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Eavesdropper

EavesdropperReading Time: 9 minutes 

 

I’m an introvert with a counter-intuitive hobby: eavesdropping.

It’s not an ethical hobby. That’s the thrill, isn’t it? To know the secrets of a hundred strangers… Rest assured, their secrets are safe with me. That doesn’t make it okay, but I considered it a victimless crime. Less than a crime– a prank. Harmless.

Until it wasn’t.

Recently, I met a man I’ve come to call Mr. Soap. I can’t describe him in a satisfying way; I wouldn’t be able to pick him out of a line up. I couldn’t tell you the color of his hair, or even his skin… trying to remember is like picking up an extra-slippery bar of soap. I can’t hold on to the details, they slip away– leaving nothing but suds.

However, he did leave an impression… I can’t forget his eyes, or what he said to me that night. I guess to sum it up, Mr. Soap is a man with eyes and a mouth. That’s the only way I can put it. He isn’t meant to be remembered; a predator’s camouflage. Maybe you’ve talked to him, or something like him– there’s no way to know.

Not unless it wants you to know.

I was at the bar, my favorite haunt; a place where alcohol brings up a backwash of honesty. I’d snagged my favorite corner booth, wore my muted Bluetooth headphones and played mindless phone games between fizzy sips of ginger ale. If anyone tried to talk to me, I’d pretend not to hear them. In other words: the perfect Friday night.

My ears picked through threads of conversation, seeking something sordid to pique my interest. I dove in and out of discussions; swimming through the currents of confabulation like it was an Olympic sport, until one voice cut through the noise:

“What would you trade your soul for?”

The voice had a velvety baritone, with an air of confidence that belied the bizarre nature of his question. I took note of this strange pick-up line, pausing to listen with rapt attention.

“Eternal life, of course! If I don’t die, I’d never have to pay up, right?” A feminine titter followed the question, her voice pleasantly soft and slurred.

“You are as clever as you are beautiful.” the man chuckled with an edge of condescension. Surprised, I glanced over– nearly dropping my ginger ale when I met his waiting gaze. The man’s eyes seemed to smile, though his mouth was an impassive line. The woman he’d been flirting with left without a word, smiling with a glass in hand to rejoin a group of giggling young women.

A swing and a miss?

I quickly looked away, pretending to be preoccupied by my phone. I hated being noticed. I preferred to be a fly on the wall– at most an extra– background to the drama that played around me.

Once again I began sifting through the conversations, but I was pulled back by that same voice from before.

“What would you trade your soul for?”

My head swivelled in the direction of his voice; this time, the man– Mr. Soap– was not at the bar but leaning with his elbows on a table, speaking to a muscular man who had lost his shirt and stared, glassy-eyed, at the table.

“I want to be rich and famous.” the shirtless man said, not looking up.

“Classic. No one ever wants that.” his sarcasm was obvious, but Mr. Soap’s eyes still hadn’t left mine. I watched, transfixed, as he scribbled something down in a notebook I hadn’t noticed before.There was no point in pretending I hadn’t been listening in… I was thoroughly unnerved.

I tried to flag the server for the check, but she didn’t notice…. Walking right by. Compelled by nervous impulse, I looked back at Mr. Soap. He was closer than before, yet no more distinct… I realized with a start that each time I looked, he was one table closer– closing the distance between us.

We were separated by one table, locked in a staring contest. I never saw him blink; in fact, his eyes– whatever color they were– had no reflective qualities; the light did not catch in his irises or have the same glossy, wet quality as eyes do. His dilated pupils were a dull darkness, one that couldn’t be explained by a need for eye drops.

My line of sight was broken by the server who took the seat across from him, not seeming to notice that the table was already occupied by some indistinct demon. I could not see his face, but I still heard him ask that very same question:

“What would you trade your soul for?”

There are some things you know without having to be told. What I knew in that moment… was that I couldn’t let that man reach me. I fumbled for my purse, fishing out a few bills to leave on the table. If I hadn’t had cash, I would have tried to dine and dash– that’s how desperate I was to leave.

I didn’t dare my eyes to wander, moving towards the door—

“What would you trade your soul for?”

The same question; a phantom outline hovered dark on my periphery, a blackness that bid I turn around. I reached for my phone, intending to turn on music to block out that voice and the answers that followed–

….

I’d left my phone on the table.

I know it was stupid, but these days losing a phone is like losing a finger– and that’s putting it lightly. The table was mere footsteps away, I’d grab it and go!

I hurried back, but… Mr. Soap was waiting for me there. My phone was where I’d left it, daring me to pick it up. The man didn’t say a word at first, watching me with an unsmiling mouth and those strange eyes. I found myself locked in place, an unwilling competitor in another staring contest– until he gestured and said:

“Sit.”

I did, my own will was irrelevant; I was compelled to comply. Running was no longer an option.

“How about we start with an apology?”

My tongue was heavy with nerves; I heard something I shouldn’t, something beyond the realm of even the juiciest gossip. I didn’t understand it, but that didn’t matter… I knew that to my core.

“I’m sorry.”

“That’s better.”

Mr. Soap reached across the table and pulled out my earbuds, they came out with an uncomfortable pop that had me reaching up to rub my ears. It was clear the conversation was far from over.

Before I could think better of it, I asked:

“Aren’t you going to ask me?”

“Ask you what?” he knew, even without asking– this exchange was as entertaining for him as it was terrifying for me.

“What I would trade my soul for?” my voice was stilted and unsure; I didn’t want him to ask. I didn’t want to answer– I instinctively understood that this question couldn’t go unanswered, as though it were an implicit law of the universe.

“No.” his abrupt answer left little chance to feel relieved, Mr. Soap spoke matter-of-fact, adding: “You have nothing to trade…” a remark which jolted any sense of relief into an unsettling uncertainty.

“What do you mean?”

Mr. Soap laughed low, pausing to decide if he’d answer my question. To answer was simultaneously an act of generosity and cruelty:

“To keep up with production, souls are a lot smaller than they used to be. Many humans don’t even have one– about half the population. In fact, you don’t even need it– it only matters when you die.” I didn’t want to believe him, but I did. I hung on to every word. He let the implications sink in, pausing for dramatic effect: “Of course, that makes you inconsequential to me… although I don’t appreciate your rudeness. No one likes an eavesdropper.”

“I am sorry about that… I was only interested in gossip, not an existential crisis. Can we forget this ever happened?” I implored earnestly, eager to end the conversation. I’d apologized, I had nothing to give him– why couldn’t we leave it at that?

“Do you want to know how to tell?” Mr. Soap continued as though he hadn’t heard my question.

“Tell what?” I asked haltingly, hesitant.

“Who has a soul and who doesn’t.”

“I don’t want to know, no.” I honestly didn’t; this was forbidden knowledge, the kind that came with consequences I couldn’t begin to comprehend.

My answer was irrelevant.

“I’ll tell you anyway, it’s nice to have a real conversation for once– however one sided it might be. Your kind are never much for conversation.”

“My kind?” despite my desperate unwillingness to talk, I found myself asking anyway.

“Introverts. The soulless.”

“Introverts? Is that really the distinction?” I dubiously shook my head, unsettled by the thought.

“It’s the most common symptom, which makes my job easier.”

“… Your job of trading for souls?”

That earned a laugh; he shook his head. “No, that’s above my pay grade. I’m just a scout looking for leads. I find the better-sized souls, see what sort of trades would interest them– then give the leads to someone in Sales, so to speak.”

“What are you?”

“You’ve already guessed the answer to that. I’m what the religious would call a demon. My disguise isn’t perfect, but you wouldn’t be able to spot someone from a higher order.”

“Your eyes…” those blank, unblinking eyes– even up close, I could see nothing in them. No light; no reflection…

“I live in a very dry climate, as you might imagine.”

I leaned back in the booth, closing my eyes and mashing my fingers into my temple. A headache had already formed, and bile threatened to bubble up with every exhalation…

“What’s going to happen to me?” I ripped off the Band-Aid, flinching in fear as I anticipated his answer.

“When you die, or right now?”

I was speechless at the question, and honestly too terrified to know the answer to either. However, at least I could infer from his reply… I wasn’t going to die. Not right then.

“You will be punished, of course. But when you die… you will rot in the ground. That’s about it. Or you’ll be ash, depending on your arrangements.”

I tried to swallow the lump in my throat. I was regretting everything– but regret isn’t a time machine; my actions weren’t undone by my remorse.

“What punishment?”

“Your ears.”

“What?” I had to have misheard him.

“I’ll have your ears.” he fingered napkin-wrapped cutlery in a thoughtful way, as though he were debating between the knife and fork to do the deed. I immediately clapped my hands over my ears, squeezing my eyes shut as if it would do me any good.

“No!”

“The punishment should fit the crime.” He stood up, and walked over– sliding into the booth beside me. “If you’re going to listen to things you shouldn’t… it’s poetic justice, isn’t it? Now… lower your hands, unless you want me to take them as well.”

My hands dropped down to my sides, dead weight, but the choice hadn’t been mine. Mr. Soap licked his index finger, flexing it for a moment– he didn’t break eye contact, but did offer a grin before he suddenly plunged his finger into my right ear. I cringed in revulsion, disgusted by the sticky wetness of his finger…

It didn’t stop there.

The demon drove his finger deep into the canal, perforating the eardrum– and beyond. I couldn’t even scream, but I could feel everything; his finger moved like a snake, creeping and curling into the folds of my brain.

I don’t know how I didn’t die, or go deaf.

I do know that it was agony beyond anything I’d ever felt, or would ever feel again. Seconds stretched out like hours, but it did end… after the tip of his finger erupted from my other ear, wiggling as if to wave ‘hello’.

“In one ear, out the other.” Mr. Soap laughed at his joke, abruptly jerking his hand away. He proceeded to use the napkin on the table to wash up, dipping it into a cup of ice water and humming to himself as he mopped up a surprisingly little blood. He even used the tines of a fork to clean underneath his fingernails!

“W-w…wha….” I managed to sputter out, still trying to process what exactly had happened. Unsurprisingly, I couldn’t think straight.

“You are my ears now.” was all he said before he excused himself from the table and left. He took my earbuds with him, swinging them jauntily at his side.

I don’t know how long I sat there, but eventually… I made it home… even convinced myself it was a dream– that my brain hadn’t been rewired by a demon’s index finger.

Life continued as normal for awhile, but I didn’t go eavesdropping again for a long time. Eventually, the old itch came back– and I had to scratch it. I’d rationalized that Mr. Soap was a figment of my guilty conscience.

When you do something you know is bad… it’s bound to manifest as a guilty nightmare now and then, right?

Wrong.

Same bar, same booth, same hobby… and a gnawing tension, competing with denial. I closed my eyes, and sorted through the clouds of conversation for a gem… when I heard a voice whisper against my ear.

“Go ask them.”

I could feel his arid breath– I swiveled my head to see– Mr. Soap was not sitting next to me. I let out a sigh of relief and sagged back into my seat, but my relief was short lived.

“You’re my ears, my dear. Or have you forgotten? The women you were just listening to— go ask them.”

I found myself standing, walking on stiff legs to a cluster of middle-aged women at the bar. You can probably guess what I asked…

“What would you trade your soul for?”

I spent that night– and every following Friday– scouting out leads for Mr. Soap, forced to follow his every directive; asking that same question over and over. My voice would vibrate with the words… I’d always get an answer, usually followed by the demon’s sarcastic commentary. His punishment was a life sentence; I’ll always have his voice in my ear.

But it didn’t end there; He sent me a “gift” for my hard work.

One day, I found a square cardboard box sitting on my porch. Scribbled in black sharpie were the words…. Soul: Choose wisely.

I wasn’t meant to laugh, but I did. Trust a demon to give me a soul, only so he could take it back later.

He’s already showed me his cards. I know exactly what he’s trying to do. For the soulless, there is no afterlife– there won’t even be blackness, I’ll simply blink out of existence.

As terrifying as that might sound… it’s actually a blessing. I can’t imagine Heaven awaits a demon’s accomplice, unwilling or otherwise.

“Nice try you slippery bastard!” I laughed, wiping tears from my eyes.

The box collects dust on my bookshelf.

Mr. Soap already has the rest of my life, I won’t let him have my death too.

 

CREDIT: Penny Tailsup

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