Sunday, November 13, 2016

Forty Thousand Dollars (Short Story)

This story was originally written with an anthropomorphic fox protagonist in 2010 and was featured in the Anthropomorphic Dreams podcast.  I re-worked it as a story with human characters for an anthology but I never released the anthology.

Actually, I thought I had posted this before, along with its companion piece, "Designed for Greatness."  The two stories are actually the same story, told through the POV of two brothers: one of them was genetically enhanced to have the intelligence and low inhibitions of a politician or businessman but ends up a ruin in adulthood; the other, born naturally and with nonverbal learning difficulties (i.e. extremely bad at math), grows up to become a successful writer.

I will post both stories today, since they go together.

Incidentally, these two stories are very personal, and I put a lot of my own pathos into these stories.  In particular, I struggled with math in school and always felt like I was considered the runt of the littler, despite being the oldest (and biggest) of two.

My brother and I were not created equal.

I like to remind my parents of that now and then.

It's about 4:30 in the afternoon according to the clock in the corner of my screen as I scroll through the first draft of my fourth novel. I frown, drumming my fingers restlessly on the desk. I can do better than this.

The phone rings, and I reach into my pocket, sliding it open and raising it to my ear.


Hey Victor, it's your Dad.”

My fist clenches slightly. I take a breath and relax. I'm not sixteen any more, I'm a grown man and I can't let every little thing stress me, especially not this.

Is everything alright?” I say calmly.

It's Richard. He needs help again. He's behind on his rent and his girlfriend just left him, so he's got no one to help keep things paid up. Could you lend him a little money?”

Wait, he and Fergie broke up?” I ask.

They broke up months ago. This was Melissa. Look, did you hear what I was asking?”

Melissa? Which one is she?” I say. I turn my eyes toward heaven and beg that I can derail this conversation once and for all.

Victor, are you even paying attention? I asked you a simple question,” Dad says, his voice growing louder and more exasperated.

What was the question again?” I ask, imploring the gods one last time to make him forget.

I asked if you could lend your brother some money until he gets back on his feet, son,” Dad says, very nearly screaming.

Like, how much? About forty thousand dollars?” I say with a bitter laugh, then hang up.

Terry steps into the room. His face is creased with a heavy frown, and I can tell he's heard the whole thing.

Your brother again?” he asks.

Yeah.” I sigh and push my chair back from my desk, then stand up slowly. “But what can I do?”

Just do what you've always done, hon. Stay out of it, let your parents worry about him if they want to. It's their problem now,” Terry says.

I just hope he can get sorted one of these days,” I say, walking into the kitchen for a glass of iced tea.

The manuscript can wait another minute. I need a break.

* * *

Hey everyone, happy first of summer! Flash Martin here with the K 103.3 FM weather forecast! It looks like yet another week of solid sunshine, today's high will be a scorching one hundred degrees so better make sure your air conditioner's working!”

Don't I know it. Of all the days for the AC to die in my car, it had to be today, in heavy traffic. I've got less than an hour to get to my first book signing. It's an important moment, my career might depend on it.

That illustrious career as a novelist seems about a billion miles away as I sit in this beat-up sedan, the air full of diesel fumes and the sounds of idling engines as I crawl along the freeway with the rest of the herd.

My phone rings. I reach into the center console cup holder and press the answer button.

What do you want?” I say.

Victor, it's me, Richard.”

Oh. Everything alright?” Like I really need to ask. It's either bad news or he needs money.

Listen, I kinda got a little crazy last night, I was out at the bar and had a few too many, got into it with some guys who were giving me trouble about gingers being ugly and all that...”

And you broke a bar stool over the guy's head?” I ask scornfully.

Damn... was it on the news?”

I just know you too well,” I say. “So, I bet you're going to ask if I can bail you out?”

Well, yeah, I was kinda hoping you would. I mean, you being my brother and all...”

I would, but I can't right now,” I say. “Look, I'm in traffic, I've got somewhere very important to be, and I can't cancel. Can you... could you just, I don't know, wait a few more hours? I'll see what I can do.”

I don't like the look of the guys in here,” Richard says.

I'm sorry, I really can't help you now. Just... just hang in there, OK?” I say.

But Vic...”

I'll come get you later, which is more than you deserve!”

I click the red button on the phone, wishing for the satisfying feeling of slamming a receiver onto its cradle like the phones my parents had when they were young.

I make it to the book signing about ten minutes late, and nobody seems to care. It's not much of an event, hardly anyone knows who I am yet. I don't even get so much as an armchair editor pretending to know more about writing than me.

My entire life thus far has led up to three hours of tepid responses from curious onlookers. As the book store staff packs up the table and chairs, I check my phone again. There are eighteen missed calls.

Each one of them seems to be from Dad or Mom, and I immediately know what this is about.

I press the call button and hold my breath.

Son, where have you been? We've been trying to get hold of you for hours!” Dad says. I can hear Mom sobbing in the background.

I was at a book signing, Dad. I told you about it over and over.”

So you told your brother he could stay in jail just so you could sign a few copies of your dirty books?” he growls.

It's not dirty books, Dad. It's legitimate fiction.”

It's all dirty books to me. It's not worth turning your back on family like that.”

Mom's sobs reach a crescendo and for a moment, I feel bad about stepping away from family affairs. Then I think about what Dad just said, and those old white-hot coals are fanned again.

I told him I'd deal with it when I got the chance. I didn't make him get into a drunken fight, did I? I don't have to help him at all, he should be glad I only asked him to wait a couple hours.”

He's your brother and he should expect better than that!” he screams.

Why's that? Because he's your forty-thousand dollar baby boy? The born genius? The one who's going to be president some day? Maybe you should've saved that money, then you could have bailed him out yourself.”

You ungrateful little bastard! You call yourself a Teversham? A Teversham doesn't give up on his own blood like this! You're a disgrace!”

Give up on my own blood? You and Mom gave up on me long ago!” I scream back. “Besides, if I'm a bastard, what does that say about you?”

I hang up. I can't take any more of this. I vow that I'm not going to take any more calls from Richard, as long as I live. At least then, nobody can say he told me he needed help.

* * *

There's not a great deal of pressure on me today.

I'm not first in my class. I'm not valedictorian. All the hard work is done, I just have to walk up some stairs in a robe and a funny hat and take a piece of paper.

Mom and Dad are there, but Richard isn't. He couldn't get the day off. He just started at OmniMart as a store manager, and they've been working him hard.

Richard would have taken this walk too, in another three years, but he got restless. He met a girl while studying in France, dropped out and made plans to elope, but it didn't end well. He came home with a broken heart and a Persona Non Grata stamp on his passport. To this day, he still won't explain what that's all about.

My parents look restless, maybe even a little disappointed. I wasn't the best student. I barely passed most of my courses, and I didn't really achieve anything astounding.

And yet, as they begin to call names, I see the line of creatures in robes like mine, and I have to say I'm proud. I've done something my brother didn't. I made it to this benchmark in life.

A half hour passes before they call my name. I walk up to the podium, a slight chill in the air as the wind whips down from the overcast sky. The dean, wearing spectacles as thick as ice cubes, hands me my diploma and I don't hear so much as a polite clap. For a split second I stare across the assembled crowd, all of them looking impassive, as if they were watching my execution.

I'm glad to leave the platform. Never mind them. I don't need applause to know that I am Victor Teversham, and I have earned that name.

When all the festivities are over, I meet Mom and Dad. Mom gives me a hug. “We're so proud of you, Victor,” she says.

Dad nods solemnly. “You did good, son,” he mutters.

I just wish Richard could have been here,” I say.

So you can rub his nose in it?” Dad snaps.

Chris! Stop that!” Mom says. “I'm sure he's only being nice.”

Sorry,” Dad says, more to Mom than to me.

So, now that you've got a degree, you don't have to worry about all this mess with being a writer any more. You can get a real career and be happy,” Mom says.

What? Mom, I can't believe you're saying this. I write because I like to. I still want this.”

You've been saying you're working on this book of yours for three years, boy, what do you have to show for it?” Dad says. “You're better off now. Don't go chasing pipe dreams, you can have better than that.”

It's not a pipe dream, Dad,” I say. “Look, I've already gotten my stories published in three different magazines. They say I've got a lot going for me. I could make it as a writer one day.”

We've had this talk before, son,” Dad says, straightening his back to look taller than me like he did when I was a kid. “The gutter is full of daydreamers who thought they could be bestsellers, movie stars, super models, and so many others who thought they were too smart or talented to do real work.”

You should know, you raised one of them,” I say.

Victor! How dare you!” Mom says.

Your brother made a few mistakes and is going through some hard times. But he's working hard to get out of it and make something of himself. He's not relying on some pie in the sky dream of being a celebrity!” Dad shouts.

Do you think I didn't work hard to get where I am now? Honestly, do you think it was easy for me, passing college math when I can barely do long division? I can work as hard as I need to and I can get what I work for. And unlike Richard, I actually have dreams to work toward.”

How do you know what your brother's dreams are? For all you know he might still become president one day!”

You're only saying that so you don't feel ripped off!” I shout.

You've just sassed your way out of a graduation dinner!” Mom snaps.

Sassed my way out of dinner? What am I, ten? Well I've got news for you. I won't go hungry if you won't celebrate with me. I'll just buy my own damn dinner tonight.”

I storm off to the parking lot, tearing off the gown and cap and climbing into my car. I stop, shutting my eyes tight, a tear rolling down my cheek as I slump in the driver's seat, clutching the steering wheel.

My own parents couldn't even come to my graduation without making me feel inferior. Nothing I did ever pleased them, nothing I did ever proved that I could be just as good or better than my brother. I could pretend that this was a private victory, and that I still had my self-satisfaction, but I'd be lying. That deep, sensitive part of me that never grew old wanted Mom and Dad to say they were proud of me, that they loved me, that they didn't care what I chose to pursue as long as I was happy.

I hadn't even told them about Terry. Could I ever bring that up? For all their disapproval, I've become the “good” son now; I can't tell them I'd been dating a man for the last year and a half.

Not now, at least.

I turn the key and shift into reverse, then slowly ease the car out of the parking lot. At least Terry will be waiting for me when I get home.

* * *

It's prom night, and I'm all alone.

Richard is out with his friends tonight. His freshman year has been so easy; he barely has to do anything to get straight A's, he can date any girl he wants, and all the guys want to be him. He might be a ginger, but at six-foot-six he cuts an imposing figure and with the beard he's started growing he looks older, more sophisticated, and even a bit dangerous.

Why couldn't my years of high school have been that easy?

My SAT scores weren't good at all. I got 780 on the writing, which was good, but only managed 350 on math. I barely broke 1100.

Instead of dancing with the captain of the cheerleading team on the last night of the best years of my life, I'm bent over an algebra textbook, cramming for the finals.

(1 + x)(3 + 2x)

Damn. I try to make sense of the equation, but it all looks like scratchings in some foreign alphabet to me. Why can't Richard be here to help me?

I scratch away at the problem, hoping I can make something out of it. What was that method again? PEMDAS? No, wait, it's FOIL, isn't it?

I can't even keep my methods straight. At this rate, I'll be lucky to get a job flipping burgers, let alone get into a good college.

The door flies open and Richard stumbles in.

You're supposed to knock,” I say, nearly throwing my heavy algebra book at him.

I'm also supposed to be studying. But I don't have to, I already know the material,” he says with an insolent grin. I can smell something on his breath from clear across the room.

You know you're going to be in big trouble if Mom knows you were out drinking,” I say, looking straight into his eyes.

You don't know anything about me or what I do, so shut up!” he says, slamming the door and stomping his way back to his room. I hear his door slam and the sound of thrash metal from his stereo.

How does he live with being so predictable?

I turn back to the algebra problem. FOIL. That's First, Outside, Inside... what's that last letter stand for again?

I sigh and thumb through the textbook. It's going to be a long night.

* * *

Everyone's silent in the big auditorium.

There are only two contestants on the stage now: one of them is a dark-haired girl from upstate- the popular favorite- and the other is my kid brother. They sit in their chairs, hands in their laps. The girl looks scared, but my brother looks bored.

They've been going back and forth for a long time now, waiting for one of them to misspell a word. The others got eliminated pretty quick.

The presenter, a tall woman in a very conservative dress, holds her microphone and steps forward.

Contestant number eighteen, your next word is Clepsydra. 'Clepsydra,' as in 'Upon the emperor's mantle there sat a terracotta clepsydra.”

The dark-haired girl stands up and steps toward the mic. She looks terrified. She shifts her weight from foot to foot, fidgeting with her hands.

clepsydra. K-L-E-P-S-Y-D-R-A. clepsydra.”

The judges, who sit in the shadows between the audience and the stage, begin talking amongst themselves. They beckon the presenter to come to them, say a few words to her, and she nods.

Please be patient, the judges want to discuss this one,” the presenter says to the audience.

The judges begin arguing passionately. At one point, I can even hear them.

It's a perfectly valid transliteration of the ancient Greek!” one of them says.

We don't accept valid transliterations and you know it. It's still not the standard English spelling, we can't allow it.”

We have reached a decision,” one of the judges says into her microphone. “Contestant eighteen has spelled 'clepsydra' incorrectly.”

The presenter turns to Richard, and instantly all eyes are riveted on him.

Contestant number six, if you can spell 'clepsydra' correctly, you will represent our state in the Times-Tribune National Spelling Bee.”

Richard steps up to the mic. He has that look in his eye. He has his usual swagger and a shit-eating grin. He knows he can do this. All his life, he's been waiting for this moment.

Clepsydra. C-L-E-P-S-Y-D-R-A. Clepsydra.”

That is correct!” the presenter shouts.

Immediately the entire crowd stands and begins to applaud. Mom and Dad are standing on their chairs, screaming with joy.

I slump in my chair, wishing I could disappear. A few years ago, I got as far as the state championships, but I choked. The difficult words were never a problem for me, but when I got to the word “association,” I left out one “s” and that was it for me.

Richard just pulled off what I couldn't, and it was so easy for him.

Afterward, as we ride home, Richard gets all the attention.

Son, you've got great things ahead of you,” Dad says.

Yeah, I know,” says Richard, eating the attention up.

Of course he knows. They've been telling him that all his life. It's getting old hearing about how my brother is the chosen one and I'm not.

That was a really hard word. I didn't even know most of the words they were asking you to spell. Your grandma will be so impressed!” Mom says.

It wasn't that hard,” says Richard.

The sad thing is, he's telling the truth; nothing is all that hard for him. He's so smart he doesn't have to work for anything.

I feel like I should say something, just so they don't forget I exist, but all I can manage is “Hey, Dad, can we stop somewhere? I've gotta go.”

Dad turns for a moment and glares at me. “We're less than an hour from home, Victor! Can't you hold it for just a few more minutes?”

I guess so,” I say with a sigh.

The rest of the trip home, it's all about Richard. They're so proud of him. I just wish they could be proud of me too.

* * *

Dad just walked in from work. He looks tired, but Mom is really excited.

I'm sitting at the kitchen table working on my science homework. We're learning about the water cycle.

I'm still trying to read some of these words. Condensation? How do you say that?

Honey, welcome home!” Mom says. “I've got great news, they're going to let Richard skip first grade next year!”

That just made my day,” Dad says with a smile.

I feel bad. I almost got held back in first grade because I wasn't good at math. I didn't learn to read until I was five. Richard is five, and he reads the same books I do.

I just hope he can adjust,” Mom says. “You know what they say about age gaps, there's a big difference between first graders and second graders.”

I kind of know what they're talking about. I was in second grade last year. Now the second graders just look like little kids. I feel big now, but the fourth graders look so much bigger than me. It must be scary for Richard. I'm kind of glad I'm not as smart as he is.

I'm sure he'll do fine,” Dad says. “He's a smart kid, but he's also a strong kid. He walks like he knows he can handle anything. He'll be a leader some day, I can see it in his eyes.”

Richard comes running in. “Daddy!” he shouts.

Dad scoops him up and puts him on his shoulders. “Mmph! Hey there, sport, you're getting big! Won't be long and you'll be too big for Dad's shoulders.”

I'm a big boy!” Richard says. “I'm going to big boy school!”

He's got that smile again, like he knows it's going to be easy and fun. I wish school was easy and fun for me.

Your mom told me!” Dad says as they walk around the living room. “We're proud of you!”

I'm gonna be the best second grader ever!” Richard says as he tugs slightly on Dad's hair.

Dad sits down on the couch, and Richard climbs down. He runs off to his room and returns wearing a blue cape.

Smartman to the rescuuuue!” he shouts, running around the room punching at invisible super villains.

Mom and Dad get a good laugh, but I just want to slap him.

I turn back to my homework. Richard doesn't have to work hard, but I do.

One day, I'll show them. I can be just as good as Richard, they'll see.

* * *

Honey, I need to talk to you about something.”

I'm sitting, watching SpongeBob. It's Saturday, and this is an episode I haven't seen yet. This can't be more important than SpongeBob! It bothers me, but I listen anyway.

What is it, Mama?” I ask.

Well, you know how I told you that you're going to have a baby brother?”

I nod. “Uh-huh.”

Well, your Dad and I have talked about it, and we've decided that your baby brother is going to be very special,” Mom says.

But you said I'm very special. I'm your special little boy!” I say.

Why would my baby brother be more special than me? I'm confused and worried.

Well, when you were born, we couldn't do this, but now science lets us kind of pick the kind of baby we're going to have, and we've decided to make him very special,” Mom says.

Who's science?” I ask.

Science isn't a person, it's... well, you'll understand one day. But they know how to make babies really smart now. Mommies and daddies can pay a little extra money and buy things they like for their babies. Your brother will do really good things, he'll make our family proud,” Mom says.

But I want to make you proud,” I say.

Dad walks in and sits down on my other side. “Now son, we're proud of you too. But one day your brother might be president, or he might own a really big company. If your brother becomes president, maybe you'll get to see the White House one day,” Dad says.

But I want to be president,” I say.

Why can't they believe in me?

Maybe you will some day, son,” Mom says. “We'll see.”

Do you still love me?” I ask, tears in my eyes.

Son, you're our first child, and we'll always love you, no matter what,” says Dad.

Is a special baby very expensive?” I ask, still unsure of all this.

Yes, he's very expensive. A special baby costs forty-thousand dollars.”

Forty-thousand? That's a big number. That's bigger than thirteen!” I say.

I can't believe it. I didn't know there were numbers that big, who can count that high? I just learned there were numbers bigger than twelve!

Yes, that's about as much as a fancy car. But I think we'll all enjoy your new baby brother more than any old fancy car,” Dad says.

Just remember, we love you Victor,” says Mom. She kisses me gently on the cheek. “We still love you and we always want the best for you.”

I love you too, Mama,” I say.

I'm not afraid any more. I can't wait for my special new baby brother!

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