“Ask for anything you like. Describe your request in as much detail as you can. You may include contingencies, conditions, or time limits. Fashion your dreams without constraint. Structure your future with abandon. Bring accidents of misfortune upon your enemies or sprinkle them with the rains of generosity. Blessings or curses—they are yours to bestow.”
“And then you tell me what it’s going to cost, right?” Alan’s voice was dripping with caution.
“The cost is always commensurate with the value received. Especially when you consider the significance of what I have to offer.”
Alan had kept the thought buried. Now he could no longer contain it. “It’s my soul you want, that’s the price, isn’t it? That’s the way these deals work, right? You give me anything I want in exchange for my soul.”
Efil’s eyes were electric, his pupils radiating staccato discharges of light. “On occasion I have bargained for souls, when the client’s spiritual essence had evident and negotiable value. In your case, however, I will need to consider other assets.”
Alan wasn’t a religious man, but as a student of logic, he never bet against the unknown. If heaven was waiting, Efil’s assurance that they would not be haggling over his soul—real or not—was a relief. “Okay, one more question. How long do I have before I give you my decision?”
“Oh, I’m afraid my offer expires upon presentation. You see, when I leave, so does the opportunity. And I must tell you, time grows short.”
Alan had been enjoying his verbal jousting with the stranger, but now sudden panic set in. He knew the advantage of a deadline usually benefitted the one who set it. He had to think quickly, keep his mind on the prize. He was not about to lose his chance—if there was one—of striking a deal. Maybe the deal of a lifetime. “Okay, give me a few minutes. I need to think.”
“Understandable.” Efil nodded, the movement releasing a thousand tiny points of light that zipped back and forth inside the blue transparent cloud—the display clearly intended to remove any lingering doubt about his ethereal nature.
“You care if I think out loud?” Alan asked. “It might help.”
“Not at all. In fact, if you desire I can assist you in sorting through things. Just provide me with the basics and I will compare the features and benefits, weighing the factors with impartial objectivity.”
“But you won’t trick me, right? I mean, you won’t take one of my stray comments and make it my final decision, will you?”
“Of course not.” Efil answered. “Upon the conclusion of our negotiations there will be no doubt in your mind—or in mine—concerning the exact nature of your request. I will take no action to bring your desire into fulfillment until you authorize it.”
For most people, making such a choice would have been a daunting, even overwhelming challenge. But not for Alan. He had known from the start what he wanted. And while he could easily describe the end result, he wasn’t exactly sure how to accomplish it.
Alan began to ramble, trying to organize his thoughts. “If I could close the beach, keep all the scum off . . . then I could keep it clean, let it heal. If I were somebody important, somebody with power, like the governor, I could pass a law making it private.”
“So you’re thinking about assuming the role of a politician, with the privileges and duties of the particular office?”
Alan thought for a moment. “You’re saying if I choose to be somebody influential there would be responsibilities, other stuff to do that I wouldn’t want to mess with?”
“If you take on the face, you wear all the expressions.”
“So if I decided on a new profession, a position of authority, it’s all or nothing? A package deal?”
“Exactly, a package deal.”
“Look, what I want is to keep people off the—” Alan stopped. Being able to restrict others from his precious beach was only part of it. He also wanted to punish them for what they had done—for vandalizing the environment with their trash, disturbing the fragile ecology of the dunes, and forcing the wildlife to find a new, unthreatened habitat. Even more castigating than the penalty of exclusion, he wanted the guilty to experience the pain of absence. Like junkies deprived of their next fix, Alan wanted them to need the beach in the same way they needed air or food and water to survive. And most important, he wanted to relish in his retribution—he wanted them to realize who was keeping them away.
“I want to control this stretch of shoreline,” Alan announced. “Keep others off. And I want them to know it’s me who’s doing it.”
Alan loves the beach. More than a weekend respite, it is his home, his refuge, his sanctuary. And for most of the year, he strolls the sand in blissful solitude, letting nature—and no one else—touch him. But spring has given way to summer, and soon, the annual invasion of vacationers and tourists will subdivide the beach with blankets, umbrellas, and chairs, depriving Alan of his privacy and seclusion—the fundamental touchstones of his life.