Peering into his empty refrigerator, Lee Shartles decided it was time to sell another one of his limbs.
He didn’t want to sell another one this soon, but he didn’t know any other way to keep him and his family from starving.
A long time ago, before what was known as The Great Collapse, Lee worked in something called “Systems Management” until the systems figured out how to manage themselves. He’d bought a house for his wife and two children in the remarkably unremarkable town of Ottumwa, IA, where there is literally no scenery because everything is too flat.
Ever since the robots had taken over all the menial labor, there was really no such thing as a “job” anymore, at least not as traditionally understood. At best, people worked a frustratingly scattered series of odd jobs for small fees, but never enough to achieve financial independence. Money was given to ordinary citizens to keep them from rioting. Welfare was almost universal and kept people universally unmotivated.
As Lee pondered his next move, a pale stink hung over the whole place, the stench of rotten moldy potatoes that had been festering behind the couch. He remembered the moment nearly two years ago that he’d received a strange letter in the mail:
The letter didn’t get much more specific than that, but it ended with contact information for a local lawyer.
When Lee got in touch with the lawyer, the deal was explained. As part of a top-secret medical experiment intended to forever improve the lives of the disabled, investors were willing to give the Shartles family $10,000 for each limb they donate to science.
They were assured that the procedure would be conducted in a hygienic storefront medical office downtown, with all costs covered by the investor. The only pain they’d experience would be the initial needle prick of the anesthesia. They’d recover for two weeks in the office and then be sent home with a half-year’s worth of top-flight painkillers and an open-ended prescription if they decided to keep taking the pills after six months.
For the rest of their lives, Lee and his family members would also qualify for government benefits, seeing as how they would also be permanently disabled.
If the family would agree to sell their limbs, investors insisted on acquiring at least one specimen from each family member before anyone could donate a second limb.
Lee and his wife Peggy’s kids were in their early 20s and still lived at home, like almost all adult children in these economically bleak times. And just like Lee and Peggy, this new uber-technological economy had left them with no marketable skills. As sad as it was, the only thing they had that anyone wanted to buy was their limbs.
Lee got the ball rolling by offering up his right leg. As promised, the procedure was pain-free, and the meds felt so good, his only regret was that he hadn’t done it sooner.
Next came Peggy Shartles, whose middle name was Aloysius, although her parents never explained why they named her after a male saint. For years she’d been experiencing crippling arthritis pain from a left elbow she’d broken in a lacrosse mishap during college. Since she was also right-handed, she eagerly offered her left arm. After intense initial reluctance, Peggy found that she, too, was quite happy being one limb lighter and doped-up to the gills on happy pills.
Besides, the family was already $20,000 richer.
But as every adult knows, things cost money, and soon, according to the terms of the contract Lee had signed, one of their kids would have to go in for an amputation.
Little Joey Shartles—“Little” was actually his legal first name, but everyone just called him Joey—was a born negotiator and was able to reach an agreement where his parents would get the $10,000 if he surrendered only the bottom half of his right leg to researchers.
Baby Lena Shartles—as with Little Joey, her legal first name was “Baby”—was 22 years old and collecting benefits for anxiety, depression, an eating disorder, an addictive personality, and unemployment. And now she was collecting even more money every month because her dad had convinced her to sell her right arm to science. She was now officially disabled, rolling in pills and money.
Still, though, the Shartles were struggling to make ends meet. There never seemed to be enough money. Every so often Lee was able to see through the fog and realize how dire the family’s situation was becoming. It’s like they were selling their house one room at a time, and with each sale the house became smaller. What happens when they run out of limbs?
He never expected that at this point in his life, the only decision available to him was whether to lose a second leg or have them take one of his arms this time around.
Lee decided to give up his second leg. At least he’d be able to feed and wipe himself. And spend most of the day online. At least you don’t need legs to go online.
* * *
Down in his cold, dark basement next door, Arvid Pfitzer was admiring his newly acquired collection of the Shartles family’s limbs. He’d had them preserved by a black-market taxidermist for a staggering fee that ensured both quality and confidentiality. If for some stupid reason they decided to breach that confidentiality, Arvid could pay people to take care of that, too.
One by one, he lovingly cradled each of the smooth, cold limbs while running his hand softly up and down their length. He’d slowly twirl them in his hands while beholding the ace craftsmanship of his secret taxidermist.
These were his trophies. These were his equalizers. He sat there basking in the Shartles’s endless miseries as if he was slowly dipping a tea bag in and out of hot water.
Arvid was a lonely older man who walked with a pronounced limp because he was born with one leg three inches shorter than the other. The medical term for Arvid’s condition is “Leg Length Discrepancy.” His parents noticed something was wrong even when he started to crawl. He’d been mocked and bullied and made to feel hated and alone his entire life for this.
But this is why he made it his lifelong passion to somehow make life easier for people like him. Although not physically gifted, Arvid scored well above the cutoff line for “genius” on all standardized tests. With dual doctorate degrees in medicine and engineering, he made millions by patenting high-tech prosthetic devices for the limbless.
He had the kind of money that enabled him to pay people to do things that were highly illegal. And if they didn’t keep quiet, he had more money with which to pay new people to do highly illegal things to his previous clients.
Even though the Shartleses lived next to Arvid ever since they moved into their house a dozen years ago, they didn’t even know his name and never bothered to ask. Instead, they called him “The Gimp.” To them, he was that greying, hunched-over little man who walked with a cane. They’d heard he was some kind of inventor but didn’t care to inquire further. He was just some creepy old weirdo who might even be a pervert and was lucky if they even bothered to say “hi” to him.
For the first nine years, it was Arvid and Arvid alone who tried to be neighborly. Every year he hand-delivered them a specialty rum cake for Christmas. Every year they took it out of his hands with a smile. And every year they failed to thank him or give him anything in return.
But three years ago, something happened that forced Arvid to vow that he was done being nice to them.
The Shartleses were having one of their loud, trashy summer parties that usually ends in broken glass and police sirens. Arvid was up in his bedroom, vainly blasting some Puccini hoping it would drown out the party’s braindead sonic thumping.
He looked out his bedroom window and could see over the tall wooden fence into the Shartles family’s backyard. And that’s when he spotted Lee Shartles artificially hunching himself over and walking with a limp while pantomiming that he had a cane to guide him. It was when Lee Shartles paused from his impersonation to make a thumb motion pointing at Arvid’s house that made it clear he was making fun of Arvid, and Arvid alone. Everyone at the party—most significantly, all four Shartles family members—seemed to think this sick little “crippled guy” routine was absolutely hilarious.
Arvid felt as if his heart was being stabbed all over again. He had always been so nice to them. He’d never been mean to them. Their cruelty kept cutting him like an amputation without anesthesia, straight up, no chaser. Did they think he chose to have one leg longer than the other? Or did they think God had cursed him? And what made these losers think they were even his equals, much less his superiors?
That was the day Arvid decided he’d suffered enough. That was the day he called his lawyer friend and decided to go into the limb-harvesting business.
Three years later, the business had proved to be a smashing success—five actual harvested human limbs, all from four members of the same family.
Arvid was done with this round of spending time with the Shartles family’s limbs. He placed Little Joey’s half of a leg back on the display table and then hobbled over to the rusty industrial basement desk to hand-write a letter.
But he didn’t send this letter to them, because he knew they’d figure it all out eventually. In fact, it would torture them more to imagine this is what he was all thinking. He kissed the letter, folded it, and tucked it into the pocket of his jacket.
Arvid had no TV nor internet. But he did have a lawyer who drafted letters for him. The lawyer was the one who’d sent the Shartles family the original offer to buy their limbs on a piecemeal basis.
Instead, he’d have his lawyer send them another letter: