Paid in Full – Jill Patrick

The walls of Stakkholtsgjá Canyon are watching me, their walls black, icicles and moss hanging, displayed like paintings in a gallery. A waterfall reflects light from an unseen moon. Beside me, a creek gossips with the wind. They say I’m going to die. Behind me is a comet’s tail of footprints promising I’m the only traveler for miles.

My phone tells me it’s six minutes to three. It’s been over four hours since my last drink. No messages have come through, so instead I study the wallpaper on my lock screen. My ex-wife, Marci, laughs on a beach, barefoot, trying to fight the wind for control of her hair. A hint of a belly shows beneath her skirt. Our dog dances around her, excited by her goofiness. I was already half a bottle of wine in. “I’m drinking for two!” I remember joking.

That day we were celebrating my new contract for Principal Cellist. We were so full of hope—finally, she could dance full-time, and I wouldn’t have to teach bratty rich kids their scales ever again. We would raise our daughter in our tiny apartment. Maybe she’d be a ballerina like her mom or pick up an instrument like me.

These memories are fuzzy, but what came after is so clear. Waking up in the hospital with third degree burns across half of my body. Marci, paralyzed from the waist down. Our dog gone. Our daughter dead. Two years’ probation for driving with a blood alcohol level twice the legal limit.

I turn off the phone and put it in my pocket, my fingers bumbling the zipper. They’re lined with pink and white where the fire and the surgeons brutalised them. Similar swathes cover my back and legs.
I move to the edge of the stream that carves its way down the length of the canyon. It isn’t very wide, and part of it is covered with a crust of ice and snow. But once I’ve reached the edge it feels vast. Like the universe has folded itself down the length of the canyon, and I can’t sense of what’s across the fold. There could be something on the other side, watching.

In my left pocket is a small bottle of vodka I took from the plane. The familiar sting of alcohol is a good distraction. I take it out the knife I bought at the airport in Reykjavik and open the blade. Before I can change my mind, I drag the sharp point along my wrist. A line of blood erupts and starts to puff steam. The vodka roils in my stomach and my mouth fills with spit and acid. Blood flows down my wrist and drips on the shore, melting the snow there into patches of crimson slush.

Then, everything stops. The stars dim. The river stills. The wind dies. I can no longer hear the waterfall. The hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I stare across the river—across the fold—where I can sense something has appeared.

“H—hello?” I call. My wavering does not echo against the canyon walls.

From the other side, a deep voice replies: “Beautiful night for a bloodletting.”
It may be the vodka—or the jet lag—but something prevents me from making out his features. His form is undefined, blurred at the edges and smeared at the center.

“I—I can’t believe it actually worked.” I manage.

“Of course you can,” he says. “You can only call the devil through blood and conviction. Although desperation works fine, too. And you must be desperate, to find yourself at my Crossroads. You could have asked The Other One. He has houses on every corner.”

“He doesn’t listen.”

My companion chuckles. “He has always been a cold master. But His loss is my gain. How can I help you?”

Stepping forward, I ask what I’ve wanted for four long years. “I want you to make it so that I never got into that accident. Take me back.”

“Do you know what you are asking for? To reset time and resurrect the dead is a stretch, even for me. The price is high. Too high for you.”

I take another step, nearly into in the middle of the stream. “But I’ve come all this way. I have nothing left. I thought that you, of all people—”

“I am not in the business of trading gold for shit,” he snaps. “I cannot do it.”

“Then there’s nothing more I want,” I say, defeated.

Across the fold, the Devil moves towards me so that he is at the edge of his side of the stream. I could reach out and touch him if I wanted. “A soul is the standard fee, but I cannot raise the dead in exchange for a single, broken life.”

“Please…” I say, my voice shaking. “My wife…Marci…She deserves more than I’ve ever been able to give her. I just want her to be happy…to have more babies, dance again…”

“And for yourself?”

“I don’t care anymore. Kill me. As long as she’s happy…”

“I don’t want your soul.”

Startled, I look up. “Then what—?”

“Your soul is worth a pittance. It will be mine anyway, there is no doubt. But still, I think there is a deal to be struck.”

I can’t believe what I’m hearing. “She will be able to walk and dance again? She’ll be able to have more children?”

“Yes, if she wishes. I cannot force another soul to do anything without their permission—free will is still a force in your world, for what good it serves. But I will repair her body, ease her mind, and give her hope for a better future.”

“It’s too good to be true,” I say, mostly to myself.

“Maybe. But I do nothing without payment first.”

“What is your price?”

“You will play me a song.”

The silence stretches on for what feels like forever. I think I’ve stopped breathing. “I haven’t played since before the accident,” I finally spit out. “I don’t even think I can anymore. My hands…” I hold them out between us. “They’re useless. I can’t play. I don’t even have a cello. I sold it to get here.”

When I look up, I know he is smiling, and I understand that there is no persuading him.

“You will play me one song or there is no deal,” he says, still grin. “You are an alcoholic. You took away her talent, her future, her passion, her daughter. You left her alone when she needed you most. Your ego and selfishness ruined her. Don’t let it stop you from saving her now.”

His words stir a fierceness in me. I wish I’d never heard of this fucking crossroads. I start to turn away—to walk back to my car and drive to the airport and forget about this whole thing—when he snaps his fingers. And in that moment, I see what could be. I see Marci out of the wheelchair, marrying a handsome man, having another baby, dancing in front of a rapturous crowd. Her whole life—a life without me, healed, happy, whole—flashes before my eyes.

And then I’m back in Iceland, face to face with the Devil. I drop to my hands and knees and start to retch. “That’s…that’s not fair,” I heave.

His laughter is the only answer.

I sit in the snow, shaking. When I stand up again, I know what I have to do.

“I have two conditions,” I say. “She has to know that I saved her. You have to tell her.”
“And your second request?”

“I get to choose the song.”

He doesn’t answer. Instead, he snaps his fingers again, and instantly I am seated on stage in a massive concert hall, a cello between my knees, a bow in my hand, and a packed audience waiting. In the front row, the Devil sits beside my mother. Marci holds the child from my visions, her husband beside her. No one speaks or moves, just stares intently.

I take a deep breath and wipe my palms on my thighs. I focus my mind, just as I have done before every performance since I was six years old. Hugging the cello to my shoulder, I arrange my fingers in first position, place the bow on the strings, and start to play the opening notes of Bach’s Suite No. 1. Yeah, I could have played Happy Birthday or something, but I cut my teeth on this song. I performed it even when I was barely lucid—wasted, half-asleep, half-dead from the night before—and still got standing ovations.

My bow jars across the strings. My fingers plod along, neither strong nor quick enough to keep up the pace and the musicality that the piece demands. There is little resemblance between this iteration and my former abilities—no precision, no passion. But still, I play.

When I begin the second movement, I start to sweat. I can hear the audience rumbling, some laughing. I chance a look. Marci is smiling and making faces at her baby, and my mom has her eyes closed, her hands clasped in front of her. I hope she’s praying for me. Beside her, the Devil is watching.
My left hand aches with the effort of trying to conjure ghosts in the music. Blood still trickles down, christening the cello. My right arm is beginning to tire, my shoulder stiffening. Breath is coming in gasps and my mouth has turned to dust. On I play.

The tempo picks up and I grit my teeth to fight against the agony in my wrists and arms. The crowd is restless. No one is paying attention, save for my mom and my friend in front. A few people are standing up to leave. Marci and her husband are in their own world, cooing and shaking keys at their fat, stupid little baby.

I’m shaking now—exhaustion and humiliation are taking their toll, and I’m dying for a drink. Angry, hot tears begin to bubble up. I’ve stopped trying to emulate my former self. Hate and rage have replaced discipline and talent. I’ve been playing for close to ten minutes, but it feels like hours.
Once I play the final note, I sag in relief. I stand and take a weary step to the front of the stage. There are a few boos and a lot of people rushing to the exits. Marci gives me a quick, pitying smile before her husband leads her away. At least she knows what I’ve done for her. The only applause comes from the Devil, who whistles and whoops and claps heartily.

I can’t take it. I throw the instrument to the floor and try to escape from the theater. After a few steps, the floorboards turn to snow and rock, the sounds of the audience replaced by the trickling stream and whooshing waterfall. I am back in Iceland, alone. I stand for a moment, swallowing the bile and fear that threaten to rise. With a shaking, aching hand, I take my phone out of my pocket and gaze at the photo of my last happy day.

The walls of Stakkholtsgjá Canyon are watching me. The creek gossips with the wind. They say I’m going to die. Behind me is a comet’s tail of footprints promising I’m the only traveler for miles.

The screen goes dark.

Jill Patrick is a freelance writer and proofreader from just north of Vancouver, Canada. You can find out more about her on her Twitter and website.

Jill Patrick winner of the first Blank Page Short Story Challenge