She sits in her car, looking out at the empty field and milky blue sky, but not really seeing them. Her eyes find some point on the hillside. They linger there for many minutes, staring blankly at that invisible spot in the serene hills, while something behind her eyes moves with the strength of a gale-force wind.
It had been a long day.
After she’d finished work, she left the café, her flour-stained apron still around her waist, and walked through street after street as though she had no other place to be. The streets are different here. Almost foreign. Each store locks its doors and pulls down those heavy metal shutters over their windows before nightfall. All the flowers in the garden beds are scorched by the sun until they hang limply from yellowing stems. Even the air smells of the sour stink from the sawmill, mixed with the putrid sweetness of hay and livestock.
She had walked until her feet were swollen and blistered inside her cheap shoes. It had taken a long time to get back to her car. She turned the key in the ignition, and set off for the field waiting for her beyond the town.
She misses the salty sea breeze.
She misses that fresh clean scent even more than the sea itself. She can still remember the way the turquoise waves lapped at the white shore. She thinks of the boardwalk that ran for miles along the water’s edge, each plank worn smooth and bleached grey by the sun. Yellow candlelight would flicker from the restaurants and cafes that opened out onto the water, glinting off the midnight sea on those warm summer evenings. The lamps lining the streets glimmered late into the night. There was always music and laughter, while people drank and talked and smoked cigarettes.
As the sun begins to set, she opens her car door and steps out.
Clouds gather overhead. She walks slowly towards the tree they had agreed to meet at. It was little more than the bare skeleton of a tree, long dead, with its limbs slowly rotting beneath the outback sky.
He was sitting beneath it, waiting. As she draws nearer, a warm smile spreads across his handsome face. He looks at her closely. She’s as thin as a rake, with her arms crossed over her stomach as she walks. She smokes a cigarette. Her eyes follow the uneven ground as she continues on, but take in little of the world around her.
He gets to his feet. ‘Hello,’ he calls out.
She stops and looks at him. He’s wearing stained work pants and a faded leather jacket this time. It suits him strangely well. Better than the suit from last time. And the football jersey from the time before.
‘Hi,’ she replies, forcing a smile. The action feels unnatural, as though she hasn’t done it in a very long time. ‘Have you been waiting long?’
‘Yes and no,’ he replies. ‘But that doesn’t matter. You’re here now.’
He reaches out to take her hand and draws her closer to the tree. She can see large black beetles crawling from the holes in a particularly rotten branch, and the smell of rotting flesh oozes from the bark.
‘I’m sorry if I’m bothering you,’ she begins, ‘I don’t want to waste your time.’
‘It seems that everyone wants to burn with me these days,’ he replies. His face is full of compassion. She’s struck by the warmth and sweetness of his gaze as he looks at her with all the love and concern of an old friend. ‘Alison. Allie,’ his voice trembles slightly, ‘I know that you don’t think much of me. Nobody really does. But, in truth, I’ve become more humane than He could ever be.’
She takes a step back. He lets go of her hand and leans back on the tree. She sees how the beetles scurry back into their burrows at once, as though afraid.
‘You’re not humane. You can’t be,’ she responds. For a second, his pupils transform to fiery slits before returning to their calm depths.
‘No, I wasn’t. But I’ve spent a hell of a long time here on Earth. I’ve been listening to people and their sorrows for thousands of years. And yes, so has He. But while the desperate pray to Him, the truly doomed pray to me.’ His eyes are pleading with her to believe him. ‘I have been with the poor and the sick and the suffering. I’ve seen their pain. And the darkness in their souls. I have listened to their words and offered them a way out, not because it does anything for me but because it is more than He has given them.’
‘And there’s nothing in it for you?’ she asks doubtfully.
‘I don’t need to come up here to convince people to join me. Like I said, there’re enough people who want to burn with me, and they can find a way all on their own. They don’t need me to guide them. But when you’re surrounded by suffering everywhere you go, you’re bound to develop a sense of empathy. He surrounds Himself with heavenly things. I surround myself with misery and sadness and regret. Tell me, who knows more about human suffering?’
She steps closer to him and lifts a hand to his face. He looks down at her as she gently runs her fingers across his cheek. It’s coarse with stubble and warm beneath her touch; it feels as real as her own.
‘I don’t believe in God,’ she admits. ‘I don’t think I ever have.’
‘You know what? Right now, neither do I.’
At that moment, everything became clearer to her. He had been a shoulder to lean on when she felt weak. Someone’s arms to cry in as her body deteriorated and the doctors pumped her full of medicine. He was laughter in the very heart of darkness.
Maybe that’s how he gets to you in the end.
‘Are you sure about this?’ he asks. His voice is full of concern.
‘Yes,’ she replies.
He leans down and kisses her, softly at first, but then his lips press down against hers with all the strength and power of who is. His skin burns hers. She can feel her soul being sucked out of her until it’s ripped from her body like a tree from the soil.
And then he’s gone.
She opens her eyes and sees the golden windows pouring their light onto a midnight sea. She can taste the salt on her lips. She looks around at her seaside childhood with wonder. When she looks down, she can see she’s wearing those pink sandals she loved so much as a little girl and her old favourite dress with all its pretty flowers. She starts to run across the moonlit sand towards the boardwalk.
It had been easier than she thought to sell her soul to the devil.
And it felt terribly worthwhile.