Hello and welcome to episode four of The Future History of Newburg, a series of short stories about a peculiar town on a peculiar planet where science and magic mingle in an effort to save the worlds!
In the last episode we hiked around the forest with Ranger Andy, and ran away from Bigfoot. Well, half of him anyway. Who knows, maybe Bigfoot’s a she. This episode will be something completely different. I hope wherever you are, you’re relaxed and happy and ready to listen to episode four, Purchase Price.
Without removing the hanger, Amelia held a blouse up against herself. She looked down and tried to judge the fit. There were no mirrors in this part of the store and she wasn’t committed enough to it to get a fitting room. The blouse definitely didn’t go with the faded, bootcut jeans she was wearing. She gave her shoulders a quick shrug, deciding to stick with a green shirt in her other hand. “Red was never your color anyway,” she said to herself as she returned the shirt to the rack, making sure it was equally spaced, and the blouse was on the hanger evenly. The people who worked at The Garment would have one less thing to straighten up before they closed.
It then occurred to Amelia that this was the first time that she had been shopping that she didn’t rate the store mannequins by dressing difficulty. After five years in retail, she knew which models legs detached and which didn’t. For the first time in an eternity she realized she was in a store, and she didn’t feel disdain for the overly bright, fluorescent lights that seemed to extract a person’s life essence.
Amelia had done some research and found that the lights were a retail invention out of Lower Newburg designed to keep shoppers in stores. The lights drew out a mixture of melanin and joy which made shoppers want to fill the void by buying bright clothing, or buying anything really. But all this took its toll on the people who were in the store all the time, the sales staff. This lead to many an insincere, “Welcome to The Garment,” as well as an abnormal pallor.
Amelia hadn’t actually been shopping in a while, preferring to order online and have the product appear at her home. Couriers could deliver some items, but she preferred the convenience of The Distribution Center. The Distribution Center-which also ran the Newburg bank-had been around for so long that no one remembered if it was powered through scientific advances or through sage magic. Either way, the products ordered online simply appeared inside the customer’s home… at unpredictable times. Sometimes at night. Sometimes in the customer’s bed. If a package was ever missing or delayed, The Distribution Center always encouraged customers to check their freezer first. Every now and then, a package would materialize there and go unnoticed for days.
Amelia had never had that happen to her, but she had been woken up at two o’clock one morning by a package of Wonder-Gro orchid fertilizer materializing next to her that had then oozed out of its box and onto her quilt. Her bedding expanded rapidly to blanket the entire bedroom. This incident is what led her out to a physical store to buy new linens. While she was there, she looked out across the street to The Garment and convinced herself she could use some new shirts.
When she handed her purchase to the extremely pale man at the checkout counter, whose nametag read Chazz, Amelia immediately knew a few things about him. 1) He neither had sage powers nor scientific genius, or if he did he had no aim to use either of these abilities to “save the worlds.” 2) He had onions for lunch. There’s just no hiding that. 3) He was paid the same amount as any sage or scientific genius in Newburg.
All working adults in Newburg received the same wage. The powers that be believed economic equality was an important foundational step in saving the worlds. However, if a professional project showed significant promise to make the worlds better places to live, people were allowed more credits to fund their projects.
Of course, many of these credits found their way out of the labs and into the personal pockets of people like Dr. Gladys Weber. Amelia had dug into the town archives and found that Dr. Weber had not only invented InivisiTech, but she was the person responsible for Newburg’s integrated computer network, among many other things. Amelia had picked up hints as well that Dr. Weber was currently working on another monumental project. It was no wonder that she was extremely wealthy.
Certainly, there were people who were not as fortunate. Those who couldn’t work were not eligible to receive credits. There were also those who wouldn’t work and chose to obtain their credits by dishonest means. There were some people who, regardless of where their credits came from, spent all they had at Newburg’s casinos. Corruption and crime had tipped the scales in Newburg regardless of the founder’s intentions.
Amelia placed her thumb on the register so it could scan her print and approve her transaction. “Would you like to save 10% by opening up a rewards chip with us?” Chazz asked as a white, wispy vapor drifted out of his skin. Amelia watched it float to the fluorescent lights above where it made a brief, crackling noise like a bug caught in a zapper.
“No. Thank you,” she said quietly. Looking back at him, she knew more about him now. She understood what it was like to work in this environment day after day. She saw herself in Chazz’s apathetic eyes, and in his hand movements as he waved the anti-theft enchantment device mechanically over her new possessions. It was like being in a time warp.
She had escaped that life. After years of working in a job that was clearly not a good fit for her, she finally stepped out on her own. She was living on her terms now as a freelance journalist and following her own curiosities in this weird town. Yet, part of her was jealous of Chazz. His life was secure and safe. He worked regular hours and left his work at the door. He didn’t stay up until one o’clock obsessing over sentence structure or pouring over volumes of archives to get one tiny bit of information.
Being a freelance journalist wasn’t as glamorous as it sounded. There were long and irregular hours. Sometimes no one was interested in her articles. Amelia spent days unearthing information and pounding the pavement, and there wasn’t much to show for it. Except for maybe a new green shirt. And bags under her eyes from staring at her digital notebook for too long.
The door chimes at the Garment rang out and a Xan with pearlescent, lavender skin entered the store followed by an entourage of people. Xans had a way of moving that made people want to follow them. Chazz immediately rotated his com-ring and “caution wet floor” signs projected every few feet above the path Xan had taken. Chazz grabbed a mop and began as best he could to sop up the slime left behind from Xan’s slug-like foot.
It’s too late for him, Amelia thought as she watched him mop methodically. If Chazz ever had a desire to do something else with his life, it had probably been sucked away along with his melanin.
She took her purchase from the counter and clutched it together with her bag of new bed linens. Then a sudden realization gripped her with fear. How many people looked at her now the way she looked at Chazz - knowing her without her knowing, seeing her walk a similar path they had taken? How many people were assuming depressing things about her future? Had she merely traded one miserable life for another one?
Amelia shambled out of the store numbly. She looked up and down the street not knowing where to go next. Standing at the edge of the curb, she turned her face toward the night sky with its eccentric moons that seemed to be winking at her in their present phase. She looked past them to the sparkling stars that were so foreign to her grandfather when he arrived on this world nearly one hundred years ago. Stars that were so familiar to her. These stars had seen ages pass. They’d seen countless lives of humans and Xans falling into their predictable patterns.
Amelia had an urge to break free of their gaze and do something crazy, something the stars would never see coming. She could take the Vactrain to the Island District and meet the Huakai’i people. Or maybe she’d climb to the very top of Mt. Farther. But what would she do when she got there? She wanted to do something that she didn’t even expect. Maybe she’d fall.
A cab driven by Fred the horse approached swiftly down the otherwise deserted street. The horse’s shod hooves clapped heavily on the cobblestones. The thick, black coach wheels were rimmed in steel, and they sliced through dust and grime at the road’s edge. There was something alluring about the way the metal met stone, and Amelia wondered what would happen if she just…stepped out into the road.
Fred’s hooves slid briefly on the slick street as the cab came to an abrupt stop a short distance from Amelia, startling her from her impulsive day dream. A man stumbled out of the cab in an abused overcoat and moth eaten top hat. He stood on the sidewalk and rubbed his hands together as if he was cold on this balmy evening. Then, he looked frantically up and down the street as Fred trotted forward again, and the cab disappeared around the next corner. The man rushed to Amelia who stood her ground as he thrust his palms toward her face. “Smell my hands!” he insisted. Amelia stared wide-eyed at the two surprisingly clean-looking palms suspended inches away from her nose.
And… she did. She smelled them. She took a slow, steady inhale of a stranger’s hands. She caught a whiff of … sunshine. They smelled exactly like sun streaming through the windows on a bright summer morning. She resisted the urge to bury her face in the man’s palms. Instead, she took a step back.
“Sunbeams, right?” the man asked.
“Yes!” Amelia answered, shocked. “How did you-“
“Oh ho! I knew I got the potion correct this time! This discovery will rake in the credits for the lab for sure! I just needed a test subject, and what better place to go than The Garment to test an antidote for Buyer’s Remorse.”
“That stuff on your hands…”
“Lotion Potion,” he corrected.
“That lotion potion, is an antidote for Buyer’s Remorse?”
“Yes! It worked! And I dare say I arrived just in time, eh?”
“I had Buyer’s Remorse?”
“My dear, you had a WHOPPER! Standing there with your shoulders slumped, clutching your bags, about to step out in front of a moving carriage?” He arched a wooly eyebrow at her accusingly.
Amelia shifted the bags from one hand to the other. “Oh, I wouldn’t have actually done it,” she said staring at the toes of her ballet flats.
“That’s what they all might have said. But now look at you! Look at that smile! You’re definitely not off to the mountains now are you?”
“How did you-“
“Who knows what you’ll do now?!!? Sky’s the limit! That’s what my father always said, he was a coal miner. Good evening dearie, I’ve got a sun lotion to patent!” The man marched away whistling and clicking his heels when he reached the corner.
Amelia stared dumbfounded after him before calling out, “Thanks!” She doubted he heard her.
“Well that was wild,” she thought as she crossed the street and began her walk home along the cozy, lamp-lit streets of northeast Midtown.
She had smelled a strangers hands. She’d breathed in the scent of sunshine! She bought a very pretty, green shirt.
Feeling refreshed, Amelia jogged up the steps to her apartment and hung her new shirt in the closet. She put the clean sheets on her bed and made sure the quilt was smooth and taut before she kicked off her shoes and crawled on. Sitting cross legged, she continued her research on the flora and fauna of Newburg’s forests. Every few minutes she would pull the stylus free from her hair bun and jot down a few notes in her digital notebook. She was looking forward to her interview the following morning with a Newburg Parks and Forest Ranger. He wanted to come forward with his account of a headless monster in the woods, and she couldn’t wait to write the article.
That concludes episode four, Purchase Price. I hope you enjoyed it. The Future History of Newburg was written, narrated, and produced by R. Dawn Hutchinson. To find out more, please visit me at rdawnhutchinson.com. Please hit the subscribe button on your podcast provider, so you’ll always know when a new episode comes out. Thank you so much for listening and helping the story unfold.