“You’re wearing that? Come on.”
“What’s the matter with it?”
“It makes you look like a tangerine rolled in crushed walnuts.”
“So, you can go out looking like a drunk public defender in a bad episode of 70’s television but I’m a jerk for trying to be a little flashier?”
“Hey, I paid four hundred bucks for this suit! Stole fifty of it right out of our son’s top drawer to help pay for it.”
“He already dislikes you so that little tidbit ought to freeze you out for good.”
The two of them laughed before positioning themselves in front of the mirror, stroking each other’s shoulders, petting the respective fabrics of their outfits. Before they stepped away, he leaned down and kissed her neck.
“That perfume smells like berries and cat farts. I still find it appealing, though, oddly.”
“Old Spice and tuna breath isn’t a personality, Lou. At least one the population at large enjoys. You need to think about making some changes or you’re never going to get that promotion.”
“Come on, Mrs. Dander. Let’s get the heck out of here before one of our annoying kids comes out and starts asking questions.”
She nodded, and they left the bedroom, headed for the garage.
“Will you let me drive? You’re absolutely awful at it, you ride too close on people’s bumpers and have no conception of how to use the brakes properly.”
“Better than jamming up the left lane at ten miles less than the speed limit.”
“I do that, you’re right,” she replied, nodding her head.
He chuckled, placing his hand on the small of her back as they descended the staircase into the foyer.
“Hey, where are you two going?” a fuzzy-haired teenager asked, peeking out of their room.
“Which one of you is that?” the father asked. “I can’t tell you apart anymore. You both sound like the parents on those old Peanuts cartoons.” The two adults giggled on the staircase.
“Nice. Well, the two of us have sixty-plus years of wonderful lives ahead of us, while the two of you are circling the drain, but whatevs. No dinner?”
“You can just order takeout. We’ll leave a card on the kitchen island, even though I know both of you have stolen at least eighty bucks from my wallet in the last week alone,” mom shot back.
“Subtract dad’s fifty he lifted from me.”
They looked at each other: “Ryan,” they said in unison before chortling.
“We’re off to that work dinner for your father,” Mrs. Dander said as she went down the stairs, her husband following. “Don’t make a mess, although I know that’s literally impossible for you kids. Where’s your sister anyway?”
“I don’t care.”
“We don’t either, dear, except that it would be nice to know just for informational purposes,” dad chimed in.
“I think she’s hooking up with her boyfriend at his place again. His parents pretend they don’t know they’re upstairs doing that and just play cribbage with the neighbors while drinking hard seltzers.”
“Ahh, Okay kiddo. Sounds about right,” mom replied. “Eventually someone will find you interesting enough to want to do those things with you, but I wouldn’t get your hopes up too soon. You need a growth spurt and for those teeth to straighten out a bit. A haircut wouldn’t be the worst idea either.”
“Let’s go, Diane. We’re going to be late, especially with you driving,” Mr. Dander interjected.
“Alright, we’re off, Ry. You can reach us on the cell if you need to, but we probably won’t respond. See you later tonight if you’re still up.”
“Later fam. I hope dad gets that promotion so we can buy a less embarrassing car. See ya.”
Mr. & Mrs. Dander mumbled as they gathered themselves in the wall mirror hung in the burgundy and white foyer. Their shoes rested on white Italian marble floors, and each of their coats hung on a custom-made teak coat rack they purchased online after too much gin at the neighbors three years earlier.
“Am I losing more hair do you think?” Mr. Dander asked his wife.
She tilted her head. “Lou, is that a real question? I could string together a fishing net big enough for Marlin after emptying just one shower drain when you’re done in there. Why don’t you just shave it and be done?”
He frowned, rubbing his right hand across the top of his forehead.
“Well that probably knocked out another twelve strands. Don’t fuss with it. You look…as good as you’re capable of looking,” his wife assured him.
“You too, sweetheart.”
“You know I love you though, right?” she questioned.
He furrowed his brow. “I think so. Nice to hear you say it, though.”
She leaned in and kissed him on his flushed cheek. “Let’s go.”
Mrs. Dander turned the knob on the garage door and headed out to the car with her husband following, still messing with his hair.
Five years earlier, at an event much like the one they left for tonight, the CEO of Mr. Dander’s company, FutureTech, offered his senior employees a choice: You could either have a flat payout of $5 million dollars, or you and your family could be given the first dose of their soon-to-be-released, world-changing new drug that guarantees perfect health and a youthful feeling body until at least the age of one hundred. The caveat was, regardless of choice, you and your family had to inject a truth serum that lasted a lifetime. Eighty-four percent of the employees chose the health option, twelve percent the money, and the remaining two percent quit their jobs. All doses were administered less than forty-eight hours following the event.
“Now was that so bad?” she asked her husband while looking in the rearview mirror, applying maroon lipstick. “Got here in a reasonable amount of time and I don’t feel nauseous from all the speed and ridiculous, abrupt braking.”
“Got here quicker than I imagined we would, yeah, but you truly have no left lane awareness. None whatsoever.”
She squinted her eyes and her lips tightened.
“I’m just saying that if there are seventeen cars behind you and none for two miles in front of you, it’s probably a good idea to move over into the right lane, hon.”
“It’s also a good idea not to send both your children into the front seat multiple times on a ten-mile trip to the store because you fly up on people’s bumper and then jam on the brakes when you get too close. Dear.”
“Fair enough. It did shut them up, though, so that was a plus.”
“Indeed,” Mrs. Dander replied, finishing her lipstick.
“Let’s get this over with,” her husband said, opening his door and hopping out into the hotel parking lot. “Why do they always choose this place? The drinks are watered down, the staff is inattentive, and the room they reserve is never big enough for all of us.”
“They don’t care about you, sweetheart. They care about the bottom line. It’s always about money, you know that. I like the drinks here though. And the appetizers.”
“You got diarrhea last time we came here, Diane.”
“That was because I knew you were going to embarrass me. You did, and my GI paid the price. Now let’s get in there before all the good tables are taken.”
The two of them walked towards the hotel lobby, hands entwined. The late summer sun dwindled, retreating behind a row of oak trees to their left.
“Beautiful sunset. Think about that instead of the food, why don’t you,” she suggested.
He smiled and released his hand from hers, placing it on her lower back as they approached the front doors.
“Diane! Lou! Not great to see you but I’m happy you’re here because it takes some of the pressure off me to speak if we get stuck in a group of others,” Don Larring said, holding the door for the two of them. “I’m not very bright.”
“You’re essentially an idiot, Don,” Lou responded, “but you’ve really helped elevate the fourth floor and what they’re doing up there. I’m not sure how. In fact, I have no idea whatsoever because it can’t be your leadership skills, as you have none, and you’re maybe the worst bioengineer I’ve ever known, but most people seem to like you. Hey, whatever works, right?”
“Thanks, Lou. I appreciate it. It hurts that you feel I’m dumb, but I don’t think you’re wrong.”
“He’s not,” Diane chimed in, stepping into the lobby and looking around. “You’re a V.P. only because your uncle was a big shot here, and everyone knows that, but take pride in the production increase my husband mentioned, however it was attained.”
“Thank you, Diane. May I say you look like a clementine bedazzled with glitter.”
“You may, and although I can’t say I agree, though my husband does, I find your hair completely ridiculous, and you’ve never worn a shirt that wasn’t wrinkled nor a tie that wasn’t too gaudy.”
“Excellent. So, should we head in there?” Don suggested.
Lou and Diane nodded their heads and followed him into the ballroom. The lobby was filled with other employees, all dressed formally, chattering amongst themselves, eager to hear the big announcements and learn if anyone would be promoted, demoted, or fired. Rumor had it that the CEO had a surprise announcement, so most of the conversation centered around that.
“Heeeey guys. Here we go with another one of these deals again,” Mindy Burton said, jamming herself up against the three of them, clad in a frilly green dress and too much makeup.
“Hello Mindy. You know that foundation isn’t supposed to go on again, after you apply blush, right?” Diane asked her.
“I don’t, no. I just slap on whatever will hold and makes me look like my skin isn’t so dry. My face sort of matches your dress though.”
“It does, hon. She’s right,” Lou admitted.
“I bought this at a thrift store in Millvale for nine bucks. My husband and Don think I look like a citrus fruit, which isn’t totally off base, I suppose.”
“Oh no, I think they’ve nailed it, Di. Fruit is fun though, right? Not like the somber, drab ensembles they both have on. The two of you are like misery personified. Maybe I should get some drinks and it won’t bother me so much to look at you both?”
“Sounds good,” they said in unison.
The four of them made their way into the ballroom, which had already filled up nearly by half. The top executives were on stage at the front, conversing amongst themselves.
“I’m headed to the bar. Anyone want anything?” Mindy asked the three of them.
“I want to leave my wife and be with you, Mindy. Also, a Diet soda would be swell. I can’t drink booze anymore ‘cause I behave like a child,” Don said.
“Oh Donny, you’re too much,” Mindy said after laughing. Too…oblong or misshapen or something for me, so, no there is absolutely no chance for us whether you’re single or not. I think you’re pretty stupid, too, so there’s that.”
“I’ve never finished a Wordle without running out of tries. God’s honest truth,” Don admitted.
“That’s maybe the least surprising thing I’ve ever heard, Don,” Lou said. Diane nodded her head.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please take your seats as I’d love to get this event started so we move on to enjoying the rest of our evenings in this beautiful space,” the man in the tuxedo said at the center of the stage. “Please…find a table and make yourselves comfortable.”
“You mind if I sit with you? I don’t think most people like me,” Don said.
“They don’t. We don’t either, but we can’t stop you from sitting with us,” Diane told him.
“I can’t say I know why, exactly,” Don pondered. “I don’t feel like I’m that awful.”
“You’re creepy, you stare inappropriately, you’re boorish, loud, invasive, and we’ve already covered the lack of intellect,” Diane explained.
“Go ahead and sit down, Don. We’ll manage,” Lou said.
The three of them sat, and Don let his eyes fall to Mrs. Dander’s chest.
“Don…I haven’t even seen what’s in there for a while, so do me a favor and stop gawking, K?” Lou barked.
“Sure. Sorry, Lou.”
“If you want me to be more amorous it would help to show at least a little interest in personal hygiene, babe. Maybe not leave clothes all over every inch of the house, worse than the kids. I also have mentioned that back hair can be waxed off. It doesn’t need to look like a steel wool factory,” Diane said, removing her heels as she sat in the chair.
“Whoa. There’s this illusion that women can’t have stinky feet. I can promise you it’s an illusion because the moment you removed that first shoe, I experienced nausea worse than I have in years. I think my nose might be burned on the inside,” Don said.
“I can’t say I notice it,” Diane mentioned.
“You’re the only one for at least one hundred yards then, dear,” Mr. Dander told her.
She frowned, and then removed the other shoe, placing it on the table right in front of her husband.
“That’s going to kill some flowers, unquestionably,” Don said. “Wow.”
“Should we check on the kids?” Diane asked Lou, still glaring at Don, who’d moved on to watching Mindy walk back to their table with a drink in her hand.
“The kids? Why? They don’t want to hear from us, and we don’t care what they’re doing as long as it’s not destroying the house. If they are destroying the house, they’re not going to fix it anyway. We are, and then we’ll go drink with the neighbors and tell them yet again that we regretted having children.”
“It really was a dumb idea. I could have been a top agent at my real estate firm. I had hopes. Dreams, too. They destroyed everything.” Diane said, gazing up at the purple ballroom ceiling.
“If they were smarter, I’d say we have a good shot at both of them being gone in a couple years, but they make Don over there look like the President of Mensa,” Lou said, rubbing his forehead.
“Thanks, Lou. Appreciate it,” Don replied.
“Oh, this gin and tonic is sooooo good,” Mindy said after a long sip. “I just love drinking alcohol when I’m with people I feel I’m better than and who bore me.”
“Amen, sister,” Don said, clinking his beer mug against her Cosmo glass and staring at her too long.
“Ladies and gentlemen, now that you’re seated, I’d like to start the night off with something very exciting,” the man in the tuxedo said, walking across the stage.
“We can all leave? Now that would be exciting,” Diane said.
“All of you here tonight took part in our special offer years ago, willingly taking the truth serum in exchange for perfect health, and some for a sizable payout. Regardless of your choices, I know that the truth serum has caused some ‘edginess’ among many of you, so I wanted to mention some important information…”
The room was silent except for a spoon clinking the side of a bowl as it was put down on the table.
“When that shot was administered five years ago, we’d told you that it would last a lifetime. You’ve all been on that journey together, and for some, I know it’s been uncomfortable, so I want to thank you. I do, however, have a confession to make…”
The only sound now was the whirring of the HVAC overhead, blowing chilly air into the steamy ballroom.
“The effects of that shot that all of you received, well, the health benefits may only last ten years at most, and the truth serum…those effects lasted only six months.”
An audible, collective gasp filled the airspace. Forks hit plates; fists hit tables.
“So...all of you've been without the effects of the truth serum for four and a half years. Meaning, whatever words have been spoken, whatever emails have been sent, they’ve all been the result of personal choices and beliefs, and not chemically induced coercion.”
Diane squeezed Lou’s leg, right above his knee.
For some of you, this means a conversation with HR is needed, based on those emails. For some of you, it may mean that your tenure with FutureTech has ended, and for others, it likely will require some deep and difficult family discussions. However, the good news is that all of you will be receiving a half-million dollar bonus for participating in this little experiment of ours.”
Another collective gasp, entwined with groans filled the room. Diane looked at her husband, her eyes misty. Don stood up and ran for the bathroom, trailed by two dozen others. Lou slid his hand into his wife’s, grinning as he made eye contact.
“You know, you do look like a giant tangerine rolled in crush walnuts,” Lou told his wife.
Diane chuckled, tightening her grip on his hand. “I know. And that suit is still ridiculous, your hair, too.”
Lou held her gaze as both their bottom lips trembled.
“Hey,” Lou said after their long silence amidst the chaos of the room, “How about we down a couple tequila shots, then go toss the CEO into a dumpster out back, show him what he can do with that half-million bucks? Then go home to our rotten kids.”
Diane came apart, her eyes leaking onto her orange dress. “I’d love that. I love you.”
“Is that the truth?” Lou asked.
She hesitated, then squeezed his hand twice before shaking her head no while mouthing the word “yes.”
Lou smirked as a drop fell from his eye onto his polyester pants. “Good enough for me,” he said, returning the double squeeze to the hand laced with his. "Let's do this."