written by: Carmen Baca
The Three Rivers Halloween dance attracted the entire town and those from nearby rural communities since it was the last big social event before the Christmas ball. As though the people prepared for hibernation, they couldn’t resist one final fling before the long winter. However, the harvest and the first frost were far from their thoughts this night: the focus was on costumes, company, drinks, and dancing.
Different motives for attending came to the minds of two individuals in anticipation of the dance: the former, Jeannie Andalucía, wanted nothing more than a good time and perhaps the opportunity to meet prospective boyfriends. The latter, a newcomer to the area who introduced himself as Daniel Webster, looked forward to another conquest of the opposite sex.
“Yeah, I get that a lot,” Daniel replied when new acquaintances made the connection to Hawthorne’s story, “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” “Everyone wants to know how I escaped Old Scratch’s clutches. It’s the story of my life.” Most people would probably tire of that particular tidbit which came into the awkward silence of meeting Daniel for the first time, but not him. He wore a constant smile and grinned from ear to ear every time.
A virtual stranger to the townsfolk, Daniel struck most as someone who tried too hard. There was something about him no one could point out, exactly. Nonetheless, he struck people as fake. Like someone who’s guilty of something and puts up a good front for appearances. He’d been in Three Rivers for six weeks before the dance, and not one could call him a friend. No one knew where he lived or worked, for that matter.
The weather cooperated as the warm day turned into a lovely autumn evening. The dance, scheduled from eight to midnight, prompted Jeannie to prepare right after dinner. Since she lived in a loft above a bakery, she didn’t have to concern herself with handing out treats to trick or treaters. She enjoyed a nice bubble bath and a glass of wine, closing her eyes and letting her mind wander for a bit. Jeannie sighed. A few semesters away from graduating with her degree in accounting from the local community college, she looked forward to starting her career. But she also wanted someone to share her life with. Perhaps she’d meet Mr. Right tonight, who knew? Stranger things had happened.
She rose from the tub, dried off, and went into her bedroom to look at the costume she’d laid out on the bed. Jeannie had always been conservative in her attire, but tonight she looked forward to turning heads in what her grandmother would call racy, or worse if she were here. The red faux leather bodysuit and matching heels made her feel sexy, and her heart pumped with nervous excitement when she turned back to the mirror and studied herself from head to toe. She arranged her brunette shoulder-length curls around the headband from which sprouted small red horns. The tail attached to her backside moved when she did, and she brought the tufted end toward her, holding it like one would hold the train of a gown. Self-conscious about the tight fit of the bodysuit, she had found a black wraparound mini skirt of sparkling gossamer and tulle to contrast with the red. She wrapped it around her waist and fastened it. ‘There,’ she thought, ‘I’m leaving something to the imagination.’
The dance had started about a half-hour before, so Jeannie took her black shawl from the hall closet, wrapped it around herself, grabbed her bag, and rushed out. She called her friend, Victoria, while her car warmed up.
“Two tables down from the bandstand,” Vicky told her. “Julie and Susan are here already, too.”
“Look for me. I’ll be there in five.”
Jeannie parked her sedan far from the dance hall, closer to the exit in case she wanted to leave early. ‘The decorations suited the occasion,’ she thought. The entry had been turned into a castle right out of Transylvania, complete with gargoyles and sconces. She entered a dark hall made to look like a tunnel with hanging cobwebs, gravestones, and illuminated eyes in strategic places. It opened into the large ballroom lit up in red, interrupted by bright flashing lights to the beat of the bass. Cardboard knights with aluminum foil swords and shields spaced about every ten feet stood over the guests. Tables and chairs lined three walls with the bandstand in front of the fourth, and the dance floor held many dark silhouettes moving in rhythm to the music.
Jeannie started down the left side, attempting to make out faces of those seated at tables, but the lighting gave red hues to countenances, and black shadows where the lights didn’t reach made it impossible to recognize any of them. She hoped perhaps one of her friends would see her and call out, but she made it all around to their table without finding them.
“A devil as beautiful as you should not be alone.”
A voice murmured in her ear over the music, but when Jeannie turned, she saw no one. Goosebumps rose on her arms. The voice had sounded almost in her head it had been so close. Strange, she thought, strange that she heard the low comment at all with the DJ a few yards in front of her and the noise of the crowd all around. She shrugged and made her way to the bar to wait for the song to end, hoping she’d be able to find her friends then. She groaned when another popular number started up almost before the last note of the previous one. No one ever sat when that track played. She sighed and leaned against the bar, sipping her drink.
She texted, Where are you? to Vicky and Suz, but neither replied. She almost wanted to jump in and dance by herself, and then she thought, ‘Why not?’ The floor was so crowded, no one would notice her anyway. She could work her way around the couples and maybe run into Vicky or the others. Jeannie rolled her shawl up and stuffed it in her oversized bag, gulped most of her drink down for bravado, and joined the crowd. She rocked from side to side and shuffled her way from one end of the room to the other before twisting an ankle. As she was about to hit the floor, hands wrapped around her waist and she was pulled back against someone’s body. She gasped and then laughed with an abandon fueled by her sheer delight. She’d never felt more free, and she laughed some more at the idea she might be drunk, or at least tipsy.
The someone turned her until she faced him, and she looked into the face of another devil. He wasn’t laughing. She sobered. There was something about his features that wasn’t quite right. A twinge of apprehension made her try to pull free from his hold. But his hands tightened and held her against him. This devil’s red complexion didn’t look painted. He bore smudges of soot here and there, too, as though he had indeed come up from the depths of a fiery inferno. The devil grinned. Even the face didn’t look painted and the horns protruded from his forehead with no evidence they were cosmetic. His had bumps like real antler horns and they rose a few inches above his head. She could see no band, nothing holding them in place.
“I have been waiting for you for centuries,” the devil said.
Jeannie relaxed. He was in character, that was all. She played along. “I am yours for the taking then,” she confessed in her most convincing femme fatale voice, tossing up a hand to her head in classic Scarlett O’Hara style, leaning back as though about to swoon.
‘Strange,’ she thought, when his hands on her waist released their hold and instead felt like blocks pressed against her. The man, already towering over her five-foot frame by a foot, rose another six inches or so. Jeannie laughed and then looked down at his feet, thinking, ‘Why would you stand on tiptoe; you’re already tall enough?’ The darkness prevented her from seeing details, so she merely tilted her head farther back to look into his face.
Too late, she realized she was deep in a situation from which she would probably not escape. She opened her mouth to scream, but those eyes held her frozen in place. A small spark like an ember ignited in the center where his pupils should be and grew until the entirety of his eyes glowed red with flames from inside of him. Those eyes held her entranced.
“I, Daniel Webster, take you, mortal woman, to be my bride on this night as promised by Satan himself when we made our contract.”
Jeannie stood because the devil’s minion held her up, not because she had any faculties left. He covered her lips with his own and sucked the breath right from her lungs. Dancers around them stopped their dancing and applauded, whistled, and shouted their congratulations.
“Look,” a romantic amongst them yelled, “The devil has found his mate!”
“Yahoo!” Another voice joined in. “It’s a match made in hell!”
When the laughter rose as more people crowded around them to watch the young lovers, Daniel opened his eyes and glared at them as he turned with Jeannie in his arms, mouths still fused in a mockery of affection. Jeannie was already gone, absorbed, ingested as though he were a connoisseur sucking the marrow from bone. Fortunate for her, Jeannie’s ability to think had been the first faculty to go. Her body shrank like a deflating balloon in Daniel’s arms until only her costume, heels, and handbag remained. They fell, empty, to the floor.
The screams echoed in those dancers’ ears and lingered in their minds long after that ill-fated dance. They fled in a stampede of panic and abhorrence, rushing past the towering devil who had come amongst them. Only later when recounting their accounts of the incident to the authorities did the people report seeing the transformation from man to demon, complete with swishing tail and hooves for hands and feet. His bellowing laughter had echoed through the hall as the sparks from his clawed fingers ignited tablecloths and drapery, crepe paper and cardboard decorations. The room then blazed with multi-colored flames which consumed it before the first fire engine arrived.
The building collapsed unto itself. In horror, saviors, spectators, and survivors watched as the demonic figure rose from the dying flames and grew larger and longer into gigantic dimensions. There could be no mistake a devil, perhaps Satan himself, stood before them. With a final demonic laugh echoing in the moonless night, a final explosion of smoke and sparks sent everyone reeling. The smell of sulfur permeated the air, and a single flare flew upward as if propelled by the force of the blast. The crowd followed its progress up into the black night until it lost its ability to rise higher or someone had reversed its course. It fell with increasing speed until it smashed into what was left of the foundation of the dance hall. They heard the rumble of its descent long after they blinked the spots from their eyes.
Costumed revelers filled the haunted house in the next town over. Volunteers and visitors dressed as ghouls and monsters were too busy either scaring or being scared to notice a puff of smoke in a dark corner of the room decorated as the fires of hell. A red-faced devil stood amongst the fake flames laughing evilly with head thrown back in demonic delight. But his keen eyes, a small glowing ember in the center, studied the crowd. An attractive young woman dressed as a sorceress caught his attention, and he followed her into the next room…
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