Contest #189 shortlist ⭐️

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Contemporary Fiction Sad

Who’s the stupid bitch now, Ma? Christine wonders. Her heart flutters as her prospect and neighbour, Mrs. Martinez, holds the jar of Crystal Dreams in her palms, rotating it with her calloused fingers, squinting at the label. At 25 mL it fits in one hand, like an old fashioned ink jar.

I’m helping people.

“How many can I put you down for?” Christine puts on her biggest smile and takes out an order form and pen. She hopes it’s a big number. At just over $50 a unit, she imagines a big payday – finally something to dent the debt.

She hopes it’s a number.

Mrs. Martinez purses her lips and says, “Hmm.” She rotates the jar another time and a half, then looks at Christine, her glasses smearing her eyes. “You know,” she says, “I like it.” The way she draws it out hides a but. “I heard on the news though, they’re saying it’s not real? Like, it’s just water?”

It’s real, Christine tells herself, swallowing a brick.

“It’s real!” Christine says, grinning even wider. “Of course there’s water in it – that’s the point, after all, because water is both a neutral ensympathizer and the premier cleansing agent – but there’s also so much more. And actually, we’re really proud of our water! Our experts source only the purest.”

As she speaks, she picks up the Kilimanjaro pamphlet. Mrs. Martinez puts down the Crystal Dreams jar and looks at the glossy waterfall photos while Christine goes on about the restorative powers of the wisest mountain on earth.

“And I wouldn’t try to sell you something I didn’t use myself,” Christine adds.

Mrs. Martinez raises a skeptical eyebrow.

“It’s true!” Christine says. “I used to have serious problems sleeping, but it’s actually Crystal Dreams that helped me.” She picks up the jar, and holds it so it’s right between them so that Mrs. Martinez’s eyes follow it. “This is a lifesaver.”

Mrs. Martinez startles. “Truly?”

“Oh yes. I used to need sleeping pills all the time.”

I used to need more than just sleeping pills, she thinks, but keeps to herself. Back then, any pill she found around the house was fair game. Back then, she still lived with her mother. And back then, since her mother had her problems with pills, there were always all sorts to choose from.

“I just couldn’t get to sleep without them,” she says.

Of course, that was probably because of the anxiety. Because of her mother.

Her mother, the eminent philosopher, with her never-ending, thought-provoking questions.

Questions like, “Why the hell did you drop out of high school? You’re not even pregnant, you dumb bitch.”

Or, “When the hell are you going to get a job and help me out? As soon as you hit eighteen, you’re out on your ass.”

Or the classic, teary-eyed, “Goddamn, Christine! Why did I piss away my best years for you? You’re dumber than I am, and I was dumb enough to get knocked up by your deadbeat dad.”

And she was an honest woman. On Christine’s eighteenth, she gave her a duffel bag – used – ordered her to pack, and left her with one final bit of advice. “Find yourself a man, dummy, because you won’t ever amount to anything.”

But I did amount to something, Ma, Christine thinks. I’m my own woman now. I run my own business. I’m not wasting my life begging for tips in the same shitty diner for thirty years. Desperate for any old pill. I’m actually helping people. I’m making a difference.

“So you say this really helped you sleep?” Mrs. Martinez asks.

Christine hands her the jar and nods. “Just three drops a night. It worked for me pretty much immediately.”

Well, pretty much. It’s still a work in progress. And maybe she still needs the occasional pill, when Ma crosses her thoughts. But otherwise, she feels great.

“Okay, but how does it work? That’s what I don’t get.”

“It’s simple,” says Christine, and then she smiles in anticipation of the well-rehearsed slogan. “It’s Simply Sympathy. Our line of sympatheutical products all work on the same basic principle: like cures like. What that means is, we can take a tiny amount of whatever is making you sick, specially treat it, and then you can use it to get better.”

Mrs. Martinez expresses something that isn’t quite a word, but rings of interest. “Okay, but, like, how does it do it? It’s not magic, is it?”

“No, no,” Christine says, waving the question away for emphasis. Training covered this – the most asked question. “Of course not, nothing like that. This is all based on well researched sympatheutical science, and is founded on the ancient healing traditions that we all used to rely on, before… well. Before some big corporations convinced everyone that chemicals were good for you.” She shrugs – well practiced, noncommittal – as if to say, I think it’s silly, but if that’s what people want to do, it’s a free country. Then she adds, “It’s all about vibrations.”

She explains about synesthetic entanglement, where the healing particles in a sympatheutical solution bond with the illness particles in some affliction, and realign them. She talks about lunar dosing, and how light – and specific kinds of light, like the moon’s – can prime pure water to store natural harmonies. She asserts that all things have energy fields, and so naturally the position of the stars impacts the best time to administer treatment.

“Wow,” says Mrs. Martinez. She takes a moment to read the label of the Crystal Dreams jar again. “Is that true?”

The same question Christine had asked her mentor, Audrey. Although where Mrs. Martinez bore an interested expression, a younger Christine snorted derisively.

“Honey,” said Audrey, with a good natured shake of her head. “Honey.” She took Christine by the arm and spun her around. “You see that BMW? Yeah?” She spun her around again. “You see the size of my house? And you do remember that I told you I won’t be here next week, right? Why was that?”

“Because you’ll be on the Simply Sympathy cruise,” Christine said.

“That’s right. Look, Christine, you’re a smart girl. Do you think I could have all of this if our product wasn’t the real thing? Do you think people would give us their money for any old junk? Trust in our product, honey, because it’s not just a product. It’s a way of life.” Then she swept her hand over her belongings again. “And all this? It’s yours for the taking too, Christine. Just have faith, reach out, and grab life. And best of all, we’re helping people!”

Christine pictured herself seizing what life had to offer. She saw the car, the house, the money. But more than that, she saw the respect. Audrey’s other mentees, some of whom had since graduated to become team leaders or regional managers, looked up to her. Here was a woman who made it, and who was willing to help her do the same.

“So what’ll it be, honey?” said Audrey. “The universe is calling. Are you going to answer the phone?”

Yes!

“Great! I love that energy. So how many cases do you think you can move this week?”

“Um… two?”

Audrey laughed. “Oh, you’re so funny, Christine! Okay, I’ll put you down for eight. Oh, don’t worry. You’ll be running your own team in no time. And Christine? More importantly, you’ll be running your own life now.”

Now turned out to be six weeks and another loan ago.

“It’s all true, Mrs. Martinez,” Christine says. She’s starting to feel her grin in her jaw.

“Mm,” Mrs. Martinez hums. Then, “Okay! I’ll take it!”

“Excellent! So how many can I put you down for? You said you play bridge with your friends, right? Well, did you know our products make excellent gifts too? I’ll put you down for four?”

Four is a nice start, Christine thinks. It will help Mrs. Martinez with her insomnia, and her friends will appreciate her gift too, which will lead to repeat business. One good turn deserves another. She’s already picturing the next order. Eight? Twelve? Twenty!? But four is a nice start.

“Oh, my,” Mrs. Martinez says. She digs around in her purse. “I’m so sorry, but I only have forty dollars.”

Christine feels cold. She feels her mother’s sour breath snaking down her neck. And she knows, tonight is a pill night.

One jar is so little, and forty cuts painfully into her margin.

But forty is also not nothing.

I’m helping people, she tells herself.

“We can work with that, Mrs. Martinez.”

March 14, 2023 21:38

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51 comments

Suma Jayachandar
08:52 Mar 15, 2023

Michal, This cuts deep, like unhealed wounds Christine fosters from her childhood trauma. For such a survivor, without an agency to express herself or the leverage to launch in a different arc, success can be nearly impossible. Add to it the anger and desperation to prove herself, she is definitely down a slippery slope. And that’s where Christine stands right now. Maybe, just maybe if she takes a moment in future to deal with her anger and resentment she might get back on her feet. I maybe too optimistic but will definitely root for her. Ok...

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Michał Przywara
21:09 Mar 15, 2023

Thanks, Suma. Yeah, we can definitely carry old baggage with us, and doing so can blind us to what's happening, what we're doing. And if your earliest years are sabotaged, life's stacked against you. It's a tough place to be. Is she really helping people, by selling 25 mL jars of water for $50? If she's honest, probably no. But what does that mean? That her mother was right? Can't accept that either. I think you're right about the anger and resentment. It's hard to move on while still clutching onto them. But it's also hard to let go. ...

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Suma Jayachandar
16:42 Mar 24, 2023

Congratulations!

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Michał Przywara
20:34 Mar 24, 2023

Thanks :)

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Story Time
16:18 Mar 28, 2023

"She explains about synesthetic entanglement, where the healing particles in a sympatheutical solution bond with the illness particles in some affliction, and realign them." Michal, you are astonishing. I feel like every time I read one of your stories, I learn a new way of looking at something familiar. I'm also fascinated with stories that look at how we process anger and this is one that will stick with me.

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Michał Przywara
02:54 Mar 29, 2023

Thanks, Kevin! That's high praise, coming from a writer I frequently learn from. Yeah, there's a lot of ground to be explored with stories and strong, negative emotions. And I'm sure there as many ways to process them as there are people. I appreciate the feedback!

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Riel Rosehill
10:00 Mar 28, 2023

Oooh a piramid schemer main character! Love that. and all the layers to it - she is young, poor. and naive, without a support network - the exact type of person vulnerable to these scams, that then she ends up doing. And on some level she knows this, though she wants to believe she is helping and that she is telling the truth, sort of. A flawed protagonist who wants to be a good person, but also a respected, succesful person in society and so, for that and just for the promise of getting by, she is willing to lie to herself about her job and...

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Michał Przywara
20:33 Mar 28, 2023

Thank you, Riel :) "she wants to believe she is helping" - yeah, right on. We're the hero in our own lives, aren't we? But sometimes it's hard to reconcile that with reality. It's an ugly spot to be in, but worth exploring. Thanks for reading :)

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Wally Schmidt
04:29 Mar 25, 2023

Who knew that what Reedsy has been missing all along was an indictment of MLM schemes? So glad that you were the one to write about it. As usual, you gave the story your deft touch with humor and philosophy. Also admiring the vocabulary-inventing thing you do. The utter sadness knowing that Christine is a victim who will most likely never outpace her circumstances, but always believes that she will, is what makes all of these schemes so destructive and perpetuating. The way you shine your light on the humanity of your characters week after ...

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Michał Przywara
02:09 Mar 26, 2023

Thanks, Wally! That's made my day :) Yeah, it can be a brutal cycle. Not inescapable, but it can sure seem like it. I think the sunk costs fallacy has got to play a role in it too, like when you're convinced a slot machine is hot, you're due, so in goes another coin. Just a bit more work, just one more loan, and this is bound to pay off. I appreciate the feedback!

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Nathaniel Miller
01:40 Mar 25, 2023

A deft intertwining of an almost-funny scam sales spiel and a compelling, traumatic backstory. Really nicely done, Michal. The first sentence sets such a great tone for the piece, and you reveal the backstory so well in such gradual flashbacks. And the spiel itself is compelling, too. I found myself hooked quite nicely. I think, on a broader level, this is really an examination of what our perception of success and truth is. Is success, as Audrey would like us to believe, simply amassing wealth? And does that wealth validate the product ...

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Michał Przywara
01:19 Mar 27, 2023

Thank you, Nathaniel! Yeah, it's easy to dismiss or even hate certain occupations or people, but they can also make for very interesting characters. You raise some excellent questions about success. Is there even a single definitive answer? I suspect if we leave it up to other people to define success, we'll probably find that we never attain it - and therefore, we must keep chasing that elusive carrot. I appreciate the feedback!

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Laurel Hanson
16:55 Mar 24, 2023

Congratulations!

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Michał Przywara
20:34 Mar 24, 2023

Thank you!

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Susan Catucci
16:51 Mar 23, 2023

Hi Michal - aaargh, frustrated on Christine's behalf, on behalf of anyone so desperately seeking something, they miss what's happening right in front of them. I thought this was the literary equivalent of being painted into a corner and, once you realize you've trapped yourself because you didn't think beyond the moment, all that's left is waiting for the paint to dry. A lot bubbling under the surface of this one, Michal - sad tapestry that needs to be looked at closer. I enjoy every time I get to ponder one of your creations. Good stuff.

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Michał Przywara
20:41 Mar 23, 2023

"literary equivalent of being painted into a corner" wow, thanks! That's a great way of looking at it. You're right, a burning desire can definitely focus us towards a goal, but it can well blind us to other things. Thanks for the feedback :)

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14:04 Mar 23, 2023

Brilliant commentary on the human condition, per normal, Mr. P. So much to unpack here. Oof. MLM is a whole 😮 And If a person never feels wanted or loved by his or her own parents, then how can anyone (or anything) fill that hole? Excellent from first to last word. Love you!

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Michał Przywara
20:40 Mar 23, 2023

Right back at you :) Yeah, MLM is something else. Even if the product's good, there's a tendency to cannibalize its own workers. And some people get stuck. Thanks for reading :)

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Sally Jupe
19:37 Mar 26, 2023

Great story yet again Michal. I love your use of dialogue. So much said here without too many words and so relevant to the prompt. Had to Google MLM though to understand you guys discussions! :) In the UK we only know them as Pyramid selling schemes, which thankfully seemed to have died a death.

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Michał Przywara
03:40 Mar 27, 2023

Thanks, Sally! I'm particularly glad about "So much said here without too many words" :) Pyramid schemes are actually illegal in Canada too. I think the distinction with an MLM is that there is an actual product being sold, instead of just making money via new signups - but yeah, the multilevel structure sure *can* look like a pyramid :) I appreciate the feedback!

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Josephine Harris
12:13 Mar 23, 2023

Great pacing and dialogue. The grabbing point for me is the contrast between Christine's innocence and her mother's cynicism. One roots for Christine because she's had a rotten start, but know she's doomed as its a pyramid scheme and she doesn't have the killer instinct to carry it off. Her willingness to settle for one bottle and reduce the price illustrates this. Well done. I could read stuff like this all day.

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Michał Przywara
20:46 Mar 23, 2023

Thanks, Josephine! Yeah, she definitely doesn't seem suited to the line of work. Sometimes it's best to cut our losses and move on to something better, but that can be a hard lesson. I'm glad you enjoyed the story :)

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Rebecca Miles
06:10 Mar 23, 2023

I'm sure many women will be nodding as they read this Michal; it's the classic side hustle, shifting beauty products or tupperware. You capture the sales patter well, where dreams are jarred, with neologisms like sympatheutical; yep, all that pseudo stuff that is designed to convince the unwilling victim. But this story shows us the desperate backstory behind the sales spiel; the vitriol behind that pot of cream/water. The explosive start captured immediately where it all began and why Christine wants to persuade more than just the person on...

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Michał Przywara
23:40 Mar 23, 2023

Sent you an email. Thanks for the feedback! Yes, feeling trapped is what I was going for. I think that feeling can make us do things we wouldn't in better circumstances.

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Rebecca Miles
19:14 Mar 24, 2023

Thanks ever so much Michal; I'll reply soon. I like to think of your kitchen pock marked from all the champagne corks flying:-)

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Michelle Oliver
23:05 Mar 21, 2023

What a great cautionary tale. I have lost friends due to the MLM scams they’ve become addicted to. The patter you depicted is so accurate. The deluded, almost manic belief that what they are peddling is the real deal and will cure all your woes. The deeper in they get, the more determined they are. Your MC reeks of desperation. She has foolishly jumped in with more than she can handle and is now in desperate straits. I get the feeling that she is actually a lovely person, who has been dealt a bad hand and is now in over her head. She keeps j...

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Michał Przywara
21:11 Mar 22, 2023

Thanks, Michelle! I think you got exactly what I was going for. Christine's not a villain. She's not exactly innocent either, but this isn't pure malice or her trying to exploit. I think morals become real interesting when they're thrown against reality. If your well-being or survival is at stake (or if you have an opportunity and nobody is watching :) do you compromise your beliefs? If you don't, are your beliefs still serving you? I don't think there's any easy, one-size-fits-all answer here. There does often seem to be a mismatch betwee...

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Molly Kelash
21:15 Mar 20, 2023

Many layers to the way you handled this prompt, Michal—addiction, trauma, the desire to pull oneself out of those, but not really knowing how and sadly falling prey to multilevel marketing in the meantime. This prompt intimidated me and you handled it wonderfully—the reader can smell the poor protagonist’s desperation. Fantastic!

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Michał Przywara
01:44 Mar 21, 2023

Thanks, Molly! That's what I was hoping to achieve. She's not a bad person, but she's in a bad spot, and stuck. I think getting out of these situations is as interesting as getting into them, and there are no doubt as many reasons as there are people. I appreciate the feedback!

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Rake Silva
14:20 Mar 18, 2023

Hey Michal, Great story, friend. I think this is a fine example of using characters as a portal to explore theme. Your writing is concise and blunt and you pull no punches. You also got the saleswoman facade and gimmickry spot on, while seamlessly delving into her trauma at the same time. It's awesome to have competition like you. All the best on your future submissions.

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Michał Przywara
02:01 Mar 19, 2023

Thanks, Rake! I'm glad you enjoyed it :) And I agree, lots of good competition on this site. Every week generates a lot of heavy hitting stories - entertaining, and good to learn from. Best of luck to you as well!

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Mary Bendickson
14:00 Mar 18, 2023

Can only parrot what these other insightful folks have already said. Sounds like you may have sold some snake oil in your day I know I tried:) Great read!

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Michał Przywara
20:37 Mar 20, 2023

Thanks Mary! Yeah, some sales experience :) But then every job is at least a little sales, isn't it? I appreciate the feedback.

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Mary Bendickson
22:10 Mar 20, 2023

Thanks for reading and liking my humble story.

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Aeris Walker
18:26 Mar 17, 2023

I feel like you took that person we all try to avoid with a 50-foot pole, that person we roll our eyes at whenever they message us with a "hey girl, long time to speak!" and transformed them into a main character we truly pity. I think if Dante wrote Inferno in 2023, he'd have added a special layer of hell just for shady MLM CEOs who've made it big pedaling lies to desperate people: "because it’s not just a product. It’s a way of life.” That sums up the attitude of that culture so well. I like how this story is somewhat lighthearted and hum...

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Michał Przywara
20:36 Mar 17, 2023

Yeah, I think Christine's trapped, with no clear idea how to get out. Sadly, I think a lot of us fall into that. You want to do good but you don't have the means - and you still need to survive. Do you compromise? What do you tell yourself? And do you still believe it? And there's definitely those who'll take advantage of that. "that person we all try to avoid" - heh, what a great way of putting it :) A lot of that is spam, and I often wonder what goes through a spammer's mind. I suppose, those questions lead to stories like this. Than...

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Amanda Lieser
04:34 Mar 17, 2023

Hey Michal, Wow! This sorry had so many incredible layers. I admit I felt incredibly intimidated by this prompt. I loved the way you wove this character’s backstory into this piece and I found myself dismayed at the parental figure. My favorite line shattered my heart: And back then, since her mother had her problems with pills, there were always all sorts to choose from. My own mother, a therapist, frequently says that those who suffer with addiction would never choose that life if they didn’t feel like they had to. Nice work on this one!

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Michał Przywara
20:37 Mar 17, 2023

Thanks, Amanda! Yes, it's a very dismaying parent. Kind of set Christine up for failure, although she still tries. "those who suffer with addiction would never choose that life if they didn’t feel like they had to" - makes sense. It's so easy to start, but quitting is something else entirely, isn't it? This is a topic that could generate no shortage of stories. And maybe that's important, as there's still lots of people out there talking about "moral failure". I'm glad you enjoyed it!

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Lily Finch
14:48 Mar 16, 2023

Michał, love the premise. The hustle to sell the product. The skepticism of the infamous Mrs. Martinez builds suspense. Well done. “It’s Simply Sympathy. Our line of sympatheutical products all work on the same basic principle: like cures like. That means we can take a tiny amount of whatever makes you sick, especially treat it, and then you can use it to improve.” Your explanation is solid and leads to what next? or who? at the time it is delivered in the story. So Cindy becomes a Ponzi schemer who moves upward through a convincing swind...

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Michał Przywara
20:44 Mar 16, 2023

Thanks, Lily! "Playing upon the vulnerabilities of Christine's past" yeah, right on. It's hard to answer why it's so hard for Christine to let go the anger. But it *is* hard, isn't it? It's irrational, it's unhealthy, it's destructive, and yet we hold on to grudges and pick at our wounds. Maybe we are tied to them too tightly, and we fear that without them, we'd be lost. I appreciate the feedback!

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Delbert Griffith
09:23 Mar 16, 2023

Wow, Michal. This is a savage indictment of overcoming the past and chasing the New American dream. Even the comic relief (via inventive vocabulary) savages the gullible (and I don't mean Mrs. Martinez). The tale is deep and dense; morality is eschewed in favor of money, success, and status. This can all be yours, Audrey crows - except it can't. That's the sucker punch. Christine is doomed to fail, and her mother's words become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Deftly written and expertly crafted, my friend. As per. I admire your tales so much, a...

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Michał Przywara
20:49 Mar 16, 2023

Right on, Delbert! Especially the "self-fulfilling prophecy". Where do you go if you're trapped? When both left and right lead to a different flavour of the same thing? I don't know. I think a lot of people get stuck in something like that though. I'm glad you enjoyed this one. Thanks for the feedback!

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Chris Campbell
02:13 Mar 16, 2023

Michal, Combine a carpetbagger with multi-level marketing and what do you get? You get sympatheutical water. The line, "The same question Christine had asked her mentor, Audrey. Although where Mrs. Martinez bore an interested expression, a younger Christine snorted derisively," should have been the alarm bell for Christine. Always trust your first instinct. To sell anything, one must believe in it. However, in the case of Christine's handler, Audrey, some people could sell bottled air from a tree and make it sound like it was the best thi...

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Michał Przywara
20:53 Mar 16, 2023

"Always trust your first instinct." Decent advice - but some people make a business, or sport, of undermining those instincts, don't they? I agree, this is a greasy line of work. And too many get caught up in it. But the promises are so tempting, and they're often presented as being so easy to realize. Hard to resist, no doubt, especially when some people *do* succeed. Too easy to think that the product is fine, and the problem is *you*. Insidious. Thanks for reading, Chris! You've highlighted the main points, so I'm confident they come ...

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Richard E. Gower
23:47 Mar 15, 2023

OMG...LOL...synesthetic entanglement, researched sympatheutical science, lunar dosing, ...if you can just get a copyright on those terms alone, you'll be on that cruise in no time flat....you might even make regional manager. 🤣 And that ending, man... tore my heart out. 👍👍👍 Beautifully done! RG

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Michał Przywara
20:55 Mar 16, 2023

Thanks, Richard :) Woo, always wanted to be a regional manager! It's great fun coming up with new terms and jargon :) I'm glad you enjoyed the story. Yeah, I don't see how Christine can get out of this without more misery.

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Richard E. Gower
21:34 Mar 16, 2023

Enjoyed it a whole lot, Michal -:) It was classified as sad, and you certainly delivered there. I was pulling for Christine all along, she was trying so hard, but she was on a downhill slide. There was even that little glimmer of optimism when she closed the deal, and then her buyer came up short. In her fragile state, it would be tough to hold it together after that letdown. Yeah, sad. And I do so like clever. That began with the title, neatly tied to your nonsensical proprietary product-terminology. Shades of David Ogilvy or Elmer Wheele...

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