A FIEND IN NEED
NARRATOR: Things had taken a turn toward the weird in Kevin’s room at Sleepyz Motor Lodge on Route 45, where he was bunking overnight for an early sales meeting in the morning.
“What was that thing that guy said?” The red fiend gave the impression that he was asking Kevin a question, but he was asking himself. “About money. Money, money everywhere and not enough?”
“No idea,” Kevin said, and he didn’t.
“Miller something.” The fiend, deep in thought, chewed the bottom of its lip.
“Arthur Miller?” Kevin perked up.
“Marilyn Monroe’s husband?”
The fiend shook its head. “You didn’t know that?”
Then, “What are they teaching kids these days?”
“Hey, careful with that,” Kevin said. “I knew Arthur Miller wrote Death of a Salesman.”
“Yeah, but this guy, he was a writer. I met him,” the fiend said. “Obsessed with a French chick.”
“Arthur Miller’s a writer, bro,” Kevin said, with a hint of edge in his voice. “Dead, probably. But he’s a writer.”
NARRATOR: They’d been going around about this for several minutes before the fiend had had enough.
“Enough,” it said. “Business time. I’ve got a quota.”
“You do this a lot?” Kevin asked.
The fiend released an impatient sigh. “Do you do your job a lot, Ken?”
“Kevin,” he said, unoffended. “No one thinks genies are something that happens every day.”
The fiend glanced at its watchless wrist. Rolled its yellow eyes.
“First of all,” the fiend began. “Not a genie. Not even close. Regionally, it’s impossible. The djinn don’t set foot in flyover states, you feel me? Plus, they dole out wishes. With me you get two exclusionary choices, one or the other. But either way, you solve one problem.”
“Do you—” Kevin pointed to a lamp with a yellowing white shade. “Do you live in there?” His voice was a whisper.
“Hells bells,” the fiend uttered under its breath. “That’s not even—. Look, I don’t live in a motel lamp. I found you because of your vibe.”
Kevin reached for the lamp.
“If you rub that lamp, so help me Dark Lord—” the fiend said. Kevin shoved his hand in the pocket of his cargo shorts.
NARRATOR: The fiend relaxed its tiny shoulders and reorganized the evening in its mind. At this rate it’d only be able to get to one more before it was summoned home.
“Oh, like ticks find their prey by their breathing?” Kevin said, still puzzling out the situation he’d found himself in.
“I thought they dangled on the end of grass or something and then latched on.” The fiend made a mental note to follow up with his buddy in the Pestilence Department.
“Yeah, but they do that in target-rich environment,” Kevin said. “They pick those spots by respiratory activity, body heat, etc. No point waving their tentacles around if the juicy rump of a deer is unlikely to sashay by.”
“Oh, totally then,” the fiend said. It liked this comparison, and by its association, it liked Kevin. “My job as a demon is very similar. This motel is a goldmine for unrequited lust, anxiety, depression, desperation. So yeah, I’m attracted people who need me, and I help them solve a problem. As I explained before we got off track, you have a money problem.”
“I do.” Kevin chewed his lower lip.
The fiend placed its fingers on its temples.
“When I tap into your energy, the anxiety is off the charts, bro. You’re tossing and turning and sweating all night. Your hair’s falling out. And the eczema! Itchy. You’ve got a neck thing that is one hundred percent psychosomatic. What the heck going on with you, Kevin?”
Kevin shrugged. “Debt. Like everyone else. Commission job selling ads to small, shitty businesses in this door stop of a coupon book.” He picked the book up off the bed and waggled it in the air. “That probably explains it.”
“Nope. No way. For millennia I’ve met people with way worse financial problems than you but there’s no one on this flat earth that has Kevin-levels of anxiety about it.”
NARRATOR: Kevin’s anxiety about money was threatening his sanity, but the fiend had also had dealings with the profoundly poor and indigent—people with life-threatening financial troubles who seemed less concerned than this guy was. The fiend wondered if there was a point at which a problem becomes so insurmountable that the puny human mind shuts it out completely.
“What’s got your goat, Kevvo?” The fiend leaned in like it’d seen a therapist do once.
“It’s the disappointment,” Kevin said, with a heavy sigh. “I’m smart. I’m white. I’m a man. I’m thirty. How is it that I still have roommates? When my parents were my age, they had two kids and a lake house. I’ve got student loans that are somehow a higher amount now than when I signed up for them. So, yeah. I’m stressed about money. Thought I’d write a book. Be on a reality show. Get discovered, be an action star. But instead—”
Kevin shifted on his feet. He felt transparent, exposed. He’d never spoken to anyone about these feelings before.
“This is not uncommon,” the fiend said. “Many humans have the same problem. But you, my friend, get the chance to solve this today. Right now.”
“You gonna give me the Mega Millions numbers?” Kevin asked, not joking.
“Do you agree to proceed?” the fiend asked. An admin requirement. Had to get buy-in.
“Why not?” Kevin shrugged.
“You need to say yes,” the fiend said.
“Then, yes. I would like to solve this problem. I’m exhausted.”
“I’m here to solve this for you,” it said, taking a step closer. It put its hands on Kevin’s shoulders, which were now shaking because of Kevin’s sobs.
“I wanted to be more,” Kevin said through his juddering cries. “I thought I’d have a house, a family, or at least a girlfriend. Not this grind. Eating bean burritos every night. I’m afraid to date. I’m terrified. All the time.”
“There, there,” the fiend said. “Take a moment to collect yourself and we’ll begin.”
Kevin paced the room. He hopped up and down a few times, shook out his hands. Dabbed his eyes. Blew his nose.
“Is there a pentagram I need to stand in or something?”
“All you need to do, Kevin, is answer one question. And your money problem will disappear.”
Kevin sat down on the edge of the bed. “Fire away.”
“The rules are that you have to choose one. No walking away. No take-backsies.”
“What if I don’t want to play at all?”
“Too late.” The thing cracked its knuckles.
“Here we go. Kevin, would you prefer to have your anxiety about money gone—poof, and you feel steady Freddie, cool as a cucumber all the time—but your debts remain. Those night sweats? Gone. Tooth grinding over your bills? A mere memory. Nothing will ever trouble you financially again. But your debts will continue to mount, and your finances will never be secure.”
Small beads of sweat formed on Kevin’s upper lip. “And the other option?”
“Your debts will be paid. You’ll never have money traumas again. Your bank account? Perpetually full. You can have whatever you want, whenever you want. But you’ll still be crippled with money anxiety, will grind your teeth to nubs, even though there’s nothing to worry about.”
NARRATOR: Kevin considered his options. Neither seemed to work for him.
“Is there an a la carte option? Mix and match?”
The fiend tapped its hoof. “Kevin. You have exactly sixty seconds to choose.”
“These both seem bad,” he said. “Mental health versus financial health. It’s a terrible choice. Why can’t I have both?”
“Late-stage capitalism, my brother. Designed and delivered by the big man downstairs.”
NARRATOR: Kevin made his choice relatively quickly, all things considered. He realized that his fate wasn’t his, no matter which option he chose. Naturally, he ran into the fiend several years later. That’s how these stories work.
“I’m working the underpass these days, buddy,” the fiend said. “Good to see you. You live here?”
“Is that a demotion?” Kevin asked, holding out a half-empty water bottle. The fiend declined, patting its belly as if to say it was watching its diet.
“Not so much,” it said. “Human abundance goes through cycles. This is a, how did you phrase it? Target-rich environment.”
They both gazed at the tent city that sprawled around them. The day was hot—every day was hot now—and the residents were in various stages of undress in an attempt to stave off heat stroke.
“Good luck,” Kevin said, turning to leave. “Glad our paths crossed again.”
“It’s Henry, by the way,” Kevin said. “Miller. Remember? I looked him up. I’m at the library quite a bit these days. Air conditioning.”
The fiend chuckled. “Right. Henry. Of course. Henry.” He looked away.
“I have no money, no hopes, no resources,” Kevin said, with a wave of his arm like a game show model showing off the latest prizes. “I’m the happiest man alive. That’s Henry Miller. More people should read him.”
The fiend nodded, content that it’d done right by the desperate sad sack it met all those years ago. It took a moment to enjoy the view of the potential that stretched for miles. It raised its arms to gather the vibrations, and like a tick, latched on to the nearest suffering soul to offer an irreversible choice they never knew they had.
Bethany Browning's work has been published in Stories We Tell After Midnight Volume 3, Allegory, Angel Rust, Drabbledark II, Mudroom, Flash Flood, The Drabble, Filth, The Sunlight Press, JAKE, Flash Fiction Magazine, and Esoterica. She's on Twitter @buzzwordsocial and you can find links to her published work at bethanybrowning.com.