Here is your prize.


Marshall pulled the Jaguar to the curb and double-checked the address on his phone. Right on time — early, even. He checked his teeth in the rearview, checked the latches on his kit box to make sure the lid wouldn’t fly open when he lifted the handle, and took the spare moment to refresh his email, reviewing the day’s schedule. The spring had been slow — nice weather was bad for business — but now it was fall. Dark skies, holidays, New Year’s resolutions around the corner. People had fears to face. It kept Marshall busy.

The first client of the day was a trembling mess named Evan. Marshall shook his hand firmly, assuming his most reassuring tone, guiding Evan back into his own house, onto the safety of his own familiar couch. It was important that the clients were comfortable. A little small-talk went nowhere; Evan offered Marshall a glass of water, but by the way Evan’s hands were shaking Marshall was afraid it’d end up in his lap, and he had a full day ahead with no time to change pants. He segued into his story. He’d found that it calmed clients to hear Marshall speak about himself.

“Got my own reading when I was seventeen,” he said, in a practiced, casual cadence. Somehow the subject seemed natural coming out of any other topic at all. He drew his wallet from his jacket pocket and flipped his driver’s license out, almost as an afterthought. Curious as anyone would be to peek at another person’s reading, Evan took the plastic card gently from Marshall’s hands and read the five words aloud, like everyone always does.

“SHOT WHILE HOLDING A BABY,” he mumbled. “Wow.”

“Yeah,” Marshall grinned. “Now you know why I got into this line of work. Eight years ago I was sitting right where you were. Didn’t know what to do.”

Evan sank back into the couch, not knowing what to do.

“But you know what it means?” Marshall said. “A photographer will snap a picture of me rescuing a baby from a burning building. The resultant fame will affect the rest of my life. Everything after that, even my eventual death from geriatric pneumonia, could be said to be derived from that one single moment.”

Evan looked up at Marshall.

“And you know what that means?” Marshall asked for the hundredth time that week, making it sound like the first. “It means I’m not afraid of diving into a fire to save somebody. That’s the feeling of control I want to empower you with. That’s why I do this.”

The fake driver’s license had cost Marshall five hundred bucks. The name, ID number and home address were real; the reading was not.

Marshall plucked the card back from Evan and reached down to open his kit box. He knew Evan’s reading already; when Evan had applied for the appointment he’d filled in all his info online. But Marshall had to make sure. If he were to give someone an interpretation based on a wrong reading…! So much for any referrals!

Evan flinched at the sharp metal snapping of the kit-box clasps. Marshall lifted out the reader — a standard handheld, a little worn from a few years on the road, but familiar to everyone. Evan knew what was required of him. Marshall popped a sterile plastic thimble from a blister pack, fitted it to the reader, swabbed the handgrip with alcohol and Evan wrapped his fingers around it, resting his thumb in the thimble. He’d done this a hundred times, probably. Everyone had done this a hundred times.

The reader pricked its sample from Evan’s thumb, and Marshall busied himself with popping off the thimble and sealing it in a biohazard bag while the reader blinked through its cycle. The printout surprised nobody: DOWN THE STAIRS.

Marshall looked behind him, at a staircase leading up to an unseen second floor.

“I don’t really go up there,” Evan mumbled. “For obvious reasons.”

Marshall knew this would be a delicate subject as soon as he’d entered the house and seen the staircase. But it was precisely Evan’s reaction that he was interested in.

This was where Marshall made his money. People like Evan who felt their readings were ambiguous, or worrying, or confusing or misleading or anything would call him up, and Marshall would come over in his nice expensive car and take a nice clean reading and speak in a nice reassuring voice about What The Reading Meant. Marshall had a lot of diplomas he could produce, and glowing testimonials from clients all over the country, and Marshall was here to Make You Feel Better.

As far as Evan wanted to believe, Marshall was a world-renowned expert in readings interpretation. Marshall’s role in the whole affair was simply to be convincing at it.

Marshall leaned forward, played with his sleeves a little, and assumed his role as The Confident Person Who Knows Best.

“You’re lucky,” he said. “It’s actually very good news for you.”


Evan paid Marshall three hundred dollars to learn that DOWN THE STAIRS meant that one day, far, far in the future, he might be walking in the woods, enjoying his fulfilling life, when he would hear a crying child. He would run to find the ruins of an old house, with a voice coming from behind a collapsed cellar door. Wrenching open the door and descending boldly into the depths, he would discover a young boy, lost and alone. Details after that were sketchy, but Marshall was certain that Evan would die peacefully at the end of a life changed forever, and immeasurably fulfilled, by this simple, selfless act of entering a cellar.

Evan’s handshake at the end of their meeting was an order of magnitude more confident and forceful than at the beginning. Marshall was very good at his job.

His next appointment, Matthew, had a reading of BLAMED. Marshall assured him that BLAMED referred to a noble act, definitely — perhaps he would become a whistleblower, saving hundreds of villagers from being poisoned by a corporation’s flagrant disregard of environmental regulations? Matthew seemed pleased by this, and even gave Marshall a fifty-dollar tip. “If I’m going to be working for a corporation that big,” he said, “I’m sure I’ll have plenty of time to earn some nice dough before the big blame comes around.” Marshall could only agree.

Then Marshall met Joseph, and described KNOWLEDGE as a Zen-like state, a sort of superlearning that would elevate him above the petty concerns of the world. Marshall would never have tried this on Evan or Matthew, but he saw a few Deepak Chopra hardcovers on Joseph’s bookshelf and a yoga mat rolled up in the corner of the living room so he took a risk. Joseph seemed a bit dubious but still paid full price without grumbling. Dubious was okay with Marshall so long as the credit card came up good. You could never tell with the quiet ones — sometimes they just had to sleep on it before the weight fully lifted. Marshall was sure they eventually felt much better for having seen him.

It was the last appointment before lunch that threw him for a loop. It was a duo — that was weird. He’d found that only very, very rarely were other people usually home during his appointments; the clients were usually either embarrassed, or, quite often, simply lived alone.

“Hey! Which one’s Keith?” he asked the two men who opened the door. One raised his hand halfway, like a schoolkid who thought he knew the answer but wasn’t sure.

The other extended his own hand to shake. “Hi. Mike.”

The reason for the duo soon became clear: they both had the same reading. Marshall proved it with his own reader. A FEW SIMPLE WORDS.

“Run yourself in between us, if you want to make sure the needle’s not contaminated,” Keith suggested, but Marshall politely declined. As far as he and his clients were concerned, his reading was on his driver’s license.

To the question of the identical readings: Were Keith and Mike related? No. Had they had a blood transfusion? No. Any intravenous drug use or sexual contact? No. “We just met on a website and became friends,” Mike said. “Seemed natural.”

This gave Marshall nothing at all to go on. With four hopeful eyes on him, Marshall’s mouth was suddenly dry. Nobody had offered him any water. His empty stomach made him feel a bit faint. Perhaps it was time to get a little assistance

No. It was too dangerous. Too prone to backfire on him. He only pulled out the Clarity when he was dealing with grandmas and foreigners. These people would see right through it.

But his mind was seriously blank when it came to A FEW SIMPLE WORDS, and the sooner he wrapped up here the sooner he could eat. Moving with a slowness that wasn’t entirely hunger, he reached into the kit box, lifted out the Clarity, and asked where the nearest outlet was.

The Clarity was a new type of reader, both bulkier and sleeker than the standard device, that Marshall explained was a gray-market import from Japan still awaiting FDA approval in the States. “It’s mind-blowing,” he said. “Phenomenal. Leaps and bounds more precise than the standard U.S. reader. You know they rushed the American version to market half-finished to beat a tax loophole? That’s why the readings are so obtuse. The Japanese been working on this thing for twenty years. They care about making a thing right.”

Marshall administered the Clarity test first to Keith, and then to Mike. The procedure was the same — you could even use the same thimbles — but the big difference was in the readings. The Clarity’s reader printed on a thermal roll, like a cash register. This was because the predictions occasionally ran to several hundred words and rambled on and on with incredibly specific details.

The Clarity, Marshall explained, indicated that Keith would die in a hospital when a loved one whispered that life-support should be discontinued, and that Mike would pass in his sleep at an advanced age when his angelic father addressed him in a dream. Keith and Mike were very impressed by the Clarity. Marshall assured them the Clarity would be coming to the States in just a matter of months and soon everybody would be just as impressed as they were.

This was where the pitch got tricky. Marshall usually didn’t trot it out unless he knew he had a sure thing, but he had now been offered a Coke by Mike and was feeling a bit better. So, as he packed the Clarity back into its foam nest in the kit box, he unfolded his casual voice again.

“It’s a pity, really — this thing could sell like crazy once the FDA finishes its trials, but there just aren’t enough U.S. investors to bring it fully to market. I mean, even a hundred dollars’ equity in this thing could pay off like mad in a year or two. You could sink a thousand bucks into Clarity shares and pay off your house in eighteen months.”

Oh yes and he just happened to have a copy of the prospectus. Keith was in for a hundred bucks. Mike threw in two hundred more. They ended the meeting all very excited. Marshall drove off happy to have brightened their day so much.

That was what made this job fun, really — brightening people’s days. Brightening their lives. Making people not afraid anymore. It made Marshall happy to be selling peace of mind.

And shares in the Clarity, of course, but only to certain people.


In the afternoon he did a business call, visiting an office where the company paid him for a full four hours with a whole floor of employees, ten or twenty minutes apiece. Two of the employees — Anthony and Jaxon — had grammar-based readings, QUOTATION MARK and COMMA respectively, but Marshall figured that wasn’t unusual for people who clattered away on computers all day. After the success of the morning, he left the Clarity out and plugged in for most of the afternoon, running extra tests on weird readings like Kristen’s ITO and Valerie’s KINDLE MISPARSING, casually reminding each client that the Clarity was a sure-fire hit waiting to happen if the dang FDA would just get its act together, and wasn’t it great that the manufacturer, instead of looking for elitist venture capital, was making shares available to the general public for just a hundred measly bucks?

He made a boatload of money every time he did this, but easing people’s spirits all day long was hard. It was exhausting, taking the Clarity’s jumbled mess of incredibly specific details and working, working, working to make them fit the client’s reading, developing a plausible peaceful death for this person, all while the person sat there eighteen inches away, having entrusted their emotional state to this Expert character that Marshall played so well. By the end of the office session, Marshall definitely felt like he’d earned his boatload of money.

He pulled into a Denny’s parking lot to check his phone again, checking for any cancellations. No luck — just more work, stretching late into the night. He still had Mr. Eyesack in front of him with RAYMOND and someone named “Tree Lobsters” with CENTILLION. The weirdos always scheduled late-nights. It was going to be a long one.

The Clarity drew from a database of pre-entered words and phrases, was the secret. It was a Mad-Libs generator. Marshall had bought it in Mexico. It had paid for itself a hundred thousand times over. People loved it. In a world where a strange new machine had made them unceasingly anxious, was it so hard to believe that another could bring them peace?

It had a weird power. People wanted to believe it. And that made Marshall a little afraid of it.

He trusted his own ability to talk to people, to read their emotions, to play off their body language, but he was human and he was tired and he couldn’t always think as rapidly as he’d like. He didn’t trust the Clarity, not really…but at least it was never speechless. In five years, the thing had never repeated a reading, so far as he could remember.

The first time he’d used the Clarity — he even remembered the client’s name, Jared, MORE FUN — he’d been nervous. What if Jared didn’t believe him? But Marshall simply read from that roll of paper as it slid out of the device, and Jared had leaned forward, rapt. The Clarity was something new — and unlike the standard reader, it provided answers.

Marshall provided answers. The Clarity just provided words.

He restarted the car and checked his phone for his next appointment. He and the Clarity would be making a lot of money tonight, as long as he could just stay awake.


The client’s name was Richard, and according to his appointment info in Marshall’s phone, his reading was VARIABILITY.

From the moment the man opened the door, Marshall could feel the tension spiking out like angry quills. His handshake was a peacocky show of power. The inside of his house was dark, a huge sheet of plastic cloaking off a partially-framed wall, studs exposed like a flayed skeleton. Paint-spattered dropcloths covered most of the floor. Richard produced a metal folding chair for Marshall to sit in.

“I checked some of the testimonials on your website,” Richard said, pacing slowly back and forth before the plastic-sheeted wall, his nervous energy making Marshall’s palms sweat. “You remember all those people? All those people you met with?”

“Sure, most of them,” Marshall said, allowing himself the mechanical movements of opening the kit box and pulling out the reader. The Clarity sat in there too, nestled in its foam, its contours appearing to smile up at Marshall. Ready when you are, it beamed. “But I see a lot of people.”

“That lady. Lucinda. On your site. She had a reading said DON’T WANT YOU. You remember what you told her?”

“Like I said, I see a lot of people. Do you want to sit down so we can—”

“She’s on your site!” Richard growled. “You musta said something to her. I read all those testimonials. Mark, James, even that Björk one.” FELT MYSELF. BROADS. Mark and James had both been pleased to discover they were not going to die in ways that would embarrass their mothers. According to Marshall, anyway.

“Bjarke,” Marshall said. “JULY. I remember that one. Turned out it was the month he was going to die of a heart attack. Years from now, way down the road. He was very happy to hear that.”

“But how do you know!” Richard bellowed. “Nobody knows! Nobody knows what a reading means. You don’t know if Bjarke is gonna be cut up by a calendar. You don’t know if his reading means this July. How do you know?”

Marshall’s gaze dropped back down into his lap, unable to meet Richard’s stare. The Clarity smiled up at him from the kit box.

“Did you know they rushed the U.S. readers to market half-finished to beat a tax loophole?”

Richard drilled a hole in Marshall with his eyes. Marshall licked his lips and lifted the Clarity gently from the kit box, trailing its power cord behind it like a shiny black umbilical. His muscle memory took over.

As if he were talking a jumper down from a bridge, Marshall’s practiced casualness drew Richard gently toward the Clarity, toward the idea of this new, foreign device that could answer a question that nobody else in the world had been able to. The paper spun out quickly, chattering, a pink stain on one side indicating it was near the end of the roll. Marshall scanned the words as he always did, looking for clues, looking for hooks to hang his interpretation on.

“You’re lucky,” he said. “It’s actually very good news for you.”

The Clarity spat out phrases about summer, about wind, about antelope, about a cherry tree. “VARIABILITY,” Marshall said, “is keyed to the seasons.” And he went on, and on, and on, and on, falling into his groove, spinning the best interpretation of his career, or at least of his long, tiring day. Richard never sat down but he did stop walking, staring at Marshall the entire time without moving.

“…And lung cancer is common,” Marshall finished. “And it doesn’t affect quality-of-life until you really get quite old. Frankly, it’s the best news I’ve delivered in a while.”

Richard turned away from Marshall.

“I knew it,” he said softly. “I knew it.”

“The Clarity is never wrong,” Marshall smiled. “The Japanese been working on this thing for twenty years. They care about making a thing right.”

When Richard turned back to Marshall, he had a two-by-four in his hands. “It’s a whole different story,” he whispered. “Last time you told me a whole different story.”

In the instant before the wood hit his temple, Marshall recognized Richard. Two years ago he had been thinner. A different house. Longer hair. And the reading — did he remember the reading? VARIABILITY? He hadn’t even verified the reading.

CRACK. The floor rose up to hit Marshall. The Clarity fell away. “You piece of trash!” Richard shouted, somewhere far away, somewhere blurry, somewhere dark. Something smashed, pieces clattering everywhere. “It’s a different story!”

Marshall skittered across the ground, hands and feet shoving at the bunched-up dropcloth, moving away from Richard, away from the two-by-four, away from anything in the room that was moving. A two-by-four wasn’t going to kill him, but it could certainly break his neck, could certainly paralyze him. He fumbled against the dropcloth, fumbled to keep his balance, fumbled to stand. Managed to.

Then he saw it, on a workbench over by the plastic-sheeted wall. A can of paint, its side coated in drippings, its lid hammered shut. Beside it: a large, flat-headed screwdriver.

He’s gonna get the screwdriver oh God he’s gonna—

“It’s a different story!” Richard shrieked, smashing the paint can with his two-by-four like a homerun slugger, splashing wet brown paint into Marshall, the wall, the world, the future. The screwdriver fell and nestled into the dropcloth at Richard’s feet.

Marshall ran.


His hands shook on the steering wheel, butterflies trying to land on a hotplate, unable to keep a grip. His knees rattled in the cold dark car and he hunched over them, crowded around the wheel, bent nearly in half as he sped away, afraid of how badly he was driving but much more afraid to slow down. He’d left the Clarity, left the kit box, left it all at Richard’s, and as far as he was concerned that was fine. He was done. He was out. He was gone.

A set of headlights loomed bright and close behind him, too close to be an accident, too near to be safe. Richard. Marshall mashed the gas, brown paint smearing from his thigh onto the Jaguar’s leather, not caring, not caring, just driving.

The headlights flickered. Red and blue light bloomed blindingly up above. Now the wail of the siren, so loud, so close. Not Richard. Marshall’s heart, already racing in fear, didn’t know what to do. His hands and feet, thankfully, did. The Jaguar slowed.

The cop seemed to take forever to approach the window. Marshall knew he was running the license plate but still, every second was an hour of furious heartbeats and slowly drying paint. Marshall’s mind raced. Was the Jaguar registered properly? Had he forgotten to pay some little fine? Would the cop know him? He’d served a lot of cops. Even the ones with easy readings didn’t always believe them. They called him all the time.

It wasn’t someone he recognized, thank God. He couldn’t quite tell what the cop was making of this quivering ball of paint and nerves, but to his credit the man remained professional. “You mind telling me what’s going on, sir?”

“Been kind of a rough night,” Marshall admitted. “I’m sorry. Dealing with some fallout from a reading. Had to quit my job. Sober, just — freaked out a little.”

Freaked out by a reading — it was an excuse the cop had probably heard a hundred times. “License and registration.”

Marshall fumbled with the license but managed to get it out okay. He flipped the card to the cop in a manner he’d repeated a thousand times this month.

The cop stared at the plastic card for a very long time. And then he said the five words aloud, like everyone always does.

“SHOT WHILE HOLDING A BABY,” he said softly.

Marshall looked up. He detected something in the man’s voice, something he recognized, a hurt he’d heard every day, every hour, every minute of the last eight years.

The cop barely whispered. “You’re — you’re the only person I’ve ever seen with the same reading as me.”

The pain in his voice made Marshall ache.

“You’re lucky,” Marshall said. “It’s actually very good news for you…”


by David Malki !