Oct 21: HORROR MOVIES

 

John Pientka was a real rat-bastard of an older brother.  He was the kind of kid who’d sneak up behind you and grab you just to make you jump.  He’d pick on you just to get Mom to yell at you to shut up.  He snapped bras, he smoked behind the schoolhouse, he mouthed off to the teacher, you didn’t dare trust him with a stray dog.  You know the type.  He’s famous now—Johnny Piper.  Girls fall all over his ice-blue eyes and handsome face and miss the fact that there’s no light behind the eyes and no laugh lines on the face.  Hardly wrinkled at all.  To see us on the street, you’d think that I was his father, not his little brother.

I got scars on my wrists that John Pientka put there with a box cutter when I was six, just to freak Mom out.  I ended up in the hospital psych ward and John was praised for saving little Freddy. That’s my brother.

He’s a headliner on the movie theater marquees now.  Johnny Piper in The Rock and the Hard Place.  Johnny Piper in Assassination Squad 7.  Johnny Piper in Bravery.  Always some leggy blonde on his arm.

Me?  I’m a trivia question, as in, “Who played the devil from The Door to Hell?”  Answer, Fred Pientka.

Everybody misses that one.  I had the time of my life.

When they find out I’m Johnny Piper’s brother, they all want to know what he was like, back when we were kids.  I make up some pleasant lies and shake a lot of hands.  I go to every new picture he’s in.  He’s a good actor.

I should know.

I was there when he made the deal that made him that way.

We were walking home from school.  I had two blistered-up cigarette burns on my arm and he was in the middle of giving me a third, and this old guy walks up to us.  I say he was old, but it’s more like he’s our age now, in his early fifties.

Yeah, Johnny Piper is that old.  Look it up on IMDB and do the math.  Doesn’t look a day over thirty-five.

Part of the deal, you know?

Anyway this old guy comes up to us.  He has a bald spot and a comb-over and a pot belly and missing teeth and bowlegs and these awful, wide, pale-blue eyes.  Practically bulging out of his head.

He says in slithery whisper, “How would you like to be famous, kid?”

And where most kids would tell the guy to scram or just say, “Sure, whatever,” John stops to think about it.  He looks the guy over from head to toe.  His eyes linger on the guy’s clothes first—wrinkled, stained, and stinking.  This is not a guy who’s had a bath in the last six months.  The smell has gone so far beyond body odor that it’s started to smell like fermentation.  Not alcoholic so much as just plain yeast, a sourdough smell.  The guy’s wearing tennis shoes with so many holes you can see the fungus on his yellow, split toenails.

Then the face.  The reddened whites of the guy’s eyes, the drunk’s busted capillaries in the nose, the nose hairs, the eyes.  The dark circles underneath them.

“For how long?” John says.

“As long as you can hang onto it.”

“Okay,” John says, and the two of them take off without a single look behind them.  I’m, what, eight?  And John is fifteen.

I make it home, go down to the basement before Mom comes home, and start watching The Phantom of the Opera, the black and white one with Lon Chaney, the Man of a Thousand Faces.  I love them all.

When John sneaks back into the house and sits next to me on the beat-up old couch down there, he’s Johnny Piper.  There’s no other way to describe it.  It’s like someone flipped a switch.

He never hurts me again.

And all night long, he cries to himself.  That guy hurt him…and in his sleep, my brother moans and screams and I can’t help finding out what happened.

That old broken-down man was the devil, or at least a damned thing.

He was who my brother would have been at the moment of his death, dragged out of hell to make my brother’s younger self an offer.

Sell his soul or end up dead on Halloween this year, homeless and groveling under a poster of Freddie Pientka’s new horror movie, Hell’s Kitchen 6.

I laughed into my pillow when I heard it.  At how much jealousy there is in the world.  And over so little.  But it’s also terrible.  Because it’s only in nightmares that my brother’s soul can come back from the hell he shoved it into.

When my devil came, I said no.  One monster was enough for me.

Besides, there was nothing to be afraid of.  He was just real old.

My spouse Lee hates time travel stories and deal with the devil stories, so of course I had to try to write one that touched on both.  And the idea that the devil you have to make a deal with is your future self–or the future self that could have been–just hooked me.  What if some people should give up their souls?