**** **** **** ****
Jim Becker left work early that afternoon. A news van showed up at the garage just after the cops, and plastered Jim’s face on television, newspapers, the Internet, everywhere. He was an immediate celebrity; a big-time hero, just like The Devil said.
“If I have to tell the story one more time, I’ll shoot myself and get this over with early,” he thought. And he still didn’t know what to make of the man in the white. WAS he real? Or was Jim just losing his mind?
“I’ll have to ask Emma when I get home. She’ll probably think this is all funny.” Then he remembered. They were divorced. Emma wouldn’t be there.
**** **** **** ****
The hardest part was the loneliness.
On the outside, Jim and Emma Becker seemed fine, thank you very much. They went to work, visited with friends, and saw their families on the weekends just like every good, suburban couple is supposed to do. They were full of plastic smiles, fake optimism, and just the right amount of energy in the banal stories they shared with work friends and acquaintances to not arouse suspicions that they were, both of them, hopelessly miserable.
Once they returned home from these excursions, the silence enveloped them and, with it, the loneliness.
Jim tried to fill his time with random activities he could obsess over just to keep his mind off his failing marriage. He read every book he could get his hands on, tried to grow a Fu Manchu once until Emma shaved it off in his sleep, and watched hundreds of obscure documentaries with transcribed subtitles.
One documentary about homeless children who lived in the sewers of Ulanbataar, Mongolian to escape the winter cold was the kind of stuff that could rip your heart out, except the translators kept insisting the street signs for “Slow Children Playing” should actually say “Dead Children Playing,” and Jim didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Or even whether the sign had been mistranslated.
He bought an online course on Muay Thai kickboxing, but pulled a groin muscle attempting a head level kick; tried to teach himself Mandarin, but decided he was dyslexic in Chinese; and once pulled out his old high school drum set with the intention of starting a band with some friends at work. That dream went down the drain – literally, it would turn out – when Jim spent three hours attempting to master the tom pattern for the Rush song, YYZ, causing Emma to storm into the room, wild-eyed.
“Oh my God, Jim! Stop it!”
“You’ve been banging on that thing for hours. I can’t take it anymore!”
“I just need to get the transition into the 5/4 time signature,” Jim said as he tapped the edge of his cymbal ever so slightly. “I need to work out the Morse code for the letters in the title.”
“What the HELL are you talking about?”
And off they went again. That fight lasted two hours and resulted in Jim throwing his drum set out of their third floor attic window after Emma told him of course she wanted to support his dreams … so long as his dreams weren’t stupid.
The kick drum broke into several pieces, a few of which slid into the sewer next to their driveway.
“I wonder if the kids in Ulanbataar play music in the sewers,” Jim said, at which point Emma stormed out of the room and didn’t speak to him again for over a month. He slept in the empty space in the attic where his drum set used to be, and locked the door.
Which was alright with Jim. He was finally able to grow that Fu Manchu, although he ended up shaving it again after a week. Emma was right. It was ridiculous, but he would never give her the satisfaction of admitting that out loud. He never gave her the satisfaction of admitting anything then. Not to her. No sir.
At work, Jim was a “rock star,” a real “up-and-coming high performer,” and many other hyperbolic HR terms executives like to use when they don’t know how to peg someone. When his company merged with a logistics firm from Texas, Jim found himself working in a new sea of near-to-middle-aged men wearing Walmart Khakis blue Oxford button-downs with clip-on ties.
“The new blue collar!” a co-worker told him once as he launched into an un-asked-for dissertation about stock portfolio and how amazing his recent picks were. It made Jim want to puke.
But, then, there was Samantha.
Samantha Upchurch was a project manager by trade and a spitfire by design. She wore bright, loud dresses and suits to match her bright, red hair and big personality. She liked to wear horn-rimmed glasses, even though Jim suspected she didn’t really need them.
“I wanted to be a librarian once,” she told Jim and a few team members over cards at lunch, “but there was one problem with that plan.”
“What was that?”
“I talk to the books, but the books? They don’t talk back.”
Her outsize personality got on most people’s nerves, but Jim loved listening to and, when he got the chance, talking with her. The thing Jim liked about Samantha was she asked questions. All sorts of questions.
“You play the drums? What’s your favorite band? You like Dean Koontz novels? Have you read the one about Nazis and time travel? I think Die Hard is definitely NOT a Christmas movie. What do you think?”
Jim didn’t see anything wrong with it. There was nobody else at work to talk to and, of course, Emma wasn’t saying anything. What was he supposed to do? Ignore her? Good luck with that. Samantha Upchurch was many things in life, but she was not one to be ignored.
A few months past the merger and their regular, card-playing lunch group dwindled to just Jim and Samantha. With all that time to themselves, their conversations turned deeper. Samantha was married to an electrical engineer who never seemed to want to help with the kids, and her two daughters, she admitted, were teenagers now and driving her insane.
“Sometimes I wish I could Eat, Pray, Love my way out of all this,” she said. “Except I’d go to Philly instead of India because it’s really hot in Delhi and I LOVE cheese steaks.”
Jim told her about losing the baby and how they were having “a bit of trouble reconnecting.” He put his head down and was surprised when Samantha took his hand. He looked up.
“You’ll make it through,” She said. “You love her.” The statement had the slightest tilt, as if there was a hint of a question. Jim held her gaze for a long moment, wondering if, had the question been asked, he could have answered honestly in the affirmative.
“Yes,” Jim said, pulling his hand away. Samantha pulled hers back, and they both retreated to their desks in silence.
There was still nothing wrong, Jim tried to convince himself. It was probably nothing, and anyway if it WAS more than nothing, Jim would just ignore any such advances in the future. Jim had a rule against relationships with co-workers.
“And also, I’m married,” Jim thought. “So I’ll just ignore it. That’s it. Just ignore it.”
The only problem was Samantha Upchurch was many things in life – a mother, a project manager, a purveyor of strong opinions and, of course, a married woman – but she was not one to be ignored; especially by those who, like Jim Becker, are so willing to remain interested.
Jim and Emma Becker got into one of their worst fights the morning Jim had to leave for a work trip.
Jim had forgotten to take the garbage out the night before and, as a result, the kitchen was covered in ants and smelled like spoiled meat.
“I’m sorry, honey, but I have to get going,” Jim said.
“You always do this to me,” she screamed at him. “You never listen! You don’t care!”
Jim tried to take the garbage out on his way to the car, but Emma grabbed it and they spilled the contents of the bag all over their front lawn. When Emma ran back in side, Jim followed her. As he came in the door, he heard a loud crash on the wall next to his head. He looked down. There was a broken, glass vase at his feet and a shattered rose.
Jim was shocked.
“Emma,” he said. “That was the rose from our wedding.”
“I know,” she said.
After a long moment of silence, she spoke. “I hate you. I’ve never loved you. I wish I had never met you. I wish I had never asked you to dance at the Friendly Stop, wish we had never been married, wish we had never lost … never lost …”
Emma Becker broke down crying in the living room. Jim tried to console her, but she screamed obscenities at him.
Jim Becker slowly backed out of his house, got into his car, drove to the airport, and met his co-workers at a conference in Seattle.
That night, as Jim and Samantha shared drinks at the hotel bar, Jim told her the truth about his marriage. The loneliness, the silence, everything. When he finished speaking, Samantha reached for his hand, but Jim pulled it back.
“No,” he said. “I think it’s time we call it a night.”
“Walk me to my room?” Samantha asked.
They rode the elevator together in silence. When they got to Samantha’s room, she looked up into Jim’s eyes, smiled at him sadly, and walked in.
As Jim turned to leave, he noticed Samantha had left her door open just a crack; enough so a sliver of light from within flashed across his eyes.
Jim Becker stood still in the hallway outside Samantha’s room, staring at the door, thinking. A moment later, he pushed the door open, and followed her in.
**** **** **** ****
Jim considered stopping for either a late lunch or early dinner on his way home from work, and turned left onto Peace Haven Rd instead of his normal trek down Winton. The sun shifted behind the trees, casting slivers of light that danced in his eyes, blinding him. He reached for the visor to block out the sun but, before he could, there was a flash of color and a scream.
Jim slammed on his brakes and the car shook violently before coming to a stop. He leapt out to see a mangled bicycle lying in the street. Next to it was a small child, no more than five or six years old.
The kid wasn’t moving.
Jim called 9-1-1, held the kid’s hand while he waited for the paramedics, and tried in vain to find a pulse. The kid’s blood seeped into Jim’s work shirt, staining it. Jim broke down in tears.
“Hello Jim,” the man in white spoke from behind.
“Good God!” Jim screamed, frightened.
“No … The other one, but I’m happy to congratulate you on your second. Way to go. You’re really on your way!”
Jim was shocked. The bike. His car. The kid. The man in white? It was too much to take in.
“This,” Jim said, looking at the kid’s lifeless body. “THIS is my second?”
“Uh huh, and you made quick work of him, too. I’m impressed. Most people hesitate. But not you. You just plowed right on through.” The man in white made a hand motion like a mack truck driving through a series of barricades. He included the kind of truck mouth noises like a small child.
“You said these people were evil,” Jim said, practically screaming now. “The BAD kind of evil. People who deserved to be removed from society.”
“Oh, they are. Trust me, Jim. They are, indeed.”
“THIS IS JUST A KID!”
“WAS a kid, Jim. You took care of that.”
Jim fought the urge to charge at the man in white, grab him by the neck with both hands, and bash his head against the pavement. He didn’t want to kill people, but this man didn’t qualify. Was it even possible to kill him? If Jim was just imagining all this, the paramedics would arrive to find Jim Becker in the throes of a psychotic break, attempting to strangle a tree or maybe thin air, and take him to the nearest padded room.
That idea struck Jim as just fine. Fine, indeed.
If, however, the man in white truly was The Devil and not just a figment of his imagination, Jim doubted he’d get two steps in before The Devil took him down. It was worth a shot, though. That kind of killing seemed justified at the moment; like Justice, as the man in which said earlier.
The man in white waited patiently for Jim to make up his mind. That soulless smile never left his face.
“I can’t do this. You didn’t say anything about killing kids.”
“I didn’t say you wouldn’t kill kids, did I?”
Jim was about to blow up again.
“What you have to understand about me and The Big Guy Upstairs, Jim, is we’re Gods! We have an eternal perspective. We see events and their consequences played out in the fullness of time.”
“What does that even mean?”
“It means when you look at this kid, all you see is a kid. I look at him and I see what this kid will become. He has the potential to be a mass murderer, a military leader who will slaughter millions, or worse … a politician. You didn’t kill a kid, Jim. You saved millions of lives. Congratulations.”
“He just looks like a kid to me,” Jim said.
“Looks can be deceiving,” The Devil said. “Just ask my third wife.”
“This just doesn’t seem right,” Jim said,
“That’s exactly what SHE said when she caught me with those college girls!”
The devil stepped closer. “It’s all complicated, I know. But you did a good thing. Trust me. This kind of thing is a science and I’m very precise. I know what I’m doing.”
“You said he has the potential to become evil. You didn’t say he WAS evil.”
“Hey. With Free Will, even Science ain’t an exact Science. You know what I mean? The good thing – well, the good thing for me, at least – is most people are not accustomed to exercising their will. They leave the decisions up to other people. Sometimes, they leave it up to me!”
“If I have free will, doesn’t he? Doesn’t he get the chance to choose good or bad, right or wrong?”
“Good question, Jim. But why worry about it now? You’ve got one more to go and, trust me, this next one’s a doozy. I’ve got something special for you, Jim, and – OH!. You’re gonna love it!”
Jim looked at the kid. Five years old. Probably just learned to ride that bike, probably wanted to show his parents he could ride in the street like the big kid he wanted to become and now, because of Jim, would never be. Was this really a mass murdering psychopath? Or was just a kid on a bike?
“I don’t think I can do this anymore,” Jim said
The Devil sighed. “It’s up to you, of course. Like I said. Free will is free will.” The devil stepped closer, put his hand on Jim’s shoulder.
“But you should know. This next person is on my list. This next person will die whether you do the job or someone else. There are a lot of other people who would help me if I asked.” The Devil smiled wide. “A lot.”
“I told you. I’m a scientist. I’ve been doing this a long time. Longer than you know.”
“I like you, Jim. You’re a good man. You make me laugh. And, after all you went through with Emma, you could use a break.”
Just hearing her name made Jim want to break down into tears.
“I’m rooting for you,” the main white said. “I WANT you to make it to the end. And I’m serious. You’re really gonna like this next one.”
“Who is it?”
“Here.” The Devil reached into his pocket, pulled out a yellow Post-It note and handed it to Jim. It read: “Blue Fern Bar. Fifth and Sycamore. Downtown. 11:30. Look for the person in Red.”
Jim flipped the card over. It read: “Hugs N Kisses, Satan.”
“What if I say no?” Jim started to ask, but The Devil was gone again.
“I hate it when he does that.”