A Soul for a Soul - An original short story by K H Simmons
On the one side of the wall sat a husband and wife. They held hands as they waited for one of the most exciting moments of their lives. The cost of such a moment was far from their minds.
My knock at the door brought their excited whispers to a stop. I entered the room and gave them a warm smile.
‘Mr and Mrs Hobbs?’ I checked.
Of course, I had received their details earlier, it was just a formality. The couple nodded back at me. Mrs Hobbs was practically bouncing on her seat.
‘Excellent. I’m May, I’ll be looking after you today. Are you excited?’ I asked.
‘We can’t wait!’ Mrs Hobbs replied.
Mr Hobbs seemed a bit more nervous. Still, he was supporting his wife every step of the way. It brought joy to my heart to be a part of such a momentous occasion for them.
‘It’s such an exciting time, isn’t it? Now, I just need to check a few things,’ I brought a transparent tablet out from my pocket and brought up the Hobbs’ details. ‘You’ve opted out of the birthing simulator, is that correct?’
‘Oh yes, I couldn’t do that! Can you imagine people used to push babies out of their – you know!’ Mrs Hobbs gave a nervous laugh.
‘I know, it was a miracle anyone did it at all!’ I agreed and pressed a tick box on her tablet. ‘You opted out of the gender reveal too?’
The Hobbs nodded again.
‘We wanted a surprise,’ Mr Hobbs smiled at his wife.
‘We can’t wait to find out,’ his wife added.
‘How lovely,’ I said and checked off another box. ‘And did you have any special requests for the benefactor?’ The mood in the room darkened. Their smiles faded. Mr and Mrs Hobbs shared a glance.
‘Tell them thank you. They don’t know how much this means to us,’ Mrs Hobbs said.
‘Very good. I’m sure they’ll be pleased to hear what their offering means. I’m just going to go and check on things next door and then we’ll get things moving along,’ I gave them a gentle smile before crossing to the second door in the room.
On the other side of the wall sat an old man. He tapped his foot idly as he waited for a nurse. All this waiting around was putting him on edge.
I stepped into the room. The atmosphere in here was very different. The plants and the calming tones of the paint on the walls did their best to make it feel welcoming. It was a futile struggle against the medical equipment and the loneliness. Perhaps it was my imagination, having worked here for several years. This room rarely brought any happiness.
‘Mr Jameson?’ I checked.
The old man nodded.
‘Very good. I’m May and I’ll be taking care of you today. I just need to check a few details before we begin the transition,’ I tapped the tablet. ‘You have chosen to be an anonymous benefactor?’
He nodded again, scratching the stubble upon his cheek.
‘You agree that your affairs have been organised and your will is finalised?’ I asked. Again, he nodded in response.
‘You have opted for the quick transition?’ I looked up from the screen. He stopped scratching the grey stubble and glared at me with rheumy blue eyes.
‘You can just call it what it is, you know,’ the old man grumbled.
‘Excuse me?’ I was taken aback.
‘Death. Just call it death. Enough with this transition nonsense,’ he ran a hand through his thin wisps of hair and leaned back in the chair.
‘Oh. Uh. It’s protocol sir. It puts patients more at ease,’ I explained, struggling to find the words. He grunted in response. I hesitated for a moment, losing my place in the notes.
‘Lastly, the beneficent wanted me to tell you “thank you,” you don’t know how much this means to them.’
‘Yes, yes. I know what I signed up for. A soul for a soul is pretty damn obvious. If I was going to change my mind, their life story wouldn’t make any difference. Now, can we just get on with it?’ Mr Jameson complained. I checked the box on my tablet with a shaking finger.
‘Please lie down on the bed and we’ll begin the transition, er, death, er…Please lie down, sir,’ I stuttered, trying to ignore the sensation of my cheeks flushing. I took a deep breath to try and calm myself. Working this room was usually tough, although normally it was difficult for different reasons. Mr Jameson struggled to his feet and hobbled over to the bed. Every movement was slow and painful. I put an arm around him and helped him to lie on the bed.
‘Are you comfortable, sir?’ I asked.
‘I’ll be comfortable when I’m dead,’ he responded. I forced a smile. I couldn’t imagine the emotions that were rampaging through his head. Being rude with me was a coping mechanism, one that I wouldn’t let get in the way of me doing my job.
‘I’m just going to flush your cannula first,’ I started to flush it with saline as I continued the obligatory explanation. ‘When I start the procedure, you won’t be able to withdraw. You may feel some dizziness as you drift into a deep sleep.’ Mr Jameson had already closed his eyes. I didn’t think I’d ever seen an anonymous benefactor so prepared as he was. It didn’t make the process any easier though. I hooked up the bags of liquid, they looked so innocent. Yet they would send Jameson into a sleep that he would never wake from. I checked the pad stuck to Mr Jameson’s chest, it was properly attached, and my tablet was receiving his vital signs, strong and clear.
‘Are you ready? You’re welcome to any last requests,’ I said.
‘How about you shut up and get on with it already,’ Mr Jameson responded.
I tried not to take it to heart. People on this side of the wall could be difficult to deal with. I didn’t blame them. How they must feel is something that I could only guess at. Instead of replying, I attached the tube from the bags to his cannula and opened the flow. Within a matter of minutes Mr Jameson would drift to sleep.
As I entered the other room, I continued to monitor his vitals. It was essential that I timed the passing of souls right.
‘Are they...?’ Mrs Hobbs trailed off, unsure what she could say.
‘It’ll just be a few minutes now,’ I replied.
Mr Hobbs squeezed his wife’s hand. They waited in silent anticipation as I watched the tablet. I was grateful that they didn’t press the conversation, I needed to concentrate and conversations about the benefactor were always awkward.
Another minute passed and Mr Jameson’s vital signs began to plummet.
On cue, I crossed to the back wall and tapped it. The panel slid up revealing an opaque incubation tank with an array of wires protruding from the top. To the left were a set of controls and a screen showing the details of the tank. To the right were shelves of towels. I waited by the controls; my fingers were steady now.
Another minute passed and Mr Jameson’s vitals stopped completely. Without hesitation I hit the button which turned the glass transparent. The pink fluid within began to drain. The baby inside began to stretch its arms and legs, it was so small, fragile, and beautiful. Once all the fluid had drained, the front of the tank opened. I reached inside and took hold of the baby, detaching the wires from its body with the deft movements of someone who had done this many times before. With my free hand I grabbed a towel and patted it dry.
As Mr Jameson’s soul left his body, the baby took its first breath and began to cry. I turned to the expecting couple and handed over the baby into Mrs Hobbs’ outstretched arms.
‘Congratulations, it’s a girl,’ I announced.
Mrs Hobbs took hold of her daughter and cradled her in her arms. The couple beamed with joy. My tablet beeped. I looked down at it and froze. Mr Jameson’s vitals had spiked again, I’d got it wrong. That wasn’t possible, I shook my head. Out of instinct my eyes shot to the baby, staring in horror. Nothing happened. The baby continued to squeal, and Mr Jameson’s heart continued to slowly beat. It wasn’t possible.
A soul for a soul.
He couldn’t come back. For as long as anyone remembered there couldn’t be a birth without a death first. It was just the way of things. Yet the steady rhythm of Mr Jameson’s heart and the bawling of the baby rang out in defiance of everything we had ever been told.
‘What is it?’ Mr Hobbs asked, realising that something was wrong. With trembling hands, I showed him the tablet. Mr Hobbs stared back and clutched his wife.
‘No, no, that can’t be! Our baby. We had a deal!’ he shouted.
‘What’s going on? Shh, you’re frightening her!’ Mrs Hobbs hissed. Their new baby screamed louder.
‘It’s not possible,’ I said quietly.
I rushed into the other room, not bothering to shut the door behind me, praying that it was a computer malfunction.
It wasn’t. Mr Jameson lay on the bed where I had left him. His chest steadily rose and fell as he breathed. Then I noticed the puddle on the floor. There was a leak in the bag or the tube. How hadn’t I noticed that? Mr Jameson hadn’t received the full dose. That shouldn’t have mattered though. The procedure we performed was to make things easier, kinder, and more decent. There couldn’t be a birth without a death. There just couldn’t.
I stared fearfully at the man in the bed and listened to the baby bawling. It had happened. Did that mean that people didn’t have to die? Or was this some kind of miracle? My tablet beeped again. A red warning flashed up on the screen.
‘Anomaly,’ I read. ‘Soul faults must be terminated.’
Soul faults? I’d never seen the message before, I understood the gist of it though. They believed that Mr Jameson or the baby, or both, had bad souls and must be removed. I couldn’t believe that. The baby was just a little girl, a new-born, an innocent. As for Mr Jameson, he was brash and rude, but he didn’t have a bad soul. I couldn’t accept that.
So, not quite daring to believe what I was doing, I detached the tube from his cannula and shook Mr Jameson by the shoulders. He groaned as his mind tried to drag itself from the depths of sleep. I shook him again, urgency replacing any sense of dignity.
‘What are you doing?’ he snapped as he finally came around. ‘Doesn’t feel like I’m dead much.’
‘You’re not. Listen, Mr Jameson, there’s not much time to explain. They’re coming to kill you, we have to go now,’ I explained.
‘That’s why I’m here. Let them come. Hopefully they’ll do a better job of it than you did,’ he grumbled. I ignored his complaints, grabbed his hand and attempted to drag him out of bed.
‘You don’t have to die. You don’t have to give your soul!’ I cried. He tugged his arm back.
‘Yes, I do! I want to. I don’t have anything left. It is my time, now let me go on my own damn terms,’ he shouted. I stepped back. Mr and Mrs Hobbs were hovering in the doorway, holding their new baby close.
‘What do you mean?’ Mrs Hobbs whispered, clutching her baby girl to her chest.
‘I don’t know what it means. But your baby and this man have both got souls. They are both alive. One didn’t need to die for the other to live,’ I gasped. My heart was hammering against my chest as the foundation of all my beliefs crumbled away. The husband and wife shared a terrified look.
‘But they’re coming, they think they have bad souls and they want to take their lives away. They’re going to kill them, both of them,’ I hissed. Mrs Hobbs wailed in response. Mr Hobbs tried to comfort her.
‘They can’t, she’s just a baby. She’s got a soul,’ Mrs Hobbs pleaded.
‘I know. Come, come with me. We have to run,’ I gestured to the only other door in the room. It led to a quiet waiting room which had never seen a baby pass through it. ‘Follow my lead.’
Pure panic flowed through my veins. The sound of my heart was like a drum in my ears. Dealing with the guilt of leaving Mr Jameson behind would have to be something I did later. For now, all I knew was that we had to escape.
I darted to the door that led to the benefactor waiting room. The Hobbs followed close behind. They had just been blessed with the gift of life; they weren’t about to let someone take that away from them.
I slowed my breathing; it wouldn’t do to raise the alarm. I opened the door and the Hobbs followed close behind me, shushing the baby as we walked through the waiting area. Only a single middle-aged woman sat in there, struggling with her choices. Her eyes latched onto the baby in Mrs Hobbs’ arms. She nodded to herself, she believed the decision should be an easy one, the baby was proof of that. I ached to shout at her that it wasn’t necessary, that she didn’t have to die for a baby to be born. That would have to come later though. We had to get out of here first. The truth couldn’t be told if we didn’t survive.
The receptionist was watching with suspicious eyes that I tried to ignore as I approached the exit. I placed my hand on the door. The street outside was busy with people going about their day, with no idea about what was really happening within these walls. I pushed. The door was locked. I shoved again to no avail. I stared around the room, eyes desperately trying to find another escape route.
The receptionist was speaking into her headset in a hushed and urgent tone. The middle-aged woman was frowning at us. Mr and Mrs Hobbs were close behind me, attempting to conceal their panic. I found the fire axe by the door, lifted the lid and took it. It was heavy in my hands. A warning label told me that it should only be used in the event of an emergency. I couldn’t think of a more suitable circumstance.
‘Drop the axe May,’ a voice warned me from behind.
I didn’t turn. I raised the axe ready to break the glass.
There was a zapping noise followed by Mrs Hobbs’ scream. Expecting to feel the laser shot between my shoulder blades, I lowered the axe. No pain followed, yet Mrs Hobbs continued to scream. I turned.
Mr Hobbs had placed himself between us, and the group of security guards with laser rifles. He now lay on the floor, sprawled awkwardly with eyes wide, chest heaving as his body went into shock. A hole the size of his thumb burnt through his chest just below his collar bone.
‘Drop the axe!’ the guard shouted again.
There wouldn’t be another warning. I felt the axe fall from my numb fingers. It clanged on the floor next to Mr Hobbs’ trembling body. The guards rushed over, grabbing me and Mrs Hobbs. Then everything went black. I remember hearing her scream accompanied in terrible harmony by the screaming of her daughter.
When I woke up, I found myself in a damp four by four cell. No windows, no bed, just a bucket and a single heavy steel door. A thin stream of water ran down the back wall and disappeared down a narrow gap in the floor, too narrow to even fit a finger down.
I don’t know how long I sat there in the dim grey light coming from the ceiling panels. I drifted in and out of sleep on the cold hard floor. Everything ached. My stomach twisted in knots as I tried to understand what had happened. Mr Jameson hadn’t died. The baby hadn’t died. They were probably both dead now, probably along with Mr and Mrs Hobbs too. It raised the question why wasn’t I dead yet?
Hunger gnawed at my insides. The trickle of water down the wall was just enough to keep me going, but never enough to quench my thirst. I must have felt every inch of this cell from top to bottom, there was no way out. It occurred to me that this was how I was going to die. Trapped in this room, not knowing why, never understanding what I did wrong. Should I stop drinking the water? Or do I keep going until I die from starvation instead? Perhaps I would go mad before then.
There was no way to tell how many days it had been. The light was always the same. No noise reached me from beyond the walls. I was laid on the floor staring at the ceiling when the door opened. I would have liked to jump up, but I didn’t have the energy to. Instead, I just rolled my head over to look at who was paying me a visit.
It was a woman dressed in a smart suit, holding a tray with a jug of water and a loaf of bread upon it. Instantly my mouth started to water. The thought of food almost made me feel sick I was so desperate for it. I wanted to gulp that water down so fast I could choke. I struggled to sit up.
‘Mrs Hobbs is in the cell next to you. Mr Hobbs is recovering. Their baby is fine. Mr Jameson is fine. But you see, now we have a problem,’ the woman said.
I stared at her, trying to not think about how badly I wanted the bread, it looked soft and delicious.
‘There are two lives instead of one. Because of that, there is only enough food and water for one of you. Do you understand?’ she asked.
I shook my head.
She crouched down, so close I could reach for the bread. I could smell it.
‘There is only enough food and water for either you or Mrs Hobbs. A soul for a soul is a necessity. If there is not a death in exchange for a life, then there will not be enough resources to provide for both,’ the woman explained.
I reached weak fingers out for the bread. They looked almost skeletal in the light.
‘Do you understand?’ she asked, moving just out of reach. ‘If you take this bread, then there is not enough for Mrs Hobbs, she will die – in exchange you will live.’
My fingers dropped to the floor. I looked at the bread. It was just a small loaf, still it was enough, surely?
‘Why can’t we share it?’ I asked. My voice was dry and raspy.
‘You could share it, then neither of you would get enough. You will both still go hungry and thirsty,’ the woman shrugged.
Selfish thoughts vied for attention in my mind. I was so hungry. I was so thirsty.
So was Mrs Hobbs. She had a baby to think about now too. I shook my head. The woman stood up and stepped back through the door, taking the tray with her.
‘Very well,’ she said as the door swung shut.
My thoughts swam around like they were trapped in a thick soup. I was going to die here. Why wasn’t there enough for everyone? Surely, we could make enough for everyone. Why did someone have to die for someone else to live? It wasn’t fair. I was so hungry.
Sometime later the door opened again. The smell of fresh bread wafted through the cell. I barely had the energy to look.
It was the same woman again, wearing a different suit.
‘Are you ready to decide?’ she asked. ‘It’s easy. Take the bread, just take it. You must be so hungry and there’s no need for it. You don’t even know her. She will die, but you will live. Surely you deserve that chance?’
I continued to stare up at the ceiling. Every part of me ached for the bread. Was I doing the right thing? I wanted it so badly. Then I thought, why do I deserve that chance, but Mrs Hobbs doesn’t? All she wanted was to have a baby. If I had just been more careful, if I had just done what Mr Jameson wanted and let him die – none of this would have happened. She would be at home with her husband, looking after their baby girl. I would be at work, giving the gift of life to other couples.
The door closed.
When it opened again, the woman didn’t say a word, she just placed the tray on the floor and left.
The smell of the bread was incredible. I tried not to look at it. Not thinking about it was impossible. The smell clawed its way into my nostrils until it was all I could think about. Just one bite. One bite would be fine. Wouldn’t it?
I don’t know when I crawled over to the tray, or when I picked up the bread. I laid with it in my hands, breathing in the floury scent, torturing myself. Perhaps Mrs Hobbs was already dead. That’s why they’d given me the bread. If she was already dead, it was OK, wasn’t it? There was no point in dying if someone had already died in order for me to live.
I raised the bread to my lips and took a bite. It was the most delicious thing I had ever tasted. As I chewed and took a big gulp of water, I knew that I had sentenced Mrs Hobbs to death. There was only enough on the tray for one person.
I'm Katy, but go by K H Simmons officially. I write a lot of sci-fi, dark fantasy and dystopian fiction. If you're here for sparkly vampires, you're in the wrong place ;)
I frequently post short stories on my Facebook page, as well as work on full length novels. If you want more short stories like the above - check out my anthology Death, Demons & Dystopia available on Amazon/Kindle.
When I'm not writing, I can usually be found cuddling dogs, reading, at the gym or playing video games.