Tuesday, October 12, 2021

"More Life"

  I normally like to let the story speak for itself, but I want to share some background on this one. I wrote this about four years ago when I was experimenting with elements of horror. The sign in the first paragraph was a real sign I used to pass every day on my way to work. It was the weirdest thing. It was one of those plastic banner signs, and it just said "More Life" with a picture of a guy who seemed to be living his best, and no other information. The building itself was so nondescript, as if it were trying to lay low or something - no windows, no other markings on the door or walls of the place. I saw that sign so often that I started wondering what could possibly go on in there that was such a secret, and the idea of some shady sci-fi horror thing came to me. I also tried to combine this backdrop with the idea of how all of our paper trail and personal data can affect what opportunities we have access to, especially our credit checks. In addition to all of the other financial inequities in the world, the idea that running a credit check can negatively affect your credit has always seemed crazy to me, like some kind of quantum economics. I'm not sure that it works as a story, but I know of at least five or six magazine editors who would probably say that it doesn't. Still, I hope you enjoy it.

    FYI, I finally looked up the business online after I wrote the first draft of the story, and they are a drug rehab center, and apparently do very good work in the community.

"More Life"

  “More Life – Live Your Life to the Fullest.” He had passed that sign every day on his way to work for the past few months, since the place had opened up in a little office next to a pizzeria, right there on Hollywood Boulevard. Even now, it still had the same plastic banner across the storefront, standing out against all the neon and electric signs of the surrounding businesses. It was just a brick-front building with a wooden door, no windows, no merchandise, no other indication of what they might offer, but the allure of that name – “More Life” – was enough to at least get Mike Bennett searching the internet, and now it had him pulling into one of only five parking spots directly in front of that wooden door. 

    Mike was really operating on faith here. He had found the website for the business, but it hadn’t actually offered much information, just more platitudes like the one on the sign, along with some vague promises of counselling and goal setting. It was really that plastic sign that did it for him. “Live Life to the Fullest.” More than anything else, that’s what he wanted, that’s what had passed him by. He sat in the car, contemplating his existence, too nervous to even get out right away. Forty-one years old, unmarried, no kids, teaching gym at the same high school he had graduated from, and he was sick of all of it. That was what made him fill out the questionnaire on the website, and that was the only thing that had filled his thoughts since he had received the confirmation email with the time and date of his appointment. 

    He looked up at the sign above his windshield, stroked his short, mostly gray beard with both hands, and then snatched the keys out of the ignition and popped out of the car, before he could change his mind.

    Mike crashed shoulder first into the door trying to open it, before realizing that it was locked. With no windows in the door, and no other sign of activity in the building, his heart sank a bit before he noticed the intercom just to the right. He pressed the call button, and within seconds, a sweet feminine voice startled him.

    “Good morning,” her voice a little louder than necessary, but clear and kind, “Mr. Bennett, I presume?” 

    “Um,” Mike felt the same anxiety he felt whenever he found himself in the presence of women. “That’s me,” he stammered. “I have an appointment.”

    “Of course you do,” the voice responded, and Mike felt as if he could actually see her smiling sweetly at him past the intercom, “We’re all looking forward to meeting with you.” 

    Mike just barely heard a click in the lock of the door, no annoying buzz or loud noise from the intercom to tell him to come in. He tried the door again and found that it opened easily.

    The inside of the place was the opposite of the outside in every way. From the cheap plastic sign and bare front of the office, Mike had half expected the inside to look like a driver’s license bureau or public works office. Instead, the inside was the plushest and most luxurious room he had ever been in. The floor was covered with the softest off-white, deep-pile carpet, and the walls were a clean white that was crisp and bright, but somehow comfortable to his eyes because of the soft lighting in the room. It was a small room, about the size of any of the hotel rooms Mike had stayed in over the years, with a single couch against the side of the left wall, black leather that looked as soft as the floor. The couch was flanked by two tall orchids, mostly white with small red centers to the blooms. Every wall around him was decorated with beautiful and puzzling artwork, an eclectic collection that seemed to fit together despite the varied differences in style. The one that held his attention was on the wall opposite the entrance, between the receptionist’s desk and another doorway in the back of the room. This painting was bright and colorful, but surreal, depicting a man emerging from the top of a tall tree in the midst of a forest, reaching out with one wide open hand to a sun that looked both warm and powerful.

    After a few moments of staring at all of the paintings, Mike finally noticed the receptionist sitting at the desk in the back of the room, smiling at him just as he had imagined she would. 

    “Good morning Mr. Bennett,” she said, and all of Mike’s anxiety returned to him with the way she cocked her head to the side slightly as she looked up at him, her light brown hair, drawn into a neat, long ponytail, resting on her left shoulder. “We’re glad you’re here. We’ve got all your information already, so you can just have a seat and Mr. Hansen will be with you soon.” 

    “This painting is so beautiful,” Mike struggled to even look at the woman behind the desk, just glancing at her every few seconds and looking at her maroon lips, just short of eye contact. “It ...” he reached a hand out to the painting, pointing to the place where the man in the picture was reaching upwards as well, “It inspires me.”

    The receptionist smiled even wider, and her green eyes opened in such a sincere way that Mike immediately looked back at the painting. “It is a beautiful work. I’m glad it moves you.” She shifted her position on the chair to turn around and look at it as well, and Mike allowed himself to stare at the back of her head, where her neckline met the collar of her white blouse. “It was painted by one of our clients.”

    “Really,” Mike tried to sound amused, watching her profile until she turned to him and he snapped his gaze back at the painting. 

    “Oh, yes,” she said, “In fact, every painting and sculpture you see in our offices was created by someone who has graduated from our process.”

    Mike looked again at all the paintings surrounding him, at the plush carpet and couch, at the beautiful receptionist with the kind eyes, and felt more out of place than he ever had in his life. He hadn’t really known what to expect, but he certainly didn’t expect this level of opulence, and he knew he didn’t have the kind of money or talent that it took to be a member of whatever club this was. 

    Just as he was about to excuse himself and walk back out to the parking lot, the door next to the receptionist’s desk opened with a click, and a man walked through it into the lobby. He looked slim but agile, muscular but not musclebound. He wore a finely tailored suit, but with such a modern cut that it made him look as if he was just as ready for an evening date at the bar as for his best friend’s wedding. The gray of the suit was somehow bright and shiny, without calling too much attention to itself, with a simple white shirt and a red tie, loosened a little.

    The man made eye contact with Mike as soon as he stepped into the room, smiled warmly and reached out his hand. “Michael Bennett, yes?” he said.

    Mike nodded, and gave the best handshake he could, trying to impress the guy as much as he was impressed by him. He couldn’t tell if the man’s face was really tanned, or if it was just his three-day scruff that made it look as if his face had color.

    The man released his handshake, but then reached up and gripped Mike around the upper arm in a way that made Mike feel less intimidated, as if this guy was just an old friend he had forgotten about.

    “I’m Alik Hansen. So glad you’re here, and right on time,” he said, squeezing Mike’s arm and slapping him gently on the shoulder. “Come on inside and let’s talk about what you want out of life.”

    Mike looked down at the receptionist, who was still focused on him, smiling as if she was so genuinely happy for him, happy that things were finally coming together for him. She nodded to him encouragingly, and Mike stepped through the door with Mr. Hansen right behind him. 

    Beyond the door was a short hallway with doors only on the opposite side, five doors in a row, spaced about ten feet apart. Each door had a frosted glass window that peered into the room beyond, where Mike could barely make out bookcases and couches. Only one door was completely solid and white, with no window at all. Alik opened the last door at the end of the hall, smiled, and gestured for Mike to enter. Mike walked into a much smaller room than the lobby, just a nicely appointed office with a bookcase along the back wall, stocked with medical books and philosophers, a small desk with dark wood grain and a small water fountain that bubbled water down a series of bamboo columns, past a couple of tea light candles.

    Still smiling, Alik placed a hand on Mike’s shoulder and pulled a leather chair away from the desk for him. As Mike sat down in the soft leather, Alik crossed over and sat in a similar chair on the other side. Again, Mike had that acute feeling of unworthiness, of being out of his league.

    “So, Mike, tell me what you want out of life.” Alik sat forward in his chair, perched with his hands folded in front of him, as if ready to hear important and exciting news.

    Mike looked into Alik’s eyes, and then shook his head and looked at the numerous books on the shelf behind him, and then at Alik again. “I’m not really sure,” he said, “I just want more. I think that’s what drew me in here to begin with.”

    Alik nodded and wrinkled his brow. “There must be something,” he said, leaning his head to the side and staring into Mike’s eyes, “something that you wanted to do, when you were younger, something that passed you by, something that you’ve given up on as you see the years slipping away from you.”

    Mike bit his lip and rested his sweaty hands on the edge of the desk.

    “Let me put it this way,” Alik rubbed his hands together and sat up straight, “have you ever said something like, if only I knew then what I know now?”

    Mike nodded, “That’s pretty much every day lately.” 

    Alik nodded, “I understand. I was like that too, once.” He reached across the table and tapped the back of Mike’s hand, gripped it slightly, just for a second, and then sat back in his chair. “What if I told you that you didn’t have to get old, that you could feel as young as you are now, or even younger, for the next thirty years of your life? What if I told you that it wasn’t too late to take all the things that you’ve learned in life, good and bad, and actually use them to do the things that you thought had passed you by?” He cracked his knuckles on both hands, as if he was preparing to get down to some kind of serious business. “If all that was a reality, what’s the one thing you would want to do for the next thirty years?”

    “Movies,” Mike blurted out, “If I had it to do all over again, I would stay in film school and I’d be writing and directing movies by now.”

    “That’s great,” Alik said, leaning forward again, his eyes wide and encouraging, “So you wanted to be a filmmaker? Why did you quit?”

    “I was in the film program at University of Miami, I was on scholarship too, for the most part, …” Mike shook his head and scanned the books on the shelf, looked around the room, noticed that there were no windows.

    Alik tapped Mike’s hand again, and when Mike looked back in his direction, Alik pointed into his own eyes, “What happened, Mike?”

    “It was just,” Mike started, looked down at his lap, and then forced himself to look back into Alik’s face, “Just that everybody seemed to already know what they were doing, everybody was already so much better than me. I thought I had such good ideas before I came to that school, but everyone else’s stuff made me feel like I was kidding myself. Plus my folks kept telling me that being a director was a pipe dream, that it was all about connections.” Mike shook his head and rubbed the heel of his hand into his left eye, “So I changed my major to sports therapy, because it seemed safer. Now I’m not even doing that.”

    Mike could feel Alik watching him, maybe judging him, in the silence that seemed to last for a minute or more.

    “What if I told you that you could,” Alik looked away from Mike to the ceiling for a moment, “reclaim that time? Would you want that?”

    “I’m too old to go back to school, change careers and everything.”

    “Only if you say you are.” Alik tugged on the cuffs of his suit coat and leaned forward in his chair, “only if you believe that learning or pursuing your dream have anything to do with the number of times you have orbited the sun.”

    Mike felt his face flush and a surge of energy rushed through him at hearing these words. Before he was even aware, he was picturing himself writing again, holding a camera again. “See, I’ll be honest with you,” Mike looked around at the books on the shelf and the expensive desk and chairs, at Alik’s suit, “I don’t know if I can afford you guys, but that’s definitely the kind of talk that’s been missing in my life. That’s the kind of counseling I need.”

    Alik nodded his head and smiled, “We’ll talk money later,” he said, “but you should probably understand exactly what we do here, before we go any farther.”

    “Your website said you offer counseling and mentoring.”

    “True,” Alik responded, “we provide counseling and advice free of charge for all of our clients, because our program is so life-altering that many of them find it difficult to get their bearings afterwards.”

    “Free counseling?” Mike said, furrowing his brow, “and who are your clients? Rich people?”

    Alik chuckled and shook his head. “We do have several wealthy clients,” he said, “but overall, they come from all walks of life, even gym teachers aspiring to be filmmakers.”

    “So then how do I get into the program?”

    Alik sat up straight in his chair, his arms opened wide and resting on the desk in front of him. “How old do you think I am, Michael?”

    Mike looked him over again, the tailored suit on his athletic frame, the scruff, the short haircut parted neatly on the side, the deep blue eyes. “Thirties, maybe close to forty.” 

    Alik nodded his head, “Good guess,” he said. He stood up from his chair, walked slowly around to Mike’s side, and leaned back against the desk, his hands folded in front of him. “Would you believe me if I told you that in a couple of months, I’ll be celebrating my ninety-seventh birthday?”

    Now Mike chuckled, but Alik only smiled confidently back at him until he stopped laughing.

    “It’s true, I dropped out of college during the Depression, and made my fortune after the war.” 

    Mike looked at the door, at the tops of the bookshelf, anywhere they might have hidden a camera.

    Alik extended his hand. “Care to shake hands with a World War Two veteran?”

    He undid the button on his right cuff, pulled up the sleeve and exposed his forearm. There was a tattoo there, somewhat faded, but clearly an army tank with a couple of dice rolling in front of it, showing a three and a four. The banner underneath said, “Lucky Seventh,” in letters that looked like a Las Vegas marquis.

    “But…,” Mike started.

    Alik nodded understandingly as Mike fumbled for words. He waved him away with an easy gesture of his right hand. “See, Mike, your body contains life, raw life. Every one of your cells contains life, a finite amount of it, and as that life runs out, your cells wind down like a clock and eventually die. We don’t really understand what this life is, or exactly how it works, but we have found a way to extract it from one person, store it temporarily, and then transfer it to someone else.”

    “Life?” Mike said, moving his chair backwards just a little.

    “Life,” Alik said, “every living person has it, inside of them, but very few actually use it. Unfortunately, most just bide their time. They exist, until they don’t. We can determine how much of this energy a person’s body contains, extract as much or as little as we want, and then give that to someone else, someone with plans to use it more productively.” 

    Mike rubbed his eyes with his fingertips and took a deep breath. “So you could tell me how long I’ll live.” 

    Alik shrugged, “No one could do that.” Then he smiled, “Well, not yet anyway. The truth is, you could get hit by a bus tomorrow and die, or you could smoke for forty years or introduce some other toxin or disease to your body that would attack your organs and cause a premature death. And all that life, all that potential, would die with you, untapped and wasted.”

    “Wasted,” Mike repeated, that last word echoing in his mind. He looked at Alik for a few moments, waiting for him to break, to let him off the hook, but Alik just smiled back at him. 

    “Okay, fine,” Mike began, groping for words, “let’s say I believe you. Let’s say you can harvest … life, somehow.” 

    “Harvest,” Alik said, “yes, that really is what we do? You catch on quickly.”

    “Right,” Mike said, “Thanks. But where do you get this life from? Who would be willing to sell it to you?” Mike pushed himself against the back of his chair, “That is how you get it, right?”

    “Of course, and we pay well for it.” Alik put his hands on his knees and leaned forward, his face closer to Mike’s. “Is it really that difficult to imagine someone wanting to sell some of their life to us? Take the person who gets sick, who’s abused their body or gotten some disease that’s going to cut their life short. If they could sell us the remaining years that are just going to die with them, wouldn’t they trade that life for enough money to set their family up for the next couple of generations? Wouldn’t you?”

    Mike’s eyes widened. He pictured Alik standing over the hospital bed with some kind of alien machine.

    “Or what if your intentions weren’t so noble?” Alek continued, “What if you simply wanted money badly enough to sell off ten or fifteen years of your life? What if you found it to be a fair trade, to live the next years in comfort and even luxury, instead of forty more years of poverty?”

    Mike thought about teaching gym for the next twenty or thirty years and then trying to retire on whatever money he was able to save, which, so far, had been nearly nothing, barely enough to cover a minor emergency.

    “Our clients are willing to pay so much to extend their own lives, that we can pass that fortune on to our donors, and even make ourselves rich in the process.”

    Mike looked for any crack in Alik’s demeanor, any sign that he was being pranked, and saw only confidence and sincerity.

    “I’m not rich,” he said. “I can’t afford this.”

    Alik rested his hand on Mike’s shoulder and squeezed, just a little. “I know,” he said, smiling warmly, “but not all of our clients are rich. Some of our clients come to us with nothing but talent and ambition, and the drive to change their lives. We believe in them, and we believe that even though they aren’t rich, that they are the kind of people who may have had a poor start, but that, if given another thirty or forty more years and a new identity, would change the world.”

    Mike still searched Alik’s eyes, waiting for a punchline. Alik kept his hand on Mike’s shoulder and leaned down until they were almost face to face.

    “I, myself, was just a grunt in a tank,” he said, “ at one time.”

    Looking into Alik’s eyes up close, he could see it. He could see the young soldier staring back at him, through eyes that had seen tanks roll over the bodies of dead soldiers and entire towns ravaged by war.

    “What if they don’t change the world?” he whispered, “What if they can’t pay you back?”

    Alik released Mike’s shoulder, sat back on the edge of the desk, and crossed his arms. “Mike, what we really offer here is time,” he said, his eyes narrowing and his facing losing its color for a a moment, “and time, just like any other product, can be … repossessed.”

    Mike slowly stood to his feet and held his hand out to Alik. “What do I need to do?”

    Alik smiled, shook Mike’s hand firmly, and clapped him on the back. “If I’ve made a believer out of you, then there’s some paperwork, a background check, and credit check, and then we’ll schedule your first appointment.”

    Mike signed a few documents that Alik placed in front of him, trying to read through the jargon, but eagerly scratching his name at the bottom of each page as he flipped through them. Alik smiled compassionately down at him as he waited for Mike to finish.

    “Well, that’s done,” Alik said, gathering the papers and verifying the signatures, “If you’ll give me a moment, I’ll get the process started.” He tucked the paperwork into a manila folder, and then gripped Mike’s shoulder encouragingly as he left the room.

    It seemed like an hour before Alik returned. Mike took his phone out for a minute to play a game, but then thought better of it. He knew he was being tested and didn’t want to fail the exam. Instead, he counted the books on the shelf across the room, counted the words in the titles, counted the knots in the grain of the desk. 

    When the door opened again, Alik came in, this time followed by the beautiful receptionist. She was smiling in an excited way, her green eyes more like jade now.

    Alik was not smiling at all.

    In fact, Alik sat on the edge of the desk, his eyes cast downward at Mike, his face set like stone in a scowl. He folded his hands and bit his lip.

    Mike smiled outwardly as he looked from Alik’s face to the receptionist. She brightened even more, her teeth so straight and white and perfect.

    “So, can we get started?” Mike said, after a moment’s hesitation.

    “No,” Alik shook his head slowly, “I’m afraid we can’t.”

    The receptionist placed her hand gently on Mike’s shoulder, her fingers lightly rubbing.

    “Is it the background check?” Mike asked, “It can’t be the background check. The school gets one on me every other year, fingerprints too.”

    Alik pressed his hands together, as if in prayer, and brought them to his lips. “It’s the credit check, Michael. I’m afraid you don’t qualify for the process.”

    Mike stuttered a little laugh before he saw the seriousness in Alik’s eyes and posture. The receptionist squeezed his shoulder in reassurance, almost imperceptibly.

    “But,” Mike began, “It’s just ….. You said there would be time to pay it back.”

    Alik stood and rubbed his hands together. “True, there are options for payment, but there are other factors that these criteria reveal to us.”

    “I mean…” Mike halted, “I’ll pay you back. I want more life.”

    Alik shook his head mournfully, holding his hand up palm outward. “It’s not a matter of time or intention, Michael. A simple credit report can tell us so much about who you are.”

    Mike looked from Alik’s eyes to the receptionist’s smile, and she squeezed his shoulder just a bit harder.

    “A man like you, Michael, lacking in ambition like you, could have a thousand years and still wouldn’t ever be able to repay such a loan. You would have the best of intentions, but you would just never quite get around to the task of becoming great.”

    “I could …,” Mike sputtered, “I want to ….”

    “No, Michael, those years of life would be wasted on you,” Alik said, nodding to the receptionist and then grinning apologetically down at Mike, “But in someone else’s hands, perhaps, someone more ambitious and passionate. Those years added to someone with real potential and drive could result in untold benefits to mankind.”

    Mike looked from Alik’s face to the receptionist whose smile was somehow menacing now, her eyes like green fire, her beautiful face both youthful and timeless.

    Mike felt his whole body flush hot and his back tensed up into a knot. He tried to leap to his feet, but the receptionist gripped his shoulder hard and forced him back down into the chair. Her fingernails dug into his flesh through his shirt. When he tried one more time to get up and twist himself free from her grip, he felt her fingers close like a vise around his collarbone and heard a loud cracking noise like a gunshot as she snapped it in two.

    “Don’t worry,” Alik said, grunting just a little as he scooped up Mike’s limp and lifeless body and helped him to his feet, “Superficial damage like that doesn’t reduce the amount of life we are able to extract at all.” 

    Alik wrapped Mike’s good arm around his own shoulder and shifted the broken man’s weight onto his. The receptionist, still smiling, still beautiful and radiant, opened the door wide for both of them, and even through the pain ravaging his shoulder and the fear infiltrating his mind, Mike found himself smitten by her, just for a moment. He winced a sort of smile at her as Alik walked him into the hallway.

    Each step was excruciating especially as Mike bumped into Alik’s hip on every other step, but Alik moved as gently as he could until they reached the windowless white door in the middle of the hallway. 

    “Just think of all the joy you are bringing the world, and how much advancement will be made because of your sacrifice, Michael,” Alik said as he pulled keys from his pocket and unlocked the door. 

    The last thing that Michael saw before he fainted was what looked like a pure white dentist’s chair, with wings on both sides that looked as if they could fold down over the chair like a cocoon.

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