Carver was twenty years old when he sold his soul to the Devil. It happened pretty much how you think it would: thwarted desires, seething ambition, muttering the deal with just enough quiet sincerity, and simply being in the right place at the right time. The rest was fairly prosaic—signatures, promises, loopholes, regret. Like any story.
He spent a few years drinking too much and spiking his endorphin levels with small white, and occasionally pink, pills. He drove too fast, he had a lot of sex and he met a lot of people whose names he now can’t remember.
He knew he wouldn’t live forever because that wasn’t part of the deal he’d made, and he needed to enjoy his new wealth while he could. He read a lot of Nietzche during these years.
Carver, like most people who sell their soul to the Devil, didn’t believe in hell. He was 25 before he realized he might be wrong.
He stopped eating red meat because the tearing of the flesh started to hurt his teeth.
His exercise regime of twenty minutes, twice a week, on the stationary bike his mother left him in her will turned into forty minutes a day, plus another thirty minutes of weight training, three times a week, on a $3,000 machine he bought from an infomercial. His cholesterol was almost too low, his arteries were clear and his resting heart rate was never above 70.
Carver stopped sitting in parks because he could feel the sun burning his corneas. He checked his skin for melanomas once a month.
One morning many years ago, while driving to work, Carver was almost hit by a semi-retired—but very drunk—history teacher who was driving his used red two-door hatchback somewhere he couldn’t remember. The teacher ran a red light, swerved around Carver, and hit a forest green minivan driven by a woman who had just dropped her kids off at a magnet high school for ‘artistic’ students. She broke her left leg and both her arms. The minivan spun 520 degrees across two lanes of traffic before hitting a hot dog stand run by a man who, at the moment just before his death, had been wondering if he was ever as close to anyone as he was to his best friend from elementary school. The semi-translucent hot dog water in the cart cascaded out and permanently disfigured a stockbroker who was two blocks from his office and had been trying to come up with an excuse to tell his wife that night.
Carver sold his car and started taking the bus.
Carver picked up the phone, said hello, and didn’t hear anything. He said hello again. This time he heard a small droning sound—he took a breath and it became clearer, larger; it was steel scraping against brick, it was glass crunching under an overturned car as it slid across a four lane highway, it was the rusted hinges of an industrial oven. They were small metallic wings clanging against each other as a swarm moved closer. The buzzing and clawing filled his head—an endless tar crept into his vision from the eye closest to the phone, and with a scream he ripped his head away and slammed the handset down. Before he hung up, a single fly the size of a black jellybean came out of the phone.
Carver grabbed his fly swatter, and the non-chemical citrus-based organic bug killer. He slammed the bedroom and kitchen doors shut—he would not let the insect’s diseased body into those rooms. Rage overtook him and he knocked over a lamp as he swung and missed. The fly turned and flew straight for him—in a desperate act of defiance Carver lifted the can and jammed down on the nozzle. The fly glided through the aerosol, descended to the coffee table and landed on the rim of his glass of carbon-filtered water, gently flexing its wings and cocking its head towards Carver. His chest tightened and his head swam with the potential for germs, disease, pestilence, virus, sickness and death. The fly jumped—Carver’s arm shot out and grabbed the insect in mid-air.
Carver opened both hands and the swatter fell underneath the love seat as the fly’s crumpled body glided to the ground, coming to rest on the ionized dust-resistant carpet. Carver ran to the bathroom, stepped on the pedal underneath the sink for hot water, and jammed his hand down on the pump to release hospital-grade disinfectant. He scrubbed under the hot water for seventeen minutes; it was only the thought of infected burn blisters that forced him to stop.
Feeling the beginnings of a rhythmic throbbing behind his eyes, Carver gulped two herbal headache pills. He needed a new light bulb. The fly swatter went into the trash compactor. Then he got down on his knees with a pair of tweezers and a small plastic sandwich bag to collect the carcass.
Carver slept for four hours, dreaming of a gravel rockslide coursing between tall, skeletal pine trees.
On Wednesday, Carver sat at the marble island in his kitchen, sliced open a grapefruit and poured a glass of vitamin-enriched soy milk.
“I’d like to place an order from Morelli’s Hardware on Main. I want one white Eric Bagger fly swatter—“
“No, Bagger—that’s the brand. That’s the one I want. And one four pack of the Greenfield compact fluorescent light bulbs, one pair of Professional Toplonox Pointed Boat stainless steel tweezers and two different brands of non-chemical based insect repellent, any brands, just as long as neither of them are L’Orange because that brand doesn’t work.”
“Right… okay, so fly swatter, tweezers, light bulbs and bug killer.”
“Did you write down the brands I gave you? I want those brands. I want Greenfield compact fluorescent light bulbs, the Bagger fly swatter—it’s stainless steel—Professional Toplonox pointed boat tweezers, also stainless steel, three and a half inches. And, this is important, two different brands of non-chemical based insect repellent, any brand that’s not L’Orange.”
“Alright man, yeah. If they don’t have those brands can I get you a—”
“No, look, is Frank working today? Can you make sure Frank goes on this order? I always request him and he’ll call from Morelli’s if there’s a problem.”
“Right, okay man, Frank it is.”
At first, Carver would venture outside and work from a coffee shop on some afternoons. One day, he was nibbling on a stale blackcurrant scone and idly wondering if the cream he put in his coffee had gone bad, when a college student—tired from studying all night for her ‘Experimental Physics Since Heisenberg’ class—dropped her frozen chai latte on the tile floor. She stopped, looked at the mess, tried to motion for help from the disinterested employee in the Buddy Holly glasses, realized that no one had even noticed and was then paralyzed with embarrassment. Her mind flashed back to the memory of tripping during her 7th grade lunch hour and landing chest-down in her tray of scarlet spaghetti, strands of pasta on her neck and pellets of meat sauce seeping into the dress her aunt bought her on a trip to Chicago. She fled the coffee shop with a slowly constricting throat.
Carver hadn’t noticed her either. Two minutes later another student, who had just taken an exam in his seminar on ‘Courtly Love in Medieval Germany’, ordered a caramel and whipped cream drink. He was walking towards the sugar counter when his Timberland boots, their soles worn smooth over the ten years since his father had bought them for him, slipped on the frozen chai latte. Carver felt the shock wave from the impact, and the shotgun crack of the student’s skull on the floor could be heard from the sidewalk. He plunged into an immediate and dreamless coma from which he would never wake.
It was a Schwinn Johnny G Pro stationary bike. His mother bought it after her operation because the doctors told her it would strengthen her cardiovascular system—it wouldn’t have made a difference, so it doesn’t matter that she never used it. The machine was stainless steel hardware that would never rust, with an ergonomic saddle, protective shrouds over the gears and chain, an emergency one-push stop button and wide stabilizers to keep it from falling over no matter how hard Carver stared ahead and pumped his legs, wishing he could feel real air moving across his face.
Did I do this yesterday? That bastard’s phone call shouldn’t have distracted me. That’s exactly what he wants. That’s how he gets them. I better slow down. You hear those stories all the time. You think you’re doing your normal workout, but you don’t pay attention to the warning signs. Before you know it you’ve gone too far and too fast and you’re lying in a heap on a cold gym floor that’s only swept once a day, with sweaty accountants dripping on you. If you’re lucky, one of the 18 year olds who work at the gym has seen your twitching body and called 911. God forbid they’d try to do CPR—they’d just break your ribs or pop a lung. I bet he’d like that, being killed by an overzealous good Samaritan—he’d laugh and laugh the way he does. Stop it. Focus on my breathing.
On the far left wall hung a framed poster he’d bought online. A black and white photograph of a storm moving across Nambé Lake, New Mexico.
I wish it were in color. I wonder if that water is cold? I could imagine it biting into the skin and gently slicing. Or maybe it’s really warm, body temperature, and it sticks to you softly. Do they have lifeguards in lakes? Maybe I’ll go there with someone. I want to stand in a cold stream that comes to the middle of my bare shins and feel loose pebbles under my feet. And when you catch something I want to come up behind you, wrap my arms around you and try to help you pull in what you’ve hooked. You’ll be laughing, we’ll have our jeans rolled tightly to our knees and we’ll wish we hadn’t made fun of those plastic waders we saw in the store. I’ll be trying to steady you against the pull of the water and the moss on the rocks. We’ll lean back together and pull, and then we’ll slip and I’ll land on my back and feel you come down on top of me. For an instant we’ll panic, and our bodies will slide against each other as I feel the smooth pebbles of the lake bed pressing into my back and sliding under my shirt the way your fingertips do. My arms will clamp around you and I won’t be able to let you go if I try—but I won’t try. We’ll sit up, spitting out water and laughing before we can breathe. We’ll be soaked. Your hair will stick to the side of your face in a brown curtain that I will part, trying to keep it out of your eyes. We’ll realize we’re okay, keep laughing, and then I’ll lean forward and kiss you—tasting the cold water on your lips and knowing that even covered in muddy river water, you taste better than anything else I’ve ever known.
Stop. I couldn’t go that far. My neck hurts.
Carver stopped pedaling.
He’s now thirty-two years old, and he hasn’t left his apartment in seven years, four months and twelve days. The risks stopped being worth it. The incentives weakened. The need for other people faded. There are no runaway taxis inside, no stray bullets, no bricks kicked off the top of construction sites, no lonely man with a gun, no ice to slip on, no reason to make a stupid mistake and wake up in hell. And he doesn’t miss the world he used to be a part of.