24 Oct The Devil in the Badlands
“The Devil in the Badlands”Written by E.K. Kelly Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 24 minutes
At thirteen, I stood in the South Dakota Badlands and gazed upon the majesty of a night sky uncorrupted by civilization and city lights. It was without a doubt the most breathtaking sight I have seen in my lifetime. It is also something I hope to never experience again, because a Devil lives in the badlands and thrives in the darkness found there.
For those of us that grew up in the sheltered safety of a normal childhood, the biggest catastrophe of our formative years is when a friend moves away. Suddenly a person who has been a steady fixture in your daily routine disappears. In their wake, they leave a void that feels like it can never be filled. Of course, everyone always says they’ll stay in touch but adolescence and distance are overwhelmingly strong opponents. Eventually like with so many things in life, time steps in and wears the void away until the friendship is nothing but a memory.
For me, that friendship was the one I had with Wyatt Plum. There was hardly a milestone throughout my childhood that didn’t also include Wyatt. For the years between the ages of five and thirteen, we were inseparable.
With the amount of time that Wyatt and I spent together, I also grew close with Wyatt’s family, to the point that I became almost a second son to the Plum’s. It wasn’t uncommon for me to join his family for dinners or on small trips and vacations (or Wyatt to join mine). That was how I became acquainted with the 4th resident in the Plum’s household, Wyatt’s grandmother Maw.
Maw Plum (the simple moniker lovingly used by the family) had spent her entire life in South Dakota. She and her husband Huck (who the family called Paw) owned and ran a ranch that had been a fixture in the Plum family for generations. Given the choice, she undoubtedly would have preferred to remain on that old ranch till the end of her days. Sadly for Maw, she had been fighting a losing battle with Alzheimer’s and dementia in recent years that had made that desire impossible.
While the standard list of symptoms caused by those illnesses are devastating in their own right, for Maw they came with an even more ominous addition. They had warped her memories, turning the ranch that had been her lifelong home into a nightmare in her mind. I can’t fathom the betrayal of having your own brain turn something you loved so deeply into an object of absolute terror.
When Wyatt’s father landed a new contract for his company that required him to temporarily relocate his wife and son, they also decided to bring Maw with them. Mr. Plum hoped that a new location, far from the Ranch in South Dakota, would provide her with some peace in what were likely her final years.
For the most part, the plan seemed to work, and from what I could see she seemed relatively happy. While she never really remembered me, each time we met again for the first time, the kindness inherent in her personality was always on display.
That isn’t to say she didn’t bring any of those demons with her from the badlands. Maw spent most of her days sitting in the Plum’s sunroom in introspective solitude, gazing out the window. Every so often I would catch her mumbling something to herself, but based on my limited experience with the elderly (my grandparents had all passed before I was old enough to remember them) I just thought that was what old people did.
Of course, that didn’t stop me from trying to decipher what she was saying. I was a nosey little brat, and after years of catching bits of indecipherable ramblings, I reached a breaking point. One summer day while Wyatt and I were playing outside I decided to break away, sneak back inside the Plum’s house, and see if I could decipher what Maw spoke to the shadows in the room.
As I crept down the hallway toward Maw’s seat by the window, a rush of excitement overtook me. I felt like a spy on some covert op, stealthily moving into position. The house was near-silent but for the rambling voice of Maw. As I stood along the wall just beyond the sunroom’s doorway I could for the first time make out the words.
“My boy. Took ‘em, yes, he did. He took ‘em away,” Maw mumbled in broken clips
“Whoosh, gone! Took away my Cole. Never see ‘em again. No, no, not once the devil’s got ‘em. Coming for me next, mm-hmmm. Gotta keep watch. He’s gonna want to be paid-n-full. Couldn’t say no. Wouldn’t dare. Dem boys should never have gone out there… Shoulda known better.”
I listened a bit longer, but the jumbled verse remained just as repetitive and cryptic. As time crawled forward I began to worry that Wyatt would wonder where I’d gotten too, so I retreated back down the hall and headed outside.
As I rejoined Wyatt the information I had just heard weighed heavy on my mind. If I had been born to a family with the gene for tact I may have broached the subject in a subtle way. Instead after a few moments of awkward silence I simply blurted out “Who’s Cole?” with the graceful finesse of an idiot. Then, to bury myself even deeper, I quickly added “and why does your grandma think the devil took him?”
Wyatt flashed me a look that was equal parts surprise and embarrassment, then cast his eyes down and began to diligently examine his shoes. We stood like that for what seemed ages, my insensitive question hanging above us like a storm cloud.
“So you heard her huh?” Wyatt finally broke the silence. “Guess that was bound to happen eventually. She sits in there babbling away like that often enough.”
Wyatt slumped down and I feared for a moment that he was going to end it there, to not give me any more of the details I craved.
“Cole was my uncle,” he continued. “He got drunk one night… I mean, he got drunk every night, but this one ended with him wandering out to the Ranch in the dark. Nobody ever saw him again. No trace or nothing.”
“How is that possible? Didn’t they do a search party or something?” I asked.
“Sure they did, they looked for weeks,” he replied, “but Maw and Paw didn’t live in a place like this.” He motioned to the tracks of boring suburbia that surrounded us. “They live in the middle of nowhere, in a place called the Badlands. I guess it’s kinda famous for being a place where people go to get lost.”
“Yeah. From what dad told me…” Wyatt’s voice was hushed. “…it used to be where bandits and cowboys would hide out in the old west. They would ride in there with the sheriff or a townsfolk-mob on their tail, like those western movies, and then disappear into the maze of rocks. They figure Cole wandered in there drunk, got confused, and lost his way. Maybe he fell and injured himself or just passed out. Then something got hold of him.”
“Like the Devil?” I said in awe.
“No, you jackass, like a coyote,” Wyatt said.
“Oh,” I said, defeated. “So why does your grandma think the devil got him?”
“You mean besides the fact that she’s batshit crazy?” he snapped. “Who knows? But after Cole vanished, I guess that’s when the dementia stuff got really bad. She kept ranting that the Devil was out there looking to get her, looking to get us. Freaked my dad out something fierce to hear her babbling about such nonsense. Nobody was sure what we were gonna do with her. So when my dad’s company got business out this way, it made sense that we’d take her with us. She’s way better than she was, but some of that crazy talk is still in there, ya know? Stuck in her brain. It bites the big one.”
I let my interrogation end with that. While I still had questions I knew that Wyatt didn’t have answers. Pressing the issue would simply cause him pain while providing me no additional clarity.
The conversation we had that day remained unmentioned between us through the years that followed.
* * * * * *
Around the time Wyatt and I turned thirteen – about three years after I learned about Cole – my parents informed me that something had happened to Maw Plum.
I was sad when I heard the news, assuming that she had passed away in her sleep. By the time I saw my friend the following week I was surprised not to find him in-mourning as expected. The Wyatt I found was angry.
“He finally got Maw,” were Wyatt’s first words to me as I approached to offer my condolences.
“I don’t understand,” I replied, surprised by his tone. “Who got her?”
“The Devil. Same Devil that got Cole.”
“I thought you said that wasn’t true. You said she was just crazy.”
“Yeah, so what? I thought she was crazy. So did everyone else,” Wyatt said, his voice rising in anger. “But I was there that night. I heard what was said in her room. Saw what was left after. I think that what happened to Cole was more than some demented ramblings.”
Wyatt’s story went like this.
On the last night Maw was seen alive, Wyatt struggled to fall asleep in his room. He spent the twilight hours tossing and turning in bed. At the time he couldn’t explain why but for no reason at all he felt afraid. The hairs on his arms prickled up and stood on end, his heart raced at a furious pace, an uneasy tingle ran repeatedly up and down his spine.
Unable to sleep, Wyatt got up to grab a drink of water. As he passed by Maw Plum’s room he heard a voice from behind the door. At first, he just figured Maw was awake, rambling to herself in the dark as she so often did. But then he heard a second voice, a man’s voice, join in with her’s. That stopped Wyatt in his tracks. He stood there in silence attempting to make out the conversation.
While the words from Maw’s part of the conversation were muffled and impossible to understand, everything the man said came to Wyatt clear as day.
“I’m sorry you feel that way,” the man said, cordial yet firm. “You asked me to help you forget what happened and that is exactly what I have given you.”
Maw gave a response that Wyatt could not make out.
“I disagree. Respectfully, of course,” the man replied. “In my opinion, my end of our agreement, based on your vague request, has been met. Which brings us to our other problem: payment. I am still owed for what I have given you, happy customer or not. You made our deal, then ran away to this place without paying the price. Did you think I wouldn’t find you?”
Maw’s answer came in the form of more jumbled words.
“I will have my payment!” the man insisted. “You can give me the one that we agreed on, or you can give me another, but I will leave here with what is owed me!”
Words came again from Maw that Wyatt could not hear.
“You understand what that means?” the man asked, a hint of surprise in his voice. “You would belong to me for eternity. Is that what you want?”
To that Maw answered “yes”, the first word from her that Wyatt could decipher.
“Very well,” said the man. Then there was a quick clamor of noise, followed by an awful eerie nothingness.
Unsure what to do, Wyatt remained standing in the same position just beyond Maw’s bedroom door. He waited for what felt like hours, hoping for any indication that there were still people on the other side of the door, but no other sound reached him.
Somehow, alone in the night, Wyatt found the will to approach the door. He knocked softly. No answer. He spoke in hushed voice. “Maw? Maw, it’s me, Wyatt. Are you awake?” There was no reply.
Worried that something could have happened to Maw, courage flooded Wyatt. He grabbed the door handle, turned it, pushed the door open and stepped into the room.
It was empty.
* * * * *
Over the weeks that followed Maw’s disappearance, my family spent all our available time helping the Plum’s in any way we could. We cooked for them, consoled them, watched over things as they worked with the Police on the search. No one except for me gave any credibility to Wyatt’s account of what happened that night. Eventually, embarrassed by the way he was treated by the people he told (feeling dismissed like Maw had been), he stopped telling it. I think he convinced himself it was a dream.
After multiple weeks without a sign of Maw the case was reclassified as “Dementia Patient Wandering – missing, presumed dead” and closed. I have learned since that this is such a common problem that it is the reason why many states have Silver Alert systems in place today.
While I was heartbroken for my friend and his loss, I was even more devastated by the news that followed. It seemed that Maw had been the only thing holding the Plum family to our neighborhood. With Maw now officially ruled deceased by the state, Mr. Plum no longer felt that anything was holding them back from moving home to South Dakota to be with their remaining family.
My best friend in the world was going to be taken from me.
That was why when Wyatt came to me on the final day before the big move and said he had a way for us to remain bonded forever, I jumped at the idea. It’s why when he explained the ritual behind blood brothers, I never even questioned if it was a good idea.
Sitting cross-legged on the floor of his now-empty basement, my old Cub Scout Swiss army knife in Wyatt’s hand, I watched as he first created a small cut on his own palm and then one on my own. As the blood trickled over my skin Wyatt pulled a piece of paper from his pocket. Then he reached out, gripped my hand pressing his cut palm against mine and read the following chant.
Quick cuts of skin,
Set free the blood,
And ask this deed be true.
That with this pledge,
Our blood oath bonds,
My spirit flows through you.
For a moment after the chant finished I could feel the rhythmic pulse of our hearts beating in unison within the cuts of our pressed together palms. In my young mind it felt powerful, as if what we had done actually had formed a connection between us.
The next day Wyatt and his family were gone, on the long road to South Dakota.
Wyatt and I kept in touch initially but like I said before, adolescence and distance are tricky obstacles for any friendship to overcome, especially in the early internet days. Over the course of the following year our contact dwindled down to sporadic notes and letters.
As I look back today on our friendship, there is a part of me that wishes that was where it ended. That the day we became blood brothers was the last time that Wyatt and I saw each other. That I had this great childhood friendship that passed by like a season. Though it had ended on a sad note, it could otherwise live tucked away in my mind as a nostalgia-wrapped memory.
But it did not end there. A year later I would find myself standing at Wyatt’s side as we peered out into the darkness of the Badlands and confronted the truth about Cole and Maw. A truth that would forever shatter the bond we had forged in the years before.
* * * * * *
With Wyatt’s family moving at the start of the school year, what would have already been an awkward time during adolescence became even worse. Wyatt and I had been inseparable, without him I felt isolated among my classmates. I had hoped I might discover a new identity for myself apart from him, but no matter what I did I never seemed to fit in.
Thankfully for all their faults, my parents are observant, by the time summer rolled around the following year they had made other plans for me. Instead of watching me mope around the house for 3 months, they had booked me a trip to spend 6 weeks with the Plums out west.
I spent the first two weeks with Wyatt and his parents in Rapid City, but the part of the trip I was most excited for was our planned visit to Paw Plum’s ranch and the badlands.
The Plum Family’s Ranch was a picture-perfect match to the Wild West as I had always imagined it. A never-ending dusty prairie dotted with tufts of dry brush, encircled by large rock formations that loomed along the horizon.
The first day we arrived, Mr. Plum and Paw took us out onto the ranch to show us around. As we followed along Paw bitched about the mundane daily annoyances of a rancher’s life. Things completely foreign to me, like the Coyotes that had been harassing his livestock and the prairie-dog burrows that pock marked the land and caused his best horse to break its ankle (called a fetlock).
On the way back to the house after the tour I caught Paw gazing up into the sky, a look on his face that reminded me of Maw sitting in the sunroom a thousand miles away. Then Paw glanced in my direction with a smile and said, “Yer a city boy, right?”
“Yeah, kinda,” I answered.
“It’s gonna be clear skies tonight,” Paw continued. “Wyatt, you should take this one out at dusk so you boys can camp under the stars.”
“Can we, Dad?” Wyatt asked turning to his father, excitement in his eyes.
Mr. Plum only looked at Wyatt, gave a slight shrug that we took to mean yes, then headed inside to help with supper.
After we finished eating, Paw set to work getting us equipped and ready to head out for the night. We packed the “important stuff”, a couple canteens, stuff to make s’mores, a fire starter, a couple bedrolls and a small tent. We weren’t going to be out longer than the night so we didn’t need much, and the ranch would never be more than a short hike away. The items that were most interesting to me were the spotlights and the pair of ole reliable .22 rifles “just in case”.
When we asked why they weren’t joining, Paw simply replied, “It ain’t summer vacation for the rest of us. Some of us have to be up and working before dawn.”
All geared up for our adventure, the two of us stepped through the door and headed out into the waning light of the day.
Instinctively we set a course southwest towards the boarder of the badlands and the setting sun. We didn’t walk very long, maybe 30 minutes, just enough to put some distance between us and the lights of the house. Then we got to work setting up “camp”. We collected deadwood to build a small campfire, set up the food and laid out the bedrolls so we didn’t have to sit on the hard ground.
As the sun slipped below the horizon, we roasted marshmallows and made s’mores. With our belly’s full of sugar and our small fire beginning to dwindle to ember’s glow, we laid out on our bedrolls, heads together, and cast our gaze skyward to take in the full beauty as the star-scape revealed itself.
I had seen stars before in my childhood, but nothing like that night. This wasn’t a simple starry sky; it was an explosion of light which blanketed the heavens. I remember learning about the galaxy in school and wondering at the time why it was called the Milky Way. From our backyard in the suburbs the night sky was a murky grey pool pockmarked with occasional dull flickering specks of light. In that moment, removed from any outside interference I came to understand the name Milky Way completely. The sky looked as if some enormous entity had spilled cream across an infinite onyx surface. While I have since seen it recreated in photos, no picture has ever come close to doing the experience justice.
I was lost in the wonder of it all when a light abruptly flashed into my field of vision and I heard Wyatt sit up and grab hold of his Twenty-Two.
“Did you hear that?” Wyatt whispered as his spotlight scraped across the landscape.
“No, I didn’t hear a thing. What was it?” I asked, still focused on the stars.
“If I knew what it was, numb nuts, would I be asking you?”
“I guess not. Sorry.”
“You may have gotten fatter over the last year, but you didn’t get any smarter.” Wyatt said, “Now will you turn on yer damn light and help me look?”
I fumbled with my spotlight, after a few anxious moments I finally managed to get it switched on and joined in scanning our surroundings.
I’m not sure if this is a common belief or a crackpot theory with no scientific backing (the more outdoorsy of you can feel free to chime in), but spotlights used for spotting nocturnal animals use Red light instead of white. I am told the country science behind it is that while the red light illuminates the surrounding area for humans, it isn’t noticeable for most nocturnal hunters like Coyotes or Bobcats. So while the lights allow for humans to see clearly, the animal’s night vision – which is already pretty damn good – takes no notice of the light.
While this all may be true, the reality is that searching for the source of a mysterious noise hidden amongst dead rocky terrain bathed in red light is a sinister and unsettling experience.
My own search thankfully turned up nothing and my attention was starting to shift back to the stars above, when it was unequivocally confirmed that something was indeed with us in the darkness.
“Hello, fellow stargazers,” a voice intruded. It was cordial, yet uncomfortably close, as if it was coming from someone standing right beside us.
I spun around shining the light across the area to our rear expecting to catch sign of its source. In my mind I prayed that it was one of the Plum’s ranch-hands who had stumbled upon us and not intended to scare us. Instead I found nothing but endless prairie, completely devoid of life.
While my attention was focused on our back-trail, I heard Wyatt stand and begin to move off towards the rock formations that marked the divide between the Ranch and the badlands. I regarded him over my shoulder and watched him move, my eyes tracing the path of his light. It was then that I saw what had drawn his attention. I squinted in disbelief, attempting to make sense of what appeared to be legs dangling from a ledge high up one of the pillars of rock.
“I said ‘hello’, boys! Now don’t be rude. When someone says hello, you say…” The mystery voice used a tone similar to that of a parent encouraging a toddler to reply to a waitress or store-clerk.
Something about the familiar inflection and my age made me reply, “Sorry. Hello,” followed by an uneasy glance between Wyatt and myself.
“Beautiful night to look up at the heavens, isn’t it?” the voice continued.
I felt a foreboding unease creep into my mind at the impossible clarity in the voice despite the distance. I have since been in domed rooms where if two people stand on opposite sides and whisper into the wall they can have a conversation. The room’s acoustics carry the words effortlessly across the space so that it sounds like you are standing right next to each other.
Even knowing these things, the voice that night exceeded my range of doubt. The source had to be at least one hundred yards away, while the silence of the night would indeed make communication over that distance possible, it would require strained voices shouting in order to be understood. The mystery stranger spoke without force, everything was said in casual tones and simply carried to us as if it floated on magical air.
While I stood and contemplated the ‘how’ of the situation, Wyatt was more concerned with a different question.
“Who the fuck are you?” Wyatt asked.
“Naughty, naughty. What would Stacey think if she heard you using such foul language?” the stranger retorted.
Hearing his mother’s name made Wyatt pause, his confident posture deserting him. He turned and looked at me, doubt obvious in his eyes and mouthed an embellished ‘what the hell?’
Years of parental training regarding how to obey your elders kicked in for me on instinct. “Sorry about the language, uhhh… mister. You just surprised us, is all.” I was growing worried that Wyatt may go off in an obscenity laden rant if he regained himself and I spoke hoping to prevent that situation. “If you don’t mind me asking, do you work for Paw Plum?”
“Huck?” the voice said. “That brainless brut, oh goodness, no. I don’t work for him, or anyone else for that matter. I am what you would call self-employed. An entrepreneur if you will.”
“Okay, and what is an…entra-pan-knower doing out in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night?” I asked.
“Entrepreneur, my boy.” I could feel a tinge of frustration in his voice as he continued. “And here I thought you were shaping up to be the brains of this operation. I’m beginning to wonder if either of you would even be worth the effort. Pity, a chance encounter like this rarely presents itself.”
The stranger sat on his rocky perch seeming to weight if he should soldier on. That silent wait was excruciating, made all the more stressful by the fact that I had no idea what side I wanted his final decision to come out on. Did I want to be worth the effort? The effort for what?
“An entrepreneur is a person who is always on the lookout for an opportunity to deal,” he finally continued. “Of course, when one is looking for opportunity they must be willing to venture to the ends of the earth to find it.”
“Makes sense enough, I guess,” I agreed, completely unaware if it made any sense at all.
“So glad to hear it!” the voice said with renewed vigor. “Especially since we are coincidentally sitting at the end of the Earth.”
“What a loony-toon!” Wyatt interrupted. “You sayin’ the world is gonna end, ‘ol man?”
“No, not the end of the Earth as in an event, but the end of the Earth as in a location,” the stranger corrected. “A place where the Earth stops being the Earth and starts blending into the beyond.” He let that statement hang in the air seemingly anticipating that its implication would inspire a bevy of questions from Wyatt and me. As the time passed and we remained speechless the stranger decided that he would need to lead us further.
“This is a place where the rules of the Earth, the rules that you live by every day, no longer hold sway. Because of this lack of…regulation, this is an ideal spot to do business.”
“Yeah? And what type of business you fixing to do in the middle of the night, in the middle of butt-fucking Egypt sitting on some rock?” Wyatt mocked.
“Why, I am here to make deals! Everyone wants something, even people in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night. Perhaps those types of people even more so, actually. Luckily for you, I’m one of the few that can deliver on the promises of those deals.”
“What type of deal are you talking about?” I asked, my curiosity getting the better of me.
“Ah! The question of the night! I will give one and only one of you a great gift. The greatest gift either of you can imagine.”
“I can imagine a lot,” Wyatt responded. “You gonna give me whatever I think up, no questions asked?”
“No questions, but everything costs something, boy.”
“And what this offer going to cost us?” Wyatt followed up.
“All I ask in return for this gift is a soul.”
“Our souls?” Wyatt balked. “Like a deal with the goddamn Devil? Can you believe this whacko?” At that moment, I felt the mood in the air shift. It had been uneasy to start but now for the first time it felt hostile. My flight response demanded action, but my feet refused to follow the orders. Wyatt, on the other hand, had his fight response kick in gear.
“Hey, buddy, how ‘bout instead of a gift you give me one good reason why I shouldn’t just shoot you right here, right now?” As he made his threat, Wyatt shouldered his rifle and took aim at the stranger. “Yer trespassing on my Paw’s land, so ain’t nothing stopping me other than my kind heart.”
“Silence now, Wyatt,” the stranger replied. “Since you don’t seem much interested in the potential of my offer, you can take some time off from this conversation.” And with that, the stranger snapped his fingers.
I watched what followed.
Wyatt went to unleash another verbal tirade, to level the stranger with a cutting reply, but no sounds escaped his mouth. Wyatt lowered his gun as he struggled to force his voice to obey him, to make any sound at all, to talk, then finally to scream. He strained in a futile effort, no sound came. Realizing his efforts were hopeless the fear on his face was replaced with anger. Deprived of his voice Wyatt opted to communicate in different way, he raised his gun aimed it again at the stranger and pulled the trigger.
“We can’t have that infernal contraption interrupting us either, Wyatt. Now please be a good boy and STAY OUT OF THIS!”
It was the first time the stranger had raised his voice and the ground trembled at its force. That, at least, was my sense of things. Perhaps at that point my fear was so great that I was shaking in a way that made it feel as if the ground quaked.
“Now, that’s better, isn’t it? We can hear ourselves think again. Pure bliss!” the stranger exclaimed.
Somewhere inside myself I found my voice. “So you’re him then? The Devil, I mean.”
“Oh my, no! Not the silly religious figure you know, anyway.”
“But the Devil makes deals with people for their souls, and you’re making us an offer… if we give you our souls.”
“I can see the similarity, but to be clear, that is not what I’m offering you. I am not making you an offer for your soul. I’m making one of you boys an offer to give up the other’s soul,” the stranger said in a matter-of-fact way.
Wyatt and I made eye contact and I read in his eyes that even with everything that had already happened that night, he was still not buying any of the stranger’s B.S.
“Don’t look so skeptical there, Wyatt! You’ve had the great fortune to experience my work first-hand. After all, this is the same offer I gave to your father, and though he debated it for a good long while he eventually gave up that drunk uncle of yours and never looked back. Even you have to admit the deal was as advertised! The last decade has been a financial boon for your family, hasn’t it? All it cost was the soul of a man who couldn’t be bothered to be sober during the most important decision of his life.”
“You lie!” I yelled.
“Me? Never. I may have many flaws and vices, but I’m happy to say that lies are not one of them,” the stranger continued. “You simply prefer ignorance to truth. Let us look at the facts, shall we? A failing company on the brink of bankruptcy lands an exclusive contract with the biggest retail chain in the country. I hear he may even take the company public next year… It’s the stuff of white-collar fairytales!”
I had no knowledge of any of this, but to keep the peace I played along. “Okay, say I believe you’re telling the truth. How is this deal you suggest even possible? How can one of us give away the other’s soul?”
“Why, because you have each already connected your souls to the other with that little ritual you two performed! Blood Brothers, I believe you call it. Sorry – when you have been around as long as I have, it becomes difficult to keep generational terminology straight. But in the simplest explanation, you completed a Blood Oath, a Warrior’s Bond.”
“But that’s just some stupid kid’s game. It doesn’t mean anything!” I whined.
“A Blood Oath is a kid’s game?” the stranger said, disgusted. “I’ve never heard of such absurdity. You two may not have fully understood the implications of the promise you made, but it doesn’t make the effects any less real.”
“Okay, so if this is all true, what do we get in return for giving you a soul?”
“Whatever you want!” His voice was brimming with smug confidence. “Whatever hope or dream resides in that little head of yours. You could be rich, or strong, or smart. You could be blessed with a golden tongue capable of talking people into bending to your every desire. Imagine it! Loved by all who hear you speak, never lost for what to say, people willing to fulfill your every request once you ask it.” At this the stranger paused, and I could sense a smile in his voice. “I may be wrong, but it appears that last bit might have struck a chord.”
I had never had any great desire for most of the standard “genie” wishes you hear about, but the final possibility – people willing to fulfill my every request – was intriguing. That said, I still didn’t want to trust what the stranger was telling me, especially knowing the Plum family the way I did.
“If you can give us anything, then why would Mr. Plum ask for something as stupid as landing a business contract?”
“Because he didn’t ask for me to save his company. That happened because of what I gave him. What he wanted was much more devious. He asked that every person he met would instantly trust him completely and believe everything he told them. I imagine it all made landing new clients fairly mundane. I’m sure it made you feel an extra level of closeness to the Plum family when you met them.”
“What if I say I don’t want any of the stuff you’ve offered?” I lied.
“What if I say I think you are full of shit?” I didn’t.
“What if I just decide to go home?” I doubted I could.
“Then none of us leave here happy,” the stranger said. “Well, you two won’t physically leave here at all, and I won’t be happy. But this is a limited time offer, and I feel that this conversation is becoming tedious. Perhaps if you aren’t interested I should give Wyatt back his voice and see if he’d like to take me up on the opportunity. He seems to be made of similar stuff as his father, the type to speak first and think later. It’s an ideal character flaw in a situation like this.”
In that moment, I saw Wyatt push forward and try to force a reply through the spell that had a hold on him. True terror turned over in my gut. What if he got his voice back and accepted? What would happen to me?
I frantically searched for any options I might have at my disposal. I could feel hot tears stream down across my cheeks, and the bile rise up in my throat. I felt hopeless.
I didn’t want to imagine Wyatt selling me out, but I now had proof that his father had given up his own brother. He had turned on family, and that same traitor’s blood ran in Wyatt’s veins. Plus, if everything stranger said was true, did I really have any connection with the Plum’s at all? Was what I felt real, or just a magic trick passing as affection?
A child should never be forced to make life or death choices, but under duress it is an exceptional cruelty.
“I’ll do it!” I declared into the night, and then fell to my knees, giving myself completely to despair. “Please, I accept your offer!”
The moment I agreed, Wyatt collapsed. His spotlight hit the ground, shrouding the stranger in a veil of darkness. I scrambled toward Wyatt and pulled him to me.
“What did you do to him?!” I yelled.
“Why, I didn’t do a thing to him, you did. You gave me his soul, and a body without a soul is but a doll, an empty vessel. Well, now, everything seems to be in order, and with our transaction complete I must be off. Once the deal is done, the salesman must depart; no time for buyer’s remorse. I bid you farewell, and good luck. Though you no longer have need for luck now, do you?” At that the stranger erupted into a fit of laughter that filled the night and then faded slowly into nothing.
“Bring him back!” I cried into the abyss. I took my spotlight, which had been forgotten in my hand, and shined it on to the rocks where the stranger had once sat, yet found nothing. The stranger was gone, and I was left alone with Wyatt.
I turned my attention back to the friend I had betrayed, grabbed his limp body and in desperation attempted to hoist him to his feet. When he showed no sign of reaction, I grabbed hold of his arms and made the effort to drag him towards his grandfather’s ranch. I took only five strained steps before I tumbled to the ground. The distance was too far and I wasn’t strong enough. For the second time in a span of mere moments, my self-preservation instincts kicked in, and I reacted with another shameful display.
I ran home, leaving my friend alone in the night.
When I reached Paw Plum’s farmhouse and barged into his room, he was asleep. He was initially lost in the fog of the sandman, but when I said that Wyatt was unconscious he suddenly snapped into the moment. He quickly roused two of his farmhands, threw on his boots, and grabbed his spotlight. Then we all set out to find Wyatt.
The adults led and I followed hot on their heels, attempting to direct them to where Wyatt had collapsed. We were only about halfway back when Paw spotted the red beam of the discarded spotlight off in the distance and called over to the younger farmhand to haul ass and get there ahead of us.
The farmhand saw where Paw was pointing and sped off into the darkness. When he reached the light, his silhouette illuminated in red spun frantically as he danced in the distance. What was he doing? Then a realization set in. He wasn’t dancing. He was searching, unable to find any sign of my unconscious friend who should be right at his feet. Wyatt had vanished into the Badlands.
After the initial search, Paw set to questioning me on what happened. It didn’t take much explaining for me to convince them that I didn’t see anything, that I had no Idea where Wyatt had gone.
When the Sheriff arrived on the scene, he only had to talk with me briefly before he concluded that I didn’t know anything. In fact, something about how I told my story convinced everyone I spoke with that I had no part in what happened that night. Every little follow-up or interrogation only made the authorities more confident of my innocence, until they at last decided that I could return home with my parents. They never felt the need to harass me about the case again after that.
The only person who didn’t seem to trust my story was Mr. Plum. Though he never said so outright, I could tell by the looks he gave me that he knew the truth. I also knew he wouldn’t say anything that might put his own past actions at risk.
It has been a long time since the night I met the Devil in the Badlands. Today I avoid rural areas and stick to the city. Being off in places devoid of civilization makes me uncomfortable now. I need lights on the world to find peace. Otherwise, my life has been pretty successful. I have a wife and two kids – a boy and a girl – a nice house, and nice cars. Despite the cost and the fact that the deal wasn’t something I ever asked for, I have to admit that he has been true to his word. I have gotten what the Devil promised.
Though as good as life has been, if there was something I could do to fix things and set them right, please know that I would give up my gift to save my friend. It’s simply not an option. My connection to Wyatt, our bond, has been destroyed forever. All I can hope to do now is live my life well enough that Wyatt’s sacrifice was worth it.
Yet even so, deep down, I sense that Wyatt’s soul wasn’t the only one the Devil claimed that night. When my life comes to an end many years from now, I know I’ll face an eternity of retribution for the pain I’ve caused my friend.
All because of a decision I made when I was only thirteen.
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None AvailableE.K. Kelly Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A