Part III: Just More:
“What happened down there,” Valeria repeated, in a basso undertone that seemed too deep for her frame, and which resonated to the extent that, briefly, her voice could be felt as a subtle vibration in the floor. Max took the enamelware off the heating element. The cry it uttered resembled one of disappointment, as if the kettle was upset at being taken from the heat.
“Your mugs all have pictures of your face on them,” Max remarked, laughingly, as he removed one from a cupboard. He hadn’t asked her where she kept the mugs.
“Not all of them do,” she replied, for-instancing the one that she held, with both hands.
“Why not all of them?”
Her brow darkened. She stood very still before speaking, letting the silence lengthen and thicken. “After you’ve killed me, will you remember what we said during this conversation?” He turned, somberly, his darkly handsome face frowning also. “In detail, I mean,” she continued. “Like, years later, in your living room, when you yourself are close to going to your reward, and maybe when you have some grandchildren assembled around you, and you’re recounting how life was before the robots started doing all the work - including my work, as a model, and your work, as an assassin --”
“Val,” he said, sharply.
“-- when you tell them the story about how you shot me in my own house, are you going to include the detail about the mugs? ‘Listen kiddos,’” Valeria mimicked, screwing her mouth up the side, “‘she had these mugs with her own mug plastered all over them. You wouldn’t believe it. After papa shot her, he kept one as a souvenir. See, here it is,’ and then you show them, and you join them in laughing at how anyone could have taken that face so seriously as to sell her soul for its sake.”
“So we’re getting to it,” Max said, softly. “Is that what you sold your soul for?”
“You wanted to know what happened down there,” Valeria replied, her eyes hard black stones that gave back none of the light they were given. He hadn’t turned his whole back to her, and while Max poured the hot water over the grounds in the filter bag she stared at the part of his face she could still see with those igneous eyes. She waited for him to say something, and, as she stood in her bathrobe, in her own kitchen, in her giant empty house, none of which felt like hers anymore, not even her own body, which could be conveyed to hell with a single bullet from the ugly hardware tucked so obviously into his waist, tucked in there the way a man would tuck it who is unaccustomed to carrying a firearm around but who wishes to appear as if he does, she was struck by a singular feeling: of absurdity. How stupid is this, she thought, and, for a moment, Valeria was confronted with the full weight of what she had done. Suffered under the appalling weight of this absurd truth. Only then was she able to go back in time, to relate what she experienced underneath the abandoned building all those years ago, and she began:
The little girl she had been, the orphan in all but name, who went as Stacy back then, moved impatiently over the dirt floor of the old cellar, lit by the unearthly sanguine glow mentioned before, which illuminated also the petrified and stinking corpse of the strange animal. Lit by this ambient glow, her child’s face looked sinister, as if she herself had killed the strange beast with her bare hands. She was already different, and she knew it, even as her precocious heart clubbed in her little chest, she fully understood that terrifying admonishment of Christ’s, which her cult’s pastor had drilled into her head and in the heads of all of the abandoned and semi-abandoned vulnerable young children in his priestly charge: that to think of a sin is to already commit it.
“Could you have given it up then, and gone home?” Max interrupted, while waiting for the hot water he had poured to sluice through the rich grounds.
“No,” Valeria replied. “I don’t believe I could’ve.”
She stood on the little mound down there. She breathed several times with her eyes closed, and then swallowed. She opened her eyes. It was then very easy for her to say the words the old man in the candy store had taught her. Her arms at attention, she lifted her chin, turned her eyes up to the low ceiling, as if hoping her voice would carry in that direction, though suspecting the opposite was true, and she uttered the cant with a power and an intention that belied her age. Aware - fully aware - of the gambit she had launched, risking it all, all of it, because she wouldn’t consent to live another second as she had been living. If Stacy would never feel her mother’s love, or her father’s love, then, at the very least, she would make strangers love her, she would become a celebrity, the embodiment of certain dear and private desires that the public holds in its heart, even the happily married, even the empowered, even people who are volitional. She would become aloof, austere, beautiful, and inaccessible, perfectly inaccessible, and thereby she would inspire envy, flattery, rue, even hatred - and above all, grudging love.
“To show you what I mean,” Valeria continued, “and maybe you remember this, Max, I think you were with me, there was that one fan who found his way into my dressing room in Milan, even getting past the guards somehow. He looked as if he may have been in the industry himself, he was very well-built, and had a fair sense of fashion. He asked me very politely for a moment of my time, to autograph a printout of a still from a shoot I had done earlier that year. I looked him right in the eye and I said no, and as his face melted I told him that I had already given him the improbable gift of a moment of my time, and then I raised my hand above his head, pointed downward, and the guards hustled him out. By the nape of his neck, at one point, when he tried to protest. I’ve never seen him since, but I know, without being told, that the childish admiration he had for me before meeting me changed to fear after he met me, which is to say, it changed into the love we hold for a stern father or an arbitrary god. They all - no matter how happily they are married, no matter how decent they are to everyone around them - crave the power I have: the power to embarrass a perfectly polite man by having him physically muscled from their sight. Just to do it, and to enjoy doing it. I feel their grudging respect, their reluctant love, each and every day. I’m comforted just knowing it’s there.”
“People admire you because they want to hurt people the way you do?” Max asked. Derisively. In the tone of someone who feels he has the upper hand in a contest the stake of which is life itself. He cooled the coffee by blowing on it, watching her from over the brim of the mug as he did so, with her image staring at her coldly from the mug.
“Search yourself,” she replied.
He actually laughed. “That’s fair,” he averred. “Go on.”
“It was only a voice at first. I had no doubt that it was the devil. The timber of the voice seemed to come from the bottom of a bubbling caldera, or from a giant comet bearing down on one’s house. I don’t know how else to describe it. It didn’t sound like a man’s voice or a woman’s voice, either, but both, or maybe neither. I’ll never forget it. The first thing it said was, ‘You’re very young to know exactly what you want.’
“‘That’s my business,’ I replied. You may not believe it, but that’s what I said. A sassy little one, to the end.”
Max watched intently. He seemed already to have forgotten his mug full of Just Pour coffee.
Valeria gestured with her free hand as if warming it over a fire. “The voice replied: ‘You should know, girl, that I give people exactly what they want.’
“‘Well that’s why I’m here,’
“‘You think so.’
“‘I know so,’ I said. ‘Now, make me the most beautiful woman you can make me into so that I can have the power to make people love me.’
“‘All well and good,’ the voice replied, from the gloom beyond the red light.”
“The devil,” Max breathed. His eyes had begun to shimmer with strong emotion.
“Yes, the devil. So. All well and good! ‘What do I need to give you in return?’
“‘Your life,’ the devil replied, immediately, ‘at the age of 40, when your looks ultimately lose the power to make people love you in the way that you want.’
“‘Darkness, girl. Utter, smothering darkness.’
“To be honest, I hesitated when I heard the price. The voice must have known why I hesitated. ‘But in return you will get all that you desire. All. The public will exalt you. Other beautiful people will slander you in public but they will lay awake at night in fearful love of you, in abject worship of you. You know what abject means, don’t you, brave one? And you will receive awards, and accolades. You will get rich from your work, and your wealth and honor will make people love you even more fervently. Eventually, a fan club will emerge, several of them, all over the world, and their members will worship you like a cult fetish, they will fearfully love you as they would a god. You will be as perfect, and as remote, as a celestial being descended to earth. From the stars, little one. You will live in the full glow of your fulfilled wish for twenty years. Now think. How many people ever earn a full twenty years when they get what they most want from life? That’s right. Not many. What you desire, the richest and most powerful men on earth desire - and you will have it.’”
“Until you don’t,” Max finished for her. His face had changed. He had become a murderer, in his heart, working himself up to the state necessary to taking another life. [He had, to that point, never hurt anyone.] He sipped from the mug and smacked his lips. Valeria was watching him quietly the while. He set the mug down. “Do you want to know what I bargained with the devil for?” he asked.
“No,” she replied. His eyes snapped to hers in shock. “I could care less,” she continued, grinning wickedly, a hyperbolic and vulpine grin: the grin of an empress, meting out justice as she sees fit.
“What is that, then?” Max asked, murderously, his eyes hard and bright. “Your last ‘fuck-you’ to me?”
“Maybe not the last,” Valeria replied. He questioned her with his eyes. “You sold your soul to the devil for some reason. What that reason is doesn’t interest me, frankly. But, you sold it in exchange for killing me. Am I right about that?”
He turned his head away from her, shifting his gaze to the floor.
“Killing me, your bullying boss.”
Max turned his eyes back to her, hard and ugly. Smiling tightly.
“Well, excellent. Except...I didn’t go through with it.”
His hand paused behind his back, one sheer moment from drawing the pistol. His eyes grew to saucers. “Bullshit.”
“That thing, ‘the devil’, whatever it is, is very clever. When you petitioned it, it may have sized you up and found you unworthy. Found you to be a mean-souled little lackey, a yes-man. A toad. You probably wanted to sell your soul to it for the best sex in the world, or some stupid nonsense like that. So, it laughed - didn’t it - and told you, well, you can have all the great sex you want for twenty years, but first shoot your boss dead. She owes me. So you know what will happen. You’ll shoot me, but nothing will happen, because the terms of the agreement are not genuine. I don’t owe the devil shit, because I never accepted its terms.”
“Then how did you --”
Valeria laughed. “I climbed out of there as if a weight had fallen from my shoulders. It was terrific. I danced all around that old out-building, in the humid and hot air, until I tired myself out. My relief was so great that I cried - out of happiness! And guess what? After a few years, puberty hit, and I became tall and beautiful! I couldn’t believe it. I actually questioned myself, like, had I actually sold my soul down there? But I hadn’t. I was destined from birth to be the woman I most wanted to be: cold, lovely, and austere. I could still say, ‘to hell with them all,’ because my very body grew into that abnormal, elongated form and figure that our industry prefers. In other words, I really am this beautiful. The devil wants you to shoot me because I got what I wanted without the devil’s intercession.”
“But if I shoot you --”
“---you’ll only go to jail.” She grinned evilly. “Where you may get something of what you wish for, but not how you want it.”
Max lowered his head into his hands. One hand still holding the pistol.
“There, there, Max. You’re not built for this, babe. You’re a toad. You were made to serve real people, like me. And you’re very good at it. I mean it. It’s when you try to act like a boss that you get into trouble.” He looked up from his hands, ravished, his face already scarred with tears. She tilted her long head, ironically. “Booby. I’m so sorry. You know what? I’ll transfer some money to your account and you can take a little sex vacation. How does that sound?”
“Dammit!” he spat, in a spasm of raw feeling. He dragged his forearm across his eyes, wiping away the tears that were even then falling down. He tucked his pistol back in, took up his mug once more, and had a drink of the Speedwell roast. He then looked at her, red-faced, rueful like a spoiled child.
Her tone of voice was sympathetic, conciliatory. “Do we have a deal?”
He nodded his head, yes.
“Good. Now get the hell out of my house.”
Max set the mug down without a word. He came around the island, his arms swinging at his sides, incredulous, crestfallen. Valeria came up to him as he came around the island, making only a very narrow path for him to get by her. As he walked past, she turned with him, smiling the while. “You know which way the door is, don’t you, big fella?”
He couldn’t speak, for his shame and disappointment. He had taken a few steps before she called him back. He turned, and saw his own pistol pointed at him, which she had lifted from his waistband as he squeezed by her. He turned fully around and began to raise his hands.
“Val,” he said.
“Look at how fucking perfect I am. Of course I sold my soul for these looks.”
And she shot him between the eyes. He crashed backward to the floor, dead. The roar of the pistol had hurt her ears, and she winced as she lowered her arm. She turned back and set the pistol down on the big island counter and then she took her coffee up. She didn’t have to wait long. She enjoyed the roasty flavors of her Just Pour coffee in the meanwhile. It was delicious, indeed.
“You’ve won yourself another few minutes,” it said, in an uncanny voice, impossibly resonant. “Congratulations.”
“Yay me,” she replied, blithely. She took a breath, and then turned around. She wasn’t terribly surprised to see the anonymous animal corpse from the cellar all those years before standing in her own house, regarding her almost charitably with its vicious little eyes. Stinking. It stood over Max’s body as if to claim a kill.
“Are you ready?” it asked, its dead eyes lazarously lustrous.
“Would you care if I wasn’t ready?”
Stacy laughed at the thing, and not long afterward, not seeing any reason to stop laughing, she kept on, she filled the house with laughter, made her laughter reverberate throughout her colossal and empty color-coded house. Bunching her fingers up with laughter, writhing with it, as the animal grew to an enormous size, laughing, laughing.
The coffee mug smashed to the floor in an empty house.
The moral of this story is: when it comes time to pay for debt for having sold your soul to the devil, it’s best to go out having consumed a fresh cup of Just Pour Coffee. We’re kidding, of course - though we sincerely hope you enjoyed the read! Thank you!