He stood with the Other in the bent light of time halted. Flames leapt from either wing and black smoke filled the air to the West. The nose, suspended mere inches above the ground, reflected the sun's rays in a stagnant beam flattened out against the tarmac. All two hundred and thirty three souls aboard, including his own, were frozen.
Although most were caught open-mouthed in the act of screaming, a few he had seen as he cupped his hands against the glare, were cradling the heads of their children, trying in vain to protect them using only their arms as shields against the inevitable.
In the real moment, he had been in 27 B, on top of the right wing. He had held Jessica's hand in his right and Melanie's in his left. They had descended gradually after the first engine caught fire and then whooshed out seconds later, but when fire shot through the fuselage to the other side, well...that had been the end. A Navy pilot, he knew the sound and what it meant before the rest of the plane. With both engines gone, they were going down and fast.
The pilot had come on then, starting "Ladies and...oh...". He cut off and came back on quickly, shouting "BRACE BRACE BRACE!!" Travis's knew they were about five thousand feet up. Maybe enough time to flatten out and try for a belly landing, but probably not. It was then that he had grabbed his wife's shaking hand and his daughter's small one. Then he had bent his head in prayer, not to the One but to the Other. And he had made the deal that brought him back here today.
The man that stood next to him now had not aged in a half century. Travis had lost most of his thick black hair and what was leftover was cottony. He was soft in the gut and walked hunched over, most days with a cane. Fifty years ago he'd had a flat stomach and broad, strong shoulders.
This man though, he was still just as Travis remembered. Tall and lean, with fair hair that fell away from his high hairline and past his shoulders. His face was handsome, but not remarkable. His eyes were yellow, his only unusual feature. Yellow like old newspaper and tea-stained cloth. Travis had never seen the man smile before, but he did so now and it was charming, winsome.
The Other dropped a wink, "Travis, did you miss me?"
Travis had sudden strong desire, just on the tip of his tongue actually to say "Yes, my Lord", but he won the private battle and instead, said "Why would I have missed you? You were a useful tool and I have enjoyed my life. At this point, you've earned my soul. Let's get on with the hellfire and brimstone. I'm tired."
The Other laughed. A languid and hearty chuckle. "Yes of course..of course. We will have plenty of "hellfire and brimstone" to come. But there is also the matter of payment." He held his hand out in front of him then. Glancing at his palm, Travis noticed there were no lines at all. Just a flat waxy cover, like the hand of a mannequin.
When Travis blinked and frowned, but said nothing, the Other seemed to think for a moment, then reached up quickly to the nose of the plane and with the tip of his finger spun it. The entire jet turned as if on an axis in midair, the flames and the smoke spinning with it, enveloping it. It was amazing to watch and Travis quickly forgot where he was, who he was and more importantly, who he was with.
The sun blinking off and on as the airliner spun faster than a top throwing huge whipping shadows across the hot tarmac. Travis watched for at least a minute he thought, maybe two, but the airliner never slowed its rotation and eventually, Travis lost interest and looked back at the man.
The Other was crouched on the ground just off the tarmac, hands hanging off of each knee in a frog-like position. He was using a stick to draw lazy circles in the dirt and when Travis eventually tore his gaze away, he motioned for Travis to join him.
"You see," the man began "We are both here and not here. You are in that plane," he pointed toward the still-spinning metal and fire top behind them "and you are with me now. You have lived the last fifty years of your life because that is what I allowed you to have." The man was getting louder now. He wasn't shouting, it just seemed as if the volume had been turned up. Travis was hearing him internally somehow and it hurt at his chest and the back of his eyes.
"You prayed to me to save your life and I did that. You did not ask me to save the lives of your wife or your child or of the other people on the plane for that matter, you selfish bastard." On the word "selfish", Travis noticed the man's tongue had darted out of his mouth quickly and it was much much too long. Sickeningly long. And forked. That too.
When Travis failed to respond, the Other went on, "You have not yet paid me what I am due." Travis, a bit wooly in his advanced age, just wasn't catching on and frankly he was sick of the whole thing. He didn't want to think about what he had done. It was so long ago. "Yes, yes. I'm here to give you my soul. Let's do this." He made a "wrap it up" motion with his finger.
The Other sighed and dropped the stick. Then he stood up and dusted off the knees of his jeans and pointed at Travis. "I'm not here simply to collect your soul Travis. It's a shriveled up old thing and it wasn't particularly good to begin with. Not exactly worth all this time I'm spending." He shrugged expansively at the impending crash. "No, I'm here to collect all of the souls that you left behind. It was fifty years ago, but it's also just happening now. Time is fluid." At that, he held his finger in the air and the plane stopped, slowly coming to rest right side up still inches above the crash site.
"But wait, they are dead and buried fifty years ago!! And they aren't going to Hell, my wife, my chi..."
The Devil cut him off, "Travis, they weren't your family, not really. You abandoned them when you could have saved them. You never asked me to save them and I could have. I would have! You were a selfish prick then and you still are. So, they are mine now, just like you are. And so are all of the other souls on that plane. Like I said, time is fluid. They may have been buried fifty years ago, but their souls are still trapped on that plane right now. And you are going to help me collect them. Oh, it's a dirty, nasty process too...." The Other smiled at that. This grin was oily, hot.
Travis, who had been shaking his head vigorously throughout, said, "But NO! That wasn't our deal!"
The Devil gave that same slow, good-natured laugh. "Oh, but haven't you heard, Travis? I'm a liar."