Anything could be cured with theater, Alice believed. In her first week as activity director for Nome, Alaska, she organized a Theater in the Park program to get people out of their houses and cure seasonal depression. She even flew in actors from down south. Their first production was the musical South Pacific to make everyone feel warm inside.
The performance got mixed reviews. On one hand, three of the actors froze to death mid-song and the rest got hypothermia. But the audience was fine and many commented it was the most interesting thing to happen in Nome in years.
“No problem. So it says here that you want to get corrective eye surgery, is that right, Mr. Summers?”
“Call me Scott. Yeah, I have wear this prescription eyewear and I wish there was a way so I didn’t have to all the time.”
“Alright, well just take it off and let’s take a look.”
“You can’t take off the visor?”
“If I do, I’ll shoot a beam of energy that will cut your office in half.”
“I see . . .”
“That’s why I want the surgery. You don’t know what it’s like having to wear this all the time: on the subway, at the beach, during my Civil War reenactment battles. If I hear the word ‘anachronism’ one time, I swear I will rain down holy hellfire on the entire 10th Louisiana Infantry Regiment. I will—”
“Okay, okay, well let’s see what we can do. So anytime you take the visor off—”
“Energy beams shoot out of my eyes.”
“And this doesn’t completely destroy your eyes?”
“I guess not. I haven’t really thought about it.”
“I don’t think I’ll be able to help you, Scott, since you would probably melt any instruments I tried to use to examine you. However, I do know a doctor with a revolutionary technique that might be just what you’re looking for. You can’t take off your visor so what he’ll do is make a prosthetic head that fits over your real head, visor and all. You can look through the eyes of the prosthetic head and be totally normal. It’s got a zipper up the back so you can take it off whenever you want, but no one can see it because the head comes with long, Favio-like hair.”
“There is a major problem in education,” the superintendent said. The teachers all leaned forward in anticipation. If there was anyone who knew about how to fix education, it was upper management. The superintendent had just come back from a month-long convention about how technology could solve all problems. Since it was so long, it was called Long-Con.
“The problem,” the superintendent repeated, “is that the students with the most stress are the ones that don’t need it. These are the Peter Gowickis, the Emma Randolfs, the Amir Khans.” He flicked through a slideshow of student profiles and grades, breaking dozens of privacy laws simultaneously.
“These are the students who will work until 4:00 am to raise their grade from a 98% to a 99%. They are the ones who drive you nuts by doing every extra credit assignment five times. They are the ones who couldn’t fail a class if they robbed an F factory.”
The teachers all nodded. This was true. One geography teacher in the back wondered why anyone would make an F factory.
“Then we have the other group: the students who clearly need to stress about their work, but don’t; the ones who could easily pass if they just cared enough to do the work.”
He had their attention now. The sea of nodding heads was like slow-motion headbanging at the world’s most boring rock concert. “This is where Long-Con has come through for us again,” the superintendent said.
“There are two types of stress,” he continued, “eustress and distress. Eustress is the good stuff, the stuff that makes us get off our butts and do what we need to. It’s the crunch-time, bottom-of-the-9th stress makes us do our best. Distress is the bad stuff, the stuff that leaves us crying in the corner of the cafeteria because if we lose another chess game to Brian-freakin’-Grosnick, our dads are going to tan our hides.” He stopped. “As an example.”
He pointed to the screen behind him in a dramatic gesture. “Behold, the De-Re-Stressinator. What this does is take the distress from the good students, converts it to eustress, and gives it to the under-performing students. The high-performing ones are relaxed and happy, and the slackers are doing what they should. Win-win.”
He paused as the room erupted into a standing ovation. The superintendent had done it again. Was there anything the district office didn’t know?
The first trial was held with the Nick Riviera High School’s AP Honors Aeronautical Neurosurgery class and the Remedial Spelling class. The two classes were put in adjacent classrooms, with the De-Re-Stressinator in a broom closet between them. The teachers wore special goggles to keep from being either de- or re-stressed. They told the students they had recently had eye surgery.
“Who’s that having the panic attack in the front row?” the superintendent asked, pointing the AP class. He was watching the progress on hidden cameras from the principal’s office.
“That’s Arthur Dempsey,” the principal said. “He has a 5.5/4 GPA. He gets like that if he comes within 48 hours of a deadline without passing an assignment in.”
The superintendent looked into the other room. The students were either sleeping or throwing large foam letters around. Someone had just gotten a lower-case L in the eye.
“Turn it on,” he said. The principal pushed a button and turned a knob. The result was immediate. Arthur Dempsey relaxed and smiled. The ambient blood pressure in the room (measured by another gadget from Long-Con) went down 10 points (6 diastolic). In the other room, the foam letters stopped flying. Someone spontaneously formed a diphthong on their desk. The Ambition-meter ticked up a notch. A girl in the front row thought about starting her own business after graduation.
“This is great!” the superintendent said. “Let’s get lunch.”
They returned to the school to find the English teacher in tears in the hallway. “They just won’t stop,” she cried.
“The Remedial Spelling class. They’re in there, spelling every word they know. Jessica Brenner is reading the dictionary and trying to use every big word she sees. But the context is all wrong!”
“How about the AP Aeronautical Neurosurgery class?”
The teacher sniffed. “Last I heard, they were smoking weed behind the gym.” The superintendent sighed. “You know, I never thought Long-Con would steer me wrong. Live and learn, I guess. Well, get rid of the De-Re-Stressinator. We’ll just go back to controlling everyone with medication, like normal.”
The directions I got from the Real Urban Legends website only got me to the village of Fenton. But, when it comes to finding a place, locals are as good as a map. I spotted a man sitting on his porch, scratching the head of his geriatric terrier and staring into space.
“Excuse me, sir,” I said, rolling down the window, “I’m looking for a special house in the area. What I mean is—”
He was already nodding, with a smug little twitch of the lips, as if to say, Ah, you’re one of those people.
“Yeah, I know where it is,” he said. “It’s not in town though. Go down Main and hang a left on Perdue. I doubt he’ll let you in though. He’s gotten kinda squirrely lately. So they say.”
Better than a map, I thought as I thanked him and drove on. Maps didn’t come with commentary. Following his directions, I turned onto Perdue Street. The street followed a gradient of pavement to cracked pavement to dirt and by the time I had gone half a mile, it was full-on abandoned forest track with a hint of horror movie set.
The trees opened up to a rusty iron fence surrounding a house that embodied an odd mixture of Victorian grandeur and big box store utilitarianism. It had originally been a mansion and the original façade retained that gothic feel of a haunted house. But to either side, someone had built on high windowless concrete boxes that overshadowed the original house and completely ruined the aesthetic. However, considering the Amazonian state of the lawn, the owner probably didn’t think much of aesthetic.
I rang the doorbell several times before anyone answered. When they did, it was through a cobwebbed speaker above the button.
“Are you Mr. Haster?” I asked.
“You a reporter?”
“No,” I said, trying to talk into the mic by the speaker but not get too close to the cobwebs. “I lost my wallet. I thought you might have it.”
The man started to laugh. It was the sort of strung out, slightly crazed laugh you might get if you went up a firefighter who’d been battling a forest fire for a week and asked him for a light.
The laughter continued until the door suddenly opened and a man, presumably Devon Haster, stood in front of me. He stood staring at me with mad fascination in his dark-rimmed eyes.
“You want some coffee?” he asked. “I just made some.”
I did not want coffee, but I did want to get into the house, so I nodded. Mr. Haster stepped aside to let me in. The house had a musty smell with a minty undertone. He shut the front door, and I followed him down a wide hallway to a large kitchen with a bed, sofa and TV in it.
“This is the only room of the house I use now,” he said. “The only one I have left.”
He poured the coffee and handed me a cup. It had a cracked handle and said Expo ’86 on the side. He gestured to the table and we sat down.
“Thanks for letting me in,” I said. “The folks downtown thought you wouldn’t.”
“They’ve never liked me,” Mr. Haster said. “You must have had a lot of money in your wallet if you came all this way to get it.”
“Not really,” I said, “but it was a gift from my father before he died. I have some pictures in it too that I like.”
“Where did you lose it?” he asked conversationally.
“I have no idea.” He only nodded and took a sip.
“Is it true?” I asked. “Do you really have every lost thing in the whole world.”
“Dear God, no!” he said and gave a few titters in his half-mad laugh. “I think I’d shoot myself. No, it’s just all things lost in this region. That’s enough, that’s enough for me.
“You want to know the story?” he asked, taking a large sip and sloshing the coffee onto his shirt. “Lots of reporters have come here to ask. I told them to get lost.” He snorted and made a gasping half-sob. “I used to think it was this big secret I had to protect, but now I just don’t care anymore.”
“Go ahead,” I said, not sure if I should take notes or get out while I still could.
“It was a wishing well,” he said. “A wishing well and a brand-new pen. This wasn’t any cheapo Bic you get in a ten-pack. This was a Montblanc Classique, a pen you take care of and hand on to your children, if you’re so lucky. I came across the wishing well one evening just as the sun was hitting the far hills and burning all the sky around it to gold and crimson. My grandmother always told me there was power at that time of day, so I fished out a nickel and was just bending over the well to think of a good wish when my Montblanc Classique slipped out of my shirt pocket. I heard the sad little plop sound as it hit the water far below. What made it worse was the week before, I had lost my favorite jackknife and my watch two months before. I was fed up and I flung the nickel down after it. ‘You know what I wish,’ I said. ‘I wish I could find everything that was lost.’”
“And you started getting all the lost things in the area?” I asked. “How big an area is that?” The coffee was atrocious. My eyes flicked to the counter to see if I saw any open containers of motor oil.
“It’s about 14 states, from the IDs I’ve seen come through” he said. “Also, Thunder Bay, Ontario, for some reason.”
“So do you have like a box of wallets I could rummage through to see if mine’s in there?” I asked.
“A box?” he shouted, slamming the coffee cup so hard that it split neatly in half. The pieces clattered onto the table, and black liquid poured out over them and dripped onto the floor. “I have eight rooms crammed full of wallets, three with purses. Nineteen damned rooms with nothing but single socks. I just burn most of the new arrivals now because I’ve run out of room. I could heat the house with butane, if I could figure out how to easily get it out of the lighters. You should see the room I have for loose change. It’s like Scrooge McDuck’s money bin if he didn’t have anything bigger than a quarter.”
“I just lost it two days ago,” I said. “It should be on top of the pile, right? Do you remember seeing it come through?”
Mr. Haster left the broken mug and coffee puddle and stood up. “Let me show you,” he said.
He led me upstairs and through a strong door at the back of the house. As soon as it opened, I heard the loud clank of machinery that continued on as constant as an assembly line. In front of us was what looked like a metal spider. Conveyor belts extended out from the main body of the machine-like arms and above it, the bulbous abdomen of the thing, a huge hopper.
“That’s where it all appears,” Haster said. “It was burying me in stuff until I realized that it all appears next to the nickel, the same nickel I threw in to make the wish in the first place, which is weird since I never lost that. I threw it away. But that makes as much sense as Thunder Bay, Ontario. The machine sorts the things automatically. It cost me a lot but it was worth it; I couldn’t keep up it myself. Of course, the company was pretty mad when I sent them 418 bags of small change.”
Haster turned to me with a haunted look. “I pay for most things in small change.”
He brought me to the first of the wallet rooms and I quickly despaired of every finding that one picture of my girlfriend wearing that hat I bought her at the county fair. The room had about fifty thousand wallets in it.
“This is the small room,” Haster said morosely.
I picked up one of the wallets and opened it. “Hey, there’s about two hundred bucks in here,” I said, “plus 3 or 4 credit cards. You’ve got all the money you’d ever need.”
“Do you want to sort through all these every day?” Haster said as if I suggested digging up earthworms and licking them clean to sell. “Plus, I feel guilty spending this money. It’s actually worth something, unlike the loose change.”
“You know, you’ve got a great business possibility here,” I said. “You could set up a website, hire a few sorters and the owners could pay you to send back their stuff.” From his blank look, I couldn’t tell if he was horrified by the idea or if he didn’t know what a website was.
“Do you want the nickel?” he asked. It was so sudden, I didn’t know what to say. “The nickel that started all this,” he said. “I’m pretty sure if you had it, you would start getting all the lost stuff. You could do that business idea.”
“What would you want for it?” I asked after a minute.
He gave a high-pitched giggle. “The last thing I want is more of anything.”
He made me climb up and pluck the nickel out of the housing of the machine. Immediately, the jingle of falling objects stopped.
“It’s broken!” I cried.
“It’s not broken,” Haster said. “When you move it, it stops. It takes about twenty minutes of being at rest for the cosmos to realign or something. As long as you’re driving, you’ll be okay.”
I said good-bye to Mr. Haster and left with the key to my fortune safely in my pocket. I drove joyously, going way over the speed limit and acting like the rich idiot I finally was.
When I got home, I couldn’t find the nickel. I turned the car inside out. I turned on the news and horror hit me like an iceberg, cold and slow-moving but no less deadly.
Chaos! the lower third banner read. Toll booth explodes. Lip balm and reading glasses everywhere!
The toll was 55 cents. I had two quarters and then . . . .
No!!! Just like that, my dreams of wealth burst like an exploding toll booth. Now some bank would get all my unearned profits.
After an hour of sulking, I went on the Real Urban Legends website. After some searching, I found a woman who claimed to be able to read dog’s thoughts. There must be a way to make money off that. Maybe I’d go visit her.
The air was as thick with tension as it was with the reek of my roommate Herbert’s new cologne, described generously on the bottle as “aromatic”. As I sat on my bed, wiping sweat out of my eyes and trying to concentrate on the comic book spread out on my drawn-up knees, I wondered if mustard gas had ever been described as aromatic.
It had all started when Herbert burst into our apartment with tears running down his muscular cheeks. Herbert was the only person I had ever seen actually work on building up their cheek muscles. He has special weights and everything.
The problem was obvious and predictable. Herbert had gone out half an hour before for his blind date with Jane_lovergurl333, a (presumed) girl he met online. That part was fine, but I was nervous because he had just gotten the half-gallon bottle of Eau de Mystique in the mail that day and was dying to try out its claims of instant romantic attraction. The funk cloud surrounded him in a ten-foot cloud, like a security team you could buy on Craigslist.
This is why I wasn’t surprised to see him turn up again a few minutes later, looking like his tender heart had been dropped off the side of building, then hit by a cab. He threw himself on his bed, which groaned a threat to collapse. The miasma of Eau de Mystique began to fill the apartment.
“That was short,” I said, trying not to cough.
“Was it the cologne?”
He turned, eyes red. “Why would you say that?”
“Because if you were the German army, she would be the French at Ypres,” I said, cleverly shoehorning in a reference to the first major use of chemical warfare. But Herbert was not a World War I buff and only glared at me.
“Get away from me,” he said.
The only problem with that was that our apartment had been built by a guy who once stayed in a Tokyo capsule motel and described it as “a little roomy”. Probably. I don’t actually know who built it, although I am sure Shaquille O’Neal has shoeboxes that were bigger. The end nearest to the door was the living room. That had the chair and the TV on the upside-down milk crate. The middle of the apartment was the bedroom. It had enough room for two twin beds with about six inches between them, through which you could get to the “kitchen”, which was the creative way of saying half a card table nailed to the wall with an antique hotplate perched on it. Opposite that was the stall that held the toilet, sink and shower, perfect for the go-getter who wanted to shower, brush his teeth and take a dump, all at once.
“I am not going to go sit in the bathroom again,” I said. “Besides, it’s still wet from my shower.” I flipped a page on my comic. “This is my home.”
“It’s mine too. Move out if you don’t like my cologne.” We had this conversation at least once a week, replacing “my cologne” with basically any other intersection of two wildly different personalities that were confined in a tiny space with not enough money to move.
However, this time was different. The smell slowly grew until it was a physical force rabbit-punching my lungs from the inside. Finally I got up and left.
I returned an hour later with a bulky package. “For the last time, will you get rid of that ungodly cologne?”
“It’s starting to grow on me,” Herbert said.
“It’s starting to burn off your scent receptors,” I said. I unpacked the tarp I had bought and began stapling it to the ceiling, right down the middle. And just like that, instead of sharing a 120-square-foot apartment, I had my own 60-square foot apartment, all to myself.
Well, almost. For one thing, while I had the TV and chair, Herbert now had the front door, which mean I had to cross over if I wanted to leave. I just weighted down the tarp at that end with a dusty Organic Chemistry book. At the other end, I had the “kitchen” but he had the bathroom, so I put up another wall between my bed and that end, as a sort of airlock. Still, I was proud of my ingenuity in roommate segregation and went to sleep fairly happy.
I woke up in the middle of the night to a rhythmic rustling, like a rat sashaying around the room in taffeta. In the gloom, I could make out tarp moving.
It was Herbert’s elbow, I realized. I don’t know if it’s a documented thing, but Herbert had restless sleeping elbow. Whenever he slept, his arm started twitching–jabbing his elbow out sharply like he was really trying to get the attention of the person next to him. Unfortunately that person was always me. With only six inches between our beds, I had often been woken up by a wicked elbow strike in the middle of the night.
Bam! The tarp was hit again. Normally I tried to ignore it but not tonight. I hit back with my elbow, pushing the tarp the other way. Herbert hit back even harder. I couldn’t tell if he was still asleep or not.
I sat up and swung an arm out, hoping to shut him down for a bit. Through the tarp, I felt my arm connect with something round and solid. There was a sharp crack and the sound of shattering glass.
“Wha?” I heard Herbert sit up and saw the light of his phone go on.
“Herbert? What happened?”
“Oh, oh wow.”
“What is it?” There was the apocalyptic thump of a 300-pound man collapsing. “Herbert? Then I smelled it.
The ambulance arrived ten minutes later. I thought that was pretty good time, until they said they had just been responding to a murder in the building next door. They came in with gas masks as I had cautioned. I explained that I had accidentally knocked the bottle of Eau de Mystique off Herbert’s nightstand. They revived him with oxygen and after smelling the stench of cologne, said Herbert probably wouldn’t lose too many more brain cells, for what it was worth.
Herbert went to the hospital, and I went to a hotel. The next day the landlord discovered that the cologne had seeped into the concrete of the building. Eventually the building was condemned and gentrified into a crack house. Herbert moved back home with his parents in Tallahassee, and I sold the story of what had happened for a thousand bucks, which let me pay the security deposit on a brand new 160-square foot apartment. It was fifteen minutes closer to work and my new roommate was an amputee who took his arm off at night, so there were no sharp elbows attacking me in the middle of the night. So I guess Herbert’s Eau de Mystique was good for something after all.
I don’t know if I have a typical story, but this probably isn’t it. It started when my wife asked me to tell her a story before bed one night. I asked her what kind and she said a romance. I’m not so good with extemporaneous storytelling so I eventually wrote it down. I tried the straddle the line between a Stephen Leacock-esque satire and a straight love story. You can tell me which side I came closer to.
The road up the mountain was hard and the stones cut into Catalina’s feet. Legend said that the monks of long ago had imported especially sharp stones from the Rocafilada region in the north, just to make the path especially pious.
Looking back on the valley she had left, Catalina brushed her lustrous dark hair away from her face, her olive skin gleaming with the sweat of the journey. Far below, she could see the village just starting its morning. Her family would have found her note by now. But there was no turning back now. Catalina was on a mission.
Her storm-swept gray eyes could just pick out the walls of the Casa del Jamón far above on the mountain peak. It looked the same as it had in her dreams. Picking up the edges of her brightly-colored skirt, she struggled on.
It was noon by the time Catalina reached the walls of the Casa del Jamón. They were covered with dead ivy that was grey and weathered but here and there, shoots of green showed through. It was like her heart, she thought.
“Hola,” a voice said from above her. Catalina looked up into the face of a man standing on the wall just above her. It was the hermit. His hair was long but his beard was trimmed and there was wisdom in his dark eyes. “Can I help you, señorita?” he asked.
Catalina could barely breathe. The words refused to come. How could she explain the quest that burned in her breast? “May I come in?” she asked at last.
“There is no door in the Casa del Jamón,” the hermit said. “I bricked it up once I first came here. I never go out and no one ever comes in. That is my vow.”
“How do you find food or water?” Catalina asked. “Or clothing?” She looked at the man’s bare chest and bit her lip at the thought of what might be hidden by the parapet.
“I have a well,” the hermit said. “We are on top of the mountain, so it took the monks three hundred years to dig it. But piety is stronger than gneiss.”
“Nice,” Catalina murmured. “And food?”
“I have a flock of 24 miniature sheep,” the hermit said. “Their milk is so concentrated that three drops are enough to sustain me each day. Their wool is so dense that a handful is enough to weave a coat. They are my fluffy manna in the wilderness.”
Catalina and the hermit talked for hours while she sat and ate the lunch she had brought, and he milked a tiny sheep into an acorn cup and drained it in a single gulp. He told her how the hermitage had been a hammery centuries ago but how the owner had donated it to the Church after having a vision. Catalina’s own vision rose to her mind, but she did not speak of it.
By afternoon, dark clouds were massing in the west. “Are you sure I cannot come in?” Catalina asked. “It will be dark before I can reach the village.”
“It is not possible,” the hermit said. “Because of my vow.”
“I understand,” Catalina said. For a moment, their eyes locked and each tried to look into the soul of the other. Then Catalina turned away and started down the mountain.
Before long the wind picked up. The rain fell in sheets. Lightning split the sky and the thunder crashed and echoed off the surrounding peaks. Catalina picked her way carefully down the slope. Suddenly, her foot slipped on a wet stop and she was sliding off the path. With a scream, she fell over the edge and plunged into the dark ravine.
When Catalina awoke, she was warm and covered with a woolen blanket. It was dark in the room and the air smelled like sheep.
“You’re awake,” a voice in the darkness said. It was the hermit.
“Where am I?” Catalina asked. She knew the answer but could not believe it.
“You are in the Casa del Jamón,” the hermit said. “I watched you as you went down the path. I saw you slip and fall into the crevasse. Then I was faced with a choice. Those few seconds seemed to take a lifetime, but I hurried to the storage shed where I kept the ladder for repairing the roof. I climbed over the wall and down to the ravine where I found you. I carried you back here.”
“You broke your vow for me,” Catalina said.
“It was God’s will,” the hermit said. “I vowed that I would stay here until God sent an angel to rescue me. That was you, I realized. This place has been shut up for years, like my heart, but now I will open it again.”
“I had a vision that I needed to come up here and set you free,” Catalina said. She felt the hermit draw near and then his lips were on hers.
“No longer will they call this place the Casa del Jamón,” the hermit whispered. “From now on, it will be known as the Casa del Amor.”
I am not particularly happy with the way trends are heading when it comes to possessions these days, especially anything digital. To be specific, we really don’t own anything any longer. We either license products or rent them or subscribe to them and those same products often take our information and sell it to advertisers. That got me thinking what these sort of ideas might look like in another context.
Wave of the Future
Pansy was excited. She still felt the glow of the wedding last week, and now she and Walter were moving into their very own home in town and even getting a new stove. She wasn’t going to cook over a fireplace like her mother had for her whole life. This was 1875. These were modern times.
“These here are the finest examples of the latest in stove technology,” the salesman said, sweeping an arm to encompass the room full of shiny ironware. “Now, at this end are all the standard ranges. They’ve been around for a while. They’re good, but nothing special. But I’ve got a feeling that you want something special.”
Pansy nodded and beamed up at Walter, who was looking less certain. “How much does special cost?” Walter asked.
“Worth every penny,” the salesman said, winking at Pansy. “Take this Ramscackle #6 Food Instantiator, made by the Ramscackle Brothers right here in town. Wave of the future, this one is. We took design ideas straight out of the twenty-first century to make this. Just think: you’d be 200 years ahead of your neighbors, ma’am.”
“How do you know what they’ll be doing in 200 years?” Walter asked. Pansy frowned at him. He was entirely missing the spirit of the occasion.
“It’s all very scientific, I assure you,” the salesman said. “Nothing good Christians like you would object to, I’m sure.” He hurriedly threw a newspaper over a crystal ball that was sitting on the desk.
Walter seemed resistant, but Pansy wore him down over the next few hours and by the time they left, they were in possession of a brand new Ramscackle #6 Food Instantiator. The company promised it would be delivered the next day.
The stove arrived the next morning. Pansy fairly bounced up and down with excitement as the delivery men carried it into the kitchen and set it up. A small boy came in with them, and Pansy assumed he was the son of one of the men until they thanked her and left. The boy stayed behind, crouching by the side of the stove.
“Excuse me, do you belong to one of the men?” Pansy asked him. The boy ignored her.
Pansy ran outside. “Did one of you leave your son behind?” she asked. “There is a young boy in my kitchen.”
“He comes with the stove,” one of the men said. “It was on the papers you signed yesterday.”
“Like a servant, you mean?” Pansy asked.
“No, of course not! He doesn’t do any work. He’ll just sit there. You don’t need to feed him or talk to him. It’s his job, but we’ll switch him out with another kid every so often.”
“Why is he there then?”
“He just comes with the stove,” the man said, looking more uncomfortable. “Well, we gotta go. Bye!”
Pansy went inside and began to investigate the stove. The boy watched her but did not say anything. It was a little creepy but she forced herself to ignore him. After all, this was the modern way.
The next week, Pansy and Walter were sitting on the porch after dinner when a man approached.
“Good evening,” he said. “I wanted to let you know that Thomas and Sons General Store just got in a shipment of molasses. They’re selling it at a discount for anyone who buys more than one gallon.”
“That’s very convenient,” Pansy said. “I just ran out of molasses this morning. Thank you for letting us know. We’ll go get some.”
“That’s strange,” Walter said a minute later. “He just skipped three houses but went to the fourth one. It’s like he knew we were out of molasses.”
“The boy must have told him,” Pansy said. “Still, that’s convenient.”
“Excuse me.” There was another man at the front gate. “If you’ve got a minute, I’d like to tell you about Slatterly’s Woolen Goods. Are you plagued by holes wearing too fast in your undergarments? Slatterly’s patented anti-hole technology means fewer holes in your undergarments, for both the men and the ladies.”
Walter jumped up and there was a screech from the kitchen a moment later. He came back carrying the boy and put him down outside the fence. The boy gave him a reproachful look and flounced away.
The next morning when Pansy went down to make breakfast, the boy was sitting by the stove again and a group of men were prying something off the front of the stove.
“Excuse me!” Pansy cried. “Who are you?”
“Oh, don’t worry, we work for the Ramscackle Brothers,” one of the men said. “You see, the company got a new logo, so we are just switching it out on your stove.”
“How did you get in though?”
“The boy let us in with his key,” the man said. He saw the outrage on Pansy’s face. “Well, of course he needs a key,” he said. “How else is he supposed to come and go when his shift ends.”
“Yes. Very reasonable,” Pansy said. “When will you be done? I need to make breakfast.”
“I’d say we’re about 22% done,” the man said. The others nodded. “Maybe another hour?”
Walter was not too happy to come down and find a bunch of strange men in his kitchen and no breakfast ready. “They’re updating the stove,” Pansy whispered.
“Could you possibly do this later?” Walter asked.
“Well, we could, of course, but we’re halfway through now. In the future, we can schedule updates to your stove at night, so you won’t be disturbed.”
“You think there will be more?”
The man shrugged. “Hard to say.”
Pansy gave a party for her neighbors the next day and the praise and admiration over the stove was enough to make it all worthwhile. She tried to ignore the boy, even when she found him reading through her diary. She laughed off the ads that were baked into the side of each loaf of bread made with the Ramscackle loaf pans they had bought. It felt good to be modern.
Two months after they had bought the stove, a woman came to the door. Pansy showed her into the parlor.
“Thank you for seeing me,” the woman said. “My name is Miss Cuthbert and I am a lawyer for Amalgamated Ranges and Cookery, Inc.”
“A female lawyer!” Pansy said. “How very modern.”
“We are a very modern company,” Miss Cuthbert said gravely. “We have just purchased the Ramscackle Brothers factory. As a customer of Ramscackle Brothers, I wanted to extend to you a special offer. It is known as the Eternal Cookery program. For one dollar a month, we will provide you with a new model of stove every time one comes out. The subscription also comes with ten cubic feet of offsite storage.”
Pansy confusion was evident. “That means you can store food at our warehouse downtown,” Miss Cuthbert said. “There are a million reasons why you should. What if you make too much food and your icebox fills up, as well as your pantry? Are you just going to throw it away? That’s such a waste. And what if your house burns down? You wake up the next day in a tent in the backyard and there’s nothing to eat! Just call us and we’ll deliver the food you stored there. You can do it anytime. Just say ‘I want my stored food’ and the boy will run and tell us.”
This was all too much. Pansy suddenly thought of cooking with her mother over the fireplace when she was growing up on the farm. That had seemed much simpler even if it was a lot harder in some ways. It would be nice to go back to that simpler time.
“Four of your neighbors have already signed up for the Eternal Cookery Program,” Miss Cuthbert said.
Alice was driving to McDonald’s when she saw a woman walking her leash. The first thing that flashed through her mind was that it was one of those invisible dog gag leashes that seem to be popular at carnivals. But this leash was trailing far behind the woman, and there was no one else around to appreciate the humor. Alice couldn’t imagine anyone being that committed to the joke, especially one that wasn’t very funny to begin with.
Do people actually walk their pet skinks? she wondered, then felt very proud of herself that she had thought skink and not just lizard. Her Reptile-a-Day calendar seemed to be working.
As she got closer, she saw that there was an animal at the end of the leash, a real dog, or at the very least an especially hairy skink. It seemed to be some sort of teacup poodle, although for this one, thimble poodle might be more apt.
The woman was wearing earphones and seemed to be striding along to the oldies. The little pup was giving it the old community college try* to keep up with her but when you have to take four hundred steps to your owner’s one, it’s pretty much a losing battle. It occurred to Alice that the dog might have been much larger at the beginning of the walk but had burned off most of its body weight already.
*like a college try, but mostly done in the evenings and on weekends.
Of course, all of this happened in the space of a few seconds and then Alice had driven past and the woman and her marathoning pet were receding into her rear view mirror.
Alice happened to tell her family about the episode at dinner that night. Her husband Mark laughed.
“You should have filmed it,” he said. “That would be great for the channel.” Mark had recently started a YouTube channel called Good for What Fails You, which was terribly named and consisted mostly of fail videos stolen from other sites.
“No, that’s terrible!” their 12-year-old son Corbin said. He was planning to be a companion-animal veterinarian when he grew up and hated to see any animal in distress. “We need to call the authorities.”
“And say what? There’s a dog out there whose legs are too short?”
“It’s cruelty,” Corbin said. “It’s like you being tied to the back of a car and then forced to run.”
“So what do you want to do?”
So Corbin came up with a plan. It was bold, it was daring, it was completely insane, but Alice did not want to discourage him from thinking creatively. She even helped him implement it.
Mark agreed to help only if he could film the encounter and put it on his channel. “Don’t try too hard,” he said. “If this ends in a disaster, so much the better.”
Through some stake-out work over the next week, they discovered that the woman walked her dog along the same route every afternoon. The next Monday they had everything ready and by 4:15, everyone was in their place. Alice was loitering on the corner of 45th and Penelope Street while Corbin hid in the bushes nearby. Mark was parked across the street with his camera ready.
The woman appeared around the corner and came towards Alice, trailing her leash. The dog seemed to have gotten smaller. Maybe it would eventually just shrink to the point where it would just slip the collar and run away.
“Excuse me!” Alice said as the woman approached. She waved a hand. The woman stopped and took off her headphones.
“Have you seen my gila monster?” Alice asked. “I was walking him and he seems to have disappeared.” Mark and Corbin both thought this was an idiotic cover story, but Alice was determined to get the most out of her Reptile-a-Day calendar.
The woman’s forehead wrinkled. Behind her, the dog had slumped to the ground, panting.
Corbin tried to creep out of the bushes, but tripped and sprawled on the sidewalk with a loud crack of breaking branches. The woman started to turn around.
“Wait, is that him?” Alice cried, pointing ahead of them. Corbin picked himself up, then carefully picked up the dog as well. He slid a small custom-made skateboard under it, then snugged the safety belt across the dog’s back. He pushed the straw that led to the on-board water bottle towards the dog’s mouth.
“I haven’t seen anything like that, sorry,” the woman said. Corbin was massaging the dog’s head with two fingers. Alice tried to signal him with her eyes to get out of there.
“Okay, thanks. I’m sure the little guy’s around here somewhere.” She walked past the woman and jabbed a finger at Corbin to get moving.
They stood on the sidewalk and watched the woman recede into the distance, the tiny skateboard bouncing along after her.
“She’ll notice it when she gets home,” Alice said. “It might not solve anything in the long run.”
“But at least it helped the little guy this time,” Corbin said.
“You’re a good kid,” Alice said, putting an arm around his shoulders. “Now let’s go cheer your father up. He’s going to be sad no one got hurt.”
My apologies to all my Friday Fictioneers friends that I could not read your stories a few weeks back. I usually try to read as many as I can but this has been a busy time. I’m looking forward to reading them this week, plus looking forward to Thanksgiving in a few weeks when I can get a few days off.
Dad thought Christmas made everything better, so when he started putting up decorations in August, we knew something terrible had happened.
Jasmine felt the dog’s pulse as Dad assembled the Christmas tree. When he put on carols, I called to check on Grandma.
By the afternoon, he was putting up the outside lights and my search history included words like “asteroid” and “zombies”. Mom had no idea, but she gave us a signed affidavit they weren’t getting divorced.
Dad came inside. “Merry Christmas.” He wiped away a tear. “I have tragic news. Tom Seaver died today.”
Silence. “Who?” Mom asked.
In case your reaction was the same as Mom’s: Tom Seaver
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