Muck covered her last clean outfit when the car sped passed. As if she needed another damn problem.
But what did it matter if she re-wore some dirty clothes? Joanna didn’t have any more interviews lined up. How many times had she heard the same line, over and over?
We’re sorry, but you’re just not a right fit for our company. We’ll call you if we change our mind. Even if by some miracle they did call, her phone would probably be deactivated by then. She’d just turned in the last of her emergency change jar- a whopping twenty-one dollars and thirty-eight cents.
Not even close to how much the electric bill was going to cost her to get the lights on.
Or the water bill.
Crumpling on a bench, she listened to the children laugh and scream at the playground across the street. Normally, it’d cheer her; that much happiness was infectious.
Now, she didn’t pay them any mind. She let the tears come, too worn down to hold them back. She wouldn’t be able to hold them in till she got home anyway.
The only reason she still had a home was because her landlord was a kind soul and wouldn’t kick her ass out.
Pity. She had a roof over her head because of pity.
She hated it.
Maybe it was pride- suffocating pride that she couldn’t afford to act on- but it sunk her deeper into self-loathing than before. The shame she felt ate at her.
She supposed she should be grateful, but the situation had made Joanna bitter. So much so that, while she missed Emily, she was glad her daughter wasn’t around see her like this. She’d made the right decision in sending her to live with her grandmother for the summer. And if her luck didn’t change soon, Em might be spending the next school year with Grandma, too.
The mud drying on her was the last straw. Joanna had planned to go door to door throughout the business district after that last rejection, asking each one if they were hiring, but which of them wouldn’t laugh her out of the lobby when she looked like this? The last flicker of hope she’d kept alive had been drowned with the dirty water.
Stuck in her head, she didn’t see the man who sat suddenly with her on the bench. Didn’t notice how his flesh seemed to crackle and glow like embers beneath thin, sickly skin before the glamor took hold.
But she did see the way his eyes flashed- a kind of orange flame masked within the brown. That was just the light, right?
“Down on your luck, dear?”
She scoffed, “That’s one way to put it.”
“We’ve all been there. Better days and all that,” he said with a wave of his hand and the image of him shimmered in front of her as if she’d disturbed his reflection in a pond.
Heat waves. It was hot out. Just heat waves getting in the way, she told herself.
“My last job interview gave me the company line. ‘Not a right fit.’” she said sourly. Why was she telling him this? She didn't go around telling her sob story to strangers.
“If you like, I could help you. It wouldn’t take much to get you back on your feet.”
Joanna held in her scoff. She wasn’t about to be rude to the one person who was nice to her, no matter how much simply sitting next to him caused her head to spin. “I appreciate it, but unless you’re hiring, I’m not sure how you can help me.”
“I’d like to offer my services.” His stretched grin made her stomach heave. It was unnatural, everything about the man. “All I ask of you in return for my help is a… favor,” he chose the word carefully.
“Listen, I don’t have a lot of options left, but I’m not resorting to porn or whatever weird, kinky stuff you guys can come up with.”
The man didn’t bother holding in his own scoff. “I’m here because you have no options left, but you misunderstand, my dear. I’m not in that sort of business. I can help you achieve what you desire. Anything in the world.”
She kept her expression guarded. This was a bad idea. Trusting him at all was a bad idea. Everything screamed for her to run the other way but some small voice told her to hear him out. Worst to happen was she says no. “What kind of favor are you looking for then?”
Why did the light seem to bend around him? It was the middle of the day, but it felt so dark. Cold, she realized. It was cold. As if all the heat and light was being sucked right out of the air.
“Couldn’t say.” Bones creaked when he shrugged. “Favors are determined at a later date. It depends on what I need help with, what I think would be a good task for you. In return, you can ask for anything you want. Any one thing,” he held up a gnarled finger. “One favor for a once in a lifetime deal.”
“Anything I want? If I want to be a queen of some random, new country that just rose up out of the sea, you’d make that happen?” Joanna snapped. He was wasting her time, ridiculing a woman who was down on her luck. Well, she hoped he enjoyed messing with her because she was done playing into it.
“If you desire it, I’ll make it happen. Which sea would you prefer?”
People passing on the sidewalk gave them a wide berth, seemingly unaware the two were even there. No one glanced their way. Joanna realized she couldn’t hear the kids playing anymore. “No, I won’t be one of the idiots who sells their soul.”
She was sure she saw something in his eyes this time. Those flames grew brighter with his irritation before the calm façade settled into place once more. “I’m not asking for your soul as payment. Collateral maybe, but there are ways around that if you prefer.”
He couldn’t be serious. “Everyone hears those stories growing up. Some loser down on his luck takes a deal with the devil and regrets it. Big time. I’m not about to be one of those people.”
“You only ever hear of the unfortunates who can’t follow through on their end of the bargain," he reasoned. "Those who win lotteries with their first ticket, find themselves CEOs where before they were interns, movie stars discovered overnight- they all attribute their found wealth to good luck when really, I am the one pulling the strings.”
“Say I agree- I do this favor for you and I don’t get to know what it is yet. Is it the kind of thing I’d be arrested for? I have a daughter, I don’t want to be doing anything that would take me away from her.”
“Joanna, you’d only be away from Emily if you fail to deliver. Fulfill your half of our deal and you’d never have to spend a minute away from her again.”
“I never told you her name,” she blanched. She’d never told him her own name either.
His easy chuckle set her on edge more than it reassured. “The devil’s in the details, darling. I have to know who I’m dealing with.”
What choice did she have? She was so far beyond desperate, no one wanted to hire her, and if she didn’t have to sell her soul…
Hell, even if she sold her soul, it wouldn’t matter as long as she could give Emily a good life. “Whatever you ask me to do…it’ll be worth it?”
He reached out a spindled hand. “You’ll never know unless you try.”
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I enjoyed this story! The descriptions of the devil were great from the orange flame in his eyes to the protagonist asking herself why the light seemed to bend around him. Also when she realized she couldn’t hear the kids playing anymore it was chilling. Good stuff!
Absolutely love this take!!!!
Your take on this prompt, in my opinion, is much better than mine. I love it too. I can't wait to see your next story. Wonderful work.