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Better off Undead
Hell found me.
I thought I’d given it the slip, but I guess that’s just how these things go, isn’t it? You think you’re safe, but in reality you’re just playing right into the devil’s twisted little trap like a brainless mouse and a mastermind cat.
Maybe that’s just how things work for me. I suppose it’s always been that way. But it’s not my fault. My parents are the ones who named me Gabriel. Gabe DeAngelo, actually. That’s irony in its cruelest form. With a name like that, it’s human nature to expect that I couldn’t turn out to be anything other than a sugary-sweet angel whose only wish is to better human kind and give selflessly to those who can’t.
Irony. There really isn’t a sting like it.
You see, it all started when I turned fifteen. That really wasn’t the best year for the DeAngelo family. In fact, you could say that it could rightfully be compared to hell. That’s what I thought then, anyway. Now I know better.
Two years ago I found myself walking down one of the many dank streets in Seattle after a long session of detention. I’d gotten caught skipping out of class on purpose so that I wouldn’t have to go home that night. Pathetic, I know. If only I’d known how much I’d regret it later.
I kicked a rock, hands stuffed in my jeans pockets, proving the school’s councilor right about my misplaced aggression issues. It skittered off to the middle of the road, and I sauntered after it. I kicked it again and followed its manic path across the pavement all the way across to the other sidewalk. It hopped the curb inconceivably, but I didn’t think about that. I just wanted to kick it again.
That’s when I first heard him. His voice was confident and slick, like a car salesman. It was the kind of voice a man would have when he got his way. When he was up to no good.
“…Congratulations.” Said that deep, showy voice. “I’m proud of you. You’ve finally conquered that inner demon. No more monkey on your back, is there? Feels good, right?”
I turned the corner curiously and had a look into the dark, musty alley. It was just a small look. An innocent look, even.
Barely, I could make out two men standing in the shadows. One was taller, with broad shoulders and slicked back hair. He wore an expensive, tailor-made suit with shoes so shined black that the grime on the ground seemed repelled by them. It looked like I was right about the car salesman.
The other I recognized easily. Everyone on my street knew Ollie. He was the neighborhood drunk, and was too far into an alcohol-induced haze to even be ashamed of it.
I leaned into the wall to get a better view. I knew even then that something about this didn’t seem right. First off, what was a rich-looking man talking to Ol’ Ollie for? And… now this might have just been a rumor, but I’d heard that Ollie had finally scraped himself off the street and gone to rehab. I thought he was clean.
Apparently not, seeing as the salesman was brandishing out a shiny bottle of expensive-looking vodka towards the middle-aged hobo.
“You’re no longer an alcoholic, Mr. Slithers.” The salesman said with an eerily bleached-white smile. “Congratulations. Celebrate with the AA’s complimentary alcohol free beverage.”
Ollie took it suspiciously. “I’m really cured? My wife’ll take me back?”
The grin on the salesman’s face deepened. “Oh yes, Oliver. Go over there right after you finish this little drink.”
Ollie beamed through a layer of dirt and unshaved beard. “Thanks a lot, mister. I think my life just may be turning around!”
He turned and started to scuttle off towards the end of the alley when I made the biggest mistake of my entire life. I realize that I was mad. I was furious, really. Ollie had been trying to get clean, and here was this slick stranger offering him a one-way ticket back to the bottom. And lying while he was at it, too! I swear it was in the heat of the moment. I didn’t know. All I do know is what happened next.
“Ollie, stop!” I shouted before I knew what I was doing. Ollie stopped and turned around, obviously recognizing me. The salesman, however, seemed to have transformed from a smiling, helpful buddy to a cold, murderous brute. He glared at me wrathfully.
Ollie gave a lopsided smile and offered the vodka. “Want some, Gabe? There’s plenty, and lots to celebrate!”
I took two steps forward and knocked the bottle to the ground, where it shattered, and the strong stench of alcohol blasted us all in the face. For a second nothing happened. We all just stared at the jagged glass joining the rest of the liter on the disgusting street floor. Then Ollie got angry.
He jabbed one finger in the man’s chest, so mad that his tongue seemed to be twisted and no words came out. I don’t know why, but all of a sudden, Ollie gave up. He glared like ice at the man, but said nothing. He turned on his heel and disappeared down the alley like nothing had happened. But at least he stumbled away sober, right?
As soon as he was out of earshot, the man turned on me.
“You unpleasant child. Look what you’ve done.” His voice wasn’t nearly as vicious as I thought it would be. He almost sounded like a disappointed teacher, scolding a child who’d just spilled paint on the floor. But it wasn’t spilled paint. It was vodka. “And on my new shoes, too.”
Something about that guy gave me the creeps. Intuition, I guess, or my conscience. Too bad those things are the first things to go when you’re angry. They might have saved my life.
“What’s your deal?” I demanded. “Ollie’s never done anything to you and you almost wrecked his whole chance at getting better! What kind of person does that?”
The man shrugged thoughtfully. “I don’t know… the devil?”
“Clever.” I cut back. “Sir.”
The man chuckled and reached into his expensive jacket pocket. He pulled out a small red business card and flicked it in my direction. I caught it hesitantly, not really sure if I wanted to know who this messed up guy was.
That’s all it said. I flipped it over to find an address, and rolled my eyes when I saw what it was.
“Gee, you’re hilarious.” I said, finding that my sarcastic streak came out when I was mad. “But what’s your real name?”
The ‘devil’ grinned. “Didn’t you ever pay attention in church, boy? I’m the Devil. Simple, plain, and evil as that.”
I backed up one step. He was starting to creep me out now. If I’d ever imagined the devil, I would have thought of this guy right here.
The Devil mirrored my step and inclined so close that I could see his brimstone-colored eyes. “Has there ever been anything that you’ve ever wanted, boy?”
“W-What?” I stammered. Then, immediately I straightened up and cleared my throat. I certainly didn’t want to look like a wimp in front of the Devil. In a lower voice, I repeated, “What?”
The Devil eyed my holey jeans and beat-up jacket curiously. “Money? I bet you’re a money sort of soul.”
I raised an eyebrow curiously, and I’m not ashamed to admit it, a little bit intimidated, too. “No, not really.”
“Women?” He prodded.
I shook my head. “I-I’m fine in that department.”
“What then?” He insisted again. There was something unsettling about his relentless questioning—something that I couldn’t put my finger on. But it was dodgy.
His eyes were so close and so unnerving that for a second it seemed like they mesmerized me. Before I knew what I was saying, I had already blurted it out, and couldn’t take it back. “Time.”
The Devil looked confused, so I spluttered back an explanation.
“I’d want time. Time as a teenager where I don’t have to keep coming home to the parents, you know?” I didn’t think he would know, because, well, I didn’t even know. This was all coming out on its own free will.
The Devil chewed on his cheek thoughtfully. “So if you could have anything you would choose to be fifteen forever, if I’m not mistaken?”
I gulped and nodded up and down. “I guess.”
With a chuckle, the Devil straightened up and brushed off his jacket. For a split, terrifying second, his eyes glowed crimson red. I thought I’d scream like a little girl scout. But then it was over, and the Devil was smirking. “Then that’s that. Nice to meet you, then, Gabriel.”
I reeled back as he playfully shoved my shoulder not-so-playfully. “Wait!” I called as he started to swagger off towards the mouth of the alley.
He didn’t pause.
“How did you know my name?” I shouted. Oh, right. He’s the Devil. I bet he just knows that sort of thing.
Completely panicked, I booked it home. I didn’t want to give the Devil another chance to appear in a puff of smoke and steal my soul or something just as novel and predictable.
When I got home to the ugly, squat house where I’d grown up, I heard my parents arguing before I made it up the rickety old steps. I ignored them, though, and dashed upstairs to my room where I could turn up my music and drown out the sounds of a marriage going down the drain.
I was breathing hard from the intense run, and my face was flushed. Other than my short brown hair sticking up at gravitationally improbable angles and a definite wild gleam to my blue eyes, there wasn’t really anything different that I could see when I looked in the mirror. I was still tall. I still had all of my impressive football muscles. But something felt different.
Deciding to sleep on it, I turned out the lights and let the sounds of insults and profanities sing me to sleep. Got to the love the parents.
The next morning I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d somehow made a huge mistake. Whether it was that I chose cereal over oatmeal, or that I walked instead of taking the bus to school, I couldn’t tell. For some reason it didn’t seem like either of those were the reason behind it all.
As I crossed the street from a Starbucks to the huge sprawling building of Ulysses Prep, something happened to me that I never could have expected.
“Gabe!” Emma Benson cried. “Watch out!”
My first thought was, Wow, Emma Benson’s talking to me? Then, unfortunately, it registered just what she had said. I spun around in the middle of the crosswalk and froze in mid-step. I know when you watch movies and they stop right in the path of an oncoming bus, you scream at them and tell them to just MOVE! But when it really comes down to it, you just can’t. All you can do is sit and stare at it as it flattens you to the ground.
I remember the second it hit me, dead center. Bad pun, sorry. I flew backwards into a parked car, setting off the alarm that blared and shrieked so loudly that I couldn’t hear the people screaming.
Then I heard him again.
He was laughing. Chuckling, really. The Devil peered around the side of the bus, and it only made him snicker louder. “Oh dear me! I never get tired of that one!” He wiped his eyes where tears of enjoyment were forming. “Come on, son, get up. You don’t want to linger, do you?”
I looked at him like he was crazy. Who was I kidding, he was crazy! I just got hit by a bus—I wasn’t going anywhere!
“You’re fine, kid. Get up.” He said sternly.
I looked down at myself and couldn’t help but gape. He was right. I didn’t have a scratch on me. The bus and the parked car, however, were a different story. They both had symmetrical dents that exactly fit the shape of my body, like I was made of steel.
If I weren’t in the middle of a demonic conundrum, that thought would have made me grin. But, understandably, I didn’t right then.
“How…” I finally got my voice to work as the Devil finally pulled me from the wreckage. He strolled casually down the street in the opposite direction, leaving the mess of twisted steel and hysteric students behind him. I had to stumble after him in order to keep pace.
“You said you wanted to be fifteen forever, didn’t you?” The Devil grinned triumphantly. “So I made it happen.”
I swear my eyes bugged out then. “What?”
The Devil straightened his jacket. “You heard me. Fifteen forever.”
“But why?” I demanded as he turned a corner on a dime.
“Because I had Ollie in the palm of my hand.” The Devil explained. “And you knocked him right out. I came here to get souls, you must understand by now. So when I lose one…”
I winced. “You replace it with another?”
“But doesn’t making me…undead…defeat the purpose? I won’t die and go to hell.” I found it much harder to say ‘immortal’ or ‘invincible’ than I ever thought it would be.
The Devil smiled charmingly. “That’s where you’re wrong, Gabe. You see, the best part of this arrangement is that you’re never dead for long—I get to kill you again right over! See how much fun this is going to be? Forever!”
I stopped walking and felt my stomach lurch. “You’re going to kill me again?”
“Again?” Scoffed the Devil. “My boy, I hope you enjoy eternity. You’re going to find out just how dangerous it really turns out to be.”
I gulped as I realized what the Devil really had done. “I can’t go home, can I? I can’t see my friends again?”
“Goodness no.” The Devil brushed my question off like it was childish. “They all think you’re dead! And between you and me,” He inclined closer. He smelled of cologne and brimstone. Is that what hell smells like? “You’re better off.”
“Better off dead?”
He shook his head and started to walk again. Over his shoulder, he called, “Better off undead. I’ll be seeing you again, Gabriel!”
I stood there for a long time, looking for all the world to see like a panicked, deranged teenager. The sad part was that there was only one thing to do, really. Run. But where do you run where the devil can’t find you? Turns out it’s nowhere that I’ve been. I had hoped that if I left the country, maybe, he couldn’t find me. But I guess Canada’s not off-limits to the devil, either.
He was standing by the Welcome to Niagara Falls sign, arms crossed, and a smirk on his face. He was wearing a different, expensive-looking Italian-made suit than I’d seen before, but that didn’t surprise me. Every time I saw him he wore a different suit, with a red handkerchief tucked into the breast pocket.
He offered a coy, two-fingered wave in my direction.
I took two steps back at the sight of it, and nearly knocked into a boy who couldn’t have been more than seven years old. The boy gave me a curious look, and then gazed over the falls.
“Are you going to jump?” He asked finally.
I looked down at him curiously. “Jump?”
The boy nodded. “You look like you’re going to jump.”
Now there’s a thought I hadn’t considered before. Suicide really wasn’t my deal, but it made more sense than letting the devil kill me. Again.
Just then a van parked a few meters away revved up its engine and rolled forward. Great. The Devil was planning another car crash. Really original, Devil.
I looked back at the falls one more time. That would be painful.
The Devil smiled deviously as the man driving the van suddenly toppled forward onto the steering wheel, and, I knew, the gas pedal.
The little boy was still looking at me inquisitively.
“You know what, kid?” I said, backing up to the edge of the bridge. “Don’t try this at home.”
I sprinted forward, knowing that the van wouldn’t be far behind. Pushing the little boy and his mother out of the way at the same time, I cleared most of the bridge and got them running. Just because the Devil was after me didn’t mean that they had to die, too. They seemed to understand that the van was out of control, and dashed off as far as they could go, shouting as they went.
Me on the other hand? I bounded forward, one step, two steps, and—soaring over the edge! The only thought going through my head was, I can’t believe I’m so stupid, I can’t believe I’m so stupid, I can’t believe—water!
“Follow me now, Devil!” I challenged as I swan dived into a certain deathtrap. The last thing I saw as I went over the edge was the Devil’s stunned expression as he watched me finally do something he hadn’t planned for.
The water rushed up at me too quickly. This time I heard the screaming. And then I died. Again. But I knew it wouldn’t last long.
Maybe I was better off undead.