Soul for Sale
Heaps of rubble, moldering piles of trash, the constant dripping of water. Ominous shapes bulging in black garbage bags. The rancid smell of wet plaster crumbling between his fingers. The man flinched, when he heard a scraping noise and hoped it was just a rat. He didn’t try to fight his way to the narrow windows; opalescent as they were with dusty spider webs, he wouldn’t see much anyways. At the end of the cellar the door hung awry on its hinges. Beyond it was another cellar just like this one, except it had a doorway leading somewhere down; he saw the first few steps of a staircase before it got swallowed by the dark. Not sure why, he tried to steer clear of it, making as little noise as possible, cringing every time something crunched under his shoe as he stumbled on among piles of trash.
At the other end of the room there was a warped door, the wood swollen and dark with humidity around the rusty handle. He tried to open it, casting nervous glances at the yawning black opening, but the door wouldn’t budge. The man brushed flakes of rust off his hand. He had to risk breaking through at one go; he didn’t dare imagine what would happen if the door stuck and the noise woke up something deep down in the dark.
He backed some steps and rammed into the door with his shoulder. The crack it made sounded as loud as a gunshot in his ears, but it stayed shut. He stood still, trying to control his panting. When something slipped with a wet, plastic sound at the other end of the room he jumped, barely able to stifle a scream. He rummaged in a garbage bag with trembling hands, until he found a piece of metal he could use as a pry bar. He managed to work the metal between the door and the frame, all the while listening breathlessly for any noise. The door moved a crack at last – the handle slipped out of the man’s sweaty grip first, but then he tore up the door and slammed it behind him, leaning against it for a while, not minding the prick of slivers or the wetness seeping into the fabric of his shirt.
Around him the deserted streets stretched silently in every direction, clogged with heaps of bricks and broken glass, lined with half collapsed houses as if the city weathered an airborne attack he was the last survivor of. He started to think of himself as such as he wandered the nameless streets, his footsteps the only sound in his ears. In the distance, he saw a house with a tree growing out of the top floor through where the roof was supposed to be, its black branches clawing at the colorless sky.
Last Survivor drifted aimlessly until he came upon a façade – the only thing that was left of the house, with the lot behind it littered with rubble and fallen beams, overgrown with gray, brittle-looking weeds. On one of the crumbling balconies an old geezer sat slumped in a wheelchair. The survivor couldn’t imagine how he got up there and at the moment he didn’t care. He wasn’t the last one, after all.
“Hey mister! Do you know what place this is?”
The old man flashed him a toothy grin, and waved.
The survivor moved on. He didn’t know how long he had been wandering, as the sky was the same nondescript gray, with no evidence of sunrise or sunset.
He was walking past a parking building, when he heard a noise, as if something or someone was moving behind the debris.
He strained his eyes to see anything in the gloom. “Hello?”
Tap-tap-tap, the sound of running feet – a kid, probably.
“Hey! I’m not gonna hurt you!”
He crept deeper into the building, into the darkness, until he saw light ahead where the ceiling caved in.
There was a group of people scattered among the ruins, centered around a middle-aged woman, poised on a concrete slab. He didn’t see the kid.
“Hello? Who are you? What is this place?”
She rose in a swirl of dust motes and walked up to him. She wore what once might have been a flamboyant violet robe, sewn with sequins and beads. She had the smell of forgotten attics and old lavender. “You a newcomer?”
“Uhh… I guess? Where am I?”
Her coffee colored skin had an ashen pallor in this light. “This is eternity.”
The survivor thought he misheard her. “What? Where do you all come from? How long have you been here?”
She broke a bit of plaster off the chunk she was standing next to. It crumbled to dust between her fingers. “We were always here and always will be, and so will you. You just don’t remember.”
She brushed off her hands. “How you got here. The body thieves.”
A handful of white-clad doctors leaning above him. Blinking ceiling lights, the smell of disinfectant. The hardness of the examination table under him, the rough, rigid texture of the thin cover sheet on his skin.
Switch; a dark room, only a table lit with a briefcase full of money on it. “Enough to cover your daughter’s college tuition, Charlie,” a voice said, “and then some.”
He snapped out of it with a gasp.
A man deeper in the shadows chuckled humorlessly. “A cheap price for your body, eh?”
“My body? What do they want my body for? What have they…? I gotta get back, how do I…?”
“You don’t. You’re just a surplus soul.” The lady raised her hand to dust off his shirt. The survivor didn’t like the familiarity she treated him with; as if he belonged here. “Those people in that business, if they could make a profit selling our souls as well, they would. We are all here thanks to them – I guess this is our special pocket of afterlife.” She led him towards the other people outside the circle of light, her touch light yet irresistible on his arm.
“We weren’t supposed to die, but it was a risk we had to take – for whatever reason we needed the money at the time. The people that rented your body probably trashed it accidentally – neglectful conduct, which is just as well.” She settled on a half-gutted armchair, her face just a silhouette backlit by the weak light filtering in through the ceiling.
“The things they do with the bodies… even if you did get back, you’d spend the rest of your life crippled, or behind bars for the crimes some rich fucker committed.”
“No, I… this doesn’t make any sense…” The survivor backed away. He had to get out of here, away from these people. The lady followed his stumbling progress with a melancholy smile.
He deliberately took the other direction as he got out of the building, walking briskly down the empty streets, wanting to put as much distance between himself and the building as possible. He stopped abruptly when he came upon a familiar façade. The old geezer in the wheelchair waved and flashed him a toothy grin.
“How did you get up there?” the man called, not really expecting an answer. He moved on.
There was a little girl playing in the dirt in front of the parking building this time. She stood as she saw him coming, disappearing among the shadows in the blink of an eye.
“You’re asking all the wrong questions, son,” the lady sat perched on the same concrete slab.
The survivor suddenly got mad. His anger was the only hot thing in this cooled down world it seemed. “They stole our bodies, heedlessly squandered our lives. You say they’d sell the leftover souls if they could – I say let’s give it to them. See what they do with them.”
The ghost of a smile played on her lips. “Now we are talking. There might be a way. The moment of the possession is a precarious one; the fabric of reality is especially thin. It’s that time souls can cross over.”
“How do we know when that happens?”
The ghost widened into a smile. “You’ll know – you’ll feel. You remember the portal, don’t you?”
He did – the doorway yawning bottomless in the cellar. The stairs leading down into the darkness that was very much alive, full of things watching and waiting.
Yet another Christmas party with her husband’s friends, among them that little whore he’d been cheating her with since the very beginning (hell, Martin even danced with her on their wedding day), making Rita’s humiliation complete.
“So how do you like the house?” Mike assessed the high ceiling as Martin cut up the turkey. The servants stood in discreet attention by the door near the man-sized fireplace. They moved into the old Victorian mansion recently. It had that goth ambience that was so hip these days; creaking floorboards, curtains billowing in the drafty hallways.
“I love it. So inspiring,” Rita enthused. She pretended like she didn’t see the glances Marcia shot her husband. She wasn’t too subtle about it either. “Already started a new story.”
“How is it going with the publishers?” Marcia tried and failed to hide the slightest hint of pity in her voice. She was radiant tonight, with her blonde hair falling on her back. The rippling silvery material of the sheath she wore complemented her eyes.
Rita stifled a sigh. Chatting with her husband’s mistress about trying to make it as a writer. Outstanding. “Same old. You know how it is for the rookies.”
“It’ll happen sooner or later, I’m sure.”
“Yeah,” Rita pasted on an enthusiastic smile for her sake.
“A way to pass the time. Just kidding.” Martin patted her shoulder. Rita shot him a look, but he just sniffed into his wineglass.
“It’s all very hush-hush,” her friend Helen warned her. “It’s medically safe, but it’s illegal. No worries though, you can count on their discretion. You can’t get caught either, since technically you’re not doing anything wrong.”
Rita pulled her thumb on the gilded rim of the eggshell porcelain teacup. “Where did you hear about it?”
“From a friend of a friend. Doesn’t matter. But Rita,” Helen leaned forward, “how long do you think living off your money will be enough for him? You think they don’t have plans to be rid of you? Once he got the legal background all set up, he’ll no longer need you. Sorry to be so blunt, but I think you need a wake-up call, darling.”
“Have you… used this before?”
Helen studied the bottom of her cup. “Of course not.”
Rita could picture it very well; giving a week off to the servants, sneaking out to the tool shed, lifting the axe off the nails, her hands closing on the smooth, polished wood of the handle. His eyes widening, as it begins to dawn on him, confusion giving place to sheer terror. His glasses, blood spattered, bent out of shape as they knock on the strip floor.
She was lying on the examination table, blinded by the overhead lights, with tubes hanging out of her, connecting her to the body on the bed next to her. She didn’t look at it; she wanted as little emotional involvement as possible. It was just a means to an end. The doctors assured her that nothing could go wrong; Rita didn’t expect anything to go wrong either. Bad things happened to other people, not an Astor. She just wanted to be done with this.
She eased into the soft darkness enveloping her. It was just like what the doctors said it would be; like falling asleep.
When she came to in the darkness was when she realized something was off. She wasn’t alone. That was when the scream that never ended, began.
This short story was first published in the Aphelion Webzine in July 2017.