“So, what’d you get ‘im?”
“I said,” said the impatient voice, “what’d you get ‘im?”
“Oh, oh right! Oh, well, hm, you see—”
“You didn’t get ‘im anything?”
The other converser tutted. “It does not bode well to turn up to a birthday party without a gift.” She had a thick and strong cockney accent that had obviously been coarsened by years of smoking. At least, I think it was a ‘she’. Down here, it was rather hard to tell.
I tried to ignore the smell.
“Listen,” rasped the voice, “I got ‘im a great gift.”
I absorbed the information whilst nodding politely. “That’s—that’s marvellous,” I said, eventually. “Well done you,” I added, with a forced smile. I hoped it didn’t sound too sarcastic. You never knew how people here would take things.
“Only… it was quite expensive,” said the voice, seemingly oblivious to what might have been construed as an insult.
“Really? How generous,” I said, raising my eyebrows, and nodding.
“I can’t exactly afford it, though.”
I wasn’t sure how to respond to that. What sort of person purchased a gift that they couldn’t afford? Still, these people weren’t like other people. In fact, calling them people might indeed be a stretch.
“Oh…” I said, a bit unsure. “That’s… a shame?” I’m not clear how it turned into a question, but I didn’t know what she wanted me to say in reply.
“We could go halfsies on it.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You deaf or sumfin’?”
“Well, it sure seems like it. I said,” the exasperated note once more crept into her voice, “we could go halfsies on it.”
“Halfsies?” I asked. I was aware that I had cocked my head to one side, like a confused puppy. I quickly righted it.
I think she rolled her eyes. It was hard to tell. The darkness and the flickering lights made seeing things clearly almost impossible. I think that might have been the point.
“Halfsies,” she said. “You know, halfsies! I pay half, you pay half, bloody halfsies!”
“Oh! Oh right! I do beg your pardon! Right, right, right… halfsies…”
There was a momentary pause in the conversation as the festivities in the centre of the room caused a burst of light. I caught a glimpse of my newfound friend and grimaced. Hopefully, the cringe was not observed.
“So, do you wanna then?”
Something was muttered under her breath. “You always this difficult to talk to?”
“I—I don’t rightly know,” I said, honestly.
She sighed and began speaking very slowly. “Would. You. Like to go. Halfsies,” a lot of emphasis was placed on this word, “On the gift. That I. Have. Bought. Him.”
“Oh! Oh, I’m not so sure, you know. You’ve gone to so much effort to get… Him… something. It would seem a bit rude if I, you know, just jumped on at the last moment.”
“It wouldn’t! It wouldn’t!”
I thought I perceived a swear word directed at me, but it was said too quietly for me to hear. “I said,” I could tell she was really trying to not show her vexation with me, “it wouldn’t be rude. I’m asking. If you were the one asking me if you could go halfsies on my gift right before I gave it to ‘im… Well, then it’d be rude. But me asking you if you wanna go halfsies on my gift right before… Well, then it wouldn’t be rude, would it?”
I couldn’t fault her logic.
“Besides,” she continued, “I said I couldn’t really afford it. Don’t you remember?”
“Oh—oh yes, yes of course!” I lied.
“So…?” she asked, expectantly.
“Um…” I said.
“Um…” I said again. “What is it?”
“The…” This time, she definitely swore. “The gift? You wanna know what the gift is?”
“So, I can know whether it’s a good gift.”
“So…” She swore again. “First of all, that is rude. Second of all, why does it matter? A gift’s a gift, ain’t it?”
“Well, I suppose… But you said it was a great gift, and I just wanted to know what it was.”
“Well, it’s better than what you got ‘im,” she said, triumphantly.
I must admit, she had got me there. “Hmm,” I said.
“Besides,” she said, “it’s the thought that counts, ain’t it?”
There was another flare-up in the centre of the room. A riotous cheer rippled through the crowd. I avoided her gaze in the momentary illumination. I didn’t want to see that face again.
“So, you’re not going to tell me what the gift is?” I said, at last.
“No.” Her voice was stubborn. “It’s a great gift, and it’s better than nuffin’. You can either join me, and go halfsies, or you can give ‘im nuffin’.”
“So, do you wanna go halfsies?”
“Yes, how much?” I now wondered if she wasn’t the one who was actually deaf.
“You can’t say ‘How much?’ when someone offers to go halfsies on a gift at a birthday celebration!”
“Well… because it’s rude!”
“But what if I can’t afford it? Wouldn’t that be rude?” I inquired.
“Oh, you can afford this…” I’m not sure how I knew, but I could tell that she was smiling in the darkness. The smell had gotten worse. A slithery quality had also wormed its way into her voice. I didn’t like it.
“How do you know what I can and cannot afford?” I asked, rather incredulously.
“Well,” she said, her words telling me that her grin was widening, “everyone can afford this.”
That perplexed me. “Hmm,” I said. “I see. Most curious.”
“So, do you wanna?”
“Oh, go on then,” I sighed, giving in. “Thank you,” I said, offering a polite smile at the shadow.
There was a loud shout, followed by another burst of light and a momentary blast of heat.
And then… darkness.
The next thing I was aware of, was the fact that I was moving without moving. As in, I wasn’t moving of my own accord.
There was a distinct rolling sensation, which made sense, given the circumstances. The wheels bounced and jerked over the uneven surface. It wasn’t the most comfortable journey, but I doubted that the people here cared about paving and tiling.
The movement stopped.
The smell was noticeably worse. I wrinkled my nose instinctively.
Somewhere nearby, I heard the unmistakable sound of parchment being unrolled. Someone said my name. They had a very gruff voice.
There was some conversation not too far away. I recognised one of the voices, but I couldn’t quite make out the discussion.
I looked around, trying not to make eye contact with anyone. In the distance, beyond the crowd, I could make out the device. Ironically, it chilled me to my bones. I diverted my gaze. I didn’t want to look at that. Not until I had to. I then noticed there was a birthday cake not too far away. It was sat on an ornate pedestal.
There were too many candles on the cake. And it didn’t appear to be made of confectionary, either. It looked rather… fleshy. I tried counting the candles, but I quickly forgot the total. Someone nudged my side through the cage. It was her. She was grinning. “Almost seven hundred of ‘em,” she said, gleefully. Of course, there were. Of course.
The gruff voice spoke again. “Whose gift is this?”
“That’d be mine, Sir,” said the female I’d been speaking to earlier. I tried not to glance at her. I feared I’d go mad if I were to look upon her form for much longer.
“Very good—” I think her name was spoken here, but it didn’t sound like any name I’d ever heard before. I’m not sure I could spell it. In truth, the name didn’t sound like any sound I’d ever heard before, either.
I suddenly felt eyes upon me, inspecting, probing.
There was a mumble of approval. “Very good.”
“Thank you, Sir.” She was smiling, I didn’t have to look at her to know that.
“Type of contract?”
There was a pause.
“Er… verbal.” She sounded a bit embarrassed.
A pause. A small grumble.
“Very well. He would prefer it to be written or something of the like, but verbal will do. Thank you for your gift, Sister.”
“Most welcome, Sir,” she said, relief flooding her voice. Then, almost obscenely, she curtseyed. “’appy birfday, Master,” she added, reverently.
There was another noise, not from either of the two currently talking. I knew whose voice it was, even if it made no words or sounds that the human ear could comprehend. The Beast’s bellows seemed to physically penetrate me, and I began to shiver, involuntarily.
Immediately, the six hundred and sixty-six candles flared up, jovially. I flinched from the sight and the smell. The sulphuric odour reminded me of rotten eggs.
There was a blurred figure at the edge of my peripheral vision, but whenever I tried to look at it, I felt as if I would faint. The silhouette seemed to warp and suck the light inwards, like a black hole. I supposed the image before me was too much for my fracturing mind to handle.
The Beast spoke once more, and I began to move again.
Horrifically, the crowd started singing as I was wheeled towards the oven. The horde parted before me, as my enclosure trundled along the rough ground, towards that which I did not want to look at.
“Happy birthday to you,” they began, all out of tune, a thousand discordant voices. “Happy birthday to you,” the harmonies were atrocious, the melodies inhuman. “Happy birthday dear Satan! Happy birthday to yoooOOOOUUUUU!” The song descended into chaos. There was a raucous ruckus as everyone cheered and began clapping hands and claws and hooves.
The Beast communicated his pleasure to his revellers.
A flash of light bloomed before me, as they readied the oven. The doors opened like ravenous jaws. I tried to swallow the spit in my mouth, and found that I was unable to.
I gripped the bars of my hutch as they wheeled me forward. I knew my cries were falling on deaf ears, but I could not restrain myself. Sweat dripped down the entirety of my frail human frame. I think I was crying, but it’s hard to tell when you’re perspiring that much.
When the metal doors closed behind me, with an ominous clang, I could’ve sworn that the crowd had taken up a round of For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.
9th August 2019
Written for Reedsy’s weekly Short Story Contest