Adjustment DayChuck Palahniuk / History & Fiction / Science Fiction
For Scott Allie For his determination
Remember, Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself.
People still talk about some do-gooder. A good scout, the one in every crowd. Some altar boy, some teacher’s pet walks into the Southeast Precinct, looking both ways, whispering with one hand cupped beside his mouth. Past dark o’clock, it’s midnight o’clock, when in walks the kid with his hood up, head down, wearing sunglasses, no less. He’s nobody’s Stevie Wonder. No white cane, no dog. Whisper-asks can he talk to somebody in charge. Asks the desk sergeant on duty. Whispers, “I want to report a crime’s supposed to happen.”
The desk sergeant’s being, “Got some ID?”
Wearing a ball cap with the brim pulled low, his hood pulled up on top of the ball cap. Only his nose and mouth showing, this party pooper, concerned citizen, sweating dark patches through the back of his sweatshirt, he’s all, “It’s not me telling you, okay?” Shaking his head. “Not in public, either.”
So Mr. Desk Sergeant, he calls somebody. Makes a big performance of pressing a button, picking up his telephone and touch-toning, never taking his eyes off this kid in the sunglasses, sergeant asking can a detective come down to the lobby and take a statement. Yeah, a possible tip. Sergeant looks at the kid’s hands he can’t see on account of they’re shoved in the front pockets of his hoodie, not a good sign. Sergeant always head nodding. Pointing with his chin, like, “Want to keep your hands where I can see them?”
The kid obliging, but shifting his weight from foot to foot like he forgot to take a leak for the past hundred years. Craning around like he’s expecting somebody to walk in off the street behind him. Kid’s all, “I can’t be exposed here like this.”
This kid, his arms hang straight while he’s hyperactive from the waist down, like he’s in Riverdance, or like he’s doing porn, the same way a porn star keeps that camera-side arm slack, pulled back, paralyzed, while his hips buck, like that one arm is attempting to flee the scene in understandable humiliation.
Sergeant on duty being, “Empty your pockets.” Waving this goody-two-shoes in the direction of a metal detection tunnel deal same as at any airport.
This Eagle Scout extricates his wallet and phone and puts them in the plastic bowl. After a long hesitation, his sunglasses. The regular Homeland Security routine. The kid’s eyes twitchy. Blue eyes under worried-together eyebrows. Making a face that will give him wrinkles one day.
In the police station there’s a sound, like a pop, like a shot, like a gun going off only muffled, maybe outside. Kid jumps. Most definitely a gunshot.
Detective’s like, “You high, son?”
Kid’s got this look like he’s just seen the wrong person naked riding a bicycle from behind. His voice falls off a cliff, going shrill all the way to the bottom, he says, “Can I have my wallet back?”
Detective’s all, “First things first.” The detective goes, “You here about the upcoming assassinations?”
And the kid’s like, “You guys know already?”
The detective asks who else has the kid told.
And this useful member of society, this kid, he says, “Just my folks.”
The detective gives back the kid’s wallet, his keys and sunglasses and telephone, and asks, can the kid call or text his folks and persuade them to come here, to the precinct right this moment?
The detective smiles. “If you got a minute, I can answer all your questions.” He jerks his head toward the camera on the ceiling. “Not here.” Detective leads this kid, America’s newest hero, down a concrete hallway, down a fire stairs, through a couple of metal doors marked Authorized Persons Only. Leads the kid to a metal door. Unlocks it with a key. Throws the door open.
This kid’s folks, they text they’re coming down to help him. They text not to be scared. Inside the metal door it’s dark and stinks. A backed-up toilet stink. Kid follows the detective. His folks text they’re in the lobby.
Here’s the best part. Detective flips on the lights. This snitch, the tattletale sees piled in the center of the room a heap of bloody clothes. Next he sees the hands attached to each sleeve. It’s only clothes and shoes and hands because the heads and faces have been obliterated. A distant voice, muffled from another room, says, “The only quality that truly unites us is our desire to be united . . .”
It’s then our altar boy turns to the detective for help and sees nothing except the muzzle aimed point-blank at his own face.
Soon as the locating service scans for pipes and buried electrical cables he gives the go-ahead to dig. Spencer’s Rental trucks over the backhoe, their one with the largest bucket.
The job’s just half-dug when sauntering across the practice fields comes somebody too old to be a student. Somebody tenured. Some busybody in those India-print, cotton drawstring pants. Leather sandals and socks. Wearing a sweatshirt printed with the words “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like.” Something rolled up and tucked under his arm. He’s got the usual gray beard and eyeglasses. Once he’s yelling-close, gray beard raises his arm and waves. Shouts, “Nice day for it.”
Yes, and a ponytail. Sauntering across the soccer pitch. Bald except for the gray ponytail hanging halfway down his back. Sparkling in the sunshine, an earring. One dazzle-bright diamond earring.
Specifications call for excavating a rectangle three hundred by thirty feet. Twelve deep, with the bottom leveled and layered with two feet of impervious clay. On top of that, a seamless barrier of polyethylene sheeting to retard possible leakage into the water table. This site, here, a minimum of five hundred yards from any potable well or open water course. These are the same specs they’re using nationally, the same specs as a holding pond at a mill, only minus the compressed clay hardpan the EPA would normally require.
Rolled up under the gray beard’s arm? It’s a yoga mat. He goes, “What are you gentlemen undertaking, here?” A professor slumming it among the proles.
Rufus goes, “Campus improvement.” How he says this without laughing, who knows, but he’s all, “Long-term underground parking for faculty.”
Naylor laughs, only he puts a fist to his mouth and pretends it’s a cough. Ostermann gives him a harsh look.
Professor is all, “Call me Brolly. Dr. Brolly.” He offers a handshake nobody accepts, not at first. Naylor looks at Weise. Rufus hefts his clipboard and flips through the thick stack of paper it holds. Professor’s hand hovers until Ostermann shakes it.
Rufus shuffles his pages, being, “Brolly . . . Brolly . . .” His fingertip traces down some list, and Rufus goes, “You teach something called ‘The Arrogant Legacy of Privileged Euro-Colonial Cultural Imperialism’?”
Professor nods to indicate the clipboard, him being all, “May I ask to what you’re referencing?”
Not missing a beat, Rufus comes right back with, “Environmental impact study.”
Naylor and Weise both guffaw. Total jackasses. They turn their backs to everybody until they can regain a professional composure. They’re still snickering until Ostermann goes, “Don’t be dicks!”
Professor red-faced behind his beard. He shifts his yoga mat from under one arm to under the other, going, “I only ask because I serve on the university Committee Against Wounding the Earth.”
Consulting his lists, Rufus is all, “Vice chairperson, it says here.”
Naylor excuses himself to go inform the backhoe operator of the need to slope the west side of the excavation seeing how that’s the side the dump trucks will be filling it from. Nobody wants it to slump under that kind of weight. Weise leans on his shovel, nodding to get Prof’s attention, going, “Nice sweatshirt.”
Arm up, sleeve pulled back to show a wristwatch, Prof makes a big show of checking the time. Being, like, “I’d still like to know what you people intend.”
Nose still stuck in his paperwork, Rufus goes, “Your office still in Prince Lucien Campbell Hall? Sixth floor?”
Prof looks rattled.
Weise goes, “That a real diamond?” Stuck through Prof’s left ear, so perfect.
The soccer grass runs right to the edge of the dig. Under that shows a little margin of dark-brown topsoil. Below that is a yea-wide stripe of subsoil, with under that ancient history, dinosaur deep. The bell tower over by the Administration Building begins to toll four o’clock.
Prof goes down on one knee, right at the edge of the hole. Nothing but raw dirt going down deeper than a swimming pool. Deeper than a basement. Dirt and worms. The steep sides clawed with stripes from the teeth on the bucket. Little clods bust loose and roll to the bottom.
Kneeling there, the professor leans out over the drop. Contemplating what he can’t understand, he could be looking for fossils. Dumb as a hog led to slaughter, not recognizing the obvious, but trying to identify some last trace of a vanished civilization. Whatever the case, he’s getting a good long, lingering look at everything pitch dark he’s spent his entire life pretending doesn’t exist.
The bits of breakfast cereal clung to his skin like fruit-flavored scabs. He peeled off a red-flavored one and ate it. It left a ghost on his arm like a tiny, round, red tattoo. Like he was turning into a rainbow-colored leopard.
That morning Nick wakes up in bed with spilled Froot Loops sticking to his back. Little circle stains in rainbow colors, like Life Savers printed on his sheets. He reaches his phone off the floor to try and reconstruct his evening before.
“Reward offered for information,” it reads. A text that came through a few minutes after midnight. He tries to return the text, but it’s a blocked number.
He’s not out of bed before the phone rings. The Caller ID says: Private. Nick thumbs the screen and is, like, “Talk to me.”
A voice goes, “Nicolas?” A male voice, but not Walter’s. Not his dad, either. Raspy and wheezing, but cultured. Nobody Nick knows calls him Nicolas.
He lies, “No, this is Nick’s friend.” He needs to piss. On the phone, he’s all, “Nick’s stepped out.”
The telephone man is, “Allow me to introduce myself.” Rasping, “My name is Talbott Reynolds. By any chance do you happen to know the whereabouts of a Miss Shasta Sanchez?” Wheezing, “That most captivating and lovely of creatures.”
Nick lies again. “Can’t help you.”
Over the phone, “You are acquainted with the enchanting Miss Sanchez?”
And Nick’s all, “Nope.”
“Have you recently been contacted by either the police or one Walter Baines?” asks this Talbott person.
Nick’s getting the picture. Walter. Walt, the screw-up. The lame helpless loser. Every overdose or car crash, it went this way without fail. The time Walter did bath salts and tried to eat his hand, it was Nick who had to take him to Emergency. Or worse, when he tried to drill that hot Satanist. Not bothering to hide the anger in his voice, Nick goes, “Never heard of him.”
The voice over the phone sounds echo-y. As if calling from a hole somewhere, this Talbott says, “Be assured I am an exceedingly well-off individual who would pay greatly for any assistance you might offer.”
Nick’s fingers feel among the bedsheets until they come across something round. A ten milligram Flexeril by the size of it. By reflex he brings it to his mouth without looking and chews it without water. If this phone call is a drug deal, Nick frets he might get dragged into it. The events of last night continue to be a little foggy in his head. He’s waited too long, long enough for somebody to triangulate the signal from his phone. Time enough for somebody to be knocking at his door. He gets all, “Let me take a message for Nick.”
“Tell him,” the voice says, this Talbott, “not to go to the police.” After only the slightest of hesitations, “Assure him that everything will be resolved in a few days.”
Already feeling his muscles loosen and relax, Nick goes, “What’s Shasta wrapped up in, this time?”
The voice, this well-heeled geezer, Talbott, he’s asking, “May I have your name?”
Only Nick ends the call. He slips out of bed and squints to see through the bedroom curtains. Nobody stands at his door, not yet. He pulls a green-flavored Froot Loop off his arm and chews it, thinking. Before anything else, he swipes and thumbs to deactivate the GPS on his phone. As an added safety measure he snaps open the back and slips out the battery.
Rows of folding chairs are set up, even so there’s people left standing along the edges and across the back. In that big-box sporting goods place, the one with the waterfalls and trout stream for indoors fly-fishing, only it’s after hours so the waterfall’s shut off and the stream is just dry fiberglass pools with the trout tucked away in tanks behind the scenes. Like Mother Nature’s gone home for the night, there’s no soundtrack of songbirds or recorded trumpeting bull elk.
Bing and Esteban check out the crowd, mostly a bumper crop of Bubba types. A smattering of Jamals. An army of lone wolves. Across the audience is that one douche from the gym, Colton-something, sitting with his significant other, Peggy or Polly. Facing the crowd is some man asking, “By a show of hands, who knows why people crop the ears of dogs?”
Before anybody can answer or even raise a hand, he gets revved up about how ancient shepherds cropped the ears of their puppies. To prevent infections. To prevent wolves from taking hold during fights. Shepherds used the same scissors they sheared their sheep with. They grilled the snipped bits, cooked them up and fed them to the same dogs to make them fierce, no shit.
Sporting-goods guy, he asks the crowd, “How many of you know ancient Assyrian law?” He gets no takers. Charging forward, he’s all, “The Babylonian Code of Hammurabi punished law breakers by slicing off their ears?” For extra credit, he goes on how King Henry VIII punished sixteenth-century vagrants by cropping their ears. That, and American law allowed folks’ ears to be lopped off as punishment for sedition or moral offenses as late as 1839.
Making his point, he goes, “It shouldn’t surprise you none that since the beginning of warfare, mercenaries have collected ears to exchange for their pay.”
Bing puts up his hand, going, “Sounds bloody.”
Sporting-goods guy shakes his head, going, “Not . . . ,” he points up an index finger to make folks wait, “if your target is dead.”
The chief advantage of taking scalps, he goes, is they’re lightweight. Easy to harvest and transport. The downside is they’re messy. The same goes for hearts. Claiming a heart is slow going. Ears, on the other hand, ears are ideal. The left ear, to be specific.
Ears are portable in large numbers. Easy to conceal. A hundred ears hardly strains a paper shopping bag. That amounts to three hundred thousand possible votes, practically being your own political party.
Sporting-goods guy, he turns his head sideways to everybody and goes, “Grab hold.”
He means his ear. Esteban looks around. Nobody’s grabbing so finally he steps forward and grabs the man’s ear. It feels warm and stretchy. The man says, “Give it a good tug.” He drills them on the regulations: Only the left ear counts. The left. Only ears on the list. Random DNA testing will be utilized, and if you’re found to have submitted an ear not on the list then you’re facing the death penalty. Ears may not be exchanged or sold, and only the person harvesting the ear may submit it for voting credit.
Sporting-goods guy yaks on about bullfighters. About ears being the body’s heat radiators.
Esteban standing there, he’s holding onto the guy’s ear like it’s cash money.
Plus, the guy goes, ears are durable. “Even with a head shot the ear—you might have to hunt for it—but the ear will remain intact.” To Esteban still tugging on his ear, he goes, “You may resume your seat.”
The way the sporting-goods guy explains it an ear is mostly, the outside part, the pinna, is composed of cartilage of the elastic type. That, and the outer perichondrium, which supplies blood and lymph. As easy to slice as a tire.
The best method, he goes, is to slice downward from the helix junction to the lobe.
He goes, “If you can slash a tire, you can harvest an ear.”
Sporting-goods guy gets to maintaining how folks need a straight edge, fixed four-inch blade with a full tang, no fancy leather handle or bone or wood, but an easy-to-grip polymer. Such is his job: Selling stuff. “What you want is high-carbon stainless steel.” No partial-tang knives. Partial-tang knives tend to break. Folding blades break. “A man can harvest all the targets he wants, but if his knife breaks what’s the reward?”
Sporting-goods guy is all, “The day comes, people will use their kitchen shears—but how are they going to head home and cut up a chicken with the same tool they took ears?”
Loud, too loud, Esteban goes, “Amen!” Folks laugh.
This, this being Esteban’s brain storm, them becoming warrior kings and all. His thinking is most men won’t team up. Men, they’re freelancers, like in olden days, those knights for hire. Your typical man, he’ll try to hit a target and harvest the ear, himself. Alternating tasks requires him to constantly shift gears. Slowing him down. The solution, Esteban goes, is for labor specialization. Bing’s a crack shot, Bing is, so he’ll put down the target while Esteban does the harvesting. Together, they’re a hit-and-harvest duo. Together they can establish the foundation of a glorious dynasty to last forever. Their kids and their kids’ kids’ kids will be crowned royalty.
The Adjustment being one last shot at doing something useful with their lives.
Theirs was just like Nat Turner’s rebellion or John Brown’s raid. A legacy. Come the New Crusades, the One-Day Crusade, and they’ll claim something comparable to the knights who’d been awarded estates. But a power set to outlast both land and money. Become royal blood. With a shopping bag crammed full of ears they’ll take their place in history. Esteban and Bi