*** *** *** *** ***
Jim Becker pulled into the basement floor of the parking garage at work an hour early the next morning. He wore a pair of dark sunglasses, and he had a headache the size of Montana.
“What happened last night?” he thought. “And why do I want fried chicken?”
He shook off the headache as best he could. “No matter. Today, I turn over a new leaf. Today, I start new.”
Jim glanced at the picture of Emma he kept on his dashboard. The one from their trip to Cabo six months after they lost the baby. Emma was laughing and trying to hide behind a beer bottle. Blue Moon was her favorite. She’d thumb little pieces off the label. By the time she was done, the bottle was empty and the label was in tatters.
They were happy then. At least, that’s how it looked in the picture.
Later that night, after the photo, Emma made a comment about Jim’s choice of clothing: one of those old Bart Simpson t-shirts. “Eat My Shorts!” Bart said. That shirt always made Jim laugh.
“You’re not actually going to WEAR that, are you?” Emma asked.
“Why not?” Jim said.
And off they went. Two days into the vacation that was supposed to clear their minds and reset their marriage, and a simple wardrobe disagreement turned into Armageddon. By the time it was over, several dishes in their resort kitchenette were broken along with their naïve perceptions about how easily an expensive trip can solve anything but the resort management company’s desire for additional revenue.
Jim and Emma’s married life turned into a never-ending cycle of fights: long stretches of silence punctuated by a few days of intense, screaming matches. The roller coaster ride was exhausting, Jim thought, but at least those weeks of not talking to each other gave their vocal chords time to heal so they could scream even louder when things picked up again. Silver linings and all that.
Jim had taken to marking their fights by the things they broke. There was the serving tray fight, where Emma threw a large, glass tray they’d got as a wedding gift into the living room wall like a Frisbee. It shattered over the couch, bursting shards of glass into the cushions. They kept finding little pieces of glass in that couch for months afterward, despite having vacuumed it so many times, Jim was sure they’d sucked up more fabric through their vacuum cleaner’s lint guard than was left in the couch itself.
Then, there was the kitchen table fight where Jim once slammed his hand onto the table top, causing it to collapse on an already wobbly leg, breaking into three pieces. They had dinner on the floor the next night. After that, they took their dinners alone, in separate corners of the house. That’s how they ate from then on.
It was easier that way.
There were many others – the unnecessary skateboard fight, the battle of the flannel pajamas, the Jane Austen meltdown – and with each flare up, they grew further and further apart.
It was the silence that bothered Jim the most. Their little house grew so quiet you could hear clocks ticking from their neighbor’s living rooms if you listed hard enough. Jim and Emma went whole weeks without speaking. The mountain of unspoken words deafened the subtext of any conversations that, by some miracle, pass between them, killing any chance they had to truly reconcile.
Ships passing in the night; unaware anyone else is close by.
Six months later, Jim got a promotion, and suddenly found the need to work late nights, even when no real need existed. On many such nights, Emma would be out with friends or pursuing her own hobbies when Jim got home, which he often misconstrued as a slight against him.
“Why should I come home early, if she doesn’t want to see me?” he thought, and would go to bed before she got home just to piss her off.
Despite all this, Jim still loved Emma, still made plans in his mind for their future together, still hoped to one day have kids. This was just a temporary darkness, Jim rationalized to himself. They’d pull through. Eventually.
That was somewhat true in its own right, and Jim and Emma Becker may have eventually worked things out.
If not for Samantha.
**** **** **** ****
Jim sighed and stepped out of his car.
“HELP!” A woman’s voice nearby. “SOMEBODY HELP ME!”
Jim ran across the nearly empty parking garage to find a large man in a pair of faded jeans and a black hoodie attacking a woman next to a minivan. Jim grabbed the guy’s shoulders from behind.
“Hey! Watch it, buddy,” Jim said.
The attacker grunted, pushed Jim away easily. He was a few inches taller at least, and had maybe fifty pounds on him; all of it pure muscle.
Jim threw what he thought was a jab at the man’s head, then followed with a cross aimed at his chest. The man dodged Jim’s punches easily and rushed him, grabbing Jim by the waist. He pushed forward, trying to shove Jim to the ground where, he imagined, the man would pummel him like an MMA fighter.
“I’m about to die!” Jim thought to himself. He crouched, then shoved his body upward, like he was trying to leap over a large set of boxes at the gym. His arms flailed as he twisted, catching the attacker’s chin with his left elbow. The man’s head flew back and the hood came off. Dazed, he stepped back, and let go of Jim’s waist.
They made eye contact. The man looked scared, almost surprised. He didn’t look angry; almost embarrassed to have been caught attacking the young woman next to the van.
He stumbled backward, tried to catch his balance, then tripped over a parking block next to an old Toyota. He fell, hit his head on the pavement with a loud CRACK, and stopped moving instantly.
Jim approached cautiously, afraid the fight would continue. But the man’s eyes stared off into the distance, focusing on something neither Jim nor anyone else this side of eternity could see. Blood began to pool around his head.
Jim looked to his right. The woman had apparently passed out in the commotion.
“Uh oh,” Jim said, and called 9-1-1.
When he hung up, he heard footsteps from behind. Jim turned, and there he was. The man in white.
“Hello, Jim,” The Devil said. “That was your first. You’ve got two more.”
Jim stared at him in disbelief. The morning birds began to sing in the trees next to the parking garage.
“Wow,” the man in white said. “That was unexpected. Most people usually scream something like ‘Holy crap!’ or ‘How the hell did you get here?’ Or sometimes just “AAAAAAH!’”
“What the hell?” Jim said.
“There we go.”
“You’re real? Last night was REAL?”
“The pathetic cry of a thousand college girls,” The Devil said, shaking his head sadly. “Of course I’m real. I’m real, you’re real, that blond next to the minivan is real, and all the blood that used to be in this dead guy’s head is DEFINITELY real. Real and staining my suit.”
The man in white lifted one of his feet in disgust.
“I can’t believe this!” Jim yelled.
“Neither can I! Do you know how hard it is to get blood stains out of a white suit?” The man in white spit into a rag and wiped at a spreading red spot on his pants. “I just had this dry cleaned!”
He futzed a bit more with his pants, grunted in frustration, then continued. “I just wanted to say congrats on doing a great job with number one, but look at this. My suit! This will never come out.”
“What do you mean two more? I didn’t kill anyone.”
“He looks pretty dead to me, Jim.”
“But Murder? I didn’t want…”
“Woah! Wait just a minute there, Jimmy. Murder? MURDER? You didn’t think I wanted you to murder anyone, did you?”
“Until a moment ago, I thought you were just a bad dream. Now, I don’t know what to think. “
“Well, That’s not how it works.” The man in white sat down next to Jim on the hood of of the old Toyota. It dented beneath him.
“All these stories you’ve heard about me, with God as the good guy and me as this malevolent evil force? Those are nice kid stories, Jim. But that’s not the real world.”
“God and me? We’re on the same team! He gets all the good people singing hymns in church on Sunday, making casseroles and cakes for bake sales, and reading bad romance novels about women in bonnets clutching their pearls at anything that might get their engines running.”
“And me?” The man in white looked at the body again. “I handle the rougher crowd. Like Mr. Wanna-Be-Rapist here.”
“Which one am I?” Jim asked.
“You ain’t no Boy Scout, that’s for sure. No bonnets and pearls for you. But you’re not a rapist like this guy. And you’re definitely not a murderer.”
“Let’s call it a happy accident. I’ve been watching you, Jim. You’ve had a rough go of things these last few years. I figured I’d let you in on some of my work and, as a token of my thanks, you get your heart’s deepest desire. Pretty good deal, isn’t it?”
“My heart’s deepest desire?” Jim asked. “What is this, an after-school special?”
The devil laughed out loud. His voice echoed off the empty walls of the parking garage around them. “I knew I liked you, Jim. That’s why I chose you. You’ve got a certain je ne sais quoi.”
“I don’t know. I don’t like the idea of killing people. Like ACTUALLY killing people.”
The Devil stood up from the dented Toyota and stepped closer. “The world is a dark place,” he said. “You don’t see it like I do.”
“What do you mean?”
“A man raping a woman in a suburban garage? That’s child’s play. I’ve seen murder, rape, and worse on a massive scale. I’ve seen grown men – some of them men of the cloth – abuse children in unspeakable ways and, when they were done, they turned around sold those children to the highest bidder, and move on to another. I’ve watched normal, everyday people turn a blind eye as their supposed authorities whisked their neighbors away under cover of darkness merely because of their race or religion, and then pretend that the putrid stench coming from the smokestacks nearby wasn’t what they thought it was; what everyone KNEW it was. I’ve seen people wipe out entire nations – millions and millions of innocent people – because a madman in a party hat told them his version of God said it was holy and just.”
The man in white stepped so close, Jim could smell his breath. Hot mustard gas and roses with a faint whiff of mint.
“I have seen evil face to face, Jim. I have tasted it; felt its incessant beat that drives into men’s brains, drawing them to it, let the tendrils of its smoke fill my nostrils, scintillating my taste buds. I know evil, Jim.”
“Some people learn evil from childhood because that’s all they see in their world. Others get caught up in it due to circumstance or because they lacked the strength to stand against it. But some people, Jim. Some people ARE Evil. Evil to their core. They revel in it; take joy in it. They take Evil to new heights of creativity even I cannot fathom.”
“God says everyone is redeemable, and maybe that’s true for him. But down here, in the Real World, where large men in black hoodies attack innocent women for no reason, those people run rampant. They take advantage of good people like that poor woman over there. Like the people you work with. Like you.”
“Those evil people need to be stopped, Jim. I don’t call that murder. I call it Justice.”
Jim stared at the pool of blood. It just kept spreading. Jim wondered how far it could go, whether it would ever stop.
“I don’t know,” he said.
The Devil stepped back and smiled again. “It’s a lot to take in. I know. But don’t worry. This will all make sense in the end. Trust me.”
Police sirens in the distance.
“Listen, I have to get going. Your next one is right around the corner, so be ready. And buck up, kiddo. You saved this woman’s life. You’re a hero! Enjoy it.”