Bargains by the Slant-Light

1,000 words

Every night, the devil sits himself on the lip of her bed and every night, she sighs and whispers the same word over and again.

“Yes.”

Yes, she murmurs. Yes, yes, of course. Voice parched of inflection, a rasp of a syllable like velvet rough against a nipple, she repeats the word until the devil shakes his antlered head, the metronoming of his skull keeping time with the click of scissors pale.

He does not tell her no.

Devils break bread with bargains, after all, and he’s grown a taste for her flavor of desperate: earthy as molasses, with a tang like coffee fresh from the first pot of the day. But still, that does not stop him from feeling bad.

So, when she peels her shirt—striped, too big for her rangy frame—back, breasts crisscrossed with stitches, it isn’t with glee that he approaches her, but some blend of reverence, the worship of a hunter, or more accurate still, the idolatry of a first-rate chef. Because there is no meal without the meat, no fulfillment without first the cooperation of the prey.

He cuts her apart. He butterflies her, taking care only to slice along the dotted lines, undoing what he’d done before, the topography of her flesh unraveled into bloodless petals until she lays there, exposed, lung and liver bare as the descent of her clavicles.

It hurts. That is part of the price.

If he were anyone else, he’d tell her the truth of her denuding: that she is exquisite like this, raw as a trust newly broken. But he does not. Most nights, he is perfunctory, lingering only as long as necessary to unspool what he requires. Some evenings, he laminates his butchery with precious metals, transforms her into a study of kintsugi.

But today, he does neither.

“Why?”

It is the first time he has ever asked her why, and he thinks of when they first met, the halogen cold on her skin and her eyes immense. She looks up, past the firmament of her ribs, down past the trellises of her hips, down to where the devil sits chastely between her thighs.

“Because it’s hard.”

The devil nods. No one makes a deal for something simple, something sweet as a kiss, as summer, as that first dance of fingers brushing against one another.

“I loved him,” she says.

“Love him,” she corrects, sighing, as the devil unspools a filament of tissue from her naked heart. He winds it around a finger, while she counts the ceiling tiles, enumerating the mundane until she finds balance in their banality, stretches and tugs until the flesh goes pop. “Utterly. But you knew that.”

The devil nods again.

“And it hurts to love something that should not love you back. To love and have no place to put it. To love and to know you don’t want compensation, but in fact, that love’s indifference.”

“Then, why?”

“Because love isn’t fair.” Her heart does not, to the devil’s surprise, bang against her bones. Instead, it merely sits, a wound spread wide. “When we love, we hope that the other reciprocates with more because it’d be a shame to be the one more invested. But affection isn’t competition and even if it was, you can’t win every wager you make.”

The devil says nothing. He threads her muscles with string he’d wefted from the hairs of a hanged man. The strands are infinitesimal enough to be forgiven as striations of her dermis. In response, she endures, half-breaths and half-lidded eyes.

“What do you want of this?”

“I don’t know. You don’t stop loving someone because they lack the means to love you back. A spouse remains a spouse, although you’ve agreed to be friends. A lover remains a lover, although they lie unconscious for months at a time, unable to breathe, their heartbeats rationed by machines.” His touch does not excite her, but it excites something nonetheless, a frisson of animal instinct, plucked wholesale from a shelf in the back of the brain. “I want … I want to love them better, I suppose.”

The devil slots cartilage and tendon together, one joint after another, silent until at last, “It won’t bring them back.”

“I know. And even if it could, I would not want them this way. Some loves are homes, some are halfway houses. Rest stops, gap years. They were meant to only stay for a while, so their breath loosens enough to let them live.” She sits up, a spill of strings pooling in her navel. “I wish I wasn’t merely that. I wish this was easier.”

The devil says nothing.

“Remake me,” she tells him for the hundredth time. “With a heart that has no room for want, no space to disgrace itself with selfish impulse. Fill it with ice. Fill it with lead, heavy as hope. Let that heart beat with something better than blood, something less hot, less hungry. I want …” She wets her mouth. “I want to want less.”

The devil says nothing still. This was the bargain she’d made on that cold blue night, and the one he’d fulfill. She’d asked him for a new heart. He’d told her, dressed then in the bones of an old man, the calcium papered with moss, that there was only one way, that he’d have to build it from the one she wears behind her breast.

And she said: Yes, oh yes.

He stares. For one lucent moment, he thinks of telling her no, of a dialogue with the one who’d split her open, who’d left a map for him in her ventricles, dotted lines where they’d run their knife, their hands, where they’d bruised the muscle with a love malformed and tender. But she’d paid in promises, the only currency that matters. And besides, who was he to speak? Humanity, if one is lucky, is a hundred years of hurt and hope.

“I pray he’s worth it,” the devil says, his harvest pocketed.

“One day soon, I think he will be.”

The devil nods. Contrary to what many believe, devils do not like to lie. “I will see you tomorrow night.”

And just as she has every night before, she sighs and whispers without contempt:

“Yes.”

 

Cassandra Khaw writes horror, video games, tweets for money, articles about video games, and tabletop RPGs. These are not necessarily unrelated items. Her work can be found in professional short story magazines such as ClarkesworldFireside FictionUncanny, and Shimmer. Cassandra’s first paranormal rom-com Bearly a Lady released this year. Her recent Lovecraftian Southern Gothic A Song for Quiet is a considerably different animal.

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