by JAGJIWAN SOHAL
It was just a little past ten in the evening when Dale took his customary seat on the bus. He gazed at his reflection in the foggy window beside him and saw a tired and beaten man staring back. God, he thought, lamenting the sagginess of the skin under his eyes and the many intruding white hairs in his beard. I look like I’m fifty years old.
He was actually thirty-six and on his way home after working a long shift. He was only supposed to work from eight to four but one of the part-timers called in around noon, saying he couldn’t come in because he was studying for a college exam. When Dale tried to explain that they needed him at the store, the kid laughed at him.
“Go ahead and fire me,” he’d said, cheerily. “I don’t care.”
Then the kid hung up. Dale didn’t actually mind too much because he needed the hours himself. What had bothered him was that the kid was so nonchalant about losing his job. It made Dale feel envious. He longed for his university days, where he didn’t have to give a damn about a part-time job, either.
Dale took the shift and endured a few more hours of wearing his itchy denim employee shirt and brass name badge. He was employed by Electroshack, a busy electronics store in the city’s largest mall. He sold batteries, stereo adapters, computer cables and some higher-end electronics like internet tablets or blu-ray players. The hourly wage was low, close to minimum, and used to be padded with sales bonuses. ElectroShack’s corporate headquarters had recently come down with a new mandate that eliminated all commissions. Now all Dale made was his hourly wage, which was barely enough to sustain one person, never mind his family of five.
I hate my life, Dale thought, repeating to himself the four word sentence that he must have said about a million times each day. It wasn’t supposed to be this way…
Three years ago, his life had been vastly different. He was a computer systems analyst and programmer working at a top software company. He made a low six figure salary and lived in a modest four-bedroom home. Then the economy went to shit, his company promptly declared bankruptcy and its assets, which Dale had a hand in developing, were bought out by one of the bigger software giants. It had happened so fast, a matter of days really.
Without warning, Dale lost his job and it was damn near impossible to find another in his field. He had gone from a ‘can’t miss’ prospect to selling gadgets and accessories in a mall. Instead of driving his Acura to work, he had to ride public transportation. He couldn’t afford his mortgage so he moved into a dingy townhouse in a cheap, sketchy part of the city.
Thinking of how far he had fallen often made him emotional and now he felt the hot sting of tears in his eyes. This was the worst part of his daily routine. At work, he could keep busy and push his misery to the side. At home, the constant shrieking of his children drowned out whatever black thoughts were in his head. But the quiet bus ride home, while sitting in his cheap poly-blend dress pants, was sheer agony. Dale desperately wanted to scream out, rage, curse and hit something, but he didn’t want to make a scene. He just bit down hard on his back teeth and waited patiently for his stop.
Stepping off the bus and into his neighborhood, a neglected housing complex on the outskirts of the city, Dale was ambushed by a strong scent of Indian curry. Many of his neighbors were immigrants who opened their windows while cooking their native dishes and the pungent aroma of exotic spices slammed into him, aggravating his already-throbbing head. Nevertheless, he continued trudging along the cracked pavement while averting his eyes from the crudely-scrawled graffiti penises on the building walls. He could hear the violent arguing of a Polish couple from somewhere in the complex as well as the pounding guttural sounds of Swedish death metal music. Everything was an attack on his senses. He quickened his pace, almost running to his front door for relief.
His wife was waiting for him as he stepped inside. She met him with two toddlers in each arm and a screeching three-year-old pulling on her sweatpants. There was another child, a five-year-old, around somewhere in the townhouse, but Dale couldn’t see him.
“Hey,” his wife said, sounding tired, as if she were mustering up the energy to greet him. “The phone is out. So’s the cell. And the cable.”
“That all happened today?” Dale said. He hadn’t even had a chance to hang his keys on the little rack on the wall yet. “All at once?”
“We have that package deal thingy, remember?”
Dale nodded, suddenly remembering that phone, mobile and television service, which he had once received at a premium discount through an ElectroShack employee benefit. But corporate had recently taken this away as well. Now the services were unaffordable.
“I’ll take care of it,” he said, not knowing how he would, exactly. “What about internet?”
“We still have that,” his wife replied. “Are you hungry?”
“I’ll make you a plate.”
Dale watched his wife step into the tiny adjacent kitchen with the two babies while the three-year-old followed her. The children barely acknowledged him, but he didn’t mind. He really didn’t have the strength to be an attentive dad right now.
Waiting for his supper, Dale watched his wife as she juggled the struggling tots in her arms while trying to placate the beseeching three-year-old at her feet. He loved her, but could sense she was falling out of love with him. Before, when he was successful, she used to greet him at the door with a passionate kiss. When the children were born, it shifted to a soft but meaningful caress on the lips. But when Dale lost his analyst job and they had to move to the crappy townhouse, all he got was a chaste peck on the cheek. Nowadays, he didn’t even get that. His wife didn’t seem to like showing any affection to the man she’d married; the utter loser who was forcing her and her babies to live in near-squalor.
While he ate his microwaved pasta, Dale listened with feigned interest as his wife rattled on about her day and the various needs of the children. Diapers, groceries, toiletries and school clothes for the happy five-year-old who had appeared, and was now coloring on the floor. Dale nodded and grunted his way through the entire exchange and wondered for the millionth time why the hell he had to have four kids.
His son, the oldest, was considered a “happy accident”, an unplanned pregnancy when they were newly married. But Dale had been making enough money to make things work then. His older daughter came two years later, but was a planned child, as both he and his wife wanted a matching pair of boy and girl. But then his wife got pregnant again a few months after he lost his job. This time, they were twins.
How could I let this happen? Dale thought. How could I be so stupid to have this large that family I can’t provide for?
Dale felt the tears come to his eyes again and abruptly excused himself to go to the bathroom. He told his wife he had been suffering from digestive pain all day, which was enough to satisfy her curiosity. Once he locked the door and felt safe, he sat on the toilet and sobbed.
The next day, Dale was back at ElectroShack. It was a quiet morning shift and before he knew it, it was lunchtime. He made his way down to the food court to eat, but couldn’t afford any of the various food kiosks. He found a lone table by the side and bit into the peanut butter sandwich his wife had made for him. The bread was rough and stale-tasting but Dale choked it down anyway. He had no choice. It was all he had to eat.
“Dale!” his co-worker Mike boomed as he slid into the seat across from him. Mike was in his late twenties and was one handsome son of a bitch. He had curly blond hair, broad shoulders and looked like an All-American quarterback. He was also a charming guy and would often point out female customer he wanted to pick up while both stood together on the ElectroShack sales floor. Then he would saunter over to the young lady and easily score her phone number. But he wasn’t a gloating prick about it. Dale liked that about him.
Dale nodded at Mike and glanced at his co-worker’s food tray. Mike was eating sushi; Dale’s favorite. He couldn’t even remember the last time he had sushi, which used to be his usual lunch at his old job. He noticed the expensive watch on Mike’s wrist.
“Pretty sweet, eh?” Mike said, pulling up his sleeve and showing off the diamond-encrusted, platinum timepiece.
“Yeah,” Dale replied in an effort to sound nonchalant. He glanced down and spotted a stylish pair of Italian leather boots on Mike’s feet. When he looked up, he saw that Mike was grinning at him.
“I know what you’re thinking,” he said, his perfect white teeth gleaming. “How can I afford this gear if I’m working at ElectroShit, right?”
Dale was surprised. It was exactly what he’d been thinking, but he said nothing and waited for Mike to continue.
“I recently came into a lot of cash, man,” Mike said. “Want me to tell you how?”
“Go ahead,” Dale said flatly. He was definitely curious but didn’t want to appear too eager to hear Mike’s story.
“You’ve heard of online auctions, right?”
“Well, I’ve found one better than eBay or the others out there. Not many people know about it but you can make a serious score, man.”
Dale wanted to roll his eyes but stopped himself. He was expecting to hear some boneheaded get-rich-quick internet scam.
“Okay,” he said in a bored tone. “An online auction. What do you sell?”
“A piece of yourself,” Mike replied as he expertly plucked a sushi with his chopsticks and dropped it into his mouth.
Dale raised an eyebrow as he watched his co-worker chew, making Mike burst into laughter.
“Not like your organs or anything,” he smiled. “Think a little bit more spiritual.” Mike paused, seemingly for dramatic effect. “Your soul.”
Now it was Dale’s turn to chuckle, which felt nice. He couldn’t even remember the last time he had a good chortle. Mike had got him good, but he quickly realized that Mike wasn’t laughing with him.
“You’re serious?” Dale asked, now feeling a bit unnerved.
“Dead serious, man.”
Dale stared blankly at Mike and then looked down at the tabletop. His head was swimming with follow-up questions but he kept silent and listened to the braying chatter of the other food court patrons.
“How much money can you make off a soul?” he finally asked.
“Depends on the soul,” Mike answered matter-of-factly. “Could be a lot. Or maybe not much at all.”
“Okay. But who exactly buys a soul?”
“Morons who believe that you can buy one. Do you believe in souls?”
“Fair enough. I don’t believe in God and have no religion or whatever so I didn’t care when I sold mine. I’d rather get paid, man.”
Dale watched as Mike waved his wrist again, the jewels sparkling in front of his eyes.
“Can you give me that web address?” he asked.
After his shift, Dale was late closing up the store and missed his bus. But instead of waiting for the next one, he decided to walk home, more than doubling his commute. It was a warm night, luckily, and the pleasant stroll allowed his mind to roam. He thought of Mike’s soul-selling idea for a little while, but pushed it out of his head, dismissing it as stupid.
When he got home, he expected his wife to be waiting for him with the children. But the townhouse was dark and he found a hastily-scrawled note on the refrigerator door. It said: ‘GONE TO BED’, with no cute smiley faces like the ones his wife used to leave when he’d work late at his old job. Dale didn’t mind. He poured a bowl of cereal and sat down in front of his laptop.
The laptop was old and took forever to load, another sharp reminder of Dale’s inability to provide for himself and his family. When the computer was finally ready, he logged on to check his email. He searched for new job postings, then surfed aimlessly for the next hour or so. He looked up sports scores, movie reviews and porn. His curiosity eventually got the best of him, and he pulled out the slip of paper that Mike had given him at lunch.
Dale moved the laptop’s cursor up to the address bar and held it there for a few seconds, contemplating whether or not he should go through with it. He mustered up the courage and finally typed in the URL. He pressed ‘Enter’.
A professional-looking homepage appeared, much like any other online auction site. Dale was a computer expert and could tell a phony site from a legit one. He spent the next half-hour trying to authenticate the website. He checked out current auctions as well as the site’s FAQ section. It all seemed legit. A user could put a soul up for auction and different verified parties could bid on it. The winning bidder would put the payment into a PayPal account, and if at any time a seller wanted to rescind his or her soul during the process, they were able to do so. This privilege ended with the bidding period. All sales were final.
Dale checked Google for any bad reviews from previous buyers or sellers. Surprisingly, there were none. In fact, most users had nothing but glowing praise for the auction site. Of course, he knew the owners of the site could have planted the comments, which was a common practice by dodgy internet entrepreneurs.
When he felt more comfortable with their legitmacy, Dale stared at the screen until finally, he threw his hands up in the air.
“Oh, whatever,” he said. “Let’s go for it.”
Whipping his fingers across the worn-out keyboard, he quickly made a seller’s profile and put his soul up for auction. He then leaned back and waited. If anything, he thought. This’ll be good for a laugh…
For the first ten minutes, nothing happened. Dale refreshed the page every twenty seconds or so, but no bids were made. He became restless and was close to rescinding his soul and going to bed. After all, he had to get up early for his shift at ElectroShack the next morning. Then the bids started coming in.
They started out low. Ten dollars, fifteen dollars, twenty-five dollars. Then they picked up. Five hundred. One thousand. Ten thousand. The amount kept on growing and growing. Dale couldn’t believe it. He checked to see who was bidding. It was an online duel between two anonymous individuals going head-to-head. Bids were made and countered. Some were doubled. Even tripled. Soon it was a figure that Dale could never have fathomed. One million dollars.
Dale glanced at the auction clock. In eight minutes he would be a millionaire. A goddamn millionaire! He started thinking of the wonderful life his new wealth could give him. He could move out of this disgusting townhouse, buy a new car and travel the world in style. He could do the things he always wanted but had never had the chance. He would take his family along too. Or would he?
Dale contemplated his changing circumstances. He could easily give his wife the divorce he knew she wanted. With his new infusion of cash, his children would be taken care of. Best of all, he himself would be free.
Dale shook himself out of his stupor and looked back at the computer screen. The bids had stopped and the auction clock was ticking down. It was down to the final sixty seconds. But suddenly, Dale felt a little cold.
“It’s my soul,” he whispered. “Is that worth a million dollars?”
He shook his head and his eyes quickly searched for the “CANCEL AUCTION” tab. He moved his cursor and readied his finger to click it. The power went out.
“No!” Dale shouted, jumping up from the table and staring at the laptop’s blank screen. It was an old piece of hardware and only worked when plugged into the wall. “What happened? I paid the electric bill…didn’t I? I don’t know! I –”
A soft knock at the door interrupted him but Dale ignored it. He didn’t want to deal with his stupid neighbors right now. The knocking continued. He went to answer it and readied himself to scream at whoever was on the other side. To his surprise, it was Mike standing on his doorstep.
“Hey man,” his co-worker said with his usual playful grin.
“Mike? What are you doing here?”
“I felt kind of bad about before, at the food court. Can I come in?”
Dale led Mike into the small living room, which was really just a couch in front of the secondhand television he had bought last year. He also put his finger to his lips and pointed to two rooms down the hall with the doors closed.
“Sorry it’s dark in here but I’ve got a problem, Mike,” Dale said hurriedly. “I couldn’t help myself and did the auction and it was great but then…”
“It’s okay, Dale,” Mike said in a calm voice. He was smiling but his eyes seemed different. Suddenly, Dale felt a stabbing pain in his stomach. His knees went weak, but a hand caught him before he tumbled to the floor.
“Mike,” he said, his head now pounding furiously. “How do you know where I live?”
“Don’t worry about it,” he replied in a gentle tone. “And don’t worry about your family. They’ll get all of it.” He reached into Dale’s mouth with his thick fingers. “But right now, you and I have a transaction to complete…”
Born and raised near Toronto, Canada, Jagjiwan Sohal works in the Canadian film and TV industry as an up-and-coming screenwriter and producer. His short stories have been published by Scribal Tales and The Horror Zine and he is currently shopping his first horror novel.
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