Grub’s throat was dry as hell. He blinked. When that didn’t help, he shook his head back and forth. Finally, he managed to overcome this strange, suffocating sleepiness. Bit by bit, he began to make out individual details of the chaos swirling around him. He heard cries, weeping, and gnashing of teeth. The room where he found himself was very cramped, so that someone was constantly bumping into him. People swarmed all around. He frowned. For the life of him, he couldn’t remember how he’d ended up here.
“Shit . . . ” he muttered, mainly out of habit. The room, or rather the hallway, flooded in the glare of fluorescent lights hanging from the ceiling, slowly stabilized around him.
“Mr. Marvin Grundle?” asked a well-dressed, middle-aged woman, who had appeared out of nowhere, peering at Grub with a gaze reinforced by her thick glasses. She was clutching a gray folder.
“Mr. Marvin Grundle? Is that your name?”
“Yes.” He hawked and spat. The only person who called him by his first name was his probation officer. “It’s Grub, actually.”
“Beg pardon?” She frowned. The crowd in the hallway rippled like a choppy sea of complaints and appeals. Grub might have described this woman as an oasis of calm, if he’d had those words in his vocabulary.
“Nothing,” he said curtly, irritated that he’d spoken at all.
“Please come with me.” The woman opened a door on the left-hand side of the hall that Grub hadn’t noticed before. He looked after her uncertainly and wondered what to do. The amount of wailing all around them suggested a hospital, but it could just as easily have been a government office. If it was an office, he’d probably better get the crap out of there . . . but what if it was a hospital? Grub took one uncertain step, then another. Although his head kept spinning, he still managed to walk right into the door frame. The woman slammed the door shut, cutting off the noise from the hallway as if with the edge of a knife. Grub looked around. The light from a ceiling lamp reflected off garish yellow walls. There were no windows. Posters hanging everywhere with pictures of the Grand Canyon and a completely generic jungle only heightened the whole room’s claustrophobic feel. The woman who’d led him in sat right down at a small wooden desk overflowing with papers. She swept them out of the way to clear room for the folder.
“Please take a seat,” she said, gesturing to a chair in the center of the room. Grub sat down obediently, because he was having a hard time staying on his feet. He scratched his buzz-cut head.
“What happened?” he croaked.
“I’m sure you’d like to know what happened.” She opened the folder. “In certain instances . . . Well, I understand the situation might be unclear. Best to discuss the basic issues first. You really don’t remember, Mr. Grundle? Yesterday evening . . . ” she said, before trailing off.
“I was drinking?” said Grub tentatively, straining for a few seconds to remember.
“Correct!” said the woman with a smile. “You were drinking in the apartment of your significant other, until she made an attempt to throw you out.”
“Next,” she said, her eyes scanning across the pages in the folder from behind her glasses, “you beat up her son and went out into the street with your friends.”
“It was cold.” The memories were returning to life in Grub’s mind.
“Next . . .”
“I got into a car?” Grub heard the growl of the engine. Suddenly he felt uncomfortable.
“Into the driver’s seat. With a blood alcohol level of nearly 0.30. You set off. And then . . . ?”
“I drove all the way home?” asked Grub.
“No,” the woman said tersely. “You were driving through downtown at a speed of 55 miles per hour, do you remember? After running a red light, you sped into the middle of a six-lane intersection. You took too sharp a turn, the vehicle lost traction . . .”
“It rolled . . . ” Grub could clearly hear the squealing, scraping, and screaming.
“Yes, but not until it reached the sidewalk. You made it over a hundred feet farther along and hit a group of four college students waiting for the night bus.”
Grub suddenly felt sick. So this was a government office after all? Or some kind of court?
“All have been hospitalized and two are in critical condition. The doctors don’t give them much of a chance . . . . Though of course that’s no concern of yours,” the woman said with a smile.
“But . . . ” Grub was nervous. If he’d drunkenly run someone over, that was a big deal. This could turn into a major shitshow.
“Don’t worry,” the woman added facetiously. “Justice was served. Your friends were also badly injured, and as for yourself . . . ”
There was a moment of silence.
“Well?” he choked out.
“Well,” the woman sighed, “you expired at the scene. Am I to understand you were not aware of all this?”
“Wait, what the fuck?!”
“After your death, as per the terms of our contract, you were transferred to our institution. Someone will arrive shortly to give you the details of your first assignment. If you have any questions . . . ”
“Where is this hellhole, what office am I in, what contract?!”
“Hellhole,” the woman said, smiling warmly. “You could say that. As for the contract . . . ”
She flicked efficiently through the documents collected in the folder. Then she went through a second time, more slowly. She frowned. Meanwhile, Grub felt he was losing control and being swept away by this wave of events. Suddenly being aware of his own death did not help. He tried to cross himself, but couldn’t remember which side to start from.
“I’m afraid there’s a slight . . . problem,” the woman finally declared.
“I can’t find your contract!” She saw his blank expression. “The one where you sold us your soul.”
Grub stared at her, his eyes wide.
“I sold my soul?!”
“I have the statement of the transfer of ownership, which couldn’t be here without the contract, but the contract itself . . . I do not see.” She flicked through the contents of the folder once again.
“I didn’t sign any fucking contract!” howled Grub.
“Sir, please remain calm, you must have.”
“But it’s not there!” Grub spotted a chance to save himself. The woman glared at him. After a moment’s consideration, she slid the phone on the desk toward her and picked up the receiver.
“Normally I’d pay no mind to a missing contract, the statement of transfer of ownership is entirely sufficient on its own. But you look so grim,” she smiled. “I’ll make an exception.”
With a long, manicured fingernail she pushed one of the buttons on the receiver. He could hear a muffled male voice. The woman chirped:
“Mr. Speight, would you mind coming in for just a quick moment? Thank you.” She hung up the phone. “We’ll have this all cleared up right away!”
After a few minutes of nervous silence, a tall, plump, slightly balding man entered the room, wearing an unbuttoned jacket and a collared shirt.
“Hot as hell today!” he exclaimed in a rumbling baritone. He shook Grub’s hand and went up to the desk. “What’s the problem, Miss Chrissy?”
“There’s something missing in this gentleman’s documentation!” she chirped again. “There’s no contract!”
“But the transfer . . . ” The pages rustled. “Is here? Strange.”
“We’re afraid there may have been some kind of mix-up, Mr. Speight!”
“Nonsense!” he said. “I’ll check in the archive. Maybe something got misplaced there.” He went out.
“Don’t you worry, Mr. Grundle!” said Miss Chrissy in a soothing tone. “We’ll have this sorted out in a jiffy.”
Grub stood up and started pacing the room. He was sure he hadn’t sold his soul, but he didn’t know if his memory could be trusted. After all, he hadn’t remembered he was dead until just now. Despite his best efforts, he was losing his cool.
“Please sit down . . . ” said Miss Chrissy. That was the final straw. Grub didn’t hold back. He tensed all his muscles and leapt to the attack. Now he was a foot or two from the desk, but his body, honed in the fire of hundreds of brawls, struck an invisible obstacle. He bounced off it like a ball and tumbled to the floor.
“Very impressive!” remarked Miss Chrissy enthusiastically. “Though pointless.”
“Holy shit!” coughed Grub.
“You have certain restrictions here, Mr. Grundle. But please don’t be concerned, you will soon receive instructions suitable to your capacities and then you can run wild!”
“Instructions?” asked Grub, reluctantly coming to terms with the fact that he wasn’t going to be able to beat the crap out of this chick.
“Souls that we’ve, shall we say, acquired, while they were alive, are used for various purposes after their deaths. Who knows, maybe you’ll be a seducer! Well, maybe not. But perhaps a flagellator!”
“I think congratulations are in order, Mr. Grundle!” bellowed Mr. Speight from the direction of the door. Under his arm, he carried yet another folder of papers, tied up with gray string. “You’ve got documentation on an impressive scale! The quantity of paperwork is precisely the problem. The older items were given their own number and left in the archive! But now we’ve got the full set!” Mr. Speight sat at the desk and untied the string. A few of the documents he’d brought looked fresh; others had visibly been sitting there for several years. The yellowing paper had been marked up with handwritten notes. There were also many smaller scraps of paper in among the full-sized sheets. Mr. Speight scrupulously spread them out over the available space.
“Some tea? Or coffee?” asked Miss Chrissy.
“No thank you, I just had lunch,” said Mr. Speight with a smile.
“I didn’t sell my soul!” Grub burst out. “For the love of God!”
“It’s a bit late for that,” said Mr. Speight, glancing at him from under his bushy eyebrows.
A stream of sweat ran down Grub’s back. He eyeballed the distance between him and the door. Maybe he could get a hold of the doorknob before they realized what was happening? Only then what? Meanwhile, Mr. Speight’s earlier cheerful expression had deserted him. He was nervously riffling through the pages.
“Well now, there’s no contract here as such,” he finally declared in an irritated tone. “But no two ways about it, Mr. Grundle, you must have sold yourself out. Let’s go through your bio,” he concluded. He lay his finger to one of the pages and started slowly sliding it downward. “Ah! Here it is, clear as day! March 7, 1986: at the age of eight you mentally expressed the desire to sell your soul so no one would find out you were robbing your classmates.”
“I was eight fucking years old, for fuck’s sake!” howled Grub.
“You displayed extraordinary maturity. However . . . ”
“And I definitely didn’t sign anything!”
“No, indeed,” said Mr. Speight with a frown. “Moving on… January 5, 1990: you verbally expressed the desire to sell your soul in exchange for the death of your mother’s significant other . . . ”
“That son of a bitch,” spat Grub, recalling the man he’d hated. One night, listening to his laughter and his mother’s hoarse groans, he might indeed have whispered a few words…
“The matter is explained,” said Mr. Speight delightedly, after seeing Grub’s expression.
“No,” Grub snarled. Over the course of his life he’d managed to get a handle on the ins and outs of investigative procedures. Time to put that skill to use. “No, dammit. I would have to have signed something to leave a paper trail. There was nothing like that.”
“No one came to see you?”
“All right then . . . ” Mr. Speight’s finger ran down the page. “July 7, 1996: you begged our institution that one Joanna Fairchild, then thirteen years of age, would not recognize your face. You and your friends raped her . . . ”
“Shit, that was just talk.”
“November 17, 2001: you were ready to give up your soul in exchange for early release from prison, where you were serving a sentence for manslaughter . . . . Though of course we know it wasn’t inadvertent . . . . And you were released.”
“Yes, on some technicality, for fuck’s sake! Without anybody’s help!”
“That’s true,” said the official with a frown. “Moving on . . . ”
The minutes ticked by. Mr. Speight paged through the files. Meanwhile, a considerable group of women was gathering around the desk. They’d come in to ask for a pen, or a document, then, realizing how unusual Grub’s situation was, stayed to see how it would pan out.
“All right,” said Mr. Speight, his voice weary. “September 4, 2009. You were ready to sell your soul so your mother would die!" Whispers of admiration could be heard all around.
“So she’d leave me her house. But she’s still alive.”
“And is that all?”
“Yes, damn it!”
“You don’t recall anything more?”
“No!” Now that they’d provided him an audience, Grub felt more confident. The office women gathered around were all smiling.
“All right,” Mr. Speight said, decisively snapping the folder shut. “I don’t know why this document is missing, or why you don’t recall concluding a verbal agreement, to say nothing of a written one . . . ”
“So I can go?” asked Grub, straining to sound polite.
“It certainly appears you are here in error, doesn’t it?”
“However . . . there is still one thing we must address,” said Mr. Speight with a frown. “To make certain, you understand. Miss Chrissy, get Legal on the phone, please, have them send someone over . . . I think we’d better bring in Repulsivich.”
Grub noticed that these last words of Mr. Speight’s provoked a very strong reaction among the women surrounding him. A tense silence gripped the room. A short moment later, the door creaked open and a pale man in a plain suit slipped inside. His delicate features showed no emotion.
“Hello, might I ask the ladies to leave the room, please, thank you,” he said in one breath. The employees gathered around meekly headed for the door. The lawyer let them past and approached the desk.
“Greetings, greetings, a pleasure to see you, my friend!” exclaimed Mr. Speight. “The difficulty is we have an extraordinarily large number of documents concerning this client, but we cannot locate his contract of sale, although the statement is here and . . . ”
“I understand, Mr. Speight,” the lawyer said coldly. “Thank you for your help. Please leave me alone with Mr. . . . Grundle.”
Without a word, Mr. Speight and Miss Chrissy left the room. Grub swallowed hard.
“Mr. Grundle,” the lawyer said from behind the desk, once they were alone. “My name is Robert Repulsivich, and I understand your irritation. I beg only a moment’s patience.” He quickly and efficiently paged through Grub’s considerable paperwork.
“Very well.” Grub once again felt unwell. He waited. The lawyer methodically examined the documents, occasionally writing something down in his notebook. He made two phone calls in a language Grub didn’t understand.
“Yes, I see,” he declared at last.
“Is the f—” Grub cleared his throat. “Is the contract there?”
“No, no contract of sale was in fact made for your soul,” said the lawyer, his voice calm. “However, given that the proof of acquisition is here, there can be no question of you still being its owner. It belongs to us. Of course, Mr. Grundle, you have every right to be surprised,” the lawyer looked condescendingly at Grub. “In a moment, I will summon Miss Chrissy, who will complete the formalities.”
“But how the fuck could this happen?” Grub’s head was now spinning.
“I can provide you with an explanation.”
“Well! Go ahead!” his throat felt dry as hell again.
“You did not, in fact, transfer your soul to us by means of a purchase and sales agreement. However, as you see, we have been collecting information on you for . . . twenty-three years. That is precisely when you, for the first time (and in full awareness of your actions), requested our help, thereby coming to our attention. We may consider the date of May 7, 1986 the point at which your soul was transferred to us, and we accepted it in good faith. Of course, given the form of the donation, it was not a binding transfer, and therefore, Mr. Grundle, you could have requested the return of its (the donation’s) subject and reclaimed it (it, in this case, being your soul) at any time in any formal or informal fashion.”
“Meaning what?” Grub’s eyes were stinging and he started rubbing them. “In church . . . ”
“At confession. For instance. Or,” the lawyer sighed, “by doing a good deed. The list of possibilities is unfortunately mercifully long. One way or the other, you did not do so, Mr. Grundle. Your activities over many years, as we scrupulously observed, did not provide any evidence to suggest you wished to regain your soul. Under these circumstances, the continuity of this institution’s good faith is not up for discussion, as will be confirmed by every appellate authority you might address. We have corpus, so to speak. The animus I need hardly mention.” He smiled drily. “Therefore, we may confirm the status of ownership. There remains only the question of the passage of time. As it happens, according to Article 845 of the Post-Civil Code, the twenty-year deadline passed on March 7, 2006.”
“Deadline?!” The world started to dissolve before Grub’s squinting eyes. He was sure the lawyer’s face was getting closer, growing, stretching in all directions. Meanwhile he himself was shrinking, and before long he was no larger than the empty coffee mug.
“Precisely, the deadline.” The voice was coming from all directions at once. “Mr. Grundle . . . we acquired ownership of your soul over three years ago . . . uncontested.”
© Jarek Westermark. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Sean Gasper Bye. All rights reserved.