The Devil’s Travel Agency
By Alex Sobel
You Make The Call
You don’t know what you’re asking for, exactly. You don’t know where you need to go, or how to go about getting there. You don’t know the cost, don’t know how much you have to pay. You don’t know the risks for you or other parties, don’t know if there will be benefits. You don’t know if you’ll get where you need to go, you don’t know if it’ll make any difference when you get there.
Don’t worry, we’ll help you with all that.
You’re given a phone number. Maybe you get it from some back-alley mystic with a storefront that you’ve passed by
every day on the way to work for years and never noticed, but now that you see it, you can’t help but wonder how a place like that stays in business. Maybe you got it from a priest with connections, one who wants to help out, who doesn’t see what good it would do anyone keeping the number from you, who hopes you don’t ask where he got it from, or if he’s ever used it. Or maybe a friend gave it to you, one who’s used our services before, in which case let us know, because referrals get you a discount on your next trip with us.
When you call the number, we answer on the first ring. This is company policy, and if we make you wait for more than one ring, please call our customer service number.
We say hello, the voice in broken pieces, like crumbling stone. It moves in waves, pushing forward through your cell phone, then pulling you toward it, away from yourself. You think it will bury you, think it will lift you off your feet. You think your lungs will collapse, you think you will scream. You don’t know what to do.
You decide to say hello.
“Is this…” you begin. “The devil?”
We are not him. But that doesn’t mean that he is a figurehead used as a way to sell our services. He’s not a spokesperson, he takes an active role in the company.
We tell you as much.
“My name is Grace. I need to talk to my brother. To see him. He’s dead.”
We already know this, but we do not tell you so.
“We’re twins,” you add, your words coming through the spaces between teeth. “Drug overdose. He wasn’t even… he was just so young.”
We type a few things into a computer, your basic information, who you want to visit. The computer then tells us where you need to go, which mode of transportation you’ll need to take to get there. You hear it on your end, the sound of keys, wonder what kind of computer we could possibly be using. We give you a location to be at, a time, say that there will be a bus. It won’t be late; it will not wait for you. We tell you goodbye.
“Wait, what do I owe you? Don’t you want my soul or something?”
We tell you that you will have to pay, but it will not be with your soul. This is human currency, not ours. What would we do with a soul, anyway?
The Bus Comes
You’re at the location an hour early, wait patiently at the bus stop, the notebook in your hands. You should have made copies of the pages and brought those instead, but it’s too late now. You wonder if this stop is used for regular buses, too, if this place will disappear as soon as you walk away from it. A few cars pass, but they’re going too fast for you to see the driver’s faces, if they’re men or demons or something else. You don’t know if you’d be able to tell the difference, anyway.
The bus arrives.
We’re in the driver’s seat when you step on the bus, but you don’t really see us. You see what your eyes allow you, what we allow. Maybe you see an old man like the one who used to drive the bus to school. Maybe you see the long-haired character from a TV show you shouldn’t have been allowed to watch at that age. Maybe you see your mother, maybe you see everyone’s mother. Maybe you see the idea of a mother.
You don’t see your father.
The only other passenger is a boy, maybe ten, with thick bangs, long and oily, that completely cover his face. He doesn’t look up.
The bus has uncomfortable seats, bars for people who need to stand, a retracted wheelchair ramp. There are ads lining the spots above the windows, one for a bubble-faced chiropractor, one for a juice you’ve never heard of that advertises itself as being “tai chi for your belly,” the logo for a fast food restaurant that you’ve eaten at four days a week since he died, the calories sitting hard underneath your ribs. It’s just like a regular bus, you think.
Because it is a regular bus, we’d like our customers to know.
The bus drives for an hour, no turns, not even any curves in the road. You see fields, crops. There are billboards lining the side of the road, advertising a candy shop with a name that you’re pretty sure is offensive. You try to look it up on your cell phone, but you can’t even use data to connect to the internet. You dial his number. It hasn’t been disconnected yet, but there’s no reception, nothing’s going through.
There are small towns that you catch glimpses of, the kind where there are a few dozen people who know each other’s business, where the odds are good of your ex marrying your best friend or sibling, where you can’t escape people, where you can’t escape yourself.
As you get farther and farther away, the towns get smaller, sadder. You can tell that a change is happening, try to focus on it, to find exactly where it occurs. You want to know where the break is, when you’re officially out of your world and in hell, or wherever it is you think you’re going. You remember being little, lying in bed, trying to figure out the exact moment when you fell asleep. Every time, you wake up disappointed, the break between awake and asleep out of focus, the image fuzzy on either side. You also remember Stephen lying next you, sharing a bed until you’re thirteen, until it’s weird for twin brother and sister to sleep so close. He moves into the attic, and you sleep alone.
You remember that, too.
It doesn’t get darker, like you expect. Instead, the colors outside the bus window begin to merge, blend at the edges. You think that it looks like existence was taking up a certain amount of space, that there was a density to the world, and suddenly that space was cut in half, with everything rushing to fill up every hole, every gap, everything.
This is not strictly what it’s like here, but you’re closer than you’ll ever know.
When the bus stops, the young boy stands, pulls his feet across the floor toward the front of the bus. When you look out the window, you see a charcoal horizon bowing toward the murky sky, pulled back like the rain under windshield wipers. You see what looks like a tree behind you, the shape jagged, like it was cut out of paper by unskilled fingers.
“Where are you going?” you ask the boy as he moves toward the door. “Where is this? Why are you here?”
For the first time, you see the boy look up, meeting you with his face-swallowing eyes. “My mom,” he says, and walks off the bus. He doesn’t say what he means, whether his mom is here, or she’s the one who told him to come, or something else entirely. You try to follow him with your eyes as he leaves the bus, but as soon as he steps out, he’s gone.
It’s not just you, you should know. When he stepped off that bus, the boy was gone to himself and everyone else.
You try to imagine what it will be like. Will there be fire? Bats? Monsters? Will Stephen look the same? You’ve seen movies with dead people in them, where they look the way they did when they die. Is that what will happen with Stephen? There wasn’t any damage to him, though. Not when you found him, anyway.
It wasn’t like Dad.
You Remember What Happened
Dad was living in a trailer park, but was forced out when they started building the new hospital. He sold the house, didn’t need all that space without Mom around. You went to his apartment, you and Stephen. Dad hadn’t answered his phone in almost a week. He was on the couch, head slung back, an arm dangling over the edge. A beer was on the end table, just barely out of reach. You spoke, moved closer to him, but then you saw, caught the slightest touch of blood on his cheek. You made Stephen look, made him make sure. You wonder if Stephen saw himself in the body, if he knew he’d be next, saw his own face.
You called your mom while Stephen dealt with everything, the ambulance, answered the questions that needed to be answered.
“Dad’s dead,” you said when they put you through to your mother.
She gasped. “My God. How? What happened? How old was he?” she said.
You talked with her for a whole minute before you realized that she thought it was her own father who was gone.
When it’s your stop, you get off the bus, start walking because you don’t know what else to do, where to go. You hold the notebook in your left hand, feel sweat dripping down your fingers toward the pages. As you push forward, the ragged corners of the tree at the horizon begin to round out until it’s oval shaped. You keep pushing ahead even though you feel your feet sinking into the ground, holding you, begging you not to go. You begin to hear noise, footsteps, the clanking of glasses. The horizon narrows ahead of you, a crack, and you slide through it.
You find yourself in a bar. There are people eating, drinking, but no one speaks. There’s a short blonde who looks too young to be allowed in here, a couple of men sitting at a booth, their necks tucked between their shoulders. You take a seat at the bar, set the notebook in front of you. You don’t know if the bartender speaks your language, if he can understand you.
“How much does a beer cost?” you say, pointing to the taps. You make a motion like you’re fanning money in front of you. He shakes his head, pours a beer, places it in front of you, then walks through a door behind the bar and disappears.
You take a sip, the taste bitter, like swallowing your own bile. You want more.
“You like it?” You turn to see a woman next to you, maybe twice your age. She motions with her head toward the beer.
“Yeah,” you say.
“Here for someone?”
“My brother. He overdosed.”
She nods. “I first came for my wife. Cancer, so I knew it was coming. But the day she died,” she stops for a moment, sucks in air through her nose, “she could see it, you know? She started to say something. ‘Make sure you…’ she said, and that was it, she was gone. I wanted to know what she said. Make sure I… what? It felt important.”
The woman sips her own beer, her face not betraying the bitterness. She smiles, but fights against it, like she’s seeing someone she just had a fight with and doesn’t want to reveal how much she missed them.
“What did she say? Did you ever find her?”
She swallows. “Well, I found her alright. But you wanna know what she said? She told me she couldn’t remember what she was trying to tell me, that it wasn’t important. She told me not to come. But that was a long time ago.”
“And you keep coming back?”
“Yeah, though I don’t see her much anymore. Now I just come to hang out, see the sights a few times a year. There’s a lot here. Have you been to the giant dog statue? Or the man made of cold fire?”
You shake your head.
“They’re something,” she says. She sticks out her tongue, moves her body back and forth like an animal shaking off water. “Do you have a list? Some questions? A speech or something?”
“For your dead brother. Saw your notebook, assumed that’s what it was for. That’s where I failed. I didn’t have anything prepared for my wife. It was mostly tears, mumbling. You’ll only find him for a few minutes, then he’ll be gone. Just thought I’d warn you. They have to keep moving or something happens, but I can’t say what. Them’s the rules, I don’t pretend to understand how any of it works. But then, I don’t have to. I’m only visiting.”
You Continue On
The streets are brick, uneven. The replacement bricks are obvious, a soil color over dark green. You pass different stores, restaurants, some with signs you can read, some in a language you don’t recognize. You stop into one that says “Grocery” on the sign. There’s a cashier, but no customers. You get his attention, ask him if he’s seen someone named Stephen, give a brief description. The cashier doesn’t speak, only nods, turns back toward the register.
As you walk out, you get the feeling that you used to work at this grocery store, or maybe somebody you know did.
You see the sign for an arcade, neon, blinking purple. You don’t recall ever being in a place like this, but it feels familiar. You see a man playing a game, his body gaunt, movements robotic. You walk up to look over his shoulder. He’s playing a game that consists of a superhero beating up robots. The green robots have drills for hands, the yellow ones shoot lasers, the red ones blow fireballs. Each can be destroyed by punching them until they explode.
“You know this one?” the man playing the game says, looking over at you. You jump at the sound of his voice. “The game, I mean. Sorry to scare you. I know everyone else around here is, like, an automaton. Makes you jumpy when someone living and breathing comes along.”
You nod, slip your hand in front of your mouth to confirm that you’re still breathing. Your breath is warm against your palm. There must be oxygen here, you realize.
We take care of our customers, providing any breathing material that they require. If at any point, you find what we’ve provided to be insufficient, we will do everything in our power to better accommodate you.
“Makes me think of going to Disney World as a kid,” you say. “Going on the rides, the animatronics coming to life as you float by in your raft. I remember being so disappointed when my mom told me that they didn’t move all the time, that when someone wasn’t looking, they stopped, went dead.”
“Wanna play?” the man says, stepping away from the game cabinet, motioning for you to take a turn.
You’re good at the game, the controls feel natural under your hands, but you don’t have a single solid memory of ever playing it.
The man watches you finish the game, doesn’t say another word. You start to think that he’s like them, after all, that he’s not human, that you’re living out a pre-considered scenario, or a memory. Or maybe it’s a process, everyone here becomes mechanical after awhile, like an afterlife tucked into another afterlife. Maybe you’ll become like that, too, not thinking or feeling, just doing, just somebody else’s memory, a construct.
The thought of this tickles something in your brain, but you can’t quite point to what.
You Find Him
Stephen’s at a diner, the kind with knick-knacks on the wall, pictures of old movie stars, instruments with unplayable strings, a miniature jukebox on each table. He’s sitting down, eating what looks like eggs, but a different color, one you can’t name, one you’ve never seen before. He’s wearing a dark-green flannel shirt, black jeans. They may be the clothes he was buried in, but he always wore the same few things, so you can’t tell.
You sit across from him. The small jukebox next to you is playing “Cupid,” by Sam Cooke. Stephen looks up, coughs slightly, swallows like he’s about ready to tell someone bad news.
“Go ahead, Grace,” he says, motioning with his hand as if to say the floor is yours.
“I found this,” you slide the notebook toward him. “In your apartment.”
He dabs his mouth with a napkin, swallows. “Is there a question? If you want me to read something, you’ll have to do it for me. I can’t.”
You don’t question the rules of this world, you’ve learned better, so you pull the notebook back toward you, flip through the pages. “It’s your journal.”
“I seem to recall.”
“You talk about killing Dad, how you’re glad you haven’t yet, how he deserves to die.”
“So, you want to know if I killed him?”
“No,” you say. “I don’t think you did.”
“But the coincidence, it bothers you, doesn’t it? Or maybe not a coincidence. I’m not sure I know what word it is. Death is confusing, isn’t it? It’s hard to sift through.”
“Have you seen him? Dad?”
He shakes his head. “He’s somewhere else. Another town or village or whatever we’re calling these places. Maybe someday I will. I’m surprised you didn’t come to see him. I bet he’d-”
“Did you mean to do it?” you say, interrupting. “I need to know. Was it suicide, or just an accident?”
Stephen puts down his fork.
“Which would you prefer? That I purposely took myself away from you, left you alone, or that I wanted to live and was just too stupid to not take too much?”
You don’t reply to this. “What is it like here?” you ask instead.
“I wouldn’t know. You’re the one on the outside. How does it look to you?”
“Remember Disney World? The animatronics?”
“They’re not all like that.” He motions with his fork. “The girl at the table in the corner.”
You turn to see the girl he’s talking about, her eyes panicked, scanning the room.
“She’s missing someone. Probably came for a stupid reason like you, now she can’t go home, or can’t stop coming back, or whatever it might be. That happens. It’s like an addiction for some people.”
You turn back toward Stephen. “I didn’t come for a stupid reason.”
“Then what did you want out of this?” You don’t answer. He stands up, drops his napkin on top of his plate of eggs. “I have to go now, okay. But before I leave, I want you to know that I do love you, Grace. For what it’s worth.”
“Where do you go?” you ask, as he walks away. He doesn’t seem to hear. “Do you become like everyone else around here?”
“You remember too much,” Stephen says, opening the door. “Do yourself a favor and forget as much as you can, okay? It’s better that way.”
And then he’s out the door and gone to you forever.
The Way You Would Have Gone
You couldn’t have cut anything, no slicing of skin, splitting of veins. You can’t even stand injections, not because of the pain, but just the penetration of your flesh, the fear of something inside you. Jumping seemed reasonable, but from where? You couldn’t have gone through with using a gun. Too messy, too much clean up. You didn’t want to be a burden on anyone. You just wanted to be gone. You had pretty much settled on pills when you got the call. Twins think alike, you remember thinking. So, you had to put your plans away, call relatives, make arrangements. It was on you now. You went and told your mom in person. It only took her a few times of saying his name before she looked at you and said, “My son?”
“Yes, Mom,” you said. “Stephen, your son. He’s dead.”
“My son,” she said, touching her cheek. “Dead.”
A few tears fell from her eyes, landed on her fingertips. For a moment, you felt grateful. Grateful for her sadness. Grateful that she could remember.
Grateful that soon she’d forget.
You explore for a few hours before getting on the bus to go home. You expect the real world to become something you recognize, but it’s the opposite. As the bus moves forward, everything complicates, everything expands, feels less familiar, less like home. When the bus comes to a stop, you check your phone, see you have a signal. You call the home where your mom’s staying, ask to speak to her.
“It’s Grace, Mom,” you say when she answers. “Your daughter.”
“Yes, Grace, of course,” she says, her words shaky, uncertain.
You put your phone to your chest as you walk off the bus. You look at us in the driver’s seat, mouth “Thank you.” We nod, smile, and you get out, the ground rough against your feet.
We’re always glad to have a satisfied customer. We do hope you’ll use our services again.
You return your phone to your ear. “How are you feeling today, Mom?” you say.
“My hip hurts, but that’s nothing new. What have you been doing? It’s been a long time, hasn’t it?”
“Not too long, Mom. I just got home. I went out with some friends after work,” you say, not knowing what time it is, if that story would even check out.
“Oh, okay. For drinks? Are you married or anything? I can’t seem to remember. Did you go out with a boy?”
“Yes, there was a boy, but not for a date or anything. I paid for myself.”
“I see. Hope it wasn’t too expensive, then.”
“No, Mom,” you say, watching the bus pull away, disappear. You think about what Stephen said, remember every detail. “It didn’t cost that much at all.”
© 2020, Alex Sobel