than me.”
I let my eyes widen in feigned surprise, “but where is your scythe, your robe, the skull-like visage?”
He smirked. “Not my style, I’m afraid. I prefer this outfit any day,” he said tapping his hat and straightening out his three-piece suit. “The couple that is about to walk down this trail and reach this bend in the road…they are valuable to me. I want their souls.”
I imagine that my face darkened as I listened to him. “How dare you!”
He shrugged, “I’ve been doing this for centuries. It isn’t glamorous, but it’s my job.” He straightened his jacket one more time and turned away back down the trail. I could tell he was heading down to the gate to greet the couple coming down the road. He was going to take their souls. I shut the door to the house, gathered up my skirt and followed after him.
“Devil!” I cried sharply. He turned around; that knowing smile returning to his face. “So you do know who I am!”
“Do not feign surprise, you wretch! Leave these people alone!”
“I don’t follow orders. I need these souls!”
The couple were just coming into view, “Finally!” cried out the man. It was a young man and woman. They might have been newlyweds. “We have been walking for hours! Our car broke down. I swerved and we ran into a ditch. We couldn’t get the car out and we’ve been walking down this trail in hopes of finding someone all day.”
“Well what fortune that you found us!” exclaimed the Devil.
The young woman hadn’t spoken a word but there was fear in her eyes. It was too late to tell her that she should be trusting her instincts.
“We just need to know where the closest crossroad is. We need to get out of these woods and at least call AAA. Do you perhaps have a phone?”
Centuries ago, this might have been a knight standing before me wondering where the closest tavern could be found. My how times had changed.
The Devil spoke again, “I’m afraid you’re a long way from being able to get help from AAA. In fact, there is some news I should probably tell you. I’m afraid your accident was a little more catastrophic than you might have thought.”
“What do you mean?” said the young man.
“There isn’t an easy way to say this but your bodies are still back in that car. The crash was…violent.”
“No no NO!” cried the woman, finally breaking her silence. “I KNEW something was wrong. I’ve felt so cold John,” she said grabbing his arm with a sense of urgency. “It’s like there’s a constant wind blowing down this trail.”
“Beth,” said the young man in a comforting voice, “I felt something too. I just didn’t want you to be scared. I’m just glad we’re together.”
“It doesn’t have to be this way you know,” said the Devil. “I can fix all of this. Promise me your souls and I will grant you another ten years of bliss. Enough time to have a child perhaps? Start a family? Leave a legacy behind when I finally come to collect?”
John gasped, recognition dawning in his eyes, “Are you the—?”
“Devil? Satan? Yes I am. I am also the angel of darkness for a reason. My gifts can be just as angelic as those of my heavenly counterparts. At the moment you are neither dead nor alive; your souls exist in limbo. In balance between mortality and eternity. Promise them to me and consider it a down payment on an extension of your lives.”
John turned to his wife and took her hands in his, “Did you hear what he said Beth? We could still have a kid! We have to do this.”
“But John, it’s only ten years. Even if we were to have a child right now, he’d only be nine before we die. How could we do that to our child?”
“At least we’d be leaving something behind.”
“John, how could you? You’d be willing to do that to our child?”
I watched a smile creep on to the Devil’s face. This was exactly what he wanted.
“Better to give the gift of life to a child than to never let the child be born!”
“And abandon him before he ever makes it the fourth grade? You are not the man I married. How could you?”
What he was doing to these two people who had once been in love was more than I could bear. Never had anyone traveled down this road and been met with such conflict. This was supposed to be a place of peace and mercy.
“ENOUGH!” I yelled. Anger flared in me as I made my decision. I waved my hand and in an instant they both fell to the ground like a whisper into the leaves. The outline of their bodies melted like smoke into the leaves, mixing with the reds, yellows, and auburns.
The Devil spun on his heels and stared at me with wide eyes. “It can’t be! You? You’re—”
“You were only half correct earlier, no one deals better in death, than Death herself. Be gone you wretch.”
With a look on his face that betrayed a slight sense of admiration, he tipped his hat once more and disappeared in a column of smoke.
I stared down the trail, framed by the trees. It was empty for now, but inevitably someone would eventually come wandering down it once more.
I thought of all those that had come before and all that would come hereafter and wept.