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Fiction Speculative

A cloudless sky resting on a featureless horizon. A sea of the stubbly remains of grain stalks. A two-lane road, deserted, stretching as far as he could see in either direction. So, so much space.

It’s good to be free, Jamie said in his mind. He tried to say it out loud. 

“I’m scared to be free.” 

It was always interesting to find out how he really felt.

A speck appeared on the road in the distance, growing larger until it turned into a pickup truck. It pulled up in front of him and Jamie recognized his older sister, Anna, beaming from the driver’s seat. He pulled the door open and stepped up into the truck and his sister’s tight hug. 

“I can’t believe you’re finally out! It’s so nice to be able to see you outside of that place.”

Jamie loved his sister, he really did. But she would want to know everything, and the answers he didn’t want to give were the same ones he wouldn’t be able to keep inside.

I’m glad to see you too, Anna. Say it!

“I was hoping that someone else would pick me up.”

Anna’s arms slackened and she pulled back, wounded. 

“Mom couldn’t get off work and I was excited to come and get you. I thought you would be happy.”

“Come on, Anna. Of course I wanted to see you—at some point. Just, you can be a lot. You always have so many questions, that’s all.”

“At some point? Real nice, Jamie.” Anna faced forward and started the engine, kicking off the three-hour journey to the city. “I haven’t seen you properly in a year and that’s what you say to me?”

“You gotta know I didn’t want to say that. I was trying to say that I was glad to see you, too. Did you forget what they do to criminals — what they did to me?”

“I didn’t forget.” Anna kept her eyes focused on the road as the prison shrunk behind them. Her aura of joy had completely evaporated. “I just didn’t realize that having to tell the truth all the time would make such a difference in how you treat people. Don’t worry, I won’t ask you any questions.”

Jamie rested his head against the window, not trusting himself to open his mouth for the remainder of the long, silent drive.

One year of zero filter. One year of trying to say one thing and blurting another, of suffering the consequences of offending fellow inmates who retaliated as if they didn’t understand, as if they hadn’t had the same life-changing substance injected into their bodies.

Jamie and his cellmates were part of the first wave of the experimental truth serum project, which provided a foolproof way to get to the bottom of criminal accusations. Those found innocent had it dissolved from their bloodstream, a process only possible within the first twelve hours after its injection. Those found guilty? Well, they lived with it. 

The silver lining that Jamie clung to was that those with non-felony convictions, like him, were not given a criminal record on their first offense. If they offended again, the judge would simply ask them to disclose previous arrests. It’s not like they could hide it.

Anna was pulling into the driveway of her two-story townhouse. She had offered to let Jamie stay with her while he got back on his feet, and he had gratefully accepted. The next morning, seated at his sister’s sun-bathed kitchen table with his laptop and a cup of tea, Jamie wasted no time in applying for jobs. 

“What are you up to?” Anna folded herself into the opposite chair and propped her chin up on her hand.

The awkwardness of the drive had mostly dissipated, and the siblings were beginning to settle into an old, comfortable familiarity.

“Just sending out some job applications.”

“Already? Keener!” she teased. “Anyone looking for an accountant?”

“There are some ads up, yeah. But I’m going to cast my net a bit wider, too, just in case.”

“Eggs in different baskets, smart,” Anna said cheerily. “Speaking of jobs, want to see what I’ve been working on?”

Anna was a sculptor. She had an attic filled with half-formed creations and a show at the local art museum. Jamie thought she was talented, but didn’t always get her art.

“I would rather not.” Oh no. “Maybe later?” Please don’t get upset, please don’t get upset.

“I mean, only if you want to. I don’t want to force you to look at my art. You’ve always been supportive, so I thought you would want to see my new stuff.” She met his gaze steadily across the table. 

Jamie became suddenly intensely preoccupied by an imperfection on the handle of his handmade clay mug.

“I just—don’t want to have to act like I like it.” Did I really just say that?

“Since when do you say things like that?” Anna got to her feet, visibly hurt. “I thought this was going to be good, having you here. But it’s like I don’t even know you anymore. Or, I guess it’s like I never knew you in the first place.”

But that’s not me! he wanted to scream. 

The serum didn’t care about context, didn’t care that Jamie loved his sister and that being true to himself meant not hurting her. Why was it that forcing him to share truths about himself that he didn’t even consciously know made him act like a totally different person? Was the part of himself that wasn’t crazy about Anna’s style of art really more valid than the part of him that loved to support his sister and believed in her talent?

Left alone at the table, Jamie let his head drop onto his folded arms. 

Determined not to impose any longer than he had to, Jamie threw himself into his job search and was eventually rewarded with an interview at an accounting firm.

Never having felt the need to lie in a job interview before, he went into his first interview feeling confident.

“Can you tell me about your greatest strengths?”

“I’m a really fast reader and I’m good at remembering people’s birthdays.”

“Oh, I meant more strengths related to the job, if that makes sense.”

Jamie laughed self-consciously, his face suddenly hot. “Of course. I always try my best in whatever role I’m in. I’m a hard worker and I don’t like letting my coworkers or boss down.” He paused, afraid to go on. 

The interviewer seemed satisfied. “And your greatest weakness?”

I’ve had trouble with time management in the past, but have since implemented a system that is successful in keeping me on track with projects and deadlines. Jamie mentally drilled the answer he had prepared, hoping desperately that he would be able to give an appropriate, truthful-enough answer instead of the absolute truth, just this once.

“I’m a kleptomaniac.”

The interviewer looked up from his notes sharply with raised eyebrows.

“Pardon me?”

“A recovering klepto, I mean! I went through a rehab program in jail and I’m pretty much good now. I haven’t stolen anything in a while and I certainly have no intentions to steal from this company.” Wide eyed, flustered, 100% honest.

But a chair was pushed back, a hand was extended. 

“Thank you for your time, but I don’t see this as being a good fit.”

That first interview was the first to go sour, but it was not the last. Accounting firms. Banks. Clothing stores. Gas stations. Every time, Jamie tried to manifest the omission of the question, every time, that dreaded question came, and every time, Jamie’s hijacked brain betrayed him. Hundreds of apathetic clicks on “Apply Now” buttons led to nothing but a handful of disastrous interviews. 

“I’m a kleptomaniac.”

“I’m a kleptomaniac.”

“I’m prone to kleptomania.” That’s new.

Weeks passed, and the calls, few as they had been, dried up completely. Jamie felt every sent resume as a shout into a void, a cry for help that disappeared as soon as it was made. A wasted effort. 

Jamie began to wonder if he should give up on finding a job and buy a plot of land somewhere, growing his own food and inspiring rumors of a lonely, prickly hermit who lacked the ability to bend the truth. 

Meanwhile, Anna had received enough barbs from Jamie that she avoided him as much as possible, and Jamie tried to speak as little as he could. It was miserable to merely coexist, to love each other in a distant way filled with hurt feelings. With no job and few prospects, Jamie spent his days sprawled on the guest bed, catching up on a year’s worth of missed television and books and getting lost in the monotony of his days.

A monotony broken by a ringing from the phone that never lit up anymore. It was a non-profit. They were looking for an accountant. On the day of the interview, Jamie gathered the tatters of his courage and dignity and headed out, giving his sister a tense smile as he passed her on her way in.

The interview started out well. Thirty minutes went by without any inappropriate truthfulness, and Jamie was beginning to allow himself to hope that he would make it to the end without revealing his secret.

“And what would you say is your greatest weakness?”

Jamie’s hope turned to dread as he watched his last chance at a normal life slip away. How could he be expected to survive stripped of his agency, forced to utter the most truthful thing at the cost of societal norms, of his relationships and career? 

He inhaled, ready to drop a bomb on yet another interview. 

“I can never tell a lie.”

January 16, 2021 03:56

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1 comment

Arwen Dove
04:01 Jan 25, 2021

Wow! A very interesting story. I was disappointed when I realised I had reached the end.

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