Between Omaha and Hell by April Duncan

Hailey Harlow met a devil once. She didn’t have the horns of a goat or a tail like a dragon; she was a woman and looked exactly how a woman was supposed look. The devil’s eyes weren’t red, they were, in Hailey’s experience, pastel blue.

“I’m sorry, miss,” the man at the front desk of the Best Western Plus said. He voiced the apology as if he hadn’t said it a dozen times already, as if he were truly concerned, despite his eyes refusing to meet Hailey’s as he clicked away at a computer screen. “We’re all booked up. We don’t usually see a storm like this so early in the season. Would you like me to check with the other hotels in the area to see if they have any vacancies?”

“Forget it,” she told the man. She didn’t really have the money anyway even though the coupon in her hand did help. No need to fall deeper into debt.

Everything was a series of little messes. Flight 2086 to LAX was canceled. Hailey knew something bad was coming from the way the clouds darkened and the air took a chill that blew right through her black blazer. She knew from the second the tiny white flakes started to sprinkle the runway and continue to pile high that nothing good was to come. Her four-hour layover just turned into a seemingly endless stay in Omaha, Nebraska; a state with more cornfields than mountains, fifteen hundred miles from her destination. Hailey only had herself to blame. If she had spent a couple hundred dollars more, she wouldn’t have had to layover so long in Omaha. If she hadn’t tried to travel cross country in the middle of December, or perhaps if she had bothered to even look at a weather forecast, she might not be in this situation.

In five hours, she was supposed to arrive at an interview for a teaching position she now wouldn’t be getting—the weather had made sure of that. This particular school only held interviews in December to a select few applicants that met their rigorous standards for the next school year. Hailey had been surprised to receive an interview offer after submitting her application three months prior and in the dizzying excitement, she booked the flights without considering the weather. Now she was stranded in the nerve rackingly small airport with only her carry-on briefcase and the clothes on her back. It was the equivalent of abandonment on a deserted island, left with three items at her disposal for survival; a cellphone, a maxed-out credit card, and thirty-two dollars cash.

Her airline had the courtesy to offer her a single meal voucher and a forty-percent discount at a local hotel. She was assured in no completely certain terms that they would get her on the next available flight to LAX and she would be notified when all flights were ungrounded. Hailey had flown before; this wasn’t her first flight that hadn’t gone as planned. She knew she was on her own.

After leaving the Best Western Plus, she shuffled out into the still accumulating snow. She wished her deserted island were tropical because it looked like she would be spending it on the street. It wasn’t the first time; she’d spent many nights in her 2008 Honda Civic in the summer before grad school, her $13 an hour as a bartender not quite making the cut for an apartment in North County New York. She could have gone home to her loving, Christian God worshiping family only two states away, but at the time Hailey preferred the back-aching and cramped quarters of her car. There was a freedom in the gross condensation and sun’s rays rousing her every morning. A freedom in being who she wanted to be. She still would rather freeze to death in Nebraska than phone her parents for help.

“You look tired,” a voice said. A voice whose source could only have originated from a devil.

Devils were supposed to be summoned at crossroads, or at the very least reside in the darkest corners of nightclubs, casinos, or college financial offices; places where people tended to sell their souls and sign contracts that were bound in blood. Yet, somehow, Hailey met one inside an Omaha Burger King, ordering a Whooper, extra ketchup no mayo.

This devil wore plain clothes, a winter jacket and jeans. Her ash-blonde hair peeked out of a black ski cap that had a brand logo Hailey didn’t recognize. It was a five-point star inside some kind of flaming sun.

“It’s been a long day.”

It was Hailey’s turn to order. The devil continued to stare at her as she ordered chicken nuggets, fries, and coffee. She grabbed four barbeque containers and two sugar packets while she waited for her food.

“Flight canceled?” the devil asked. Hailey furrowed her brow and opened her mouth to ask the woman how she could possibly know that, but the woman answered Hailey’s question before she could vocalize it. “You don’t look like you’re from around here. You definitely aren’t dressed like it.” She motioned to Hailey’s form-fitting pencil skit and blazer.

“I’m meant to be at an interview in Los Angeles,” Hailey found herself saying to this complete stranger as if compelled and not relieved to have someone to talk to.

“That’s too bad. Horrible time for a storm to hit.”

Hailey nodded and sat down at a tall table; her legs free to dangle in the air. The devil followed her and took the seat across from her.

“Why’d you come here of all places?” the devil wanted to know. “I think it’s a little odd for you to wonder so far from the airport.”

“It’s not that far. I just wanted a cheap meal and some warmth. It’s freezing out there.”

The devil laughed. “Clearly. I can’t believe you made it here in that skirt.”

Hailey bit the inside of her lip. “Well, I couldn’t really change. My bags are probably in LA by now.”

More laughter, but there was also a sympathetic glint in the devil’s eye. They ate in silence for a few minutes before the devil’s phone vibrated on the table. Hailey glanced at it. A single white bubble appeared with the words “pick up ready.” The devil sighed. “I have to be going. Maybe I’ll be seeing you around before you catch a plane back to wherever you came from.”

Hailey watched her back disappear into the cascading storm through the glass of the door. A dark shadow disappearing into white. Hailey stayed till the Burger King closed, enjoying the warmth for as long as she was allowed. When midnight rolled around, she received a few hard looks from the employees, and she knew her time was up. With no alerts from the airport and no end in sight to the descending snow, she started to walk back toward the airport. She would at the very least be warm there. She had been awake for more than twenty-four hours with only airplane snacks and Burger King food to keep herself going. With snow nearly to her knees and every step feeling like twenty, the whole situation was a first-world nightmare.

The next thing she recalled she was lying on the ground, the devil’s face staring down at her in a blackened haze. She didn’t remember falling, she didn’t remember bumping into the tall, snake-built woman, and she didn’t remember the faded blue eyes glinting at her with concern beneath the only streetlamp on the block. At least she didn’t until much later when she was home and had time to reflect on such things. Much later in the night, she would ask the devil why she was prowling the streets at midnight, only to get no response. If the box of wine and the thin brown package of what appeared to be various expensive cheeses in her hands were any indication of her mission, Hailey knew it wasn’t anything pure of heart.

“You alright?” The devil asked. “You don’t look so good.”

“I’m fine.”

“Do you need a hand?” A mitted hand reached out in Hailey’s direction; the devil having shifted her shopping purchases to the other hand. Had she known most deals were sealed in a handshake, she wouldn’t have accepted the assistance back to her feet. Had she known that the moment she stepped off the plane in Omaha her fate would be sealed, she probably would have stayed home. Ignorant, she grasped the hand firmly and rose to her feet.

“Do you need a place to stay?”

***

Hailey arrived in Los Angeles just in time to turn around and go home. She did not have another layover in Omaha. She did not see the devil again.

Nor did she forget.

“How was the interview?” her mother asked over the receiver.

“It went well.”

“Oh, come on, Hailey. Of course, it went well. Tell me more.” Her mother laughed lightly. “Do you think you’ll get the position?”

“Probably not.”

More laughter. “Hailey, you’re so funny sometimes. When has there ever been something you set your mind to that you haven’t achieved?”

Everything. Her mother knew all too well that what she truly wanted was something neither of them could accept. “You’re right. I’m sure I’ll get it.”

“Oh, good.” Her mother paused before saying, “Hailey, when are you coming to visit? Your father and I haven’t seen you since August. We hardly hear from you these days.”

Hailey remembered that forced visit clearly. It had been her father’s birthday and it was either visit for a weekend or have them tell everyone in their contact list how awful of a child she was. Friends, family members, it didn’t matter. Anyone they could get a hold of would be used as tools to their ends. They all asked the same question: why didn’t she come home? The answer was simple. It wasn’t home.

It hadn’t been in a long time. Or, maybe, it never had.

***

Hailey had been fifteen when she first understood the lure of the demons. She couldn’t help but notice them with their full chests and tight waists pressing into her as they embraced. Their voices like sirens music dazzled her. The demons themselves didn’t seem to notice; their charms were not meant for her.

Hailey knew she likely had always been this way—recalling how she always stared at the demons in their choking leotards when she took gymnastic classes in middle school. The thin, stretchy material hugging every curve it covered. She didn’t know it then, but she wanted them.

It was her mother that noticed it first, before Hailey could label such things. Her mother saw everything—the all-seeing mother or the all-knowing witch. Both were true.

“That is wrong, Hailey. It is all against God.”

Her mother didn’t have to say the rest. Hailey knew, like she knew her desire. They are demons here to tempt her. And if the devils ever came, she must resist. God wouldn’t not love someone who loved devils. God loved those who lived among angels.

Devils. Demons. When Hailey end the call with her mother, she closed her eyes. The blue eyes, the five-pointed star of the nameless devil still burned behind her eye lids. There would be other devils, although none quite like the first. In grad school, Hailey met a few demons, girls that held her interest momentarily. They’d had names and places in Hailey’s life but no permanence; they were demons and easy to banish and forget. A devil, a true ruler of Hell, was not.

***

Devils are impossible to exorcise from the body; they bury deep in a person’s system and imprint themselves in the brain. They tattoo their name, their essence in the cerebral cortex so that their terms are never forgotten. Bible verses, Latin incantations, and holy water might work on demons, but devils were a different species entirely. Hailey Harlow was possessed the moment she stepped into that Burger King, contracted the moment she shook hands and followed the devil home.

“Tea?” A mug of lemon-ginger tea was pushed into Hailey’s numb hands. It reminded Hailey of the many times she’d been sick in her high school years, visions of her mother forcing the scolding liquid and flu-curing pills down her throat. Her stomach turned.

“No, thank you. I’ll be alright.” Hailey placed the cup on the wooden coffee table in front of her. She was in the devil’s lair, which looked precisely like an up-scale townhouse down to the polished wood flooring and the high and spacious ceiling; a minimalist’s nightmare with the bursting amount of knickknacks and heirlooms scattered about shelves, tables, and the odd work desk in the corner of the living room.

“You’re surprising,” the devil said. Her lips widened revealing not fangs but two even dimples. The winter jacket was gone, and a button-down shirt replaced it. The lemon-ginger mixed with the scent of red wine and old coffee hung in the air, the latter smells undoubtably coming from the series of discarded mugs and bottled on the table.

“Surprising?” Hailey said. She sat next to the devil and turned toward her.

“You’re here and we don’t even know each other’s names.”

“It’s better that way.” Easier to forget who she was selling her soul to. Harder for herself.

The devil took her hand and smiled. The devil’s eyes were like blue fire, seeing directly into her soul, her essence, her being. Hailey could see a devil who was sure of herself, a devil who knew life, who knew the struggle and wasn’t afraid to bring others into that darkness. She was a devil who didn’t hesitate to take what she wanted, holding a life of sin and pleasure. Hailey could see the days the devil had spent building her unoriginal sins. Sins that began in childhood gone unchecked and taken hold before anyone could correct them.

Her lips were cold, wet and much like the apple Eve was said to have bit into at the behest of the serpent. In that moment, it was easy to forget her mother, her fruitless travel and deserted island, and even her new surroundings. Here, she was Hailey. Here, she knew herself.

It was here that her wish would be granted, the devil asking for nothing but her descending soul.


April Duncan is a student enrolled in Central Washington University’s Professional and Creative Writing undergraduate program. She writes mainly fiction and creative nonfiction. She lives in Olympia, Washington and enjoys adventure in the form of hiking, camping, and other outdoor activities. In her spare time, she can be found daydreaming about other worlds or curled up with a book somewhere.

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