From the author: A woman becomes suspicious of her new boyfriend after learning he recently sold his soul to science.
For their two-month dating anniversary, Simon makes a reservation at Nora’s favorite Mexican restaurant where the employees serve free sundaes wearing tiny chocolate sombreros. It’s totally cheesy, which Nora normally loves, but tonight her stomach is in knots. Simon’s been acting weird all week—not unlike her last boyfriend who’d followed up his weirdness by popping the question after just three dates.
Nora still manages to find the inner strength to eat three tacos. She’s wrestling the resulting grease from her hands, just beginning to think she’s being paranoid, when Simon finally comes clean. There’s a reason he brought her here. Yes, it was to butter her up, but no, it’s not for a marriage proposal.
It’s so much worse.
“Wait, you’re serious? You’re telling me you don’t have a soul?” Nora’s pretty sure this doesn’t fall under the category of acceptable two-month revelations, any more than deciding to get married would have. It’s definitely not polite dinner conversation. They might as well talk about bowel movements.
“Please, don’t freak out,” Simon says.
“I’m not freaking out.” She crunches her napkin into a ball and dunks it into her water glass over and over again, like she’s interrogating a prisoner. “It’s just, no soul? Not even a little bit?”
“Not even a little bit.”
“How’d it happen? No. Sorry. That’s a rude question to ask, isn’t it?” She covers her blushing face. Her hands still reek of steak and sour cream. Stupid, Nora, stupid! He was probably born this way. It happened—and with increasing regularity, if you believed the news. She might as well have asked him why he was a lefty.
Simon reaches over the table, over Nora’s wet, crumpled napkin and their half-empty glasses, her basket of leftover taco shells, his mangled enchilada, and pulls her hands from her face. Nora tries to concentrate on what’s safe about him. The softness of his palms, for instance. A serial killer wouldn’t have such soft hands. They’d be crisscrossed with rope burns or sanded rough from years of holding a gun. Not that she thinks Simon is a serial killer.
“It’s not rude,” he reassures her. “I’d rather you be curious, than afraid.”
Nora tries arranging her face into a mask of casual interest rather than vague horror. She eyes their waiter across the room. He’s taking a long time with that check. “Why would I be afraid?”
“There’s a lot of misinformation floating around about the soul. Its purpose, its relationship to morality—the effect of its absence. In fact, L’Académie des sciences in France has been doing some groundbreaking studies that show a person without a soul is at no higher risk of developing ASPD as those with one…”
He’s still holding her hand. She expects him to be colder, like something’s missing. Life’s furnace burning just a little lower without proper fuel. But he’s as warm as an oven mitt, and the contrast in temperature between their bodies makes Nora feel like the icy one.
His blue eyes beg her for—something. Words. Acceptance. Something.
“Do you have any questions for me?”
“How long have you been… without one?” Fuck. This is such a month-five conversation.
“Three months,” Simon says.
Three months. The math moves through her like a kidney stone.
Her best friend Judy was right. Nora has terrible choice in men. But even Judy approved of Simon. He was just so—nice. Tall, suave, and handsome, like an Australian James Bond. He always opened the driver’s door for her, often unbuckling his seatbelt before she’d even shut off the engine so he could get out and around the car without wasting any of their time together.
Now he’s telling her even then—even then!—he’d had no soul. Which meant he had no soul when he let her have all the mints that came with their bill at the cheap restaurants they liked. No soul when he leaned in, kissing her for the first time in that augmented reality bar, tasting of rum and something headier, masculine and primal. How was that possible?
“Well. That certainly wasn’t on your Match profile,” Nora says lamely.
Simon releases her, and she picks up her discarded napkin. She needs something to occupy her hands. At the same time, she locates their lost waiter topping off another family’s already-full water glasses. Nora can’t help glaring at him.
“Weirdly enough, there was no dropdown menu for missing soul.” The fact he can joke about his condition is encouraging. “I’m sorry. I probably should’ve told you sooner. I just didn’t want you to think I was one of those people.”
“One of those people?”
“Someone looking for a handout. You know.”
Nora doesn’t know.
The waiter chooses that moment to return, ferrying a couple of menus. He doesn’t have the check—Nora suddenly remembers she never asked for it. The night had been going so well.
“How are we feeling about dessert?” the waiter asks.
Simon gestures to Nora, letting her decide. Giving her a chance to decline and end the night early. But she still has so many questions… Not to mention a fierce hankering for one of those sundaes with the little hats. After finding out your boyfriend has no soul, a girl should damn well get a tiny chocolate sombrero.
They order dessert.
Later that night, back at Nora’s apartment, Judy arrives at the idea of checking Amazon.
“Amazon has everything,” Judy says, and maybe it’s the wine, but Nora is inclined to agree.
“I got a limited edition Nikola Tesla bobble-head from there once,” she says. “He came with a ray gun and everything. At least, I think it was Tesla.”
“I mean, he sold his soul to science, ergo a soul is something you can buy.”
“I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a bobble-head of Simon.”
Judy shakes her head and her hands at the same time. Nora tries not to laugh. Her friend looks like she’s being swarmed by bees. “No! Stop confusing things. Simon sold his soul, so a soul should have a market price. That’s what I’m saying.”
Judy swipes at her glass on the bookshelf, nearly knocking it over, but manages to recover just in time to avoid spilling. She makes a face, straining to push the liquor down her throat. “Awful stuff. Okay. Let’s do this.”
Nora leans over Judy’s shoulder and watches her type soul into the search bar. Several self-help books on spirituality pop up, along with a few young adult novels, and a brand of high-definition headphones.
“Maybe you should be more specific,” Nora offers.
Judy types: man’s soul. “You think this is how the devil shops these days?” she jokes.
When this search also fails to yield any helpful results, Nora nudges Judy out of the way and takes her seat in front of the computer. “Let’s narrow it down by department. What about Health and Personal Care? Or Software? I mean, souls are kind of like the software of humanity, right? Wait, no. Simon said the soul and morality weren’t the same things.” Judy’s disappeared into the kitchen, but Nora doesn’t notice until she returns with a Pop-Tart in hand. “Is that—?”
“Last one. Sorry.” Judy chows down, crumbs tumbling into Nora’s hair. “Any luck?”
Nora separates the crumbs from her short, dark strands. “There aren’t any more strawberry-flavored?”
Judy hunches down, squinting at the screen. “Wait. Try human soul.”
“Industrial and Scientific. There!”
Judy’s perfectly manicured nail juts into Nora’s line of vision, half-obscuring what she’s trying to point out.
Nora scrolls down.
The item is listed as a Grade-FST human soul (which, according to Google, apparently means it’s good quality), on sale for a quarter of a million dollars. There’s no image available.
“Are you shitting me?” Judy says, mostly because when she tries to whistle in appreciation of the high price, she can’t make her lips work right. “It’s not even eligible for free two-day shipping. What a scam.”
“Looks like they’re all from third party sellers. But, hey. Four and a half stars. That’s a good sign, right?”
Judy empties her glass. “I wonder if they come in different sizes…”
Nora clicks around. No size option. “Guess it’s one size fits all.”
“Please, don’t tell me you’re going to pay 250,000 dollars to buy a soul for your bizarro no-soul boyfriend.”
A minute ago, the room glowed, warm and fuzzy, but Judy’s sudden skepticism is like someone cracking a window in the middle of winter. Nora frowns, all the marvelous possibilities chilling inside her. “This was your idea in the first place. And he’s not bizarre. What he did was perfectly legal.” Nora had checked.
“Normal people don’t sell their souls for petty cash.”
“It’s part of an experiment. It’s for science.”
I think it’s noble, she’d told him at the end of the night as they walked hand-in-hand down the sidewalk, strobed by the lights of passing cars. Simon needed the money, it was true, but only to finance a start-up idea he had to help get low-income kids off the street and into the technology industry.
“Please. He’s made himself into a guinea pig, and he’s dragging you into the cage with him.”
Nora gapes at her friend. “Where is this coming from?”
With her arms crossed in front of her, Judy is all right angles. Sharp and narrow. “I’m just worried about you.”
“Nothing’s changed. He’s still the same guy I’ve been dating for two months.”
“Yeah. But now you know. That changes things. Maybe he was holding back before.”
“What are you talking about?”
Judy cuts her eyes away. “Without a soul, who knows what he feels? Or if he feels anything as deeply as you do. Just be careful with him. Okay?”
Nora returns to the screen. The harsh white background hurts her eyes, but she can’t look away.
“Here’s one for only $250. Like new. Ships from Hong Kong.”
Judy shakes her head. “You know they only lower the price that much when it’s likely to be damaged or doesn’t work right to begin with. Costs the buyer more money than it’s worth to ship it back for a refund.”
“It’s fine. I’m not going to use it anyway.”
“Then why waste the money?”
Nora needs another drink, but Judy’s drained her glass when she wasn’t looking. Bad Judy. “Maybe you’re right.”
After Judy leaves, Nora adds the soul to her cart. Along with some cute business-casual shoes for a work party, several books on neuroscience, and more Pop-Tarts.
A couple weeks later, the soul arrives in a small package, separate from her other orders, and when Simon asks what it is, Nora lies. Tells him it’s a prescription. It’s the first time she’s ever lied to him. She should feel bad about it, but instead, she cherishes having a secret.
Once she’s alone, Nora liberates the soul from its Styrofoam coffin. She rotates the unlabeled bottle back and forth between her fingers. It looks harmless enough. The clear serum could easily be mistaken for over-the-counter medicine, or maybe vodka. The lid doubles as an eyedropper, presumably as a way to administer the soul. Does it go in the eyes then? The instructions have been translated from Chinese. Badly. She deciphers them as best she can.
Not that she intends to do anything. If Simon cared so much about having a soul, he wouldn’t have sold his in the first place, money or no money. But still, Judy’s words float back to her: Who knows what he feels?
Better to keep it around. Just in case.
She hides the soul in a drawer in her nightstand, pressed into the corner, behind her fat inductive study Bible which she’s never taken out of the box, and spare condoms for the nights Simon stays over. Strawberry-flavored, of course.
When they have their first real fight—it begins as most fights do, over something stupid—Nora reaches instinctively for the subject of Simon’s soullessness. It’s the perfect weapon of opportunity.
“At least I have a soul.”
Even whispered, it’s a scream across the silence of the living room.
Simon rears back. “What?”
“At least I have a soul.” Nora’s surprised by the heft of the phrase, like discovering she’s lifted a boulder instead of a pebble. Brought a gun to a knife fight.
Simon paces in front of her, navigating around the coffee table where he’s left unassembled parts to some machine. What a mess, she thinks, and barely resists the urge to start sorting the mismatched components into size and shape.
“I thought you were all right with this. You said it didn’t matter.”
Nora picks at a small thread on the sleeve of her sweater, unraveling the seam. A sweater Simon gave her. A sweater she loves. “If we didn’t need a soul, why would we be born with one?”
He pinches the bridge of his nose. “Some aren’t! Besides, you’re born with an appendix and you don’t need that. Some people have wisdom teeth and they—”
“How do I know you really love me?”
Simon freezes, his expression pedaling through shock. Or maybe it’s an act. Maybe it’s all been an act. How would she know? “Have I ever given you any indication that I don’t?”
“But how do I know?”
Pick. Pick. Pick. By now, a small mouth has opened on her sleeve, a hole she’ll have to repair later. Too bad she never learned how to sew. “How do I know you’re feeling what you say you’re feeling? How do you know what you’re feeling is even real?”
Simon holds his hands out helplessly. “How does anyone?”
Sometimes, when Simon isn’t around, Nora opens the drawer and removes the soul.
The bottle is filled to the very top. Only a single air bubble floats around as she turns it every which way, imagining. Could she slip it into his drink? Would he taste it? Or is it similar to insulin? Should she administer it in measured amounts, or all at once? Do souls have an expiration date?
Nora sets the bottle down hard on the nightstand. This is crazy. What is she thinking, dosing her boyfriend with some cheap-ass soul?
She should just toss it. No harm done. Simon never has to know.
Tomorrow. She’ll throw it out tomorrow. The garbage man doesn’t come until Wednesday anyway, and today’s Saturday. Plenty of time.
Simon switches on a light, throwing off the blue darkness that just moments before lowered them into pleasure. It takes a minute for Nora’s eyes to adjust, but she already knows what he’s found. She sits up, drawing the comforter to her bare chest.
He’s holding the soul in his hands. “Nora?”
“Nothing. It’s just that prescription I was telling you about—”
“No. You keep all of your medications in the kitchen.” His face softens. “Nora. Is this some kind of illegal substance?”
This is it. Her moment to come clean. But then it occurs to Nora that she’s naked in bed with a man who has no soul. A man with muscles like cannonballs and strong hands. He could be capable of anything. Forget what the scientists said. What did they know? A soul had to be good for something.
“It’s not mine,“ she lies. “I’m holding it for a friend.”
“Just put it back.”
He loosens the lid and peers inside. “What is it, exactly?”
“I don’t know. Will you please just forget about it?” Her fingers itch, every vein plump with adrenaline. She’s dying to grab it away from him. Relocate it somewhere safe. It’s all she has if this goes wrong. If he goes wrong.
“Do you want to try it?” Simon asks her.
Nora startles, bumping her crown against the headboard. “What?”
He pinches some of the soul inside the eyedropper. “Do you want to try it? Together, I mean. Could be fun. I’m sure your friend won’t mind.”
He still believes it’s hers. And Nora thinks, isn’t it?
“You first,” she says.
But before she can explain how to take it, Simon opens his mouth and squeezes a few drops of soul onto his tongue. Shit. Why hadn’t Nora thought of that? For all she knows about this substance, she could’ve made him blind by suggesting he apply it to his eyes. There are so many risks that haven’t occurred to her until this moment. What if he has an allergic reaction?
This is stupid and dangerous and okay, maybe a little thrilling. What will happen when Nora takes the soul, already possessing one? Will it give her some kind of a high?
Simon hands over the eyedropper.
Time to find out.
Something isn’t right.
Nora expects a buzz at best, but as the minutes pass, she starts to feel heavy, as though someone has lowered an anchor through her chest. She sinks underneath herself, to the abyss waiting below her conscious mind. Panic drowns out her thoughts. Her breathing comes in fits. When she starts to flail, struggling against the weight of the covers, Simon reaches for her. Tries to calm her.
His hands feel wrong. No. Nora feels wrong.
She pushes him off and leaps out of bed. She doesn’t realize she’s moving toward the window until Simon lets out a strangled noise of alarm. “Nora! Nora, wait!”
A woman peers back at her from the window’s dark reflection. She is less than opaque. The lights in the building across the street go right through her.
“Nora, what’s wrong? Talk to me, sweetheart.”
Simon sounds close. He must be standing right behind her, but she can’t feel him. Her peripheral senses are completely blind. It’s like she’s standing in a room with a ghost. Or maybe it’s the other way around. “Do I need to call an ambulance?”
Her heart jumps into her throat, close enough to chew.
She opens the window. Air. She needs air.
Simon turns her with a grab. Nora clutches at him in unsteady surprise, but it’s too late. The low windowsill kicks out her legs and the empty night sky replaces her ceiling, dark without stars. She catches an expression of shock on Simon’s face as the building rushes past his head.
Her last thought before the ground stops them: He was trying to save me.
From her hospital bed, Nora still feels it yawning inside her. The gap. Her thoughts plunge into like a tongue exploring the place a tooth used to be, and there is blood. So much blood.
Simon. Is Simon okay?
“What were you thinking?” Judy’s listed as Nora’s sole emergency contact, so it makes sense the hospital called her. She’s holding Nora’s hand, trying to speak gently, but there’s anger underneath her question. “What happened, Nora? The cop said you both fell out of a window?”
“He has a soul,” Nora says, regurgitating the words over her neck brace.
“When we got here, the doctors pulled his medical records and it was all there. He was part of the control group for the experiment. The scientists just knocked him out for a few hours to make him think they’d removed his soul. I guess they wanted to see if it would change his behavior.”
Nora shakes her head.
“Why the window, then?”
She could tell her friend what the doctor told her: Nora was born before they screened for souls. The introduction of one—especially one so badly repurposed—was equivalent to throwing a flare down a cavern, illuminating the vacancy and every squirming thing on the wall. She and her boyfriend were lucky she lives on the second floor, and not the third.
None of this makes it past the wall of her guilt and shame. It’s her secret now—hers and Simon’s. And if he ever wakes up—he will, he has to—maybe he’ll forgive her. Maybe he’ll continue to love her—trust her, in spite of the truth, like she should have done with him.
“We both tried this new drug,” she lies. “I must’ve had a bad reaction to it. I jumped out the window. Simon tried to stop me.”
Judy stays with her and holds her hand. She doesn’t say another word.
Outside, the sun throws a white net over the city, dragging long shadows from between the tall, stately buildings. Nora turns her face away from the window, but even though she isn't watching, and doesn't want to see it—morning comes anyway.