Contest #215 shortlist ⭐️

Under a Dying Sun

Submitted into Contest #215 in response to: Write a story about someone making a deal with the devil.... view prompt

57 comments

Western Historical Fiction Drama

This story contains themes or mentions of physical violence, gore, or abuse.

Smoke rose from the crackling fire and dissipated into the night sky. Stars dotted the black expanse, innumerable as the grains of sand in the Mojave desert where Connor McClain lay on his back, head cradled in his arms, thinking of Saralee. 

I’m finally coming home, he willed his words across the dusty earth, through the mountain pass, and down the stretch of trail that would carry him back to the little wooden cabin by the creek—back to his brown-eyed, long-legged girl. 

Beside him, Thunder stamped his hooves and huffed softly, as if he too was impatient to be rid of the desert. The mournful, hungry cry of a coyote echoed across the valley and settled in the pit of Connor’s stomach. He slid his shotgun closer and let his eyes drift shut. Just a few more days, Saralee. 

And he meant it this time

Three months tops, he had told her, said that’s all it would take for him to go West, strike rich, and make his fortune–their fortune. Gleaming Mines! Rivers of Gold! the newspapers had claimed. He ignored them at first—kept his head down and worked the ranch as his Pa and Grandfather had done before him. Treasure hunting was for fools–dreamers. 

Then he and Saralee had begun to see neighbors pack up and head West. The Kilners had even written back, saying the rumors were true, that John Kilner had found a gold nugget the size of his thumb the first week in the mines. Connor must have read that letter a dozen times, leaning against the fence post, standing in the fields, alone at the kitchen table. The words consumed his thoughts; he began to dream of gold.

Then that Spring, the cattle plague swept through wiping out most of his herd. It was a sign, Connor had decided; what’d he have to lose then? Saralee had cried as he packed, wouldn’t hardly let go of his shirt. “You see those saplings there?” He’d pointed at the garden beside the house. “I’ll be back before the beans are ready, you’ll see. And when I do, we’ll be rich, darlin’.” She kissed him and wished him luck.

But it seemed luck got lost on its way to Connor; the mining towns were overcrowded with eager diggers, and everything was overpriced. He borrowed what money he needed for supplies–pans, pick axes, a tent, and boots. And what little gold he found in the creeks and rivers went to pay back his debts. There was never anything leftover—nothing for Saralee.  

Then, somehow, three months turned into six, then a year. Then two. A nagging voice greeted him with every sunrise and every sunset, telling him to call it quits, admit defeat, and go home. He shut it out with the same thoughts: Just a little bit longer. I’m so close. I can feel it.

And he wasn’t wrong. 

Connor smiled in the dark, thinking of the bulging pouches of gold weighing down the saddlebags–gold from his own secret mine, that unassuming slit in the mountainside he’d found by accident. He worked it alone, with limited tools, and told no one, not even Saralee where it was. Just wrote, “Finally struck luck. When I come home, we’ll live like kings and queens.” 

His heartbeat pulsed at the thought of seeing her, holding her again. It was a drumbeat across aching muscles, reverberating in his thighs, his groin. He felt phantom gyrations tug and pull at his body, as if he was still in the saddle, galloping across the rugged California terrain. 

Sleep claimed him as images of Saralee floated at the edges of his dreams: she was wading into the creek, hair loose and wild, stripping away her calico dress. She turned to him with a teasing smile. Come. Play. Then she slipped beneath the current. Her voice was far away, mournful and hungry like the coyote’s cry. And when he looked into the water, he saw only gold, sparking in noon-day sun.

Connor gasped awake; sunrise had peaked above the mountain ridges, casting long, uneven shadows across the rocky desert valley. Near his feet, a spiked lizard darted out from under a shrub in pursuit of a cricket. It skittered over the long metal barrel of Connor’s gun and caught the insect, gumming it down with a twitch of its spiny head.  

Connor rose, stretched the kinks from his spine, and pissed in the dirt, the yellow stream turn the dry earth to mud. He uncapped his canteen and tipped a precious sip in his mouth, swishing it around, savoring it. Then he sifted oats from a pouch and offered them to Thunder, stroking his mane as the horse's teeth softly grazed his open palm. The horse nudged him, greedy, searching. 

“There’ll be more of that later. Let’s get moving.”

***

The sun burned hot and relentless, even as it dipped toward the horizon. Thunder’s movements had grown slow and stiff after a full day of travel, but Connor pushed him, urged him on through the suffocating desert heat, closer to the mountains’ edge where green was becoming more abundant. Connor followed the growth until they came to a towering cluster of rocks that jutted out over the land, creating a strip of shade. Beneath it, a trickle of a stream ran between the rocks and pooled in the basin of a large, smooth stone. Thunder drank.

Connor dismounted and sank down in the cool dirt, pulling off his sweat-soaked hat and kerchief. A faint breeze teased his damp hair, urging him to rest and relax. If he kept this pace, he’d be home in two days. Home to Saralee. Thunder lifted his head from the stream and walked toward Connor, his gait already steadier. He snorted and tossed his mane. 

Connor reached up and stroked the horse's soft cheeks. “You done good, boy. We’ll be home soon.” Then the horse reared back suddenly, his hooves stamping the dirt. The animal’s eyes grew wide, the whites stark against his dark coat, and he neighed a shrill, nervous whinny. Connor scuttered back, dodging the hooves sporadically beating the ground. “Thunder! Woah, boy.”

Then he heard the rattle. 

Cold fear sluiced through his bowels; his vision blurred and sound grew muffled as if any threat was far-off in another world and not just a hand’s width away. The snake hovered above its coiled body, its wide mouth open, black tongue spilling out like oil. Connor held its stare, his own face frozen in a mask of terror. Its slitted eyes glowed, the color deep and warm–amber, like Tennessee whisky. He couldn’t look away.

Connor scraped against the dirt in a slow escape, eyes locked on the snake. Its sharp hiss was like the sound of water dousing a fire. He’d had run-ins with snakes before–knew to back away and give them a wide birth, show them respect; this was their desert, after all. 

But this bastard looked as if he wanted a fight.

Connor’s gun lay just a foot away beside his discarded hat. Not daring to blink, he reached for it, watching in his peripherals as his own trembling hand crossed the distance between his body and his weapon. He felt disconnected from it—as if it was someone else’s hand shaking at the edges of his vision. When his fingers finally bumped the cool metal barrel, an imperceptible jolt cracked through Connor’s body, internal and invisible; but not to the snake. 

It lunged, fangs sinking into Connor’s wrist, piercing skin and striking veins.

White-hot pain ripped through his arm; his scream echoed off the rocks. Connor turned his back on the snake and half-crawled, half-ran away from the stream and the shade, collapsing in a heap in the sandy dirt. Two holes leaked blood from his wrist, which was already beginning to swell. 

“Thunder!” he wheezed out, trying to whistle. He stood and ran deeper into the valley, calling for his horse. “Thunder!” He opened his mouth again, but little sound escaped. The air in his lungs felt trapped and strained. Pain tore through his body in waves, burning and twisting. “Thunder, there you are.” He stumbled forward, hobbling toward the creature. But it was only a cactus, distorted and strange in his poison-laced vision. 

The desert was spinning, shrinking and expanding, going black and then blinding white, hot and then cold. Connor fell to his knees and held his bloated arm to the sky; it was blue against the orange sunset. He slumped to the ground, no longer able to hold himself up. His cheeks scraped sand and stone. 

Saralee. I’m coming. 

***

Somewhere across the valley, a coyote howled at the dying sun. Beside Connor’s body, black boots crunched against the gritty soil.

“Howdy there, partner. Seems you’ve got yourself in a bit of a bind.” The voice sounded tinny and warbled in Connor’s head, like it was coming from the inside of a canteen. From the slit of one swollen eye, Connor made out a figure in a white hat.

“Saralee?” The word clawed itself from Connor’s throat.

The stranger knelt and lifted Connor’s swollen wrist, inspecting the bite. “Rattler got you good, didn’t he.” He clicked his tongue. “I’ve seen this before. Might be able to help you out.”

Connor commanded his eyes to open and focus on the man; he gritted his teeth against the pain coursing with each beat of his heart. Images slowly fizzled in and settled at the edges of his mind: White hat. Dark hair. Arms tattooed green–green bees. No, not bees. Birds–headless, bodiless birds. No. Not birds. Just wings. Green, tattooed wings. 

Connor’s head slumped back. “Please,” he wheezed. “Help. Me.” His tongue clung to the dry ridges of his gums.

“Oh, I’ll help you.” The man cupped Connor’s neck and brought a canteen to his lips. “But it’ll cost you.”

Water trickled down Connor’s chin, pooling in the hollow of his neck. More. He needed more. He was on fire–burning. “Anything,” he managed. “It’s. With. My horse. Take. It. All.” The man could take everything; Connor could always go back for more; he still had the mine and no one was going to take that away. 

The man leaned in and said, “What horse?”

Connor turned, squinting into the dusk-cloaked desert. Thunder was gone. His gold was gone. 

The man leaned forward and whispered in his ear. “You’ll find a way to pay me, won’t you, partner?”

Connor nodded, his stubble grazing the man’s cheek. 

“Alright then. We got a deal.”

*** 

Saralee played the fiddle, fingers arched like little bridges across the strings. Her feet stamped with the rhythm and she laughed. Connor danced in circles around her, arms loose and free. He felt alive. Whole. Then, the music turned sharp, notes sliding together in a shrill screech. He turned and saw Saralee melting into a puddle on the cabin floor, her eyes pleading. He lunged for her, gripping her arms as they transformed into snakes, her hands into fanged heads. Failure, she hissed. Then all went dark. 

Connor jolted awake, sweat-drenched and stiff. He lay at the mouth of a cave, his hat and kerchief in a heap at his feet. Images wavered in his mind, mirages of what he discerned were memories rather than hallucinations. The snake. The bite. The pain. The stranger—a savior. He raced his hands along his arm, reveling in the ease with which he moved and breathed: there was only skin, smooth and unbroken in the place where he’d once felt fire. “I’m alive,” he cried into the sky. “I’m alive!”

At his voice, something rustled beyond the cave. Connor reached instinctually for his gun, but it was gone. Scanning the ground, he gripped a large rock and crouched closer to the sound, knowing he’d be no match against a pack of coyotes. But he’d go down fighting anyway; he’d come too far to die here.

Caught between the spiky branches of a Yucca tree, the creature huffed and tugged, stomping its hooves against the dry ground. 

Thunder. 

The horse startled when Connor came up beside him, then threw his head back and neighed. “I thought I lost you, boy.” Connor slung an arm around the animal’s thick neck, nuzzling his face against the soft, musky flesh. He untangled the reins from the tree and led Thunder back to the mouth of the cave. Connor pulled out the bag of oats and emptied it into his cupped hands, letting the animal have his fill. He returned the empty pouch and paused; there at the bottom of the saddlebags were bulging bags of gold. Untouched.

It’s all here. Everything.

Connor released a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. “Let’s go home, boy.”

They rode hard, eating up the miles that stretched between the Mojave and home. Thunder seemed to feel a sense of being at the end, his desires somehow linked with those of his rider. They pushed on through heat and high elevation until the terrain began to flatten again and familiar sights greeted them. Just a few miles from town, they passed the cluster of cactuses that looked like praying nuns, then the Pritchards’ ranch, then the Haymakers’. Then Connor could see the church steeple rising above the center of the town, its whitewashed beams a beacon guiding wanderers home. 

“We’re almost there, boy.” Connor patted Thunder’s thick shoulder, sending puffs of dust wafting off his dark coat. Soon, Connor could hear the gentle trickling of a creek–the one that would wind around the next bend and lead him to a sun-bleached cabin and a beautiful girl–home. Connor dismounted and walked beside Thunder as the house came into view, a curl of smoke rising from the chimney. 

“Saralee!” He couldn’t wait another second. “Saralee, I’m home!”

The door opened, and a woman poked her head out. Connor began to run, leaving Thunder to graze along the creek. The woman ducked back into the house, shutting the door. 

“It’s me Saralee! Connor!”

The door opened again, and this time Saralee was standing beside a man, his palm resting on her shoulder. Connor stepped up to the house and stopped, confusion turning him momentarily mute. Saralee squinted into the space between them, then turned to the man beside her. “He must have the wrong house.” She took in Connor’s ragged, worn clothes and his sunburned skin and smiled. “But wait here, and I’ll give you something for your travels.” She slipped inside, shutting the door behind her. 

Connor stuttered, “Wait! What’s happening here?” Then anger boiled up within him. “And who are you?”

The man stepped into the light, “Howdy there, partner.” He flashed a wide grin. “Oh, you know me; I’m an old friend.” He extended a tanned hand to Connor, waiting. Connor’s eyes traveled from the man’s face to his outstretched hand where, peeking out from under his sleeve, was the tip of a green, tattooed wing. The wind shifted and Connor felt a coldness seep into him, creeping into his bones. 

The man lowered his hand and glanced at Thunder. “I see you found your horse.”

“Please,” Connor stuttered, his head spinning. “I can pay you now. What do you want from me?”

“From you? Why, nothing at all.” He narrowed his eyes, their color deep and warm–amber, like Tennessee whisky. 

“Your debt is already paid.”

September 16, 2023 01:55

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57 comments

Kevin Logue
09:19 Sep 18, 2023

That was brilliant! So immersive in setting, emotion, and galloping plot. Connors longing to be with Saralee is so strong and driving, yet there is something deeper there, his unwillingness to go home empty handed - literally acknowledged when he says Thunder is greedy for wanting more oats, it's like he's telling himself that. Although it could have just been a normal snake encounter, in my head I think the Devil was the snake, as well as saviour, and Connors undoing. Great Story, fantastic writing! Best of luck this week 🤞

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Aeris Walker
23:51 Sep 20, 2023

“Galloping plot,” love that. Thanks for being a great reader and noticing the small details of the piece. I really appreciate it!

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Kevin Logue
15:48 Sep 22, 2023

Congratulations on the shortlist Aeris!

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Aeris Walker
17:40 Sep 22, 2023

Thanks, Kevin!!

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Rebecca Miles
06:13 Sep 17, 2023

Right from the get go you create context so well that this very different time and place comes to life. It's a broad sweep of time to pull off, the initial attraction of the West with the letters received, Connor's own journey and return, but you manage it well. I'm a horse lover, so Thunder steals my heart, although of course the devilish snake- man steals the writer's reward I think. You really do craft the links with your trademark eye on subtlety: the amber eyes, and how man and snake can read the victim's " jolts" the passion in his blo...

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Aeris Walker
21:05 Sep 17, 2023

How lucky I am--a comment from each of the Reedsy Miles :) I love your analysis here: "the passion in his blood for SaraLee which the victor taps in more ways than one." That's perfect. I wanted the character's passions for wealth and love to be constantly at war in this story, and though Connor isn't *put to the test* until he's on his journey home, I think he ultimately made his choice before the story began. And the devil, well he just doesn't play by the rules. Thanks for reading!

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Rebecca Miles
16:02 Sep 22, 2023

Thunderous applause for your galloping Western, Aeris!

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Aeris Walker
17:41 Sep 22, 2023

On point with the wordplay!! Haha, thanks so much 💕

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AnneMarie Miles
18:26 Sep 16, 2023

Wow, Aeris. Historical fiction is one of the most challenging genres for me, and you make it look easy. With elegance and grace. How effortlessly you weaved in the devil, as both snake and man. Perfection.

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Aeris Walker
20:59 Sep 17, 2023

Hi AnneMarie! I've always been intrigued by this era/region, though in real life, the desert actually holds little appeal for me! I so appreciate your comment and am glad you picked up on those details of the devil's potential duality. Thanks for being a great reader!

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Delbert Griffith
09:54 Sep 22, 2023

What an impressive tale, Aeris! It's almost allegorical, what with all the representation in it. I admired the Biblical images: the snake, the cacti that looked like nuns, the church steeple as a beacon, the horse that was lost and then was found, the lure of gold versus the love of a good woman. It's all there. A modern fable warning one of the dangers of greed. I tip my Stetson hat to you, my friend. I grew up in the Texas Panhandle and I know about this type of land. You did an amazing job of painting a picture without going overboard....

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Aeris Walker
20:20 Sep 23, 2023

First of all, I'm so glad to hear some of the regional details rang true. I've never been out West, (Well, not entirely true. I lived in CA as a baby, but that hardly counts) so I had to rely on research/maps to get the setting descriptions right. Second, I totally see the "allegorical" aspects of this, as well as the very Biblical theme of "wandering in the desert," though all the themes and *fable-esque* takeaways were really the last things that fell into place. This story started with the simple image of the devil in the desert. Then I...

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Marty B
01:33 Sep 21, 2023

Great emotional journey for a man who believes true wealth only comes in glittery gold. And his deal with the devil makes him lose what he needed but didn't value, his beloved Saralee. I really liked how these lines foreshadowed the end: 'Her voice was far away, mournful and hungry like the coyote’s cry. And when he looked into the water, he saw only gold, sparking in noon-day sun.'

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Michał Przywara
20:40 Sep 20, 2023

Very nice! A deal with a mysterious stranger goes sideways, and while Connor keeps his life, he loses the meaning of it. Under the hood, perhaps he lost the meaning a long time ago. He set out to find gold so that he could provide for his wife, so his intentions might have been good initially, but: "Then, somehow, three months turned into six, then a year. Then two." It sounds like gambling, like an addiction. Perhaps predictably, it cost him other parts of his life. The devil here is an interesting character. His price is a perfectly cr...

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Aeris Walker
15:36 Sep 22, 2023

“It sounds like gambling, like an addiction.” Yeah that’s a great way to look at his behavior. I hadn’t thought about it in that sense, but that’s exactly the kind of pattern he was getting caught up in—just one more roll, one more game, one more pull of the lever. As always, thanks for reading and making us all think more deeply about our own writing!

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Michał Przywara
20:48 Sep 22, 2023

Congrats on the shortlist :D

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Danie Holland
10:29 Sep 19, 2023

Your descriptions are so good! This was so well done! Loved the sinking feeling you get in the end when you spent all this time searching for gold only to realize something so much more valuable was stolen from you in the end.

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Aeris Walker
00:08 Sep 21, 2023

Spot on analysis! Thanks so much for reading, Danie.

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Lily Finch
21:40 Sep 18, 2023

Aeris, Great story. This line has a clear but perfect image. Cold fear sluiced through his bowels; Connor, caught between a rock and a hard space, gains his life but loses Saralee. So many play on the word snake. Snake charmer = Sweet talks Saralee. Snake himself = comes to see the snakebite and heals Connor of his bite. But it's the devil so of course, Connor's everything included Saralee in the devil's eyes. Your diction dictates same. Passion and wealth become greed. He stays to find that big hall. It causes him to be in the predicamen...

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Aeris Walker
19:28 Sep 23, 2023

Thanks for reading, Lily! I didn't even think about that connection to a snake/sweet talking. The stranger too seems to have a convincing way about his speech, ultimately getting Connor to relinquish everything he worked for. Thanks for you feedback :)

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Mary Bendickson
02:05 Sep 18, 2023

Another winner no doubt.🌵 Knew this was great when I read it. Congrats on the shortlist.🥳

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Aeris Walker
17:42 Sep 22, 2023

Hey Mary, thanks so very much ☺️

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Helen A Smith
13:43 Sep 17, 2023

Hi Aeris You had me with you all the way on this perilous journey. I felt I was out there searching for gold too. I was rooting for the Connor and his beautiful horse, even though I knew he wasn’t going to get what he wanted. At least, not fully. I must admit I wanted a happy ending, even though it wasn’t possible. Masterfully written.

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Aeris Walker
23:38 Sep 20, 2023

Thank you for reading, Helen! :)

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Sara Thomas
11:16 Jan 15, 2024

Oh, I’ll help you.” The man cupped Connor’s neck and brought a canteen to his lips. “But it’ll cost you.” - love this part because then the rest of the story I wanted to know what that cost would be!

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Graham Kinross
15:37 Dec 25, 2023

Did Saralee get a say in her fate? She seemed to get a far rougher deal than Conner from my viewpoint unless she had decided after years of being let down by him that she was better off with someone else. I guess that’s up to interpretation. You packed in a lot. Congratulations on being shortlisted.

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Yeisha Lee
21:44 Dec 15, 2023

Ugh this story had me HOOKED. I kept guessing what the next part would be and nope not it, then guess again and nope not it! I thought at the end it would just be all a dream or heaven because he died, but I think this is much worse! He finally was home to saralee, the reason behind everything he did, only to discover that his "saviour" knew all along! Then it brings up question, was there ever a snake? Why the analogy between the snakes eyes and the Amber eyes of the stranger? Was the stranger just trying to be rid of him? Ugh so so good Ae...

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Shirley Medhurst
17:30 Nov 30, 2023

Oooh, Chilling! What a brilliant story, & congratulations on the very well deserved shortlist. You had me immersed from start to finish.

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Amanda Lieser
00:55 Oct 13, 2023

Hi Aeris! It’s always such a delight to see you familiar face on the shortlist! And this one was a stellar peace! I absolutely adore, did your immersive imagery and the way that you made the desert dance in our minds I also loved that twist at the end, and my heart was absolutely breaking for every character involved. This piece showed a side of the west that isn’t always discussed or truly felt but I thought you did an amazing job of bringing us to that time. Nice work!!

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Jack Nierling
22:40 Oct 05, 2023

I came across this story while looking at older submissions, and just wow. This was such a wonderfully written story with a tragic twist. Most stories like this have the protagonist knowingly make a deal with the Devil, but it seems like poor Connor was completely tricked here. Great work!

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Aeris Walker
23:01 Nov 11, 2023

I used to be much better at responding to comments in a timely fashion, but when I did initially read your feedback, it made my day, so thank you :)

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Story Time
18:36 Sep 25, 2023

Aeris, what I love about your stories is that I always feel like I'm dropped directly into a sensual environment. I know exactly where I am at all times, and I can feel the story moreso than just read it. Always mesmerizing.

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Aeris Walker
18:33 Oct 05, 2023

Your comment made me smile when I read it two weeks ago, and then again now that I'm finally sitting down to respond to it. Thanks, Kevin :)

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Philip Ebuluofor
11:04 Sep 24, 2023

Congrats. I am not a fan of snakes.

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Aeris Walker
18:33 Oct 05, 2023

Neither am I! Thanks for reading, Philip :)

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Philip Ebuluofor
20:39 Oct 05, 2023

Welcome.

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Philip Ebuluofor
11:03 Sep 24, 2023

Congrats.

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09:48 Sep 24, 2023

He’d already sold his soul for gold… the devil is just a red herring. A lovely tale.

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Aeris Walker
18:34 Oct 05, 2023

Thanks, Anne :)

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