SO MUCH FOR PERFECTION

Late one Chicago evening, a thin, unimposing man accidentally turned the wrong way on his way home from work. Deep in thought, he didn't realize his mistake until he got too far into the alley to turn back. Buildings towered above him on either side, casting dark, forbidding shadows in the evening light. "Uh-oh, James," he muttered to himself, "you really screwed up this time. Going this way is more than dangerous, it is just plain stupid. Not that something happening to me wouldn't be more interesting than the nothing I'm currently living in, but death isn't exactly high on my list of things to do." He shook his head and continued on his way, trying not to notice the strange, menacing shapes around him. *This may be a quicker way to get home than turning around,* he thought to himself, *but it isn't doing much for my nerves.* Suddenly, James felt a chill from inside himself. It was like nothing he'd ever felt before, just a strange sense of dread that began in his gut and extended to his heart. Then, he heard a sound from the darkness behind him. Without a second thought, he turned to run, only to find himself trapped, held down by some unseen force. "You can't go anywhere," a strange voice intoned from the darkness. *So that's what a disembodied voice sounds like,* James thought to himself, trying to keep his spirits up. "Who are you?" he called. "What do you want with me?"

"I am here," the voice responded. A black shadow detached itself from the wall, taking the shape of a person wearing a cape and hood. "I have an offer for you, but first I have a question. What is your life like?"

"Fine, I suppose," his mouth replied. *Boring as all get out,* his mind taunted him.

"I can fix that," the Shadow offered, choosing to acknowledge his thought rather than his words. "I will make your life as perfect as you can imagine, if you only ask."

Though the offer tempted him, one look at where the Shadow's face should have been convinced James to give a negative reply. The face was darkness, pure and unbroken darkness, with no features whatsoever. The hood seemed to be the only thing that contained it. "No thank you," he responded simply. "I don't need your help."

The Shadow seemed to grow in front of James. "Fine. If you will not accept my offer, I will make your life ten times worse than it was. Good evening to you." It melted back into the darkness.

Now freed from whatever power had bound him, James moved forward slightly. There was no sign that another living being had ever stood there. "Creepy," he muttered into the darkness. "I suppose he's the reason I haven't been mugged yet." Making a valiant though unsuccessful attempt to shrug off the continuing feeling of dread and the temptation at the Shadow's offer, James continued home.

By the time James finally reached his apartment, it was full night, too late for dinner, so he decided to have a drink and go to bed. Walking to the cabinet, he took a long look around his apartment. Although he'd always felt vaguely discontented with his life, the encounter with the Shadow had made him feel his dissatisfaction even more sharply. The plain walls and drab furniture just didn't fit in with his dreams. As he started to pour the dark liquid from the bottle, his hand tightened, seemingly of its own accord, crushing the glass. James shook his head. *I'm not even going to think about it.*

His bedroom seemed smaller than usual and even more unattractive than his living room had the minute before, but James ignored his thoughts and tried to go to sleep. Throughout the whole night, his sleep was interrupted by a loud buzzer that mysteriously turned silent whenever he awoke. The next morning the whole apartment seemed cramped; the walls felt tight around him. *Well isn't now a lovely time to develop claustrophobia,* he noted. *It certainly seems to be in keeping with the spirit of things.* Deciding to skip breakfast and any potential problems it could cause, he went outside to hail a taxi. James had no wish for a repeat experience of the night before.

Going along with his current run of luck, the taxi James took to work got caught in what was being referred to on the radio as, "the worst traffic jam in the history of the city," and he didn't make it to work until almost an hour after his shift started. His boss was in no mood to listen to excuses, and the day only got worse when a cup of hot coffee spilled out over his computer and shorted out the keyboard. "This is seriously not my day," he mumbled to himself, trying to soak up the spilled liquid without burning himself. "Three hours of work and who-knows-how-many files lost!" Muttering a few curses at the world in general, he began trying to retrieve his lost work. *Ten times worse,* a voice spoke from James' memory, but he did his best to ignore it.

That night, unable to hail a taxi no matter how hard he tried, James walked home, passing the alley from the night before.

"Now?"

After the day he'd just survived, James felt a tug of temptation far worse than the night before to respond to the offer. *A perfect life,* he considered. *No more day in and day out of the same old thing. No more headaches from the sheer tedium of it*. The feeling of dread was still stronger than the temptation however, and he refused again. The same anger he'd felt the night before again surged from the darkness, and his fear increased a thousandfold.

That evening when James got home, he found his apartment in ruins. Everything that could be opened or dumped out or broken was, and the floor and the walls were covered with soot. The building manager denied seeing anyone strange, seemingly convinced that the whole mess was some bizarre practical joke James was playing. The oddest part of the whole thing was that the door was still locked and the windows were barred. Even after he cleaned up, his apartment still felt dirty and tight.

James spent another sleepless night in his bedroom; instead of being awakened by a buzzer when he fell asleep, he was now jolted by flashes of extreme terror akin to nightmares. The next morning, Saturday, things went from bad to worse. All the food in the house had suddenly turned bad. *Not that I wanted to eat it anyway,* James admitted to himself. *Nasty packaged junk.* The plumbing, electricity, and telephone failed in quick succession, increasing James' anger and discontentment.

The final straw came on Sunday. James woke up from yet another horrible night's sleep only to find all his money turned to ash and most of his clothing covered in filth. He threw caution to the wind and stalked down to the alley. Anger beating back the dread inside him, James didn't even notice the shadows and shapes in the alley that were just as frightening at nine in the morning as they were at eight at night. "Whoever, or whatever the heck you are, I'll do whatever you want! Just stop this insanity!"

"My insanity?" The Shadow lost none of it's menace, even in the bright light of day. "I'm not the one who refused the offer of a lifetime. You've wasted these past few days, you know. Just out of idle curiosity, what makes you think I even want to deal with you? You did refuse me you know."

Bracing himself against the wave of intimidation that suddenly surged from the Shadow, James leveled his most defiant glare. It wasn't particularly threatening, but it was certainly sincere. "Gee, I don't know. I guess I'm working off the assumption that you wouldn't be turning my life into a living hell if you didn't have at least a slight interest in me."

"Will you accept my terms?" the Shadow asked, cocking his head slightly.

"What are your terms? What do you want?"

"I want- Hmm, what do I want? It's an interesting question. What I want is simple. Every month you deposit some money in an account in the name of Y. E. Devil. Just leave it there; I have a use for it. Of course; there are certain...conditions to be filled after your demise, but that can be dealt with later. Do we have a deal? Please keep in mind, this is your last chance for the life of your dreams. You are an ambitious man, I believe."

"James didn't think twice; he just wanted the nightmare to end. "Fine. Whatever you want me to do can be considered done." James found himself suddenly short of breath and the Shadow's comments suddenly made sense. "Wait? After my death? What is going on here?" All he heard in reply was a chuckle coming from the darkness.

Over the next twenty years, James had the most perfect life that he could imagine. A new job appeared out of nowhere, giving him the opportunity to travel the globe like he'd always dreamed. Money poured in from unknown "investors" allowing him to purchase whatever he wished. The one thing James had to worry about was his monthly payments to the Devil's account. He figured that as long as he kept paying for his life, he would keep living, but it was not to be.

One day, thanks to a missed plane transfer at O'Hare airport, James ended up back in Chicago. *So much for perfection,* James thought, noting that this was the first time that his travels hadn't gone perfectly. Perhaps that should have been a clue, but two decades of perfection had given him a sort of complacency about life. He paced around the terminal waiting for the next flight. Suddenly he was back in the alley of his nightmares. "Where? Oh no, what is going on here?"

"I'm afraid I have to collect on the second part of your agreement a little earlier than anticipated," the Shadow replied. "You see, with the money I have from you, I can bring in several more promising customers. Ylu are no longer of any particular use to me. I hope this isn't any inconvenience."

"Inconvenience?" James tried to choke out. His throat was tightening, much like it had when he first made the agreement. This time however, the pain didn't lessen. Three days later his body was discovered in the alley by a patrolman.