I wrote this when I was 19 and it doesn’t suck.
The room is dark and the fan next to me sounds as if it’s as adamant on giving up on life as I am. Its blades creak and wheeze as they push stale air upon me, ruffling the unclean sheets that entangle my body. I turn away from it, facing the wall, when suddenly I am accosted by an offensive sunlight.
“Aaron, get the hell up. Do you even know what day it is? Look at you, for Christ’s sake.”
My brother, arms wide and clutching at my curtains, seems to have decided to make one of his monthly intrusions.
“Of course I know what day it is, Ron, I’m not a degenerate,” I, a degenerate, say.
I sit up as he makes himself comfortable in an armchair strewn with neglected papers, cringing as they crease beneath his weight.
“Really? Because that’s exactly what you look like to me.”
Ignoring the insult, I sit up and take a guess at his first accusation. “It’s Friday.”
“Right, it’s Friday. Do you know what that means? Do you know what normal people do on Fridays? “
I do. They go out, they drink, they sleep with people they’ve only just met in an effort to feel something, to find a human connection, if only for the night. All this so that they can make it home by sunrise and spend the day hung over and let down with regret. It wasn’t so long ago that I was one of those people: a predator of the night, a victim of the morning.
Instead of answering his question, I stare at him blankly, recognizing the rhetoric.
“Get up, shower, put on some clean clothes. Pretend there is still someone in there who gives a fuck. Or don’t, I don’t care, but tonight we’re going out.”
“Who? What for?”
He reminds me that I haven’t written a single word since my last novel. That much is true. He says I can’t live on royalty cheques forever. I’m not sure if that’s true. He says I need inspiration.
I think I need sleep.
“What I need, old brother, old pal, is for you to leave so I may continue that which you so rudely interrupted,” I say, rising from my bed and leaning against the chair in which he resides.
“Did you know that most people call before coming over? And some of them even knock before entering. It’s astounding. A radical concept.“
“No, what you need is to get out of this house: have a night out, have a few shots, do a few lines, maybe even get laid. Look at you, you look on the verge of suicide.”
“And what if, then, a few shots, a few lines, a lousy lay, is all I need to push me over that edge?”
“Then you’re going to die tonight. I’ll see you at nine.”
He removes himself from my chair and I follow as he retreats out the door he came through uninvited. I resume my position in bed, pull the covers over my stinging eyes, and go back to sleep. When I do, I dream of corpses and the falling out of my teeth.
I’m in a cab headed downtown. Ron’s friends are already belligerently drunk, reeking of high expectations, discarded brain cells, and tequila. I can tell Ron, sitting in the front, has been drinking too, though not as much, as to keep me comfortable. I am tin-canned in the back seat between two men whose names, as far as I can recall, are both Joe. I can hardly move without getting an elbow in the ribs or a kick in the shin and I think I might be more comfortable in front of a speeding bus.
As this thought crosses my mind, I look out the window to see a man in a velvet blazer step before an on-coming bus, the same one I had just contemplated. There isn’t enough time to think of the incredibility of the coincidence, merely enough to brace myself for the splattering impact of flesh and bone against metal.
The bus steams through without slowing, but no splat, no guts, nothing. The man is still standing on the side of the road, sucking noncommittally on a cigarette. I guess after three months of hardly stepping outside, my mind is playing tricks on me. I must have been gaping, because our cab had stopped and Ron’s drunken companions were muttering impatiently.
“Aaron, are you coming?”
I stammer distractedly that I am, and remove myself from the car, glancing back at the man in the purple velvet blazer. He’s gone, his existence only proven by the lingering of smoke left behind in his stead.
We enter a venue surrounded by people whose expressions all look dulled and identical. Inside, the dimly lit bar is swarmed with them, reptilian under the overhead glow of red lights. I heed Ron’s previous advice and order a round of shots for the group. The Joes shoot theirs greedily. Ron clinks his glass against mine.
“To your health,” he says, and I note the irony as the tequila burns the back of my throat. I look down at my hand to see this drink swiftly replaced by another, and I watch without enthusiasm as the ice cubes swirl around the glass as I move it about. I’m interrupted by a clutching at my arm, and I look up to see a drunken and overtly underage girl swaying unsteadily in heels. She knocks my drink onto the floor, shards of glass scattering throughout the area while whisky stains my boots. She apologizes through overly painted lips and offers to buy me a new one. I see Ron and his cronies staring at me approvingly from down the bar. The biggest and drunkest of the Joes gives me a thumbs-up. Feeling the weight of their stupid gaze, I decline, and usher the girl back towards her group of giggling clones. Sensing what he believes to have been my failing, Ron signals for yet another round of shots. I hear his friends loudly suggest arm-wrestling. I inform them I need to have a smoke, and float outside.
I find an unoccupied bench and take a seat, lighting a cigarette as I do. I wonder if the puddle beneath my feet is urine, and as the smell accosts my nostrils, I know that it is. I have no intention of returning to my brother’s side. I sit, instead, and watch the people who walk by. None of their features are distinguishable from the next, and I noticed only blurred colours and the clicking of heels. I drop my finished cigarette to the ground, crushing it beneath my foot. The feeling of it relenting under the weight of my shoe is satisfying.
“Excuse me, are you Aaron Pach?”
I look up to see a beautiful young woman, dressed in a white button-down shirt and jeans, noticeably weighted down by the bag slung over her shoulder.
“I’ve been called that before, yes. Why do you ask?”
“I’m a fan of your book. I recognized you from your headshot. I’ve actually got it here with me.” I watch as she struggles to sift through the textbooks enclosed at her side, narrowing my eyes as her efforts are awarded. It’s true. She’s holding the book a long-ago version of me once wrote. My own face, younger then, stares at me from the back cover.
“Do you think you could sign it for me?”
I’m temporarily unarmed by her flattery and I agree. Rising, I accept the book and a pen from her hands. I glance at the cover, worn and well read, and ask her whom I should make it out to. Hearing no reply, I look up. The girl is gone, and before me is the man in the purple blazer.
“Aaron, is it?”
He plucks the novel from my hands before I have the opportunity to react.
“What a shame.”
I peer at this man through squinted eyes, not knowing what he meant. I don’t know who he is, and yet I am inexplicably intrigued by him. He stands before me with the social grace of Jesus and the looming influence of Satan. His dark hair falls effortlessly over eyes that seem a thousand years old, bedded in flesh that can’t be over twenty-five. I am absorbed by him to a nearly inappropriate level of curiosity. If he is the beautiful, then I am now the damned.
“You know, I read an absolutely riveting novel just the other day,” he says, flipping my work over in his hands, picking through its pages.
His words tear me from my near-trance.
He laughs heartedly, tossing my book aside. I watch as it lands in the puddle of piss I earlier stepped in. His laugh is infectious; it creeps its hands down my throat and claws out a reciprocation despite the fact that I am completely lost. I find myself offering to buy him a drink before I even realize the words are leaving my mouth.
“I know just the place,” he tells me, speaking with the authority of a much older man.
He leads me to a venue I’ve never noticed until now, stuck between ones much larger and louder. We enter and I am struck by the quiet of the room. He seats himself at the bar, looking entirely out of place in his effortless grandeur, as though he was pulled directly out of an Oscar Wilde novel. I take a seat next to him on a swivelling stool and survey my surroundings. We are in an old English pub that looks on the verge of bankruptcy. The lights above us flicker and the air smells of deep-fried food. I find myself wishing I could put the entire scene down on paper.
After ordering drinks for us both, he turns to me, crossing his legs and leaning against the counter. He smiles using only his eyes, somehow amused. I realize I’ve yet to ask his name.
“Henry. Neal Henry”
Did I say that out loud?
I decide that I must have, as there is no way that he could have read my mind.
“So, what do you do, Aaron, other than write?”
Without pausing to formulate an interesting answer, I confess:
“I sleep, mostly. I don’t find myself writing much…these days.”
“But why not? When is the last time you felt something? What is it about sleep that attracts you?”
“You never know if you’re going to wake up.”
My answer seems to have intrigued him, though not on the level that he has absorbed me. I am enveloped by his presence. I find myself wondering where Ron and his friends are and I find myself not caring.
“Well then, Aaron, tonight, we are going to find something that will make you feel alive.”
Something in his eyes make me sure that if I accept his offer, I am agreeing to something beyond my comprehension, yet resisting feels impossible. I down my drink, and face him directly.
“Where do I sign?”
Neal wheels his stool around effortlessly and gestures toward the masses occupying the bar.
“Do you believe in the Cardinal Sins?”
“The seven deadly sins?”
He nods, and I explain: I do not believe in God, I do not believe in Satan as more than an abstract idea. But I do believe in evil: the evil of the human race. Of course I believe in sin, I tell him. It’s impossible to live in our world and deny its existence.
“Logical, yes, and absolutely reasonable. People are always asking what the meaning of life is. The meaning of life is sin. Without sin, what would we have? We would not need religion. We would not need God. Yet we would only need and never want.”
“Life would be boring, I guess.”
Neal smiles appreciatively at my uninteresting addition, and brings my attention to an unbearably over-weight man sitting alone in a corner booth. As I watch, a waiter brings him several extravagantly sized dishes, followed by several more. By the time the server is done, the man’s face is hardly visible behind the food. He begins eating at a feverish pace, stuffing his mouth with chicken legs well beyond capacity. He licks his fingers as grease runs down his chin. In mere minutes, the first three dishes have been devoured, and the man is sweating. He continues to indulge at an unyielding pace and I watch in disgust and scientific fascination. Finally, when I fear he may not possibly get any fuller, his face stretches in alarm and fear. He clutches at his throat, eyes bulging from the sockets like meat through a grinder, searching for help that isn’t coming. His face turns red, then pale, and lands in his remaining mashed potatoes.
Neal is chuckling.
“Gluttony! Delightful, isn’t it? Now, to our right, Aaron…”
Not worrying about the man I now presume to be dead, and fearing I’ll miss the next spectacle, I turn to a cash register at which Neal has pointed, just behind the bar. It has been left painfully unattended and wide open. I notice a thin, dirty man also eyeing this phenomenon. His presence seems too coincidental. His eyes meet mine, and a wild abandon consumes his features. He runs for the till, arms wide, bony fingers grasping, and slips on the polished floors. In an instant, his head cracks against the solidity beneath him, shattering both the tiles and his skull. I watch blood trickle from the no-longer-wild eyes that had so recently engaged mine. The man is dead. Neal is clapping.
“Spectacular! Greed at its finest.”
Neal is nearly falling off his chair with laughter when I notice a beautiful blonde woman standing nearby. She is admiring her appearance in the reflective surface of the wall, reapplying her lipstick with unwavering scrutiny. Neal leads my line of sight to another woman, this one’s face to be described as no less than torture. She is staring at her physical superior with squinted malice. Suddenly, with an inhuman grunt, she lurches across the bar, grabbing a fork from a nearby table. She connects with the unsuspecting beauty, whose screams curdle as the fork enters her eye, again, again, again. Each time it punctures, I am reminded of the suctioning sound one’s foot makes when stepping through mud. The blonde grabs the throat of her attacker, and does not let go until the beast stops moving. Satisfied, beauty collapses to the floor. Neither moves again.
“Vanity! Envy! Wonderful!”
My attention turns to a man and a woman. The man is making wild advances at the woman, who is pressed against a wall. I watch as they move with abandon, knocking over a near-by beer bottle as he rips open her blouse. He pushes her violently against the wall, face in her breasts, hand up her skirt, and suddenly her moans of pleasure are replaced by a loud popping sound. The coat-hook behind her has gone through the back of her head. The man pulls her face forward and her brain makes a sickening suction sound as it slides off the hook. He recoils in repulsion and fear, falling backwards over a stool, and lands directly upon the broken bottle. It punctures his throat, and he bleeds out on the floor next to his date.
“Oh! Le petit mort! Lust! Lust! Lust!”
Neal’s ecstasy is interrupted by loud shouts from the pool table. There is an argument taking place amongst three increasingly aggressive men, and a pint is overturned. The biggest of the three throws a reckless punch, connecting directly with the face of another. I hear a definitive crack! and watch as teeth scatter across the billiard. The third man snaps his pool stick and shoves it into the larger man’s back, splintering through his heart. The impaled drops to his knees, collapsing on the floor, and the fight continues between those remaining.
“And there you have it, wrath! Don’t you just love a bit of violence?”
Neal sighs, appreciatively, and returns to a less excited posture.
“Come now, I’m bored.”
I follow him from the bar in a stupor. We reach the night, standing beneath a street light, and he turns to me unaffected.
“So, what did you think?”
“How? Why? You can’t have caused all of that. You…you didn’t.”
“Yes, you’re probably right.”
As these words leave Neal’s lips, he snaps his fingers. The bar’s doors slam closed, and the entire building bursts into flames. I collapse on the near-by bench, a spectator. There is no one around. No one notices the fire, no one cares. I watch it burn in amazement as Neal stands before me, unmoved. His previous charming composure remains, but now something dark stirs behind his ancient eyes as flames dance across their reflection. I want to ask him everything. I want to know all that he knows. I can feel the heat of the fire licking at my skin, growing in intensity.
“Are you the devil?”
All sound but Neal’s reply seems to have left the city.
“The devil, Satan, Lucifer. I’ve been going with Neal Henry for the past quarter-century”
“Why, then? Why now? Why me?”
“Why you, Aaron? Let’s not play the victim here. Why not you? ‘Without sin, life is boring.’ I believe you said something to that effect.
Tonight, I have shown you life. Tonight, I have shown you death. Tonight I have shown you both tragedy and miracle. I have made you believe in something.”
“By killing innocent people?”
“Surely you know by now that there is no such thing as an innocent person.”
“So this was for what, your entertainment?” I sink further into my seat as I speak and Neal seems to grow larger before me. “Did I entertain you?”
“On the contrary, Aaron, I believe it is I, who have entertained you.”
He turns to leave, but suddenly, I remember:
“Wait! Gluttony, greed, vanity, wrath, envy, lust.” I count on my fingers. “That’s six. What about the last one? What about sloth?”
Neal turns and smiles knowingly.
“I thought you had that one covered on your own.”
With that, Neal begins to walk away. The traffic returns to the street; people gather around the burning bar. Two fire trucks arrive and attempt to put out the flames. Some people are screaming, others looking on silently, and all the while I watch as Neal Henry disappears into the distance. I light a cigarette, lean back, and look at the calm of the stars over the turmoil of the city.
Tonight, I met the devil. After tonight, I believe in sin. I believe in Evil. I believe in Life. I drop my cigarette, exhale, and take the long way home.