This short story was recently published in the pandemic-themed Volume 4 of SHIFT, a publication of MTSU Write. Thank you SHIFT for including this story! It was one of my favorites to work on, and I’m delighted to share it here for the first time. Enjoy!
It happened in October of 2020. Of course it did. 2020 had been a year of pandemics, impeachments, elections, protests, riots, and wildfires. I shouldn’t have been surprised, that crisp autumn night when I was walking home from the subway station along my amber-lit street, the crunch of acorns under my boots. I shouldn’t have been surprised when a tall, freakishly skinny man, dressed all in black, with sunglasses over his eyes and a mask over his nose and mouth, slunk out of the shadows between two rowhouses, and beckoned to me.
“I’m the devil,” he said. “Sell your soul to me.”
When I told my mother about this later, she said that there was no way the man was actually the devil, and that I should have called the police. But in the moment, something in my mind believed the man when he said this. An ordinary man might lie about being the devil, but the devil himself has nothing to lose by telling the truth.
At any rate, the point was moot, because it had been a long day, and I was tired. “Come back tomorrow,” I said. “I’m not in soul-selling business tonight.” I figured, if he really was the devil, he’d be okay with waiting twenty-four hours. If, on the other hand, he was just a man trying to attack an innocent young woman on her way home; well, he’d do it. But the man just nodded politely and slunk back into the shadows, and I continued on my way home, under the rows of oak trees along the street to my apartment building, where I lived on the third floor. I fell asleep that night thinking, Man, I just met the devil. I began to think about whether I would actually sell my soul to him, and what I should ask in return. I spent all night in and out of a doze, wondering what I should do.
For one thing, it had been a doozy of a year. I didn’t even remember what normal life was like. Because of the pandemic, I hadn’t seen my mother in person in eight months, although she lived just on the other side of the city. We talked every day, sure, and we had Zoom meetings for our birthdays and Sunday dinners, but it just wasn’t the same. We had considered making a “bubble” of our own, me moving in with her, or her with me, but it wasn’t conducive to rent or to either of our jobs. At my office, where I worked as an accountant, someone needed to be there in person, so my coworkers and I went in short shifts, finishing the rest of our work at home. I couldn’t bring another person into that shuffle, no matter how much I might like to. In general, life was wearing me out. The grocery store lines were always long, and there were always shortages of something—I couldn’t remember the last time I saw a 12-pack of toilet paper. People were on edge, tension in the air so thick it snapped like a frayed electrical cord. My social life had been reduced to scrolling the internet and trying to connect with influencers over how beautiful their succulents were.
And that’s when it hit me.
The next day on my way home, it was a little earlier in the evening. The sun was just beginning to set, splashing purple and orange light on the windows of the rowhouses, and casting a tint on the red brick of the buildings and street. There was rustling as brown oak leaves scuttled across the sidewalk. When I passed the place where I had met the devil the night before, no one was there, and I continued on home. Perhaps it had been a creepy human man after all. Perhaps I had saved my own life by throwing him off his game so much, he didn’t have the energy to kill me. Somewhat disappointed, I made myself a nice dinner of pasta and veggies and a pumpkin spice chai tea. When it got dark, I turned on the lights in my tiny one-room apartment. Then the thought came to me that maybe it had been the devil last night, but I had missed him today because I’d passed by too early. Perhaps the devil needed shadows to slink in and out of. So I put on my leather boots and a coat, grabbed a freshly-washed mask from the rack on the wall, and went back out.
I had gotten a block down the street when the tall, dark, freakishly skinny man came out of the shadows, different ones this time, and said, “Have you considered my offer?”
I had, so I nodded. “Yes. But first, a few questions.”
“Of course.” He put his hands in his pockets and leaned against a wrought-iron fence.
“First of all, how do I know that you’re really the devil?”
He sighed. “People always ask me that. They’re so cynical nowadays.” He produced a business card, which said Lucifer: the Devil on it, in plain black print.
“Maybe it’s because you use Comic Sans font,” I suggested. “Try something more professional.”
He grumbled. “I thought the font was what proved it.”
“No; any idiot could print that off.”
“I’m afraid I’ll need a second form of ID.”
“Geez, what is this, Communist Russia? Fine.” He pulled his mask down and grinned, showing a set of very fine, dirty, pointed teeth.
“That’s certainly a devilish-looking smile,” I said. “Also, it’s rude to take off your mask without asking first.”
“Exactly,” he said.
“I’m still not convinced.”
He sighed. “Fine! Fine. See that pigeon over there?” He pointed to a bird sitting on a bench along the street.
He held up one long, skinny hand, wearing a blue latex glove. He snapped with his tapered fingers, latex squeaking, and the bird burst into flame.
I gasped. “The poor thing! What did you have to kill it for?”
He shrugged. “There are too many of them anyway. They’re a menace. I’m actually doing a public service, if you think about it. And—why am I explaining myself to you? I’m the devil! So are you gonna sell me your soul or not?”
“I have a few more questions.”
He lifted his sunglasses so I could see him roll his dark, black eyes. “What then?”
“Why do you want my soul?”
“Well, ideally I want everyone’s soul. But you seem like a nice person, and it makes me sick.”
“How do you know I’m a nice person?”
“I saw you help that old lady across the street a few days ago, and I saw you pretend that someone’s car was yours so they didn’t get a parking ticket a few days before that, and I saw you call your mother every day on your way to work.”
“I guess I am a nice person.”
“Right. And I can’t have too many nice people in the world, you know? I mean, take this street for example. You have no idea how high the levels of depression were on this street before you moved here. It was great; there were so many shadows for me to slink in and out of! But then you moved in, and not to give you too much credit, but people got a lot happier.”
“Aw,” I said. “That’s nice!”
“It is nice!” he answered. “And it galls me to no end. So what can I do to acquire your soul? Is there anything you want? A car, maybe, so you don’t have to ride the subway? A million dollars to send to your mom? A magically bigger apartment? What?”
“I don’t suppose you can end the pandemic.”
He lifted his glasses so I could see his eyes roll again. “That is completely off the table.”
“That’s what I thought. I have a second choice then.”
“Well, I sat up all night thinking about this,” I said. “It’s a big ask.”
“Anything,” he said. “Anything.”
“I’d really like to be able to grow succulents without killing them.”
“That is a big ask.”
“You have no idea how much money and time I’ve wasted,” I said.
“I can imagine.”
“And I see these girls on Instagram and Pinterest with their cute little succulents in clay pots, and they’re so prolific—”
“Usually they’re fake succulents anyway,” he said. “Or photoshopped. But go on.”
“But no matter how hard I try, my succulents either end up a pile of mush or a collection of petrified pick-up sticks. I’d really love to just walk into my apartment, and it to feel like the Sonoran Desert in there, you know?”
“I’m more of a Death Valley person myself, but I get your meaning.”
“And I really think that if I was able to grow succulents, I could connect with people on the internet. I’d have something really beautiful to take pictures of and share with the world. I’d feel like I was doing something that mattered. You know?”
“In a manner of speaking.”
“So that’s my ask. And then, well, what would you do with my soul?”
“Oh, nothing major. Just the usual. Darkness eating at you from all corners until you burn out like a supernova.”
“Would I go to hell?”
He laughed, a billowing laugh that echoed down the street. “What’s with you humans always wondering about the end game? Life is about the journey, not the destination.”
I thought about it. “So I’ll be miserable for the rest of my life, and potentially go to hell.”
“No, I said darkness eating at you, not misery. You’ll have the happiest life in the world. All the succulents you ever wanted. Imagine the followers you could get with that! All without photoshopping! You’ll be happy and successful beyond your wildest dreams! Think of the friends you’ll make, the connections you’ll forge. Wouldn’t it be so nice to actually have a social life again?”
I thought about it some more. This seemed like a decent trade-off. After all, he didn’t seem like a miserable, unhappy person, and he was the devil, so I figured my chances were good. And the idea of actually being important in some way, of thriving after months of just trying to survive, was too much to resist. “Okay. I’ll do it. I’ll sell you my soul if you make my succulents grow.”
He extended one slender, bony, latex-gloved hand, and we shook on it. “Done. When you wake up tomorrow, your apartment will be full of thriving succulents, and they will never die.”
I went to sleep that night a little suspicious, as anyone would be. I had many second thoughts; after all, who do you know who sells their soul to the devil and doesn’t regret it later? But I had made the decision, and for better or worse, I would have to stick to it, hoping the rewards outweighed the liabilities.
When I woke up the next morning, everything was just as the devil had said: there were succulents in the empty pots I had left on my window ledges as a kind of memorial to succulents past; there were succulents spilling out of the repurposed teacups on my bookshelves; there was a huge succulent bush growing out of a copper planter I had found on the side of the street a few weeks prior. My apartment was bursting with green, shiny, plump succulents. I was overjoyed, and spent most of the morning watering them, giddy that even if I did it wrong, they would never die.
I didn’t see the devil after that; he seemed satisfied that he had my soul, and didn’t slink out of any more shadows; at least not for me. I didn’t feel any different without a soul; I didn’t even lose any weight. All I felt was bliss, my success secure. As the weeks passed, the days got shorter and shorter, and my succulent collection got bigger and bigger. As the succulents outgrew their pots, I had to keep separating them, and soon my window ledge was overflowing with the potted desert plants.
One evening on my way home from work, my neighbor Susan, who lived across the hall and was a miserable person, caught me just as I was getting to my door. Our hallway was a cheerless place, with an old shag carpet floor, matted from years of dirt and foot traffic, and flickering fluorescent lights making the yellowed walls seem even dirtier. Of course, this wasn’t helped by the fact that Susan, and a host of other tenants, used the hallway as a smoking lounge.
“I see you’ve been growing a lot of plants,” she said, taking a drag on her cigarette and flicking the ashes into her voluminous hair, her mask pulled down like a chin strap. “And you know, you really have some nerve.”
“We can see them from your window! Spending all this money on succulents at a time like this. It’s shameful. There are people dying. You should really be donating to the local foodbank. Or at least the United Way.” She finished the cigarette.
“I haven’t been spending any money,” I said, taking a deep breath. “I just… I’m just good at growing succulents.” I left out the whole devil part.
“Huh.” She got out another cigarette and lit it. “This is why Millennials can’t buy houses.” And she turned and walked down the hall towards Maureen from Apartment 7, who was just starting her smoke break.
Soon, word got out in the building that I was having success with my succulents (I neither blame nor rule out Susan’s role in this) and for some reason this created quite an animosity towards me. It was a rough few weeks; no one greeted me in the hall; everyone turned a cold shoulder when I passed them by, and even the old ladies crossing the street refused my help. When I tried to save another person from a parking ticket, they called the police on me for trying to steal their car.
Online, however, my community was thriving: Instagram photos of my newfound plant success garnered me a few hundred new followers, as the devil had said would happen, a number which grew by the day. People asked for my advice on everything from succulents to relationships. Companies sponsored my content, and soon my social media accounts were a source of passive income. I could finally afford to have groceries sent to my mother each day so she wouldn’t have to venture out, and I ordered her a state-of-the art laptop and camera so the quality of our Zoom calls was just one degree removed from being in-person. I even got invited to write a few articles on succulent care from several prominent web magazines, though I was an accountant with little writing experience, which they said was fine, because they weren’t really looking for good writing anyway.
By the time Halloween rolled around, I was richer, but thoroughly depressed. None of my neighbors would talk to me, and I hardly knew why, except that I caught them looking past me at the plants in my apartment whenever I went in or out, and pointing up to my windows from the sidewalk, whispering behind their hands and giving me odd looks. Even my mother, on the state-of-the-art laptop and camera the succulents themselves had furnished for her, had started making snide comments about the succulents, how big and luscious they were, how unnatural it was, and how I really had turned into a witch by selling my soul to the devil. Online, my community had turned on itself, as different followers realized they were on different sides of the political divide. Soon, a comment such as, “Beautiful succulent! I love the color!” was met with a comment like, “I bet you like this succulent, you communist,” and replied to with something like, “You bet I do, you fascist.”
On my way home from work Halloween night, I decided then was as good a time as any to summon the devil. So I stopped at the shadowy place where he had first accosted me, in the little space between two buildings, and I said, “Hey! Devil! I need to talk to you!” For a moment, there was nothing but the sound of the wind in the empty street (people were Trick or Treating over Zoom that year), and the hoot of an owl. Then, I turned around, and the devil slunk out of the shadows as he had before.
“Why hello,” he said. He look a little taller than I remembered.
“Happy birthday,” I said.
“Isn’t Halloween your birthday?”
“No, of course not.”
“Oh. Sorry. I’m thinking of Jesus and Christmas.”
“Christmas is actually my birthday; well, December 25th is. You know, the first Christmas was actually in the middle of April, well what we now call April—”
“I want my soul back!” I blurted out.
He leaned against one of the brick houses and rested his chin in one hand. “Do you really miss it that much? I’m surprised. Most of you people live their whole lives without realizing they even have a soul.”
“No, it’s not even that. I can’t stand the succulents.”
“Aren’t they growing, as I promised?”
“Freakishly so. I mean, they are gorgeous, I’ll give you that.”
The devil clapped his hands. “Oh good. You know, there really is an artistry to it—”
“Everyone hates me!” I blurted again. “Everyone hates me because of them. I don’t know why, but they do. Even my mom is starting to hate me. My mom!”
“Well, I’d love to sympathize. I really would. But unfortunately, there are no takebacks for souls or succulent success. Them’s the rules.”
“But you make the rules!” I cried. “Please! It’s, it’s Halloween.”
“I told you, Halloween’s not my birthday.”
“But isn’t it special to you somehow? All the death and stuff?”
“Well yes, it was, when the druids actually sacrificed people. But now it’s too commercialized. I mean, look at this.” He held up a decorative plastic severed hand, which had been tied to someone’s fence. “Shoddy.”
“So there’s no way I can have my soul back.”
“Nope. Like I said, I’m in the business of collecting souls, and I’d rather not give away the ones I have.”
Before I could argue more with him, he evaporated into the shadows.
More days passed, and as Thanksgiving approached, I grew gloomier and gloomier, while the succulents kept growing bigger and bigger. One week, I spent half a paycheck on a trip to the dollar store to buy up all the clearance flower pots from the summer. My apartment was teeming with jade trees and echeverias and aloes. I was up to my ears in succulents.
Then one day, as I passed Susan in the hall on her smoke break, I got an idea. What did I have to lose? I ducked into my apartment and came back out.
“Susan,” I said.
“Yes, witch girl?” she answered absent-mindedly.
“Oh.” She came to herself and took a drag on the cigarette. “Yes?”
“Here.” I handed her one of the succulents I had just potted over the weekend, a huge purplish rosette. “I have a ton, and I thought you might like it.”
Susan’s jaw dropped a little, and the cigarette fell out. I stamped out the ashes on the carpet. “For me?” she asked. “No one’s ever given me a succulent before.”
“Well, take it. And enjoy.”
“What if I kill it?”
“You won’t. And even if you do, I have tons of others, and if anyone else wants some, tell them they can just ask.”
Susan took the pot with trembling hands. “Thank you. Thank you.” She kept saying it over and over. Confused but not a little heart-warmed, I returned to my apartment.
Every few hours for the next few days, people knocked on my door looking for succulents. At first it was people I recognized from the building, but soon it seemed to be everyone on the street, from old ladies to businessmen to kids. I had to make masking tape x’s in 6-foot increments down the hallway because of the lines that piled up. And soon, I was giving away succulents as fast as they would grow—which again, was very fast. Soon, each window on the street was like a tiny greenhouse, and the dreary fall days were punctuated with color. My neighbors returned the favor, too. They made me muffins or soup or sent me holiday cards. Some of the kids drew pictures for me and tacked them up in the hall. People chatted about their techniques for growing the succulents, and someone even started a Facebook group to swap cultivation ides. For the first time in a long time, life felt… normal.
One evening the week after Thanksgiving, I was walking home with a bag of flowerpots in tow. It had been difficult to find some on sale, but I had found a few Christmas ones that I hoped everyone would like for gifts. I had just thought out a whole plan for repotting my Christmas cactus, when suddenly the devil appeared from the shadows.
“Please take it!” he said. “Please!”
“Please take what? Oh, and happy birthday soon.”
“Stuff like that. It’s stuff like that. You’re too damn nice!” He seemed out of breath. He pulled at his mask, but one of the ear loops broke, and he let the mask swing from one ear. “Please. You have to take back your soul. I can’t stand having it anymore.”
“Why? What’s wrong with it?”
“Everyone loves your succulents too much. It’s making them too happy. I just…” He bent over and panted, like a runner on a cross country team after a long race. “I can’t even stand this street anymore. Look at all those damn succulents! Just look at them!” He pointed around us, where succulents were growing in every window. Some of them even had tiny Christmas lights on them. “Your soul keeps getting nicer and nicer. I can’t stand having it. It’s starting to affect the other souls I have. Ugh!” He squeezed his hands into bony fists. “Take back your soul, and you can keep the succulents. Okay? You can have all the success with them you want. Just please, please take your soul back!” He folded his hands together and shook them in a gesture of petulance.
“Fine. But keep your freakishly-growing succulents. I have a thriving online community now, and we’ve been doing a ton of research on how to care for them the old-fashioned way.”
“I mean, that still doesn’t guarantee success. People spend their whole lives studying succulents, and it still doesn’t do them an iota of good.”
“Do you want me to take back my soul or not?”
“Fine! Fine. When you wake up tomorrow morning, your succulents will start growing just as fast as normal ones.”
“Thank you!” He turned to go, about to slink back into the shadows.
“Hey, devil,” I beckoned to him.
“I’ll take back my soul on one condition.”
“I thought we already made the sale, but okay. What is it?”
“Don’t ever bother me again.”
“And don’t ever come back to this street again.”
“Well, that might be tricky. See—”
“I mean it. The minute you set foot in this street or show yourself to me for the rest of my life, my soul is yours again.”
“Fine. Fine! I promise. Fine. Ugh, don’t worry. I want nothing to do with your soul.”
“Thank you. Have a happy birthday.”
He nodded, with a grimace on his pale white face, and slunk back into the shadows from whence he came.
(Picture by Tucker Goode, via Unsplash).