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Men Without Souls
Author's note: This piece is inspired and based off Oscar Wilde's novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. Any and all material, while original, is related to that particular work.
It started when Christian Harriton said I should be in films, not in this office. Christian was always complimentary to me; I thought maybe he was just being kind, because I was new. We and a few of the other men in the office often met for drinks in the evening before making reservations for dinner in the city. They were so very sophisticated, and I was grateful to them for taking me under their wing-so to speak. I smiled and shrugged at Christian’s comment, wanting to seem indifferent when really I was flattered. I fiddled with my cuff links—a gift from my mother when I landed the prestigious office job at LaViera.
The other men at the table gave a collective chuckle, noting that, as Christian’s new prodigal son, they had an obligation to respect me. Christian was clearly the leader of this group. His presence was commanding and in a way, ferocious, but so aloof. He reminded me of a lion; his pride hanging on his every word, making it law.
“Gentlemen,” he teased, sipping his brandy, “would you not agree that young Alexander has a face fit for screen-acting?” The group nodded enthusiastically and I laughed, pressured into finally accepting the remark as the others had. Christian Harriton was refined and cultured as well as rather infamous for his scandalous way of life. Christian was married, but was notorious for the women he seduced. No one ever saw any of these women, but he had such a convincing way of telling his stories that we had no choice but to believe. He would always say that marriage was a reason to act unfaithfully; that husbands and wives had an obligation to hold secrets from each other. His talk disturbed me, but the other men enjoyed it, and idolized him in his conquests, so I did as well.
“Do we have reservations for tonight?” James Ryan asked idly, chewing on the end of his swivel straw. His horn-rimmed glasses magnified his eyes slightly, and his brow furrowed. He too was refined, with clear, tanned skin and slim features. Christian only seemed to associate with attractive people. The women he talked to were breathtaking, and the men were stoic and handsome. He seemed to be possessed with surrounding himself with beauty: fine clothing and fair faces. Personality didn’t quite matter to him, it seemed. I didn’t understand fully, but I hoped that I would. Christian himself was very handsome; he wore tortoise shell glasses and a crisp shirt and fine trousers. I wondered idly how much he spent on his clothing.
“I can call for Le Mode, if you’re all feeling up for it,” someone responded.
Christian sat up. “Don’t be stupid, Matthew.” And with a smirk, “I’d say we’re all quite up for Le Mode.”
Matthew took out his mobile phone and stood, leaving the table in search of a better reception. Christian turned to me. “If he’s able to get a reservation, I’ll pay for his dinner,” he chuckled and crossed his legs. He meant to say that he had no faith in the man. I joined him in laughing; it was the best thing to do. “You know, Alexander. If we were to walk in, I’d say you could get the maître d to throw out a Prime Minister to give us a table. ” He grinned, showing his bleached white teeth. I shook my head.
“I think you overestimate the power of appearance, Christian …” I mumbled, swirling my R&B in the tumbler. He clapped a hand on my shoulder and laughed, but his laugh sounded harsh instead of friendly.
“It is impossible to overestimate the power of good looks. It is the most important thing a person possesses. Youth is fleeting, Alexander. If you waste your time thinking and evaluating people for their fancies and passions, your youth will leave you with nothing but intelligence.” His mouth became a very severe line, and his gaze was piercing. “A part of a man dies when he loses his youth. ”
I had to break away, as I could feel heat gathering about my collar. I feared it would wilt if the moisture of perspiration collected. I directed my eyes to the glossed wooden table and let out a breath.
“Do not forget what I have said to you. Your youth is important, more important, I think, than any other part of you. With your youth and beauty, you can achieve anything. But when it leaves you, and it will leave you, your life will lose meaning.”
“Christian please, you’re distressing me…” I didn’t expect my voice to shake as it did. It caused me further burden to hear how weak I sounded. “I’m sorry, you’re right… You’re always right.” I vowed then to work indefinitely to preserve my youth however I could.
The four of us piled into a cab, and Christian coldly told the driver our destination. We were in high spirits; the lights of the city blurred outside the car, and through the open window the smell of putrescence assaulted us. The city was so wrought with filth that the stench nearly stifled me.
“Someone roll that damn window up!” Christian snapped from the front seat. “The smell is rotting my soul.”
“You don’t even have one, Harriton,” Daniel teased. Christian gave an exasperated sigh, followed by an ominous chuckle. Daniel rolled up the window, and soon the filthy smell was replaced by that of hair products and crisp suits. It was soothing.
I tried to sit forward to keep the ripped, diseased-ridden upholstery from touching my hair and clothing.
The inside of Le Mode was dimly lit. The walls were a rich mahogany that reflected the lights from the ceiling. Tables were round, and tastefully sparse. Large, ornate vases filled with freshly cut lilies and orchids rested on sills and in concaves in the wall. The ceiling was impossibly high, and it made a man feel small. The maître d smiled as we walked in.
“Gentlemen!” he grinned and put a hand on my shoulder affectionately. He had subtle bags under his eyes that made him look older.* He led us to a large, secluded table that accommodated the four of us well. Christian sat next to me, and Daniel sat next to him. James sat to my left.
Christian ordered drinks and appetizers for the table and he smiled. I sat back and observed the men at the table, and then extended my gaze to the room. The place was nearly full with patrons. Most of them looked extremely wealthy. It was a room filled with beautiful, well dressed people, and I felt truly at home here. Our drinks came and we toasted to being young and beautiful and fabulously wealthy, Christian smiled at me beneath our extended arms before we drank.
“What good is this youth if we cannot have it forever? Am I right, men?” Christian chimed. We all agreed raucously, smiling and laughing our approval. “In fact, we would give our very souls to be perfect far beyond our time.” Again we all agreed, and his grin widened. He folded his hands and rested his chin on them, looking around the table from man to man. His gaze landed on me, and an uneasy feeling seeped through my veins. His eyes felt as though they were digging out bits of my flesh, raking at my skin and ripping apart the muscles and ligaments that kept me together. I could not break from his gaze. “Furthermore… I’d say that Alexander would give his soul right now. He is so hungry for life… for youth eternal.”
I laughed uncomfortably, and the other men of the table laughed with me. Christian kept his eyes locked on me. Eventually he turned away, directing his eyes to the plate of sushi that lay untouched on the table. “So, what do you say?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I smirked and pushed at a piece of yellowtail absently. I looked around the table. No one was smiling, the laughter was gone. There was business going on now at this table of associates.
“Do I look to be in a joking mood?” Christian whispered. His eyes flashed with the severity of the situation, which, as I was coming to understand, was very great. I was silent for a long time, and the room seemed to darken, the world seemed to darken with an ominous, foreboding feeling. I had a master’s in Business from Cornell; I wouldn’t be played by these gentlemen just because they were my superiors. This was obviously some form of hazing; something I was no stranger to. I would not be manipulated.
No one spoke; not a breath seemed to pass between the men at the table. I became very uneasy.
“Alexander. I know you want this. You have been dreaming of a way to preserve yourself even before you came to us. You pay such close attention to your appearance; you try so hard already to perfect yourself.” Christian was grave in his speech. His lips were pressed into a firm line as he awaited my response. His thumbs twiddled furiously, impatient.
I realized with horror that there was immeasurable sincerity in the proposal on the table. It was the way his eyes cut into mine; sharp as knives and glinting. The hairs on the back of my neck stood at attention. A chill passed through my body, and I finally met Christian’s stare. If it was real, an opportunity for eternal youth was something I’d always dreamt of… at least, I think I had. It was that way for as long as I could remember.
“What do I have to do?” Christian’s lips immediately curled up into a grin.
“It’s simple. I need something from you, and then, you’ll be all set. It’s child’s play, my boy! I take something you don’t need, something silly and petty. It will only hold you back, really… and then, you will be young forever! ”
“What do you need?” I asked. I was now filled with a strange confidence. I found with glee that I was willing to give Christian whatever he needed in order to secure my youthfulness. I caught my reflection in a mirror off to the distance. I looked very good. My skin was tight and firm and my jaw was toned. I dreaded to think what it would be like to see that skin sag.
“You need to give up your soul,” he whispered, the air gathering about the table was electric.
“My soul…” I felt some of the confidence creep away. I didn’t know if I believed in the idea of men having souls. It was a thought for the insecure and frightened.
“We’ll let you in on a little secret, Alex,” James said, leaning across the table. “We’ve all done it. And look at us! Are we not the epitome of male perfection?”
I observed them and found that he was right. I was surrounded by faultlessness. The men sharing a meal with me had impeccable hair and skin. Their eyes were bright and deep, wounding with intensity. I had to turn away.
“I will do it…” I said slowly, measuring the strangeness of the implementations of my words. I wanted it, and I knew there was nothing that would deter me from being perfect.
“There is only one requirement for this skill,” Christian said slowly. “The youth that you take must come from that of another. There must be a sense of balance in the universe.”
“Anything. I will do it to be this way forever. The world may go on, but I will be young and beautiful forever. Nothing or no one can take my youth from me, least of all, time.”
Christian grinned, and I returned it. He motioned to the waiter to bring around drinks for the table; something more powerful this time. Anticipation bubbled up in my stomach. The men all had serious smiles that were at once reassuring and frightening. I took the drink when it arrived and drank deeply, feeling the burn of the alcohol as it flowed down my throat. I coughed. Christian reached into his inner pocket and took out a small glass jar.
“We can’t do this here! Not in public like this…” I whispered, staring at the jar, wondering how something so small could hold something as vast as a soul.
“Don’t worry,” James said. “We always work here. No one pays too much attention. It’s amazing what you miss when you’re not looking.” He grinned and patted my shoulder supportively.
Christian then put his hands out on the table and instructed me to put mine on top of his. I did so hesitantly and closed my eyes as a burning feeling covered my entire body. It felt like I was on fire; I could smell my flesh burning. The feeling focused on one spot, and I felt the spot move from my chest to my shoulders and down my arms, flames licking my skin and scorching me, corroding me. I felt myself melt, in horrible agony. The heat was now focused on my hands. It tingled through my fingers and my palms, lighting up the creases in the skin and the ridges that marked each person an individual. Then, at once, the feeling left me. I cracked my eyes open and looked around the table. I felt heavy; leaden with my emptiness. But at the same time I felt alive. Christian instructed me to remove my hands. When I did, I saw a small pile of gold dust that glistened brilliantly in the low light. Christian herded the dust into one palm, and then fed it cautiously into the bottle. My head swam and I felt myself waver.
“Drink,” Christian commanded, suddenly holding the glass to my lips. I sipped the drink slowly, feeling the spirit restoring me. I nodded and he took the glass away.
“I feel… heavy. And empty at the same time,” I said slowly, measuring the words on my tongue. They were uttered without passion. They were cold words that meant next to nothing.
“That will go away. Soon you will feel nothing that makes you uncomfortable. Only pleasure.” I felt a smile take my face, and I allowed it with a peaceful sort of surrender. Christian picked the bottle up off the table, corked it, and stuck it into his inside pocket.
“Is not this simpler? This is the form that all men were born to take,” he said with a grin. I nodded my approval. We finished the evening with little eventfulness, and we returned to our respective apartments. As we were leaving, I caught my reflection in a window. I saw a thin silver hair standing out amidst my illustrious auburn mane. I furrowed my brow and hurried onward. When I reached my apartment building, I stopped at where the doorman stood and shook his hand. The life sunk from his eyes and he staggered before falling to the floor. I felt my chest flood with youth and I grinned, new blood flowing through my veins, restoring them. I was a new man. And I would be a new man every time I restored myself. It was bliss.
And so on I went, taking what I needed when I needed it. I felt no guilt or shame. I thought myself above them. I knew I was above them. My youth was far more important than the meager existence of others. I was invincible. I lost count of my victims, like a god would. What does a god care that people suffer for him? People should beg to suffer to preserve the good favor of an immortal. At least, that was what Christian told me. Christian knew more of the world than anyone I had met, and I trusted his judgment.
Sometime later, I met Madeline. She was young and brilliant, and I saw the sun in her eyes. I knew immediately to pursue her. But she was so plain, and she didn’t seem very impressed by my appearance, which I could not fathom. She said I needed fixing, that I was broken. She tried to teach me that my beauty was nothing if I could not be wise. She angered me just as she awed me. Still, she gave me a chance. There is only so much a person can resist. I know she let up because of my good looks. It gladdened me to know that all my hard work was paying off.
We sat at dinner and she spoke to me of bettering myself as a person. She said that if I continued to try to fake my way through life, I would grow to fear myself. I smiled and nodded; because I knew agreeing with her was easier than making an argument for the permanence of my beauty. She seemed sad. She knew I wasn’t honest, but she smiled. I showed her the world. I took her to operas and musicals, I devoted my time to her, and she continued to lecture me. There was something that kept me secured to her. She somehow made me feel safe. I thought myself in love with her.
One night, as she was going over her usual berating of my “blatant disregard for moral preservation,” she touched upon something that brought a twang to my chest. She said to me: “Alexander, at times I doubt that you have a soul. I look into your eyes and while I see you looking back, I do not connect with you. You are empty.”
My eyes widened, and my exquisite jawline dropped slightly. “I am not empty. You do not understand! I am everything that anyone could want.”
“Alexander, you are not all there is. You are beautiful, yes, but your insides are rotten. You are hollow, and concavity can never be repaired by good looks. There is more to life than being aesthetically pleasing.”
I grabbed her arms, just below the shoulder, my eyes blurred with tears. “I gave everything to be beautiful. I will not be told that my sacrifice is worthless!” I saw her eyes sink before I could let go. I felt the warmth of youth flood my chest. Her skin puckered and wrinkled and sagged before me. I pulled my hands away in horror, and Madeline fell from me. I stood, shaking; tears streaming from my face. I fled. I had to find Christian.
The tears blurred my vision and cast me into a fog-like wandering. I brushed past people, feeling their warmth flood me. I suddenly felt a pair of controlling hands on me, taking my shoulders and guiding me through the crowd. I tried to turn to see who had me, but I was being pushed so that I could not move any way but forward. I wiped my eyes furiously; embarrassed that someone would see me in such a weak state.
Soon, my surroundings became familiar. I realized that I, and the figure behind me, was approaching my apartment building. I felt something like hope. I was led inside and brought upstairs. I turned and saw that it was Christian who had been my guide.
“Madeline is dead…” I said; my voice cracked and shook. “I have murdered her… I have loved her, and I murdered her. I do not want this curse…”
Christian chuckled. It outraged me to hear him laughing at my sorrow. I looked directly into his eyes, feeling my hands ball into quivering fists. “Do not laugh at my pain! You are too cold and too distant. Madeline has taught me that there is more to life than being beautiful.”
“She was an idiot. She only said those things because she is not beautiful.” Christian said calmly. He could tell how angry I was, still he mocked me.
“I will kill you before I believe you again…” I hissed. Again, Christian laughed.
“My boy, you cannot kill me. I am you.” Christian sighed and stood before me.
“What?” I stepped back from him, my eyes wide with horror. I felt my fine, tan skin go pale. “You are mad, surely!”
Christian’s eyes dimmed, his face fell with a sadness that was so human, it hurt me to look at it. His face bubbled and changed, morphing until I was looking into what was a live model mirror of me. I was old and tired, my once taught skin hang and sagged about my face, my eyes were set deep back, sunken and sad looking. I staggered back, falling into a chair.
“This isn’t real,” I muttered, pressing a hand to my forehead.
“It is real, Alexander. I am you. I have always been you. We are each our own devil, and we make this world our hell. You corrupted yourself.” At once he was young again. He was me, and I was him. I looked into his eyes and saw myself look back. I felt myself screaming before I knew what was happening. I was reaching for a drawer and pulling out a small revolver. I was pointing it at the unnatural abomination that stood before me. I was pulling the trigger before I had time to think.
A sick, hurt smile spread across my face. “You’ve destroyed yourself, Alexander.” I felt a deep, burning pain in my stomach. Not like the pain in the restaurant; where once I was numb, now my body was alive with feeling. I felt my lifeblood escape me; the heat of it seeped through my clothing. I brought a shaking hand to my stomach and found a hole in my suit that followed through, burrowing into my flesh and ripping my skin away. Pulling my hand away, I saw it covered in thick, red blood. It was unnaturally thick, and it oozed through my fingers like paste. I felt the acids from my digestive system escape into my body, wreaking havoc on me.
“Make it stop… I do not want this!” I felt another hot fluid, tears, pooling in my eyes and running down my face.
“What did you think would happen? You shot yourself!” I looked up and saw that the figure of me was again an old man. He smiled almost kindly at me, a wry sort of grin that took his cruel face and twisted it grotesquely. I stared into his eyes as he emptied the revolver, set it on the dresser, and calmly walked out. I writhed in agony as my perfect body, cursed with its eternal youth, betrayed itself to the final moment. I was forty five years old, but I looked not a day over twenty four. I was my own downfall, as are we all. When men are without souls, they know not the difference between life and death, or between right and wrong. They destroy themselves and feed off of those around them. They cannot have love, and they cannot have joy. It is an empty pleasure that cannot be shared. Men make hell of their worlds when they give up their souls for the sake of pleasure.