The birds chirped, and the sun’s bright glow lit everything up in an excruciating way. Luke Payne drank Ancien Domaine Pinot Noir from a crystal bordeaux glass in his patio chair on his and his wife, Janice’s deck. He stared into their competition-sized swimming pool on the deathly hot summer day. Luke wore swimming trunks and slathered suntan lotion on his body. Two bottles of his aged wine sat next to him on the end table, already opened, so he did not have to get up to go to the fridge to get more. With his early dinner finished, Luke could relax with a cold one for the next three hours before he had to go sleep the night in anticipation for another long day’s work. This was his reward for a hard day at his job as Director of Engineering at Lexoco, a major oil company. He would drink two bottles at night to wake up the next day with a punishing hangover and do it all over again. Every evening was a celebration but it hurt the next morning. Janice came out of the glass sliding doors holding a cigarette between her lips. She lit it up with a gold kerosine lighter and exhaled smoke.
“The Fontroys put up a new fence and they got an Ogadetsu Terrain Master!” Janice said.
Luke looked at their next-door neighbor’s white picket fence and matching mailbox. The new wooden marker of the bordering property glowed in the sun, as if it were magic. The Fontroys built a pool and a deck in their backyard and a coy pond in front. The Paynes countered by building an even bigger in-ground swimming hole behind their house and a mini-waterfall on their lawn.
When the Fontroys moved in a year ago, the opposing family renovated their place in the Bauhaus style with a simple-yet-stylish chandelier that could be seen from the street through the panoramic windows, complete with an unassuming balcony. Luke and Janice took note and redid their place in the Victorian style with bright red tapestries and curtains. The Payne’s replaced their old furniture with antique maple ones bearing gilded floral designs. They also commissioned the painting of a miniature Garden of Eden on their ceiling.
The holidays were no different. Luke spent days hanging lights and put together all the circuits and moving limbs of and schematics for a life-size robotic manger scene with rotating wisemen moving their hands to present their gifts to baby Jesus. The Fontroys put out a Christmas tree and built a wooden Santa’s Workshop on their front lawn. The opposing family hired actors to play as elves and give toys to the neighborhood kids.
Everything cost money. Just when the Paynes seemed to get ahead, the opulent Fontroys got something else. Luke looked behind the fence and saw the expensive SUV in the neighbors’ driveway.“There’s got to be some way we can keep up with the family next door,” Luke said.
“I just maxed out the Fleesa card and we’ve got a second mortgage. Maybe I should get a job?” Janice said.
“Max Fontroy’s wife doesn’t work. I can provide for you—besides, you haven’t worked in five years.”
“There’s got to be some way we could get at least a new car.”
“I’ll fgirue smeohtnig ot.”
“Vie gote da muvles agin.”
“You’ve got the mumbles! Quick! Take your Stamex!”
Luke ran inside the house and came out with a prescription bottle. He twisted open the container and popped the last pill inside. He washed the capsule down with wine.
“Now I hvae ot go teg morre Stmaex.”
“I can’t understand you! How are you going to deliver the commencement toast at the Regency Costume Ball?! You’re now the lead historical reenactor!”
“I have to get more medicine now, honey.”
“Whatever you do, don’t forget to bring some for when we show up there. I don’t want to be embarrassed.”
“Don’t worry about a thing—I’m going to the pharmacy in a minute.”
Luke grabbed his keys off the end table, held them between his fingers, and slipped on a shirt and sneakers. Janice took another drag of her cigarette and sat in the seat he left behind. Luke walked around their house and into the driveway to their Ogadetsu Roadrunner and drove away.
The New World Apothecary had a plain door and a giant black pill bottle hanging above the entrance. Luke got a handful of multivitamins and fish oil for himself and his wife from the aisle next to the toothbrushes and shampoo and stood behind an elderly lady in line. The woman stopped yakking about her husband’s complexion and paid cash for her aspirin and oxycontin. Luke envied her that she didn’t need credit. The neighbors always had money and smiled with happiness more than in his imagination. Rod, the bald pharmacist, in his white coat, grinded his teeth and thrust the money into the register, in a hurry. He knew what Luke wanted the minute they made eye contact.
“Stamex, we have that in stock,” Rod said.
“Good, I need it really bad,” Luke said.
Rod walked away from the counter and to the computer in the back and bit his lip fidgeting with the mouse and keyboard.
“Sorry, but your insurance won’t cover it,” Rod said.
“What happened?” Luke said.
“You used to get coverage through Protectna, but it merged with Vig and Extortnid to become Rakatea.”
Luke tilted his head in confusion.
“Look, I don’t name ‘em,” Rod said.
“How much is the cash price?” Luke said.
“Ten thousand dollars, and there’s no generic or alternative.”
Luke could have just died in grief that instant.
“There’s no way I can afford that! I only make so much at Lexoco. I’ve got to get this stuff to give an important speech.”
“Well there is a Dr. von Wolfenstein….”
“I’ll do anything!”
“Take this address down….” Luke took out his phone to put it in the GPS. “Twenty-five Bourbon Street.”
“What does he do?”
“Just go down there for a consultation. Tell him Rod Lugoyovich sent you.”
Luke had hope and wanted to get this situation taken care of to get back to drinking wine on the patio. He rushed out of the store because he needed to act before everything closed for the next day.
Wolfenstein Insurance Solutions was in a brick building shared with a plastic surgery practice and a chiropractor close to the rough side of town. Google maps did not recognize the name of the doctor, but the app knew the address. A plastic yellow plaque bearing the name of the practice as well as the credentials of the internist, Dr. von Wolfenstein, hung loose in the braces holding it up.
Luke opened the heavy door in the lobby to the office. A small blonde woman with wavy hair sat at a desk painting her nails surrounded by empty chairs along the wall. She looked disturbed when he came in, and she put what looked like a cigarette case away and a metal tube into her pocket. She sniffled through her stuffy nose.
“Yes, please tell me why you’re here,” she said. She stood up to peer out the window. “You aren’t a police officer, right?” The woman spoke in a refined German accent.
“I’m Luke Payne. Rod sent me. I am here to see Dr. von Wolfenstein. What do you mean police officer?”
“Just asking. You’d… get a discount if you were. I’m Gretchen. Let me bring you to his office.”
They arrived in a room with brown wooden paneling that made the place look like a study. An ornate Victorian desk with likewise decorated armchairs on both sides sat close to the far wall. An empty ashtray was on top of the corner of the study table. The floor had a bright blood-red carpet and a Persian rug under the desk and chairs. A wooden counter with a folding top was half open with bottles of top-shelf liquors, an insulated ice box, and stylish tumblers inside. The counter sat just in arm’s reach of the chair that was closest to Luke, opposite the desk. All the furniture had intricate threaded designs carved into their surfaces. Gretchen motioned for Luke to have a seat.
“Make yourself comfortable. Have a drink on us,” she said.
Luke grabbed himself a cup with a few ice cubes and filled the glass to the top with Blue Diamond Single Malt. After sitting down, he pondered what this business was about and eyed the door.
A stocky bearded doctor wearing thick rimless glasses and a white overcoat entered the room. The medical professional had a stethoscope around his neck and important-looking papers in his front pocket. Two black ball-point pens were in reach of his right hand. The man standing before Luke looked like a wise seasoned testament to the Hippocratic Oath, able to treat any ailment.
“Hello, I’m Dr. von Wolfenstein. Welcome to my practice. Glad to see you’ve helped yourself,” the doctor said in a slight German accent.
“I have—thank you. By the way, where did you get this furniture?” Luke said.
“There were many well-preserved Victorian specimens in East Germany before the wall fell.”
“You’ve got good taste. That was back when the world had style. I had to look far and wide for my antique living objects.”
“Yes. Rod’s been referring many clients to me lately. What exactly brings you here?”
“I can’t afford my Stamex.”
“Luke, do you mind if I smoke?”
“I could’ve asked you the same thing.”
The doctor took out a meerschaum pipe in the shape of a golem’s head from his left pocket, reached into a burgundy velvet pouch held in his other hand, took a generous pinch of tobacco from the sack, and filled the cupped end of smoking apparatus with a generous portion of yellow leaf. He put the pipe to his mouth and lit a match to the hand-carved contraption. The physician blew smoke that came out in a rising plume. Luke opened his pack of Chesterfields, removed a cigarette from the inside, and put fire to the cylinder of the plant tissue he hung from his lips. Smoke floated towards the high ceiling.
“Well, let me explain what I do here. I help people help people,” Dr. von Wolfenstein said.
“What do you mean by that?” Luke said.
“Your body holds an untapped treasure trove of organs that can be used to assist people in need of them.”
“People need these things to survive. You’ve got an extra kidney and more than enough liver to spare.”
“It sounds like I could die if I do this.”
“Nonsense, the human body is a living miracle. You’ll regrow them.”
“Well, I need my liver…. I like to drink.”
“I could just take a little bit off the top. You’ve still got enough in the tank to get you where you’re going in life.”
“I don’t know….”
“You can trust me—I’m a real doctor.”
“Won’t it mess up my drinking?”
“After your operation, you’ll get drunk faster and have to consume less to achieve the same effect.”
“You know what? Let me talk it over with the wife.”
“If you come here once every three months for your liver operation, you’ll never have to worry about medical bills. For your kidney, I’ll give you forty thousand dollars. Easy money.”
“Wow, that’s more than enough for a down payment on an SUV.”
“We can get this done today. Just tell your wife about this wonderful opportunity.” The kind doctor exited out the door.
Excited, Luke got out his cell and dialed Janice.
“Honey?” he said.
“I’m getting my nails done,” Janice said.
“We have an opportunity here.”
“What are you talking about?”
“We can get that new SUV, even better than the Fontroys.”
“The bad news is I can’t afford my medication ’cause the insurance won’t cover it.”
“That’s terrible! How much is it?”
“A king’s ransom!”
“We’ll never be able to keep up with the neighbors like that. We’ll be shunned—”
“I found a doctor who can help.”
“He’s a benevolent professional who can get us out of the debt and mess we’re in.”
“What kind of doctor is he?”
“He harvests people’s organs for the needy. He’s a—”
“That sounds ridiculous.”
“He wants my liver and my kidney, and I’ll never worry about medical bills. He’ll give us forty grand to cover the new Earthcruiser Extravagance, too.”
“I’ve always wanted that one. We’ll beat the Fontroys and be the envy of the town.”
“What do you think?”
“Don’t you need your organs? I mean, they’re in your body for a reason.”
“The human body is a wonder and they will grow back.”
“Do it then. I can’t wait to drive that luxury SUV to the Regency Costume Ball!”
Luke put his cigarette in the ashtray and ended the conversation. He called for Dr. von Wolfenstein and the medical professional came in.
“I’ll do it. Do I have to sign anywhere?”
“No, a simple verbal agreement is enough. Just tell others what I’ve done for you. I’ll give you a bonus for anyone you refer to me.”
Luke drove the Earthcruiser with Janice riding in the passenger’s seat. The prized SUV had eight cupholders, a sunroof, heated seats, and a black Corinthian leather interior. The four-door moving automobile acted as a beacon projecting the owner’s opulence to the lesser inhabitants of planet earth. The decadent SUV had a green paint job that resembled crisp shiny banknotes in the bright sun. Reflective chrome rims attached to each hubcap glittered as if the vehicle acted as the center attraction of a parade of wealth.
The Paynes dressed in Victorian era clothes for the Regency Costume Ball. Luke wore a yellow bow and a black short frock coat with stove-pipe pants. He had a chain attached to his front pocket with a monocle and a top hat. Janice wore a silk taffeta gold bodice over a cream-white petticoat. She had her hair in a bun, a tight flattering corset underlayer on, and sleeves with bell-shaped ruffles.
“Let’s make sure everyone sees us driving in this thing when we get there,” Janice said.
The streetlight ahead of them turned yellow. Luke put his foot on the gas to get through it but drove through the then red light.
“Whoops! There’s no cops around. Are there?” Luke said.
“I don’t see any,” Janice said.
“What about the speed cameras?”
“You think they can put fancy things like those in? They can’t even fix the roads.”
Luke laughed. “Ouch, Ow.” He grabbed his side.
“Here we are! Drive slow so everyone sees us in the front.”
They passed Delancey Banquet Hall. A crowd of other reenactors dressed in the same style were gathered at the entrance to the Ball. Luke stopped the car in front of the parking garage and gave the keys to the valet. Janice walked beside him through the crowd. Bertram stood on the side smoking.
“That’s a limited-edition Extravagance you had to custom order, right?” Bertram said.
“It got rush delivered,” Luke said.
Luke and Janice went inside. The ceiling was high and red drapes with golden linings hung in front of the panoramic windows. The waiting staff set the tables with dining utensils made from real silver, like in the Victorian or Regency era. A giant cake made to look like a champagne bottle stood at the center of the room on two tables held up by a marble cheesecake rack. The waiters filled a pyramid of glasses stacked six feet high with the intoxicating bubbly concoction. Luke requested that there be no balloons or other Twenty-First Century items on the premises except for the lighting. A live band played two violins, a piano, a coronet, and a violoncello on the side of the room. Bertram sat next to Luke as a board member for the Victorian Era Reenactment Organization.
The event went as planned. Bertram hosted bingo at a thousand dollars a go. The Paynes’ tickets were one number off from winning a trip to Alaska. The band played songs like “Woodman, Spare That Tree!” and “Throw Out the Life-line!” The champagne got Luke to slur his words.
The band stopped playing. The end of the night and the commencement address drew near. Bertram got up in front of the lectern.
“It’s been a swell evening everyone. Wonderful costumes. It is as if we’re still living in the Victorian Era. Men and women of the community, we have raised hundreds of thousands for people with cirrhosis of the liver…” Bertram said. “Now to deliver the commencement speech is our lead historical reenactor, Luke!”
Luke guzzled the rest of his champagne and got up on the stage. He felt nervous but knew he would calm down once he started speaking.
“I-I am greatlyy honored to deliverr the final speech at this benevolent charitabile event. We all are here to commemorate the past-t as our ancestors did. When we bring history-y back to life, we can put the present in perspective and c-change the future…” Luke said.
The intoxicated speaker looked around the room and got the impression from the smiles and grins that his speaking worked. Luke went on for at least fifteen minutes about the work of scientists discovering electromagnetism, writers such as Jane Austen, and industrialization resulting in the wonderful prosperity of Victorian times which was a term interchangeable with the Regency Era.
“…The past lives today through us. I could go on at length about the good things this community does. Things don’t get better unless you get them on the road to happiness. There’s nothing more I can say about the fine people here. Thank you.”
The audience gave Luke enthusiastic applause.
Janice drove the Extravaganza back home with Luke on the passenger’s side.
“You should sell your extra organs to Dr. von Wolfenstein. He’s not just a good doctor, he’s a financial wizard. We’ll be rich!” Luke said.
“I’ll have to consider that,” Janice said.
“We can buy a summer house in Cape Cod!”
“We could. You’re still drunk, but you delivered a good speech tonight.”
“The evening went well.”
“Thank you. That was so wonderful.”
She stopped in the driveway. Luke opened the door ajar and leaned out of the car. He could finish off the night with a bottle of chardonnay or a cup of whiskey and listen to Mozart. Janice went through the bills and paid them yesterday. Tomorrow they wanted to spend as their hearts desired on knick-knacks from Housecenter. A three-course meal and a few bottles of wine at the Pavilion on Somerset would please their tastes.
“Don’t thank me, thank Dr. Wolfenstein!” Luke said. He collapsed towards the ground, and the seat of the SUV broke his fall.
Luke lay in a two-patient hospital room on a bed wearing his Victorian clothes. Janice stood by his side. A thin man on a cell phone lay in the hospital bed with the curtains open on the other side of the room. .
“You’re going back home soon. You’ve only been here for less than an hour,” Janice said.
“That’s alright. Dr. von Wolfenstein’s got the bill covered,” Luke said.
“I just think you should take it easy. I spoke to the family doctor and he said people who don’t have all their liver shouldn’t drink.”
“Don’t worry—I’ll just stick to beer, no hard stuff.”
“Ok, just try not to get carried away like that!”
“Honey, when will you see Dr. Wolfenstein? That house in Cape Cod is calling!”
“I’ll have to think about it. I do want to sit on beautiful Covell Beach and enjoy the sunset.”
“What’s there to think about? You don’t drink that much.”
“You’re right, I’ll do it. I mean, why not?”
“Your medical expenses will be covered, and we’ll be rich!”
“Well it looks like I’ll have to sell the house…. No, these bills are staggering,” The patient next to them said, on his phone.
“Sounds like you have insurance problems,” Luke said.
“Tell me about it,” the other patient said.
“You should go see Dr. von Wolfenstein! He’ll take part of your liver, but it’s better than dealing with medical bills,” Luke said.
“Really?” the other patient said.
“Just tell him Luke Payne sent you. Here, I’ll give you the address,” Luke said.
Janice went to see the trusted doctor for her operation to remove all her unneeded organs. The Paynes took the money and got a mortgage on a bungalow in Covell Beach. They sat on folding chairs in the sand of their waterfront backyard, smoking with glasses of wine in their hands. A gilded stand between them held up an ashtray full of cigarette butts. The breeze blew the grey ash off the ember of Luke’s Chesterfield.
“The sun will set soon,” Janice said.
“Yeah, beautiful,” Luke said.
“Honey, I had a terrible dream last night.”
“Everything I touched turned to dust—the Extravaganza, my clothes, my jewelry, everything. My arms and my whole body started to turn white and flakey, like I was dying before myself, and I woke up.”
“You just had a nightmare—not a big deal.”
“You looked really yellow today.”
“So did you.”
“I didn’t have the energy to run the past week.”
“I found it difficult to get out of bed this morning.”
“Maybe it’s from Dr. von Wolfenstein removing our kidneys, liver, and…”
“I’m starting to think this was a bad idea.”
“Nonsense. We’re alive and just look at the orange in the skies.”
“I don’t know how long this is going to last.”
“Just enjoy it while it does.”
“Everyone in town knows we’ve got a place here. They admire our success. We’re respected, isn’t it great?”
Luke gave her time to think about what he said. Janice turned white and fell out of her chair. Her cigarette stopped burning. Luke got up to wake her.
“Are you ok? You shouldn’t drink so much,” Luke said.
He noticed his skin was the same light color as his wife’s. He saw everything fade to black behind his eyelids and heard a crash.
The falling autumn leaves blew across the ground in front of a luxury green tombstone on a patch of dirt in Outer Reach Cemetery. The grave marker read: “Here rests Luke and Janice Payne. The finer things got the best of them.”