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Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don't

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After a week of George hanging around the place, Stanley decided he'd had enough.

"Now see here," he said, "aren't you supposed to be doing something?"

George looked up at him with an expression of mild surprise. "Oh. It's you. Hello, Stanley."

Stanley scowled. "Don't you give me that. What, you think that if you make a big enough pest of yourself, I'll go and change my mind and let you have my soul again? Well, you can forget all about that. It's never going to happen, not in a million years. No matter what you offer me. You can sit around here every day of the week and every evening, too, right until closing time, and it won't matter in the slightest, see if it does."

"Why, Stanley, that is very kind of you, I say." George smiled. "Thanks ever so much."

Stanley scowled a bit more, but then someone went and ordered a cheeseburger, so off he went.

 

"There's no need to be a sore winner, you know," George said, not three days later.

Stanley decided that was really too much. "Oh, right, getting my old life back after you had a laugh messing it all up and making me thoroughly miserable is winning, is it?"

George shrugged. "It must certainly be better than eternal damnation. Or eternally being me."

Stanley suppressed a faint sense of guilt. "I suppose I am sorry, a bit, that you didn't get back in. You were quite keen on that, I remember. Still are, I imagine."

"Oh." George made a dismissive gesture. "Water under the bridge. I'm a new man today, George. New goals, new attitude - I even got new shoes." He stuck out one of his legs. "Do you like them?"

"Very nice," Stanley said. "You're not mad, then?"

"I promise you, Stanley, I'm as sane as I ever was. Would you like a pair of your own? I dare say they'd go quite nicely with what you're wearing right now."

"No, thank you." Stanley frowned. "Hey, now, you wouldn't be trying to tempt me again, are you? You think I'm going to give you my soul for a lousy pair of shoes?"

George's expression suggested Stanley had hurt his feelings. "I thought you said you liked them."

"Ha!" Stanley said. "Oh, I see it now. You'd take me to the shops and then it would turn out that you hadn't thought to bring any money, and I'd be the one ending up paying again."

"Well, they'd be your shoes, after all," George said reasonably. "Surely you wouldn't expect another person to pay for something that wasn't even for them."

"If you were really my friend," Stanley started, then stopped. George hadn't made any particular claims of friendship these past weeks, which was all to the good, as far as Stanley was concerned.

Who in his right mind would want to be friends with the devil, after all? Sure, George didn't seem like such a bad chap, most of the time, but that was all just an act.

"You are quite right," George said. "Quite right, indeed. Well done, Stanley. Oh, well done."

"I - " Stanley felt he'd been bamboozled somehow. "What'd I do?"

"Do? Nothing of any significance at all. Nor are you likely to. Ah well. Off I go. Do wait up for me, there's a good fellow. I shall be back anon - or, as the say in these modern days: very soon."

 

And then Stanley didn't see him again for a month.

It was a perfectly good month - July, as it happened. The weather was uncommonly nice, the customers were polite (some of them even tipped, or told him what a good cook he was) and and Margaret Spencer started dating a professor of English literature who liked to quote Shakespeare at her.

Stanley had never been happier in his life. He could have wept with the sheer joy of it.

 

"Stanley." George shook his head. "Stanley, Stanley, Stanley."

"About bloody time you showed up!" Stanley undid the knots of the rope. He'd gotten quite good at tying and untying knots, to the point where he didn't even need to look at the pictures in the book anymore. "Do you know how often I've nearly did away with myself? And did you bother showing up even once? Did you ever." He scoffed.

"Well, you weren't really going to do away with yourself, after all," George said.

"How'd you know?" Stanley asked. "Eh? Thought it was You-Know-Who that was all-knowing, not you."

"Omnipresence is hardly the same as omniscience," George said. "And regardless, I'm here now, aren't I? All's well that ends well. So what seems to be the problem? Anything I can help with?"

"You'd like that, wouldn't you?"

George put his hand on his heart. "Stanley, please believe me when I say that there's nothing I would like better than to help you. That reminds me: look what I got you." He presented a box. "I got the very last pair in your size. Do try them on."

"They're purple!" Stanley said. "I'm not going to put on shoes that are purple."

George sighed. "Serves me right for trying to do something nice. Oh, very well. You tell me what'll cheer you up, then. Go on. I'll give it to you for free. No tricks, I promise."

"Ha! I bet. You must think I was born yesterday," Stanley said.

George sat down on the edge of Stanley's bed and offered him an expectant look.

Stanley wondered why he'd been wanting to see George again. He thought that if he'd still been all arti-something, he might have figured it out. "Have you got any money?"

"Of course." George rose and walked over to the sugar pot where Stanley kept a bit of money, just in case. "Looks like there's as much as five pounds here."

"Only five? That can't be right. Here, let me see that." Stanley reached.

Their hands touched. Stanley found himself staring into George's eyes. Up close, they were rather pretty, in a blue sort of way.

"Sorry, Stanley," George said. "Tell you what, you can keep the shoes. My treat."

"I don't want - " Stanley started saying, before he realized that George was gone again.

Stanley stared at the four pounds that remained in the sugar pot. Then, looking down, he realized that his shoes were both very uncomfortable and very purple.

 

"What a rotten trick," Stanley said. He'd managed to get the shoes off and burnt them, only then he'd gotten out of bed the next morning and discovered he hadn't, after all.

"Shoes salesmen do it all the time. And I even gave you a discount." George had taken up residence in his regular booth again, ignored by all other customers. "That should cheer you up."

Stanley scowled. "Well, it doesn't."

"When you said that you were sorry that I didn't make it back into Heaven, did you mean that?" George asked.

"I'm sure I didn't," Stanley said. "I'd have to be an idiot, wouldn't I? Feeling sorry for the likes of you."

"There you go, then."

Stanley frowned. "I don't - I don't follow."

"You didn't feel that I deserved to go back home, and I didn't. If that doesn't make you feel better, I can't think of anything that will. You were right, Stanley. Absolutely right. And don't tell me that you don't believe me - I'm here, aren't I? Irrefutable proof." George looked very pleased. "You're welcome."

"Right. Taking second place to Heaven, am I? What, am I supposed to feel flattered?" Stanley said.

"Oh, I wouldn't say that." George shrugged. "After all, it's not as if I had a choice."

"Because you didn't."

"I never do," George said sadly. "Well, I suppose that I could find someone else to spend time with. It's supposed to be quite good for a relationship, to agree to see other people for a while."

"Rubbish," said Stanley.

George shrugged. "All part of the job. Envy came up with that one, actually. Works every time."

"Yes, well, it's not going to work on me," Stanley said. "You think I'm going to be putting up with you making friends with other people, you have another think coming."

"Why, Stanley. I didn't know you cared. I feel quite touched." George smiled. "And there. Don't you feel better now that you've gotten all that off your chest?"

Stanley felt indignant. "I do not."

"That was a lie," George said. "Not a very good one, but I'm sure you'll get better with practice. You just stick with me, and I'll show you a thing or two, eh?"

"You're not getting my soul. That's the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth."

"Oh, that old thing? Whatever would I want with it?" George scoffed. "Don't you worry about that. Not for a single moment. I told you, didn't I? I'm a whole new man."

"You're not a man at all. You're the Devil."

"Details."