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TWINKLE

Benjamin Bright is. He is convinced of it. Sometimes he prefers the word "brilliant," but on the whole he acknowledges the aptness of his surname. "Bright enough to beat the devil," he frequently remarks—mostly to himself of late, his circle of acquaintances having caught on. Nevertheless, rumor of the sentiment circulates, and it catches the devil's attention.

    "Well, hell," Old Nick muses, checking his calendar. "Why not?"

    So he pops up at a disconcerting moment, a favorite technique. But Ben finishes what he is doing, flushes the toilet, and says, "You old devil, you."

    "Old enough," the Horned One acknowledges. "Some might even say 'long in the tooth'," he adds with a smile that more than adequately displays the expression's aptness.

    "Are you here to make the classic offer?" Ben asks, after a moment's hesitation, while escorting his guest to the living room—mentally noting he'd have to pick up some industrial strength air freshener after this visit.

    "Yeah, sure," Old Nick responds, settling on Ben's favorite chair. "We can always use more like you back home. I think you're on our reservation list already, but it can't hurt to confirm it now."

    Ben lifts a brow. "I hadn't thought I'd been all that bad a fellow—" he begins, but breaks off. "Oh. You're just being yourself."

    "You're down on our list as a user and abuser, with no time for others' feelings or concerns."

    Ben rolls his eyes heavenward, then suddenly self conscious about it, shrugs.

    "I know, I know," Nick nods. "Buzzwords. Mealy-mouthed emotional crap. Like—well, say, how would you define the word 'remorse'?"

    "I dunno. Regret over wasted effort or resources, I guess. Why?"

    "Nah, doesn't matter. Pretty much what I figured, and I can appreciate your point of view. Meanwhile, I figure you can come along with me now, or tomorrow, at 3:23 PM Eastern Standard Time, shot by a burglar. Or, if you're as smart as you think you are, you can postpone it indefinitely." Nick shrugs. "Just one thing—"

    Ben sits down on his couch, a bit shaky. Discovering the immediacy of one's mortality can be intimidating. Finally he prompts, "What's that?"

    "That's it. You just get one wish."

    "Oh. I always thought—"

    "Three wishes? Children's stories. Fairy tales. Pudding-Nose, and The Monkey's Paw and all that. Right? Right. You guys come along every day, always figuring you've got the clever twist, the trick that gets you out of paying your dues. I said we could always use more of your type—I didn't say we were running out of them."

    "Okay, okay!" Ben holds up a hand. "I'm due to go tomorrow? Then, before I blow it, what are the rules? Is there an out?"

    Nick sighs. "I'm called the Prince of Lies, Ben Bright. But there are rules, which I have to abide by, and you know there is always an out and you know what it is. But you're too clever to take it."

    Ben would have responded with a moment's thoughtful gaze, but it's one of the devil's strengths that he is difficult to look at squarely.

    "Besides," Nick continues, "I know that you've been putting a lot of effort into working out just the right wishes."

    Ben nods gloomily. "That's the problem. 'Wishes,' not wish."

    "Look, I've read a lot of those stories, myself. Some are silly, some hold together pretty well. But some of the 'rules' they want to make me adhere to are strictly the authors' inventions. There's no time limit, for instance—one of those Cinderella deals where it's all over by midnight—so if you want immortality, go for it."

    "No, no thanks. Without the second and third wish to qualify it, I can't. In any case, I can imagine that those who ask for immortality sooner or later regret it."

    "Sooner or later," Nick nods. If his smile is meant as encouraging, it doesn't have much of that effect on Ben. "I knew you were going to be fun," he muses aloud. "Most people never catch on to the idea that the spheres of Heaven and Hell are not separate, and the mortal sphere, including Earth, partakes of both."

    "Not separate? What about the ... uh, climate?"

    The Old One grins. "One man's meat? How long do you think you'd like it in the realm that, say, José Rivera, your father's gardener, would call Heaven? Or in your average Seventh Day Adventist's? Not to mention some of the ideas of religionists you might find less familiar..."

    "I don't know. Not for long, I guess."

    "Long? We're talking eternity, here—ever crash a party where you know you don't belong?"

    "I think I'm beginning to get the idea..."

    "Not even a start, Ben. Things like that can be unpleasant, yes, but well, hell, Hell is something else. You'll find out soon enough."

    "I wish you'd—"

    Ben stops, foot on figurative brake, his eyes wide.

    "Uh, huh—Tiptoe, on the cliff's edge..." Old Nick warbles, devilishly off-key, in a Tiny Tim impression that would have been more creditable had it been in a less gravelly bass. "Feels good, does it, Ben? You get one wish, and that's it..."

    "I didn't—"

    "....and then I gotcha...!"

    "Please, I—"

    "I'm not the forgiving sort, Ben. They say that's a divine kinda thing, not my style. And you've been bugging me with this 'Beat the Devil' bit for about as long as I can take," Nick lied, watching Ben's face turn a brighter shade of pale.

    "But," he finally added, "we'll say you stopped yourself just in time. This time."

    "I—" Ben swallows. "Thank y—"

    Something in Old Nick's expression reminds Ben of his childhood cat, Buttons, letting a mouse he'd been toying with get away to an exitless corner of the room.

    "I wouldn't thank me if I were you, Benjamin. Anticipation makes the sauce all the spicier...and I like my salsa con muchos jalapeños. But cheer up. There are some wishes that simply aren't valid. Such as anything general dealing with how I conduct myself, for instance. I am the Tempter and the Trickster; I cannot be otherwise.

    "No—" Noting a quick glint from behind Ben's specs, he raises a scaly finger. "By the same token, you can't ask me to let you alone. Of course, even if it were a valid wish, you might want to figure out a different way to phrase it... Some of the better parts of Hell are pretty lonely.

    "But you were asking about the rules, such as they are. I can read the intent behind the wish, you know. That's how it all works, my friend. I may call you my—? Of course I can.

    "I have to be able to get to the core of the wish. You wouldn't believe the gibberish I get from some people! And wading through all the Latin nonsense, sometimes spoken backward! As if I didn't have a better than nodding acquaintance with contemporary English. Or Spanish, German, French, Italian, Japanese, Upper Zimbabwan, Khmer—or is that Kampuchean now? Whatever.

    "Some of my favorites are the ones who think they're commanding demons in my name or, better yet, in the name of the Creator or—umm, some of His cronies. I should tell you how I got the Bishop of—well, you wouldn't know the place—

    "Of course he thought he was proof against me anyway, because of his position, but just to be on the safe side he thought he'd save his bacon by asking for asking—hell!—demanding! all kinds of charities for his parishioners."

    Ben's eyes fasten unwillingly on Old Nick's wolfish grin.

    "Of course it was sinful pride. A really advanced case, if I do say so. He wanted their adulation and their gratitude. And, obviously, he didn't have enough faith in the One he claimed to serve to provide for them. My kinda guy."

    Ben finds the devil's chuckle distressing.

    "I let him live through the earthquake and its aftermath, and for a while he even got to help administrate the charities that came pouring in from all over...

    "Excuse the pun, but he never even had the grace to be contrite. He was well and truly pissed, and of course he blamed me for everything!"

    "And you weren't?" Ben hears himself asking.

    "Ben, Ben—you know I'm never really to blame for anything..." Old Nick's offhand shrug is hardly convincing, but his comradely wink is nothing short of alarming.

    "And all those people?"

    "Ben," Nick says, patience manifestly strained. "I'm the devil, remember? Evil personified? This wish-granting business is just a lark for me—sort of relaxing from the day-to-day routine. I really don't do it that much any more.

    "So, anyway, Benjamin Stainwell Bright—since you don't seem to want to just settle for winning the lottery, or for good health for the rest of your days, such as they are—tell me about some of your ideas, and maybe I'll let you in on a few of the Pitfalls, as we like to say back home..."

    "That's mighty white of you," Ben mutters.

    Nick smiles his most waspish smile. "Think so?"

    Ben swallows. "Well, one of my favorite ideas was to write out a whole list of things I wanted—"

    "—And wish it were all true? It's not bad. I actually let that one go through once, long ago. Tied it up with the paper the list was written on, though—as long as the paper lasted, he did.

    "His was one of the more spectacular reigns of his time. I recall it well. I had a wonderful time, but he didn't get to enjoy it much—forever worrying about the safety of his little piece of paper, y'know—parchment it was then, of course.

    "And they didn't have helium-filled chambers for document storage in his day. As the paper crumbled away, so did he... Hm? No, you've never heard of him. I'd say no one has, now—his name and prestige faded with the ink, he and everything else he'd gained through the wish kinda rotted away with the paper itself.

    "But nowadays? Well, as I said, it's the intent that counts, and you know and I know that constituted a multiple wish. You'd only get maybe what's first on the list. Or—" He taps a claw against one of his canines, gazing up at a corner of the ceiling. "Sometimes I select the most, uh, promising of the options. The most fun, as it were, from my point of view."

    "It had to be something like that," Ben fretted, shuddering. "Okay. Wealth? Sex? Neither's any guarantee of happiness and happiness itself would be—No, an idiot could be permanently happy. You already pointed out that good health the rest of my days isn't exactly a long-term deal, and if I asked for it for, say, a hundred or a thousand years, I'd be a basket case long before the term was up, just from anticipation. Uh, what about omnipotence?"

    "You've already figured that one out."

    "Well—"

    "Can God create a stone He cannot lift?"

    Ben nods, shoulders slumped. "Logical paradox."

    "As well as a truly inspired argument against the concept of omnipotence. I should know—I inspired it myself," the Old One preened.

    "Yes, you got it. Not an awful lot I could do for you there. You may have heard—I even tried for that one myself, once...." Nick shrugs, as though he'd never given it another thought.

    "Same thing, I suppose, with just asking for salva—"

    "Please!" Nick holds up his scaly hand, his voice pained. "You know that's not mine to grant."

    Ben shakes his head. "I don't know. I don't know. Those were the best shots I've come up with so far, and yet I keep feeling there's something just out of my grasp. If only I could think of the perfect wish! I wish I could—"

    "Done!"

    "Yes!" Ben shouts. "Yes! You're right! It covers every—"

    There is a twinkle in Old Nick's eye as realization dawns in Ben's. His wish has been granted...

    Dear reader, trust or—perhaps even pray—that you never have occasion to see the devil's eyes a-twinkle. It's spectacular, but it is not pleasant.

    On the other hand it is Bright...

—Ross Chamberlain, 1990

Stories like this abound in the literature as well as in folklore and legend, from the Arabian Nights through variations on Faust to Bedazzled, perhaps reaching to the point of a sub-genre of fantasy. Many of them, perhaps a sub-class of its own, primarily deal with just the negotiations, and this belongs to that kind.
© 2004 Ross Chamberlain

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