Thick trees loomed over the dirt road winding beneath them, their branches snaking across to form a jagged ceiling that blotted out the sky. Many of them had dropped their leaves, which covered the road almost completely in some spots and obscured the bumps and divots which the car’s wheels kept hitting. Numerous twists and turns forced Preston to drive slowly. He squinted to see farther ahead into the darkness, hoping the fork in the road would soon come into view, but all the pale yellow glow of the headlights revealed to him were continuous walls of trees. He glanced at the arrow on his fuel gauge creeping lower and lower and dreaded the possibility of running out of gas in these woods. The path was too narrow for him to turn the car around, so his only option was to keep moving forward until he found the Trader.
Preston had lost all sense of time and bearing when the trees suddenly disappeared and he found himself in what he assumed was a broad clearing or a field. A few moments later, the fork in the road appeared up ahead. Preston pulled the car to a stop and looked all around for any sign of The Trader, but there was nothing to see in the surrounding darkness. He turned off the engine and listened for the sound of footsteps or another car, but the night was extraordinarily still. He could not hear the calls of any night birds or insects or even the whistling of the wind.
After several minutes, Preston reached over and opened the shoe box sitting next to him on the passenger’s seat. He stashed the wad of money, the silver pocket watch, and his mother’s pearls into one pocket of his coat, then nervously picked up the revolver and put it in his other pocket. He inhaled a deep breath to steel his nerves and opened the car door.
The crunch of Preston’s footsteps on the hard ground echoed in the heavy silence. He slowly walked around the back of the car, keeping one hand on it and the other hand on the gun in his pocket as he peered into the darkness. He could not make out the tree line in any direction; the clearing must have been very wide. He stopped next to the front of the car and huddled close to the brightness of the passenger side headlight. He cleared his throat and called out in a voice that still wavered despite his best efforts:
“Hello? Can anybody hear me?”
No answer from the eerie stillness. Preston waited in silence for a while, but eventually impatience began to overtake his fear. Summoning his courage, he cautiously stepped away from the car and into the yellow arc of light cast by the headlights. He moved forward to the center of the fork and hollered into the shadows once more:
“Is anybody out there?”
He waited for a response, but there was none. Preston began to wonder whether the bartender had played him for a fool and sent him out to the middle of nowhere to wait for nothing. Perhaps the whole bar was laughing right now about the great joke they had pulled on the dumb kid from the sticks. But Papa had told him to follow to the bartender’s directions, and why would Papa mislead him? The only thing Preston could decide on for sure was that if he had to keep waiting, he would rather wait in the car. As he turned around, a dark shape suddenly moved to block the driver’s side headlight. Preston’s eyes shot open and he staggered back in fright.
A man was standing in front of the car. He wore a long, black overcoat with a thick collar of dark fur and a wide-brimmed black hat, both of which cast shadows that obscured portions of his face. But the sidelong glow from the unobstructed headlight illuminated two piercing eyes set above prominent cheekbones, and those dark eyes were fixed on Preston.
“Who are you?” Preston stammered. “Are you the Trader?”
“Have you come here alone, boy?” the man asked in a gravelly rasp.
“Yes,” Preston answered. The man responded with a nod.
“What do you want?” the Trader asked.
“Do you know a man named Robert Davis?”
“Do you know a man named Robert Davis?”
“Well, he’s my papa, and he’s really sick,” Preston said tentatively. “He doesn’t have much time left,” Preston continued. “He said that you had something of his, and he sent me here to…to ask if you’d give it back.”
The Trader laughed a dry, flinty chuckle. “Give it back?” he smirked. “I think not, boy.”
“I can pay you,” Preston offered. He pulled the watch, pearls, and money out from his coat pocket and held them up for the Trader to see.
“Not enough,” the Trader replied matter-of-factly.
“How much more do you want?” Preston asked.
“I suspect more than you are willing to give,” the Trader said, and he began to turn away.
“Name a price!” Preston exclaimed desperately. “If I don’t have enough now, I’ll find a way to get you more! Please, my papa is dying!”
The Trader paused, then he turned back to fix his penetrating eyes on Preston once more. “Son,” he asked, “do you have any idea just what your papa traded me?”
“No,” Preston replied.
“His soul. His everlasting soul. So unless you can offer me something of equal or greater value, I don’t believe we have anything more to discuss.”
“But why would my papa trade you his soul?” Preston asked.
“The same reason anyone would,” the Trader answered. “To get something that cannot be gotten by any other earthly means. In your papa’s case, it was you.”
“Your mama was barren for years,” the Trader told him. “It made her so despondent that one night she tried to poison herself. She pulled through it, but your papa knew she would try again before too long, so he came to me and made a trade.”
Preston was dumbstruck. He had never known anything about this family secret and would scarcely have believed it, but how else could this man know about it? Why would Papa send him here if it weren’t true?
“How do you know all that?” Preston asked the Trader.
The Trader smiled smugly. “I don’t know, boy,” he retorted sarcastically. “You tell me.”
Preston considered the possibilities. If such a story were true, Papa and Mama might have kept it from him to hide their own shame. Or maybe they just didn’t want him to feel responsible, like he was to blame for his parents’ suffering. He tried to banish that thought from his mind.
“It can’t be,” he said. “How could you…?”
“I don’t like having to repeat myself,” the Trader interrupted. “And since I get the impression you’re not going to make a deal, I’d say our discussion is over.” He turned and started to stroll off into the darkness, but Preston suddenly pulled the revolver out of his pocket.
“Hold it!” Preston cried in a voice full of desperation and fear. The Trader turned around casually and looked at the gun.
“What do you think you’re going to do with that?” he asked incredulously.
“I don’t know who you are or what you think you can do,” Preston exclaimed. “But if you have something that belongs to my father, you better give it back now!”
“Boy, you should never turn a gun on someone unless you intend to use it,” the Trader warned. He took a step toward Preston.
“Stay back!” Preston shouted, gripping the pistol with both hands to keep it from shaking.
“If you’re going to shoot me, shoot me,” the Trader said. “But then we definitely won’t make a deal, and what will become of your poor papa? And after all he’s done for you…” He took another step forward, then another. Preston felt himself edge away in retreat, but he bit his lip and tried to stand tall. The Trader sneered and raised one black-gloved hand, pointing his finger like a gun at Preston.
“Bang,” he hissed.
Suddenly, the pistol in Preston’s hands blew apart. He tumbled backwards, and it seemed like the Trader had a hand over his throat to pin him down the instant he hit the ground.
“You’re not too smart, boy,” the Trader growled. “If you’re going to threaten someone to get what you want, you better be sure you can make good on your threats. It looks like our little negotiation is not going to end very well.”
“Wait,” Preston wheezed frantically. “What if I trade you mine?”
The Trader relaxed his grip on Preston’s throat. “Trade me your what?”
“My soul,” Preston answered. “Mine for my papa’s.”
“Is that a serious offer?” the Trader asked.
“Yes. If I’m the reason Papa gave up his, then I owe him mine, so you can have it.”
A smile slowly spread over the Trader’s lips. “All right then, we have an even trade. Let’s drink to it.”
He removed his hand from Preston’s throat and reached into his coat to withdraw a silver flask. He unscrewed the cap and took a deep swig, then he extended it to Preston and said, “Go on, boy. Seal the deal.”
Preston slowly took the flask from the Trader’s hand and raised it to his lips to drink. Whatever it was he swallowed burned his throat like hellfire. He coughed and gagged, but he felt the scalding heat slide down into his belly and smolder. The Trader laughed, and the deep, harsh sound rang in Preston’s ears. Then the fire in his belly subsided and his breath returned.
“Go home, boy,” the Trader said as he rose to his feet. “Your papa has his soul back. But don’t you ever forget our deal.” With that, he stepped over Preston and disappeared into the shadows. Preston slowly got up, his mind still reeling like he had just woken up from a bad dream. He staggered back to the car and cast one more look around at the darkness before getting in. He still could not fathom where exactly the Trader had come from or gone to, but he felt reasonably sure the man would keep his word. Preston fired up the old Six, whipped it around the fork in the road, and headed back out of the forest.
The sun was just rising when Preston pulled up under the lean-to at home and breathed a huge sigh of exhausted relief. He lifted the shoebox containing Papa and Mama’s valuables and hefted his tired body out of the car. After a night of no sleep, his bed was going to feel really good. He made a mental note to sneak Mama’s pearls back into her drawer at the earliest opportunity before going to sleep.
“Mama, I’m back,” he called as he entered the front door. He started down the hall toward his parents’ bedroom but stopped when he saw Mama appear in the doorway. Her reddened eyes had a hopeless look and her cheeks were streaked with fresh tears.
“Where were you?” she sobbed. “Why were you gone so long?”
“I was doing something for Papa,” Preston replied. “How is he?” When Mama could not reply, he slowly walked past her into the bedroom. He found Papa lying motionless in bed, his eyes closed and his chest totally still. Preston froze in silent disbelief.
“He slipped away in the night,” Mama whispered in a cracking voice. “He seemed peaceful at the end, like he knew everything was going to be all right.”
Preston stood frozen in silent disbelief. This should not have happened; he had made the trade. Had Papa died before he reached Thunder Bay? Or had the Trader simply cheated him and broken their agreement? Then it dawned on Preston that he had traded for Papa’s soul but not his life. The Trader had honored his end of the bargain to the letter and no more. Preston’s heart sank as he realized the enormity of what he had done. He thought of Papa’s panicked pleas the night before and imagined himself speaking those words, terrified by the knowledge that his own soul was forfeit. He felt himself begin to tremble.
“Oh, Preston,” Mama wept, and she threw her arms around him. “Be strong, son. We’ll find a way to carry on. We’ll have to find a way.”
“Yes, we will,” Preston whispered, but the words felt hollow to him. He had no idea how they could carry on or how he could take care of Mama or even himself now. Then a thought crept into his mind, a plan that was deeply unsettling yet very simple. He unwrapped Mama’s arms from around him and turned to face her.
“Mama, I need a favor.”
Copyright (C) 2012 by Eric Landuyt