Cover Art

Soul Proprietor

by

Rich Smith

Ever wondered what happens to you after you die? Mark Mason doesn't -- in fact, it's his job to find that out for you. As the Soul Proprietor at Life Matters Life Insurance company, it's his job to make sure his insurees pass on. Join him and Lina Lawson as they do their job and save some souls.

Chapter 1

Family Man

    “You’re late.”
    “Yeah. Sorry, traffic,” I said.
    “I have more traffic to deal with than you. Come up with a better excuse next time, okay, Mike? I don’t want you getting fired anytime soon,” said Lina, my co-worker.
    “I won’t get fired,” I dismissed. “Just don’t tell Joe.”    “Fine,” said Lina. “Are you ready for the report?”
    “Yeah,” I said, downing the last dregs of my coffee. “Go ahead.”
    Lina took a sip of her own coffee. “Name’s Miles Branson. Husband, father of two.”
    “How’d he die?” I asked.
    “OD,” said Lina. “Shame, really. His kids loved him.”
    “Did they,” I said, indifferent. “Anything else?”
    “Just another pretty regular case, to be honest,” said Lina. “I wrote up a bunch of stuff for you —“ she waved a few papers in the air — “but you don’t seem interested anyway. Let’s just shove you in there, why don’t we? You’ve had less to go on before, I’m sure you’ll figure it out.”
    “No, no, I’m interested,” I said. “Finish up.”
    “Fine,” said Lina, rolling her eyes. “His kids loved him. He was also the lone breadwinner for the family. He made quite a bit of money, but lived a modest lifestyle. Always did his own checkbook, never let his wife take care of it for him. He was very careful with his money.”
    “Because of the drugs?” I asked.
    “Because of the drugs,” said Lina. “Heroin, specifically. Now, you might ask, ‘But Lina! Doesn’t heroin make your life awful? Don’t people always end up in poverty and lose any chance they had at a normal life?’”
    Lina waited for me to answer. “OK,” I said, playing along. “Don’t they?”
    “Normally,” said Lina. “But he was surprisingly resilient to the stuff. Plus, he never did a bucketload of it. That is, until he finally snapped, and totally OD’d. His wife found him lying in their garden shed, needle sticking out of his arm and everything.”
    “Yikes,” I said. “That’s a nasty revelation.”
    “You’re telling me,” said Lina. “Anyway, that’s about it. Apparently, his family never knew. Until just the other day, obviously.”
    “I feel for them,” I said.
    “You would,” said Lina. She took another gulp of her coffee. “God, we need to get some stronger stuff around here.”
    “Just do what I do — a little Irish cream works wonders,” I said, holding up my empty mug.
    “Hell no,” she said. “I don’t touch that stuff. Straight black for me. Anything else is disrespectful.”
    “Doesn’t sound like you have a whole lot of respect for it in the first place, though,” I said.
    “I don’t — which is why we need to get a good coffee maker,” said Lina.
    “Joe will never go for that,” I said.
    “Go for what?” said Joe, walking in.
    Joe was our boss. Good guy, but a little stingy. “Are you two just about ready?” he asked, smiling.
    “Yeah,” I said. “Let’s get Miles to where he needs to be.”
    “Awesome stuff,” said Joe. “I’ll go set up the Door.” He took his leave.
    “We should go too,” said Lina.
    “Yup,” I said. “Let’s go.
    We walked out of the conference room we were in to our facility’s pride and joy: the Soul Door. Every time I go into that room, I’m a little awestruck by how massive the machinations behind the Door are. The entire floor is spotless, and the humming, whirring, and clicking of the machine behind the door itself is endless. The room is impeccably white, lit with fluorescents that line the equally impeccable ceiling. The door to the Soul Door room is incredibly sturdy and secure — ironically, much more so than the Soul Door itself. Not like that door needs to be all that sturdy, though. It can’t open unless the conditions are perfect. By that, I mean it has to be hooked up to a dead body before it will open at all.
    “Here you are,” said Lina. She handed me an earpiece. “Channel 3, as always.”
    “Right. Thanks,” I said. I put in the earpiece. “Testing, testing.”
    “I’m right here, dunce,” said Lina. She went into the room next to the Soul Door. That was where the real magic happened. Magic to me, at least. I’ve seen all sorts of things, but I’ll never understand how the Door works as well as Lina’s little crew of scientists will. The earpiece I have also functions as something like an echolocation device, essentially building a fuzzy picture of what it’s like in there for people to see. Sound travels perfectly fine in there, but sight doesn’t — nobody can see in or out, even with a camera. This earpiece is the best we have.
    “Ready to go when you are,” I said.
    “Rodger that. Getting things ready over here,” said Lina through the earpiece. “We’ll be ready in under a minute.”
    “Great,” I said. I patiently waited as I heard the machine get louder and louder. It was like a jet engine taking off.
    “Ready,” said Lina. “Door’s open.”
    Here we go. I put my hand on the brass doorknob. On the other side of this door is a dead man walking. Not just him, either — it never is. It’s his Limbo. He’s stuck there — people always are — until I’m able to convince him to pass on.
    I opened the door and stepped into the inky blackness behind the door. I heard the door close behind me. That’s it — all that’s left is to find Miles.
    I stepped forward, tentatively. “Lina? Any idea as to what we’re looking at here? I’m still in the dark.”
    “We are too,” said Lina. “No sound but yours right now.”
    “Never mind — I see him,” I said. I did — he was far off, looking at some sort of giant mirror. “Heading his way.”
    “Don’t say his name,” said Lina. “Get a little more info, and let us get some, too, yeah?”
    “Rodger,” I said. The way things work in Limbo is that the soul hooked up to the Soul Door won’t notice anything’s wrong — or even that I’m here — until his name is called. When he does notice me, I usually take the appearance of some family member or friend. I’ve shown up as myself a couple times, but only to people who don’t have anyone special at all in their lives. That’s just how it works here. Frankly, I’m glad. I don’t know if I would be if I was on the other side and somebody came into my Limbo without telling me, but I think it’s fine the way it is. Besides, nobody wants to mess with things on this side of the Door anyway. A few have tried. It didn’t end well for them.
    I got closer to Miles. He was on his knees, head in hand. “Oh, God…Lisa…Tim…Rachel…” he moaned.
    “Oh, shut up,” I said, knowing full well he couldn’t hear me. “Lina, I’ve got him here. Can you make him out?”
    “Yeah,” said Lina. “We’ve got enough. Start when you’re ready.”
    I looked at the mirror Miles was looking at. It was barely reflective at all — there were so many fractures on it, it seemed like it wasn’t a mirror at all.
    “Can’t get through, can’t get through…” said Miles. “I have to get to them…”
    I looked at the mirror a little closer. I could see a ghostly family, smiling and waving. They are completely oblivious to the mirror, and to Miles.
    Miles slams his hand against the mirror. To my surprise, his hand sticks a little. I look at his hands a little closer. They’re completely coated in blood. The mirror around the area where his hands are is a bit darker, and has a reddish tint. He’s been slamming his hands against it for ages, poor guy.
    “I’m going to start talking now,” I said.
    “Understood,” said Lina.
    “Miles?” I say.
    Miles turns around.
    “What are you doing here?” asked Miles. “I haven’t seen you in years, Terry.”
    “I’m just here to help,” I said. “What are you looking at over there?”
    “My family,” said Miles. “My beautiful wife, my two kids…they’re over there, I know it. I can see them through the web.”
    “Web?” I asked.
    Miles pointed at the mirror. “Careful,” he said. “Don’t get poked.”
    I leaned in to look closer at the mirror. I put my hand on it.
    “Ow!” I exclaimed. I pulled my finger back — the mirror had poked it. Lucky for me, it didn’t pierce the skin.
    It was at that moment that I knew — the mirror wasn’t a mirror at all.
    It was a wall of needles.
    “OK, Miles, let’s see. Why do you think there’s a wall of needles there?”
    “You don’t need to know, Terry,” said Miles. “It was my secret. And I kept it. I’ll still keep it.”
    “Look, Miles, I’m aware of your…secret.” I pointed at the web of needles. “I want to help you overcome this. So you can see your family again. Okay?”
    “Okay,” said Miles. Souls are usually fairly compliant in Limbo. Sometimes you’ll get a rowdy one, but more often that not, they’re willing to listen. Most of them comply out of fear, or at least desperation.
    “Is there any way around the web?” I asked. I knew there wasn’t.
    “There is, over there,” said Miles. He pointed to his left. A well-worn front door was standing in the middle of the web.”
    “Why haven’t you taken it yet?” I asked. “It’s right there, Miles.”
    Miles pounded his hands against the web of needles, and they poked through his blood-caked hands in all sorts of different lengths and angles. “I…can’t,” he said.
    “Why not?” I asked. I went over and opened the door. His family was behind it, sitting in a living room, having a family dinner. There was one seat at the table that was empty. The family didn’t seem like they noticed anything was wrong. “Your family’s in here, Miles. Don’t you want to see them?”
    “Desperately,” said Miles. “But I’m scared.”
    “Why are you scared, Miles?” I asked. “It’s your family. You love them, they love you.” I smiled. “There’s nothing to be afraid of in there.”
    “No!” shouted Miles. He ran his arms along the web of needles, stood up, and presented them to me. They were scratched and bleeding. Some of the blood that was coming out was black. Infected needle wounds began to appear, like big red welts all over his arms. “Don’t you see? My family won’t love this!” He falls to his knees, sobbing. “How could they,” he muttered in between sobs. “How could they…”
    “Hey,” I said, kneeling down with him. “Have you ever had a really bad experience as a kid?”
    “Huh?” asked Miles.
    “You know,” I said. “Have you ever punched someone? Or done something else to spite someone else?”
    “Probably,” said Miles. “I don’t…really remember…”
    “Want to know why?” I said. “It’s because your family still loved you. And there’s nothing you could do to change that.”
    Miles looks at his arms. He puts his hands on the needles again, gently this time. “I love them,” he said.
    “That’s what I thought,” I said, smiling. I patted him on the back. “Come on. Let’s get you home.”
    I stuck out a hand for Miles to help him up. He blinked at me. “No, you don’t get it,” he said. He shoved his hand deeper into the needles. “I love them.”
    Oh.
    I got back on my knees. “Do you love those needles more than your family?” I asked. “Do you really?”
    Miles was silent.
    “I can’t help you if you do,” I said. “Now, look. I’m going to be straight with you. If you like the needles so much, then you go ahead and stay right here, poking yourself needlessly and uselessly. You’re torn. It’s time to choose: your family, or the needles. Which one are you going to choose?”
    Miles did look torn. He looked like a kid who has to decide between broccoli or Brussels sprouts. “I…I can’t choose both?”
    “No,” I said.
    “Then…I’ll…” said Miles, halfheartedly. He began to fall over, toward the wall of needles.
    “Get him!” said Lina through the earpiece. “Dammit, Mark, catch him!”
    Lina was right. If he was left to his own devices, I’m sure Miles would fall into the needles. It wasn’t his choice, not really. He just let it happen to himself. If that’s the case, then…
    I reached out and grabbed Miles’ hand. As he was falling over, the web gave a little. I couldn’t tell if it was giving because it was trying to get away, or because it was preparing to envelop him. I wasn’t going to let Miles stick around to find out.
    “Come on, Miles,” I said, grunting. “Time…to go…to your FAMILY!”
    I pulled him away from the web. It went back to normal. Miles and I fell on the ground, panting.
    “Why…” asked Miles.
    “Because I don’t want to lose you to…them,” I said, looking at the web. “Come on. Let’s get you to your family.”
    “Okay,” said Miles, breaking down a little. “I’m ready. Whatever happens, I’m ready.”
    “Are you sure?” I asked. “You have to be sure.”
    “Yes, I’m sure,” said Miles. “I choose my family.”
    He said it. That’s all I needed to know.
    “Good,” I said. “I’m glad.”
    I heard Lina give a sigh of relief through the earpiece. “Good work,” she said. “Preparing to open the Door.”   
    “Wait,” I said.
    I watched Miles open the front door amidst the needles. I looked through the frosted glass. He sat down with his family. It was like he had just come back from a long, long trip. His two kids gave him a hug, and his wife gave him a kiss on the cheek. He waved at me. When he lifted his arm, it looked fine — there was no blood, no welts. Just a family man’s arm, embracing his family.
    I watched Miles fade into a white mist. The rest of Limbo began to dissolve around me as well.
    “Mark? Get out of there,” said Lina. “We don’t want you trapped in there after it’s all gone.”
    “Right,” I said. I turned around and opened the Soul Door, stepping back into the real world. The door closed behind me.
    I saw Lina walk through the facility door. I took my earpiece off. “Thanks for the help in there,” I said to her. “I don’t know what would’ve happened if you hadn’t spoken up when you did.”
    “Don’t mention it,” said Lina. “I like having you around. Keeps me from having to go in there myself. And you know the drill — if you screw up too often, you’re outta here.”
    “I know,” I said. “I’d probably be out of here already if it wasn’t for you.”
    “Is that a compliment or an insult?” asked Lina, smiling.
    “Compliment,” I said. “Definitely a compliment.”

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