He does try to play the thing once or twice.
But a fiddle of gold is heavy as shit, and the sound’s all wrong—loveless, and cold as Hell, with vicious strings that split Johnny’s fingers when he plays. (There’s never any blood when he looks, and Johnny wonders if it’s drinking him up, dry; leaving scars at his fingertips and an ache in his hand that won’t quite ease. Then again, it’s the Devil’s instrument; it can probably do any evil thing it likes.)
In the end, he loosens the bow-hair and puts the thing away in a battered, borrowed case, goes back to playing his box maple. Wood is living, it breathes and breaks; swells like your best girl’s clit under your tongue, shivers like a warm wind through leaves. Wood remembers the sun, wants to sing about it.
There’s nothing gold wants to sing about, except being dead.
Johnny’s playing the maple that night at the Bellows Club—well, used to be ‘Club’ until the owner’s second wife decided they were destined for better things, had it rechristened ‘Café’. The Tuesday-night regulars are the same, though, and they whistle or lazily applaud when he finishes his set, greet him by name after he’s put the fiddle away and come down off that high-as-Heaven stage. Johnny wades out among them to make a little small talk, then wanders his way to the bar.
The Devil is waiting for him there.
“Do you not like my gift, Johnny?” the Devil asks, smiling. He’s handsomer than Johnny remembers, but then Johnny supposes every man is better-looking on his own turf. (His gramms had said that since Babel, the Devil claimed every spit of land taller than two stories. And here, among the old cigarette butts and sin, it’s likely to be true.)
The Devil smells of mint gum, something rotten underneath.
“Your gift?” Johnny laughs. “The way I remember, you lost it to me.”
“Fair and square,” the Devil says, still smiling.
They each get their own drinks separately, the Devil asking for his private reserve—“From a high shelf, you know which I mean.” The bartender stops cold for a minute before nodding with a jerk of his head, and disappearing into the back.
Johnny knocks his drink back quick, letting the bite of cheapshit whiskey choke him out of saying anything particularly stupid. He’s not sure how the Devil would take ‘your fiddle’s a piece of shit, want it back?’ but he’s not eager to find out.
The bartender comes back with a black bottle, so old that Johnny can’t make out the lettering on the label. Just foreign, faded squiggles and a date that might be ‘95 or ‘05 or maybe initials, a snake biting its tail and a bolt of lightning. God knows.
(God does, probably.)
The bartender leaves the bottle and a glass, nodding the way bartenders do for good tippers. The Devil pours himself a generous double, and drinks.
“You want a taste?” the Devil asks, holding the glass out to Johnny. The whiskey sloshes a little, catching impossibly gold even in the half-light of the bar. It’s not even whiskey, really—it’s the dream of whiskey, the kind of thing that makes a distiller wake up in the night sweating cold and haunted forever by a vision he’ll never hold on his tongue.
Johnny can feel the well shit curdling in his stomach, shamed.
“What’s it cost?” Johnny asks.
“No charge, for an old friend.”
‘Friend’ sounds a lot like ‘gift’ did, coming from him. “That’s not what I asked.”
The Devil looks at Johnny with those yellow eyes, careful and considering. “How’s the song go? First taste is always free.”
Johnny studies the Devil for a moment, the particular careful arch of his eyebrows, his thin mouth. Yellow eyes, though they’re shadowed by the dim light to almost the same gold as the whiskey. (Johnny wonders what he did with his horns; he remembers the Devil having horns.)
Finally, Johnny nods, reaches out to take the glass from his hand—
The Devil pulls it away. “No,” he says, and there’s something about his smile Johnny doesn’t like. Not that he liked it before, but now it’s unsettling, too—human. And hungry. “That’s not how you drink whiskey like this. Open your mouth.”
Johnny hesitates, but only just. He opens his mouth.
The Devil brings the glass up, and Johnny thinks bizarrely of communion. He’s not really religious and never has been—wasn’t it the Catholics who believed that the cracker and cheap cornerstore wine was really the body and blood? God-eaters and cannibals, and this is what Johnny thinks about, when the Devil cups his jaw in one hand to hold him him still. (His fingers dig into Johnny’s jaw, hard enough to bruise.)
“Only a sip,” the Devil says, and presses the cool glass to Johnny’s lower lip. The whiskey is gold as the Devil’s eyes, and smells sharp and warm and perfectly aged. He drinks.
It burns, liquid hell; it burns all the way down his throat to his gullet, and Johnny wheezes. He jerks out of the Devil’s grip, coughing wildly. He feel it, sloshing uneasily in his stomach. It makes him sick in a way that wraps around his bones. “Holy—” Johnny breathes, wishing he had a chaser. His voice is hoarse, he sounds like a man dying. “How do you drink that?”
The Devil is studying him, eyes narrowed. “You don’t like it.”
“I generally want my whiskey to go down a little smoother.”
The Devil is still looking at him. His pupils have gone slitted as a snake’s. “No offense meant,” Johnny adds quickly.
The Devil turns, just slightly, never taking his eyes off Johnny. He lifts the glass to his own mouth, breathing in the smell of it like a connoisseur before swallowing the rest himself. He doesn’t choke like Johnny did; instead, his eyes go heavy-lidded and his cheeks hollow, as though he’s licking it from his teeth, savoring. Johnny thinks he can see gold shining on the inside of the Devil’s mouth, just before the Devil closes his lips.
Very delicately, the Devil sets his glass back on the bar. He’s looking at Johnny like he’s considering something, and Johnny wishes he could grin like he did at the crossroads, half-drunk on weak beer and daring enough to announce he was the best that’d ever been. But he’s not under the hot sunshine now, fiddle in his hand. Now it’s just him and the Devil, standing at the dark corner of the Bellows with their liquor communion.
“Why don’t you play my fiddle, Johnny?” the Devil asks, and Johnny almost chokes again, his breath stuttering. He stares back at the Devil, trying to—plead, without saying—
“I see,” the Devil says, finally, when the silence stretches on too long. Johnny swallows. He can still taste the remains of that bitter whiskey.
“Do you...do you want it back?”
The Devil flinches—or rather, his skin does, rippling over him and then settling back in the shape it’s meant to. It’s like watching a stone thrown into a pond, or a tracking line on a VHS tapes—that sudden slide and jump of the picture, except this is real, and the Devil is still standing there, with snake-eyes and the suggestion of scales, almost hidden by the shadow of his throat.
Johnny doesn’t realize he’s got a white-knuckled grip on the bar until the Devil turns away, and those yellow eyes aren’t fixed on Johnny anymore. The ache in his arm makes itself known viciously, and Johnny hisses, immediately trying to massage some feeling back into the muscles. The Devil twitches at the noise, doesn’t turn back; pours himself another double and knocks it back, all at once.
There’s a split in his tongue when he licks the wetness from his lower lip.
“Keep it,” the Devil says finally, and his voice is awful, full of augmented fourths and tenderness. He won’t meet Johnny’s eyes. “You won. Fair and square.”
The Devil goes without another word.
In the mirror that night, Johnny has five finger-shaped bruises, pressed into his jaw.
Johnny sees him again, not long after: a pale shape turning away into a field of corn. The stalks are only just up to his shoulders and Johnny slows, watching in his rearview as the Devil walks away into the field, and is swallowed up by the dusk.
There’s a truck not far, idling there at the intersection of Hickory and Brower, with no one in the driver’s seat; Johnny doesn’t stop for it. A few days later, he hears that Louis—you know Louis, we played that gig out in Canton, has a voice like Jimmy Martin—got a record deal, blew them off for the bright lights of Nashville. Even left his truck behind, stalled out at Hickory and Brower.
(Johnny wonders if a soul looks anything like the wriggling greyish thing he’d seen the Devil cradling in his arms.)
“You sure you’re allowed to be here?” Johnny asks the Devil. It’s been a good few weeks since the bruises faded but he can feel them suddenly, flaring into a string of sharp pains along his jaw.
In the hard August sunlight, there’s no hint of scales under the Devil’s skin. He looks like a man—a weak chin, and pale as something grown in the dark. He’s leaned up against the side of Johnny’s truck like he’s sunning himself. (Maybe he is. They say that in the Garden, the Devil was a snake; Johnny wonders if he has fangs too.)
Johnny can feel him staring, even through the mirrored sunglasses. “Why wouldn’t I be allowed?” the Devil asks, as Johnny stops dead in front of him. Johnny’s palm is sweating, where he clutches the handle of his fiddle case.
“Well, it’s holy ground, isn’t it?”
The Devil scoffs. “Does the church parking lot really count as holy ground?”
“As much as any graveyard.”
The Devil is watching him, behind those mirrored shades of his. Johnny would stake his life on it. “Then what business could you have here, Johnny?”
The sun is hot, and Johnny’s shoulders ache—it’s been a while since he played so long, and the band had barely taken any break between sets. It had been even hotter under the white tent, every breath an inhale of warm coleslaw and human bodies sweating through their Sunday finest. Johnny had only agreed to play the church social as a favor to Nina, and he’d hated her more with every note of ‘I Am The Man, Thomas’ and ‘Big Mama Brown’, wishing he’d thought up some excuse instead, or maybe just told Nina to fuck herself with a bow frog.
But the Devil is leaning up against Johnny’s truck, and Johnny has the awful suspicion that if he mentions all that, he might be offered another gift.
(The bruises along Johnny’s jaw sing.)
“Why does any man get religion?” Johnny says, and the Devil cocks his head curiously. Johnny grins. “Protection against the wickedness and snares of the Devil.”
He has the pleasure of watching the Devil throw back his head and laugh under the bright sky. The Devil’s got hair the same white as ash, and a forked tongue; it’s strange to see him duck his head back down, and wet his lower lip with it.
“You needn’t venture into His country, Johnny,” the Devil says, and Johnny can hear the capitol letter there, the specific Him. “If you wanted something, you know I would have obliged.”
Johnny shrugs, and goes to unlock the passenger door, even though it brings him into the Devil’s reach. The Devil still smells of something rotten—or maybe water left to stand too long, stale and flat. Johnny finds himself shivering, all of a sudden; the sun is still there on back of his neck, but the heat of it is gone.
“You cold?” Johnny asks idly, forcing himself to keep his attention on the lock, the key, tucking his fiddle case into the passenger seat.
“Hell follows me wherever I go,” the Devil says absently.
Johnny makes a show of straightening up and staring, but the Devil is looking off in the distance, not at Johnny at all. He’s watching the kids playing on the hill behind the church, screaming and getting grass stains that they’ll catch hell for later. Johnny hadn’t been paying them any attention, but the Devil is, in a way that makes Johnny uneasy.
“Thought Hell was supposed to be a fiery pit,” Johnny says.
“Not in my part of town,” the Devil says absently. “Dante got that much right. It’s all ice, thick as...”
He’s still watching the kids as one of them grabs another, and they fall down; the two boys flailing, fighting one another in the dirt. Around them, the others form a knot, clapping or screaming, like a flock of crows waiting to swoop down on whoever’s left in the dust.
“Huh,” Johnny says, when it doesn’t seem likely the Devil will finish the sentence. “Well, I’m fixing to carry out. You want a ride?”
The Devil turns and looks at him then, and even with mirrored shades Johnny can tell the he’s staring, ash-pale eyebrows arched. “What?” the Devil says, and Johnny’s almost tempted to laugh.
“It’s a good forty minute drive back to town. You have other places to be?”
The Devil is studying Johnny the way he’d studied him at the Bellows, after Johnny choked on the whiskey. Under the sun and with the snake-eyes hidden away behind shades, it feels less like a cottonmouth judging the best time to strike, and more the way Johnny’s seen his cousin Lulu crouch down and study mushrooms growing up out of the ground, trying to decide if they’re poison.
Johnny’s not sure where that leaves him.
He swallows, and pats the truck, just beside the Devil’s shoulder. Even that’s cold, colder than any ice Johnny has ever touched; Johnny jerks his hand back, wondering if he’ll have blisters on his palm to match the bruises on his jaw. His hand is already aching.
The Devil is still studying him. His face has smoothed out, gone impassive as a marble statue’s. He could certainly pass for one, all paleness and hair like ash.
“Well,” Johnny says, clears his throat. “Shut the door, whichever side of it you’re on.”
He ignores the part of him that screams when he turns his back on the Devil. Johnny walks over to the driver’s side on weak knees. He deliberately doesn’t look, not even just to see, fishing his keys out of his pocket, and then climbing up into the truck. He turns the ignition, and the familiar roar comes up through Johnny’s feet and makes his cold-burned hand ache around the wheel.
His eyes look without his permission, in the end.
The Devil is there, sitting in the passenger seat, Johnny’s case balanced across his knees. The fraying nylon looks a little pathetic next to the Devil’s perfect linen suit, but it’s reassuring, to see that something of Johnny’s is stubbornly unchanged in the Devil’s hands.
“Still not playing my fiddle, Johnny?” the Devil says, and Johnny grins, throwing the truck into reverse.
They don’t talk much, though they’re close enough that Johnny can feel the cold gathering every time the Devil breathes, like his shit A/C has decided to work for once. There’s a stiffness to the way the Devil’s sitting and it’s catching too, like the cold. It makes Johnny feel wrong-footed, even not having said anything, or done anything, really, except forget a turn at the pike because he couldn’t stop stealing sidelong glances. Johnny can’t tell if the stiffness is a trick, or just disdain for the worn-out seat and the secondhand smoke smell Johnny has never quite managed to scrub out.
Johnny keeps catching sight of his own face in the mirrored shades.
He slows down where Hickory meets Brower. Not on purpose, but Louis’ truck is still there—one of the windows spider-webbed with cracks and what looks like ‘salvage’ spray-painted along the side of the truck bed. He can feel the Devil looking, but not at the truck.
“You have any brothers?” the Devil asks suddenly, and Johnny blinks. Louis’ truck slides past, and then it’s gone, disappearing into the rearview.
“No, only child. Couple cousins, really just neighbor kids I was raised with, but…no blood between us.”
The Devil hums, noncommittally. About a mile and a half passes in silence, and Johnny’s thinking about turning on the radio—
“I had a brother,” the Devil says, and Johnny damn near jerks them off the road.
Johnny fixes his eyes on the asphalt, the faded center line. His cold-burned hand aches every time he readjusts his grip on the wheel, and that and the surrounding fields all he’s got to distract himself from this, the Devil saying I had a brother.
For some reason, Johnny thinks of the boys on the hill behind the church, fighting in the dust.
“Yeah?” he asks, tracking the rows of sorghum grass as they wick by.
“Yeah,” the Devil says.
“Something happen to him?”
The Devil’s voice is gentle, almost curious, and it chills Johnny quicker than the Devil’s cold. “You—you said ‘had,’” Johnny says. His mouth is dry. “I assumed…”
Johnny dares a glance but the Devil is turned away, looking out the passenger-side window. Those pale hands are curled into fists against Johnny’s fiddle case, knuckles made even whiter by how tightly the Devil’s holding them.
“He took the old man’s side,” the Devil says, finally. “And then he died.”
Johnny swallows, still dry-mouthed. “Sorry for your loss.”
“Oh, it didn’t last.”
“The dying, it didn’t last. One of the old man’s cons—he’s really only good for cheap magic tricks. Resurrection is one of his favorites.”
Johnny’s mouth is so dry he’s afraid to open it, like salt or sand might come pouring out if he tries. “Why ‘had’, then?” he croaks. His throat hurts and the road is starting waver where he’s staring straight ahead, the center line blurring into a pale-white wave.
“Taking the old man’s side, that lasted. We fought about it all the time. Used to, anyhow. He hasn’t spoken to me in…oh, it’d be centuries now.”
“Do you miss him?”
There’s a horrified silence.
“You—don’t have to answer that,” Johnny says weakly. He’s sweating through the cold, which doesn’t feel possible with his mouth dry as it is. “Sorry, shouldn’t have...”
“We used to play together,” the Devil says, sparing Johnny whatever shit he’d been about to say. The Devil’s voice is full of that horrible gentleness again. “He was better than me on the fiddle too.”
“‘Too’?” he repeats before he can think about it, the beginnings of a grin pulling at his mouth.
“Pride goeth before destruction,” the Devil says, and Johnny does laugh at that—the hypocrisy of it, or maybe just how prim the Devil can sound quoting scripture. He could give some of those old women at the church picnic a run for their money.
The Devil shifts a little, and Johnny catches a sliver of bright glasses before the Devil turns away to the window again. “You would have liked him,” the Devil says, after a minute.
“Yeah?” Johnny asks.
“Yeah,” the Devil says. There’s satisfaction winding through his voice when he adds, “I was the voice of the thing. Only a handful can sing the blues like I can, and most of them are His anyway—He switched from saints to singers sometime in the twentieth century. Martyrdom with a record deal, better than any sermon.”
“Sounds pretty good to me.”
“Cheap magic tricks, Johnny.”
They sit in silence for another mile, maybe two. “So,” Johnny says. “Blues.”
“The Devil’s music.”
Johnny huffs a laugh. Even with the cold gathering in the air, he feels languorous, lazy as the August heat was. The road ahead melts away under his truck, to be replaced by more grey-white asphalt and faded lines, on and on to the horizon. The sun is golden on the sorghum and he’s a better fiddle player than the Devil.
He wonders what it sounded like, the Devil and his brother playing the blues. He wonders what sort of songs—
“You can let me out here, Johnny,” the Devil says, and Johnny startles back to himself. His hands spasm around the wheel and it sends a fresh ache through his cold-burned hand.
“You sure? There’s nothing around for miles.”
The Devil just smiles. “I’m sure.”
Johnny pulls over and the Devil gets out, careful to tuck Johnny’s fiddle in his place before he shuts the passenger door. For a moment, he just stands there on the shoulder, staring at Johnny through the window. Johnny’s about to take off when the Devil raps his knuckles on the glass, looking expectant.
Johnny leans over and rolls down the window. He’s still straightening up when the Devil pushes his mirrored shades up to his head, rests his forearms on the truck.
He still has those yellow snake-eyes.
“If I was offering…” the Devil says, the question of it curving his voice into a bright and baited hook. Johnny smiles a little, and resists the urge to swallow.
“I’d thank you, but there’s nothing in particular I want. Not that much.”
The Devil nods, and pats the side of the truck the way Johnny did earlier. It’s nice to know that the Devil looks awkward doing it too; even with eyes like a snake’s and the mirrored sunglasses on top of his head reflecting the whole of the sky.
Johnny pulls away and drives, waiting to exhale until he can’t see the white shock of the Devil’s hair in the rearview anymore. He spends the rest of the drive drumming his fingers on the wheel, or scanning through radio stations, looking for—something. A song he can’t hear, or get out of his head.
It hurts to play. The cold-burned hand aches all the way down to his wrist whenever Johnny cradles the neck of his fiddle—his eyes are wet halfway through ‘Real Old Mountain Dew’, the room wavering so dangerously that he has to set his jaw, only the tune to carry him through because his mind is driving itself crazy with the pain.
By the time he finishes, he almost wants the golden fiddle back.
“I mean, I get it,” Hernandez says, handing Johnny a fistful of ice wrapped in a rag that’s polished too many glasses. Hernandez is the only bartender Johnny really likes at the Bellows—sometimes he comps Johnny drinks, because he feels bad. All that white trash music, he’d said once, pouring a double that looked more like a triple. It’s gotta drive you crazy.
(The next time, Johnny brought a stack of library books, just to prove that bluegrass was his before it was theirs, but Hernandez had barely glanced at the grainy pictures of string bands, the sons of ex-slaves staring, unsmiling into a camera. Holding so still.)
“You get what?” Johnny asks, gritting his teeth. The freezer-tray ice is somehow warmer than the cold lingering in his hand. The Devil’s cold has spread down his whole arm, twined with the muscles of his fist. He wonders if lighting himself on fire would help, and then remembers his fiddle would go up in smoke with him. No use to anyone that way.
“I get why you play that shit.”
Johnny looks at him, and Hernandez shrugs. “I don’t know, man. It was...it made sense. Very existential.”
Hernandez went to college briefly, before the money dried up because of state budget cuts. Worse, Johnny likes Hernandez; which is why he doesn’t laugh at how serious his expression is.
“No,” Johnny says. “No, it’s not like that. It’s about…”
“What?” Hernandez asks, and Johnny thinks about the Devil saying resurrection. How heavy he’d been, saying that.
Only heavy isn’t the word Johnny’s looking for. It’s blues that’s heavy—blues wants you to sink to your knees in the ground and feel every inch of black dirt; it wants you to cry from it, though all the saltwater in the world could never wash it away. Blues sings because there are chains, and dirt, and sin. It makes sense that the Devil would be heavy as blues.
Bluegrass, though...bluegrass isn’t heavy at all. It’s light, and loud, it fills every corner of the room just for the obnoxious noise of it. Bluegrass might sing about chains and dirt and sin, but it’s not because, it’s despite. To spite them. Making a sweet and joyful racket that swallows all the air in the room and shoves into your head, until there isn’t space for anything else. (Johnny had taken up space that day, sort-of drunk in a field, grinning and cocksure and almost gleeful when the Devil finally showed up. A fucked-up proof of soul, because the Devil couldn’t have it if it wasn’t there.)
“It’s just music,” Johnny says finally.
Hernandez lets him sit there anyway, ice melting down his wrist.
The golden fiddle sits silently in the corner on his room, its case leaned up against the chair Johnny uses to lay out the one good suit he owns. (He’d let Nina have the room with the closet, figuring that she could make better use of it than he could. She’d punched him in the shoulder for referring to her ‘womanly needs,’ but taken the room anyway.)
Once, when it’s late and Johnny’s on his way to drunk but not quite there yet, he takes it out—the golden fiddle, that infernal prize. He plucks the strings, and it sings in perfect pitch even without being tuned, all thirds and sevenths. Johnny’s never played an instrument that doesn’t slip, but here it is. Infernal thing.
He plucks out a half-time count of ‘Soldier’s Joy’. It rings strangely in his bedroom, like the sound is echoing in a different space—Johnny had a gig once in a room that was all high ceilings and big glass windows. Everything they’d played that day had sounded hollow and out of joint; it’d put the whole band in a mood, and they’d blown most of the money they earned that same night. (The beer had helped. So had their knock-down screaming match in the parking lot of the bar.)
Impulsively, Johnny lifts the fiddle to his shoulder. It’s still too heavy, cold against his throat and under his chin. He thinks of the Devil suddenly, ice thick as—
He puts the fiddle down, shoving it into the case so quickly that his index catches at the E string. The reverb of it buzzes high and sharp enough to make his teeth ache.
Johnny wonders a little what the acoustics of ice are.
The next morning he’s half-hungover, and his tongue tastes soured and tacky. He doesn’t notice the spots of blood, spread in the shape of his fingers across the pillow.
Johnny dreams of ice melting beneath his hands. Water, all around.
Johnny shivers when he steps down from the truck. It’s not that cold of a morning—just too early for the sun to have burned off the damp, the wind tugging at his collar. Johnny can feel the rain of the night before like this, standing where the gravel shoulder of the road gives way to farmland. He exhales, burying his hands in his pockets.
It’s late enough in the year that there’s nothing to see but the wire fence, greying stumps of cornstalks twisting in the wind. A lone barn that’s seen better days, its painted quilt square peeling.
And the Devil, walking across the field like he’s headed somewhere past the hills.
It had been hard to miss him from the road; a shape white as wet bone against the fading gold of the field. Johnny had pulled off to the shoulder without thinking about it, half out the door before he remembered the keys in the ignition. He’d had to force himself to be still, to flatten his hands against the wheel and breathe and think for a minute, not to stumble over himself and break both ankles trying.
(He hadn’t seen the Devil in months, and if it weren’t for the golden fiddle in Johnny’s room, he’d think he hallucinated the whole thing—the deal and the whiskey and the Devil in the passenger seat, talking about the blues.)
Now Johnny’s standing here, and he’s not sure what to do next.
His hands are shaking when he cups them around his mouth. “Hey cocksucker!” he shouts, his voice breaking on it. He swallows, lifts his hands—
Then the Devil is standing there on the other side of the wire fence, and Johnny startles, stumbling back so quickly that his shoulders hit the truck with a thud. The cold follows at the Devil’s heels and it slams into Johnny like a stormfront; he’s shaking suddenly, freezing as though he were standing in a pit of ice, the wind blowing. The kind of cold that sinks into your bones and never leaves, and Johnny is cold, he’s so fucking cold. It’s how he imagines dying, if his heart weren’t thundering in his ears.
The Devil leans on the fence, and his white knuckles go even whiter when he tightens his hands around the metal wire.
“I have been known by many names, Johnny,” the Devil says smoothly. His voice is six discordant notes at once, enough that Johnny can feel the beginnings of a headache starting at his temples. “But that is not one of them. Is there something about me that suggests I would welcome such disrespect?”
Johnny swallows, shakes his head.
“Then I believe you owe me an apology.”
The Devil has horns again; twisting-sharp things that might actually be bone, now that Johnny thinks about it. They come up through his forehead like they’re part of his skull, and the skin around them is cracked and ugly, flaked with black blood. There’s blood staining his suit too, little spots on the white linen.
Johnny exhales. His breath clouds in the air. “Sorry.”
The cold eases a little, but the tightness of the Devil’s hands doesn’t. “Was there something you wanted from me, Johnny?”
Johnny could lie. He could. “Haven’t seen you in awhile. Thought I’d say hey.” He shrugs, though he’s shaking so badly it probably looks more like a convulsion. “Hey.”
The Devil blinks. “That’s...”
“I’m just saying, man lets you ride with him, and then you don’t speak to him for three months? Maybe you owe me that apology.”
It’s meant to be funny, at least a little, but if anything the Devil looks more startled. He’s frowning like he’s trying to figure out some complex equation written on Johnny’s forehead, or bore straight through Johnny’s skull by sheer force of stare. One of the two. Johnny wonders if—
After a moment, the Devil’s eyes narrow. “Why are you twitching like that?”
“Just cold,” Johnny grits out. His fingers are starting to ache, and he shoves them in his pockets. “I didn’t dress for your part of Hell.”
The Devil cocks his head, and Johnny’s suddenly plunged into warmth, hot enough that he hisses between his teeth. In comparison to the Devil’s cold, the chilly morning is like a fever burning next to his skin. “Thanks.”
They watch one another from over the wire fence.
Finally, Johnny exhales, leans back against the truck. He’s trying for unaffected but he suspects he’s too tense to really pull it off. “So, uh. What’ve you been up to?”
The Devil looks at him for a minute. Then he’s unbuttoning his suit and fishing something out of the inside. He tosses it to Johnny.
“What the hell is it?” Johnny asks, turning the thing over in his hands. It’s light as a stick of driftwood, but it’s definitely not any wood Johnny knows—the skin of it gives under his fingers, and he leaves purple whorls like bruises whenever he pushes too hard. He scrapes a nail over a knot in the wood and the whole thing shivers, making a soft chiming noise.
Johnny frowns, looking up from the driftwood. “What?”
The Devil has his face turned up to the sky, impassive as a marble statue. “No, you’re right,” he says slowly. “It’s hardly all of Mariah McKinnon. Just her soul.”
Johnny does not drop the soul of Mariah McKinnon out of sheer panicked shock, but it’s a close thing. “Jesus,” he breathes, staring down at the stick of driftwood. The purple bruises from his fingers suddenly make him feel vaguely sick, though they’re fading to green now. “I thought—I saw you before, it was grey and as big as your arms. It was moving.”
“No two souls are alike. Divine gift, you know.”
Johnny cradles the driftwood to his chest as gently he can, wondering what Mariah McKinnon sold her soul for. If it had been worth it. “Am I hurting her?”
When he looks up, the Devil is staring at him again. In the grey morning, his eyes are a pale yellow, like old glass. Something in his expression flickers, passing across his face, and then it’s gone.
“Souls are more resilient than you might think,” the Devil finally says. The discordant notes are gone from his voice, and he sounds very human this way. “And there’s nothing you could do that would be worse than what’s coming.”
Johnny looks down at the driftwood in his arms. “You’re taking her to Hell.”
“Those are generally the terms of the agreement, yes.”
The soul of Mariah McKinnon is brittle-looking and dry, but it gives under Johnny’s fingers. It chimes, like bells. “What did she sell it for?”
“She wanted to be young again.”
Johnny doesn’t know what it is about that that makes him so sad, but it does. He looks away, staring at the ridge of trees until they blur. In his arms, the stick of driftwood trembles like a living thing—and it is, more than a living thing. A soul.
“Don’t do it.”
Johnny expects anger, a swell of cold, but it doesn’t come. Instead, the Devil just looks tired. “This is what I do, Johnny. I might as well ask you to break your fingers.”
“It isn’t fair—”
“That’s a lie,” the Devil says, so sharply and suddenly that Johnny jerks back again, almost biting his tongue in the process. “This is fair. I am fair. It is exactingly, absolutely fair in the way such things must be. And they must be, Johnny.”
The Devil falters suddenly, looks away. “The word you’re thinking of,” he adds, his voice soft, “is ‘cruel’. And it is that.”
Johnny swallows. “Then maybe I could—we could make a deal.”
“No,” the Devil says. “This game’s only allowed three players, Johnny. You, me, and Him all locked in room with a pack of cards, wagering for your soul and no one else’s. You can’t save Mariah McKinnon and she can’t save you. But,” the Devil’s throat bobs as he swallows, “the desire does you credit.”
Johnny laughs, a sound without any humor in it. “So we’re all fucked, then?”
The Devil smiles bitterly. “Not as often as you would think. He’s the dealer, too, and he likes throwing the game in your favor.”
The Devil holds out a hand.
“I’m sorry,” Johnny says as he returns the soul of Mariah McKinnon to the Devil’s keeping. The Devil arches a pale eyebrow.
Johnny shrugs, turning away and squinting at where the sun is just coming up over the trees. “I wasn’t talking to you.”
When he looks back, the Devil has gone.
Johnny dreams of a field, tall grass up to his shoulders and moving like the sea. The Devil is there too, and has his hand flat against Johnny’s stomach, just where Johnny’s ribs give way to softness. This is where you keep your soul, Johnny, the Devil says.
You would know, Johnny says, and the Devil grins. His eyeteeth are bone-white, and sharper than they have any right to be.
Don’t you want to see what you are? A divine gift, one of a kind—I want to see.
The Devil’s eyes are yellow, and Johnny murmurs, Snake in the grass, without meaning to say it aloud. But the Devil just laughs, low and amused. Johnny decides he likes it.
This is a dream, Johnny says. He’s not sure he meant to say that aloud either, but it’s true.
The Devil cocks his head. How do you know?
Johnny brings his hands up around the Devil’s, hovering just over his wrist, his fingers; not quite touching. You’re warm, Johnny says. That’s how I know.
The sea of grass swallows them up.
“Hey,” Johnny says, and the Devil startles, skittering sideways like a spooked horse. Johnny can do nothing but stare, and try desperately not to laugh. There’s no way in hell he’s going to laugh at the Devil, at least not sober, not watching him smooth down his linen waistcoat and fuss with his cufflinks like he’s trying to make a point.
Finally, the Devil clears his throat, and turns to face Johnny.
“Johnny,” the Devil says. There’s no music in his voice at all, and his eyes aren’t anything like a snake’s—they’re pale yellow in the sunlight, and ordinary. Almost human. It’s somehow more unsettling after the forked tongue and the smell of stale water.
“Perhaps it slipped your notice, but I am working.”
Johnny leans on the rail of the fence. It’s clear, and unseasonably warm for November. He’s got his shirtsleeves pushed up to his elbows and on the field the Colonels’ second string have all stripped down to their padding. Brown boys under the sky of an Indian summer, with the hazy golden air doing nothing to obscure the blue above all of them. Johnny wonders lazily he could tip his head back and stare right through to Heaven.
“What, is Ryan Delacorte going to sell his soul to be first string on the Bulldogs?” Johnny asks. He can feel the cold uncoiling in his direction as the Devil gingerly settles himself beside Johnny. It feels good, cool where it curls up beside his skin.
Out of the corner of his eye, Johnny watches the Devil fold his abnormal-pale hands together, like those long white fingers need something to occupy themselves with.
“Maybe,” the Devil admits finally, and his eyes flick to Johnny. “What’s it to you?”
Johnny shrugs lightly. “Seems like cheating, that’s all.”
The Devil is quiet for such a long time that Johnny can’t help looking. His pupils have gone slitted again, ringed by a snake’s poison yellow iris. “Bless your heart, Johnny,” the Devil drawls, and Johnny swallows. The Devil’s smile is faint, almost amused, and somehow that’s worse. “You say that like you understand the rules.”
It is suddenly very cold.
“There are rules?”
The Devil looks away, and Johnny can breathe again. “Of course there are rules.”
“Like what?” Johnny asks, because apparently he can’t keep his mouth shut, even for a minute. The Devil shoots him a look, and he shrugs. “In case I ever find myself wagering for another golden fiddle.”
The Devil’s eyes go to the fiddle case slung over Johnny’s shoulder. The shoulder strap is fraying and has been for a while; Johnny had to jury-rig the thing a while back with some duct tape and Nina’s stitching. Johnny suddenly feels self-conscious of it; as though it really is the stupid golden fiddle he’s carrying around and not his old box maple, as beat up as the shoulder strap.
“Hell no,” Johnny says, and doesn’t know what to make of the way the Devil’s expression goes shuttered. The Devil looks away too quick, and then the setting sun is on his face; there’s nothing to see but blankness and light.
Johnny looks back to the field. The first string is running plays now, and there’s a kind of music to it—all those boys moving through the air, their helmets hard and bright in the sunshine. “I teach some lessons, after school,” Johnny offers, though he’s not really sure why he’s offering. “I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to get a fifteen-year-old to practice chromatic scales, but they definitely don’t get done if you show up with a golden fiddle.”
The Devil is quiet. On the field, they’re setting up a play; the coach’s whistle pierces the air and Ryan Delacorte breaks from the line, running. He’s something from a breakdown, beautiful and barely touching the earth; everything that tries to stop him finds only his shadow, which trails behind him in the setting sun. When he makes it to the end zone he doesn’t slow, just loops around the goalposts in a wide lazy circle like a bird in flight.
Johnny wonders what it looks like, the soul of a boy like that. Something bright, probably; with feathers.
“That’s one of the rules,” the Devil says suddenly. When Johnny looks, he nods to the field. “You can only sell your soul once you know what it is you’re selling. Which means I have to wait until the age of reason.”
“The age of—?” Johnny laughs. “I was sixteen once, you know; there’s definitely no reason involved.”
The Devil snorts, which is such a human thing that Johnny grins despite himself. He wonders if the Devil can laugh outright—it’s the beginning of an old song, the Devil laughing at some poor doomed asshole with a fiddle, but Johnny’s standing next to him and nothing’s happened yet. (He wishes he could remember of those songs ended.)
Something about it is wrong, though, because the Devil freezes like a startled animal. Before Johnny can say anything, the Devil looks away again, staring down at his folded hands.
“The age of reason,” the Devil says, and his voice is strange. Not inhuman strange, but some other kind of strangeness that Johnny can’t quite put his fingers on.
The Devil’s eyes narrow, though he’s still staring down at his hands. “After all, if I had to wait until men were reasonable, Hell would be empty.”
Johnny blinks, and then he chokes on a laugh. “Jesus,” he says in absence of anything else to say. The Devil’s clearly trying to keep himself from smirking, and somehow that’s funnier—like the Devil having cufflinks, being startled. (I had a brother, said with that awful tenderness, and all the nights Johnny had spent awake trying to imagine how the Devil sings the blues. A stick of driftwood in Johnny’s hands...)
The coach’s whistle cuts through the air, high and bright.
“I’ll make you a deal,” Johnny says, and the Devil looks at him then. His eyes are poison yellow, when Johnny grins. “Let Delacorte keep his soul another day.”
The Devil cocks his head. “And in return?”
“You can come and distract my students from their chromatic scales.”
He’s already walking away when the Devil calls after him, “That’s not much of a deal, Johnny!”
Johnny is drunk on the golden afternoon light and the blue of Heaven above it, the Devil’s pleased smirk—he doesn’t break stride, just throws up his hands as though it’s all the same to him. He doesn’t think he’s imagining the Devil’s bark of something that isn’t quite laughter, but isn’t anything else, either.
(“Your friend is weird,” Latisha says after her lesson, with all the point-blank certainty of the very fifteen. Johnny glances over at the Devil; he’s standing at the window like a marble sculpture, like a snake sunning itself. Somehow, his ash-white hair stands on every end.)
“So?” the Devil asks, once Johnny packs away his fiddle and shuts off the lights in the band room. The janitor nods in a friendly sort of way as they pass him in the hall; Johnny’s mother taught him enough manners to offer a smile and mumble over a ‘good night’. It’s always strange to be back here, with the same old rooms and faces; like suddenly being that stupid teenager again, too big for his skin and a restlessness in his hands. Johnny’s pretty sure Mama started him on the violin because there weren’t any good alternatives for a nervous, skinny kid with itchy fingers. A musician was destined to be poor and unhappy, but probably wouldn’t spend any time with the Department of Corrections. And you could always ask whether he’d practiced yet, whenever he started looking for trouble.
She had been pragmatic, Johnny’s mother. Now she was a starry-eyed romantic because she’d gotten remarried to a man who cooked Dominican food and did his own laundry—but back then, she’d been pragmatic.
Johnny almost forgets the Devil is there until they hit the parking lot, when the Devil reaches out and touches his shoulder. Johnny startles—the Devil’s touch is cold, even through his shirt. The burns have only just faded from Johnny’s hand, and he wonders if this will hurt too, leaving bruises at his shoulder or under his clavicle.
The Devil is looking at Johnny like he’s waiting for something. Johnny blinks.
“Sorry,” Johnny says lamely. He sounds breathless somehow; he doesn’t mean to. “Sorry, I wasn’t…”
“Offer me a ride,” the Devil says, and Johnny swallows.
“Yeah,” Johnny says. In the security light, the Devil is very pale—white as ash, blueish shadows in the curve of his cheek, his nose. All his shadows are blue, and Johnny wonders whether that’s somehow on purpose. He’s only ever known men whose shadows were dark, black and brown; he doesn’t know what to do with blue shadows. “If you want a ride, I’ll—sure.”
It’s different, having the Devil in his truck when they’re hemmed in by the dark and the soft sound of the radio. It all seems smaller, closer than before. Johnny can’t help breathing in the smell of stagnant water and the Devil’s cold and he wonders if he burns hot, by comparison. Maybe that’s the allure there: all that human warmth. For a delirious moment, Johnny wonders what it would be like in Hell—to reach out and watch all that ice melt beneath his hands. Everything would steam under his palms and around his fingers, and it would melt. Until it was water all around them, a cold sea, and he could imagine how the Devil would stare as they treaded water, with his yellow eyes wide and startled, like when Johnny had—
The Devil has him pull over in the middle of a nowhere field again. “You sure?” Johnny asks.
“I’m sure,” the Devil says. The moon is faint, and Johnny can’t see his eyes, which feels like cheating. “Thank you for the ride, Johnny.”
“It’s no trouble,” Johnny says. “Sorry for Ryan Delacorte.”
The Devil climbs down from the cab of Johnny’s truck, and the door shuts softly behind him. It’s a strange sort of déjà vu when he leans against the window, fixes Johnny with a look. “No,” he finally says, decidedly, and Johnny feels heat prickle up his neck. “I don’t think you’re sorry about Ryan Delacorte.”
“Not really,” Johnny agrees, though he hadn’t meant to.
The Devil makes a soft noise that Johnny suspects is a laugh. “You’re bad for business, Johnny,” the Devil says, stepping away from the truck, and that’s somehow worse, enough to make Johnny’s skin prickle all over. He swallows.
“Good night, Johnny,” the Devil says. Johnny drives off and doesn’t look back until he’s miles away, when the only thing in the rearview is the dark line of trees and the weak moonlight off grass.
His shoulder aches.
He’s only half a mile from home when he realizes that the radio hasn’t been playing music at all, just static and the occasional jagged noise of another station cutting in and out. He’s been humming along to nothing, just the tune in his head.
“There you are. What the hell did you do to my search history?” Nina asks the second he gets in the door. She’s squinting at her laptop screen like it’s in a foreign language. “All the ads are for weird religious shit now, and like. Satanism.”
“Just doing some research,” Johnny says, waltzing right on past Nina like his hand isn’t suddenly too-tight around the handle of his fiddle case.
He’s already to his bedroom when he hears her mutter, “No, I do not need an exorcism, Christ.” Johnny collapses onto his bed, staring at the ceiling and willing away the shivery, strange feeling just under his skin.
He’s not really sure why it’s there to begin with.
The Bellows is hot that night, it’s hot, and they’ve never played better—one of those nights that everything single thing is gold and Hubby never misses a pick, and Johnny can’t finger anything but the exact right notes. Ava’s voice is doing that husky thing where she sounds like Etta James after a pack of cigarettes and a dose of bitter irony, the mandolin singing counterpoint under her hands. They’re so good, they can’t fucking miss—
Even the regulars applaud afterward, banging their glasses on the tables and whistling around their fingers. Johnny is hot, flush with it, so much that he doesn’t mind when he’s shoved toward the bar to grab the band’s first round.
“Hey!” Johnny shouts when he finds the Devil there instead. It’s by accident that he’s so loud, and he only feels a little guilt as the Devil leans in to say something to the woman he’s talking to. When he turns back to face Johnny, the Devil’s eyes are slitted as a snake’s and gold in light of the bar, the same color as whiskey.
“What did you think?” Johnny shouts over the follow-up act. Some girl with a guitar singing country-pop, white as plain rice—it seems important, that the Devil know they’re nothing like this bullshit Elvis-cut country.
The Devil levels Johnny with a cool, considering look. “Would have been better with a golden fiddle,” he says finally, turning back to his drink. Johnny’s so startled that the laughter comes a beat too late, punched out of him.
The Devil drinks, but his glass doesn’t quite hide the curve of his smirk.
“Come meet my band,” Johnny says, leaning in so he doesn’t have to shout. (The Devil is still cold, and smells of something curdling; Johnny feels drunk without having touched anything but water. They’d been hot, they had been so goddamn hot. He hadn’t missed a single note, even during his run on ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown’, though he’d felt feverish and light-headed playing it. His fingers ache, stiff and jittery at once, and it was so good—they’d been so good, he couldn’t imagine anyone not knowing it, not even the Devil.)
The Devil turns his mouth toward Johnny’s ear, and there’s a brush of cold against his cheek, a brief, strange pressure like a storm front moving in. “I don’t think you mean that, Johnny.”
Johnny grabs at the sleeve of the Devil’s suit before he can turn away. “But I do.”
The Devil’s got ugly purple veins running down the side of his neck where there were once scales. Johnny stares, still delirious with the applause and the heat of the stage and wondering if the Devil bruises easy. “That’s me. Come meet my band.”
“I’m working,” the Devil says, nodding to the woman. She’s politely pretending not to listen to their conversation, running a finger idly around the rim of her glass—a whiskey sour, Johnny guesses, or maybe an amaretto sour. Something called ‘sour’ to hide the sickly sweetness of it. Johnny’d like to see her try the Devil’s whiskey instead, just to see if she’d choke on it too. (He’d be lying if he said he hadn’t thought about that since, awful tasting as it was. Mostly he’d thought about how surprised the Devil had been, the way he looked at Johnny, after.)
The music is still thrumming under Johnny’s skin, in his hands. His fingers ache where he’s clutching the sleeve of the Devil’s suit. “I’ll make you a deal,” Johnny says, and the whiskey-gold eyes focus on him again. “Come meet my band.”
The Devil leans in close enough that Johnny can almost feel his mouth shape the words. “And in exchange?”
Johnny grins. The Devil doesn’t look startled by it this time, he just looks—intent. “You get to meet my band.”
The Devil smiles so sharply Johnny sees the dangerous length of his eyeteeth. They curve like a snake’s fangs, as bone-white as the rest of him. “Well, if you’re offering.”
(“How the hell do you know that guy?” Carl asks Johnny afterwards. They’re smoking in the alley behind the Bellows—the jittery high of playing has faded somewhat, and now Johnny’s mostly just tired, riding the wrong edge of a buzz. He wants to crawl directly from the alley into his bed, sleep forever on clean sheets.
“He’s a musician,” Johnny says with a shrug. And then: “We played together once.”
Johnny takes a drag, letting his head fall back against the brick. It’s a cool night even for January, and the cigarettes they’re smoking are cheap; when Johnny inhales, the air tastes the way the Devil smells. “The blues,” Johnny finally says. “He sings the blues.”)
Johnny dreams he’s in his own bedroom, the golden fiddle cradled in his lap. The glow from the street lamp is worming through his blinds, a sickly, artificial yellow. Still, it catches like dawn on all that polished gold, and Johnny’s room is full of light.
His hand is shaking when lays his palm flat against the fingerboard. He thinks of the Devil and wraps his fingers around the violin’s neck, tightens his grip until he can feel the strings biting into his palm. He’s expecting blood and pain, but there is none—just a somehow alien ache, like touching his cheek after novocaine, or trying to walk with his foot asleep. It’s heavy and graceless, but it doesn’t hurt.
This is a dream too, Johnny says to the empty room. It should hurt.
Suddenly the violin isn’t gold it’s ice, and it’s melting beneath his hand. Johnny watches it turn to water and smoke, and then it’s gone and he’s alone.
The next morning, his hand is smooth and unmarked. He stares at it for at least a minute in the morning light, turning it back and forth, trying to find some trace of scarring, bruises. But there’s nothing.
The Devil keeps turning up after that.
It’s always in places Johnny doesn’t expect. He’s there for Gracie’s and The Livery, but not the gig they play for the mayor’s fundraiser. “Some men do my job for me,” the Devil says when Johnny asks why he wasn’t around for a room full of sleek men in suits, putting prices on themselves. “I won’t waste my time on a creature already bought and sold.”
He’s standing over Johnny as he unpacks, but turns away with a dismissive scoff when it’s just the same old wooden fiddle. “I’m not doing your job for you!” Johnny calls after him, grinning.
There are greasy black marks on the passenger seat of Johnny’s truck now, like ash smeared with a hand on the vinyl. He’s tried to clean them, but touching the strange, tacky blackness had felt like being doused in ice water; his arm had been useless for hours after, pins and needles for the rest of the day.
There’s a few weeks where Johnny doesn’t see the Devil at all, but he shows for the local bluegrass festival, looking like a UGA reject in a seersucker suit. (They’re tuning up and Hubby makes a crack about Johnny and the finer things in life; Johnny’s hand slips on the peg.) When they’re on stage Johnny can find him unerringly in the crowd, the Devil’s eyes winking like lightning bugs in the gathering dusk.
Afterwards, Johnny puts down the truck’s tailgate and he and the Devil sit there, dangling their feet off the edge. Onstage, the Sweet Mountain Boys are playing a warbling version of ‘Kentucky Waltz’, and the can of beer sweats in Johnny’s hand—it’s warm, for an April night. The yellow of the Devil’s eyes is fainter up close, more like a wild animal’s in the dark. That sheen of reflected light.
The Devil only catches him looking twice.
“I have business elsewhere,” the Devil says when the Sweet Mountain Boys are finally ushered offstage, amid the late-night crowd’s applause. Johnny drinks, watching him clamber down from the truck bed.
“What, no souls worth having here?” Johnny says, trying for a joke even though it’s distracting, watching the Devil straighten his cufflinks and brush invisible dirt from his lapels.
“You keep getting in the way,” the Devil says, but the corner of his lipless mouth is curved up in something almost a smile, and Johnny grins.
(Bad for business, he’d said, and Johnny shivered, remembering the way he’d said it.)
The can of beer is wet and warm in Johnny’s hand, and maybe it’s that, or the lowlight of the Devil’s eyes. Either way, Johnny says, “You know, we should play together sometime,” before he can stop himself. “Really do it, this time. Blues fiddle isn’t my wheelhouse, but I’d make an exception.”
The Devil is buttoning his suit jacket, and he fixes Johnny with an inscrutable look. For a moment, Johnny thinks he’ll—
But instead he nods to the beer can cradled in Johnny’s hands.
Johnny blinks. (He’d asked if the Devil wanted anything from cooler, bobbing with soda and loose chunks of ice; he’d refused.) He holds out the can, but the Devil doesn’t take it, just reaches out with two fingers and presses them to the side.
“Shit,” Johnny says, too loudly, watching frost etch across the aluminum, feathered whorls and white ferns curling around the SweetWater logo. It happens quickly, and then the Devil’s pulling back, curving his hand into a fist at his side. That flicker of reflected light in his eyes seems brighter, though Johnny wouldn’t swear to it.
“Thanks,” Johnny says at last, dropping his gaze. He holds up the can, turning it back and forth to admire the latticework of ice. His hand is still wet, and the press of aluminum against his palm is cold.
When he looks up, the Devil is gone. Johnny huffs in amusement and lifts the can to his mouth to drink, but the beer is frozen through. Solid.
(For some reason, he keeps sitting there through the next band’s set, and the next, warming the beer with his hands until the frost melts and the ice is thawed to a cold slush. Then he throws it out, gets in his truck, and leaves.)
“Be careful with that one,” Ava says one night after a gig. She’s leaned up against one of the pillars in the reception hall with a studied casualness, as though she’s indifferent to everything happening around them—but she’s watching the Devil across the room, and there’s nothing easy about that look.
The Devil’s eyes suddenly flick up from man he’s speaking to, as though he’s heard them. His gaze collides with Johnny’s, and Johnny turns away too quickly, goes back to packing up.
“He’s harmless,” Johnny lies. He can feel the Devil’s gaze prickling on his shoulders, like something dry and cold slithering between his collar and his skin. “Don’t pay him any mind.”
Johnny doesn’t think much of it, Hubby setting out another cup at the Bellows, Carl asking whether Johnny’s best fan will be in their audience tonight. Ava is cool as an ice chip, but Ava usually is, and the Devil doesn’t seem to mind her when they’re all sitting around a beer-sticky table. Usually, he’s looking at Johnny, sidelong and his eyes yellow in the low light, and Johnny’s looking at him. Most times, there’s music. (Johnny’s been in worse company.)
Even Nina starts complaining that he’s never around anymore, and whatever girl he’s seeing must be a serious thing. “Not a girl,” Johnny says, and because Nina’s got a spiteful streak she just smiles prettily and asks, “You take him home yet? You know your mother worries.”
Johnny laughs, thinking about it later. The idea of calling up his mother and saying, Mama, the Devil is a handsome asshole, let’s have him over for dinner, is too funny not to.
They get rained out of the DeKalb County 4-H’s bluegrass festival, the musicians and half the audience crowded up under the bandshell as they wait for the storm to pass. It’s pretty amicable, all of them cross-legged on the concrete, the Campbell Dandies having struck up an overly cheerful version of ‘Cold Rain and Snow’; Hubby’s picking along, even though his banjo’s wildly out of tune. Carl’s started another fight with Ava about the chorus of ‘Cornbread and Butterbeans’, but neither of them sound to be taking it very seriously.
Johnny’s just watching them, content to lean up against the concrete wall of the bandshell and cradle his fiddle against his chest, listen to the sound of the rain.
He feels the Devil—that cold, curling up against Johnny’s skin like a hungry thing, chasing away the wet June heat—before he sees him. So it’s not too surprising when the Devil clears his throat and asks, “Is this seat taken?”
Johnny looks up, and laughs.
Everybody got rained on, at least a little; Johnny’s shoulders are still damp and his wet socks are starting to itch. But the Devil looks like drowned cat, his ash-white hair plastered to the line of his skull and his fine suit dripping onto the concrete. (His eyes look bigger this way, without anything else to distract from them; huge and poison-yellow set against the paleness of his face.) Despite himself, Johnny laughs, he does, and can’t stop laughing.
The Devil startles, also like a cat, and then looks—not at all like a cat, his expression something very human like hurt. Then he’s turning on his heel and striding away and all of this happens before Johnny’s head can even catch up.
“Shit,” Johnny says, scrambling to his feet. He shoves his fiddle in Carl’s direction, telling him to hold onto it for a second, and then he’s weaving through the crowd. He keeps stumbling into people, and once accidentally steps on some kid’s hand which kicks up a huge fuss, but he refuses to stop.
The Devil’s already walking away across the park by the time Johnny gets to the edge of the bandshell. Johnny has to jump down from the edge of the stage, and he jogs to catch up. “Hey, c’mon,” he calls, but the Devil doesn’t turn back, he doesn’t even slow, just goes on walking away from Johnny.
It’s instinct that makes him grab for the Devil’s arm. He’s not thinking about bruises, or the cold, or anything, he’s not thinking at all. Because the Devil won’t stop and it’s raining; Johnny’s out here stumbling after him, wetness seeping up through his shoes, and the least the Devil could do is stop. The Devil doesn’t seem to notice that Johnny’s there, though, or maybe just doesn’t care, because he drags Johnny forward, and Johnny’s hand slips—it’s wet, he can’t get a grip. Flailing, Johnny reaches out and wraps his hand around the Devil’s wrist.
The Devil stops, so suddenly that Johnny almost collides with his shoulder.
Johnny takes a minute to straighten himself out, then he glances over at the Devil’s face. It’s eerily blank, just—staring. Johnny follows his eyes and then they’re both staring at Johnny’s hand on the Devil’s wrist. Johnny would have thought the Devil’s skin would have been cold, colder than standing near him, burning as dry ice against Johnny’s palm. (Some of the rain has frozen, crusted at the Devil’s shoulders and along the lapels of his suit; Johnny’s close enough to see the little crystals.) But Johnny’s got his hand around the Devil’s wrist and it’s not. It’s just...cool. Touching him is like touching the rain.
The Devil’s got no pulse, just purple veins running through the underside of his wrist. Like this, with Johnny’s left hand cradled there, the Devil’s wrist could almost be his fiddle, thready purple strings under his fingers.
Johnny exhales. “I was trying to say...”
The Devil looks up then. His pupils have gone slitted, snake eyes. Johnny forces himself to meet them without flinching. “You ought to come back. You just—you look like you came wading out of a lake. Come back with me to the bandshell, dry off.”
“It’s raining,” the Devil says, but he sounds oddly confused about it.
“Yeah, I know,” Johnny says. “For some reason, I thought the Devil wouldn’t have to worry about that. Seems like infernal powers should serve better than an umbrella.”
Johnny tugs at the Devil’s wrist, just a little, and the Devil startles—he’s looking down again, and he seems just as surprised to find Johnny’s hand there as the first time.
“Come back,” Johnny says again, and his voice is softer, somehow without his say-so. “C’mon.”
The Devil shudders, and Johnny thinks he’ll pull away then, and go on walking. Instead, the Devil wets his lip with a forked tongue, and says, “What, no deal to offer this time?”
“Sure,” Johnny says, and the Devil’s eyes flick up to him. “Come back out of the rain, and you’ll get dry.”
Something passes across the Devil’s face, too quick for Johnny to follow, and then it’s gone; he’s smirking. “Fair enough, Johnny,” the Devil says.
His smirk falters a little when Johnny lets go of his wrist.
They’re both soaked through and dripping by the time they make it back to the bandshell. Carl takes one look and laughs at them both—the Devil goes stiff and offended, at least until Hubby tells him to relax, man, only a prideful sort can’t take a joke at his expense. “Exactly,” Johnny says, smiling sidelong at the Devil. “And who could ever accuse you of being prideful?”
The Devil doesn’t say anything to that, but Johnny sees the corner of his mouth curl.
“Thought we weren’t supposed to pay him any mind,” Ava says later that day, when the weak sunlight has finally come out over the park and Johnny’s loading up his truck. They managed to sell a few CDs, and Johnny gave his number to some boy interested in lessons, so the trip wasn’t a total waste.
“You don’t have to,” Johnny grunts, shutting the tailgate with a thud. “Like I said, he’s harmless.”
“I think you should take your own advice,” Ava says. “For your own good.”
Before Johnny can answer, she’s walking away. He watches her, and then looks down at his left palm. It’s fine, brown and smooth and doesn’t ache, even a little, even when he presses his thumb into the hollow of it, testing for bruises. It’s just his hand.
The Devil’s already in the passenger seat, when Johnny climbs up into the cab. He’s running a pale finger over one of the greasy black marks there.
Not for the first time, Johnny thinks about asking him what those are, where they come from. Whether there’s a special way to clean them, like maybe Johnny should have tried salt and warm water, or baking soda.
(The Devil’s hair has dried strangely, standing up on end; it makes him look like a dandelion puffball. Johnny’s struck by an impulse to lean over and run his fingers through it, smoothing down all its wildness with his palms—he’s put hands on the Devil already today, what’s the danger in doing it again?)
“Heading my way?” the Devil asks, without looking up.
“I hope not,” Johnny says, and he grins when the Devil looks up, almost-startled. “I mean, if it’s all the same to you, I’d like to stay out of Hell for as long I can.”
The Devil actually rolls his eyes, which makes Johnny grin even wider. He puts the truck in reverse, and pulls away. The rain’s washed away most of the dust, and everything looks made-new, brighter. There are puddles where the gravel parking lot dips, and in the low afternoon sun they look like trapped light.
“Same middle-of-nowhere, or…?” Johnny asks.
“I’ll let you know,” the Devil says, settling into the passenger seat and tipping his face up like he’s about to fall sleep there. He still has those ugly veins, running along his throat where there ought to be scales. Johnny breathes in the smell of staid water, and turns on the radio.
Johnny pays him too much mind, that’s the truth of it. Johnny pays him so much mind that he’s distracted, and doesn’t notice how the Devil takes Nina’s arm when they finally meet, whispers in her ear. How Nina starts showing up at Johnny’s gigs after six years of making Johnny swear not to practice when she was home, pitching a fit every time he put on Flatt & Scruggs. Nina’s mother is sick and Johnny knows this, the—ugliness of a soul draining into the dirt. He ought to put these things together, Nina’s mother smiling wanly and calling him ‘Jesús’, Nina looking pinched and ashen when the bills came, and the Devil’s hand on Nina’s arm, but he doesn’t.
He’s not sure he ever would have, but—
“You have to talk to him,” Ava says after they’ve wrapped up rehearsal and everybody’s packing up. Johnny didn’t hear her come up behind him and he startles, almost dropping his fiddle case and ramming his knee into the piano bench.
They don’t usually rehearse at the university, but Carl had a hookup with the music department and it was nice, not to have to haul all their equipment just to screw around for a few hours. Johnny hadn’t thought much about Nina coming along; she’d gone to nursing school there, if she wanted to walk around and reminisce about the good old days, that was her prerogative. And if she lingered outside the practice room, chatting with the Devil instead, well, that was her prerogative too.
“Johnny,” Ava says, and Johnny sighs, turning to face her.
“I don’t see how it’s my business,” he says. “You know Hubby’s got that audition on the fifth. He is entitled to be a little distracted—”
“No, your friend,” Ava interrupts. “The stranger who’s taken to hanging around. Nick,” she grits out when Johnny shakes his head. “Old Scratch. The Prince of—come on.”
Johnny shakes his head wordlessly.
“I’m not about to say his name,” Ava says, and he realizes that she’s shaking. She’s shaking. Ava’s always been standoffish and sort of difficult; Johnny’s only ever seen her get emotional when they’re onstage, when she’s singing. During the band’s drunk, rafter-shaking fight, she’d been mean as a snake but cold as one too. So he’s never seen her angry, and not like this, every word spat out like nails through the gap in her front teeth.
“Listen, if you can’t even tell me—”
Ava takes a step closer, until she’s practically breathing on him. “I signed the goddamn agreement, I’m not going to say it. Your friend, the one who makes deals.”
Johnny’s hand convulses around the neck of his fiddle, and he sucks in a sharp breath. He can’t help glancing across the room at Carl and Hubby. Ava’s voice is low, low enough Johnny doubts that either of them can hear what she’s saying, let alone Nina and the Devil on the other side of the practice room door; still. He can hear his heartbeat in his ears, and it threatens to drown out everything.
“Uh.” Johnny looks down, at where he’s clutching his fiddle so tightly his knuckles are pale; he looks up at Ava. “I didn’t know that...you—?”
For a second, the anger wavers and looks like it’ll collapse in on itself, leaving just the flash of grief and the way her mouth twists down. But then Ava shakes her head. “It’s not important. And I don’t know what sort of...long con he’s got going with you. But you have to talk to him.”
Johnny swallows. “What about?”
“He’s been spending a lot of time with Nina lately, you notice that?” Ava asks. She’s watching Johnny’s face, and something of his surprise must show there, because she shakes her head. “Or maybe you didn’t. But I think maybe you should talk to him about it. Before they decide on the terms of their agreement.”
It feels like Johnny’s been tipped into some alternate place, where the world is moving at half-time, too much happening all at once; not a tempo he can follow. “Why?” he asks, finally, and Ava jerks back.
“I mean—I know why, in the theological sense,” Johnny says, forcing himself to speak lowly. “I know what he asks for, what the price is. But I know the rules too. He can’t cheat and he can’t lie, right? So if...Nina wants to—”
Ava laughs then, a sharp, hysterical noise that seems ripped out of her throat. “You wouldn’t be saying that,” she says, too loud. “Not if you’d made a deal for yourself.”
Carl and Hubby are staring at them now, and Johnny swallows whatever he’d been about to say. Ava straightens up, and the anger disappears behind her usual cool, imperious expression.
“Talk to him,” Ava says, and then she’s striding out of the practice room, and gone.
“You’re quiet,” Nina observes as they’re driving back from the university. The Devil is just a shadow in Johnny’s rearview mirror; he’d gallantly agreed to ride in the truck bed, and let Nina have the passenger seat, Johnny’s fiddle cradled in her lap. All Johnny can see in the back of his head, a greyish smudge against the gathering dusk.
“Long rehearsal, I’m tired,” Johnny lies. He watches the mile-marker flick by, the reflector paint catching the light. Then: “Hey, if you were...if you were in any sort of trouble, you’d tell me, right?”
“Of course,” Nina says, and Johnny has no way of knowing if that’s a lie too.
(Louis’ truck isn’t there at Brower and Hickory anymore—someone hauled it off last month, leaving just a muddy absence of grass, a rusted hubcap—but still Johnny blows through the intersection faster than he has to. Johnny wonders what Louis is up to in Nashville, what he’d say about this; whether he misses the grey and wriggling thing that sat above his stomach and below his heart.)
Johnny dreams. He can’t remember what, but he jolts awake the next morning, breathing hard.
Nina goes quiet herself over the next few weeks, answering in monosyllables and heading to bed early. Johnny might have chalked it up to work—he remembers her oncology rotation, it was like sharing a bathroom with a zombie. But the hospital hasn’t changed her hours, not for months. He even calls the assisted living place a couple times, to check. Nina’s mother still calls him Jesús, but she seems cheerful, and the nurses say she’s doing as well as can be expected.
Nina’s idly picking at her pork and beans—her favorite, Johnny once watched her eat a whole pint practically without stopping to swallow—when Johnny clears his throat. “You know my friend, Nick?” he says.
Nina twitches, and settles again, like she’s shouldering something she hadn’t expected would be that heavy. “Is that his name?” she asks, and goes back to staring at her bowl.
“Yeah, well, you shouldn’t go into business with him,” Johnny says, watching her face. It doesn’t change. “I don’t know what he’s offering, but…he’s not always good at following through on his promises.”
Nina drops her fork, and then pushes her chair back. She stands. “I’m tired,” she says, already walking away. “I’m going to bed.”
Johnny chokes down enough pork and beans to make himself sick, and afterwards sits on the edge of his bed, waiting for his stomach to stop churning. He stares at the wall, the crack in the plaster; the cufflinks and cakes of rosin sitting on the top of the dresser next to his wallet. He picks at a hole in his sheets like it’s got the solution to all the questions of the universe and—ends up staring at the golden fiddle anyway.
It’s still there in the battered secondhand case, gleaming from the corner of his room like a taunt. “Fine,” Johnny huffs, turning away.
(He sweats through an uneasy sleep, dreams of—)
They play a gig in Macon, one of those fake country weddings in a barn, all mason jars and strings of Christmas lights wrapped around hay bales. They get a lot of requests for Faith Hill. But weddings pay better, and when they take their break one of the bridesmaids lets Johnny share her cigarette. “I’m quitting,” she says in an unconvincing way, a smile tugging at the corner of her mouth. “If we share, it’s only half-cheating, right?”
“Perfectly sensible,” Johnny says with a grin, and she smiles in earnest at that.
They pass the cigarette between them, talking about nothing much. Johnny’s telling her about the time the band got lost on their way to a gig and ended up in Turin—“Where?” she laughs—when he feels the cold wash over him, curling up next to his skin. Johnny doesn’t turn, but he sees the way the bridesmaid’s eyes flick up to some point over his shoulder, how she goes suddenly stiff. Johnny sighs.
“Thank you, for the smoke,” he says, offering the cigarette back to her.
The bridesmaid takes it, and her mouth curls a little as she drops it, stubbing it out on the grass. “My pleasure. Nice meeting you, Johnny.”
Johnny waits until she’s gone back into the barn to turn around.
There are odd shadows falling across the Devil’s face, the suggestion of horns curving up from his forehead and disappearing into shadow. Johnny doesn’t know if it’s the Christmas lights, or maybe that’s just how the Devil looks sometimes. It makes all the angles of his face are sharper; Johnny could cut himself just by reaching out and pressing his hand against the Devil’s cheek. He thinks about do it, testing the theory. (He wonders if the Devil still feels like rain.)
“Hey,” Johnny says instead. The Devil’s eyes are shadowed, hollowed out-looking in the dark, but Johnny can feel him staring.
“Evening, Johnny,” the Devil says. He reaches inside his suit jacket, and then he’s holding out an honest-to-god silver cigarette case, like this is an old movie instead of the backend of a barn outside of Macon. Johnny half-expects the world to go black and white around them. “Cigarette?”
There are seven cigarettes in the case and each of them is perfect, white as the Devil’s suit and tipped with burnished gold paper. It gleams.
It’s that, the flicker of gold—Johnny thinks of whiskey, the Devil’s private reserve and how it burned going down. He can still taste it sometimes in the crevices between his teeth, like putting his tongue on a battery.
Maybe everything the Devil has to offer is like that. Every deal is doomed to go sour, gold with bitterness underneath. What had the Devil said, standing in that field? Locked in a room with God and the Devil and a pack of cards—every hand nothing but dust and a two of spades, every time, except when the dealer takes pity on you. (We’re fucked, Johnny had said, and Ava called it a con, and even the Devil had said, Not as often as you think, which still meant pretty goddamn often often.)
Cruel, the Devil had told him another time, and fair. Maybe that’s just what the world is, really; it would explain why the Devil seemed so surprised when Johnny choked on his whiskey. A man who’d sell his soul to the Devil for a golden fiddle, who’d drink from his cup, ought to know what the world is like. So what if the golden fiddle leaves scars and the whiskey curdles in your stomach? If everything is bruising, and cold, and heavy as the blues, none of it’s a lie at all.
“No, thanks,” Johnny answers, and the Devil cocks his head. “I have to—our break’s almost over, I’ve got to get back. You’ll be around?”
“If you like.”
“Yeah,” Johnny says, too quick. He could cut himself on the shadows of the Devil’s eyes, and all he can think about is how the one’s beneath Nina’s eyes are almost so deep. “Yeah, you should stay.”
The Devil’s mouth curls. In this light, he doesn’t seem to have any lips at all, but Johnny catches a flash of sharp teeth, white as bone. “Since you ask,” the Devil says softly.
That same animal part of Johhny’s head screams when he turns his back on the Devil, and Johnny can feel those eyes following him as he heads back into the barn. He’s distracted by it, misses a couple of his cues and stumbles through ‘Cindy Cindy’ like he’s got lead in his fingers. But every time he turns and looks out over the wedding party, there’s no one there—just regular old humans, not a one of them considering the state of their immortal souls. Why would they, when there’s music and an open bar; the bride and the groom refusing to go further apart than their linked hands can reach. The bridesmaid who shared her cigarette with Johnny requests something slow and romantic and she leans in close enough that Johnny can smell the smoke still caught in her hair and the folds of her dress.
There’s no fiddle line in ‘January Wedding’, so Johnny watches Ava—her face and her hands, the way her mouth shapes my heart. She’s doing that thing where she tucks her chin down and smiles at her mandolin while she plays. Johnny doesn’t remember where he read that a perfect fifth was God’s interval, but maybe it is, and that explains how Ava can look like she’s brushing up against something divine.
Johnny wonders suddenly what she sold her soul for, whether it was this. It’s hard to imagine what sort of bitterness could be hiding in it—what could possibly tarnish the moment, Ava singing about knowing the names of trees and smiling like she’s reading secrets on her hands.
He looks away.
Afterwards, Johnny finds the Devil in the parking lot, smoking one of his perfect, gold-tipped cigarettes. He still looks like a figure from some old movie, maybe even more than when he offered out the cigarette case; a stranger in an expensive suit leaning against light pole, a haze of smoke around him. Though Johnny suspects they never made Cary Grant stand in a gravel parking lot in Macon with only a shitty pickup for company.
“Johnny,” the Devil greets him, though he doesn’t look up from where he’s staring, his eyes unfocused. Even with the lamppost overhead and harsh, artificial light pooling all around them, there are still strange shadows on the Devil’s face. They’re not—symmetrical, shading under one cheekbone but not the other, a dark shadow across his forehead with nothing to cast it. Johnny can’t take his eyes off a wispy bit of darkness on the Devil’s jaw, like he somehow missed a spot shaving.
“You had horns a few hours ago,” Johnny points out, for lack of something else to say. The Devil almost-smiles again, that same flash of white, too-sharp canines.
“I did. Will you offer me a ride, Johnny?”
“You going my way?”
The Devil drops the cigarette, stubbing it out with his shoe. “I expect I will be.”
Here, this close, Johnny can smell the crushed-out cigarette, the smoke still lingering in the air. It doesn’t smell like nicotine at all—it reminds Johnny more of a bonfire, burning leaves and woodsmoke and the late days of summer. But the whiskey had been a distiller’s dream, Ava sang like Etta James. The Devil was handsome and his fiddle was gold, and they had to be.
If blues wasn’t beautiful, no one would listen to it.
The Devil got you when you believed it was beauty all through, that you could somehow make the gold stay. That was the lie, Johnny supposed, the lie humans told one another. Because the dirt never washed off and the bitterness never went, and all things came to shit in that locked room with that pack of cards.
“Not her,” Johnny says, and the Devil pauses, half-turned away.
There’s a sudden coiling of tension in the air between them and Johnny clutches the strap of his fiddle case like it’s protection against whatever this is; a saint’s medallion, or a silver cross. He swallows.
“I know you got a job to do, and you do it fair; I respect that. But I also know that…you’ve been talking to Nina, lately. And you can say I’m bad for business, or that it’s against the rules, but you can’t have her. Not her, not any of them. Not the people close to me.”
The Devil turns back. It’s lucky they’re standing in the empty parking lot, because his face is—not human, is the closest Johnny can come to thinking about it. Nothing about it has changed, exactly; nothing Johnny can point to, except to say it’s wrong. Like the smell of something rotting, one of those things that goes straight past rational thought to animal revulsion. It isn’t often Johnny thinks about how the Devil’s skin had rippled that night at the bar, but he thinks of it now; how it had bulged and wrinkled like a badly-fitted suit struggling to contain something much bigger and more alive.
And then Johnny thinks about angels, how they introduced themselves with, be not afraid.
“I beg your pardon, Johnny,” the Devil says, and there’s the beginning of something harsh, buzzing in his voice; it sends a stab of panic through Johnny. “I must have misheard you.”
His heart is beating too hard. “No. No, you heard me fine. You don’t make deals with my friends, with the people in my life. You can’t. You can’t have Nina’s soul, or Carl’s or Hubby’s, you can’t—”
“Do not command me,” the Devil snarls. His voice is full of ugly diminished fifths, and his eyes flash in the reflected glow of the parking lot’s lone streetlamp, hard discs of yellow light. A predator’s eyes. There’s another reason for the Devil to be beautiful, the same reason that anglerfish have that bright-bobbing lure. To bring the things they hunt close, to distract from the teeth.
Johnny thinks about his truck, the cold black ash ground into the leather and the snatches of awkward melody that follow him into strange places, silences and radio static and sleep. He thinks of the Devil saying, my brother, and the blues, and the way he’d looked back at Johnny when Johnny said, I’ll make an exception. (The Devil, like rain under Johnny’s hand.)
Johnny exhales; the Devil’s gone cold enough that it fogs in the air. He takes another step towards the Devil and the Devil goes very still; a marble statue, if marble could be—like this, ugly and strange and inescapable.
Johnny takes another step forward, closer, even though his every animal instinct is screaming to run.
“All right. Then I’m not commanding,” Johnny says, and it’s a surprise even to him that his voice doesn’t shake. His hands are so tight around the strap of the fiddle case he’s stopped feeling his fingers. “I’m asking. There’s a difference.”
The Devil’s eyes are hard and bright and dangerous, fixed on Johnny.
“Maybe—I’m saying, maybe I could make you a deal,” Johnny says, and the Devil—
Johnny’s close enough to see the shudder that runs through him. “Oh?” the Devil asks, and his voice is so suddenly soft, human in its uncertainty.
Johnny licks his lips. “Maybe I could…well, I could play that golden fiddle for you.”
The Devil’s eyelashes flutter against his cheeks, strange and ash-colored as moths. “Ah,” the Devil breathes, and Johnny grins, despite himself.
“We could play together. Blues,” Johnny says, and the Devil doesn’t react, this time, when Johnny steps even closer. Johnny’s never been this close, not even an arm’s length from the Devil—Johnny could lean in and be breathing the same air. The smell of the golden cigarettes is everywhere, muddled with the cold, that rotting, still-water smell. It’s crazy-making, too much. (Locked in a room and doomed, but Johnny still has that ace, slipped it up his sleeve for just this, just now.)
“Come on,” Johnny says. He manages to convince his hands to ease, enough to pry them away from the strap of his fiddle. Tentatively, he reaches out, and—even he’s a little surprised when the Devil lets Johnny take him by the lapels of that white suit, drag him closer still. For a minute, they stand like that, Johnny staring at the Devil’s throat.
There are white scales there, fine and pale, their edges almost translucent. If Johnny weren’t standing so close, he wouldn’t have noticed them at all. They disappear under his over-starched collar, and Johnny wonders if that’s what’s under the skin-suit too. Scales and fangs, and maybe wings—clipped, given that business with the apple.
Johnny swallows, and lifts his gaze. Meets the Devil’s eyes.
“Come on,” Johnny says. “You’re the Devil; I’m a poor doomed asshole with a fiddle. You know how this goes, so—make me a deal.”
“This is what you want,” the Devil says, but his voice curls it into a question.
“Leave Nina,” Johnny says, shrugging like this is nothing, and his heart isn’t pounding in his chest. “Leave Nina, and Hubby, and Carl and my mama, my cousins—the people in my life, let them alone. And I’ll play your fiddle.”
For a wild, impossible moment, Johnny thinks he’ll take it. The Devil will say yes, or maybe just nod, once and finally. Johnny will play the gold fiddle until his fingers bleed and wear those scars at his fingertips, ignore the aching of his hand; he can do that much. The world is bitterness and chains and rot, but this, this one thing—this ugliness Johnny can bear. He can play blues fiddle, if it’s for this.
“Please,” Johnny murmurs, and the Devil sucks in a sharp, sudden breath. He reaches up, like he’ll grab Johnny’s wrists, take Johnny’s hands away from his lapels and push him away. But the Devil never touches him, his hands hovering just over Johnny’s. Johnny can feel the cold shedding from his skin, and he’s tempted to let go of the suit, shove his wrists into the Devil’s hands. (It might be a sin, but I’ll take that bet, he’d said, knocking back the last of the beer, and he remembered how the Devil had smiled, all those sharp white teeth.)
The Devil is looking there, at his hands and Johnny’s. “That’s…” the Devil exhales, his eyes fluttering shut. “You can’t save them, Johnny. There are rules.”
Johnny bites his tongue, hard, to keep himself from swearing. “I know,” he says, as gentle as he can. “I know there are rules. But—you also said dealer throws the game sometimes. So maybe…maybe it’s just you who’s got to be fair.”
“Johnny…” the Devil warns, but Johnny’s past warnings.
“You know what I think?” he says. The Devil’s opened his eyes, and is looking at Johnny as though—
Johnny grins. Cocksure and easy as that hot afternoon, crowing ‘I’m the best that’s ever been!’ to the sky. “I think the rules say that I can’t invite myself into anyone else’s poker game, you wouldn’t lie about that. But I also think the rules don’t say shit about whether I can keep you distracted in the hall, maybe long enough that you miss a few hands.”
The Devil is staring now, not even pretending to breathe.
“What do you think?” Johnny asks.
The Devil’s still silent, and Johnny’s grin fades. “I figured…I mean, Ryan Delacorte’s still got his soul, and that woman at the bar. You didn’t do any business at that bluegrass festival, or at DeKalb County’s, or tonight. So maybe I can’t save Mariah McKinnon, or—even Ava, but Nina’s got her soul still. Nina I can save.”
The Devil’s snake-eyes are hard to read any emotion in. “That’s all,” Johnny says. “Just, that I—I’ve been distracting you already, so—”
The Devil makes a high, sharp noise that sounds more like a bird than a snake, and nothing like human. He tries to move, back away, but Johnny’s got him by the lapels, and they both stumble. The Devil’s hands come up to catch—maybe Johnny, maybe himself and Johnny’s just in the way. It’s not clear, but in the confusion the Devil ends up grabbing Johnny’s forearms, his fingers digging into Johnny’s skin.
The Devil looks startled, and he’s looking at his hands on Johnny the way he’d looked—after the whiskey, the way he’d looked at Johnny’s hands around his wrists. Even with poison-yellow eyes and a face like a non-human thing, there’s something endearing about that. Johnny may be a doomed asshole, he might have the theology wrong and the rules backwards, but the Devil looks at him like he’s a continued wonder, and that’s something.
“I think we should conclude our business,” the Devil breathes, and Johnny blinks, a little surprised by the change in topic.
“Fine.” The Devil’s fingers dig into the meat of his arms like he’s afraid Johnny will try and slip away, but Johnny is here, breathing in that same, staid smell. “If you insist, but—my terms are pretty simple. Like I said, let Nina alone—”
For a moment, the Devil doesn’t say anything but that. His eyes are unfocused, gazing down at Johnny’s hands but not seeing them. Just then he looks very human. “As you said,” the Devil finally murmurs. “You’re bad for business. You distract me, I can’t—I cannot allow myself to be distracted.”
The corner of the Devil’s lipless mouth curls. “I am sorry, Johnny. I’ve never been sorry for anything before, but…”
“Hey,” Johnny breathes, and the Devil looks up, his eyes catching the light again—that same flare of hard yellow, nothing like whiskey. More proof of that ugliness, underneath, Johnny supposes, but that doesn’t explain why Johnny’s throat is suddenly thick with it, the woodsmoke smell and the wanting. Of course he wants to save Nina—he does, more than anything; more than his own soul. But the Devil’s here, with his hands on Johnny, cradling his arms in those white palms, and Johnny wants this too. Can’t blame a man for being greedy, when he’s already busy selling his soul to the Devil.
Johnny’s not even aware of going up onto the balls of his feet until he’s already leaning in, so close he can almost taste the cigarette-and-cold of the Devil’s mouth—
The touch of it never comes.
Instead, Johnny stumbles through a haze of shadow, his hands suddenly grasping at nothing. He only just manages to catch himself, staggering a step or two before he can straighten up. He whirls around to ask the Devil what the hell he’s thinking—the words to die in a furious tangle on his tongue.
The Devil is gone.
For a moment, Johnny can only stand there, blinking into the weak artificial light. The katydids and crickets in long grass are suddenly deafening as thunder and crueler in their noise than they have a right to be. And Johnny is alone. He is alone in a gravel parking lot in Macon, clutching the strap of his fiddle case and his forearms aching like they’ve been bruised from the Devil’s hands.
Johnny touches one tender place with his thumb—not out of anything but a kind of curiosity, his mind having gone elsewhere and left him in the soft-white lurch of shock—and a pulse of something cold goes through him, stealing his breath. “Oh,” he murmurs.
His mouth is raw, chapped as it gets sometimes in winter; it feels like his lower lip will split if he smiles. (He isn’t smiling.)
He doesn’t remember deciding to head for his truck, any more than he made the conscious choice to unlock the driver’s side door or climb in. It’s his body sparing him the indignity, since his brain is nothing but VCR static, and maybe the howl of a tornado siren. All Johnny knows is that suddenly he’s in the soft and quiet darkness of his truck, and he’s got his forehead resting against the wheel, his eyes screwed shut.
He breathes in. He breathes out.
There’s a part of him that thinks maybe the Devil will be there, if he just turns to look. Sitting in Johnny’s passenger seat, arching a pale eyebrow at Johnny—he’ll be sitting there, knees splayed and leaving weird black streaks on the vinyl. Eying Johnny’s battered fiddle case and asking, is that mine, Johnny? Have you finally condescended to—? And Johnny will just laugh and throw his truck into reverse, kicking up gravel as he peels out of the parking lot. (Maybe he would have let Johnny kiss him like that, in the close cold darkness of the truck, Johnny’s fiddle across the Devil’s knees. Maybe Johnny will look up, and there he’ll be, waiting for it.)
It takes two tries for the truck to start—Johnny’s hands are shaking so badly he can’t get a good grip on the key in the ignition.
He’s pretty sure he breaks the speed limit in four separate counties driving back, trying to leave something in the exhaust, trying to out-race it. His truck howls at any speed over sixty-five, too old to handle the turns like it might have, once—but Johnny doesn’t care, barely notices the reflector-paint flicker of the mile makers. The sound of the engine goes in circles in his head, a high-pitched whine in counterpoint to the bass of his heartbeat, and all he wants is to run.
Instead, he tightens his hands around the wheel, presses down harder on the gas.
The static on the radio is just static. Johnny tries six different stations, but he can’t remember how it went, that song that used to be his head. He tries humming it, but he’s flat, can’t get the tempo right. Doesn’t remember the words, or if there were words at all.
By the time Johnny makes it back, it’s late, early, one of the two. His hands are still shaking and he drops his keys four times, fumbles with the door handle for a solid minute before he can let himself in. He feels dissembled, his limbs all jointed wrong by some small degree, enough to make him graceless and heavy. Nina left the hall light on, and Johnny still stumbles into the kitchen table and almost bangs his fiddle into the wall; All he wants to do is sink down to the cheap linoleum floor, shut his eyes—but he forces himself to stay upright, to drag his own body away.
He stops dead in the door to his bedroom. In the weak light from the hall, the golden fiddle gleams like a taunt.
“Oh,” he breathes. Johnny steps over the threshold. Moves through the dreamlike dark and goes over to the corner, the old wicker chair and the battered fiddle case sitting open there. Carefully, so as not to disturb the fiddle still strapped to his back, he crouches down.
“Well, shit,” he says. He hesitates—barely, a moment, and then he’s reaching out, pressing the flat of his palm against the golden strings. He hisses at the vicious bite of it, cold as melted ice, and still Johnny presses his palm into those infernal strings until he can barely feel his hand. He can’t think of what else to do just yet, except crouch here and feel that cold crawl up from his fingers to his wrists, to the bruises there on his forearms. It’s like being swallowed up by ice, until he’s entirely numbness, all the way through.
(All except Johnny’s mouth, which is—hot, too tender. He’d never thought the absence of something could feel like a bruise.)
“Shit,” he breathes, just for the sound of the thing. He bows his head, resting his forehead against the edge of the case. “Goddamn fucking—shit.”
His head jerks up. Nina’s standing in the doorway, silhouetted by the hall light. She’s in her pajamas, squinting at him like maybe he woke her—likely he did, clattering into the place like that, letting the door crash behind him. (Gramms used to say Johnny could wake the Devil, all the noise he made—but given how they left things, he doubts the Devil would have even turned over.)
Johnny exhales, and lifts his hand up from the fiddle case. He flexes his fingers a couple times, feeling the buzz under his skin as the blood comes rushing back.
“Hey there,” Johnny says, standing slowly despite his muscles protesting. He’s shaky on his feet and Nina has to meet him halfway; she steadies him, a hand on each shoulder, and it’s so similar (the Devil’s hands, cool against his skin) that Johnny finds himself fighting the urge to shove her away. She’s warm, too warm, and Johnny is—he doesn’t know what. Johnny’s ice, down to his bones; something frozen over but not solid at all. Ice fine as a pane of glass, prone to shattering.
His mouth aches.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you up.”
“It’s all right,” she says. She’s pretty in the dark, all her shadows soft and brown, in the ordinary places. Johnny’s loved her forever, loved her practically since they met—the loudest, mouthiest girl in class, and smarter than the rest of them by half, insisting he was her best friend now. They’d spent all of senior year cutting last period and driving any way the road would take them, screaming into the wind. Before she went to college they’d made a blood pact, with Johnny’s pocket knife and matching band aids on their thumbs; it made them kin, of a kind.
The Devil asked him if he had any brothers and Johnny hadn’t lied, telling him no. But there was Nina, who still had a scar on the pad of her thumb.
I think I saved you, he wants to say. I saved your soul.
“You okay?” she asks, and Johnny sucks in a sharp breath, not sure how to answer her. She’s looking up at him the dark, and Johnny doesn’t know what she sees. “You’re not usually this late, getting back.”
“Wedding in Macon,” Johnny says, weak even to his own ears. “It was a long drive.”
“You sure you’re all right?” Nina asks. He flinches when she reaches up and feels his forehead with the back of her hand. “Maybe you’re coming down with something, you feel a little clammy. Are you cold?”
Johnny laughs, one abrupt and horrible laugh, but it ends up tangled in his throat; he could choke on it if he isn’t careful. “Maybe,” he says finally, leaning down and wrapping his arms around Nina, breathing in the smell of her shampoo and the laundry detergent. He saved her soul, and lost something in return; even in this, the Devil is fair. (Absolutely fair, and he doesn’t want to be kissed.)
“Maybe a little cold,” Johnny mumbles, “but I’ll be all right.”
That night, he doesn’t dream of anything at all.