The salesman behind the counter was an old lizard. He tapped his claws on the counter as she pulled aside the curtain of iridescent beads to peek into the shop, yellow eyes blinking in interest. She supposed she wasn’t his usual clientele.
“Here to see my wares, little lady?” he asked, straightening. The shop smelled like incense and dried flowers, though she saw neither as she stepped inside gingerly, beads clattered behind her. The tiny space was cramped even before she entered. The wall to her right held a calendar starring kittens in various adorable positions. The counter was to her left, behind which stood the old lizard. And behind him, boxes of all shapes and sizes were crammed into cubbyholes, filling the wall floor to ceiling.
“What’s your name, love?” There was slight unnerving hiss to his voice.
“What was that? Speak up now.” He gestured one claw at her.
“Susan,” she said, a little louder. “I’m looking for a, uh…” the word was hard to get out, but one of her hands wandered, as if following her train of thought, to her shoulder. The old lizard’s lipless mouth split into a grin.
“Say no more,” he said, and turned to the wall of boxes. He plucked an ornate tube from a cubby high up. It looked as if it might contain a small bottle of wine. He opened the round lid and tapped his claw against the side. “Come on out. Come on.”
A small red-skinned devil, horn and tail and all, climbed out. It looked at Susan with slanted eyes and gave her a mock salute, followed by a wolf whistle.
“Good for all-around sinning,” the lizard said proudly. “Guaranteed for five years but probably will give you seven at least. I give you a good deal for him, yes?”
Pulling her coat around her, Susan glanced quickly toward the door. Her heart pounded. What if her mother walked by? Even though she lived in another city and would never frequent a dirty market like this. What if her co-workers recognized her in a shop like this?
She turned quickly back to the counter. “No,” she said. “I’m looking for something a little more … short term.”
“Say no more.” The little devil protested as it was shoved roughly back into the tube and set back on the shelf. A large flat box was removed next. The old lizard lifted the lid to reveal seven slotted spaces inside, each holding a handful of tiny devils the size of baby mice, colored in the seven shades of the rainbow. They squawked and bellowed and poked each other with tiny pitchforks. He pinched a blue one by the tail and lifted it out for Susan to see. It squirmed and shouted profanity, angry at the undignified treatment.
“Mini models made specifically for the deadly sins. Good for one solid sinning experience, perfect for the busy goody-two-shoes on the go. Workaholic? Take a Sloth for a day of sweet lethargy. Health nut? A dose of Gluttony and you’ll be shoved all that delicious fried food down your throat without a second thought. Prude? Well, a touch of Lust will loosen that chastity belt right up.”
Susan swallowed thickly. She eyed the tiny red Lust devils. While the others were all squabbling at each other, they seemed to be busy with a much different task.
“How many would you like? We have a special today. A neat pack of seven—one of each—for the price of five. Or buy four of a kind and get a fifth of your choice for free.”
He began to remove the little devils from their slots for packaging. Susan quickly stopped him, keeping her eye on the door the whole time.
“No, no,” she said. He arched a brow-less eye at her. “I mean, they’re lovely. But I need something a little more all-around. Just … more temporary.”
The old lizard looked her up and down, at his kitten calendar, at his wares, then back at her. “I think I have just the thing for you.”
“Not that one! The red!”
Susan set down the lip gloss in her hand and traded it for the cherry-red lipstick. It glided across her lips smoothly, turning it from boring beige pink to bright, eye-catching red. She puckered, checking herself out in the mirror.
The devil on her shoulder nodded in approval. She was about three inches tall, with short black hair, red skin, curves to kill, and a pair of pointy stilettos that poked Susan’s shoulder as she walked. She made it loudly clear that she was dissatisfied with Susan’s wardrobe of cardigans, jeans, and knee-length skirts, then feigned a fainting spell when Susan showed her the only two pairs of shoes she owned—old fading pumps for work, sneakers for everything else. After that, she demanded that Susan must go shopping, whatever the cost.
Embarrassed as she was to have spent money on a shoulder devil, Susan had to admit the little thing’s presence was intoxicating. It marched her right to the most expensive boutique in the mall and demanded that she wrap herself in a satin dress the size of a washcloth, then ordered that she put on the highest heels she could find and stand in front of the mirror. She wobbled clumsily to the dressing room mirror, feeling ridiculous.
“Stand up straight,” the little devil whispered in her ear, and a warm flow of confidence flowed through her. Her feet stabilized themselves and her chest and hips stuck out in all the right directions.
“Shake your hair out,” said the devil. Susan loosened her usually tightly-bound ponytail and shook her head left and right. Her brown mane poured like a waterfall down her shoulders. The devil nodded in satisfaction, strolling from one shoulder to the other. “I can work with this.”
On her way home several motorists stopped to whistle at her. She blushed and the shoulder devil slapped her on the ear and told her to keep her head up.
Confident and strong as she felt, entering the club still gave her pause. The little devil hid between the strands of her hair—now straightened and highlighted with dark red—whispering encouragements and reminding her to stick her chest out. The bouncer took one look at her and ushered her to the front of the line with a toothy grin. The devil told her to wink.
Despite the dark ambiance inside, she felt naked. She had been to this club before; six months ago, when her co-workers dragged her practically by the collar. The same bouncer had given her flat shoes and modest skirt a slanted glance and told her party they needed to wait. The wait turned out to be three and a half hours.
The theme of tonight was red. Sparkling red hearts and stars hung from the ceiling. Red lights throbbed. All the drinks were red, frosted with white sugar around the rims. The bar was crammed with couples invading each other’s personal space. More than a few men eyed her sideways as she walked by.
“Move your hips,” the devil whispered. “You’re hot stuff.”
Was anyone else carrying a devil? Susan felt her cheeks turn red at the thought. She peeked at the shoulders of few drunken patrons but couldn’t see anything. Of course not. They would be hidden, just like hers, but she couldn’t shake the feeling—and guilt—that hers was the only one. The devil tugged her hair and she blew a kiss to the handsome bartender. Sliding onto a stool at the far end of the bar, she felt like a fraud.
A hand reached into her sight from behind with a red drink in a champagne flute. She started and realized she had been staring into space. A figure slid into view and leaned on the counter with one elbow.
“Hi there,” he said, and set the drink in front of her.
“Hubba hubba,” said the devil in her hair. “Talk to him.”
“Hello,” she heard herself say. The voice coming out of her lips was deep, seductive.
“My name is Juan,” said the man. Susan couldn’t stop staring at his expensive suit and silky blue undershirt, pasted over his GQ body. His skin was chocolate brown and his voice had a hint of exotic island flair. His dark eyes curved slightly when he smiled, baring teeth like white pearls.
“Give him a name,” the devil said. “A sexy name. Think porn.”
She offered him her hand, which he lifted to his lips with warm fingers and kissed. “Roxanne,” she said.
Susan wasn’t sure how she wound up in the back of the club, in a tiny booth with Juan’s lips buried under her chin. The devil had told her to brush some lint off his shoulder, and take a sip of the drink and offer him one, and brush her thigh against his leg, all the while sending those warm waves of confidence up and down her spine. Before she knew it, their limbs were tangled in knots that would put a boy scout to shame.
It was all very much like a game of chess and Juan matched her move for move. His sweet accent swam in her head and his fingers traced her arm, sent shivers through her body. The devil whispered in her ear, urging her to touch him, tease him, take it a little further. She obeyed, caught up in the ecstasy and excitement. Without the devil on her shoulder, she knew, a man like him would never have given her a second look.
As the night wore on the club became increasingly crowded. Couples writhed against each other to the music. Threesomes and foursomes form. The noise and flashing lights were drowning her senses.
“Make him want you,” the devil whispered. She grabbed Juan’s hand and guided it to her thigh. “Make him hot.” She nibbled on his ear and felt his arm tighten around her waist, pulling her into his lap. “Yea baby, you’re gonna get laid tonight!”
“I want you,” she whispered to him. Suddenly the grip around her body was gone and she felt herself falling. Her back hit the vinyl seat and she let out a gasp. By the time she sat up, Juan’s back was retreating through the crowd.
“What did you do?!” the devil demanded angrily. Susan ran a hand through her messy hair and for a moment was dazed. Her chin felt sticky. She had smudged her lipstick.
“Doesn’t matter,” the devil said. “Plenty of fish in the sea. Let’s head to the bar and we’ll bag you a…”
“Shut up,” Susan snapped, and stormed out of the club, pushing the drunken patrons aside. She felt like a fool.
The cold air outside cleared her head momentarily. She hadn’t quite decided whether to go home. But before she could, someone blocked her way. She started to push past but stopped when she saw the familiar dark eyes.
“Hi,” Juan said. “I’m sorry. Can I just … explain?”
She looked him up and down in surprise. His smooth island accent was gone and, in the yellow streetlight, she noticed his suit was actually a bit ill-fitted, wider in the shoulders than its wearer. His sheepish grin was rather goofy, a stark contrast to the charming smile he poured on her in the club.
“I didn’t mean to leave like that,” he said. He wasn’t as tall as she initially thought either. “It’s just that when you started saying you want me … it didn’t seem right.”
“Yea,” she said, feeling impatient and very, very stupid. “Thanks. Good night.”
He stopped her with a gentle hand on her wrist. “Please just hear me out,” he pleaded. “It’s my fault. Not yours. I…” he turned his eyes downward, looking so embarrassed Susan felt pity well up in her chest. He sighed, released her hand, and rubbed his face. “OK, this is really embarrassing. Come on out.”
At first nothing seemed to happen, then Susan saw the wiggle under his collar. A moment later a little green devil crawled out. It leaned against Juan’s ear and winked at Susan.
“Cram it,” Juan snapped, and gave Susan a guilty look, as if expecting her to reprimand him.
“You have a…”
“Yea. Got it yesterday.” He gave her a helpless shrug. “So you see now? It’s just not right. I’m not really… like that, and it wouldn’t have been right to hook up with you using this thing. I mean, you’re a very beautiful woman and you deserve better than that.”
Susan stared at him. He shifted uncomfortably.
“That’s it. So if you want to hit me or something that’s fine, too.”
Susan burst out laughing. She laughed until tears streamed down her face. She wiped it away roughly, smearing what was left of her makeup. Juan looked at her in confusion.
“What’s so funny? I mean, I know I’m pretty pathetic…”
Susan reached into her hair and plucked the little devil out by the tail.
“Hey!” it exclaimed. “Put me down!” It looked up at Juan’s incredulous face. “What are you looking at?”
Susan dropped her devil on the ground. Juan did the same with his. Then, after a long look at each other, they both laughed. The devils huffed indignantly.
“My name is Eddy,” he said after the laughter passed, holding out his hand.
Susan shook it. “Susan.”
“I’m a nursing student.”
“I’m a paralegal.”
“I hate clubs.”
Eddy glanced down the street. “There’s a Starbucks around the corner. Can I buy you a cup of coffee?”
Susan smiled. “Maybe one. I can’t return this dress tomorrow if I spill something on it.”
“Good thinking. I have to return this suit. You wouldn’t believe the chafe I’ve got on my wrist from the price tag.”
The old lizard was just about to close up his shop when the beaded curtain clattered. He looked up and saw no customer. He looked down to see two tiny devil-shaped figures stumbling inside, grumbling unhappily. He put out a bowl of water for them to wash with while he found their respective boxes.
“I’m not doing this again, old man,” the female fussed. The red paint was almost all gone now, revealing her soft white skin underneath. She shook herself dry and allowed her tiny white wings to sprout back.
“Couldn’t you just give them the devils?” the male demanded, dunking himself in the bowl of water to rid the green paint. “Do you know how hard it is to keep wings tucked away that long?”
“Yes, yes,” said the old lizard, chuckling. “But you guys did good. Besides, nothing wrong with a little harmless fun on the first of April, eh?”
He helped them both dry with a towel, made promises of no more tricks in the “foreseeable” future, and packed them back into red-trimmed boxes labeled “Cherub.”