Category Archives: Fiction

Fiction: The Difference Principle

Jessica pointed at a pile of rags beside a dumpster.

“This is the guy?” I asked.  I looked up and down the filthy alley we were standing in.  “This is a person?”

“It is,” she said tentatively, and then she checked the little brown Moleskine she carried everywhere.  “It is,” she repeated more confidently.  “A lot of them aren’t even this clean, so you’d better get used to it.”

“Sir?”  I crouched down closer to what I assumed was his head, trying to ignore the stench of cigarette smoke and sour beer and body odor.  “Sir?”  I asked again.

“Go ‘way.”  The voice sounded rusty, as if it weren’t used very often, but it was indeed coming from where I’d guessed his head was.  “Leave me ‘lone.”

“Keith Runson?” I asked.  I’d memorized the name on the drive over.  The pile shifted.

“Who’s askin’?”

“My name is Harry…”  Jessica kicked me, and I immediately remembered that we weren’t supposed to tell them our names.  Shit.  But this guy didn’t seem like he’d remember it, so I kept going. “We’re from Original Position.”

He poked his head out of the blankets. His hair and face clearly hadn’t been washed in months, he had the decrepit teeth common to those who prioritized drug abuse over hygiene, and his eyes were pretty much the saddest I’d ever seen.  The computer clearly knew its business.

“The char’ty?” he asked.

I puzzled over my answer for too long, and Jessica stepped in.  “Original Position is not a charity.  It’s a fundamental part of the social contract.”

“I never no signed no contract,” he objected.

“No,” Jessica explained, in a tone indicating that she’d delivered this exact explanation countless times before, “but you would have…”

“I never would have signed no contract,” he insisted.

“Maybe not in your lifetime,” she told him, “but before you were born you certainly would have. This is well understood.”

“Before I was born I ain’t would have signed no contract!”

“Before you even knew who you were,” Jessica patiently explained.  “Back when you didn’t know if you’d be the President or if you’d be … well … you.”

“I am me,” he growled.

“You’re not just you,” Jessica told him.  “According to our computers you’re the worst-off person in the United States.”

“Well, fuck you!”  He spat at her, but she didn’t flinch.  She’d warned me that they often got angry.  It was an occupational hazard.

“Don’t spit,” she patiently chided him.  “We’re here to help.  Before you were born, back behind the Veil of Ignorance, you would have wanted to live in a society that focused on the well-being of the worst-off-person.”

“I’m not that ignorant,” he objected.  “And you don’t know what I would have wanted.”

She ignored his objection.  “Right now you are that worst-off person.  And so we’re here to make you better off.  What would you like?  Within reason it’s yours.  Food?  Shelter?  Toilets?  A job?”

“Booze,” he wheezed.  “I want booze.”

Nine times out of ten they want booze.  They’d warned us in training.  I opened the unlabeled messenger bag Original Position had given me and pulled out a bottle of cheap whiskey.  He grabbed it out of my hand, opened it, and started drinking before I could say anything.

“Congratulations, Mister Runson,” Jessica told him.  “You’re no longer the worst-off person.”  I don’t think he even heard her.

“What did you think of your first assignment?” she asked me as we walked back to the car.

I thought for a while before I asked, “Was it really a good idea to give him whiskey?”  I didn’t feel like we’d been particularly philanthropic.

“A good idea?  Probably not.  Possibly he’ll end up on our list again someday.  But for the meantime he’s no longer the worst-off person, which means that our attention is needed elsewhere.”

“I didn’t realize it would be so depressing,” I told her.

“Rawls didn’t call his book A Theory of Why Justice is Fun.  Just wait until you get a quadriplegic.”

I tried not to think about that.

“Let’s see who’s next.”  She opened up the Moleskine.  “Ooh, child abuse!”

Fiction: Dribman’s Army

Every few months NPR has a Three-Minute Fiction short story contest. The “Three-Minute” really means “600 words,” and each contest consists of one or more constraints that the story has to satisfy.

The October contest (which was the first I heard about) specified the first and last sentences of the story: “Some people swore that the house was haunted.” and “Nothing was ever the same again after that.” The first is fine and easy to work with, but the last caused me no end of trouble. Also, 600 words is really, really hard. Somehow I produced a 750-word story, and then I spent several days rewriting all of my sentences just to make them shorter.

However, my story did not win. Most of the finalists (as well as the winner) bored me pretty severely, although I did enjoy this one. Since the winner has been announced and it’s not me, I’m suddenly free to post the story for your reading pleasure and/or displeasure. Enjoy!

Dribman’s Army

Some people swore that the house was haunted. Certainly by movie rules it should have been. It was built on an Indian burial ground. In 1966 the infamous “LSD Babysitter” cooked and ate her charges in its kitchen. In the 1970’s it was home to a coven of witches, in the 1980’s to a Crüe of Satanists, and in the 1990’s to a cult of UFO-worshippers. The only thing it lacked was, well, a ghost.

Ignoring this deficiency, Jake Henson bought the place to fleece superstitious tourists. He served “Eggs and Ectoplasm” breakfasts every morning, conducted “Ghost Tours” every afternoon, and rented out the house for Goth weddings as many evenings as he could.

He made up names and stories for its spectral residents: Matchitehew, an Algonquin chief, objected to breakfasters disturbing his eternal slumber. Sandra, eaten by her babysitter, sought revenge against drug users. Aaron was a churchgoing teen whose ritual sacrifice by the Satanists kept his soul from ascending to heaven, while Heather was spiritually stuck on earth after committing suicide to board a nonexistent spaceship supposedly hiding inside a comet.

Each spirit got its own room, rigged with sound effects, period props, and theatrical lighting. Thanks to Jake’s showmanship, the ghosts soon became de facto members of the community. Parents abandoned “users are losers” anti-drug pamphlets in favor of scary stories about Sandra. Ms. Wickman, the Social Studies teacher, made Matchitehew the focal point of her “what we owe the Native Americans” lesson. Reverend Wallingham frequently used Aaron to demonstrate the “reality” of Satan. Even the head of the local “skeptics” organization referenced Heather when discussing the improbability of alien visitation.

Jake’s troubles began when he caught the attention of “Ghost Debunkers,” a cable television show devoted to gonzo exposition of supernatural claims. Its host, Warren Dribman, was a champion skateboarder turned prank-caller turned investigative journalist. Every day he chose a new disguise and tried sneaking a hidden camera into the house. Some days he succeeded, and some days he got caught, but every day Jake felt pressure to make his spirits harder to debunk. Bedsheets with holes were replaced with tissue paper then with flickering lights. Ghostly howls were replaced with electrical crackling then with wind noise. Detailed biographies were replaced with three-sentence blurbs then with first names and generic details.

Dribman, in turn, asked his Internet fans for help. Soon “Dribman’s Army” accounted for a majority of visitors to the house. They harassed tour guides. They staged phony weddings as distractions and searched rooms marked “NO ENTRY.” And in the process they bought lots of tickets.

Finally, a stressed-out Jake asked Dribman to meet. Dribman arrived early one morning and found Jake in the “Sandra” room clutching a ledger.

“You’re making me a ton of money right now.” Jake showed him the figures. “But your minions are eventually going to shut me down! Can’t we reach some sort of agreement?”

“You want me to sell out Dribman’s Army?”

“No more than you sold out Dribman’s Skaterats or Dribman’s Dialers!” Jake was turning red.

“I suppose half of the profits might do it.”

“Half? There’s no way you’re getting…” Jake clutched his chest and collapsed.

Dribman picked up the ledger and studied it greedily. After a minute, he fished in his pocket, found a joint, and dropped it next to Jake’s body. He flipped on his camera, positioned it to capture both Jake and the “Sandra hates it when you do drugs” sign, and narrated, “This is Dribman, and I’m shocked to inform you that ghosts are real!”

Nothing was ever the same again after that.