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Sucks to Be You

 Paul Flinchbaugh caught the elevator just before the doors closed, and patiently rode up to the seventh floor. Patiently, because the elevator was crowded, and he was squeezed in tightly against three or four of the other passengers, all female, all skimpily clad, and all (judging from their giggling conversation) either supermodels or starlets. So he didn’t even mind when the elevator unexpectedly groaned to a stop for a few moments, or when it jiggled and swayed and shook as it restarted its climb.

Being happily crushed by feminine splendor nearly made Paul forget, for a moment, the exquisite Hortensia.

But the elevator doors eventually opened on his floor, and he reluctantly exited. As he entered the outer office of the Foundation he saw Terri sitting at the reception desk, a phone jammed between her ear and shoulder. Paul waved and took a seat. As luck would have it, the daily newspaper which he had forgotten to purchase that morning was on the low table next to his chair, already neatly folded. He picked it up.

“Oh, I don’t think it’s anything that serious, Mom,” Terri was saying to the phone, between sniffles. “Probably just a summer cold, you know. Anyway, I did go to the doctor, and they’re supposed to let me know about the results of the tests. So don’t worry, OK? Yes, I’ll call when I know anything. But I’m sure it’s just a little flu or something. So don’t worry, OK? Oh, and Mom? I need— Hello? Mom, you’re breaking up. Hello? Hello?” Terri shook her head and hung up. “Hi, Paul.”

“Hi there, Terri. Not feeling too well, huh?”

Terri hung up and dabbed her nose with a Kleenex. “I don’t know what it is,” she said. “I came down with it right after your last visit, a week ago, and it just won’t go away.”

“I’m sure you’ll be fine.”

“Thanks, Paul. And Dr. Letrun said for you to go right in as soon as you arrived. He sounded pretty excited.”

“Great! See you, Terri.” Paul put the newspaper down and crossed the room to the door marked “Dr. Ludovic Letrun, Special Projects.”

Dr. Letrun was hunched over a computer, typing madly, when Paul came in. He looked up.

“Ah, Mr. Flinchbaugh! I have good news. Fantastic news. Just let me finish this, and I’ll be right with you.” Dr. Letrun typed a moment more, then swore. “No, no, you imbecilic machine! Save, not delete! Well, the backup – what? Where is it? How could – oh, damn!”

Paul sat in the room’s other chair. As he did so something crinkled under him, and he reached down to find a twenty-dollar bill someone had let slip. Paul folded it into his pocket.

Dr. Letrun pushed his wheeled chair away from the computer with a snort of disgust. “Brand new machine! I don’t understand why it’s suddenly acting up. Maybe a virus.”

“Computers,” Paul commiserated.

“Yes, yes. But Paul! I have great news. Tell me, first, have you noticed anything strange in your life, recently?” Dr. Letrun fitted a tape into the machine on his desk and hit the Record button. The machine made a crunkling sound and then ground to a halt. Dr. Letrun slapped buttons, but couldn’t get it to start up again.

“Hmmm.” Paul scratched the back of his neck. “To tell you the truth, I guess I’ve been too busy to notice much at all. I went to the mall a few days ago, and I signed one of those little cards, you know a raffle kind of thing. And I won! A new car. And then my supervisor at work passed away, unexpectedly, and the bosses couldn’t get hold of Vince, who has more seniority, but they needed someone right away, so they gave me the job. And then the bank called, and told me they’d misunderestimated my account balance, so, you see, I just haven’t had time to think about how my life is going. It’s just been one thing after another.”

“I see! Yes, I see! Yes, this confirms my own data!”

“So I wanted to tell you, I wonder if it’d be all right if I backed out of this whole clinical trial experiment thing. Turns out I won’t be needing the seventy-five bucks after all.”

“As it happens, Mr. Finchbaugh, I believe that we are nearly finished with your part of the experiment, in any case,” Dr. Letrun said. “If you’ll just bear with us a bit longer. As I recall from our last interview, just before your, ah, treatment, you said you were having some problems with your car?”

“Oh, that!” Paul smiled. “It really doesn’t matter now, ‘cause I’ve got the new car, but I got a call on Wednesday. Some lawyer is getting together some kind of lawsuit, a class-action thing or something, and it looks like that problem I was having with my windshield wipers is going to get me a whole buttload of money. The manufacturer is anxious to make the case go away, I guess.”

“Really! That’s excellent.” Dr. Letrun grabbed a pad of paper and flipped through a few pages. He fished a pen out of his pocket, but when he tried to write with it nothing happened. He shook the pen, and blue ink shot all over the paper, his shirtfront, and his forehead. “Damn!” He wiped at the ink on his forehead with his handkerchief, but only succeeded in spreading the stain across more skin. “And your difficulties with, ah, what was her name? Henrietta? The girl you had lunch with one time, and then developed a perhaps unhealthy obsession –”

“Hortensia. Yeah. Oh! She really gave me a shock, a nice shock, on Thursday night. She called me – right out of the blue, after ignoring all my calls and emails and letters and late-night visits for the last six months, and now she says she’s dying to get back together! She’s going to meet me right down at the corner at three!”

Dr. Letrun chortled and rocked back and forth in his chair. “Yes, yes! Wonderful news!” His chair tilted back too far and he barked his shin against the desk while righting it. He grimaced and clutched at his injured leg.

“It sure is. You know, come to think of it, this whole week has been pretty good for me.”

“Certainly!” Dr. Letrun said through clenched teeth. Finally he released his shin and looked at Paul. “The balance, Mr. Flinchbaugh!” He jabbed at Paul with the ruined pen. “My treatment, with the gamma ray bombardments and the muon separations, the dark-matter origami, as I call it, and the quantum entanglements, and the strange attractors, have borne fruit! I have accomplished a tilt in your favor. I till must determine, however, where it is coming from. Where – where? Your increase in– ‘luck,’ you might call it – must result in a loss elsewhere, somewhere, or the entire system–” Ink from his forehead dripped into his left eye, and Dr. Letrun yelped and clutched at his face.

“It’s the First Law of Thermodynamics, you see,” The doctor said through clenched teeth, clutching at his eye. “Energy cannot be created or destroyed – so your local increase must result in a decrease among – unhhh!” Dr. Letrun’s hand still clutched at his eye. The other eye was filling with tears. With his free hand, he grasped at a box of tissues, but missed and instead plunged his hand into a open box of pushpins.

“Well, thank you, I guess,” said Paul. “Is that all you need? Because you know, it’s almost three now, and Hortensia –“

Dr. Letrun whimpered and waved him away.

Passing through the outer office, Paul waved at Terri. She was back on the phone, her face streaked with tears, and didn’t seem to notice him.

“But what do you mean, they haven’t even invented a name for it yet?” she was saying.

“Bye, Terri!” Paul said.

She didn’t look up at him. “Both lungs and the heart? Oh, God!” she said into the phone. “Doctor, how long – how long do I got?”

“I said ‘bye,’ Terri,” Paul said. “I probably won’t come back, so—“

“…so while the bones are liquefying, I’ll still be conscious? Feeling it all?” Terri said.

“Never mind,” said Paul, turning away. Strange. Terri was usually so polite and thoughtful. But Hortensia would be waiting, so Paul hurried out.

Once again, Paul caught the elevator just as the doors were closing. Sadly, there were no models or starlets this time. He was alone except for a sweating man in a business suit, clutching a cellphone with both hands.

“Right, Maurice,” the man was saying. “Sell. Everything – I mean everything – and get as much stock in WonStar Incorporated as you possibly can. A little bird there tells me this is going to be goddamn huge!”

Paul glanced at his watch.

“But you can’t let anyone else, anyone at all, know about this,” the man continued. “If word gets out, we’ll both be ruined, jailed, and some other shmuck would walk away with all that lovely, lovely cash!”

The doors opened and the man pushed past Paul to get out first.

“That reminds me,” Paul said to himself. “Now that I’ve got all this extra money, I really should think about buying some stocks. Maybe that WonStar company. Joe said he bought one of their microwaves or cellphones or whatever they sell, and he thought it was OK. Might be a good company to invest in.” He walked across the lobby and paused, looking out the window at the pattering raindrops sliding along the glass. He’d forgotten to bring an umbrella. Still, Hortensia was waiting, and what was a little water? He pushed through the revolving door onto the sidewalk.

The rain stopped as he stepped free of the door, and the sun revealed itself through tattered clouds. Paul turned left and began walking to the corner. Behind him he heard the squealing of brakes and a sickening crumple. He looked back: some kind of accident. Probably somebody not paying attention. Glancing at his watch, he saw that he had only two minutes until he met Hortensia.

As he walked the wind blew a lottery ticket against his jacket. Paul put it in his pocket. Ahead of him a young woman was attempting to push a baby carriage whose wheels had all locked. The baby was crying. Paul detoured around them and saw Hortensia at the corner, waiting.

Their eyes met. “Hortensia!” he called.

Hortensia nodded curtly, sending her curly red hair bouncing off her jacket collar. She folded her arms. “Paul,” she said as he neared. “I don’t know what I was thinking when I said I’d meet you here. I have to tell you, right now and forever, that I will never, never, never –“

“Hortensia! How wonderful to see you!” Paul enfolded Hortensia’s rigid form in his arms.

Hortensia wilted. Her arms came apart to clutch Paul close. “Oh, Paul!”

A postal worker passed by them. A letter fell from his bag and lay on the sidewalk, unnoticed. It was addressed to a health insurance company.

“Hortensia! Now we can always be together!” Paul drew back just far enough to look into his beloved’s eyes. “Darling! Why are you crying?”

Hortensia’s tears fell even more freely. “Oh, Paul!”

“Don’t worry, sweetheart! I’m here – and I’ll never leave you!”

Off in the distance, Paul heard a little girl. “Moppy! Moppy! Oh, Mom! Where could she be?”

“I know you won’t… dear.” The last word seemed torn from Hortensia’s throat.

“She’s just a little puppy, Mom! Why did she run away? Moppy! Moppy!”

“Then what’s wrong, sweetie?”

“There she is, Mom! Moppy! Moppy! Come here, girl!”

“I can’t leave you, Paul. I just can’t. But maybe you can meet someone else. I have some really cute friends. Veronica was almost in Playboy. Wouldn’t you like to meet her, Paul? Wouldn’t you? Please?”

Tires screeched. “Moppy!”

Paul started to turn his head toward the source of the sound, but Hortensia put both hands on the sides of his face, forcing him to look into her wild eyes. “Or my little sister – she looks quite a bit like me, and she’s very nice—“

Across the street an opening car door dented a Mercedes. A business card dropped out of a man’s suit jacket pocket. A woman stumbled as her shoe heel broke. On the skyline a funnel of smoke and fire erupted and shot into the sky.

“Oh, don’t be silly, Hortensia,” Paul said. I’ll never look at another woman! And now I somehow know, I really know, that you’ll never leave me!”

Down the block, Dr.Letrun burst through the door, looked around wildly, gasping for air, and spotted the couple. Gazing at Hortensia, Paul didn’t see him, didn’t hear his shouted words, and didn’t notice when the bus slammed into the running scientist. Lucky – it was a nauseating thing to see.

“Oh, Paul! I can’t help it – I can’t believe I’m saying this – but I do, I do love you! God help me! Oh, God!” Hortensia sobbed, but lifted her face up to be kissed.

A couple streets away a rope snapped and a window-washer’s platform tilted alarmingly. The window washer scrabbled for a grip.


This story originally appeared in Perihelion SF

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