A Change in Management

There’s that one store. It’s tucked out of the way. Maybe it’s in a strip mall that clings to life. Maybe it’s in some back alley with an unmarked door. Maybe it’s next to everyone’s favorite local taco place, but the windows are black and the signage is uninviting and so nobody goes in. Nobody even tries the door.

Almost nobody.

But those that do are drawn by something. Cosmic forces or fate or dumb luck or a deep, hungry need. The woman behind the counter–though sometimes she’s a man, though not really a man or a woman but something else–is there to fill that need. The price is always too high, but the customers pay it. Sometimes, eagerly. Sometimes, reluctantly. But nobody who walks into the shop leaves empty handed, and everybody gets what they want, which isn’t what they need. Buyer’s remorse is the name of the game, and even knowing that doesn’t stop the customers from coming in.

That was the store I stepped into.

The place was small, crammed with merchandise. I’d expected it to be full of shrunken heads and weird cursed daggers and stuff like that. But it was only gum and soda and novelty T-shirts. Not even strange versions of these items. All name brand and very recognizable. You might wonder how I knew it was the place since it looked so very normal.

It was the saleswoman’s eyes. They were blood red. Also, when she smiled, she had fangs.

“Hello, John,” she said, flipping through a celebrity gossip magazine. “How can I help you?”

“My name’s not John,” I replied.

She didn’t look up from her magazine. “Worth a shot. If it was your name, you’d be asking yourself how I knew it.”

“Has it ever worked?”

“John is a pretty common name,” she said with a smile.

“My name’s Gary.”

She straightened, closed her magazine and pushed it to one side. “Didn’t ask. Don’t care. Not relevant for our business.”

I checked a display of Pez dispensers. John the Baptist sat between Scooby-Doo and The Little Mermaid. There was something poetic and / or blasphemous about dispensing candy from the head of the saint.

“So how’s this work? Are you Satan?”

“You wish. You don’t rank Satan. I’m more of a local representative, a franchise.”

“And you make wishes come true?”

She clicked her long, black nails against the counter. “You make it sound so lovely, Gary. I fulfill needs.”

The name slipped from her lips like we’d been friends for ages. More than friends.

“Like if a person wanted to fly,” I said. “You could give them that power.”

“I could, though that’s pedestrian. Nobody comes in here wishing they could fly. It’s always money, power, fame, love, happiness, escape. Life is pain. What is your pain?

“Oh, the usual,” I said.

I reflected on my life. It hadn’t been all bad or all good. It’d just been a life so far with everything that came with that.

“You don’t have to be coy,” she said, sounding a bit bored. “Just tell me what you want.”

“I want to join up,” I said.

Her smile dropped. “What?”

“I want to do what you do. Help people.”

I could tell this surprised her. I could also tell that it’d been a long time since anything had surprised her.

“And why would you want to do that?” she asked.

I shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess I like the idea of helping people.”

“I don’t think you quite understand what we do here. Everything we offer comes at a price.”

“Who sets the price?” I asked.

“It’s negotiable,” she said.

“And who negotiates?”

“Well, I do.”

“Cool,” I said. “I’d like to do that. I think I could be a great negotiator.”

“Do tell.” She shifted in her chair, and I noticed that her lower half wasn’t legs, but a long serpent tail.

I grabbed a pack of mint gum and a novelty keychain and dropped them on the counter. I fished out a few bills and pushed them toward her. She hesitated. She probably wasn’t used to selling the merchandise. She punched a few keys on the old-fashioned cash register, and the thing dinged as its drawer popped open.

“Keep the change,” I said as I collected my items. I opened the gum and offered her a piece.

She accepted. Her forked tongue wrapped around the stick as she stuck it between her pointed teeth. “Do you think you’re the first to come and ask to join up with us?”

I leaned on the counter, and our faces were only a few inches apart. Up close, the red in her eyes swirled and danced and if I squinted, I thought I might be able to see the souls of the damned swimming in those crimson pools.

“I don’t know. Am I?”

She laughed, but she didn’t answer the question.

“You make deals,” I said. “So let’s make a deal.”

“What do you have to offer?”

I said, “What do you want?”

She blew a bubble. “It’s not what I want that matters.”

“Why not? It’s your job I’m asking for.”

She sucked in the bubble and frowned. She looked away. “It’s not what you think. You think it’s the worst of humanity coming to you for their final condemnation. But it’s the desperate, the forsaken, the broken. Those lost souls who stumble and fall. That’s the clientele. Some poor sucker who thinks they have nothing left to lose. And then you give them what they want and show them how wrong they are.

“That’s the job, and it sucks. I’m born to revel in the suffering of fools, and even I find it depressing at times.”

“So give it to me then,” I said. “You can do that, can’t you?”

“I can do whatever I like,” she said. “It’s my franchise. But you’re not listening to me. You’re a good person, and I don’t smell the desperation or abandonment that comes with the customers. I honestly don’t know how you got here, but you don’t belong. Now go away before the worst happens.”

“Only the right people find this place,” I said. “That must mean I’m the right person. And isn’t that my problem? You make deals. I’m here. Let’s make the deal. But I have some questions first.”

She said, “The smart ones always do.”

She said smart like it was an insult.

“Could I do the job, if you gave it to me?” I asked.

“Anybody can do the job. It’s idiot proof. You sit behind the counter and when a customer shows up, you make the deal.”

“And you decide the terms of the deal,” I said.

“Nobody’s watching over me, if that’s what you’re asking. But if I do a bad job, I’m stuck here.”

“And I gather you don’t want to be here.”

“You gather correctly. Of course, if I ever get a promotion, it’ll suck too. The job track for demons isn’t great.”

“Then what’s the harm in giving it to me?” I asked. “Step aside. Get out of the rat race. I’ll take good care of the place.”

“Why would you want it? Even if you manage to please management, you wouldn’t like the opportunities it would lead to.”

“Who says that I want to please management?”

She reached under the counter and withdrew a couple of light beers. She offered me one.

“I don’t drink,” I said.

She found a Coke, and I accepted it. I opened mine and took a drink. “I want to help people. I’ve always wanted to.”

“Start a charity.”

“It’s sort of what I plan on doing,” I said.

“You do know how demons work, right?” she asked.

“I do, but I’m not a demon.”

She leaned forward. “You can’t just give people want they want.”

“You can’t.”

I tapped my can against hers.

“I can.”

She smiled, and I knew then that I’d closed the deal. We hammered out a few more details. She handed me the keys and the franchise manual.

I handed over another set of keys. They belonged to an Acapulco beach house where she could while away eternity sitting under the sun, enjoying fruity mixed drinks with umbrellas. Now that the store was mine, it was the kind of deal I could make.

“I still think you’re nuts.” She wished me luck as she slithered out the front door.

I was reorganizing the rack of paperback novels when the bell on the door jingled. A woman entered. She was small, timid. She bore a thousand burdens, and one push or another could destroy her soul. Or save it.

“Excuse me,” she said. “I was told this was a place where I could find help.”

I took my place behind the counter and tossed the manual in the trash.

“You were told right.”

2 Replies to “A Change in Management”

  1. I used to read an old series of stories called Spells R’ Us. This premise reminds me a lot of that, which I enjoyed. If this is ever expanded into a book, I’d be keen on it.

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