24 May The Man Who Cheated the Devil
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"The Man Who Cheated the Devil"Written by HeadOfSpectre
Estimated reading time — 18 minutes
Have you ever been down to Brantford? It’s not a bad place to live, although there honestly isn’t that much to see. So much is just abandoned, or so old you can’t even imagine what it was like when it was new. It doesn’t really feel like a city, more like a small town that got too big for the ‘town’ label.
Most of the places that hire are warehouses, and even then, they tend to go through the temp agencies rather than actually hire people. It’s easier to get rid of them when you don’t need them anymore that way. I don’t know how many people are stuck bouncing from temp job to temp job. I only put up with it since at the time, I was a nineteen-year-old kid, just happy to get some work. Most of it was in warehouses or factories. I preferred the warehouses. Less risk of losing a finger on some machine just because they couldn’t be bothered to actually train you.
It was one of the warehouses where I met Frank. He was one of the full-time employees, at this place called Colemans. It was pretty small by warehouse standards, and easy to miss. I suppose it didn’t help that the area surrounding it was full of run-down buildings that had fallen into disrepair. They mostly stored sporting equipment, brought in from Indonesia or Thailand and some of the boxes there were pretty old, with thick layers of black dust on them. Frank once told me he’d been there for about ten years, and the place had been just as dead, and run down even back then. He had no idea how old it actually was, and there were only him and the owner of the place as the actual full-time employees. Whenever things got busier than usual, they just brought on a couple of temps for half a day.
Back then, I was gearing up to put myself through College. My plan was to work until September of the next year, picking up odd temp jobs, and save up as much as I could for tuition. That was just about all you could do in Brantford. It’s hard to get a real job, but the staffing agencies always took just about anyone.
The first time I was sent to Colemans, Frank was out back waiting for me and the two other temps who were supposed to show. Only one of them actually did. He gave us the basic orientation, most of which I breezed past since this wasn’t my first rodeo.“We’ve only got the one truck today. Buncha little boxes, you know how it is. Which one of you is better at wrapping skids?” He asked, then coughed, covering his mouth with the sleeve of his jacket. I’m pretty sure it was the first thing he ever said to me.
The other temp did the wrapping, while Frank and I ended up being the ones actually building the skids. When you’re working with a guy in a truck, doing something as boring as building skids, you inevitably get to talking.
“Might be an early day,” he said, a little relieved when we were about halfway through the truck. “It’s been pretty slow around here, given it’s the holiday rush and all that. It doesn’t bother me, though. Y’know what I heard today?”
“What’s that?” I asked him.
“I heard I’m gonna be a Dad. Imagine that, right? My wife told me this morning!”
“Oh really, well congratulations!” I said. It wasn’t much more than a formal statement made to a man I barely knew. Frank coughed hard into the sleeve of his jacket again.
“Yeah, best damn day of my life, right now. Best day of my life.”
With the skid built, he let the other temp get to the wrapping, and stepped off to the side, near the edge of the loading dock for a smoke break, and beckoned me over to join him.
“Now’s about as good a time as any for the first break. Dunno if you’ll even be here for the third… It gets too quiet around here most of the time,” he said.
“Are you staying the whole day?” I asked.“Maybe. Was kinda hoping to make it home, although Laura can take care of herself for the most part right now. I might need a bit of extra help, though, if you’re offering.” He was watching the other temp drag his feet as he took our latest skid way out to the back of the warehouse, with the rest.
He was right about it being an early day. We were done before lunch. Frank sent the other guy home, but me, he kept me around for another hour or so, helping out with some of the other more minor jobs he had, although there wasn’t really enough to justify either of us staying after that. Still, that hour alone, we were talking as if we’d known each other for years.
I got sent to Colemans a couple more times after that, over the next two weeks. Sometimes, it wound up just being me and Frank. We got along pretty well, the way people do when they’re stuck working together. Friends for the moment, even if we only barely knew each other. It was Monday in the third week when I came in for my last shift as a temp. It was just me and Frank alone in the warehouse. There were two trucks, already empty and needing to be filled. Loading was faster work than unloading, usually.
Frank was quieter this time, giving me only the basics before setting to work.
“Hey, how’s the wife?” I asked as we pushed the first skids into the truck.
“Huh? Uh, yeah. She’s fine,” Frank said, distracted. “Baby’s doing alright.”
He coughed into his sleeve.
“Yeah… Baby’s doing alright… Hey, Jacky. you’re saving to go to school, right?”
“Yeah, I was thinking of going into Marketing, over at Mohawk.”
“You looking for full-time work?” Frank asked, looking over at me. “We’re getting a proper opening soon, and you don’t seem to have your head up your ass like the usual yokels they send our way..”
Of course, I jumped at the opportunity. Sporadic Temp work wasn’t really getting me what I needed. My agency would call me whenever they had something, sometimes an hour after it had already started. Sometimes I got to the work site and just got sent home. It was disheartening, to say the least.
“The guy that owns the place, Gary was in the other day. I was talking to him, we need the spot filled fast. I already asked him about you, he’s willing to give you a shot. If you want it, he’ll be in, in a couple of hours. You guys can hash it out.”
“Yeah, that’d be great! I’m your guy!” I assured him. Frank just nodded slowly, without looking at me, and got back to work. I was so happy about the prospect of getting a solid full-time gig, I didn’t notice just how lethargic he seemed.
I hadn’t actually formally met Gary before. Just seen him around every once in a while. He was an older guy who spent most of his time in his office, near the front of the building. The interview was pretty informal. There wasn’t even a contract to sign. He just agreed to pay me in cash. Looking back on it, it was a little shady, but I’d never actually had a full-time job before, so I was just glad to be making money. I was back again the next day, no questions asked for another day of work.
The year ended on a pretty high note, all things considered. Frank was in, training me for the first week or so, but after that, it was mostly just me and the temps. Christmas came and went, and a couple of weeks into January, I was still at Colemans.
Frank wasn’t in as often as I’d expected him to be. Some days, it was just me, all by myself in the warehouse. I’d figured out that I’d probably only been hired to cover for Frank while he took care of his wife, although it seemed kind of odd for him to take time off so early in the pregnancy. I didn’t question it too much. He’d come in two or three days a week, and we’d shoot the shit while we worked.
It was around the last week of January, on a Thursday when Frank collapsed. It was the only day that week when he’d been in, and we’d just been packing a skid, when he started coughing. He coughed a lot, and I usually didn’t say anything, but this time, he was doubled over, and I half expected to see him start spitting up blood.
“Frank! Frank?!” I was at his side immediately, not sure what to do to help.
His knees gave out beneath him, and I at least was able to stop him from collapsing face first into the skid. I guided him into a sitting position on the ground, listening to him gasp and wheeze.
“Jesus, are you alright?” I asked him.
“Y-yeah…” he lied, his voice hoarse and garbled by mucus. “I’m…” He coughed again, preventing him from finishing. “Fuck… I ain’t doing so good, Jack.”
He avoided my eyes, and I sat with him, waiting for his explanation about just what the fuck had been going on here.
“They…caught it about a month ago. A tumor in my lung. Stage 4.”
“Jesus, why the hell didn’t you say anything?”
“It was none of your damn business, that’s why.”
“Well, can they treat it? What about your wife? Your kid?”
Frank didn’t answer me, he just stared out into the darkness of the warehouse, then tried to stand up.
“I’m going on break,” he said. “We’re done talking about this.”
He headed towards the tiny breakroom, and it was the last I saw of him that day. I didn’t even see him leave.
It was almost three weeks before I saw Frank again. I’d asked Gary about him, and he told me he’d given Frank some time off to “Get his shit in order.” I tried to pry, but Gary refused to say anything else.
Then, one day I came into work and found Frank already there. He was loading a truck by himself, and he’d already gotten two skids in by the time I’d walked in the door.“Jack!” His voice was so cheerful, carefree, almost.
“Running late, huh? Go grab a pump truck. We got two more trucks today!”
His enthusiasm was unusual, and as I joined him at the truck, I had to ask about it.
“You’re looking better,” I said.
“I’m feeling better! Damn, I haven’t felt this good in years!”
“You talk to a doctor?”
“Something like that,” Frank cracked a wry smile. “Tell ya what, the third trucks due in at 4, if we finish up fast, we’ll head out for lunch. I’ll tell you all about it.”
Well, that sure as hell whetted my curiosity. I worked with almost the same vigor as Frank had to get through those first two trucks.
We finished up around noon. I climbed into Frank’s pickup truck, and we stopped by a little diner just down the street for lunch. Gary wasn’t even in the office, so he wouldn’t give us shit for slacking off for a little while. He ordered two beers, and sat there, studying the menu before I asked.
“So, you doing alright? You in chemo or something?”
Frank’s cracked lips curled into a small, wry smile. The kind of smile you see on a man who’s seen things.
“I was, for a bit. Not right now, though. I’m in remission.”
“Wait, the cancer’s gone? How?” I’d never heard of someone bouncing back from the big C that quickly, and Frank looked better than he’d ever been since I’d met him! The waitress brought us our beers, and Frank took a long sip from the bottle, before speaking again.
“Tell me something, Jack. Do you believe in God?”
“I guess so? I never really went to Church, but I guess I like the idea of there being a God.”
“Good. What about the Devil? Do you believe in that, too?”
“You know… when someone gets really low, they get desperate. God, the past couple of weeks, I’ve never been so scared in all my life! I was looking into treatment, and people kept telling me about how bad my chances looked. They didn’t come out and say it, but they might as well have. Everyone was convinced I was gonna die… I’m thirty-eight years old, Jack. If you ask me, I’d say I’m too young to die. Hell, with my kid on the way, I don’t want to die! I don’t want them to grow up without a Dad, I wanna provide, I wanna be a breadwinner! So… I started looking around at things. The kinda things people might not usually look at.”
“What, like herbal medicines and stuff?” I asked.
“That was some of it,” Frank said, “But other stuff as well. Herbal techniques, and some really obscure stuff… Occult stuff… See, I made some friends while I was poking around on some of those obscure sites. I didn’t put too much faith in it, but I happened to mention my diagnosis to one of them. They sent me to a forum on some unlisted onion site… Now this site, this site was 12 different kinds of fucked up. Really heavy occult shit. Rituals to summon Demons to kill people, help you get your rocks off… even summon the big man himself… Crazy, right? But, I took a look around. I didn’t exactly have high hopes, but I figured that people probably bought into this shit for a reason. There was this one ritual that people kept bringing up. There was a lot of debate as to whether or not it was summoning the Devil, or just one of his demons. That wasn’t what interested me though… See, people kept talking about this ritual as if they actually did it, and it worked! So, I thought, ‘What have I got to lose?’
The ritual didn’t call for a lot. A mirror, a circle of salt, homemade candles with my own blood inside of them, and a chant done at 3 in the morning. Pretty standard demonic horseshit, right? But… well, all these people seemed to think it worked, and like I said. What did I have to lose?
I rented a motel room for a night. Made the candles, and set everything up in the bathroom, right in front of the mirror. Then at 3 AM, I did the chant. I probably butchered the hell out of it… at first, I thought it didn’t even work. It was just my face in the candlelight… That’s when I saw it, though… In the reflection, a woman walked through the bathroom door. I turned to look at her, but there was no one there! All there was, was her reflection in the mirror!
She walked up behind me, stopping just inches away from me, her face just over the reflection of my shoulder. She was pale, with thick black hair that cascaded over her shoulders, and a calming smile.
“Hello, Frank,” she said in the sweetest voice I’d ever heard. Her chin rested on my shoulder. My mouth went dry… I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, and I didn’t even know what to say! I honestly don’t think I expected it to actually work…
“It’s alright,” she told me. “I know why you called. And yes… I’d love to help. It’s my job afterall, to help people like you.”
“It is?” I asked, and I probably sounded like a complete dumbass!
“Oh yes. I could make it all go away. For a cost. I don’t work for free, Frank. I do something for you, you do something for me!”
“So you sold your soul?” I asked. I’d been sitting, immersed in his story up until then. I hadn’t even touched my beer, and Frank chuckled.
“See, that was what I asked too. But… No. She just laughed when I brought it up.”
“No,” she said, ‘I prefer something a little more tangible… But the cost is always high, Frank. Always.”
“What do you want?”
“Your wife, she’s pregnant, isn’t she?”
God, my heart froze in my chest when she said that… and that smile on her face, that horrible, innocent smile.
‘That’s what I want, Frank. I will cure you, and then I, after they’ve been born, I will take the child, and you’ll be free. No more cancer.”
My heart was racing. I couldn’t have given up my kid, Jack… I just couldn’t… But that look on her face, she already knew my answer. But that’s when I got an idea… See, a couple of days before I’d been with Laura at the prenatal clinic to get the results of a blood test we’d done. Something pretty basic just to determine if the kid was gonna have any defects, but they also told us the sex of the baby… I’m gonna have a little girl. And that’s what got me thinking…
I looked at the reflection of The Devil in the mirror, and I said “Okay.”
I said, “When my son is born, I’ll perform the ritual again, and I’ll give him to you.”
And you know what? That smile on her lips grew wider, maybe too wide, but the look of utter satisfaction on her face both terrified and comforted me.
“It’s a deal,” she said. “I’ll see you soon, Frank…”
And then she was gone. I blinked, and she wasn’t there anymore. The candles still burned, it was like nothing had happened at all…”
Frank took one long pull of his beer, and let out a sigh.
“A couple of days later, I was in remission. It was the best Goddamn feeling in the world.”
“But then what happens when the kids born?” I asked him, “Son, daughter, it shouldn’t matter, right?”
“I wondered the same thing myself. According to the people into this sort of thing, Demons are all about specific wording. I promised it a Son. I can’t give them a Son. The deal’s a paradox. They already gave me what I wanted, I didn’t fail to deliver on the terms, I just won’t ever have a son!” He laughed.“I guess we’ll see, won’t we?”
He lifted up the menu for the first time since we’d sat down, and looked down at it.
“Ah, but I’ve been going on long enough, what looks good?”
I sat there for a few moments, processing all that he’d just told me. He had to just be pulling my leg. That whole story just had to be complete bullshit! But the way Frank had told it… I was pretty sure that he completely believed it, even if I didn’t.
Whatever the truth was, Frank seemed fine over the next few months. Every day I came in, he was usually already there. As I settled into a routine, I convinced myself that Frank was just pulling my leg. Maybe the cancer hadn’t been as bad as he’d thought. He’d probably just found a treatment that actually worked, and made up that story either to screw with me. Or, maybe he really did believe it, in which case, maybe he’d been on some sort of drug. He had mentioned he’d been looking into ‘herbal’ treatments, after all. Either way, I was pretty sure that the story he’d told me was just that. A story, and as the months went by, I almost forgot about it.
Eventually, I started applying for Colleges. I’d saved up enough to get me through a couple of semesters, and Gary was willing to let me switch to part-time work for a while, so I saw less of Frank. On the days where I was in, we’d shoot the shit, and he’d talk about his wife, and the pregnancy, how she was progressing, names he and his wife were thinking up for their Daughter. Honestly, it was kinda nice seeing him that way. As far as I could tell from what he told me, he’d stayed cancer free too. He told me his Doctor had run some tests on him to see how he’d bounced back so quickly, but hadn’t come up with anything. In the end, he’d just chalked it up to misdiagnosis and kept an eye on him.
It was July when Kate was born. That was the name Frank and Laura had gone with. He kept texting me pictures of his newborn little girl on the night he’d taken her to the hospital. I don’t think I’d ever seen him so happy before. It was kinda heartwarming, actually… And I thought about the story he’d told me back in January. I hadn’t dwelled on it, and Frank had never mentioned it again afterward. Like I said, I’d convinced myself he’d either made the whole thing up, or been high off his ass when it had happened, but it was hard not to remember the way he’d spoken as he’d told me about the Woman in the Mirror.
Frank was still as full of energy as he’d been back in January. All he talked about was his daughter, how happy he was to have her, how much he loved her. That kid meant everything to him.
“Doc said he’d never seen such quick labor,” he told me, as we built a skid one afternoon. “Usually it’s a few hours, yeah? But Laura’s water broke and Kate was out about half an hour later. I looked it up online. I guess it’s not common, but sometimes it happens! Weird, right?”
“I’ve never heard of it before, but at least it was quick and she’s healthy.” I’d replied. “Have you… seen anything weird, lately? In the mirrors?”
“No, I haven’t,” he said after a while, his voice getting quiet. “Y’know, I’ve been wondering though. You would’ve thought that if anything were gonna happen, something would have. But no. It’s been quiet.” He cracked a tiny, smug little smile.
“I guess I did promise that bitch a son, didn’t I?”
“I guess you did,” I replied. Frank’s smile faded slowly, and he laughed quietly.“Maybe I’m in the clear then.” He said, before getting back to work.
Given that nothing had actually happened, I was almost sorta inclined to agree with him.
Nothing kept happening. I’d applied and got accepted into Mohawk, all geared up to start in September. Gary agreed to let me switch to part-time, just to give me some income during classes, and as August came to a close, I was getting ready to make that shift.
I had about a week left when things changed.
Frank and I were loading a truck when Gary came down from his office and headed towards Frank, not quite running, but moving a lot faster he usually did. I was inside the truck, and could just see him tap Frank on the shoulder from across the warehouse, and say something to him. Frank dropped the handle of his pump truck to sprint across the warehouse towards Gary’s office. A couple of minutes later, he sprinted past the truck, to the door of the warehouse faster than I’d ever seen him move.
I found out later that a truck had blown through a stoplight, and hit Laura on the driver’s side while she’d been out running some errands. The report in the newspaper said that first responders had tried to get her out of the wreck, although she was dead before they could get to her. Looking at the picture that accompanied the article, I was amazed she’d even survived. Her car was crumpled like a piece of paper. Bent almost in half from the impact. There was no visible gore in the photograph, but when I later heard it was going to be a closed casket funeral, I wasn’t surprised. As for baby Kate in the back seat, the only consolation was that she had likely been killed in the initial impact.
I was a pallbearer for Laura at the funeral for her and Kate. Frank didn’t have many people in his life, and I was one of the few he considered a friend. I hadn’t known Laura very well, but I did it more for him than for her. There was no wake afterward. After the funeral, I just drove Frank home in silence, helped him inside, and watched him pour himself a glass of whiskey almost immediately.
“What do I do now, Jacky…” He asked me, his voice hoarse and weary. He’d been fighting the urge to cry the whole time, but now he just let it out.
“What do I do now?”
He downed the whiskey, and collapsed into an armchair in his now empty living room, looking at the abandoned baby toys on the floor in front of him.
I couldn’t find the words to comfort this man… All I could do was just sit there and listen as he drank and mourned.
“It’s my own damn fault,” he finally said.
“No, it’s not, Frank. You weren’t there… you couldn’t have.”
“It is! I promised that bitch a son… She knew I tried to dupe her, and she just had to have the last laugh.”
He knocked back another drink. The bottle he’d taken with him was almost empty. I’d barely even finished one drink of my own.
“That fucking bitch…”
“Frank, none of that was real!”
“Of course it was fucking real!” he slurred. “I saw it with my own two eyes! That bitch in the mirror! I shoulda known better… Shoulda known not to fuck with that occult shit.”
He went to refill his glass, and stared at it for a moment, before deciding to just finish off the bottle instead.
“If I ever see her again, I’ll kill her… I swear to fucking God, I’ll kill her.”
“Frank,” I got up and moved closer to him, “you’re not thinking straight.”
He paused, ready to yell again and glared at me so angrily, and I saw that anger in his eyes burn down a little.
“Maybe…” he said after a while, and sighed, swirling the contents of the mostly empty bottle around. I took it out of his hand.
“Go to bed, Frank. You’ve had too much. C’mon, let’s get up.”
I helped Frank to his feet and led him upstairs to the bed, where he collapsed into it. Then I went back downstairs and sat on the couch, polishing off my own drink. I thought about going home, I wasn’t exactly buzzed, although I’d probably get in deep shit if I was caught. Besides, given the condition Frank was in, I was worried he might wake up and do something stupid, like kill himself or something. Maybe it was better if I stayed the night.
I texted my family, to let them know I was safe and decided to hunker down on his couch.
I think I maybe got, at best an hour of rest before the screaming started. I was woken up suddenly by the noise, and for a moment, I didn’t even know where I was.
“GET OUT HERE YOU FUCKING BITCH! I’M RIGHT HERE! COME AND GET ME!”
I almost tripped over my own two feet getting up off the couch and hurrying upstairs to check on Frank.“YOU TOOK THEM… THEY MEANT EVERYTHING TO ME AND YOU FUCKING TOOK THEM!”
His bedroom door was closed. I tried it, but it wouldn’t budge. Had he locked it?
“Frank?!” I called, pounding on the wood. “Frank! Open up!”
“WHAT THE HELL DO YOU WANT FROM ME?!” Frank screamed, not at me though. He wasn’t paying any attention to me.“WHAT THE HELL DO YOU FUCKING WANT FROM ME, YOU BITCH!?”
No amount of jiggling the door handle was going to help, and I slammed my shoulder against it. It gave pretty easily, and I could see Frank’s bed was empty… but the door to the bathroom was closed.
Frank screamed, an almost primal sound of pure animal rage and grief. I sprinted towards the bathroom door, not even bothering to try and open that one nicely.
“I’LL DO IT! I’LL DO IT, OKAY? I’LL HONOR THE BARGAIN! I’LL HONOR IT!”
“Frank! Open the door!” I yelled, and he didn’t answer. I heard him sobbing on the other side, and I slammed into the door again and again, forcing it to budge.
“Do whatever you want… I’m sorry… I’m sorry…” Franks screams had become miserable whimpers, and at last the door gave beneath me, flying open and sending me spilling into the dark bathroom. Just as it did, I heard the sound of glass shattering and went for the light.
The bathroom was a disaster. Frank lay curled in a ball in the bathtub, face wet with tears, and the bathroom mirror lay in pieces on the floor. He hadn’t cut himself, thankfully. He just lay there, crying and refusing to move or even so much as acknowledge me.
I let him be for the time being, and went to collect some of the broken glass. Somehow, I got Frank back to bed that night, and he was still asleep and okay when I left in the morning. I didn’t see him back at work for the rest of the week. Gary said he’d given him some more time off, and honestly, I think Frank deserved it.
Frank killed himself two weeks ago. Gary called me a couple of days after it had happened. I guess the weight of the loss was too heavy on him. He went out to his garage, ran the garden hose from the exhaust of his car to the window, and keyed the ignition. Gary told me he must’ve had some sort of mental break before he did it, he’d taken a hammer to the car before he’d done the deed, smashing out the side view and rearview mirrors.
Frank didn’t have a lot of friends, or family. Just a few drinking buddies, a Brother who covered the expenses, Gary and me. I never made it to his funeral, but I was at the viewing.
The casket was open, and I felt my heart sink as I saw Frank lying there, as I thought about what had driven him to this. I didn’t notice the woman appear at my side. She couldn’t have been older than 30, with long dark hair that spilled over her shoulders.
“It’s such a shame, losing him now,” she said softly to me. “Were you and Frank close?”
“Kinda,” I admitted. “He was good company, y’know?”
“I know,” she replied, smiling softly at me, “It hurt me to see how bad he got at the end. I was there with him a lot, over the past couple of months, trying to help him. Sometimes a man needs help.”
Her hand dipped down a little bit, towards her stomach where I noticed the slightest bulge.
“I was going to give him the news the night he passed. I got the results back. He was going to have a little boy.”
There was something in her smile. Something I didn’t like. Something that made my heart race.
I excused myself, almost on instinct wanting to get away from this woman. She didn’t try to stop me. As I stepped out of the room, my eye was drawn to the mirror across the hall, casting a reflection of Frank’s viewing.
I could see his brother, Gary, and a few of the other guys. But that woman…
I looked back and saw her standing in the middle of the room, eyes locked onto me, a knowing smile on her lips.
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