“It’s time, Ed.”
The old man opened his eyes. It was dark outside, so he knew it was time to wake up – for safety’s sake. Demons and devils didn’t crawl willingly out into the daytime, not when the shadows they craved were so abundant in the darkness. He had no intention of being devoured in his sleep.
Glancing around, no one else was there. He must have been dreaming that someone had spoken.
Sitting up on the edge of the hideaway bed inside his silver 1960s Streamline Prince travel trailer, he could see by a nightlight hanging down from a tied-off extension cord on the opposite wall. Tacky trinkets and collectibles filled every counter and shelf, all the spaces not already occupied by picture frames of lost friends and relatives.
There was also the over-sized manila envelope on the end table, but Ed hadn’t made up his mind about that yet.
The bits of junk around him used to seem so important, but nothing comforted him anymore. All he felt was numb, day after day…so why could he hear laughter coming from outside? Some of the distant voices sounded familiar.
Ed struggled for a moment getting to his feet as his old bones tried to keep up. He feared the overheard festivities were just another dream, that thinking too hard about them would cause the laughter to stop before he could discover its source. His worries ceased as he allowed elation into his heart, eyeing the main house just across the yard through a window screen. Porch lights ringed the outer walkway of the old home there, and a celebration of some kind was definitely happening inside.
It had been a long time since he’d thought of laughter.
One person was staring back from inside, but his old eyes couldn’t reckon the details. Light hair or dark? Young or old? Why was she the only one who noticed him?
Yes, he was sure a woman had noticed him.
Throwing open the door, Ed found himself inside the neighboring house, not in the grassy yard between it and his trailer as he had expected, traversing the distance in an instant. Silence had replaced the mingling and festivities; bodies had replaced his friends and relatives. Crimson splatters and pools of blood were everywhere.
No, no, no, no, no…
In the floor between the living room and the kitchen was a thick metal grate; a central furnace heated the old house from the crawlspace below. Tiny red rivers had snaked their way across the floor and steadily dripped into the black chasm, each drop hissing below after it fell.
Ed found his gaze held there, mesmerized by an orange glow and wisps of flame belching up from its depths – a portal straight down into Hell. He didn’t doubt that he was trapped in a nightmare; dread and helplessness shook his soul with the knowledge that he couldn’t wake up from it.
As always, the Devil appeared.
“Didn’t you hear me, Ed? It’s time.”
He wasn’t a red man with horns like those Halloween costumes. The Fallen One was a perfect specimen of manhood, tall and strong, of an indeterminable middle age. His dark hair framed a darker smile, pleased in his choice to appropriate his dead brother’s clothes.
The old man shook his head. “Why didn’t you just kill me with all of the others?”
“Every performance is better with an audience.” The Devil tossed a Bible down at Ed’s feet. “You weren’t content with the stories, so I was obliged to come.” He chuckled at his own words as though they meant something more. “You believe in me now, don’t you?”
When Ed looked up from the Bible, the bodies were gone. The thick, coppery smell of drawn blood had been replaced with the scents of bleach and other acrid cleaners. Firm hands gripped Ed’s shoulders from behind as the Devil breathed down his neck.
“I consider myself a polite house guest, so I took the time to clean up after myself – but I would appreciate it, Ed, if you took care of something for me. Do this and I’ll leave you and your dying community alone for the remainder of your days. Have we got a deal?”
In the passenger’s seat of his 1965 Ford pickup, Ed eyed a pry bar next to his Bible. Across the road, a one-room church on a hilltop loomed over an old cemetery, bathed in the light of a full moon high in the night sky. Two rusty gas cans and a plastic fuel container waited in the bed of his faded red truck – all of them full.
The containers were emptied; a match was lit.
Arnie, the local sheriff, tapped on the truck’s window as the church burned in the background. “Open the door, Ed. We gotta talk.”
Ed shook his head and reached for his Bible…
…but it was gone.
“Crack the window,” the sheriff told him.
He cranked the handle as fast as he could, but the window didn’t budge. The inside of the truck was sweltering; smoke began to roll up from the floorboards.
Where the hell had his Bible gotten off to?
Ed searched the seat again, finding the familiar and once-white cracked upholstery burned away to reveal stained wood underneath, exactly like that of a church pew.
The truck was gone.
Trapped inside the church, Ed sat and watched as the flames consumed everything around him. The bodies of his friends and relatives were close by, smoldering just before the intense heat ignited each corpse. Each time Ed looked in a different direction, the bodies he had just seen were closer than before. The inferno roared through the rafters above as the timbers charred and cracked.
The applause of a single being came from the pulpit.
Lucifer stepped down from behind the lectern as the fires of Hell danced for his pleasure. Darkness closed in around the two of them until Ed could see only the eyes of Satan: fathomless portals into an infinite abyss.
The roof began to collapse.
“It’s time! You hear me?”