“I just want to say–”
“Stop it. Don’t do it. You don’t have to say anything.”
“No Tom, honest, let me say what I feel. I don’t care.”
“Don’t care? Jen? Really? We’ll lose the Private Car.”
“So what? There’s plenty of room on Public.”
“Right and canteen, isn’t so bad either, right? No, it’s everything Jen. Once you start down-trending, it’s over.”
Her insides bubbled. This was going wrong. He wouldn’t let her speak. He never let her speak. He continued on. “They say I’m not canned. Say they’ve seen anomalies like this before. Wait for the bounce they told me. Whatever the hell that means.”
She came and sat beside him, grabbed his hand. She tried to look him in the face, but he kept his head down. She tried again anyway. “Listen, I love you Tom. And we have each other, right? Keep your head down low, work on your socials and who knows. You’ll be higher than ever before.”
“My socials Jen? You really want to go there?” He stood up wand walked across the room. She sat there frozen, hunched over for a second, still trying to comfort his warm ghost. “That’s the exact shit Ray and the guys said. Need to get you out to a couple Saturdays, that would help. I stood there smiling like an idiot. But you know what the e-vite never came and when I thought about it. They just sort of tossed it out there. Never said the exact time and place, like before, or other little juicy details about what we’d be doing. Remember that weekend, a hundred point bump off that. For nothing, sitting around drinking beer and eating chicken wings.”
“Of course I remember that weekend. There was Champagne that Friday in the private.” His memories and aggressiveness were testing her resolve. He had been a seven-hundred when they meet a decade ago. Not that she was the type to really care about those things. She had her own issues, a struggling 650. And actually the week they meet, she took a twenty-five point dump, which was pretty devastating at eighteen years old and in your first week of college. But he had been so kind, understanding. It solidified their relationship. “Tom, I’m just saying for us, I don’t care. We will work it together. Maybe you can come to my reading club? Have a date night? Hold hands on the public, show them what atreasure you are?”
Made her skin prickle the way he looked at her. It was the same Tom, but she had never seen him look like this, looking passed her like that. He’d lost weight recently and now his face looked different. Old if she was being blunt. Just standing there, he seemed like some bones hanging in the room, sort of like a scarecrow. “Well, they say there are people.”
“People Jen? A Fixer. That’s what they’re called, a Fixer. Don’t play games with me.”
“Yes, a Fixer.”
“We don’t have the money, or the trade. Besides dear wife, we both know a Fixer can get you locked down.Neither of us would see above four hundred again if we got caught. No, strap the tourniquet on, and hope you don’t bleed out, that’s all you can do.” He stood there looking passed her, through the wall. It was like the mirror and pictures weren’t there either, or anything else, but beyond it, way down the road, something stood waiting for him.
She stood up again and grabbed him. For a second he stood there stiffly and she had to wrap her arm around him, through his arms. She didn’t mind, but smile and snuggled into him. He broke a second later and wrapped her up. They held each other until their warmth and bodies were inseparable.
The walked to their room, and for the first time in years left the wall screen off. They undressed, made love and fell asleep. She woke up in the middle of the night. She was having a terrible dream. A shadowy thing was chasing her. Her head buzzed and her heart was pounding. She felt Tom’s hot body next to her. He was sweating too. She had to be going crazy she knew, because she began to feel paranoid that their air had been shut off. Maybe Tom had tanked so bad that their allotments could be pushed back. She really should study the Lower Levels again. Things could get tricky. She tried to shake it off. She try to snuggle him again, but he turned away, cuddling the edge now.
She got up and took a shower. It seemed unusually short and the hot water ran out. But at that point she wasn’t trusting her perspective. She wrapped herself in a towel and sat at their kitchen table. It was still dark out. She thought about going for a run, she could hope for a physical fitness bump.
First, she went to her page. There she was 679. Somehow she got a one point positive, since when she checked earlier, after getting the notice about Tom. That was odd she hadn’t moved in month. Well, she tried to reason, maybe things weren’t so bad. She felt herself avoiding it, scrolling down to “Spouse” were Tom and his number would be listed. Avoidance caused her to flip the phone over and set it down. She laughed and then almost began to panic, she didn’t want to wake Tom. Have him see her like this, it would ruin him.
They had to look though. Didn’t they? Stay on top of it. Ignoring it, won’t make it go away. She waited, until her breating was under control and flipped the phone over and scrolled down. Tom Mundus-550. She almost screamed, but bit her hand instead. 550? How had he lost another fifty points? Had he been fired? Had someone died? She wanted to pick up his phone, carry it to the room, get his thumb, open it and check his messages. Her mind began to scramble he must be involved in something else, through work, or friends. Something. Over a hundred points in a week. Another few days like that and they would be ruined. She had to do something.
She walked back to the room and grabbed her running stuff. She tossed it on and grabbed a quick cup of coffee and headed outside. She had three hours until she reported down to the Opinion Station were she would do her work for the day. She was currently reviewing Country-Western infused Japanese music, something she found oddly satisfying. She ran with no intention, but slowly she was making here way towards the shady no-man lands of her city. There were places deep inside the mega-cities, which people claimed were free from surveillance. Privacy was paraphernalia and it went for an expensive rate though.
She had no hard currency, outlawed for two decades, her only knowledge of it was from the news. As she got deeper into areas she’d never been before, she started seeing more and more people. She was out of place in her running gear which screamed above a six hundred. People started giving her creepy looks, hungry looks, asking if they could help her.
She slammed into a man out of nowhere. He was old and black. Dreadlocks ran down to his knees. He was smoking and seemed to swallow her in his presence. “Off the beaten path my darling?”
She was out of breath, panicking. Why had she done this? She was a fool. She wasn’t built for this sort of thing. “Lost. I was running, not thinking. Got turned around.”
“Of course. My name is Marcus. What is yours?”
She shook his extended hand and tried to calm down. “Jane. My name is Jane.”
“Nice, to meet you Jane,” he said, with a smile. “Now I think if you head that way, just keep going straight. You will find your way out. Ignore whatever offers are made on your way out. No need to be down here.”
“Right,” she answered. She couldn’t move though. He stood there, taking slow drags off his cigarette. Her heart screamed run, but her mind worked the situation. She was already down here. She was free to talk to whoever she wanted, right? A hundred points in a week! What did it matter. She was lost. So what?
“Fixer,” the word popped out of her mouth.
“Ah, Jane was looking for something,” the man smiled even more. “A little freedom. A little number. Ah. I see. Amazing.” His faced beamed, a light in the dark alleyway. She realized they had somehow tiptoed away from the sidewalk. Marcus seemed perfectly innocent, too nice even, which meant she was freaking out. The words poured out her mouth without thought. “Its not for me, but my husband. A hundred in a week.”
“Very bad. I understand. Marcus help you.” Then he stood there smiling, waiting for what, Jen was not sure.“I don’t suppose you accept E-points though?”
“No Mam. I do not.” There was more silence. He was coming to the end of his smoke. He stubbed it out and it disappeared in his pocket. “What is your husband’s full legal name Jane? First and Last?”
The whole world seemed to stop. She was crossing over. She realized how stupid she was lying to him in the first place now. She began to feel faint. This was bad. She tried to speak, and the words got caught in her throat. “How much? How does this work?”
“His name?” His smile was gone.
She told him. He disappeared. She waited for a while, walking up and down the section of the street. Then she realized a crowd was forming. Then she remembered work. Realized she would be late. She had to stop at the store for clothes, and then the gym for a shower. She would never make it. She had never been late before. It would produce an action report from work. She realized how stupid she’d been.
All day she was distracted from her work. The meandering guitar strings formed a perfect accompaniment to her endless stream of paranoia. They would pick her up after work. She would be locked up, a four hundred when she got out. She checked her score all day. Both of theirs stayed right where they were. 550 and 679. Here number gave her some relief.
The music was booming down the hall when she got home. Something old, big band or something. She got closer, it was Frank Sintra, way old. Bad omen. What was he so excited about? Probably meant he’d lost it, slit his writs and floated around the room dying, to “Aint That a Kick In The Head.” She stood and composed herself. Nothing had happened. She went for a run and got to work early, that’s it.
The place was alive with light and activity. “ Come in!” Tom called rounding the corner. One looked at her knew something was wrong. “You don’t know do you?” He picked up his phone. “Look, 600, was a glitch in the system. Strangest day ever. I woke up. You weren’t there.”
“Oh great. Well, woke up, hurt you weren’t here. I just stared at my number until it was time to go to work. When I got there everyone was just acting crazy. Staring at me, conversations ending second I walked in the room. So all day I can’t work of course, just keep staring at my number, waiting it for it to take another hit. Ray pops in. Tell me to come by his office after work. We need to talk.” He shook off the effect of the memory and went back to finishing their plates in the kitchen. “So I think of running, maybe go underground, go crazy, get a Fixer, somebody. I waited for you to call, to check in, all sorts of terrible ideas went through my head.”
She was dying. Every bit of her wanted to tell him her stupid mistake. Share it with him. It was too much for her to take alone. Why had all this happened to them? Why was he so goddamn happy? He set a plate of steaming spaghetti in front of her. “Take your coat off, settle in for this next part.” She made no movement to take her coat off, but just kept staring at him like he was a stranger. “So yeah I checked it right before I went to him. 550. I almost threw up Jen, honestly. But no, I kept it cool and went and had the meeting. Ray looked all serious when I walked in, but then he broke, started giving it to me. You lucky bastard, unbelievable. Said I was canned, done that day, the order had been filed. There were murmurings though. The double hit on the CRN just wasn’t right. You were shit Tom, he told me, just not that shit. He started laughing at that. Ordered me a beer, finished his story. So they checked on the double hit of the CRN, realized it was an error, double entry of my termination papers, someone really wanted you gone, he said busting my balls. Said after all that, they talked, crunched my numbers, yada yada yada. Think there was apprehension about the mess up with the CRN, said they were thinking of letting me stay on, if I let the double hit go as a fluke. Of course I said hell yeah. Ray was happy as shit. Said I’d be back to 600 with twenty four hours, and there I am! Bam! Said it wasn’t the damnedest thing he’s ever seen, Ray did.” He took a mouthful of pasta and stared at her. “Honey! Smile!”
Her brain was seizing up with contradictory emotions. She had to check one more time. That this had worked. She picked up her phone, went to her page. Her heart fluttered at what she saw. Thomas Mundus-600. Jennifer Mundus-672.
“That’s weird,” Tom said, checking his phone now too. “You’re down five.”