I was sitting up in bed flipping through an issue of Nintendo Power when Dad knocked on the doorframe.
“Hey buddy, I got something for you.”
Dad reached into a shopping bag, took great care to unwrap the paper around the item, which he set on the mattress. It was a Halloween pail in the shape of a red devil. The devil stared at me from the edge of my bed. He was odd, unsettling, unlike anything I’d seen at Target. He had paint strokes and tiny imperfections signifying he hadn’t come off of any assembly line. A bubble in the shellac had created a wart on the end of his long sharp nose. His horns were tiny nubs with photorealistic ridges. His toothy grin was framed in the classic Satanic goatee. His angry eyebrows were raised so high they nearly touched his hairline. As for his glowing yellow cat eyes they felt like they were watching me.
Without thinking I scurried up my headboard. “He’s creepy.”
Dad wore a Cheshire Cat smile. “I know right?” He held the pail in his hand like he was preparing to recite Shakespeare. “I was told this handcrafted papier-mâché devil is one of a kind. I saw him in a shop window and immediately thought of you.”
“A red devil reminded you of me?”
“Definitely. It’s something in the eyes, that twinkle of unrepentant malevolence.”
I crossed my arms. “Gee thanks, Dad.”
“You’re welcome. You see I do notice these things.”
I rolled my eyes. I wasn’t in footy pajamas anymore. I was past going out in a plastic smock with a picture of who I was supposed to be on it. I was way beyond Halloween pails. I was seven, old enough to know the true meaning of the season was to maximize sugar intake before winter hibernation.
“You realize I’ll be using a pillowcase like everyone else.”
Dad shielded the devil’s long bat-like ears from such slander. “No way José!
“This impulse item didn’t come cheap.”
I shrugged. “You can use him.”
Dad pointed a finger to the idea bulb blinking above his head. “What if you put the best candy, the king sized bars, in the pail, and put the run off in the pillow?”
I tilted my head back and forth. “How about the other way around?”
Dad feigned confusion. He held the devil pail so as to whisper in its pointy ear then held its mouth up to his ear as if it was whispering back. “He agrees to your terms, but there’s a caveat.”
“A provision entitling your father to 10% of your take.”
I shook my head. “We haven’t learned percentages yet.”
We shook on it, Dad kissed me on the forehead, and I went to sleep. The next night we had a very profitable Halloween indeed.
The Halloween Haul
I dumped my pillow out across my bed. I was type A even back in the day. I had a system for organizing my sweets.
The candy bars were split into subcategories those with nuts, those without, those with a cookie crunch, and those with nougat (the cornerstone of a notorious breakfast).
This was when neighbors didn’t care if children had fatal food allergies. “Here, have a Salted Nut Roll you’ll be fine.”
It was only after I’d sorted through my best bars that I decided to sift through the fun-sized pile of shame.
I flipped the devil pail over and dumped the cast offs on my pillow. I shivered as a chill moved up the back of my neck.
That’s when I notice the strange oddities among the Jolly Ranchers, candy buttons, and Sixlets. It seemed as though some of the items I’d put into the pail that weren’t candy, toothpaste, dental floss, and the like, had come out different.
Where there were raisins were now sponge capsules that grew into dinosaurs when you added water. Bookmarks had become Garbage Pall Kids trading cards. A religious booklet titled Trick or Truthhad become an official Ghostbusters Ghostblaster noisemaker.
“Great Cesar’s ghost!”
The Ghostblaster was no small find. It was a limited edition promotion item exclusive to Hardee’s. Dad and I had driven around the city trying to track one down not knowing they’d already recalled them because they contained choking hazards. My little heart was broken, yet somehow someone in the neighborhood was giving them away like they were nothing. How could I have possibly mistaken this Ghostblaster for a religious text?
Had I mistaken each of these items before I’d cast them into the pail of shame? No. No way my neighbors were that cool. Something sinister was happening and it had everything to do with that creepy hand crafted pail.
I held the devil pail so that we saw eye to eye.
“Where did all this cool stuff from?”
I noticed something I’d missed the first time I looked at this devil. His eyes were uneven. A stoke of red paint made one eye smaller than the other. If I didn’t known any better I’d say he was winking.
“Was it you who turned the toothpaste into a tube of fake blood?”
The pail felt heavier all of sudden, like something inside it was shifting. There was a terrible cramp in my hand and a strange sensation like that of an icepack wrapped around my wrist. Before I knew it I was bobbing the devil pail up and down as if to make it nod.
Dad knocked on my doorframe. “Knock knock.”
I dropped the pail and swept the changed items into my pillowcase. “Why say, ‘Knock knock’ when you’re already knocking and why knock when you’re already in the room?”
Dad scanned the X-Men posters for an answer. “Because I can.” His attention turned back to the bed. “Alright, you remember our little deal? Dad skims 5%.”
I half nodded. “I remember saying we haven’t learned percentages yet. Does five percent mean you want five items?”
I offered one strawberry granny candy, a box of Good and Plenty, lemonheads, Bazooka bubble gum, and a roll of Smarties. All candies I could comfortably part with.
I glared. “I have altered the deal. Pray that I don’t alter it any further.” I said in my best Darth Vader voice.
Dad cocked his head. “Daddy’s going to need some chocolate.”
I scrapped my haul together and lay on top, knowing full well what was coming.
Dad chuckled. “Oh I’ve got the key to this particular fortress.”
Electric tickle signals surged through my sides and before I knew it I’d rolled onto the floor cackling. Dad kept the tickle torcher going long after I’d left my mountain of candy unguarded. “This is the only way you’ll ever learn.”
“What’s going on here?” Mom spoke over dad’s shoulder.
“I’m teaching a very important lesson on why you shouldn’t weasel out of deals.”
Mom made a serious face. “You do realize that contract law is Mommy’s forte so if anything…” Mom moved into position. “I should be teaching this lesson.”
That’s when I felt her fingers beneath my armpits. I kicked like a frog on it’s back. With both of my parents tickling I went into convulsions.
That’s when a pew-pew-pew emitted from my pillow.
“What was that?” Mom perked up.
The Ghostblaster went off again.
I tried direct their attention toward the hall. “The smoke detector?”
Dad stood up. “Sounds like it needs new battery. I better change it or it’ll be doing that all night.”
That night I stayed up putting objects into the devil pail. I tapped the brim like a magician, flipped it, and retrieved something awesome.
I dug through my desk doing an inventory of things I could part with: rubber bands, paperclips, foreign currency my grandparents had left me. I dropped each item into the pail and felt the weight shift, like an invisible hand plucked something out and slid something else in its place.
Birthday cards came out as Playboy bunny stickers just like the ones in the vending machine at the roller rink. Loose yarn came out as friendship bracelets. Erasers came out as finger monsters. A fist full of pencil shavings came out as a bag of bang snaps: little explosives wrapped in cigarette paper that popped when you pelted at the ground.
It became clear that the larger the item I put into the pail was the cooler the item that came out would be. The devil pail took a yo-yo and upgraded it into a military grade slingshot. It took a pair of dull edged scissors and upgraded them into a bonafide switchblade. It took a stack of Chuck E. Cheese tickets and upgraded them into a wad of cold hard cash.
When I was done rummaging through my closet for sacrificial objects I gathered up my bounty of silly string, throwing stars, and firecrackers and stuffed it all into my backpack. I lay awake thinking about all the showing and telling I’d be doing on the playground.
Impromptu Parent Teacher Conference
Principle Simonson withdrew the contents of my backpack an item at a time for dramatic effect. He was trying to impress upon my parents the sheer volume of contraband their son had gotten his hands on.
“One set of brass knuckles.”
I couldn’t help but marvel at how the knuckles had retained the red coloring of the Swingline stapler they were born from.
“One, is it, a pairof Nunchucks?”
There were two candles mom wasn’t getting back.
Principle Simonson shot my mother a nasty look as he set the next item on the desk.
“One deck of pornographic playing cards.”
In hindsight, what little I can recall of the deck was not pornographic, not as I’D define the word today. They were tasteful hand painted pin-ups. The kind of bathing suit beauties one might see painted on the nose of jet. There was no nudity, but the nevertheless I was really going to miss them.
I was going to miss everything Principle Simonson was confiscating: the whoopee cushion, the fart spray, the candy cigarettes, and prop fingers. These were gifts I’d given to myself.
This felt like one of those Christmas dreams when my parents got me the thing they’d sworn Santa couldn’t fit into his slay. One minute I was driving around the lawn in a miniature motorized DeLorean and the next I was waking up with nothing.
Mom crouched down to my level. “Honey you have to tell us where you got all of these things?”
In the second grade I didn’t know anything about my Fourth Amendment right prohibiting unreasonable search and seizure, but I knew enough about my Fifth Amendment right not to implicate myself.
Mom put her hand on my wrist. “Honey, I need you to tell me if someone gave them to you?”
I hadn’t meant to nod, but my chin had betrayed me.
I assumed these enchanted items had come from a “what.” It hadn’t occurred to me that there might actually be a “who.”
I didn’t know how to put the reality of the situation into words so I sat there with my mouth open while mom rattled off her questions.
“Did they tell you not to say? Were they a stranger? Did you meet them on your way home? Did they say they’d hurt you if you told? Did they ask you to go anywhere with them?”
I shook my head, but there was no derailing mom’s train of reasoning. Someone had tried to enchant her son in the ten minutes it took him to walk home. Dad’s default cocksure grin flattened as mom detailed a worst-case scenario. It was clear to her that stranger-danger had made its way to our little town. They agreed that I’d be spending a few extra hours in the extended day program after school until dad could pick me up on his way home.
That evening dad put the devil pail on the top shelf of the laundry room closet between the turtle wax and Christmas ornaments.
Worse still I was grounded. I wanted nothing more than to serve out my penance gathering items and tossing them into the pail. I’d stare at my mother’s ceramic figurines and wonder what they’d become once they’d touched the devil’s tongue. I wondered how many fountain pens dad really needed or if mom would notice if one little piece of China went missing.
I’d always wanted a pair of X-Ray specs, fake vomit, and trick dice.
No matter. The pail was out of reach and there was no way I was drudging the stepladder from the garage without drawing attention. I’d have to bide my time until a growth spurt kicked in.
That night I dreamt my parents were bound and gag, heading down a conveyor belt into a fiery furnace shaped like the devil’s mouth. Their eyes plead for help, but I just stood at the levers waving goodbye to care. To my parents’ credit, they were teetering back and forth, trying their best to roll off the belt, but they just could coordinate very well. They heat was already making them sweat. Mom was sobbing, trying desperately to chew through her gag to get out one final plea, but it was too late.
There was the faintest of shrieks as the furnace belched a giant fireball. A tire cut path through the smoke. A blood red mountain coasted through the haze, dipped off the conveyor belt, and rolled right between my legs.
When I awoke the devil pail was sitting upon my chest staring at me with those glowing yellow eyes. I had no clue how it got there, but I knew it was hungry.
Meet Noelle, a Hollywood transplant that’s been subsisting on instant ramen and false hope. She’s on the verge of moving back into her mother’s trailer when her agent convinces her to take a meeting at the Oralia Hotel. Enchanted by the art deco atmosphere Noelle signs a contract without reading the fine print.
Now she has one month to pen a novel sequestered in a fantasy suite where a hack writer claims he had an unholy encounter. With whom you ask? Well, he has many names: Louis Cypher, Bill Z. Bub, Kel Diablo. The Devil.
Noelle is skeptical, until she’s awoken by a shadow figure with a taste for souls.
Desperate to make it Noelle stays on, shifting the focus of her story to these encounters. Her investigations take her through the forth wall and back again until she’s blurred the line between reality and what’s written. Is there a Satanic conspiracy, is it a desperate author’s insanity, or something else entirely?