"Ms. Blakely, would you like me to repeat the question?" A voice broke through to Taylor, interrupting whatever vague thought had distracted her.
She looked up from her notebook, grimacing. Her professor, a wispy young thing who bounced on his heels even when standing still, was staring intently at her. "Ms. Blakely, what is the net income of the second company? This is a, ah, basic concept," he said in a condescending tone.
Glancing at the whiteboard, Taylor tried earnestly to deduce what the professor was asking her. The chart of numbers and balances stared back at her, taunting her. The moments crept by until her professor finally sighed and turned his attention to another of her fellow grad students. "Ms. Collins, if you could?"
The other student answered within moments, causing Taylor to shrink just a bit farther into her seat. She didn't want to think about net incomes or the intricacies of the federal taxation program. She just wanted to curl up into a ball and vanish from class.
For the rest of class, her professor kept glancing at her with a pitying gaze. It was awful. When he was wrapping class up, Taylor grabbed her bag and darted out of the room before anyone else. The door slammed behind her, the glass panes rattling. The few undergrads moving around the halls didn't even glance at her, which was a welcome change.
Ever since November, people had been looking at Taylor differently. Her fellow graduate students talked in subdued tones when she approached, as though they thought she couldn't have a lively conversation. Professors, like the one whose class she'd just left, oscillated between giving her undue excuses for why it was alright she couldn't answer a question and criticizing her for not trying hard enough.
Of course, that was nothing compared to the unbearable phone calls she'd suffered through. Her aunts, uncles, and even her nieces would call her at a minimum of three times a week to "just check up on her." Everyone was waiting for her to break down and, quite frankly, it was goddamned insulting.
"There's no shame in greiving," her mother's words were the same every time that she called. "I'm sure that if you needed to, you could take time off from work to just clear your head." Hanging up on her in a fit of rage hadn't gotten Taylor's message through to her. She stopped picking up the phone when her mother called.
Walking to the staircase, Taylor hefted her bag onto her shoulder more securely. She automatically turned to go upstairs, taking refuge in the always-abandoned third floor lounge. The lounge was tucked away in between a pair of abandoned research offices that the department had yet to re-appropriate. Taylor had retreated to it many times while she'd been an undergraduate, a habit that Simon had broken her of when they started dating in her Senior year.
Simon. She lurched forward, having thought there was one more step in the stairwell. He'd been gone for almost four months now, his absence apparent in nearly every aspect of her life. Taylor quickly steadied herself with the handrail and continued to the lounge.
She dropped into a not-so-comfortable chair and took the bag from her shoulder. Had it really been four months? It didn't seem possible. It should have been shorter. There was no way a whole season had gone by since she last heard his voice. Taylor closed her eyes, imagining that last time she'd seen him. It had been morning and they were both running late to work. He kissed her forehead and, before he left the kitchen, waved at her with his package of breakfast cereal.
After that moment, Taylor's life changed. The next time she went into that kitchen, it was to be interviewed by a gruff detective who clearly suspected that she'd been involved in her fiance's tragic death. She hadn't heard from that detective since the case had been closed.
Remembering those events, Taylor put her head in her hands. It shouldn't have felt so far away, she thought. She couldn't remember what Simon sounded like doing his Humfry Bogart impression anymore. Four months shouldn't have that kind of hold on someone.
"Thinking about something tragically important? Or just wondering how to write some all-important paper?" The smooth voice that appeared out of nowhere startled Taylor into half-jumping from her chair.
"Holy- what?" she stammered, her head twisting painfully to see where the voice had come from. Perched on the back of her seat was a thin, raven-haired man. His eyes glinted maliciously, making Taylor's skin crawl.
"I was only wondering because you looked so dreadfully in pain. And I know now that your courses - that's what they're called in University? - are more allegedly more difficult than just working," the man said. His voice didn't match his expression, though. He was smirking devilishly even as he whispered in a stage voice.
Taylor swallowed hard, her heart pumping steadily faster. The way that he appeared out of no where, completely silently, was unnatural. Her natural instinct was to sprint out of her chair and scream down the hallway.
This lovely fellow had also been a new development within the past four months. His name was Mephistopheles and he hailed from some parallel dimension. "What do you want from me?" Taylor spat at him. Terrified or not, she was in no mood to deal with a summoned creature from beyond space and time. He was half the reason that Simon was dead, after all. This fact did not elude Taylor, but, well, she was rather stuck with his red-eyed ass.
Mephistopheles, or Fitz as he referred to himself when on the mortal plane, slid off the chair and shrugged as though appearing out of nowhere was something totally casual. "I just wanted to see how my favorite emissary was doing. Not without cause, as I can clearly see," he mimed her head-in-hands position. "What has gotten you so upset, dear Taylor?"
She flinched when he said her name like that. Her mind wanted to associate Fitz with evil, temptation, and damnation. That was increasingly difficult when he could sound so normal.
"I'm fine. Nothing exciting has happened since the last time you popped into my life," she replied, her teeth grating together. He was moving in the corner of her eye, examining the lounge.
Taylor resisted the urge to look and see what he was doing. When he didn't answer her question, she fidgited in her seat. It felt like she was trapped, though she clearly had plenty of space to move and even run away from the plain looking man.
Finally, Fitze turned to her and stopped moving. "Well, my dear vassel, I was hoping that something had happened. It's been dreadfully boring in my dear homeland. You're my only source of entertainment," he said in a syrupy voice. "So if nothing has happened, then we're going to have to make something happen."
That caught Taylor's attention, which had dwindled once the demon had started rambling about the state of his home realm. "Sorry, I don't think I caught that," she said warily. Watching him carefully, Taylor tried to steady her heart rate once more. It had crept back up to a steady throb when Fitz sat down across from her.
"You most definitely heard me, mortal," the demon said, his unnerving grin reappearing. "You and I are going to make our own fun. You need to hold up your end of your bargain, or have you forgotten about that little contract that's scribed on your back?" As he spoke, a burning pain coursed across Taylor's shoulderblades.
It felt like a hot poker was tracing along the intricate design that had been inscribed there. It was the mark of her deal with Mephistopheles, a literal deal with a demon. Taylor cried out from the pain, stuffing a fist into her mouth to stop the sound. "No, please don't," she whimpered, her eyes slammed shut.
"Make it stop then," the demon's voice echoed in her ears. It was suddenly impossibly loud, seeming to echo around and around in her mind. "Use that power I gave you, mortal. Otherwise, you're just wasting your bargain."
Taylor whimpered, but she managed to reason out what he meant. With a force of pure will, she imagined the pain being wiped away by a flood of freezing cold water. She gasped when the sensation immediately overwhelmed her, the pain erased in a single moment.
Someone scoffed next to her, and Taylor cracked open a single eyelid. She'd fallen off her chair, presumably from the pain, and she was staring at a single black dress shoe. "You didn't need to think about cold things to make the pain go away. Now you're all icy," Fitz complained.
Taylor pushed herself up on one arm and realized he hadn't been lying. She was literally coated in a sheen of ice. It vanished in a hiss of steam when Fitz waved a hand, leaving her skin to be buffeted by the warmth of the air very suddenly. "I just wanted the pain to stop," she retorted angrily. "So sorry that I didn't do it to your satisfaction."
A hand appeared in front of her nose. Taylor stared at it in surprise, feeling like she'd missed something. "You're correct," Fitz said in a tone that sounded almost amused.