This is the One: the final entry posted to ‘Dispatches From the Grave’

Submitted into Contest #152 in response to: Write about a character whose life changes for the better.... view prompt

17 comments

Fiction Speculative Science Fiction

Everyone uses Saltbox to buy a home, so I really didn’t have a choice.

The app’s clever logo splashed on my 6-inch touchscreen then vanished, followed by some sleek Roboto-font text that congratulated me for making the decision to download.

Good morning, handsome! the app lied, but I let that go. We all lie a little. Welcome to Saltbox!

“Uh-huh,” I said, wondering if anyone at Saltbox actually spied for quality assurance.

Would you like to find a home today?

I always believed non-consensual small talk to be a criminal offense. Time is our most precious commodity — not a second to waste on sports, weather, or how’s-your-mother. Apparently, Saltbox felt the same way. What a smart smart app.

“Yes,” I replied, touching the YES button.

First, please agree to our terms and conditions, then say ‘Take me home.’

“Take me home,” I said, and waited as the interface dissolved in a whirlpool effect,

Saltbox began to calculate my worth as a homeowner. Soon, it would display its trademarked judgment:

This is the one.

This is where you belong.

And I would never be the same.

***

My friend, Wilbur (possibly the only guy named Wilbur not living in a retirement community) was the first in our circle to download Saltbox. The rest of us were skeptical. But Wilbur was desperate. He had nowhere to go.

The market was a desert. A dwelling desert. Hardly a cottage for sale.

“Take me home,” Wilbur told the app. After agreeing to the terms and conditions, of course.

A slide show of photographs accompanied the Roboto text:

Stunning ranch in quiet cul-de-sac. Three-bed, three-bath with many updates. Hardwood flooring, new cabinets and hardware, 1,835 square feet of living space, plus finished basement. Appliances convey.

This is the one.

This is where you belong.

And the app was correct. Perfection, in fact. Wilbur breathed a sigh of relief, tears of joy spilling down his cheeks. Watching him, I tasted salt on my tongue.

***

Saltbox became the only way to buy real estate after the housing market went to Hell. Oh, the horror. Rabid house-hunters nearly ripped the world in half. They mobbed every licensed real estate agent for dibs on the newest listings, offering under-the-table cash with a side of nookie.

Agents ended up burying their for sale signs in shallow graves to avoid the waves of seething, foaming, horny shoppers. But also because signs were a waste of time. A bungalow didn’t last a day on the market. Even the dumps were getting snatched up, sight unseen. And most for a hundred grand over asking price, even though the appraisals were coming in at fifty-K below.

And don’t even ask about the defects. They didn’t matter — not cracked foundations, black mold, janky vents, ancient furnaces, termites, radon, or creepy neighbors. You had to gamble and risk a dud if you wanted four walls with a roof.

There were bitter scores over bidding wars. Heart attacks in escrow. Inspection strokes. Closing-cost casualties.

We watched an anarchist’s market unfold on prime time.

Then Saltbox launched.

The app probably saved the world.

***

My cousin, Mandy, was second among us to download Saltbox. Homelessly divorced with two kids and a dog, she accepted the terms and conditions and watched the app’s progress wheel spin. Like Fate’s Roulette…

“Take me home,” she repeated.

Stunning split-level in quiet subdivision. Two-bed, three-bath with many updates. Gorgeous yard/patio with fire pit, perfect for family barbecues. 2,100 square feet of living space for kids and dogs. Appliances convey.

This is the one.

This is where you belong.

Another Saltbox home run. Mandy moved in a week later. I heard she married a taxidermist and is pregnant with her third child. I also heard they still live in the split-level, but that her husband just downloaded the app.

***

When you download Saltbox, it shows you a brief video explaining the process, how its developers coded an algorithm guaranteed to find you the perfect match. It mines every scrap of personal data. Everything you’ve ever put out on the world wide web. Social media profiles, personality quizzes, likes, dislikes, previous relationships, current bank balances, and probably a million other things I don’t have the smarts to consider.

How it gets access to all that information, I’ll never know.

Every home listed on Saltbox is pre-inspected, affordable to users, and (most importantly) available. With Saltbox, there’s no need to involve banks or real estate agents. No offers, no counter-offers, no earnest money — truly the least amount of fuss to buy the home you deserve.

But there was a catch.

***

After Mandy, it was Jeff’s turn. He downloaded the app while explaining his promotion for the fifth time: regional managing director of supply chain brands and marketing, east coast, western division. To emphasize his salary, he took out a thousand dollars in cash to fan himself.

“I’m flush,” he said, before telling the app: “Take me home.”

Stunning neoclassical with over 8,700 square feet of living space in quiet, gated community. Heated poured floors, wine cellar, climate-controlled spice drawers, cathedral/dance studio, steam sauna, iron safe, home theater. Appliances convey.

This is the one.

This is where you belong.

“This is correct.” Jeff nodded with self-satisfaction. “Although I did put my lawyer on standby just in case they forced me into a lemon. I mean, the wine cellar could be bigger, I suppose…”

Nobody really likes Jeff. He’s a breath of garbage.

But this brings me back to the catch, which appears several times in Saltbox’s terms and conditions. As soon as the algorithm matched you to a home, you had to buy. Once you click “agree” and trigger the search, you’re bound and tethered to the results. There’s no backing out or haggling, not unless you want to face extreme legal action. A few tried. They wound up gagged and snuffed into ruin by Saltbox’s dedicated law firm.

However, 99.99% of users give the app five stars and gush over its matching powers. Real estate agents went extinct. Most became truckers, or so I heard.

***

My rental was about a month away from expiring, and I was ready to own a place of my own. I downloaded the app and said:

“Take me home.”

Saltbox swirled and flashed Roboto text: Get ready…

Preparing me for paradise: Your new home awaits…

After years of disciplined frugality — more saving, less living — I deserved something cool and hip. A classic with modern updates. Give me Gothic Revival controlled by wifi! Or an open-concept mid-century modern, if you please. How about a Queen Anne with a creepy tower? Hell, I’d settle for a downtown townhouse. Even a condo, if I had to, though I wasn’t thrilled about joining an HOA.

Here we go… Saltbox began a countdown: In three…

“Three,” I said, reading aloud.

Two…

“Two…” sounding much more titillating than I planned.

…One…

I looked. I squinted. I frowned. I cocked my head at the slide show and said, “Is that…?”

Stunning hillside lot in quiet cemetery. Near roadside. Beside a spruce. Free parking.

This is the one.

This is where you belong.

The accompanying photographs showed various angles of a grassy patch surrounded by tombstones, and a little bit of rusty wrought iron. That was it.

“Is that a grave plot?” I asked. “Is this a joke?”

I blinked, then gaped, then glowered, then thumbed the touchscreen to refresh the fruits of all my precious data. The results came back the same — stunning hillside lot in quiet cemetery.

This is the one.

This is where you belong.

***

“Have you tried logging out, sir?” the Customer Service Specialist asked, sounding absolutely turned on by the prospect of helping me. “Ohhhhh, you know, sometimes it just needs a little jolt.”

“I…” squeezing my inner thigh with the might of a wolf-ape hybrid gone berserker, “…tried that already.”

Now patient and chaste, the CSS said, “Well, sir, let’s just pull up your account, shall we? And maybe we can try something else?”

Thirty minutes of the Customer Service Specialist going “Hmmm…” went by. We tried everything. Logging out, logging in, restarting the app, restarting the phone, deleting the app, reinstalling the app, and creating new accounts with various email addresses (each of those attempts came back with a Saltbox error saying:

This email address is already associated with an existing account—

—even though they were all inactive email addresses from a dozen years ago).

Finally, the Customer Service Specialist sighed and, with a voice like a mortician, said, “I’m afraid there’s nothing I can do.”

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“Saltbox is very precise. Totally state of the art. In fact, TechShatter Podcast just rated it the number one app in…well, ever. If it’s selling you a stunning hillside lot—”

“It’s a grave plot!”

“—then I’m afraid we have to conclude it’s a match. Now, is there anything else I can do for you today?”

“I…” My hand raked my haircut, fingernails slicing scalp, a trickle of blood running down my nose. The need to hurt someone left me with self-inflicted wounds. “I followed the rules.”

“Of course, sir.”

“I don’t deserve a grave plot.”

“Shall I transfer you to our legal department?”

Scalp blood dripped on my shoes as I replayed horror shows of dissatisfied Saltbox customers in ruins. “No,” I whispered.

What else could I say?

Where else could I go?

“Sir?” said the Customer Service Specialist. “This is the one. This is where you belong.”

***

The cemetery caretaker lost his lunch when he found me living in a tent along Block 16. By that, I mean he dropped his brown bag, spilling butterscotch pudding all over a tombstone etched with the name Delilah Frampton. His other hand held tight to a battery-powered leaf blower.

“You can’t camp here,” he told me.

“I’m not camping,” I said. “This is my house.”

He shook his head. “That ain’t right.”

“I know, right?”

“I mean, only the dead stay after dusk.” He tapped a tombstone with the leaf blower tip. “Because they’re dead. And buried.”

I scoffed. “Tell me about it.”

“So,” the caretaker shifted his weight from foot to foot, “aren’t you alive?”

“That’s what I explained.” I snorted. “It didn’t seem to matter.”

“Matter? To who?”

I showed him the deed, if you can call it that. A common bill of sale, except this one was lasered with Saltbox’s logo. He went quiet as brand recognition sank in.

“What do I do?” I asked.

“How do you mean?”

“What do I do to get out of this?”

“Well,” he said, shrugging. “You got your faculties. Stand up and leave.”

I rolled out of the tent, climbed to my feet. “That part’s easy. I mean I don’t want to live here.”

“So don’t.” The caretaker triggered his leaf blower. The artificial wind knocked my tent into the sky, sailing it over the cemetery fence. He said, “No tents allowed. Only monuments and benches, buster.”

“Fine,” I said. My thumb tapped a quick online search. My phone dialed. My eyes remained linked to the caretaker’s. My ears heard an operator say, Winkleman’s Monuments, how can I help you? My voice said, “What’s the going rate to build a mausoleum these days?”

“What are you doing?” asked the caretaker.

“This is the one,” I told him, bluntly. Not because I wanted Saltbox to be right, but because I wanted the caretaker to be wrong. “This is where I belong.”

***

I started acting … differently after Winkleman’s built me a little creepy-looking mausoleum, which they installed right into the stunning hillside, beside the spruce, at my cemetery address.

When my friends bragged about their marble countertops, I countered by saying, “Big deal! I have marble walls, a marble ceiling, and a marble bed.”

“A marble bed?” Mandy asked me.

I nodded. This was true, but uncomfortable. The mausoleum came with two crypts for storing coffins. I used one as a bed. Thank God I’m not claustrophobic.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” my friends asked me.

“Did you know,” I said, holding up a finger like Albert-fucking-Einstein dropping knowledge-nukes, “that you don’t pay property taxes for grave plots? Boom.”

My hand snapped open, detonating an invisible universe.

Everyone collectively checked the time. One by one, they all said, “I’ve got an early meeting.”

“Not me,” I said. “I quit my job.”

I was flipping through phone pics of the recent crypt construction when someone asked, “Do you need a place to stay?”

“This is the one,” I said, showing everyone my wrought iron front door. “This is where I belong.

***

The drawbacks of living in a crypt on a grave plot: no dedicated street address (no mailbox, no package deliveries, no pizza), no plumbing, no electricity, no kitchen, no toilet, no easy way to hang inspirational art, no climate control, no fiber-optic Internet, no space for entertaining, no room for a mattress, no place for a mirror, no slot for a toothbrush, and (from dusk till dawn) no way to leave or come home without jumping the fence and risking a spike up the bum.

The benefits of living in a crypt on a grave plot: no mail (no bills, no junk, no credit card offers, no sheriff’s fraternal order of police begging for money), no insurance, no mortgage, no utilities, no obligation to work a soul-sucking job in order to pay for mortgage and utilities, no reason to stay home, no need to make burial arrangements.

When it’s your time, just lie down.

This is the one.

This is where you belong.

***

“Whoa,” Jeff said, checking out my neighbor’s tombstone. “I guess Saltbox had to sell somebody a turkey.”

He and the others were curious about my digs at first, but they stopped coming around after a cramped visit or two. Something about me living in a mausoleum must have really unnerved them. They kept asking if I was happy.

I’d say, “Are you?” while pointing out the grays in their hair, and the way they constantly checked on their crypto investments, and how they argued about politics and God.

“You care about wind,” I’d say. “Weightless goose eggs. Ciphers that unlock a fart.”

I never talked like that when I had an apartment and a 401(k).

Wilbur said, “You’ve changed, man.”

The thought never occurred to me. The last thing my friends ever gave me was a lightning strike of self-awareness. “Of course I’ve changed,” I said. “Crypt-living will do that.”

They called me weird. They called me troubled. Eventually, they stopped calling me all together. I was a changed man with no job, no friends, no responsibilities, and nothing holding me back from anything.

This is the one.

This is where you belong.

***

I took cash gigs with a video production company that made YouTube shorts where a chef prepared the most expensive meals in the world. We got dibs on leftovers; I ate like a king. I also started my blog on Maxxximum — you know, that fancy subscription platform where indie writers get paid. Not much, but enough. I’m guessing “Dispatches From the Grave” is what brought your eyeballs to these words, right here, right now.

My monthly expenses slimmed down to a phone, a haircut, a Maxxximum subscription (which comes out of the blog residuals), and a membership at Bucksman Athletic Club — a high-end gym where I shower, shave, and charge my electronics.

When not getting paid to eat lobster frittatas, I spend my money on experiences.

Like that bottle of 1988 Château Pétrus, which I bought at a Philadelphia wine bar. Almost five-thousand dollars vanished in under an hour. I brown-bagged the rest of the bottle, paid, tipped, and walked in the rain until I met a hobo under the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. Ex-real estate agent. He was warming his hands over a burning trash can. I traded the last sips of Pétrus for a cigar that tasted like cherries.

Random people would gasp and say, “Pétrus! You should be (insert financial advice here).”

And I’d reply with various forms of: “So what?”

I drove my car to Virginia Beach and chased the Sun from coast to coast, all the way to Half Moon Bay in California. I met a songwriter in the desert who was having trouble rhyming “dissent.” A software engineer from Berkley sat down beside me on a park bench in Wichita and whispered an offer into my ear: “One thousand for one night.”

I declined, but I thanked him whole-heartedly for making my life a tiny smidge better.

On Halloween, I moaned and groaned and stumbled out of my crypt-home while passing trick-or-treaters screamed from the other side of the fence. A pint-sized goblin shouted, “Magic is real!” and I agreed by howling at the moon.

In my hometown library, I hid in the stacks behind Ray Bradbury and whispered, “Nothing matters,” to a woman in the next aisle. Then I ran away, hoping she would loop around, demanding to know “Who said that?” but finding no one there.

And she would wonder about ghosts and ask herself why she was so afraid, and she would quit her job, and she would move to New York and chase her dreams, and she would never look back at anything ever again.

I don’t know if she did. But I keep trying. With strangers. In grocery stores and art galleries. Anywhere. Anyone. Didn’t matter. Nothing matters…

My phone just dinged. I was about to shut it off and climb into my crypt for the night. It’s a notification from Saltbox:

Happy with Saltbox? Consider giving us a rating.

“Absolutely!” I put my thumbs to work.

Five stars. The app was right. A perfect match. I love my home. I love my life. Thank you, Saltbox!

I feel strange, but happy. Thanks to Saltbox.

And as for what comes next? Well—

***

Duplex mausoleum on stunning hillside lot in quiet cemetery. Near roadside. Beside a spruce. Free parking. Only one previous owner, corpse conveys.

This is the one.

This is where you belong.

June 25, 2022 22:10

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17 comments

Riel Rosehill
15:32 Jul 02, 2022

OMG I did not see that plot twist coming, the app offering him a plot in the cemetery. Pretty much saying, according to the data, you gonna die soon. 😂 How did you even come up with this? BRILLIANT.

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13:11 Jul 03, 2022

Ha! Thank you… This was inspired by our actual attempts to buy a house in today’s market of overpriced listings and outrageous interest rates. I thought, “If we buy now, we’re basically financing a tomb!”

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Riel Rosehill
14:02 Jul 03, 2022

I feel that. We've been struggling with that for a couple years now, tried and failed buying, and the situation is not getting any better with the rising living costs. Fingers crossed for next April when we'll attempt to find something again... It's a mission impossible. You pay the price of a palace for a garden shed.

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03:20 Jul 05, 2022

Yes… We shall rent. But… perhaps I’ll call that spellcaster spammer who keeps flooding our stories for donations? Doctor Job?

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L. E. Scott
17:04 Jul 02, 2022

Awesome. Very funny.

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13:11 Jul 03, 2022

Thank you!

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Michał Przywara
20:43 Jul 07, 2022

Lovely :) It's funny, it's frightening, it's insightful. Others have mentioned it but I'll add my voice to the racket, the twist of being offered a gravesite was fantastic. I like the change in the protagonist too. Instead of being destroyed by this, he rolls with the punches, grows, and sees a bit of what life actually is (before dying, of course, but that's how it goes with life). So it seems Saltbox was right, after all. But this makes me wonder… why didn't other people get offered the same kind of solution? Are they just not ready? A...

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Ren B
23:45 Jul 06, 2022

I loved it! The story delivers in the way that is consistently funny! The twist was great, genius, at least he didn't get a dump :) I also liked the subtle exploration on greed/materialism by showing how crazy the markets can get. Great work, thanks for sharing!

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Michele Duess
17:33 Jul 05, 2022

After reading this I'm not altogether opposed to living in a mausoleum. No bills or home maintenance. Other than the lack of electric and wifi. Well done!

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Katy Borobia
16:56 Jul 02, 2022

This is a wonderful story!!!!! Wow. I wish I could write just like this. Fantastic job.

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13:20 Jul 03, 2022

But you already write better than this! :) Your stories are like thunderclap concertos — heart-pounding word-stomps in Allegro. Your Chess tale made me happy and jealous at the same time. Thank you for reading and for inspiring with letters!

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Kaitlyn Hailey
15:51 Jul 02, 2022

Wow! This story was so unique, in all the best ways! I was shocked when the character was matched to a cemetery! This is such an interesting take on the prompt, I absolutely love it! Every line felt like pure gold (especially the following, as I relate to the philosophy: “ I always believed non-consensual small talk to be a criminal offense”). Great writing!

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13:28 Jul 03, 2022

Thank you!! I also dislike meetings, especially when an email would work. Maybe a story about that someday? Ha! :)

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02:48 Jun 28, 2022

When I first started reading this, I felt like I was missing something.(still do, is this a sequel/series?) But then the story got rolling.. It's a bit creepy, yet.. Inspiring? It gives me the "Say f- life, go with the flow" kind of vibes. The ending was a bit strange. Did the MC die?-

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Riel Rosehill
15:36 Jul 02, 2022

Yup, he died. He built the mausoleum that's back on the market. "Only one previous owner, corpse conveys." 😉

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15:50 Jul 02, 2022

Fuuuunnnn

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03:22 Jun 30, 2022

You tell me.

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