The short story that my short film “Of Plants & Plans” was based off of.
Work, Spend or Rest
By, Amber Robinson
“Work, Spend, or Rest.” these words were our nation’s ideals and they were carved into the plaque across the street from my apartment. Anything that didn’t contribute to the country’s economy or that was too time-consuming was illegal. We couldn’t read books, or watch movies or listen to music. According to the government, they were outlets that took people away from doing “real work” and since people could obtain all these items through free mediums, they didn’t see them as profitable. These weren’t just laws we were to follow, they were a set of instructions that were programmed inside of each and every one of us. We were wired with an addiction for success. That wiring enabled our nation to run smoothly. Until today.
As the sun began to rise I walked on the sidewalk escalators. Along the streets, I didn’t see the usual crowds of people waiting for stores to open to begin their spending before morning work crews. Instead, I saw them standing before the FlashBoards. The latest news ran across: “The President is being held hostage for fifty billion dollars. The situation is under investigation. Currently no suspects.” Not since the Pre-Equilibrium years had a dollar sum for so much been heard of. Nowadays it was illegal to even have a net worth greater than $500,000. Everyone was forced to constantly spend to keep the economy booming. Even the government was under law to hold no more than ten billion dollars. The idea of fifty billion sent my mind hurdling backwards.
Back to that ill-fated day, and there she was, Faith. Her blonde curly hair brushing against her rosey cheeks as her thin lips sipped her coffee across our kitchen folding table. She was stunning. She rose from her seat to go to the fridge, and I looked up from behind my newspaper. She had this habit of making everything look poetic; the way her hips swayed as she moved and the way her hair bounced behind her when she wore it down. She opened the door and proceeded to look through our nearly barren fridge.
“Boiled or scrambled?” she said
“Boiled” I responded. She took out two eggs. I set my paper down and got a pot from the cupboard that I then filled with water. She smiled as she set the eggs in the water, but her eyes gave away what she was really feeling. She blinked rapidly to fight tears, I realized.
I massaged her temples as I kissed the back of her neck.
“How are you feeling?” I said.
“I’m fine.” She said as she turned to kiss me.
She then broke the embrace and turned to the stove to watch the eggs boil.
“Faith, I know you. You’re not fine.”
“You think you know too much.”
“All scientists think they know too much.”
“Remind me again why I married one?”
She took the pot off the stove and poured the hot water off to replace it with cold. I walked over to her and wrapped my arms around her waist while kissing her neck.
“That’s why,” I whispered to her.
“That doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to get rid of you. I hear there’s a shortage of doctors in the Bermuda Triangle.”
“They wouldn’t even hire me there,” I said.
She broke away from the embrace and pulled a paper from her pocket.
“You got a call earlier,” she hesitated, “about a job.”
“From who? And why didn’t you tell me sooner?”
“I didn’t know how to.”
She said as she removed the eggs from water. I picked up the phone and dialed that number. Before I had a chance to speak the voice on the other line seemed to already know who I was.
“Ross Johnson?” he said.
“Yeah, but who’s this? My wife said I got a call from here yesterday.”
“1720 Willow St. Stop by there tomorrow at noon—I have a job for you.”
“But who…” Before I could finish the sentence the phone clicked off. I looked at Faith again as she peeled the shell pieces from the egg. She wasn’t happy. I knew she wasn’t happy. She was stressed about the little money we had and the many bills we kept incurring, but she was strong. She would never admit to me how she felt. So while that had to have been the strangest call I had ever received, I had to meet with this mystery man and see what type of job he had in store for me.
The next day I hopped on the train—today known as the Speedway—and went to 1720 Willow St. just as I had been instructed. Before me was a building that had about ten floors. On the first floor an attractive secretary met me and walked me to the building elevator. Ding. The elevator chimed as the doors opened. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Standing before me was none other than Senator Donald Emerald.
“Good to meet you Mr. Johnson,” he said as he reached his arm out to me as I entered his office.
“Nice to meet you too.” I managed to stammer out.
“Have a seat.” he grinned, revealing his pearly white teeth that perfectly contrasted against his black skin. I slowly took a seat while he remained standing. I studied him; from his belly that was popping the buttons on his shirt to his shockingly scrawny nose, Mr. Emerald was more of a caricature than an actual person. This was something that I hadn’t realized when I saw him in ads. On the walls of his office were several pictures of himself and sitting before me on his desk was about the largest ant farm I had seen in my life. He leaned closer to the farm and tapped on the glass.
“You like ants?” he said.
“They’re alright I guess…”
“I love ‘em. You wanna know why?”
He rose from his chair and began to pace around the room. He stopped, looked at me with that toothy grin I was growing accustomed to and breathed deeply.
“Ants my boy, ants; probably the hardest working creatures out there. They’re small and motivated. They spend their lives working.”
“I still don’t understand.”
“Have you ever wondered why the economy has tanked?”
“Ever thought of a way to fix it?”
“Elect Bernstein in the next presidential election.”
“I’m not talking about politics. I’m talking about science.”
“Odd remark coming from a senator…?” I said as I squinted my eyes at him.
He laughed and took a seat.
“I’ve always been a fan of science. The human body, its functions, etc. You know whats intrigued me most?” I stared at him blankly.
“The mind and how susceptible it is; the brain as well.”
“You ever see a starving crack head on the side of the street? That starving crack head that hasn’t had a meal in a week will spend hours standing on a street in the middle of winter begging for money, and then after they get a few dollars, you know what they’ll spend that money on?” He paused then, said “Crack.”
“Don’t know where you’re going with this.”
“Addiction is powerful. An addicted person will do anything to satisfy their craving.”
“I’m still lost Senator.” He rose and grinned with those pearly white teeth again. It was then that I noticed his signature coin sized emerald four-leaf clover that was tattooed on the side of his neck.
“Just say you’ll do it.”
“Work for me.” He reached his hand out for me to shake. Faith’s face entered my mind at that moment. I wanted to see her happy, I needed to see her happy again. I took his hand and made a deal with the devil.
If anyone had told me what the world would look like five years from that day, and that I would be responsible for it I wouldn’t have believed them—I wouldn’t have wanted to believe them. The crap hole that America was when I met Mr. Emerald wasn’t even comparable to the hell it had become. Thanks to “science, not politics,” as Mr. Emerald liked to say, we’d become a nation that was addicted to and obsessed with success.
As the sidewalk escalators moved me to the lab I couldn’t help but eavesdrop on the conversations others were having while they scurried to work. You couldn’t walk down one block without passing at least ten different people giving their thoughts on the president’s abduction. FlashBoards along the escalators also kept spitting out information. When I finally reached the lab I was greeted by my coworker, Mark. I could not stand Mark.
“What type of soap do you think he uses?” he said as I reentered the lab from my lunch break.
“I don’t know,” I responded. Mark was slender, pale, about six feet tall, and six times more annoying than anyone else I knew. Smart guy, but always rambling about some irrelevant information no one else cared about. Our job was to come up with cheap alternatives for society to use. Emerald’s idea was to keep me working with the middleman so that people didn’t catch on to what we had done.
The current assignment Mark and I had was to manufacture a new soap.
“I bet he uses the oh ninty-eight brand. Wasn’t a good year back then.”
“Mhm.” I put on my lab coat.
Mark put on his goggles and rubbed his hands together.
“The problem with ninety-eight wasn’t that it didn’t clean well; it just didn’t last long.”
“Which makes sense.
“Yeah.” You could give Mark one word answers for about an hour and he still wouldn’t get the hint.
“I think he should be using the one hundred two; better scents make a more stable person that doesn’t ya know go abducting people.”
“You wanna swing by the bar with me after work? I got a hundred bucks I gotta kill before payday.” Spending extra time with Mark was the last thing I wanted to do, but I also had some extra cash to spend before payday. So after work Mark and I headed over to Pete’s for a bit and I literally mean a bit. Instead of making bars illegal, which they might as well have done, they limited the time you were able to spend in them. Each stool had a pay meter. Not only did you have to pay per drink, you also had to pay for the amount of time you spent in each stool—and the time was counted in increments of ten minutes so that no one got too inebriated. Some like myself still found ways around it. While Mark and I chugged our beers the FlashBoards continued to spit out information on the abduction.
“You can change an economy, but you can’t change people.” he said as he fed money into his stool meter.
“How sick does a man gotta be to believe that the government has that kinda money?” the bartender chimed in. If I had to listen to another person give their feedback on the abduction I thought I would lose my mind. Saved by the bell. My stool chimed away and before Mark could convince me to refill it I scurried out of there. I set out onto the streets and into the cool air and inhaled deeply. It was fall, and the leaves floated to the ground in this graceful way that reminded me of Faith. I couldn’t use the sidewalk escalators—it seemed like a sin. I needed to bask in the beauty outside in her honor. Fall was her favorite season. I don’t know if it was the alcohol buzz or the refreshing air, but as I walked down the street with the leaves crunching under my feet I felt a connection to her. I missed her more than usual.
Tomorrow was the anniversary. The farther down the street my feet moved me, the further my mind became engulfed with memories of her. The walks we used to go on. I remember one day especially well. We had decided to go for a walk because it was supposed to be a beautiful day.
“We could both use the fresh air” she said.
So we walked about a mile.
“Uh oh.” she said looking up at the sky.
“I don’t like when you say uh oh.”
“Run!” she said just seconds before the thunder boomed and the sky began to pour. She liked to say she had a sense for the rain, but it only worked at sensing the rain moments before a shower would hit. I held her hand as she led the way for us to run back home. I’ll never forget what she said next. She slowed her down pace before stopping altogether. She looked into my eyes and said
“The rain means more than we realize. It’s God crying for mankind and what we’ve become.”
Tears stained my cheeks as I thought about her and then about another day—the worst day of my life. After Emerald had told me what exactly the job offer he was giving me was he explained what he needed me to do to fix the people. I was to make a serum that would addict everyone in the country to success. The day after I finished my first batch of the serum for him I made myself my own lab rat. I desperately wanted to make Faith happy and show her how driven I was to work, and how I would get us out of this financial funk. The problem with my original sample was that with it came impaired perception of reality and a greed that was satisfied by nothing. It was like my subconscious took over and took out anything from my life that was hurting me financially. That side saw Faith as a problem.
On October 19th, I woke up and couldn’t believe my eyes– couldn’t believe what the serum made me do during the night. Lying on the floor was her lifeless body. Her hair stuck to the floor in a pool of blood, and her face had an expression I will never forget. I would give anything to go back to that day to undo what I had done.
Mr. Emerald covered everything up and sent me on a plane back to Argentina to work on an antidote to my new problem, and to work on a new batch. I refused to return to that godforsaken island, but he made me. He was obsessed with changing our country and he would stop at nothing.
I stopped walking and sat on the sidewalk. Technically this was also illegal, but I didn’t care. I hated this world and what it had become. I even more hated that I was the one responsible for most of it. Hardly a day went by that I didn’t regret answering that call from Mr. Emerald.
Interrupting my thoughts was a slew of police cars driving down the street. I thought they were going to stop and give me a ticket, but they didn’t. At a store on the opposite side of the street I could see the FlashBoard still reporting information on the President’s abduction along with a handful of people watching. I stood up, crossed the street and joined them. The FlashBoard said a month long vacation was being offered as a reward for whoever turned the criminal in.
When Faith was alive she used to say, ‘God cried because of what mankind had become.’ If only she knew how much worse we’d become, and that I was the one responsible for it. In the past people had to worry about natural disasters, bombings, shootings—all sorts of awful things. The difference between then and now is the response to the tragedies. Now that people are addicted to success they’re selfish, unless it’s their job to help others they don’t do it. So you don’t hear about heroes or good Samaritans anymore when these tragedies strike. You just see individuals that only look out for themselves. Though, as I walked down the street I noticed something different in them today.
The busyness of the world had stopped. No one was worrying about working, spending or resting. People, including cops stood before FlashBoards talking to one another, some individuals even praying for each other. It was like the humane factor that had long left the society had returned because of this one event.
“The President is supposed to be the best protected man in the world, and somebody took him. What does that mean for everyone else?” I heard a lady say in disbelief to herself.
I kept walking until I reached my shabby old apartment—the one I’d lived in with Faith before her death. Every step up reminded me of her. I pictured her walking up the steps with her curls bouncing behind her, the scent of her perfume lingering down the hall. I would place my hands on her waist and slowly walk up with her—just waiting to get inside of our apartment so I could wrap my arms around her while gently kiss her neck.
I reached the front door and returned to reality. I turned the key and walked down the hallway. I pulled down the door to the attic when I got to the end of the hall and went upstairs. I didn’t turn the light on. I didn’t need to. I simply followed the muffled noises in the corner of the room. I crouched in front of him, his shirt drenched in sweat. Though dark, I could still see that green clover tattoo on his neck just barely covered by his collar. I removed the tape from his mouth, revealing those pearly white teeth.
“Hello, Mr. President,” I said.