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

Laurel Hanson
15:14 Mar 15, 2023

Oh my: Amway, Shaklee, Pampered Chef, Tupperware, I'm not sure how many cosmetic companies...have been called out. Great deconstruction of the pyramid sales structure of those companies and a great re-envisioning of the original prompt which I assumed was based on Scheherazad. I thought that was a tough one actually, particularly with the drama tag they put on it. Comedy, maybe. But you have delivered innovatively here, as you tend to do. This is tightly-paced to move through the steps that the average victim sales person goes through (full ...

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Michał Przywara
20:53 Mar 15, 2023

I never worked in an MLM myself, but one of the places I worked for did have a tonne of MLM and affiliate marketing customers. It's an interesting world, for sure. I did do a direct sales thing though. The product was good and there was no buy in - we were selling someone else's wares and not reselling our own - but I ran into a similar pyramid issue. By the time I got started, the product had already done a couple rounds in town, and anyone that had wanted it already owned it :) Oh well. I'm glad you singled out that line, and that it c...

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Mike Panasitti
14:29 Mar 15, 2023

I note a recurring theme in your stories for last week and this week: the con job. Selling souls for a questionable return and pushing a product whose effectiveness is sketchy at best. Dealings in bad faith. Is something in the air up in Canada, Michal? Or do these stories tell us something more fundamentally, and generally human? Like your story last week, this struck a personal chord as I try to adjust to a new, perhaps less genuine, approach to life, a compromise all mortals seem to have to make once they realize adulthood is unavoi...

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Michał Przywara
21:02 Mar 15, 2023

"realize adulthood is unavoidable" - what an excellent line. Worthy of a story itself. I was chatting with Deidra on her submission this week, https://blog.reedsy.com/short-story/s4gzkn/, and the idea of innocence vs. experience came up. Seems a similar vein. Yeah, there is a bit of overlap in the stories, isn't there? I suppose my focus this week was more how we deceive ourselves, to make ugly things palatable (especially ugly things about ourselves) - kind of in line with the prompt, the stories we tell ourselves lest we have to admit ...

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