Ella had died almost two months before in this very bookstore. In fact, if she looked hard enough, she could still see the remnants of the bloodstain marking the spot where she’d expired just under Marie’s foot. She’d run in to get shelter from the driving rain one November night and found herself in the middle of a three-way lovers’ quarrel. She’d never found out the details; she’d simply pretended to peruse the books while eagerly eavesdropping on the three voices shouting louder and louder until they’d started to physically have it out. In the ensuing chaos, Ella had been stabbed straight through the heart whilst the lover fled through the door, the wife fainted in horror, and the husband/murderer stood with his mouth agog.
He was rotting away in prison, which was something, Ella guessed, but she’d never really gotten over being murdered. She was still kind of pissed off about it, to tell you the truth – she hadn’t achieved one single thing and there was her life, leaking out from under her while she ran through all of her accomplishments in her head and came up short after “won the 100 metre relay in primary school.”
Anyway the worst part of it was what happened after. She’d woken up in her old high school. In fact, she looked like she did back in high school: short and stubby, encased in baby fat, crickly frizzy hair that she didn’t yet know how to style, braces on her jagged teeth, pimples on her cinnamon skin, all wrapped up in deep seated insecurity.
She was in Hell.
She was more than a little surprised that she’d ended up on this side of the tracks. She’d never killed anybody, never stolen anything…her life had been pretty boring, which was a little sad but surely not worth another go around of the worst years of her life? She would have taken eternal burning over the torture of reliving high school in perpetuity, but she supposed that was the point of Hell. You didn’t get a choice.
It took her a while to find her bearings but, once she’d settled in to the endless torture that was being a teenager, she’d set up an appointment with Mr. Gabriel, the school guidance counselor, to discuss the situation.
Mr. Gabriel was the same guidance counselor she’d had when she was really in high school. He’d been her favourite teacher then, most likely because he was young and good looking and didn’t treat the kids like kids. All the female students, some of the male students and most of the faculty had been in love with him. He had a warm smile, twinkly hazel eyes and a body like the statue of David. Ella’d been relieved (and slightly embarrassed) to see his friendly face in Hell before she realized that, quite obviously when she thought about it afterwards, he was the Devil.
“So I’m in hell because someone sucks at filing?” she’d said as she sat in his office, watching him read through her file.
“It happens more often than you think,” said Mr. Gabriel, glancing up at her. He was wearing khaki pants and a plain grey T-shirt that accentuated his bulging chest. Ella gnawed nervously on her thumbnail as she tried to stop lusting after the Devil. He’d just told her she was here because someone ‘messed up some paperwork’. She was actually supposed to be in purgatory or reincarnated as a tree or running through the Elysian Fields or whatever other options there were.
“Look, isn’t there someone who can sort this out?” she said plaintively. “Can’t you just, like, send me back until you find my file and, I dunno, refile it, or whatever?” Mr. Gabriel looked back at her with his twinkly eyes.
“But you’re the Devil!” she squealed. “Can’t you make me some sort of deal?”
“Firstly, let’s not resort to calling each other names,” said Mr. Gabriel, leaning forward on his desk. “Secondly, I’m not sure you could fulfill the terms of any deal I might be prepared to give you…”
“Yesterday, Johnny Matheson, the hottest guy in school, flung his spaghetti at me from across the canteen. It stuck in my hair, everyone laughed, and now it’s on Youtube.” said Ella. “Last week Mandy Peters started calling me Ella the Fella because ‘I look like a dude sumo wrestler”. I’m the only girl in my class who hasn’t been asked to the school formal and my pimples are so big that my face just looks like one big cyst. I cannot go through this shit for the rest of my death. I will do anything to get out of here, Mr. Gabriel the Devil, sir.”
Mr. Gabriel smiled then, a terrible sort of smile that sent shivers running down Ella’s spine. There was a moment of uncomfortable silence, and then, he said,
“Fine. I’ll give you a second chance, but there are conditions. One, if I’m losing your soul, you’ll have to replace it, which means you’ll need to take someone else’s life. Now ordinarily that’s the kind of thing that would have you ending up right back here in your own personal hell but, for you, I’ll make an exception.”
“An exception…” said Ella, skeptically, as she looked at him sideways. “Why would the Dev…guidance counselor make an exception for me?”
“Well,” said Mr. Gabriel, leaning back in his chair and steepling his fingers. “There’s a particular soul that I’ve been hankering for that I’ve not been able to get my hands on. If you send it in your place, I’ll guarantee you’ll live a long and happy life and die peacefully in your sleep at 99.”
“Well, my dear, you’ll have to come back, of course, you’ll have killed someone,” he said with a chuckle. “But I’ll find better accommodations for you next time around.”
“So…no more high school?” said Ella, eagerly.
“School’s out for you.”
Ella pondered for a moment. She definitely didn’t want to stay here, but she’d never killed someone before. Plus, there was a very important piece of the puzzle missing, namely
“Who am I supposed to kill?”
“Well now what would be the fun of telling you everything all at once,” said Mr. Gabriel with a mean glint in his eye. “But I will tell you that the penny will drop in another world.”
Ella looked at Mr. Gabriel quizzically. What the hell kind of useless hint is that, she thought.
“Okaaay. And what’s so special about this person’s soul?”
“That’s my business.”
“Also,” he continued. “If you kill the wrong being, we’ll be seeing each other much sooner than you’d like, right back here in high school.”
Ella rolled her eyes in exasperation. So many conditions. She’d thought deals with the Devil were meant to be easy and tempting, but she supposed most people weren’t already in Hell when trying to negotiate the terms. She figured the chance of escaping this place and living ‘til she was 99 was worth the risk of ending up right back where she started. Plus, if she killed the right person, she’d have decades before she’d have to deal with the consequences of her actions.
“I’ll take the deal,” she muttered.
“Good,” said Mr. Gabriel, extending his hand to shake on it.
“Oh but just one more thing,” he said, just as their hands were about to touch. “You’ll send me the soul but you’ll leave the body behind, and that, my dear, will be your new body. You’ll take over their new life and Ella Mathers will only exist as a small voice buried deep in the consciousness of your new host.”
“For fuck’s sake!” Ella cried. “But what if I don’t want their life? Can’t I just go back to who I was before?”
“I’m afraid not,” said Mr. Gabriel, shaking his head apologetically. “But you’re welcome to stay here?”
Hell no! thought Ella, so she pushed her hand into the Devil’s, they shook on the deal and she found herself back in Another World bookstore, sprawled amongst the books in her old body, her battered heart beating once again.
to be continued…