You are invited to read Marcus of Abderus and the Inn at the Edge of the World, a fantasy adventure novel available at Barnes and Noble Online.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Credit Limit

Credit Limit

A short story by Michael Lockridge

“Well, Stevie,” he said to himself, “Your hung over again.”

Steven Engel rolled himself carefully from his bed. He gave no thought to giving its rumpled surface some kind of order. Stevie had not made his bed for a great many years.

He made his way across the hall to the bathroom, adjusting his ill-fitting underwear as he went. After centering himself, more or less, on the toilet, he dumped the remains of the liquor he had processed into the toilet. The stream flowed for an eternity. The screaming of his bladder abated, Stevie swiped at the flush handle, and padded out of the bathroom.

Morning was long gone. He dismissed this fact absently. Mornings were a distant and alien concept for him. Stevie rummaged around in his wardrobe, which he kept conveniently scattered on the floor of his room. He fished out his worn robe, and after several tries got his arms through the right holes. He tied the sash into something resembling a knot, and lurched out of the room.

His stumble across the living room was brought up short by a familiar, yet unpleasant voice.

“Been drinking again, I see.”

Stevie stood where he was. He did not want to turn in the direction from which the voice had come. Without looking he knew that the chair in the corner contained an ugly lump of a woman. A lump that sat there, day in, day out. A lump that would be there forever.

“Morning, Ma.” He said. He looked at the carpet at his feet. He waited.

“How many of your credits did you spend last night?” She asked, the voice drilling through his hangover. “How many rounds of drinks did you buy for your no-good friends? I bet you bought most of them, didn’t you? Didn’t you! You always do. I know you do!”

Then the tears began. They wrenched at his heart, years ago. Now, he just stood and took it. It would soon be over. It was always the same. Even the same words.

“They’re not real friends, you know.” She continued. “They don’t care about you. Not like I do. Heaven knows why I do! They just want the liquor your credits can buy. You’re just a soft touch for them, and for those cheap women you seem to find so attractive!”

Women! That was a laugh! Not many of those, lately, cheap or not.

Next would come how fat and lazy he had become.

“Not only have you become fat and lazy,” She continued, “but you don’t seem to care about anyone else. You don’t seem to care about yourself!”

Stevie scuffed his toe against the thinning carpet. Thinning, like his hair. Like his patience.

Just stand there, he told himself. Defending himself just made it take longer. This, at least, was a lesson he had learned.

“Haven’t I taught you better?” She said. “Watch your credits, I always said. You only get so many when you are born. Enough, if you take care. Just like everybody else. Enough credits to live by, if just barely.”

Yeah. Benevolent government. Give everyone just enough to live on. Not enough real jobs to earn much more. At least, not any jobs a man would really want. Enough to sit in a too small apartment, watching soaps and game shows all day. Yeah, great life!

He held his tongue, as the perennial lecture continued. No more apologies, no more challenges. No angry retorts. Just take it. It was over sooner, that way.

“I can tell you aren’t really listening.” She finally said. She sighed. When that did not solicit an apology, or any other response, she turned away. “Go. Just go. Someday, you will have to pay the piper.”

Pay the piper. She always said that. He hated that saying.

Stevie shuffled on into the kitchen. He needed coffee. No, he needed a drink. But coffee would have to do.

He got together the necessaries, and was soon seated at the kitchen table. He brought up the news on the monitor, and was reading when the doorbell rang.

Stevie took a sip of coffee, and continued his reading. Nobody he knew ever came to the door. Let her get it. Maybe it was one of her so-called friends. She could go on and on to them about her no-good son.

He heard the door open, and quiet voices in the hallway. Then the door closed.

“Stevie. Come in here. Quickly.” His mother said.

Something in her voice raised an alarm in his sodden consciousness. He went to her.

Two men were standing by his mother. Blue uniforms. Badges. Patches on their arms, declaring them to be State Collections Agents. His bowels felt like water. He really needed a drink.

“Steven Engel?” Said the one nearest him. They looked so much alike. Distant. Inhuman. “Present your identification, please.”

Swaying on his feet, he extended his left hand. The agent took his hand in a firm but surprisingly gentle grip. He ran a small scanning wand over the place where Stevie’s identification was implanted. The agent consulted the screen at the base of the wand.

“Steven Engel,” Said the agent, “Your credit account is overdrawn. By the authority of the State, we are to confiscate your personal assets and deliver them to the appropriate authorities for redistribution.”

The grip on his hand became considerably less gentle, as the agent applied a hypodermic unit to his arm. There would be no struggle, though the panic in Stevie’s mind would have offered one, without the sedative. These men were seasoned professionals. A struggle might spoil some of his “assets.”

Together the two agents lowered Stevie’s sedated body to a sitting position on the ground. One of the two interchangeable agents went to the door, opened it, and brought a gurney in from the hallway. In very short order, Steven Engel was strapped in and ready for removal.

Stevie could see that his mother was back in her chair. He longed to say something, but the sedative would not let him speak. His head just lolled in her direction. She looked numb, dulled by shock. What could he say, even if he were able to speak?

One of the agents spoke briefly with her. He took her hand, and held it for a moment. He seemed surprisingly gentle, considering the nature of his job. He then released her hand, handed her a small card, and turned.

Silently the two agents removed their burden from the apartment. The place became very quiet. The sunlight coming in through the window moved slowly across the floor, and then up the wall. Eventually the light faded. The woman just continued to sit as darkness filled the room.

The phone rang. She answered it, absently. “Hello?”

“Hey, is Stevie there?” Asked a man on the other end of the connection. She could hear music in the background. Voices.

“No. Stevie isn’t here.”

“When will he be back?” The man asked.

“Stevie won’t be back.” She said. “He is gone. Stevie has gone to pay the piper.”

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