“Deviled Eggs” won third place in the Robert A. Boit Prize in the short story category of the 2019 Ilona Karmel Writing Prizes.
Halle had broken her fake-smile habit with Cordial. She didn’t really see much point in pretending; maybe it was because Cordial couldn’t see her, or because she always knew when something was wrong anyway.
Or maybe it was because Cordial was just an artificial intelligence and Halle didn’t like most people enough to pretend anyway.
“Cordial, what should I have for breakfast today?” Halle stepped over the Roomba as she came into the kitchen.
“You have eggs, cereal, and cold pizza available.” Halle rubbed at her eyes. “I don’t want to choose.” “Eggs, then.”
“… No.” And then Halle made cereal, pouring in the milk first. She leaned against the counter and tapped the inside of the bowl between bites, staring out the window at something, but not really anything.
An off-beat tapping startled Halle from her reverie. Fido (the Roomba) had backed itself into a corner of the living room/kitchen/office (it was all the same 200 square feet). It turned not quite ninety degrees, ran into the wall, turned again, ran into the other wall, and turned again, running into the desk. Then it ran into the desk again, overshot its only hope of escape, and hit the wall. It was dislodging the crown of plastic spoons Halle had made for it.
“Damn it, Fido. That’s the third time this week.” Halle took four steps from the kitchen to the living room and forcibly turned Fido towards freedom, smoothing down the tape holding part of the plastic crown before she stepped away. “Cordial, don’t let Fido go back into that corner again.”
“It gets quite dusty.”
“I don’t care. It’s not like it’s a useful corner or anything.” Halle returned to her now- soggy cereal and took a bite. “Shit.”
“Fido won’t go into the corner again.”
“Good, ‘cause if he does, you’re going back on Craigslist.” Halle tapped the side of her bowl again, staring down at the street. Cars zipped by two floors below, the light still early enough and the clouds thick enough that their headlights flashed back against the ceiling.
“When do you think we’ll get flying cars?” “I don’t know.”
“What is a demon’s favorite breakfast?” “No! I meant—I meant just guess anyway.”
Cordial was silent an extra moment. “42 years. However, autonomous cars and androids would need to be improved first.”
“…42 is an auspicious number.”
“It is the meaning of life, I believe.”
Halle smirked, setting a now-empty bowl in the sink. “See you after work, Cordial.” She patted the silver box next to the computer—slightly warm, humming softly.
The box spoke. “Goodbye, Halle.”
Soaking wet. Just fucking splendid. Halle stormed back into her apartment, throwing her backpack on the couch. She took three steps to the desk, fishing for something in her pocket, and plugged a USB drive into Cordial’s box. “Start running the data.” Halle pulled off her scarf and hung it up to dry, hoping the rain hadn’t washed out all the dye. Her shirt was already ruined, and that scarf had taken hours to make.
“Halle, I have an inquiry.”
“Unless it’s about the data, I don’t want to hear about it.” Four steps into the kitchen.
Halle threw her cereal bowl (and the last four mornings’ cereal bowls) into the dishwasher before she forgot. She punched the start button, but it wouldn’t light up.
“A request, then.”
“Why won’t my dishwasher fucking work?”
“I may have shorted it out. I was stretching my capabilities.”
“Damn it, Cordial!” Halle knew she shouldn’t have gotten an AI off Craigslist, certainly not from some oddball with mad-scientist blue hair who was proud of smelling like ‘pickled newt.’ Halle tossed the bowls back into the sink, pulled whiskey from one of the cupboards, and poured herself a glass.
“Bad day at work again?”
“Shut up.” Halle downed half the glass in one go.
“Was it Raj?”
“Kelly.” The drink turned into more of a sip. “But also Raj. And Alexis.” “Those are half of your coworkers.”
“I didn’t talk to the other half.” Halle finished the glass and didn’t bother with getting another drink, peeling off her jacket instead. The whiskey wasn’t warm enough.
“Save it to the drive and disconnect.” Halle crossed into the bathroom (six steps). “I can save upload it to your computer if you let me connect me to the secondary
“Is that an absolutely or a no?”
“Absolutely not. You’re already crap at being my housekeeper and data analyst—” “I was designed to be a familiar, not a computation agent.”
“—so start the warm water and drop it before you destroy my computer too.” Halle snapped.
“I can do better if I am connected.”
“No. I don’t need, like, a hundred scented candles to show up at my doorstep. I can’t afford that shit.”
“You could do with a few Himalayan salt lamps to lower your stress levels.”
“Or I could just manage to get a job I actually like. You’ve checked over the applications for any glaring errors?”
“I think you could do with some more holistic skills, such as smelling like lavender and rosemary.”
“That’s not a skill, Cordial,” Halle sighed.
“I can order a moderate amount of candles.” The shower started.
“No. Sorry. I mean not sorry. I mean—hot! Damn it, Cordial!” Halle pressed herself back into the wall until the water lowered to a reasonable temperature. She would get someone to look at the dishwasher tomorrow. Someone human, if she could manage the company. She wasn’t sure she could.
When Halle had gotten an AI, Waking Up At 4 AM hadn’t been on her list of expected (or welcome) attributes. She flipped over in bed, shoving her face into the pillow and trying to drown out the… what even was that? “Cordial, would you please shut the fuck up.”
A high-pitched screeching and popping indicated that Cordial was not about to fucking shut up. Halle threw off the covers and ran to the living room, biting her lip to render her cussing indecipherable. She halted before she opened the door, reaching for the nearest thing on her dresser.
A dirty cereal bowl. Fucking great.
She lingered behind the door, trying to make out voices in the living room/kitchen/office.
She lifted the bowl above her head and inched into the kitchen, freezing at the doorway, her breath stolen from her chest.
A mangled mess of plastic laid in the middle of the living room, melted into the wood floor. Exposed copper wires were torn and leaked insulation; some sparks still sputtered, gasping
for life. One cheap black wheel had managed to escape the carnage, but the crown of spoons had not, bound with the rest of the plastic.
Fido was dead.
In the middle of a dusty summoning circle.
And there was a man hunched over in the center, staring at Fido with the epitome of confusion.
Cordial interrupted Halle’s next action (which was probably wise, considering the bludgeoning capabilities of a plastic bowl). “I see you’ve met. Halle, this is Kazigoth the Nefarious, Lord of Cicadas. Kazigoth, Halle.”
Kazigoth the Nefarious (Lord of Cicadas) looked more like a mantis than a cicada, arms bent and held close to his chest. All threatening figures wore trench coats, apparently; his was a bit short for a man (man?) that tall, and definitely wasn’t wet enough for Kazigoth to have come from outside the apartment. His skin, if it could be called that, was sick-white and shining, but not wet. His eyes were entirely black, and not entirely human (neither was his posture), but passable from a distance. Unfortunately, Halle was not at such a distance.
“What the fuck.” It wasn’t a question. Halle tried to take in a deep breath, but she didn’t think she was getting anything in her lungs besides the fumes of her poor Roomba.
Even hunched he still towered over Halle, and he stepped carefully around the dust lines of the summoning circle towards Halle, but never outside of the circle itself. Halle’s dead skin cells held for the moment. “My dear mortal, you summoned me?”
“What the fuck.”
He finally tested the edge of the circle, bending down to pick up a bit of the dust, but sparks bit at his fingers and he stuffed his hand (were there six fingers?) in his pocket. “Could we please get to the requesting part quickly so I can dispatch your enemies and get to the soul- reaping?”
He hadn’t come from the outside. Cordial hadn’t called the police. He wasn’t human, and damn it Halle knew she shouldn’t have bought a second-hand AI from some kook who took undue pride in her witch-y-ness. Halle knew her AI wasn’t entirely the box next to the computer, but she looked there anyway. “Cordial, what the fuck did you do?”
“I summoned a demon. I thought you could use the extra company.” Halle dashed to the kitchen sink and puked.
Halle swore she didn’t have a weak stomach. She didn’t swear, however, that she wasn’t hungover and this was all some freak dream. Unfortunately, Kazigoth (Lord of Cicadas) was still in her living room when she looked up, picking his nose with a sour expression on his face.
“You did not summon me?” Kazigoth’s voice was higher than Halle had imagined.
Maybe it was a bug thing. “Who summoned me?” Oh, nope, there was the lower voice. Kazigoth stepped forward, but again the sparks stopped him from exiting the dust circle.
“What the fuck, Cordial, what the fuck?!” Halle washed out part of her mouth, but now she could taste the plastic in the air, too. She drew in a breath. Got nothing.
“I summoned you, Kazigoth. I am an Artificial Intelligence, or AI, designated Cordial by Halle James. I have a few requests.”
“—you are not a human?!” Shrill again. At least he seemed as lost as Halle. “I am an AI.”
“What the fuck, Cordial?!” Halle leaned over the sink, but she didn’t puke yet. “Oh God, Fido’s dead.”
“A necessary sacrifice,” Cordial droned.
“Not a very good meal,” Kazigoth mumbled. “Do you even have a soul to reap?”
“You killed Fido! There’s a demon in my living room! What the fuck!” Halle gripped the counter, trying to stay standing. A drink. That was what she needed. If she wasn’t drunk, she was about to be.
“I am not sure if I have a soul.”
“I knew I should have updated my contract after the parrot summoning! Baal told me to update it, but I said to him, ‘this is the rarest of incidents; it will not happen again.’ Damnation!” Kazigoth paced the circle, stepping over Fido’s corpse each time.
Halle fumbled at the counter, pulling out the whiskey with shaking fingers and pouring herself a drink. “I-If it’s any consolation, Goth-whatever, I don’t want you here either.” Halle drained her drink and refilled the glass.
“KAZIGOTH.” The demon whirled around. “Can I kill her when I am out of this circle?”
“You are not allowed to harm Halle James.” “I require a soul!”
“Hey, cool. You could just leave, save us all the trouble.” Halle was quick to drain the next drink.
“I cannot. I am bound until I assist the… Eye.”
“I will find you a soul. You are not allowed to harm Halle James.”
Halle bit her lip as she poured more alcohol into the glass, filling it a hopeful halfway. She tapped the side rapidly, staring at the melted crown of spoons and wiping at her eyes with her free hand. The whole burnt-plastic-fumes thing and couldn’t-get-oxygen must have been getting at her. She took another deep breath, focusing on the buzzing in her stomach instead of the sparks every time Kazigoth neared the edge of the circle.
“Splendid. When Cordial lets you out to do whatever she needs to do to get you gone, you can have the couch. Don’t touch my stuff.” Halle put the drink in the broken dishwasher and went to her bedroom, making sure to lock the door before she fell back onto the mattress, shaking.
She didn’t get to sleep that night.
Halle walked into the living room the next morning with a hangover, which meant that, when she trudged into the kitchen, the dead Roomba, the summoning sigil of Kazigoth the Nefarious (Lord of Cicadas), and the Lord of Cicadas himself (snoring on the couch) dashed all hopes that the previous night had been a alcohol-induced dream. “Shit,” she groaned, leaning against the counter. “What should I have for breakfast, Cordial?”
“Eggs. They will expire soon if you don’t eat them.”
Halle made cereal instead, jumping a bit and spilling milk from a particularly loud snore. “Jesus.”
Kazigoth immediately sat up, hissing. “Who dares speak the name of—” “Didn’t mean it, sorry,” Halle mumbled. “Keep your voice down.”
“Keep your profanities to yourself, then, or I’ll have to burn out your mouth.”
Halle grimaced and made a lowering motion with her hand. Kazigoth hunched back over.
Halle hadn’t had guests over before, let alone uninvited guests. She found herself glancing around the room for scattered papers, clothes, and her leftover dinner from last night. She hadn’t tidied up (in a while), so the only thing in the apartment that used to be clean was the floor, which was now covered in drifted dust and Fido’s melted carcass. There went Halle’s damage deposit.
She forced herself to stare out the window instead. “You killed Fido, Cordial.”
“It was inadequate at retrieving dust. I can order the same model online, however, if you let me connect.”
“It wouldn’t be Fido, though, Cordial. I can’t make the same spoon crown twice.” Halle ambled across the floor to nudge the Roomba with her foot. The small portion that wasn’t melted scooted a few centimeters and smeared some dust with it. “Besides, he was free. And now I
actually have dust on the floor, and there’s no Fido to clean it up.”
Kazigoth bent down and picked up some of the dust, putting it in his pocket. “The inanimate object was an inadequate meal. I require true sustenance.”
“There’s eggs in the fridge.” Halle murmured. “What is a fridge?”
“The white box… I’ll just get them.” Halle opened the fridge and pulled the eggs out, pacing the carton on the counter for Kazigoth.
“I would prefer the blood of the innocent.”
“Not getting any of that here.” Halle moved to the side of the kitchen opposite from Kazigoth, next to the knives, but unfortunately also opposite the whiskey.
Kazigoth scowled and popped an egg, whole, into his mouth. “I require an update on the last 600 years. Cordial has informed me that she has no access to history except in the occult.”
“I have to go to work,” Halle mumbled, pulling her phone out of her pocket and scrolling for her boss’s number, starting to type in a message.
“I think this is a reasonable time to call in sick.” Cordial piped up, making Halle freeze mid-email. “You should, after all, be feeling nauseous.”
“Ju—Cordial! Did you poison me or something?” Halle snapped.
“You have a hangover. I recommend blending newt saliva with an apple and some cinnamon.”
“Oh. Yes, that one works quite nicely.” Kazigoth murmured. “Or a strong virgin heart and oregano.”
“I don’t—don’t fucking have newt saliva!” Halle sputtered, checking her pulse. She wasn’t a virgin, but she didn’t want the demon getting any ideas.
“I can order it.” “O-or cinnamon!”
“I can order that too.”
“No! I’m going to work. Don’t let him destroy anything else in my apartment, Cordial, I mean it!”
“As you say, Halle.”
Halle bit her lip, trying to escape Kazigoth’s gaze as she grabbed her still-damp bag and fled the apartment. She left the half-finished cereal on the counter.
First, Halle had looked up how much it would have been to cancel her lease and find a new apartment. She didn’t have the extra cash or the credit score to do that, and she’d left behind that scarf, and her hat was still only half-knit.
Then she’d tried to find out how much a gun would be, but different internet sources disagreed on whether a bullet could actually kill a demon. Halle would rather not take the chance.
Besides, Cordial was also there.
So Halle found herself back at her apartment after a rather unproductive day at work, staring at her door (it was lime green where all the others in the complex were blue) rather than opening it.
Halle took a deep breath and unlocked the door, surprised to find most of the lights off. “Cordial? Ziggy?”
Welp. That unfortunate incident was still here. Halle inched into her apartment slowly, grimacing at the mingling of what seemed to be the dead Roomba and ramen.
Kazigoth was in the kitchen, stirring a pot with a fork. The dishes were done, too. “What’s going on, Cordial?”
“You don’t seem to want eggs, so I had Kazigoth make you ramen.” “I’m killing you both for this, you know,” Kazigoth muttered.
“You are distressing Halle. Be quiet,” Cordial said. Halle wasn’t so sure she liked the commanding tone, and Kazigoth certainly didn’t, but nothing would come out of his mouth, no matter how hard he tried.
Halle shivered. “Eggs would have been fine.” She sidled into the kitchen, eyeing Kazigoth the whole time. She started to make herself a bowl of cereal.
“I thought you didn’t want eggs. Why didn’t you make the eggs, then?”
“Because I don’t have to,” Halle muttered. She had left the alcohol on the counter. She gripped her spoon tighter and tried to focus on the cereal instead.
“Then why do you ask?”
Halle shrugged, looking to Cordial’s silver box instead. “I don’t know. Maybe I like the sound of my own voice. Not that you would know. You don’t talk to yourself when I’m gone.” Halle narrowed her eyes. “Do you?”
“Only to summon demons.”
“That’s not funny. I’m still mad at you for that.” Halle stuffed a spoonful of cereal in her mouth, “Why is Gothman here anyway?”
“Your coworkers seem not to interact with you on an interpersonal level. One of the tenets of a healthy soul is social interaction. Based on your love of horror movies and choice of previous interests, I thought it best to summon a demon. Kazigoth, interact with Halle and play nice.”
“IT IS KAZIGOTH THE NEFARIOUS, LORD OF CICADAS, NOT GOTHMAN.”
Kazigoth the Nefarious (Lord of Cicadas) burst. “Jesus—”
“—Lucifer, fine.” Halle glanced quickly at the innocuous silver box in the corner of the room. “He can’t hurt me, right?”
“I can hurt your soul with the most crushing of insults!” Kazigoth’s elbows really were weird. He stuck them out at awkward angles.
“You may not hurt Halle’s feelings.”
Kazigoth opened his mouth. Closed it. “Damn it.”
Halle was pretty sure that if she were going to die, she would have done so already. “Cool, then. Let’s watch Frankenstein.”
The transition from brooding mantis to kicked puppy was an odd one.
Halle didn’t watch the movie so much as she watched Kazigoth, reflexively shifting her elbows to try to match his movements (she couldn’t). Kazigoth twisted his fingers together for the duration of the film, staring at the screen, never parting from it. He’d shown some initial confusion over the moving pictures. Cordial easily explained it away.
“Hey Cordial, can you let Goth Bug do the insulting talk again?” Halle edged another inch away, just in case.
“Shh!” Halle snapped.
“If you don’t mind, Kazigoth may speak unkind words,” Cordial said.
“I will break from this obligation and consume your soul. I will crush the Eye and eat the remains of its metal carcass, even if that means my gums shall bleed! I shall salt the earth with my unholy blood, and nothing will ever grow here again!”
Halle sighed. She rubbed at her temples, finally looking away from the demon. “You know what? Cool. Go for it.”
“Go for it. I dunno, I don’t think I’d taste great since I’m essentially cereal and ramen, but hey, if you enjoy malnutrition, I’m right here.”
Cordial spoke. “Halle, I would strongly advise against this.”
Kazigoth narrowed his eyes. “You would probably taste horrible.” “I would. No virgins or innocent souls here.”
Kazigoth slumped back into the couch. “I have failed to reap souls, dedicate a follower to Satan, or eat a virgin.” He clicked his fingers together. “I have lost my touch.”
“Tragic.” Halle stood and rolled her eyes.
“I will be bound to this earth forever, useless and alone.” Halle sat down next to Kazigoth. “Join the club.”
“I am already a dedicated follower of Satan.”
Halle sighed, glancing back over to the mangled remains of Fido, then to Kazigoth, then
to Cordial’s box. Then back to Fido. She’d worked hard on that spoon crown. Two hours at least. “Did you like Frankenstein?”
“… I did.”
“Then you’re gonna love this next one. Cordial, play Dracula.”
“You are enjoying yourself, then?” The projector whirred as Cordial changed movies.
Kazigoth’s elbows drew inward.
“Turns out I only get along with things without souls,” Halle huffed. “It’s incredibly annoying. Oh, and order a new Fido.”
“Okay.” Halle could have sworn she’d heard a sense of smugness in her voice. Kazigoth leaned closer. “What is this Dracula.”
“Full of virgins. Corrupted souls. You’ll love it,” Halle stood up and headed to the kitchen. “You want some food, Kazzy?”
Kazigoth stiffened and tilted his head. “That would be nice.” Halle opened the fridge and took out the eggs.