A Return Trip
by Dale F. Willett
Charles Edwards was irritable, depressed, disgruntled and dripping more sweat than a prisoner on a chain gang working under the Alabama sun in the summertime. The heat that caused him to sweat was almost as hot as the heat under his collar. A mere two hours earlier he received a pink slip from his supervisor, accompanied by an insincere handshake and an even more insincere, "Iím sorry that we have to let you go."
"The SOB," thought Charles. "He knew damn well I was a threat to his job, so he decided to eliminate the competition. He knew I had no options -- his being engaged to the big bossís daughter was his ace in the hole. And he was not sorry!"
The honking of the car behind him brought Charles back to the present. He released his brakes and moved up exactly two car lengths and once again was stalled bumper to bumper -- cars stretching as far as the eye could see.
"Life sucks," he said as big drops of perspiration joined into small rivers that ran down his face, arms and back. His shirt, dripping with perspiration, clung to his body. He remembered his heart condition and tried to calm down.
"Iím stuck in a rut right now, the same rut Iíve been stuck in for the last fifteen years. The only thing I can count on is for the rut to get deeper! How did I get where I am today? What sequence of life events ordained or of my own volition, brought me to my present godforsaken circumstances? I was just fired from my job of nearly ten years and I donít relish the idea of starting over at thirty-five."
But for a moment, he did start over. He retreated into his memory and resurrected images of his youth. He was a carefree young man who loved to party and chase girls. He lingered on the events as he played and replayed them like a video in his mind. In fact, Charles often retreated to his memories when he found it difficult to face the presentÖwhich was often. A horn brought him cursing back to reality.
"The same to you clown," he yelled.
"Iím stuck in this endless traffic and for what? Iím stuck here trying to get home to a thankless, nagging wife and spoiled, demanding kidís rut."
"I want more," Charles yelled -- loud enough to get the attention of three lanes of traffic stuck in the same rut. His exclamation incited a cacophony of blaring horns and a chorus of irritated voices.
"I hate my life! Iím tired of it all. There has to be more than this," bellowed Charles. He eased his frustration by returning to the past again. He thought of all the times he could have made a different decision or traveled a different path. He saw scenes in his mind where he was happy and successful. Charles was far away from his depressing and pitiful life in those images in his mind. But the images were temporary and only in his mind. The mental departures were increasing in number but were not enough. Like a drug addict, the more he retreated to the past, the harder the return trip.
Going back in your mind could never change anything," lamented Charles. "But I wonder," he continued, "if making minor changes in the past would result in major consequences on the present? I wouldnít want to relive my entire life Öjust the last ten years or so, to a time when life-impacting decisions could be changed. I wonder what changes I would make if I could do it again? What would I give to relive my life and change a few things?"
A small voice in his mind asked, "What would you give?"
"What would I give? I would pay any price to live my adult life over," Charles asserted, not knowing why. Again the small voice questioned,
"No price is too high for a better life?"
"No price!" answered Charles.
"What about your soul? Would you give your soul for a chance to change your life for the better?" the voice asked. "My soul?" stuttered Charles. "Why my soul?"
"Because you wonít need it after your life is over. What do you say?"
The honking started again. Charles cursed the impatient driver behind him as he returned to the present, sweat still running down his body in small streams. The carís air conditioning system wasnít working and Charles didnít have the money to get it repaired - the two spoiled boys and the nagging wife saw to that.
"What else could possibly go wrong?" he asked. The answer was quick. He noticed that the "Engine Hot" light on the dashboard was blinking.
"Damn!" Charles cursed out loud. "Damn!" he said again, glancing at his watch.
"Iíll never make it in time to pick up the brats and drive them to soccer practice." Charles moved up three car lengths. He felt his eyelids growing heavy. The oppressive heat wasnít helping, either.
"Boy," Charles yawned, I am I tired. That four-beer lunch after my pink slip must be getting to me. Iím really tired-- and this heat is unbelievable. It is hotter that Hades."
Stopped again, the events of the day continued to take their toll on Charles. His eyelids shut and his head nodded down to rest on his chest.
The small voice brought Charles back to consciousness, or was he conscious? The voice called,
Charles sat up, was alert and looked around. He could not see the speaker. But though his eyes saw nothing, his ears heard the voice ask again,
"So, would you be willing to trade your soul for another chanceÖa chance to change your life for the better?" it asked.
"What, uh, who are you?" asked Charles.
"Does it matter who I am? I can help you," replied the voice.
"Why canít I see you?" asked Charles.
"Because seeing is not always believing. But, you know who I am. Who else could fulfill your desires for just the price of your soul?"
"Are you the devil?" asked Charles.
"And if I am, does it matter? You want to change your life and I can help you. You need to stop revisiting your past and deal with the situation youíre in now."
"How can I trust you? I canít trust you if I canít see you," said Charles.
"Will you trust me if I let you see me?" asked the devil.
"I can try."
"I will allow you to see me, but donít be startled when you see my image."
"Okay," answered Charles.
A car horn distracted Charles and he glanced out the driverís window toward the left lane of traffic. When he faced back to the front, he saw a well-dressed man in his mid- thirties seated on the seat next to him. Charles was startled by his sudden appearance.
"Who are you?"
"Who am I?" asked the man as he raised his eyebrows. "Iím the devil, or Beelzebub, or any one of the countless names I am known by. You asked to see me so here I am. Do you believe in me now?"
"You certainly donít look like the devil."
"And what, may I ask, does the devil look like? A red-skinned guy with horns on his head, hooves on his feet and a pointed tail? Who would trust me if I looked like that?" asked the devil.
"No one I guess," agreed Charles.
Charles looked at the polished snakeskin shoes, the starched white shirt and the designer silk tie. The well-manicured finger nails, and smooth, shaved face with pearly white teeth and quick smile fit perfectly with the bright blue eyes and styled blonde hair. If this were the devil, then so was every Madison Avenue junior executive.
If this is how you look, how do you get the bad reputation and why is everyone so afraid of you?" probed Charles.
"Some people spread bad rumors about me because they didnít get what they asked for," offered the devil. "People always ask for things they shouldnít. Donít you agree?"
Charles nodded attentively. He knew that to be so.
"But what about the soul business?" asked Charles. "What is that all about?"
"Simply put, once you die there is no more tomorrow. Your soul energizes your body much as batteries power a flashlight. But when the batteries die, the flashlight wonít work anymore. When you die, your soul has lost its batteries. Only these batteries canít be replaced. So once you die, you donít need your soul anymore. Thatís why Iím always collecting souls. Iím kind of an environmentalist. I collect souls and use the material for other purposes since the soul is no longer needed for powering a living mortal body."
Charles was truly amazed.
"Letís take your case. You want to make a few changes in your life to improve where you end up. Thatís a fair request. But can you do that alone? I think not. What if you decide you need helpÖwhere can you turn? No one you know can help you. But now that you know me, I can help you do what you already thought to do. It was your idea to go back in your life a few years and change some things. You want to do this. It was not my idea to change your life. I just want to help you change it.
"Do you ever deceive or lie to people?" asked Charles.
"Of course I do. So do you. Should I not trust you?"
The devil had posed a very convincing argument. Charles conceived the idea on his own, hadnít he? He merely lacked the means to carry out his plan.
"So," the devil said, "Would you be willing to give up your soul for a trip back in time? If you are, Charles, Iím here to grant your wish. In return, I will get your soul after your mortal life is over. "But first," the devil spoke slowly, "there are some conditions."
"The conditions are stated in advance so you fully understand what you are agreeing to. You will be able to change only two things when you return. Be prudent, thoughtful and careful. You may change a particular event in your past but it wonít necessarily change or alter an associated event in your future. Do you understand?"
"I think I do."
"And another thingÖyou have to specifically ask for the two things or events you want changed," added the devil.
Charles had to make a choice. On the one hand he wasnít too crazy about making a deal with the devil. What if the devil was deceiving him? What if the soul lived on after his mortal life was over? However, if his soul did live on, where would it liveÖin hell? Even the devilís hell had to be an improvement over his current situation. Charles had one last question.
"What if I change my mind?"
"About what?" demanded the devil impatiently. He looked at his Rolex.
"I am offering you a chance to go back in time and change a few things. I thought that was what you wanted. I have other people to see. Please decide whether you want my help or not?"
"I need some proof that you can do what you claim," said Charles.
"Proof?" asked the devil.
"Either I do what I have agreed to do or I donít get your soul in exchangeÖthis is a win-win proposition for you."
Charles thought about itÖa win-win proposition. If the devil came through, Charles could change his past to engineer his present into a better situation. Charles would owe his useless soul to the devil after a fulfilled life. But, if the devil didnít come through, he would have, at least, attempted to change his life for the better and the devil wouldnít get anything from him.
"Okay," Charles agreed.
"Hey Charlie! Charlie! Are you okay?" asked the new voice in his head.
As Charles blinked his eyes open, he slowly and deliberately took everything in. The long line of cars that had been bumper to bumper had been replaced by a large group of people standing in a ballroom. He wasnít hot and sweaty anymore, either. It was cool. The young man who was standing near him asked him again.
"Hey, CharlieÖyou looked like you were zoned out. Are you okay."
"YeahÖIím okay," answered Charles in a voice just above a whisper.
With a smile and a nod, the young man dove back into the ballroom crowd. Wherever Charles was, the air conditioner was working great. A large, festive banner hanging at one end of the ballroom proclaimed, "VALENTINEíS DAY PARTY." People were standing around chatting and laughing. Where was he? Had the devil made his wish come true? He felt young again and took a moment to look down at his stylish clothes. Charles looked at his reflection in a mirrored panel on the wall. He was a few years youngerÖmaybe ten years younger.
With a smile on his younger face, he turned to take in the surroundings. Then his eyes foundÖ her. They settled on the prettiest young lady he had ever seen. She was lovely, standing quietly and pensively next to the punch bowl. Charles thought briefly of his nagging wifeÖwas she in his past or in his present? He wasnít certain.
"Boy," he said to himself, "The wife I remember was attractive, but she would finish second to this beauty in any contest. However, in a nagging contest, my wife would be second to none."
The new Charles didnít hesitate. He made his way through the maze of people, straightened his tie and popped a breath mint as he neared his target. By the time she lifted her cup and was reaching for the ladle, Charles was at her side. In his most polite and gracious manner Charles said,
"Allow me," as he took her cup and filled it with punch.
"Who are you?" she asked as she took the cup.
"Oh. Youíre the new accountant in bookkeeping." She raised her eyebrows.
"Is that a problem?" asked Charles.
"No. You just donít look like an accountant."
Charles thought about his recent meeting with the devil.
"Well, people donít always look like youíd expect them to look. And who are you, besides the prettiest girl at the party?" he added.
"Iím, Sarah Gallagher. You probably know my father, Tom Gallagher," she replied, not the slightest bit embarrassed about being the bossís daughter.
Charles definitely knew Tom Gallagher. Not personally, but he knew from day one at the company that Tom, or Mr. G, as everyone called him, was the CEO of Trans Continental Shippers. Charles smiled at Sarah and assured her that he had had the pleasure of meeting her father and he shared the feelings of the other mid-level executives that her father was a "very astute leader and a boss who was also a gentleman."
Sarah smiled again. Charles wondered if she was wondering if he was being really sincere, or sincere because he was talking to the bossís daughter. They talked for a while, then Sarah asked Charles if he would like to have lunch with her the next day. Charles accepted her invitation and excused himself. As he entered the menís lounge, he remembered the devils instructions. He decided to make his first request.
"Devil, let this be my first change. I want to marry Sarah."
The voice in his head said, "Done."
With a smile on his face, Charles returned to the ballroom to find Sarah. They spent the rest of the evening enjoying each otherís company.
The next day Charlesí desk planner reminded him that he had a doctorís appointment. He was having problems with his heart the last couple of years and was scheduled for a physical. It was an appointment he was looking forward to. This was not the case for the past two years. Each visit resulted in fear, apprehension, and depression. His heart murmur was getting worse and, on his last visit, the doctor informed him that his only option was a heart transplant.
"Today will be different," thought Charles as he exited the building and hailed a cab.
Charles decided to speak to the devil again.
"Devil, this is my second change. My physical exam today will reveal a young, strong, healthy heart."
Two hours later Charles walked out of the clinic with a clean bill of health. He could still hear the doctorís parting words:
"You are in perfect health and you should live to be one hundred."
When Charles arrived at Sarahís office, his spirits soared when Sarah rose from her desk, moved to his side, took his hand and said,
"Letís take the rest of the day off. Daddy can manage without us."
The next three days were a whirlwind of activities in which Charles and Sarah were inseparable. Walks in the park, on the beach and in the moonlight were intermingled with evenings of dining, dancing, parties, and romance. On the fourth day Sarah "told" Charles he was going to move into her apartment. Charles had momentary misgivings, wondering whether Sarah was acting independently or whether the devil was orchestrating everything. The thoughts were fleeting. He wasnít really concerned with who was in charge. He knew he would soon be married to the bossís daughter. That would assure his place in the bookkeeping department, and practically guarantee that there would be no "pink slips" in his future. His job would be secure and he would live forever -- or practically forever.
"Hell," Charles said to himself, "The devil can have my soul when Iím ninety years old and done with it. What a deal!"
Three months later, he and Sarah were married. Things were looking even better than he had hoped.
Charles was startled into awareness by the blaring horns. The road was finally clearing and Charles was holding up the cars in the lane behind him. The air conditioning in his late model luxury car was working magnificently! The devil had done it! Charles could hardly wait to get home. He had completed his "return trip" and he was dying to get home. As he turned into his driveway, he could see his two sons running out the front door and toward the car. Before he could kill the engine, the boys opened the doors, jumped in the back seat, and began yelling,
"Letís go, Dad. Weíre late for practice. Canít you ever leave the office in time to take us to practice? Letís go!"
Charles would have almost preferred to see the devil beckoning him home rather than these two hellions, but it was some comfort remembering the devilís warning that "some things might not be changed in the future." Charles resigned himself to this small discrepancy in his new life.
"Win a few, lose a few," Charles whispered to himself as he backed out of the driveway and headed for the highway.
A few minutes later, Charles and the boys were caught in rush-hour traffic. The boys started yelling again about getting to practice late. Charles smiled and said to himself,
"I have my health, a beautiful, well-connected wife and my job. I could end up as CEO when Sarahís dad retires. These brats and this traffic are a cakewalk. I canít wait to drop the brats off and get back home."
The traffic slowed to a complete halt. Charles put the car in park, leaned back in his seat and locked his fingers behind his head. Life was sweet.
"Burn in hell you adulterous SOB," reached Charlesí ears.
He sat up and turned his head in the direction of the voice. In the car next to him and on his left, sat an enraged Sarah, her flaming eyes moving from Charles to the boys in the back seat and back to Charles.
"Hurry up, Dad," yelled one of the boys.
Before Charles could say, "But you donít understand, I can explain," a small caliber pistol appeared from Sarahís window and belched out a flash and a small cloud of smoke. Although everything happened in an instant, to Charles it seemed to transpire in slow motion. The bullet crossed the few feet from the muzzle to where Charles was sitting and entered his head at his forehead, just over his left eye. The impact of the bullet threw Charles to the right and onto his side on the front seat of the car.
"No, please, no," moaned Charles. He crawled across the seat, opened the passenger door, and tumbled out. The boys stopped yelling and froze in horror. Charles struggled to his hands and knees, and made his way several yards from the car and looked back. To his amazement, he could still see his body lying on the front seat. Charles heard his wife ordering the boys to get into her car. He was aware of the events transpiring several feet from him.
When the boys were in her car, Sarah floored the accelerator and left the scene. Charles couldnít understand why he was still aware of what was happening around him. Then he shivered as he heard a familiar voice softly whisper,
"Come along Charles. A dealís a deal."
"But Iím alive," squeaked Charles. "Iím still conscious."
"Oh, your bodyís dead all right," hissed the deceiver. "Your eternal soul, however, is still quite alive and conscious, but, as I recallÖbelongs to me. Come along now. Itís time for your return trip."
For a brief moment everything went black for Charles. But a loud horn woke him. He was back in his car and tied up in traffic. It mustíve been the old car -- perspiration was flowing freely from every pore in his body and he was soaked. It took a few moments to compose himself. He put the car into gear and inched forward a few empty spaces before he was stopped again. Had he been dreaming, he wondered? He was caught in traffic, in his old car with the air conditioner that didnít work and the "Engine Hot" light glowing orange.
"Whew!" Charles exclaimed. "I must have been on one of my daydreaming trips and now Iím back. Boy, was I worried. I thought the devil had me and that I was going to be his forever. What an imagination I have. Imagine, me in hell?"
Charles, struggled through the last few miles of bumper to bumper traffic, although he had to admit, he felt somewhat hotter than he had before he left on his daydreaming trip. When he finally arrived home, the car stalled before he could turn off the ignition. The two hellions sprang from the door shouting,
"Dad, hurry, weíre late for soccer. Donít stop the car. Come on, letís go," When his wife came out into the yard, he was almost glad to see herÖuntil she started her tirade.
"And where have you been, you loser? I got a call, hours ago, from work checking to see if you made it home all right. They tell me that you were fired. Is that true? If it is, my motherís going to have to move in with us to help me with the kids until you can find another job. That had better be soon because I donít want you loafing around the house all day. Now get these boys to soccer and get them back in time for supper. Did you hear me? Answer me," she yelled in a voice that could easily wake the dead.
"The car died and it wonít start," was all Charles could mumble.
"Well then take mine, but it needs gas."
Charles got into his wifeís car and the boys followed. They jumped into the back seat and started yelling and fighting with one another.
Charles made his way back to the crowded highway and his old friend, the bumper to bumper traffic jam. He turned the air conditioner on and set the level to high, but it didnít seem to have much effect on the heat in the car. Everything seemed so hot. Charles began to reflect upon the "dreams" of earlier in the day.
"Boy," he thought to himself, "to think that the devil almost had me."
A familiar voice made his skin crawl.
"Charles, I know you think that youíre back to where you started, but youíre wrong. Oh, I have you now. You belong to me, and by your own choice, I might add."
"Itís not true, "Charles said aloud, "Itís not true."
"If it isnít, then ask the two boys in the back seat who they are. Go ahead."
Charles looked into the rearview mirror at the two "boys" seated in the rear, still fighting. They were hideous.
"Who, what are you?" Charles demanded.
"Weíre the demons that are assigned to you. We will be with you from now on, like your "wife."
"What do you mean? Whatís going on here!" shouted a frightened Charles.
"Charles," said the familiar voice, "You have made your last return trip. You can think of it like this. You may have already been here and now you are back, or you might have gotten what you wanted in your life and now youíre here. In either case, you agreed that you would give me your soul, remember?"
"But Iím not in hell. Iím home, with my children and wife."
"Well, you can certainly look at it that way. But if that were true, you could be certain that time would change those things. You would grow old with your wife; your children would grow up and move away. Am I correct?"
"Charles, I have some bad news for youÖ this is where you will be from now onÖfor eternity. By your own admission, this was the "Hell" you wanted to escape by making an agreement with me for changes in your life. I gave you the changes but I cautioned you the end might not change."
"Then, this isÖ" Charles began to tremble.
"This is your last return trip, no more daydreaming. Welcome to your hell CharlesÖwelcome home."
The laugh that Charles would hear forever began to ring in his ears. It grew louder and louder and louderÖ
© 2007 Dale F. Willett
Bio: Dale F. Willett is a retired Air Force officer and high school Air Force JROTC instructor. He has been writing for six years. A number of his stories have been published in the MacGuffin and the Emerald Coast Writer's SandScript Journal. His most recent story, Shadow Dancers, was published in the Serials section of the May issue of Aphelion.
E-mail: Dale F. Willett
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