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Supply and Demand

William Meikle is a Scottish writer with ten novels published in the genre press and over 200 short story credits in thirteen countries. He is the author of the ongoing Midnight Eye series among others, and his work appears in a number of professional anthologies. He lives in a remote corner of Newfoundland with icebergs, whales and bald eagles for company. In the winters he gets warm vicariously through the lives of others in cyberspace, so please check him out at www.williammeikle.com.

The man who walked into my office was old-school through and through. A squad of little old ladies on Harris had toiled for years to make his suit, his school tie was knotted just right, and his brogues squeaked as he walked across the room. He looked to be in his seventies, but held his back ramrod straight. He strode into the room as if he owned it and thrust a hand at me that I couldn't refuse to shake.
"Thanks for seeing me, Doctor," he said.
In truth, I didn't have any option. All psych-cases from the ER were referred straight to me, and the call had come in about the strange little man in reception less than five minutes before.
I didn't quite know what to make of him yet. All I knew was that he had thrown a screaming fit when an orderly approached him.
He sat down across the desk from me and smiled.
"I'm not mad, you know?"
"Prove it," I said, smiling back.
He crossed his legs, making sure that the seams on his trouser legs were straight and that no ankle was showing above his socks before he was happy to relax.
"Do you believe in God, Doctor?"
"Yes," I said.
"Good. That will make this easier. I started to notice nearly thirty years ago," he said.
"Notice what?"
"Just give me a chance and I'll tell you. But first… another question if I may? Do you think you have a soul?"
"Yes," I replied again. "I'm not overly religious, but I do believe there's something that survives us… call it a soul if you must."
"An interesting position for a scientific man to take, is it not?"
"More common than you might think," I replied. "But we're not here to talk about me. Do you have a point?"
"Yes… and as I said, I'm getting to it."
He fiddled with his cuffs, making sure that just the right amount of shirt showed.
"One of the perils of getting old," he said. "The world changes so much around you. And back then, when I started to see them, it was still the Seventies, and the world had changed so much already that I thought they were just another manifestation."
He waved a hand at me.
"Yes… I'm sure you hear about Them all the time from patients. But I'm not ready for the tin foil hat yet. No… what I was seeing was children. Little children. Children with blank stares. Children with no joy in their hearts… children without souls. And they were everywhere.
He stopped, sudden tears running down his cheeks.
"It's not uncommon," I said softly. "As we get older. We get disassociated from the consensus reality and…"
Again he waved me away.
"I'm old, not stupid," he replied. "For thirty years I've watched them. And now they are in positions of power… policemen, doctors, lawyers… and soon they'll be politicians. And where will we be then?"
"I don't quite understand what you're trying to tell me."
"The soulless. They're walking the earth in the millions. And their numbers are growing."
His tears coursed freely now, and he started to get agitated. My hand crept closer to my panic button, but I didn't hit it.
"As far as I can work it out, there are two reasons," he finally continued. One of them gives me slight hope for my own future, but neither is good news. Either God has given up on us completely, in which case it's all over bar the shouting…."
"Or?" I asked when he didn't show any sign of continuing.
"Or there's only a finite number of souls available at any one time… and we're growing too fast for God to keep up."
"Don't you think that God, being God, would have factored that in?"
"Maybe he did," the old man said. "Maybe he never meant us to get so ahead of ourselves. And… here's what really worries me, Doctor. Maybe what I'm seeing is his way of telling us our time is up?"
He started to look around him, as if afraid he was being watched.
I tried to keep my voice low and calm.
"And why do you think only you are seeing… whatever it is you are seeing?"
He was quiet for a long time before answering.
"I think everybody sees. It's just that they choose not to notice. Violence escalates, people get killed for little more than the loose change in their pockets. We let babies become heroin addicts before they are even born. The world is going to hell in a hand-basket."
His voice rose into a shout.
"Our moral compass is broken. And we know it. We just choose to look the other way, while the numbers of the soulless grow and we sink, ever closer to the end. And there's nothing I can do about it!"
When the orderly came in, the old man took one look at him and screamed even louder.
"Look! He's one of them."
Eventually it took three orderlies and a dose of Thorazine to quiet the old man. He had one last look at me as he was carried out.
"Just look," he whispered. "Please?"
I watched the orderlies carry him off down the corridor, then went to the one place I knew I could trust to lift my spirits after such an encounter.
The maternity ward was, as usual, full of hustle and bustle. Along the far wall a row of fathers looked in to the recovery area where row after row of newborn babies lay. Just looking at them always calmed me, reassured me that, despite all the sad despair I saw every day, there was some hope in new life.
But today was different.
The babes lay, still, quiet.
Their dark, cold stares followed me as I walked quickly away.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, November 16th, 2010

Author Comments

Supply and Demand came to me during a hospital visit. There were so many people with dead eyes, and while the staff did everything they could to keep up spirits, still there were some who never rose above a blank stare. I thought "What if..." and the story was born, almost complete in my mind before I even sat down to write.

- William Meikle
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