We trekked out into the middle of this desert to find solitude. To “achieve greater introspective insight than we could have ever achieved in the real world,“ as Jeff put it, was our goal. When there is no wind and no sound besides your own breathing, you can really meditate on what you are, he said. When there is nothing besides hot, uniform sand in all directions and no life besides the occasional lonely scorpion tumbling over the dunes, you can see yourself more clearly than anyone has ever seen you, he promised. So Jeff, Jane, Stephen, and I hiked out into the middle of this stretch of sand to find ourselves. Or at least that was the plan.
It was noon on the third day of our trip when Jane began to suffer from stomach pains. By one in the afternoon, Jeff began to complain of thirst, and to guzzle water. It took the strength of both Stephen and I to seize his canteen away from him. His voracious drinking threatened to leave us all stranded with nothing left. He was so wild and heedlessly frantic with thirst that we ended up needing to bind his hands and feet with rope to keep him still. Jane began vomiting a little before nightfall and didn’t stop heaving and retching all night. I stayed with her and held back her hair and gave her tissues from my bag to dry the tears that were forming in her eyes. I tried to medicate her, but it didn’t help at all. Stephen stayed with Jeff, and fed him little sips of water because throughout the whole night he never stopped struggling and begging for a drink.
Jeff died around three in the morning. We had given him as much water as we could without jeopardizing the survival of the rest of us, but he always wanted more. We tried to sedate him, but there was nothing that could quell his thirst. He died, Stephen told me, with the word “water” on his lips.
Jane died just as the sun was rising. She was so sick and so pained throughout the night that I could tell she didn‘t have much time left even before she began to fade away. By about four in the morning I had stopped trying to medicate and cure her. For the rest of the night I just prayed.
Stephen and I ate breakfast silently. We left our companions where they had died. We didn’t know what to do with them, and we couldn‘t stand to see them like that anymore. Stephen and I ate together for perhaps ten minutes before he, in one quick and deliberate motion, pulled his revolver out from his knapsack and shot himself in the temple.
I sat for what must have been half an hour just staring ahead at Stephen’s slumped body, watching the blood mix with the sand to create a deep red slurry. I might have sat there forever, if I hadn’t been startled by a deep, velvet voice behind me.
“My apologies for the mess with your three friends, but it seemed the quickest way to achieve a private interview with you.” I spun around to face this voice that had so suddenly addressed me. A lithe young man sat leisurely in the sand, looking earnestly into my face. He wore cargo shorts and a dark blue t-shirt and expensive-looking sandals. “You acted quickly and efficiently with both Jeffrey and Jane,” he continued. “Intelligently, I might add. I had hoped to exhaust a bit more of your water and supplies through them, to give me a few more bargaining chips with you, but c’est la vie,” he said with a wave of his hand. “I had Stephen shoot himself cleanly and quickly because I was done playing games. I’ve grown to respect you too much to continue to fritter away your time as I did with the other two of your compatriots.” He smiled kindly and his eyes gleamed merrily.
“So, let’s get down to business,” he said suddenly, widening his smile. “Again, due to my newfound respect for your level of intelligence and mental clarity, I won’t sugarcoat it. I am in the market for your soul. Normally I might offer you something very big and exciting for it, but I am above all else a businessman. This means that I realize, as should you, that you are in a position without room to negotiate, and I intend to capitalize on this fact. Out here in the desert with limited food and water, I call all the shots. So, I am in effect extorting you for your soul. I need your soul, and I will make life as uncomfortable as possible for you in the meantime until you agree to this. The only offer on the table for you at the moment is a painless death. This is all I can and will offer you. But, I can assure you that this offer will look increasingly attractive the longer you take to accept it.”
He sat back in the sand and looked up while letting his eyes flutter shut. After letting his face bask in the sun for a few seconds, he looked back to me. The small, sweet smile never left his lips. “What do you say? Are we going to have to go through the whole song and dance of your suffering, or can I trust you to be mature enough not to haggle with me?” he asked, and his smile became condescending.
“You’re the devil?” I demanded with something of a choked laugh. “You’re tempting me like you tempted Christ in the desert?”
“No, no, no!” he exclaimed. “My dear sir, you are kidding yourself if you think you are important enough to pique the interest of Satan himself. I am an errand boy. I do little jobs here and there to make my quota of monthly souls. I noticed you and your friends out here all alone, and decided to make a quick job of it. It’s tough to corrupt multiple souls at once. You’ll have to take my word for that. So I singled you out, admittedly quite at random. And now, here we sit. And still, I wait for your answer.”
“I won’t make any deal with you. I -” was all I could say before I was rendered mute by a searing pain which snaked through my gut and ran up the sides of my esophagus. My teeth felt like they were going to explode, to shatter in my mouth. I felt thirstier than I had ever felt in my life. I reached for my canteen with panicked hands, and worked frantically to unscrew the cap. The young man rose and sauntered over, plucking it from my weak, shaking grasp. He unscrewed the cap, and poured the water all over his face and head, using the last of it to slick back his hair.
“Now, look here,” he whispered harshly as he bent over my convulsing form in the sand, letting a few drops of water fall from his greasy hair onto my body. “If you don’t start being reasonable, I’m going to have scorpions tripping the light fantastic inside your skull. I’m going to have maggots setting up shop in your genitals.” His grimace turned back into that serene smile that he wore so naturally. The pain suddenly stopped, and I was left shivering on the ground with exhaustion and fear.
“I’ll make you a new deal!” I shouted hoarsely. The young man’s face became cold again, and I felt the pain beginning to rise in my gut once more.
“Don’t waste my time,” he warned.
“I have a wife at home!” I continued. “And a son! Take them and leave me alone!”
The young man smiled widely. “You have concluded our business,” he grinned. “But…not in the way you intended. You are not allowed to make deals with souls besides your own. Obviously.” He said it as if this were a simple rule that I had merely forgotten. “However, to try to sacrifice, to sell, your family for your own comfort is a damnable sin. Literally. I have garnered your soul for Satan through fear and pain, and I didn’t even have to make a deal with you. You could have taken my offer of a quick and easy death, but now you walk away from the table with nothing.” The pain in my gut flared outwards to the extremities of my body. The blood in my veins seared me with every beat of my heart. “Good day, sir,” he smiled as he turned to walk away. “It may seem like it takes an eternity to die out here, but I promise I’ll be seeing you real soon.”