- Fabula Argentea - https://fabulaargentea.com -

JACK by Rick Taubold

(originally published in : New England Writers’ Network, Autumn 2001)

I’d been sitting in the living room of my townhouse for the past two hours alternately staring at, “Untitled, by Paul Dayton” on my computer monitor and looking out the window at a seductive summer day. The editor of a speculative fiction anthology liked my work and wanted a piece from me. I needed something worthy; the deadline was uncomfortably close.

My doorbell rang. An excuse to stretch my legs.

A dark-haired young man in a short-sleeve, blue oxford shirt and tan slacks smiled at me through the screen door. “Hi, my name’s Jack. I’m trying to win points for a trip to Cancun. Here’s my I.D.” He held it up to the screen. Clean cut, bright-eyed. He even looked like his picture.

He smoothly replaced his I.D. with a list. “And here’s the list of magazines you can purchase to help me out. If I get 20,000 points before my competition does, I win the trip. So far, I’ve got 17,000. Prices at least forty percent off the newsstand price.” He ran his finger down a column. “These are the points I win for each subscription.” He flipped it over. “More on the back.” He pushed it to the edge of the door. “Check it out.”

“I’m sorry, Jack, I already get too many magazines.”

“You can renew your current subscriptions. We have a no-duplicate guarantee. For each gift subscription, I get 200 extra points.”

“I really don’t think—”

“Please?”

I suddenly recognized that coveted “interesting character” standing on the other side of my door. “Jack, maybe we can help each other out. I’m a writer. If you’ll agree to a short interview, I’ll buy a couple of magazines.”

Jack’s brown eyes widened. “Sure.”

“Mind if we sit out on the steps? It’s dingy in here.”

“No problem.”

“May I offer you a Coke?”

“Coke sounds good.”

“Have a seat and I’ll be right back.”

I retreated through my living room, into the kitchen, and grabbed two cans from the refrigerator. On the way back I picked up my notebook and tape recorder and elbowed the door open. “Here you go, nice and frosty.”

He pointed two townhouses down at a svelte brunette lying on a blanket, bodily defying claims that the ozone layer is deteriorating. “Does she read?”

“Not that I’ve noticed.” I sat next to him.

“You written anything I’d recognize?”

“Probably not.” He didn’t look the type that read speculative fiction, and my two novels weren’t display-in-front-of-the-store blockbusters. “Mind if I tape the interview?”

He dropped the eager smile. “Why?”

“To capture juicy details. Don’t worry, I write fiction, you know, names changed to protect the guilty? Okay, no tape.”

“And no names?”

“Not yours, anyway. Just to show my good faith, I’ll sign up for the magazines first and pay you cash.”

“I’m not supposed to take cash.” His grin returned. “Personal checks are cheerfully accepted.”

“What if I stop payment? I imagine people do that.”

“Sometimes. We take all major credit cards. Fill this out.” He handed me a form then popped open his can and drank while I selected magazines. “Sign here. And here.”

He checked the signature on my American Express card. I flipped open my notebook. “How did you get this job?”

He returned the card. “There was an 800 number on a campus bulletin board. I just finished my sophomore year at Arizona State. They came to the campus and interviewed me and some others. I signed the papers and here I am.”

“Minnesota’s a long way from Arizona.”

“You go where they send you. They provide transportation, all expenses, and guarantee three thousand dollars minimum. You don’t argue.”

“When did you start?”

“Early June. As soon as school was over, they sent me for a physical—they don’t want some undiagnosed medical problem leaving them open to a lawsuit—complete with pee, blood, and semen sample.”

I felt my eyebrows rise. “Semen sample?”

“I wondered about that. Maybe they plan to clone the best sales reps. If you pass, then they inoculate you.”

“Against what?”

“Flu, they said. Made sense. I figured I might be going into areas where the viruses have different antigenic properties than the ones I have resistance to—I learned that in Bio class. Except when they stick you directly in a vein, you realize too late that it’s not a flu shot. Next thing, you wake up in a hospital bed with three strips of suture tape on your stomach.”

I looked up from my note pad. “What?”

“They gave you an implant that makes you their indentured servant and guarantees you’ll do anything they say. Of course, when you signed the waiver, you didn’t bother reading the fine print. Which was what they were hoping.” He narrowed his eyes. “I’m not making this up.”

I expected a sales pitch for swamp land in Florida next. “What’s in the implant?”

“An insidious drug. The day after your operation, it starts to take effect, and you learn the consequences of non-compliance. You start to feel weak. Then killer chills before your stomach does some serious environmental recycling.”

“Headache?”

“Ten times worse than your worst hangover. I saw some guys cry. When they think you’ve experienced all you need to, they inject the antidote. A few minutes later, you’re miraculously fine. They take you for a half-day training seminar, then ship you out with your sponsor, who has charge of your antidote pills. One every six hours; there’s no way you’re gonna sleep in. A couple of weeks into the job he slips you a placebo—without warning—in place of your nighttime pill, a friendly reminder in case you’re thinking about quitting the job prematurely.”

I didn’t believe a word of it, but his creative sales pitch had stimulated my languishing imagination. I played along to hear the rest of his story.

“Has anyone ever tried to do anything about it?”

“Kevin tried. He slipped away to see a doctor. The doctor recommended a shrink. When he got sick on the examination table, the doctor sent him to the hospital.”

“And?”

“His tests came up negative. Of course, they did. Kevin said they figured he was on some new hallucinogen. When he told them about the implant, they started muttering shrinks again, so he beat feet out of there.”

“What happened to him?”

“He came back for his antidote pill. The implant lasts eight weeks, and they say the drug has no permanent side effects.” Jack shrugged. “But who knows?”

I took a deep breath. “Do you have sales goals.”

“They prefer ‘weekly aspirations.’“

“And if you don’t meet them?”

“Your next nighttime pill is half strength. Just enough to cut the edge from your misery, but not enough to let you sleep. Next day, your sales magically soar. That sleep-starved face makes the customers pity you.”

“You sound as if you enjoy this job.”

“The second year you earn more because you don’t need to waste time learning the consequences of non cooperation.”

“This is your second year?”

“First one was a little rough, but I earned four thousand. That’s a lot of Benjamin Franklins. Didn’t win the trip, though. This year I’m already at twenty-five hundred and it’s only mid-July.”

Four thousand? Selling magazines?”

“You hustle, you earn hardcore bucks. Say I sell four magazines an hour at twenty bucks a subscription. I get five percent commission. Do the math.”

I thought for a moment. “That’s four dollars an hour.”

“Plus five and a quarter minimum wage. Much better.”

“And all you sell are magazines?”

“Drugs and terrorist weapons are strictly forbidden.” He grinned. “But single, young women can be good tippers, if you know what I mean.”

“No offense, Jack, but I know you’re bullshitting me.”

He kept a straight face. This kid was good. “How do you know that?”

“For one, your job would be considered white slavery, which is illegal, as would be the implant operation.”

“Why’s the operation illegal?”

“Since you’re not sick, it’s considered mutilation.”

He stood up and lifted his shirt to show me a neat scar on his upper abdomen with a fading line of red down its middle. “I wouldn’t call that mutilation.”

Son of a bitch.

He tucked his shirt back in. “How many college students you know can earn this much in one summer and get laid on the job?”

Despite my incredulity, I felt myself smiling. “But they force you to earn it.”

“For my own good. A college education means I won’t have to stock shelves or flip greaseburgers for the rest of my life.” He handed me a receipt. “Thanks for the order. If you publish my story, do I get a share of the royalties? It earned me an ‘A’ in my college English class.”

“What!”

“Are you sure the babe doesn’t read?”

My mouth was still open after he walked away and I realized that he’d probably shown me a recent appendectomy scar.