Train tracks ran in silver strings through a landscape of matte grey. The last glimmers of golden sunset light had gone; in its absence all was slowly succumbing to dusk. Only the sky retained its color, and below that pool of gold-feathered blue, the world lay in an amorphous haze, treetops blending to rise like the heads of horned things in silent rebellion against the sky’s beauty.
Marah took in the landscape. She walked along the tracks as faithfully as a fairy-tale heroine along the path to a golden city, but her mind was anywhere but on the path.
The railway was banked up, rising on a bed of gravel a respectable distance from the surrounding swamp. Short, stubby trees stood on either side of it, ancient and impermanent. Their long limbs dipped low, swaying just above the mossy ground. The dearly departed light had lit the trees in jewel-tones, showing them alive with budding leaves. In the current dim, moss and lichen were visible staining the trunks in living piebald patches.
Swamp-soil was rich and good for growing, but no matter how deep the trees plunged their roots, the soft earth had no strength to hold them. The very heaviness of their branches eventually betrayed them, and the swamp floor was filled with the rotting corpses of trees it had nurtured and let fall.
Marah’s mind existed in a tangled, confused jumble, quite separate from the rest of her. She was dimly aware that she had been thinking about life and swamp-mud and tree roots for some time, but she was too tired to sort out what her thoughts meant or why she kept turning them over and over in her mind as if there was something more to them than mere ecology.
Her body and her mind had long since parted ways, and her body was busily focused on the tracks, the journey ahead, on ignoring the prickling between her shoulder-blades and her own fear of the dark to keep taking one step, then another, along the disused track.
Like the landscape, Marah was grey today. Her hair was grey, and her eyes were grey; her torn and ragged suit was grey and getting greyer, her deep-cracking bones and her purposeful thoughtlessness alike contributed to the greyness that had settled on the world ever since the sun had sunk below the horizon.
She shivered slightly, thinking of the dark that would settle soon after. As little as she liked the grey twilight, nighttime was another matter altogether. It was difficult to see now, but soon it would be impossible.
The dark, though, did not matter today. She knew where she was going, and she didn’t need to see more than a foot in front of her face to get there.
She was going home.
Home. She held the name out like a promise to keep her going. Can’t stop now, you’ll never get yourself started again. Then where would you be? She thought to herself, watching the half-rotted railroad ties depress slightly under her feet. Alone in the middle of a big old swamp, that’s where.
There was a turn in the railway coming up, and Marah wondered how near it had gotten in the past five minutes. Soon, she would reach the curve and see what lay beyond it. In the dusky twilight of her mind, this was an exciting prospect.
She glanced up.
The gravel under her feet shifted abruptly as she came to a halt, staring at the thing up ahead as it, in turn, stared back at her.
In the midst of all the grey, its white form stood out, with sharp ears pricked toward her and copper-colored eyes looking into hers with something more than animal curiosity.
Marah’s stomach plunged, picturing the wolf charging at her with claws and teeth and killing intent–she had no weapons. It had been idiotic not to bring any.
But the beast didn’t charge. It only stood and watched, fur showing up like snow against the dying day.
It grew tired of her. Turning with preternatural silence, it made its way off the road and into the thick swamp, disappearing into the thicket of trees.
* * *
A day ago, at a Sun-Co gas station a mile from the railroad tracks, Marah had bought a backpack, three bottles of water and an entire box of candy bars. Her hands shook as she counted out the change, scattering pennies across the floor. The cashier had a kind smile and a disarming laugh, and as Marah had stuttered over an apology for the trouble, the girl had flitted over a dismissal of any need to apologize. A kind girl, but Marah could feel the cashier watching her as she left the store. Wondering, probably.
Marah’s hands hadn’t stopped shaking until she’d reached the railway an hour later and decided to follow it.
* * *
That was the last conversation she remembered having, the last time she’d used her voice. Motionless on the tracks, watching the wolf disappear into the swamp, Marah felt as though she had been alone her whole life.
The blank expanse of empty railroad before her was oppressively, impossibly lonely. The fear that the wolf would kill her was gone, replaced by the less reasonable fear that she would never see it or another living creature again.
Stepping off the crumbling ties and shifting gravel of the railway bed, Marah scrambled down the short slope and into the woods to follow it.
The swamp was oppressive in its very blandness. Dull light through the spotty overhead cover of branches gave the ground a false seeming of solidity. The forest floor gave way into ice-cold sinkholes of mud or rose up in tufts of foot-tangling grass. The trees blent together, separating themselves into visibility mere seconds before Marah crashed headlong into them, and brittle dead branches brushed against her legs like weakly grasping fingers. She stumbled through, snapping limbs and squelching through sock-soaking mud, searching the horizon for a silhouette of white.
There it was, bobbing along in the distance like a dropped marshmallow. Marah plunged after it, twisting through the trees without a care for the branches that snagged at her hair or the faint varied protests of birds woken from their slumber.
The wolf stopped, turning to watch her thoughtfully for a moment before bounding away again. It kept stopping, letting her catch sight of it again before it led her further, through mud and brambles and thick, crunchy fields of white flowers.
Finally, the puddles and mud gave way to steadier, grass-covered ground and the trees grew taller and farther apart until they finally gave way, forming a small clearing. There was still the smallest vestige of light from the dying sky, and compared to the thickness of the swamp, the clearing seemed almost bright.
The wolf was nowhere to be found.
Like someone awakening from a spell, Marah blinked and looked around, realizing that the railway was God-knew-where, lost behind a tangle of thorns and trees. As for this place…
Decisively black against a grey world, the trees were cleanly spaced, branches pruned and cared for. Curiously, Marah brushed her fingers against a short and stocky trunk, feeling the curling bark come away at her touch, a familiar scrabble against her weary fingers. Fruit trees. It was an orchard–or had been, once.
A shadowy lump squatted in the center of the clearing, motionless as a sleeping rock. Marah strained her eyes trying to make out the shapes. A tractor, half-dead with age and sinking into the soft spring earth. The feel of tree bark fresh and pleasant in her nerves, she reached out to touch it, rubbing fragments of rust between her fingers thoughtfully.
It creaked and shifted beneath her fingers, and she jumped back with a short shriek of surprise. The dull shape of a living thing stood up on top of the old machine, letting itself be silhouetted against the darkening sky, and chuckled. Its eyes were bright and familiar, glowing down on her in amusement.
“What’s the matter, Mar? You know me.”
She blinked up at him, frozen in surprise. Its face lit by the copper glow if its eyes, the demon grinned back.
“So. You here to make a deal?”
* * *
Marah was already shaking her head.
“No, I just–I thought I saw something.” She frowned at the figure silhouetted against the sky.
“Was that wolf you?”
“Wolf?” the demon looked thoughtful, looked down at himself quizzically, then back up at her.
“Don’t think so. You saw a wolf?”
“I suppose not,” she said, still looking around the clearing as though the wolf would appear out of nowhere. Predictably, it didn’t. Was she hallucinating things now?
“I should be getting back.” Back to where, she didn’t know; but the demon’s shadow shape and glowing eyes were unsettling her, and she wanted to get away.
“Aw, cmon! Stay awhile.” The creature called after her brightly, leaping off the tractor. “I’ve always taken care of you, Mar, ever since ninth grade. Remember?”
Marah did. She’d been fifteen, dumb and desperate. Back when everyone told you that school was everything, and you were stupid enough to believe them. He’d showed up with a deal too good to be true–straight A’s for the rest of the semester, and all she had to give him in return was the color of her eyes.
He’d showed up the next year, and the next. She’d bargained away her ability to juggle, the remains of her childhood crush on Remington Steele, and the double joint that had been the pride of her pinky.
Her parents had been so proud.
“Graduated top of your class, didn’t you?”
She looked up, wondering if he’d read her thoughts, but the demon only smiled at her innocently.
“Hey, I keep my promises.”
“Yes, you do.” Just because it was the truth didn’t mean Marah wanted to hear it.
“You got accepted into that college, right? And got a job at that big old lawyering firm right after.”
She remembered agonizing over the price of those–a memory. She wondered now if it had been a good one.
“And that fancy promotion. I was so proud of you, kid.”
An unimaginable pay raise and a corner office. Her husband had never looked at her quite the same, though, and the office windows had let in as much winter cold as they did city view.
“Last time we saw each other, it was that one case, wasn’t it?” he continued. “Jorgurson vs. Jorgurson.”
Marah took a reflexive step back, not wanting to remember the price of that one. The last deal she’d ever made, and the last she’d ever make.
“You should’ve seen their faces when you won! Except–oh, wait–you did. Because of me.”
“Stop,” she ordered, more harshly than she intended, and the demon held up his clawed hands, placating.
“Sorry, sheesh. What’s going on with you?”
Marah shook her head, wondering how she’d ended up here again. She’d been walking to get away, to find something different, not…
“What are you even doing here?” she asked.
“I can’t just come to say hi every once in a while?”
“You never have before. You always come when I need something, need it bad enough to–”
He cocked his head, frowning. “That’s a point against me now?”
“–but there’s nothing I want right now, so why show up?”
There was a moment of silence in which the woods around them both seemed alive with restless creatures. Marah ignored them. Finally, the demon shrugged.
“I’m worried about you. You were really moving up in the world there, getting things done, accomplishing your dreams–and then you just–” he stopped, gesturing wordlessly at her. “What happened?”
The question burrowed into her brain like a maggot. What had happened?
“Nothing,” she said.
A great big bunch of nothing. Deal after deal, each promising a good future–but deal after deal, the future had arrived and turned out to be as colorless as her eyes, as grey and uncertain as the twilit swamp. Finally she had just been tired. She threw her briefcase into the river one morning and started walking.
It had seemed like a good idea at the time.
“I’m just…done. And I want to go home,” she confessed.
“You’ve got a house, Mar. Just buy a plane ticket.”
Her house hadn’t been a home in years. Maybe it never had.
“Not what I meant.”
“Oh. Like, home-home…”
She looked at the ground beneath her feet. She wasn’t sure, really, where home was anymore.
But even if there wasn’t one waiting for her somewhere, she could try to make one.
“Boy,” the demon said, interrupting her thoughts. She looked up to find him thoughtful.
“It’s a tall order. But, hey, I’d do anything for you, so…”
“What are you talking about?”
“You want a home?” he took a step back, spreading his arms like a showman. “I can get one for you. Ready-to-order, all-that-you-dreamed-of–this is my gig, remember? You could’ve just come to me in the first place.” He chuckled at her softly, shaking his horned head.
Marah felt fifteen again, nervous and desperate, shaking at the thought of fulfilling a dream she’d thought impossible.
“Think about it, if you need to,” he said. “I’ve got all the time in the world.”
She’d made a promise, after the last deal. A promise to never do it again, because the deals always went sick and sour when they took.
But how could a home–a real home–go sour? How could it spoil and sicken?
Maybe the problem all along hadn’t been the deals, but what she’d asked for.
And, promise or not, she wanted this.
“You want to deal?” he asked, as she came to a decision.
His grin grew wider.
“What do you want for it?” she didn’t care if her asked for her voice or her legs. He threw his head back, clicking his clawed fingers together as if calculating a sum.
“Ah. Well, let’s see. Generally I like to bargain for concrete, solid things, you know, but as you seem to be running low on those, I’d be willing to take something a little more…ethereal. Something you won’t even know is gone.”
Marah had never liked skirting around the point.
“What is it?”
“In buyer’s terms? Item: one home. Price? One soul.”
The wind wasn’t blowing. It would have been a warm spring wind if it had; but there was a chill in the air that hadn’t been there a moment earlier.
“Soul.” Came the perfunctory reply. “You up for it?”
Marah had never given much thought to the matter of souls. Perhaps the sudden revulsion in her bones was nothing more than the product of a hundred fairy-tale stories spinning in her head, long since forgotten and rising up now only because of the cartoonish mention of a soul. A soul. Something she wasn’t even sure existed, but she could feel her fingers curling tight as though to hold on to it.
He watched her, expecting an answer.
He was surprised. She’d surprised herself.
“Come on, Mar,” the demon said, gesturing limply. “I didn’t think you were superstitious.”
She choked on a nervous laugh.
“I’m talking to you, aren’t I?”
He huffed, and she shook her head.
“It’s…maybe it’s not the soul, so much. I don’t know what I was thinking–I appreciate all you’ve done, really. I do. But…I think it’s time I try to make my own way.”
His glowing eyes were strangely motionless, and the silence between them was palpable.
Taking a hesitant step back, she waited for him to disappear like he usually did when their deals were done.
He remained, steady and still. A faint prickling ran between her shoulder blades as Marah realized that he always left once he got what he wanted.
And she had just refused him.
“Well…I’ll…” she began.
There was nowhere to go but back into the swamp, and she began to retreat cautiously towards the trees.
“You think you can make your own way?” he asked before she’d walked three feet. His eyes were burning now, tiny tongues of flame licking up over the lids, glittering along the curves of his horns and illumining the pitch-black clearing with dull orange.
“I want to try.”
“You’ll fail.” His voice was a blank. “Your ‘own’ way–you don’t own anything, honey. You are owned. By me or by whatever other of my kind feel like picking you up out of the dirt and brushing off the nasty.”
There was a cruel and dead-serious twist to every word he spoke. Her stomach curled in on itself.
He smiled a smile that went all wrong at the edges, and his voice turned light again–more like his old, friendly self–but Marah’s stomach only knotted itself tighter as he spoke.
“Devil you know, kid. Think about it. I can give you a good life. Think you can find one yourself? Think you can make one?” he laughed, all the hopelessness she’d ever felt shivering in the air. “I’m the only shot you have.”
Marah saw him. He didn’t look any different, but for the first time she saw him, as he was behind the promises. Curling horns and skin grey with death; hellfire in the eyes and a persistent scent of sulphur. He was a demon, in the most superstitious sense of the word–and he wanted her soul.
Her knees shook, and she would’ve run, but she couldn’t trust her legs. The flames in his eyes were furious, beginning to crackle, ember-like, through his dry and peeling skin.
“I’ve been coddling you for years. Caring for you, giving you whatever you wanted, letting you pay in slips and tokens while I laid the world at your feet–”
In the midst of all her fear, a flicker of unexpected anger flared.
“Slips and tokens? Slips and tokens? I gave you everything!” she shouted, voice cracking at the unaccustomed volume. “I gave you my eyes! My memories! I gave you all that I was!”
The truth of the past thirty years came slowly to light. He had chipped her down stroke by stroke, making her a mere ghost of herself. And she had let him.
“Mar–” he started, but she cut him off.
“You might have the color of my eyes. You might have my body, and my mind, and my life–” her voice broke and quavered, betraying her when she needed it the most. Feeling the oncoming blubber of tears, she spoke quickly to outrun it.
“But I won’t give you any more. You can’t have anything more that’s mine, and I don’t care who else owns me, just so long as it. Is not. You.”
He gave an animal growl and lunged forward, digging his fingers into her side, his fire-and-brimstone breath searing her face as he spoke.
“Oh, honey,” he said, as she struggled to breathe. “You’re already mine.”
Marah gurgled, and he tore his claws out of her stomach, letting her crumple to the ground.
The pain was so sharp that the rest of the world seemed hazy and soft. Marah blinked muzzily, watching her blood drip from the dagger-sharp claws, and followed the ember-glowing arm to find the demon’s face, looking down at her in something like amusement and something like disgust.
“Go to hell,” she burbled unconvincingly, and his face flickered.
“It’ll only be to join you there,” he said, and was gone.
* * *
The ground soaked up all her heat, giving her its half-frozen chills in return, and Marah choked on her own air, dimly aware that every breath was pumping more blood out of her veins and into the dirt.
In the light of the demon’s last words, dying was a minor tragedy.
“I don’t wanna go to hell,” she told the dark, the thin branches she couldn’t see and the invisible spring breeze that shook them. “God help me, I don’t.”
There was iron in her mouth, bitter and warm, sickening the clean air with a butcher-shop stench.
If demons made deals, did angels do the same? Did God?
“I don’t have much.” She warned the waiting dark, just in case.
Just a single, flickering soul.
* * *
The trees swayed and rattled in the wind, and the world smelled of rich swamp-mud and green growing things. The sun was on the other side of the world, leaving the hemisphere in starlight, and in a tiny apple orchard, not a single creature stirred or breathed.
Marah was home.
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