Pitch wiped the honey off his hands with a dirty rag and gazed around Hell. He sighed. Was his shift over yet? He stood beside an immense, circular abyss, miles across. When he looked up through the swirling, smoky air, he could sometimes catch a glimmer of light. Up Top. The surface world. Home of the humans. And above that? Heaven.
If he walked down and around the winding paths along the edge of the Abyss, he would eventually find himself at another level, complete with its own type of sinner and specific torment. And if he followed the paths even further, walking down and down and down, he would get to the bottom. The Pit. Lakes of fire. Immense palaces made of human bones. Cauldrons of boiling human fat. Constant screaming. And the Big Guy himself. Satan. But nope. Pitch was up here, in a place that was barely part of Hell.
Fifteen hundred years of loyal servitude to his Infernal Lord and Master, and he made one little mistake. It wasn’t even his fault. Eons ago, he had been the assistant manager of the premier banquet hall on Level Nine. Not a prestigious job, but not bad. Pitch had been preparing for the Feast of Empusa, who, at the time, was one of Satan’s concubines. It was a grand affair, and her retinue of imps had painstakingly planned the menu. Pitch was given a menu that called for “Twenty-One Year Olds.” So Pitch (with much difficulty, thank you very much) had found a dozen twenty-one-year-old virgins and served them up, lightly broiled. How was he supposed to know the menu should have read “Twenty One-Year Olds”? Apparently, Empusa favored infants. The fatter the better.
Well, it hadn’t been a pretty scene, and Empusa was not forgiving. Even though she didn’t complain until after she’d devoured the twenty-one-year-olds. And had asked if there were any more. But a mistake had been made. She had been dishonored. And Pitch was in charge. So he had been demoted up several Levels. All because of a misplaced hyphen.
The rules of punctuation were a lost art, Pitch mused. So now he was stuck here, working in one of the outer levels of Hell, beside the black waters of the River Acheron. The Uncommitted, souls who had never made any real decisions in life, spent eternity here. The weak, the complacent, the yes-men, three-year community college students and the like. There were some angels here, those who had not taken sides in the Great Battle. But they pretty much kept to themselves. The human Shades wandered about aimlessly over rocky terrain covered with writhing, biting worms and beetles. Stinging wasps, hornets, and mosquitoes filled the air, darting and swooping at the exposed flesh of the Damned.
A ragged crimson banner zigzagged through the air, several feet off the ground, fruitlessly pursued by dozens of desperate souls. Others struggled to stand on rocks or sought shelter in narrow crevices, seeking a brief respite from the constantly biting insects. Good luck with that.
Pitch sighed again. Back to work. He began wheeling his battered, wooden pushcart over the rocky, worm-covered ground. Fat, obscene worms burst as the wheels crushed them. Shrill shrieks followed in his wake, along with the stench of their bright green ichor. They wouldn’t stay dead for long though. Nothing died down here. Except my dreams, Pitch waxed poetically.
There were walkways and paths carved into the sides of the cavern by centuries of use, but they were not well maintained by any means, and the pushcart rattled and bounced as he pushed it along. Ancient torches were set into the walls, although they didn’t really provide any light. Just added to the smoky air.
Pitch scowled, swatting a particularly determined wasp. The stinging insects didn’t bother Pitch. Their stingers couldn’t penetrate his thick, pebbly skin, so they basically left him alone. When one was foolish enough to try to sting him, more often than not Pitch grabbed it, squeezed its head, and ate it. A minor perquisite of his current job. Speaking of jobs, it was show time.
“Hey, losers! I got your insect repellent! Get your insect repellant! Guaranteed relief!” Ragged heads turned. Hollowed eyes widened in anticipation and hope. Tattered, emaciated forms shuffled toward him, crowded around him, skeletal hands open and grasping.
“Hold on, take your turn. There’s plenty for everyone!” Pitch said, rapidly handing out tubes labeled “Insect Repellent-Extra Strength.” In less than five minutes, he had given away his entire supply.
“Sorry, all out. Get me next time.” The Shades drifted off, clumsily smearing the amber fluid on their exposed bodies. Others, further back, returned empty-handed to their spots along the rock walls. A scuffle broke out as three or four Shades fought over one bottle.
Moans began to pick up. Swarms of insects were aggressively besieging the Shades who had taken the tubes. The ragged souls weakly swung their arms and swatted vainly at the insects, but it made no difference. One of them, completely covered with hornets and wasps, stumbled into the side of a cliff and fell over. Biting insects swarmed over it, and within seconds, there was nothing left but glistening bone.
Pitch stood, arms akimbo, watching his handiwork. He had spent the better part of the morning squeezing out the actual insect repellant and refilling the tubes with honey.
He felt no pleasure in this. Not like he used to. It was too easy. And they fell for it every time. He did it three times a day, every day. Not that there were “days” and “nights” down here. However, there was the time clock, and that was what mattered. The work cycle determined when they worked, when they ate, when they slept. And speaking of the time clock, he was almost off. In fact, Vlad, his replacement, was slowly making his way up the circular path. Pitch wheeled the cart back to the plastic bear-shaped honey bottles, which were magically refilling, as they did three times a day, and took off his leather apron.
Pitch was short by human standards, about four feet tall and just as wide. He had no neck to speak of, had to turn his entire torso to look from side to side. His skin was dark orange and very pebbly and tough. His eyes were large, with vertical slits like a cat’s. His nose was broad over a large mouth full of short, sharp teeth. His arms were long and muscular and hung down past his knees, although his legs were short and bowlegged. He wore a soiled breechcloth made of some type of skin, lizard or human, he wasn’t sure. And he served his master faithfully.
He finished wiping down the cart. He kicked a skull over the edge of the Circle. He watched it bounce off the rock walls and disappear into the darkness below. Below. That’s where all the action was. Not up here with these losers. Pitch ducked as the banner flew close to his head, followed by dozens of emaciated, insect-bitten poor souls chasing it in vain.
“Watch it, you morons,” he growled, shoving one of the stragglers. The Shade was an old woman, and she weighed almost nothing. She staggered toward the edge of the rocky path that led around the edge of the Pit. She stood on the edge, her arms pin-wheeling for balance, mouth open in a silent scream. A heavy arm reached out, planted a meaty hand on her bony chest, and shoved. She went over the edge, tumbled in the swirling air, caught by the wind, and slammed into the side of the pit. Her battered, broken body fluttered downward.
Vlad, a heavyset Level-Three demon, guffawed. He was wearing his usual outfit of mismatched chainmail and armor. Today he had on a metal Viking helmet with a ram’s horn on either side of it. It was much too small, and Vlad had fashioned a chinstrap out of a length of tendon, which was tightly knotted beneath his protruding lower jaw.
“That was a good one, eh, Pitch?” he said, gazing happily into the pit. “She spun at least three times before she hit the side. Normally the best I can get is two, maybe two and a half.”
Pitch nodded beside him. “Yeah. Barnaby said he got a seven spinner once, but you know Barnaby.”
“Full of shit,” agreed Vlad. “The secret is to aim for the middle of the Abyss. Avoid the sides as much as possible. Anyways, how was it today?”
“How is it every day?” Pitch shrugged. “You know nothing ever changes.”
“Is that so bad?” Vlad asked pulling two time cards from an uneven slot on the rock wall. He glanced at them and handed one to Pitch. Pitch slid his card in the time clock until there was an audible click. A puff of black smoke came from the top of the time clock. Pitch put his card back in the slot in the wall as Vlad clocked in.
“I guess,” Pitch lied. Like many of the Legions in Hell, Vlad was content. He had a place and a purpose. He was a demon, a tormentor of lost souls. And that was enough for him. But Pitch felt something was missing. He was so close to Hell and could even see the flames at times, but was unable to get any closer. He was so far from the action down in the Pit. Barnaby, of course, said that he had met Satan twice, but as everyone knew, Barnaby was a liar. He wasn’t called Barnaby the Deceitful for nothing.
Vlad sat on a wooden stool, emptying a bottle of insect repellant into a wide pool filled with murky water. Beside the pool was a handwritten, wooden sign stating “Drinking Water.” Several skeletons lay nearby. Vlad nodded out over the Abyss.
“I know you’d rather be down there, but I like it up here. No pressure. They tell me when to get up, when to work, when to quit. It’s easy. And I get to mess with these jokers—oh no you don’t!” A Shade was reaching for one of the bottles. Vlad picked him up by the scruff of his neck, shook him, and slammed him into a huge boulder. His skull collapsed with a loud crunch. Bits of bone and brain splattered the rock. Vlad turned and flung him headlong into the Abyss. They watched him fall.
“Two spinner,” Vlad remarked disappointedly, getting back to work.
“You’d better be careful,” warned Pitch. “You’ve lost two already.” Loss Prevention allowed them to “…misplace, reallocate, destroy, or devour…” seven souls per shift. Pitch had never lost more than one. But did anyone recognize that? Of course not.
Vlad shrugged. “What am I going to do? I’m a passionate guy. And it’s not like they’re losing anything.” He nodded, gesturing toward the unfortunate soul he had just thrown over the cliff. “That joker’ll be back by my next shift.”
Pitch couldn’t think of a response to that. “Well, see you tomorrow.” He nodded as he headed down the path to his cave.
“You too, buddy.” Vlad nodded. “And Pitch—”
Pitch paused, turned back.
“Relax, man. You’re too stressed out. Have some fun.” He showed his enormous teeth in an encouraging smile. A Shade had been sneaking toward him, saw that smile, and slowly backed away. Vlad scowled at him. “You’d better keep moving.”
As Pitch slowly made his way around the circular, stone path, occasionally kicking a skull out of his way, he wondered why he couldn’t relax. Things weren’t so bad. He had a good job, a comfortable sleeping mat, and a few acquaintances and friends. It could be worse, he thought, watching as another Shade fell through the air. Pitch shook his head. Vlad loved his work.
A dark shape flew up and snatched the unfortunate soul out of midair. A harpy. Her leathery bat wings flapped rapidly, holding her suspended in space as she tore at the Shade. Clawed hands pulled and twisted, and with a wet popping sound, she tore off an arm. She let go of the body, which continued its descent.
“Hey. Pitch.” She nodded, her mouth full of blood and rotten meat. Her yellow eyes glinted in the misty light.
“Oh hi, Sybal.” Pitch waved. “What’s up?”
She landed beside him, still tearing at the arm. “I’m passing the word. He’s doing Christmas again.”
Sybal wiped her mouth with a feathered forearm and held out the bloodied limb out to Pitch.
He shook his head at the offered arm. He had outgrown a taste for human flesh years ago.
“Christmas already?” It was so hard to measure time down here. Most Demonkind were not even aware of the concept of time. Eternity was just… eternity. But ages ago Pitch had found a soiled copy of a 1952 Greenway Auto Parts calendar. It was full of scantily clad human females engaging in various recreational activities. He kept it in his hovel, beside his sleeping mat. He didn’t understand how months worked, but he liked to keep track of the seasons and holidays. When he got home, he would change the month to December.
“I still don’t understand why, out of all the Surface holidays, he chose Christmas.” Pitch shook his head in bewilderment.
“The way I hear it, the Big Guy likes to throw a bone to the unfortunate ones every once in a while. I guess that just because we’re in Hell, it doesn’t have to be “hell,” if you know what I’m saying.”
“I guess.” Pitch shrugged. “But Christmas?”
“It’s also a big ‘fuck you’ to Him.” She nodded upwards.
He glanced up, then met her gaze. “So I suppose they’re doing the Secret Santa again?”
“Yeah.” She sucked the flesh off the pinkie finger, looked over the arm one more time, grunted, and flung it over the edge. “I just signed up.” She glanced around, motioned at a female Shade struggling to fill a battered colander from a muddied water hole. “Hey, you! Come here!”
The Shade bowed its shoulder and approached. Sybal reached out and grabbed her shroud, pulling her close. She used it to wipe her mouth and shoved the Shade away. “Get back to work!” The Shade put its head down and returned to its endless task. Sybal turned back to Pitch. “I gotta go. I’ll see you later.”
Pitch held up a claw and watched her leap over the abyss, catch an updraft, and rocket up and away.
* * *
The commissary was unusually loud and boisterous. The Christmas decorations and the excitement and uncertainty of the upcoming Secret Santa gift exchange had buoyed the spirits of the Demonkind. Garlands made of intestines stretched across the length of one wall. The upside-down crosses were turned right-side up. Volunteer imps wearing crimson Santa caps had been nailed to each one.
Laughter and chatter rang throughout the cavern as Pitch approached the food line. He took a battered metal tray from the stack and slid it along the counter. A heavyset Shade wearing a loincloth and a stained chef’s hat spooned some type of brown sludge onto his tray. Pitch peered at it. He wasn’t sure what it was, but there was something wriggling in it, so it couldn’t be too bad. He looked over at the other choices of side dishes on the steam table.
“What’s that?” he asked, indicating a red, mucus-like liquid in which an eyeball floated. The Shade looked at him vacantly. Pitch shook his head. “Forget it. Just give me some. With extra eyeballs.”
Pitch glanced around for a familiar face. A burst of laughter caught his attention and he glanced over to the right. Of course. The SCS table. They always sat together, with their matching jackets: black with white sleeves along with the fiery-red badge emblazoned with “SCS.” The Soul Collection Squad.
Occasionally Satan would leave the confines of Hell and travel Up Top. Often, while there, he would come to some type of “arrangement” with a human. Some wanted ultimate power; others asked for fortune, fame, knowledge. Always with the knowledge, Pitch thought. When would they learn? Too much knowledge is a curse.
The Soul Collection Squad was a group of specially trained and selected demons who would travel up and arrive just as a human whose soul had been claimed by Satan was about to die. As it turned out, many humans who entered into contracts with Satan were not always willing to “come quietly” when it was their time. So Satan had assembled a group of enforcers whose job it was to make sure, when the humans’ contracts were up, they wound up in Hell.
When a contract was due, the Collection Squad would travel up and surround the body, protecting it from Death, and yank out the soul. They never came willingly. Always kicking and screaming, pleading: “I didn’t mean it” “I’m sorry!” “Christ, please forgive me!” As if that ever helped. Soul in tow, the Squad would return to Hell and leave Death behind with his empty vessel. “Bastards!” he would reportedly shout, shaking a bony fist. But he wasn’t really mad. It was business. It was the way things were.
In the Long Ago, Pitch had dreamed of being part of the Soul Collection Squad. That was before things went north and he was demoted. All he wanted to do now was maintain a low profile, do his job, and eventually try for a promotion. Another shout, followed by raucous laughter from the SCS table. Pitch sighed and found a seat across the room.
Pitch was joined by Ogilvie, an enormous, flaming ifrit whom he had worked with before in Level Six. There were some other demons he recognized, but he didn’t know their names or duties. All anyone could talk about was the Secret Santa.
In the past, Satan always participated. And he liked everyone else to as well. It was considered bad form not to. The actual gift exchange ceremony would take place in the main hall in Pandemonium, the greatest of Satan’s palaces. Satan towered over all on his immense throne, attended by his imps and concubines, as hundreds of demons and members of his inner circle watched and exchanged gifts. Satan commented and praised, or, in most cases, openly mocked and derided those whose gifts he considered less than worthy.
And he always saved himself for last. The grand finale. If Satan picked your name, the gifts could be phenomenal. There was talk that he had once given a two-year pass Up Top, and another time he had presented Hitler, wearing nothing but a spiked collar, as a personal valet. If Satan drew your name, it could be existence changing.
On the other hand, you definitely did not want to PICK Satan’s name. He was extremely critical of his gifts and often punitive if he did not like them. And he liked very few gifts. How could he? He had everything. There were stories about how he had tortured and even imprisoned givers of less-than-worthy gifts. Many demons swore away from the Secret Santa gift exchange just so they wouldn’t be the one to pull Satan’s name.
Another downside to the whole gift exchange was that whoever picked your name would give you a terrible gift. Last Secret Santa, Vlad’s gift was supposed to be the thigh bone of Pope St. Fabian. At least that’s what the card had said. Instead, it had been the leg bone of a goat. A goat. It just wasn’t worth the aggravation.
And then there was the choosing a gift for some demon you didn’t even know. What were you supposed to get? True, this was one of the few occasions when demons were allowed to go Up Top to obtain a gift if they wished, but most just scrounged around or rummaged through their belongings or the trash piles and came up with something they didn’t want anymore. As far as Pitch was concerned, the only reason to enter the gift exchange was for the slight chance that Satan pulled your name. And what were the odds of that? So why bother?
During lunch, a crowd had been growing just outside the entrance to the canteen. After eating, Pitch walked over and saw demons surrounding a Shade on his hands and knees, supporting a carved wooden crate labeled “Secret Santa.” A line of demons had formed, and he watched as they each approached the box, one at a time, wrote their name down (or made their mark, in the case of the Cyclopes) on a scrap of paper, fold it, and stick it in the slot at the top of the crate. Two enormous Djinn stood on either side of the crate, arms folded across massive chests, their burning eyes scanning the crowd.
The crowd hushed. Pitch followed their gaze. A trio of striking Succubi strolled over, and the demons parted to let them pass. They wore sheer gowns, which, like their hair, flowed around them, even though there was no breeze. They seemed to move in slow motion as they approached the front of the line. Even the Djinn were eyeing them. The Succubi spoke quietly, heads together, and then each put a slip of paper in the slot. They glanced haughtily around at the staring throng. One of them caught Pitch’s gaze. She whispered to the other two, who looked him up and down with their beautiful, pitiless eyes, and laughed quietly as they strode away, hips swaying. A few of the others turned to look at Pitch curiously. One of the SCS guys, a huge Minotaur, elbowed another and stifled his laughter.
Pitch scowled. Who the Heaven were they to laugh at him? He wasn’t good enough to enter the Secret Santa? Fine. He strode up to the crate, snatched a piece of paper, scrawled his name, folded it, and shoved it in the slot. Done. He took three steps away and paused. What have I done?
* * *
A pop! woke Pitch up. A small scroll hung suspended in the air beside him. He mumbled something and rolled over. The scroll floated over him. Pitch tried to go back to sleep. Something nudged his cheek. He brushed it away. Nudge. Nudge. He opened his eyes and batted the scroll away. It zipped out of reach and then came back to rest in front of him. Pitch sighed, sat up, and snatched the scroll. He untied the rough twine and unrolled it. A small, shiny paper square fell out and he picked it up. A twelve-hour Surface Pass. For getting a gift.
He tore open the scroll and scanned it up and down.
“Congratulations, you have decided to participate in the Secret Santa Gift Exchange. You will be giving a gift to…”
Pitch closed his eyes. He opened them again and looked at the scroll. Nope. Still there.
You will be buying a gift for SATAN.
Pitch stared at the scroll. He put it down, stood up, and walked to the opening of his hovel. He was having trouble breathing. He went back to his pallet and sat down and picked up the scroll.
How did this happen? Exactly what he DIDN’T want. Out of all the things he wanted, this was the last. He crumpled up the scroll and put his head in his claws.
* * *
“So I hear you decided to do Secret Santa.” Vlad leaned against the time clock.
Pitch looked up from the bottle of insect repellant he was emptying. “Yeah. Yeah.”
“So who’d you get?”
“I dunno. Some minor demon. I forget his name.” He looked away.
“Huh.” Vlad sounded doubtful. “I got some joker named Drizzle. Down on Level Four.”
“What are you going to get him?” Pitch asked hopefully. He needed an idea. Any idea.
“I took a dagger off a newly arrived Shade. Supposed to have been one of the daggers that stabbed Caesar.” It was common practice for many Demonkind to await the arrival of Charon’s ferryboat, which brought the newly dead to the shores of the Underworld. The Shades’ first experience with the hospitality of Hell was often when they were beaten, robbed, torn limb from limb, and occasionally partially devoured. They couldn’t be killed, as they were already dead, but reconstituting themselves from the bits and pieces left behind was a difficult, agonizing procedure.
“That’s a good idea.” Pitch nodded. He paused. “So… have you heard who got Satan’s name?
“Nope.” Vlad shook his heavy head. “Nobody’s said nothing. At least to me.”
Pitch pretended to think about this. “I wonder who it could be. What do you think they’ll get him?”
“Hold on.” Vlad growled and grabbed a nearby Shade that had been sneaking toward the insect repellant. “How many times do I have to tell you?” He lifted the Shade up, holding him by the shoulder and leg. He grunted and pulled and tore the Shade in half, showering himself and Pitch with gore. Blood and internal organs slid out of the body, splattering wetly on the ground. Vlad laughed at the still struggling Shade and threw the pieces over his shoulder. Maggots and worms burrowed up from the ground to get at the blood and torn flesh.
“Hey!” Pitch said, wiping his face.
“Sorry, buddy,” Vlad replied, licking blood off his hands. “But anyway, who knows what to get Satan? I’m sure as Heaven glad I didn’t pick his name. Remember a couple times back when that satyr gave him a portrait painted with the blood of innocents? Satan had him drawn and quartered right there in the main hall and had the pieces nailed up on the walls?” Vlad chuckled. “I think they’re still there.”
Pitch stared at him, silent.
At dinner that night all anybody talked about was Secret Santa—who picked whose name, and what gift they were planning on giving and/or getting. Pitch was unusually silent, just listening, not eating. The Demonkind jabbered on about legendary swords with jeweled hilts, skulls with eyes of flame, enchanted rings, magical haunches of never-ending meat. But none of these gifts spoke to him. Satan would already have all of these things—and then some. No, Pitch had to find him something unusual, something special… but what?
Doubt and uncertainty ringing in his head, he got up from the table, deposited his tray, and headed home.
Pitch had never been Up Top before, but had heard all about it. Few of the Demonkind had, until the advent of the Secret Santa. Sure, there was a possession here and there, or some fool summoned up a demon once in a while, but these were rare, and more often than not, Satan was involved.
When Pitch went Up Top, he wouldn’t be alone. Thousands of Demonkind would be invading the Earth, in various guises, over the next few work cycles. They couldn’t just go Up Top in their usual forms. That would cause panic and, more importantly, remove doubt. The Big Guy (God) was very particular about faith. “Anyone can perform a miracle and people will believe,” He’d once said. “But how many can NOT perform a miracle and still get people to believe? Hmm? That’s the trick. I haven’t done anything in thousands of years and they still believe.” He could so smug sometimes.
* * *
He sat in his hovel, leaning against the wall. He couldn’t sleep.
Satan. What do you get Satan for Christmas? He had everything. And if he didn’t have it, he didn’t want it. Precious gems, gold, silver, the Daggers of Megiddo in a display case—Satan had it. A pool filled with unholy water. A pillar of salt. A jar containing an unbaptized infant. Marble statues, gold statues, statues made of shit, living (or unliving) statues forbidden to move. There was nothing new in Hell. That’s why they went to Earth to get gifts.
No one but Satan ever got a “new” gift in Hell. Everything had to found or stolen. They called it “regifting,” and Satan had sent a cadre of demons Up Top to spread the concept of regifting in order to infect and spoil the “true meaning of Christmas.” Surprisingly, the humans had taken to regifting like flies to offal. When the demons had returned telling tales of the vast amount of loot in the Human marketplaces, Satan had decided to allow them to travel there to get gifts. The only catch was they weren’t allowed to pay for anything. Apparently that was another way for Satan to soil/ruin Christmas.
The only approved way Up Top was through one of the portals. There were two located on each level, and they were closely monitored and heavily guarded. Unauthorized travel Up Top was strictly monitored. No one was allowed Up without a pass, and the passes were only good for a few Earth hours. Occasionally a demon was allowed out for longer, for a more involved job like a possession. Pitch’s pass was only good for the next work cycle, so he would have to work fast.
At this time, most of the Earth marketplaces were crammed with shoppers, so a little extra chaos would go unnoticed. Some of the Demons loved taking the forms of children and heading to the toy aisles to wreak havoc: opening boxes, tearing apart toys, screaming. Pitch had heard of a place called “Walm-Aht” where the demons especially loved to go during Christmas time. Chaotic. Noisy. Almost like Hell.
The portals were built into the rock walls. They were fairly wide, so several demons could travel at a time, which helped the line move quickly. From a distance, the portals resembled caves. But as one got closer, you could see a faint blue light undulating at the far end, deep inside. Pitch waited in line, listening to the excited talk around him. He wished he could share their enthusiasm. Once he was at the front, he showed his card to one of the Minotaurs standing guard and was nodded through. He stepped into the portal.
“Remember to close the door behind you,” the Minotaur growled.
Pitch turned back as he entered the portal. “What—” he had time to ask before he was seized.
A sudden burst of bright white light and it felt as though his body had being grabbed by a giant fist and crumpled up into a ball. He was pulled, twisted, and turned inside out. Everything went black. He smacked hard into a cold, wet surface, and all was still.
Pitch groaned and opened his eyes. There had to be a better way to travel Up Top than this. He had heard rumors of an ebony staircase that moved, and all you had to do was stand on it and you would be taken up. It was only accessible through a room in Satan’s palace. Barnaby insisted he had been on it twice, but… you know. Barnaby.
He got to his feet and looked around. He was in a small cubicle with walls that did not quite reach all the way to the floor or ceiling. Was this a prison cell of some type? There was a white porcelain seat with a hole in the middle. But why would—? Pitch looked in the hole. Ah. Human feces. Then he remembered. A toilet. He never understood the human desire to eliminate their waste. Why not leave it out to fester and bloom? How else do you keep others away from your sleeping mat? He fumbled with the latch on the door for a moment and stepped out into a larger, shiny room. Mirrors were set above a long counter that ran the length of the wall. There were more circular, white porcelain openings in the counter. Ah, were these toilets as well? Before he could find out, he remembered the Minotaur’s warning and turned and closed the stall door. There was a sign on it that read “Out of Order.” So this would be his way back as well.
Pitch approached the counter and looked in the openings. No feces. He caught his reflection in the mirror and he jerked back. He’d seen humans, of course, but only in their undead state. He’d never really paid much attention to them. Was this what living humans looked like? Pitch moved closer. A round, pink human face gazed back at him. Short brown hair. He held up his hands. Pink. With five (five?) round-tipped fingers. They would be worthless for ripping out an enemy’s throat. The eyes were small and round and the teeth were laughable. So few and so flat. What did they eat up here—paste? He was wearing a black, short-sleeved shirt with “HERE COMES TROUBLE!” stenciled in garish green neon across the front. Pitch felt around behind him. No tail. Interesting. He pulled the front of his shorts out and looked down. He was male.
The door burst open and two humans entered. Pitch backed away, thought about racing back to the stall, and then remembered. I look just like them. As far as they know, I’m human too. He watched them closely.
“…and when I see Santa I’m going to give him a big hug!” the smaller human proclaimed excitedly.
The larger one, most likely a guard or keeper of some sort, smiled and nodded. “I’m sure he’ll love that. Everyone loves a hug.” He helped the small one unfasten his pants and approach yet another porcelain receptacle, but this one was built vertically into the wall. Pitch watched, curious. Ahh. That’s what it was for. The adult human glanced at Pitch. “Are you going to see Santa, too?”
“Uhh. Umm. Yes?” Pitch started at the sound of his voice. Clear and high pitched. Almost like a female’s. And the way his voice resonated in this tiled chamber! He began hooting and shouting, listening with delight as his voice reverberated around the room. The larger human bent down beside the smaller one and whispered something in his ear. His eyes never left Pitch. As they made their way out of the bathroom, they stayed as far away from Pitch as possible. The smaller one turned and waved his hand and called out, “Bye! See you in line!” as the door closed.
Line? What line? Remembering that he had only a limited amount of time to find a gift, Pitch yanked the door and ventured out.
Sparkles. Noise. Humans. Glitter. White. Green. Red. Everywhere. He spun around, trying to find some sense of direction. He wasn’t sure where he was, but it seemed to be some type of indoor trading post or marketplace. He saw the word “MACY’S” plastered on walls and pillars, surrounded by tinsel and streamers. Green, pointed trees decorated with small shiny objects were placed seemingly everywhere. Signs pointed him in different directions: Housewares For Him, For Her, Home Furnishings, and on and on.
He walked through the crowded marketplace, eyes darting all around. Would Satan like a necklace? He had so many. Pitch approached a table and picked up a black cylinder with a clear top. He wasn’t sure what that was, but it was black and shiny. It appeared to be a container of some kind. He glanced at the sign: Coffee Grinder. What’s coffee? Did Satan like coffee? He sighed and put the cylinder back. This was hopeless. He had no idea what to get.
He spotted several Demonkind in various guises throughout the store. One, wearing the form of a tall human male, was at a glass case, asking to try on a diamond bracelet. As the worker turned away to retrieve it, the demon quickly reached out and snatched a ring off the counter. Another was surreptitiously tearing the price tags off clothing items. Pitch wished he had time to enjoy himself, but he needed to get moving.
A group of humans, two adults—male and female—and three smaller ones, hurried past. He heard one of the young ones point to a sign and squeal.
“Santa! Santa’s this way!”
Pitch turned. He’d heard of Santa. He lived Up Top. He was some kind of minor god. He accepted offerings of sweetened breads and mammary liquid, and in exchange, gave gifts to human children every Christmas. Surely Santa would know what to give Satan.
Pitch followed the human family group (which was what he assumed they were) to the end of a long queue. It consisted of similar family groups, with tense, harried adults accompanied by overstimulated young ones. Two demons were in line. One wore the form of an infant in a wheeled carriage of some sort. He was gleefully screaming his heart out, but to the humans, he appeared to be crying. The other demon, posing as a maternal figure, paid no attention and placidly tapped on some sort of glowing device in her hands. Pitch noticed many of the parents were doing the same, ignoring their children for these strange small glowing devices. What were they? He sidled up and glanced over the shoulder of an adult woman to sneak a peek at her device. A kitten? They were looking at pictures of kittens? But why? Sure, kittens were delicious, but humans didn’t eat them. They kept them as household servants. At least that’s what he’d been told. The line moved forward and Pitch went with it.
Near the end of the line he passed beneath a red-and-white arch that read “Welcome to the North Pole.” White, sparkly powder was spread the floor on either side of the queue. Pitch wondered if it was edible. Large, colorfully decorated boxes sat in piles here and there. A small fence made of large, red-and-white canes lined a red-and-white brick path. Pitch scoffed. That fence wouldn’t keep anyone out.
More humans wearing colorful green-and-red outfits with pointed hats were taking the children by the hand away from their adults. The children were led toward a red-garbed figure sitting on a large throne. The parents stood to the side and watched their offspring. Pitch pushed forward for a better look. Were they being sacrificed? An old white-bearded human, wearing a suit of red, sat atop a golden throne. Pitch had seen his likeness on posters throughout the store. This was Santa. He squeezed between a large human woman and her husband. A tiny child of indeterminate sex stood between them, idly exploring a nostril with a dirty finger.
“Hey! Watch it!” The woman grabbed his shoulder. “Come on, kid, you have to wait your turn.” Pitch glared at her, but backed off. The first rule of going Up Top was “Blend in.” The woman looked down at him smugly. She yanked her child’s hand out of his/her nose and held it tightly. The child took his/her other hand, pointed a finger, and got back to work.
Finally it was Pitch’s turn. A smiling female human approached him, holding out her hand. She was wearing a green dress and a red pointed hat. Her ears were also pointed, but Pitch saw with disappointment that they were false ears. False ears?
“Come on with me, sweetheart.” Pitch took her hand and she led him along the fake-brick walkway. “Are you excited to see Santa?”
Pitch looked up at her big red smile and blinked.
“Don’t be scared, sweetheart.” She knelt beside him and whispered conspiratorially in his ear. “What are you going to ask Santa for?”
“I’m not sure,” Pitch replied. Which was the truth. What did one ask Santa for? He remembered the small human in the bathroom. “Should I hug him?”
“Of course! Santa loves hugs from little boys and girls! It’s his favorite thing, next to milk and cookies!” She giggled unconvincingly. She glanced around at the adult humans. “Where are your mommy and daddy?”
“Oh, they’re in Hell,” Pitch replied, looking past her. Santa was speaking earnestly to a young human female whose face was flush with excitement. She was leaving, but turned and reached up and put her arms around him. Santa laughed good-naturedly and put his arms around her. That was a hug. Pitch knew that much. The girl released Santa and clambered down the steps with the help of yet another Santa’s helper. Two adult humans were there to greet her at the bottom. They held up their kitten viewers at her and then they hugged her. So much hugging.
“It’s your turn,” said the female Santa’s helper, shoving Pitch forward. There was no inflection in her voice. She avoided looking at him.
Santa’s throne was not as grand as Satan’s, but it was still something. He could see right away that the gold wasn’t real. And where were the human skulls?
Pitch walked up the steps. Santa was beaming broadly. Another of Santa’s helpers stood beside him, this one a scrawny male with a spotty face. As Pitch stepped on the top level, he reached down and lifted Pitch up. Pitch was too startled to resist and before he knew it, he was planted on Santa’s lap. He looked up at the twinkling eyes, the ruddy cheeks, remembered himself, and reached around Santa as far as his stubby human arms could go. Santa laughed and put an arm around his shoulder. Pitch held on. A hug. His first hug. It was odd, being this close to someone and not inflicting pain on them. Pitch didn’t know if he liked it or not. Santa continued to laugh, but when he removed his arm from Pitch’s shoulder and the laughter became forced, Pitch let go.
“So what’s your name, buddy?” asked Santa.
“Umm… Pitch, sir.”
“Pitch, hmm. That’s a wonderful name! So what would you like me to bring you for Christmas?”
“Umm… well it’s not for me, exactly.”
Santa looked puzzled. But then his familiar smile returned. “Ho ho ho! What a good little boy! So who would like me to bring a present for?”
Thirty seconds later, two burly Santa’s helpers were half dragging, half carrying Pitch past the line of waiting humans. He had time to note that several pointed their kitten viewing devices at him as he passed. There were audible clicks.
“Wait! He didn’t even tell me what to—” They ignored his protests, releasing him just inside what appeared to be the main doors. Pitch squinted against the bright light shining through the transparent doors. The two Santa’s helpers strode away without looking back.
Pitch sighed. What now? He had no gift and time was running out. He tried to imagine a best-case scenario if he had no gift to give Satan. The best-case scenario was the same as the worst-case scenario. Dismal. Humiliation, torment, demotion. If he was lucky.
He looked around in a last ditch effort to find a gift. A comfy chair? Clothing? Quality footwear? No. No. No! He wanted to scream in frustration. Why couldn’t he have picked Vlad’s name? A bloody bone. A broken spoon. Vlad would be overjoyed at either gift.
He strode back into the bowels of Macy’s, his head lowered in defeat. That’s when he heard it. A beautiful tinkling sound. Music. But not like the muddy music that blared through the hidden speakers in the ceiling. No—this was more delicate… more elegant. This music spoke to him.
He followed the sound past a large plastic tree covered with white clumps of powdered plastic. Beside the tree was a table on which sat several small boxes. One of them was open, and a tiny figure spun slowly as the music played. Pitch was enthralled. He moved closer. The delicate figure slowed and stopped and the music died. Before he could react, an older human woman stepped up and picked up the box. She held it in one hand and twisted some type of key in the back of it. Pitch could clearly hear the gears turning. She smiled down at him. Her hair was white, but she didn’t have a beard. At least not one that he could see.
“Do you like it?”
Pitch nodded. The less he spoke, the better, it seemed.
“It’s a music box. Do you recognize that song?”
Pitch shook his head.
“It’s called ‘I’m a Little Teapot.’ She held it out to him. “Just open it and it plays.”
Pitch held his hands out and gazed at the music box reverently. It was white and had two small drawers. The inside was a deep red cloth of some kind, and when opened, the lid had a mirror that reflected the tiny dancing figure. The woman picked up another one.
“Now this one plays ‘Jingle Bells’ and has a little snowman inside. Is this for your mommy or your sister?”
Pitch shook his head, his eyes never leaving the delicate twirling figure. Just slowly turning. So small. So beautiful. He snapped it shut and opened it again.
“Do, uh, you have any other ones?” He gestured to the boxes on the table. “Besides these?” He looked up hopefully.
“Oh yes, we have several more right over here.” She turned and began walking toward a wall display. When she turned back to Pitch, he was gone.
* * *
Pitch made it back to the portal without any problems. There was a wait as several other demons stood outside the stall. One of them was holding a large grandfather clock and looking nervously at the door. Another was wearing a fluffy fur coat that dragged on the floor. A large demon in the guise of an elderly human female sat in one of the sinks, happily relieving herself.
When it was Pitch’s turn, he cradled the music box to his chest, took a deep breath, and stepped into the stall. Once again the familiar feeling of being crushed into a tiny ball, the dizziness, and he slammed to the ground in the portal cavern. He looked down at the music box and turned it around. He opened it and the music began playing. Perfect.
Pitch hurried back to his hovel, carefully keeping the music box hidden.
* * *
For the next few work cycles, Pitch kept a low profile. He showed up for his shift, worked diligently, ate in the canteen, and returned to his hovel. The gift exchange was fast approaching, and Pitch wasn’t sure how he felt. The music box, he was sure, was the only one of its kind in Hell. But was it enough?
* * *
The Secret Santa gift exchange had arrived. Pitch joined the legions of demons outside the gates of Satan’s primary palace. Pandemonium was greater than he ever could have imagined: tall, ebony walls that seemed to go on forever. It was more of a city than a palace. There were guard towers that overlooked the main entrance. Harpies flew high above the battlements. The main gate was massive, and the demons could easily walk through the main entrance twenty abreast. Pitch glanced up at the heavy portcullis, which had been raised for this special occasion. Several rotted bodies were stuck to the spikes at the bottom. Nice touch.
The great hall was immense. It seemed to go on as far as he could see, immense black columns holding up a ceiling, which he could barely see. At the end of the long hall was the throne. He saw Vlad in the crowd, holding a gift wrapped in human flesh. But Pitch didn’t wave to him. He was so nervous he didn’t think he could talk without screaming. The other demons were in a jubilant mood, laughing and chattering. Pitch seemed to be the only one not talking.
Satan, as usual, was surrounded by his retinue. Imps, demons, other fallen angels surrounded his throne, vying for his attention and approval, laughing at his jokes, looking properly solemn, and nodding their heads sagely at his opinions. He was talking animatedly to a gorgon who rested a scaly hand intimately on his forearm.
The gift exchange went on for hours. Satan would call out a name and a demon would approach. Then the one who had selected that demon’s name would come forward and present the gift. Over and over and over. Many of the Demonkind grew restless, and Pitch heard muttering, sensed their impatience but knew none would dare leave early. He wished some would. Then he could sneak out with them and forget about this whole horrible experience. But there was no way. If Satan didn’t get his gift, he would turn Hell upside down until he found out who had let him down.
Pitch was too nervous to pay close attention. He was terrified out of his mind, his heart pounding so loudly in his chest he was surprised that the demons around him didn’t hear. He vaguely heard shrill screams at one point, followed by a burst of fire and an explosion of laughter and applause. All in all, though, it seemed to be a relatively mundane gift exchange. But then the mood changed. The whispers became more excited, urgent.
“And who picked my name?” his Infernal Majesty’s voice boomed through the immense chamber. Necks swiveled, heads turned (some completely around) as all looked to see who would step forward.
Pitch gulped and squeezed his way forward and stepped out onto the crimson carpet that led up to the throne. He heard some giggles, which were quickly hushed. All eyes and eye stalks were on him. He walked toward the throne. It seemed to take forever. He got to the base of the throne and paused before the steps that led up. Satan leaned forward, regarding him curiously, arching a well-manicured eyebrow. A large, officious spider holding a clipboard and wearing eight-lensed reading glasses whispered into his ear.
“Ah. You are… Pitch? You serve me in the Outer Regions?”
“Yes, my Lord.” Pitch knelt, bowed his head.
“Rise, my faithful servant, and present your Lord and Master with his gift.” Pitch didn’t have to look around to see that the crowd was inching forward.
He was taking his first step up the stairs to the throne when he heard the first whisper.
“He doesn’t have a present.”
“Where’s his gift?”
Pitch didn’t stop. He walked up the steps. The silence was deafening. The only sound was the pad of his feet on the steps. One step. Then another. The steps were higher than he was accustomed to, and he had to use his arms to pull himself up the last one. He could hear the muffled giggles. Pitch didn’t stop when he got to the top step. He was resolute and would see this through, whatever the consequences. He pulled himself up onto Satan’s knee, reached around him, and gave him a big hug.
The watching demons gasped as one. He heard several weapons clatter to the floor from numb, stunned hands. Pitch felt Satan stiffen and he kept his eyes tightly closed. Whatever was going to happen, he didn’t want to see it. It was too late now.
He decided he had held on long enough and was getting ready to let go and subject himself to whatever humiliation and punishment was heading his way when he felt a powerful arm lay across his back. The arm radiated heat, but there was no mistaking whose it was.
* * *
The demons tumbled out of the portal in a raucous heap of arms, legs, tails, and wings. The shift leader, Agamoth, tall, broad-shouldered, his face creased with scars, stood up first and reached down to pull Pitch to his feet.
“You did good, kid! Congratulations on your first successful Soul Collection. Welcome aboard!”
Pitch beamed. Like all the others, he was wearing a black vest with a red badge emblazoned with the initials S.C.S. over his left breast.
The rest of the squad, having disentangled themselves from each other, circled Pitch, congratulating him, playfully shoving his head, slapping him on the back, shaking his claw.
Behind them, a male Shade sat on the ground, dazed from his trip through a portal.
“Where am I? This is all a mistake, I can assure you,” he whimpered most unassuredly. Pitch walked over and grabbed him by the collar of his and yanked him to his feet.
“Welcome to Hell! Get used to it!” The other members of the SCS hooted and screeched their approval.
* * *
It had been very tense after he had hugged Satan, and the crowd was expecting (and hoping for) blood. Satan had pulled back and looked down at Pitch. A single tear glistened in one eye. A tear! And he mouthed the words, “Thank you,” so that only Pitch could see.
After that, events had taken a turn for the surreal. Pitch had been shuffled out of the main chamber and into a small anteroom. The only light came from a fire blazing in the hearth. Pitch was too afraid to touch anything, so he stood in the center of the room. Paintings of warring angels hung from the walls, and he tried to see if could recognize Satan in any of them. He heard muffled screams and chanting from the main hall and began looking for an exit when the spider sidled up beside him. Pitch nearly jumped up out of his loincloth.
“My master expresses his regrets that he is not able to speak with you himself, but…” He made an elaborate gesture with several of his legs. “…duty calls. He has asked me to offer his gratitude for your… uh, gift, and wishes to offer you a boon. What is it you most desire?”
Pitch stared at him. He swiveled his torso, looked around. Was this guy talking to him? Nobody else here.
“Umm, what I most desire?”
“What you most desire. Anything.” He tapped his clipboard impatiently.
“Yes. You.” The spider sighed, rolling seven of his eyes.
* * *
When Pitch got home, he hung his SCS vest on a root that stuck out from the wall. He smoothed it out and rubbed a bit of blood off the badge. It was hard to believe he was now in the Soul Collection Squad. Him! Pitch had never really thought about what he most desired because he never dreamed he would get it. He did live in Hell, after all. He knelt down beside his sleeping mat and pulled a rock to one side, exposing a hollow. He reached in and lifted out an object wrapped in rags. He replaced the rock.
Life was good, Pitch thought, lying back on his mat. He reverently peeled back the rags and uncovered the music box. He wound it, opened it, and watched the ballerina twirl. Yes indeed, life was good.
When not writing his own stories, Jeff DePew teaches literature and mythology courses at a local high school. He lives in Nevada with his wife, Mary Beth, and his two children, Joseph and Annabelle.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “Secret Satan”
Author Jeff DePew takes us on an unexpected journey to an unexpected place and delights us with a superbly written, well-paced story that holds the reader’s attention. We appreciate his misdirection with regard to the touching ending, which we did not see coming.
“Secret Satan” was first published in the Never Fear: Christmas Terrors anthology from 13Thirty Books. When we first read it, we felt it would be a perfect fit for us and sought permission to reprint it here. We hope to see more of Jeff’s work in the future.