Adjustment day, p.12
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       Adjustment Day, p.12

           Chuck Palahniuk

  Things happened too fast to think. Something moved, and Charlie would squeeze off a shot. Transfixed. His eyes watched for motion. Movement across his retina. Something alive. Any motion seemed to bypass his brain, his conscience, and put him in a trance state the same as playing video games, same as a dog watching a squirrel or a cat waiting at a mouse hole, or like his own old man on a riverbank watched the same red-and-white fishing bobber afloat there in the water, waiting for a trout to take a bite.

  The trance kept him from imagining what was no doubt happening to his mother and father at this same moment.

  Any thinking he’d done a time ago. In the back of his mind, Charlie had mulled over his reasons for taking part. He’d lost faith in all the regular, gradual methods for self-improvement. After a lifetime of posting on blogs and videotaping his every move and emotion for social media, he was facing nothing less than identity fatigue. There were no more fresh starts. He’d established his brand so thoroughly. Documented himself for posterity. There was no frontier where the Internet hadn’t already told the world all about him since he’d first learned to keyboard.

  Adjustment Day would give him a fresh start. Whether it worked or not, it would be a radical shift. He’d be dead or in prison or a revolutionary hero, but any of those would be an improvement on the happy-sad, hopeful-fearful ordinary nobody the online world could watch getting older, getting taller, but never actually getting anywhere.

  Suppressing hysterical laughter, he popped rich men and wealthy old women, only pausing to reload. Charlie went for kill shots to the back of the skull. An entrance wound at the top of the spine with the exit wound through the screaming mouth. Less clean-up that way. Protein is amazing shit, he knew, it was the glue that sticks to everything. Cut a body in half with an AK and your lineage will still have to scrape away all the scraps.

  Welling up from deep inside him was something. A feeling. Something enormous. The only word for it was Glee. For the first time in his life he didn’t need to worry about the draft. He’d never given his future much thought because the draft or nuclear war had always loomed there. It was inevitable that after he turned eighteen he’d die. But here, for the first time he could see a future. From this point on he had some control.

  All his life he’d been taught that men were protectors and guards, and that the most-noble destiny he could attain would be to die in order to preserve another person’s life. If humor comes from anything, it arises from an immense feeling of relief. Charlie felt joy now because for once death was outside him.

  The scene below him was ugly as ugly gets. Bloody as bloody gets. But it wasn’t the worst that could happen.

  According to the Talbott book, history would never know its greatest mistake because no one would be left to record it. The task at hand looked like a bloodbath, but it most certainly preempted a nuclear war. A global famine. A pandemic that wiped out billions.

  All his life Charlie had been told that he and his kind were the evil patriarchal oppressors, the haters who’d colonized the globe and enslaved the gentle savages of Rousseau’s paradise. Thank you, academics. Charlie could wear that. The worse-than-Hitler label. Today he’d give people the proof they were right.

  It was like those news stories where they’d interview the neighbors and lifelong best friends of a serial killer, and everyone swore the killer was a regular, friendly, nicest-fellah-on-Earth. After Adjustment Day the world would know a new truth about Charliegoodguy144.

  He was tired of learning history. He wanted to be it. Charlie wanted the history of the future to be him.

  Senator Daniels lay still among his dead colleagues. He’d burrowed and wormed his body between the leaden corpses until their blood soaked through his custom-tailored suit. He’d been among the first to take cover, and the slaughtered had toppled, staggering and tumbling, and fallen beside and upon him. He’d felt the twitches and little kicks as the life had gone out of bodies. Their blood painted the hair flat to his head and gummed his eyes shut. Blood stuck his pants tight to the skin of his thin legs and webbed his fingers. His breaths were the quick, shallow sniffs of a rabbit playing dead. He lay face down atop his hands to hide their trembling.

  The gunshots had stopped. The screams, also. Voices moved through the room, men’s words and the grunts of exertion. The weight on his back lifted and was gone. The body beside him was pulled away. A hand gripped him around one upper arm, and Daniels felt himself being rolled face up. His breathing stopped as he let himself be dragged by one arm, a skidding distance across the stone floor slick with blood. The hand let go, and he let his arm fall limp, and he continued not to breathe. He lay frozen with shock but sweating off his mask of blood, fearful shivering would betray him.

  Fingertips pinched his ear, and a jagged agony bit at his head where the top of the ear met his scalp. The senator screamed, tearing open his sticky eyelids and his lips pasted together.

  The fingers had released their grip. A man stood over him, a savage wearing camouflage-patterned bib overalls and holding a hunting knife. A laborer from the barbeque the night before. His latex-gloved hand was smeared with red, but not barbecue sauce. His eyes met the senator’s for a moment, green eyes, wide with surprise.

  Daniels whisper-begged, “Please.” Praying for pity, for the savage to move along and leave him among the dead. Tears sprang to his eyes and washed clean streaks down his face.

  Instead, the man twisted his head toward other voices and called, “Got a live one!”

  Discovered, Daniels struggled to sit up. Around him similar bloodied savages looked up from where they were wading among the dead. The heaps and drifts of bodies and half-bodies and headless bodies and desks smashed to scraps of wood. A nearby savage held something bloody between two fingers before tucking it into his hip pocket. This other man called back, “Put him with the leftovers.” And with his own dripping hunting knife, the man pointed across the chamber.

  There, a cluster of weeping men squatted against a wall. Bald and pot-bellied. Skeletal and stooped. Like him, they were old men drenched in other people’s blood.

  A third savage, a few steps away, was leaning over, sawing at someone with his knife. He lifted something small that trailed a thin coil of wire. The wire stretched down to lift a small box. When the coiled wire and the box fell away from the man’s hand, Daniels realized it had been a hearing aid. What the man held was a severed ear, which he stuffed into his back pocket.

  The man who stood over Daniels smiled. It was a wicked, lopsided smile, but not without pity. “You remember that hole, outside?” He jerked his head toward the bloody group of survivors. “You guys’ job . . .” With his knife he gestured broadly over the butchered. “You’re going to pile this big mess into that hole. Got it?”

  Daniels’s fingers crept to his ear, to where the pain still burned. They felt the warm blood still streaming, still warm. Not dead.

  “Now go,” ordered the smiling savage. “Get with your friends.”

  Senator Daniels nodded slowly, before scrambling to his feet.

  Back in Before Times . . . before the pits were being filled . . . driving back to Portland, Oregon, Walter had taken turns with Talbott Reynolds, yelling out a game they’d invented to keep proving he was alive. At the wheel Walter would yell, “A-1 Steak Sauce.”

  From inside the trunk Talbott would yell, “Formula 409.”

  Walter would yell, “Seven-Up.”

  Talbott, he’d yell, “Chanel Number Five.”

  Walter, “WD-40.”

  A lull would fall over the car. Only the sound of Idaho had rushed around them like a tunnel. Here were all Walter’s dreams, of romancing Shasta with money, of rising above the economic mysteries that submerge most people, his dreams might be dead in the trunk. In his head had been the idea to turn around and hunt down an alternate mentor. Yes, to bury this dead one and locate a replacement.

  Then a voice would yell out, “I could’ve had a V8!”

  Joy. Everything in the world
would make sense and wouldn’t be just jumbled chaos. The dead were brought back to us. Jubilant, Walter would forget this was a rental and he’d put a match to a fatty.

  This would eat up the miles until Talbott Reynolds would yell, “Enough!” From the depths of the trunk, he’d yell, “I hope you love the taste of fat, white Nazi dick . . . !”

  They were tallied, the dumped-out sacks of ears. The ears dug from pockets. Black ears and white ears. Ears plugged with hearing aids. Ears dangling hoop earrings. Ears hairy with age and ears streaked with orange tanning spray.

  In each statehouse, a Garret Dawson or a Jamal Spicer addressed the small, remaining group of trembling, bloodied leftovers. “You will remain,” he read from the approved page of the Talbott book, “you survive to do the bidding of the voting lineages and conduct all necessary business.” Those allowed to survive would bury the dead. “You neither propose or impose any new laws. You will serve as merely clerks.” The men reading these lines in courthouses and college lecture halls said, “Your term will be for life, and if you fail at your duties a vote of the electorate can call for your execution.”

  The Talbott book made it sound simple. Only people who’d harvested targets on the list would get to vote. The tally of each target, combined, determined the number of votes each lineage was allotted. The reason being that only people with votes had made their sacrifice for the cause. This ensures that nobody hijacks the movement, because the people who racked up the most numbers will ally with each other and elect one of their own, and because only these people will have the gumption to hold on to power via the same action they took to attain it.

  Officially, liberated assets are supposed to go to the new government, to offset the cost of establishing the correct system. And they go to compensate displaced persons forced to forfeit property due to relocation to the correct jurisdiction.

  “Once the bodies are resolved,” read each man to his captives, “your first item of governmental business is to institute the Homeland Relocation Act.”

  Back before this book was a book . . . on the ride back to Portland, Oregon . . . Talbott Reynolds had been locked in the car’s trunk, always going, “You’d better get used to being some passed-around prison bitch getting your shithole sold for cigarettes!”

  As he’d told it, Talbott had a surgically implanted tracking chip. Implanted he-wouldn’t-say-where, but just under his skin. It gave off a GPS signal that the FBI would use to find him. Once the car stopped, it would only require an hour or two for agents to triangulate the chip’s location.

  He’d cited kidnapping laws going back to the Lindbergh baby. Saying, “You’re going to learn all the subtle flavor differences between Nazi dick and black dick and Mestizo.”

  Even as Walter had marched him down the basement stairs of an abandoned house, and he’d strapped the old man to a heavy chair, some tiny device had been pinging their whereabouts. Any minute now the outside door would bust open, and he’d be busted, awaiting trial, convicted, sentenced to serve with not another moment of Shasta.

  Game over, unless he could find and excise this homing device. Cut it out of the old man’s hide, wherever it was buried. Just one flick with a razorblade, a swipe with rubbing alcohol, a little digging, and it would be Walter’s to crush under the heel of his shoe. Close the wound. Wounds. Death by a thousand paper cuts.

  With this in mind, Walter had rounded up a bottle of rubbing alcohol. A razorblade. Bandages and Super Glue. Preparing for his treasure hunt.

  He’d sliced the clothes off the old man, looking for a little scar to indicate where the chip was buried. Cutting the seams and peeling away the arms of the suit, the collar of the shirt, as if he were peeling an orange. Starting from the extremities, the wrists and ankles, and working his way inward. He’d find a lump on one forearm and ask, “Is this it?”

  Talbott had tensed, going, “Find out.”

  Walter had swabbed on rubbing alcohol to clean the skin, then sunk in one corner of the razorblade. His fingers slippery, sliding, slimy with blood, him without latex gloves, his fingernails rimed with red, his eyes overflowing in sympathy, this not being any Walter who Walter had ever planned to be: somebody who tortures an old man strapped to a chair, razorblading a hole in one arm, picking carefully around the bigger veins and tendons.

  The hunt had turned up a cyst. The search had to go on.

  Walter had peeled back enough pant leg to discover a small hardness in the skin covering a wasted calf muscle. He’d looked up at the wincing, flinching, giggling Talbott and asked, “Is it here?”

  Giggling Talbott, the crazy old geezer, clearly getting off on Walter’s squeamish agony, he’d gone, “You’ll be very popular in prison.”

  Forcing Walter to slosh on more alcohol. Rubbing to locate the little hardness under the skin. Trying to pinch it, to hold it in place as he sinks the razor blade next to it. Except the hardness slips. It migrates, sliding under the hairy skin, skin now greasy with blood. Forcing Walter’s razorblade to chase after it, making a little incision longer, making it cut sideways to follow, finally striking pay dirt only to fish out another false alarm. A lump of fat.

  Despite his new old man springing leaks all over, if Walter hit some spot in a certain way the blood would spout like so much ketchup-colored jizz. With a smell like mashing it with some babe who’s been dead and buried in the ground for the past ten years.

  Old Talbott, always shaking then with laughter, not holding still, tears streaming down his cheeks and every wrinkle in his face stretched tight. He’d squirmed against the belts holding his arms to the arms and his legs to the legs of the chair. The death by a thousand cuts wasn’t killing, but it was paring away, flaying, whittling away the human part of Walter so that the next likely lump was less effort to excavate and the one after that took no effort to lance. The blood, at first so alarming, had faded to only an annoyance, and Walter’s sympathy had soured to rage. After that he’d dug indiscriminately. The empathy burned out of him, Walter had dug to torture the old man for not telling him the chip’s location from the start. Slicing him to strips of bait so the old man would tell. Would cry uncle. Only to have Talbott keep laughing, swearing at Walter’s ineptness as the razorblade had to trench and explore across the man’s scalp and down his back and Walter began splashing cold alcohol on cuts already opened to rinse them so he’d not cut them a second time, and Talbott’s head had hung limp on his neck, his face pale and his laughter reduced to a hissing, like someone laughing in his sleep.

  For fortitude, Walt had surfed porn on his phone. His favorite videos, the clips that featured only dead people fucking and giving blowjobs. Alive when they were filmed, but dead now. The fact that they could still excite him even from beyond the grave was the most proof of a human soul he’d ever found. Those carnal saints, their ancestral beauty had made it okay to slice up somebody who remained only flesh and blood.

  Still, Walter’s fingertips had found no chip. No diode. Only lumps of scar tissue. Just clumps of fat or warm cysts he’d had to pinch out and examine to be sure. Precancerous cell clusters. Calcified foreign objects. Bits of gravel or tiny cubes of safety glass, leftover souvenirs from a car or a bicycle crash a lifetime ago.

  Walter had carved away the T-shirt and boxer shorts, rubbing his wet fingers in little circles, searching for that foreign anything that even now was relaying his location, this abandoned house, this bloody crime scene, him dripping with sweat, wincing in sympathy as he swiped the razor blade only to uncover a bolus of fat . . . an enlarged lymph node . . . something hard and firm, or an in-grown hair, the stink of a carbuncle bursting in his face, a boil he’d lanced by accident. His new old man flinching to make the blade go wrong, laughing, hysterical.

  The police, tracing the ping, the silent distress call, the police every ping getting that much closer.

  After Adjustment Day, the book was everywhere. To be seen without a copy of the blue-black book was to risk being reported. What came of that, no one was sure.
  Despite it having broken her nose, Terrence’s mother had allowed him to keep his copy. Urine and colloidal silver dappled the pages, but he could still read the notes his father had made for him. Among them was a list. On the final blank page, under the heading “My Dreams for You,” his father had written:

  Excellent Health and Strength

  High Status



  Becoming a Great Healer

  In bed, Terrence continued to begin each day by reading. Today, for instance, the Talbott book decreed:

  The American of the formerly united states was constantly held in check.

  His schooling was comprised of the constant repetition of the same narrative model. In the most classic stories of American fiction, the ones most promoted by critics and the school system, the same fates befall each of three main characters. The meek and obedient destroys himself. The most aggressive and openly rebellious is murdered. And no one except the often mute, yet always watchful character is left behind to recount the story.

  A suicide. A murder. A witness.

  Always the suicide occurs first. This is a childlike innocent. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest it’s the obedient son, Billy Bibbit, who’s committed himself to a mental hospital in order to please his mother. After sex with a prostitute he kills himself rather than face his mother’s disapproval.

  The rebel is murdered next. In the same novel, the brash Irishman, Randle Patrick McMurphy, is smothered in his bed. The witness, the unspeaking Big Chief, breaks out of the heavily barred ward and escapes into the world to relate the story.

  Likewise, in The Great Gatsby, the desperate Myrtle Wilson throws herself in front of a car. From the first time she enters the story Fitzgerald describes her as a suicide. Soon after, the new money Jay Gatsby is shot to death in his swimming pool. Following that, the narrator, Nick Carraway—sounds like “carry away”—escapes back to the Midwest and delivers the story’s “take away” lesson.

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