CL Writing Contest 2018 Top Ten (Fiction): The Opposite of Love

If this is your favorite story, vote for it at cltampa.com/writingcontest2018 from Mon. Jan. 29 at 9 a.m. to Fri. Feb. 2 at 5 p.m.

Jen Applegate never would have entered a contest that unveiled the winner on national television. Especially not a contest like the Come Home with Genome Corporation’s Bring Back the One You Love.

But she had won, even though she didn’t write the essay.

“It was Adam, my ex,” she told the Love Again television host who had arrived with a certificate and a crew at her apartment door. Jen stepped outside and stared at the certificate. One of the workers motioned for her to move closer to the host, out on the walkway, where a huge mic hovered above.

The TV personality flipped her hair and looked Jen up and down, then away, toward the cameras. “So, this ex, Adam, did you know that in his essay he referred to you as the love of his life? Did you know that he wrote to our judges saying you’d be the one to bring him back?”

“Oh,” Jen whispered. She tried to smooth her hair and realized she hadn’t brushed her teeth yet. “He died last month. He shouldn’t have done this.”

“Are you saying you don’t want to see Adam again?”

Jen turned and headed back toward her apartment, knowing the cameras followed her steps.

“We will read Adam’s essay, the one the world is talking about, next, on Love Again.”

Jen locked the door behind her just as her phone buzzed in her pocket. It was her brother-in-law, Nate.

“You’re on TV!” he said. “Oh my God, Jen, you won.”

She glanced at the certificate and scanned it for details, but there were few: Winner, Jennifer Applegate, must choose recipient within thirty days. There was a phone number and a website url.

“You all right, Jenny?” Nate asked.

“Adam entered without asking me.”

“Oh, that’s not right. But you know what? This is exciting. It’s groundbreaking. I’d do it for James. In a heartbeat.”

“James is alive,” Jen said. She poured a cup of coffee from the ancient Mr. Coffee pot on the counter, next to her cat.  

“Thankfully he’s alive,” Nate said. “I couldn’t live without him.”

“It’s not that I didn’t love Adam. I did. Once. But this is unfair. It’s wrong. Will he still have cancer if he . . . if he’s brought back? Will he still call me every day and make me feel horrible for breaking up with him? I didn’t even know he was going to enter the contest. He could have at least asked.”

Nate exhaled after a long pause. “Well, Jen, technically this is what he wanted and he did write the essay and you should at least give him the opportunity.”

Jen closed her eyes, remembering patience. Zero meowed and leapt to the floor.

“How’s James?” she asked.

“Don’t change the subject. You know I love you and I’d do anything for you. I just think you should consider it. This is science, hon. Science the way it should be. Think of work—all those old people. This will be available to their families, to anyone who can afford it, maybe even to us one day soon. We’ll all be helped by this. You have to admit, love crossed with science is good for humanity.”

Good for humanity. So many people repeated the phrase, which in Jen’s opinion was an overused, inappropriate tagline from the Come Home with Genome Corporation’s advertisements.

But the worst was when she woke up on Friday, her only day off in twelve days, to chanting outside her windows: “Good for humanity! Good for humanity! Good for humanity!”

She reached for her glasses and opened the blinds. A crowd of what looked to be two-hundred people stood, repeating their chant and waving signs.

She opened the front door. “That’s enough! You all need to go away. I’m serious.” She motioned with her hands, shooing them, like she did when Zero wouldn’t get off the counter. “Leave me alone.”

A middle-aged woman lunged forward holding a poster-sized photo of a small child sitting amongst stuffed animals. “This is my daughter. She died ten years ago. It was senseless. It wasn’t her time. You don’t want the chance, let someone like me use it.” She sobbed and fell forward, into a man’s arms.

The man looked up at Jen. “You’re an awful human being.”

Another woman pushed her way through the crowd. “Do something for everyone in our country. Bring back Abraham Lincoln. Or Dr. King.”

“Kurt Cobain!” someone shouted.

“Marilyn Monroe!” yelled another.

“Mother Teresa. Bring back someone who can tell us what it’s like. What the good part of dying is like!”

Jen slammed the door. She picked up an old framed photograph—a beach day three years ago—back before she knew how love wasn’t always good. She laid the frame face-down. “You are—were—an asshole, Adam.”

Her phone buzzed and rang incessantly, friends, strangers, reporters, but she ignored every call except her mother’s.

“Don’t take this wrong, sweetheart, but don’t waste it on your father. He was looking forward to death. How would he handle me and Al being married? I can imagine him in his chair, pouting. I can’t live with two men.”

“Gotta go, Mom.”

Jen grabbed the certificate and found the number for Come Home with Genome’s president.

A husky female voice answered. “Come Home with Genome.”

“Hi. This is Jennifer Applegate.”

“And?”

“I, uh, I apparently won the contest.”

“Yes.”

“So, what am I supposed to do?”

“You received the certificate, no?”

“Yeah, I have it, but have you done this before? Have there been test trials before me?”

“You are the first.”

Zero meowed from the countertop and Jen tried to shoo him off, but gave up.

“And if I choose Adam, will he still have cancer? Will he come back aged thirty-five, or ten, or as a newborn baby?”

“We’ll have to get back to you.” The line went dead.

She slumped onto the sofa. Zero climbed on her lap and purred.

Around ten, she woke to a dark apartment, with Zero staring at her. “You’re going to have to eat the cheap stuff.“ She rubbed his head and grabbed her keys.

The evening was quiet and cooler than usual. She drove to the Sun Street Market across town because she knew the evening staff—one or both of the youngest boys in the family—and they were always laughing at each other’s jokes and they remembered her name and that she had a cat. They reminded her of how a family should treat each other.

“More cat food?” Kasim, the youngest son, asked. He was around twenty, thin, and wore his hair in a perfect old-school afro. “You sure have a hungry pet.”

“I overcompensate with food. Poor thing doesn’t get much attention these days.”

Kasim waved his arm. “Take the food. It’s on us tonight. You should go home and love on the cat.”

“Oh, no, you don’t have to do that,” Jen said. “Really. Here.” She held out a ten.

Again, Kasim waved it away.

“You know, we saw you on television.”

“You did?”

“My mother was sad for you. She said they were not fair to come to your home. Now everyone knows because they just Google your name and they can GPS to the place you live. The TV show had your apartment number. We could see it. Number five.”

“So, you don’t think I’m wrong? You don’t think it’s bad that I don’t want to bring anyone back from the dead?”

Kasim shrugged. “It is not me who won.”

“What would you do if you did?” she asked.

Another customer walked through the doors, ringing the bells and breaking the moment in half.

Kasim smiled at her in a sort of apology. She moved aside.

The customer asked for cigarettes and left as soon as he paid for them.

“I would bring back the man who killed my grandfather. We would have a conversation and I would explain how much he hurt my mother and my grandmother. I would make the man listen to me, all the way, until the end. I would torture him with our story the way he tortured my family with his actions.” He looked into Jen’s eyes. “My grandfather was a good man. He is the reason we are now in the United States.”

“So, after you did all that, what would you do? Would you kill the man? Would you let him go?”

 “I do not know. It would depend on if he listened to me and if he heard my words.” Kasim shrugged. “Maybe I would find understanding somehow. Maybe finally I would no longer hate him.”

He looked at her, hard, and she knew he had been thinking a lot about this, maybe even deeper than she had.

“But this could get out of control,” he continued. “What if world leaders had the technology? What if they chose to bring back people who did not love? People no one loved?”

Jen shook her head. “What do you mean?”

“People whose purpose was the opposite of love?”

Jen grabbed the cat food and nodded, hugging it to her chest. “Thanks, Kas. You make more sense than most people lately.”

“But Miss Jen?” he asked. “Why did they give this chance away on a TV show?” He motioned toward the lottery machine. “Everything is a contest in America.”

“Oh, Kasim, if only you had a brother my age.”

He laughed and she left the store, opening the door with the bells ringing in her ears all the way home.

In her parking space at the apartment, she found the number she had dialed earlier, the one to the president of the Come Home with Genome Corporation. It rang ten times before a recording began: “Leave your question after the beep and we will get back to you.”

“Hi. Uh, this is Jen Applegate again. What would you do if I chose a horrible dictator? A murderer? What if I decided not to choose Adam?”

#

Zero waited for her in his usual spot. Jen shook the bag of Meow Mix. “Get down. I have your fast-food fix.”

He jumped off the counter and sat by his dish. “You have no idea how lonely I am,” Jen said. “I went a half hour out of my way just to spend five minutes with someone I barely know, just because he’s kind.”

Her phone buzzed and she jumped. Zero glanced up at her and went back to his meal.  She didn’t recognize the number.

“Hello?”

“Jen, it’s Lisa. I’m the producer of Love Again. Remember, we spoke the other day?”

“Yes,” Jen said. “I have so many questions. Why won’t anyone at the corporation give me more details? People are showing up at my apartment at all hours and—”

“That must be very frustrating.”

Jen nodded. “It is.”

“Well, this is the thing. We’ve gained over ninety-million followers on Facebook since the show aired. We can’t keep track of our Twitter. You’re the buzz of the Internet. People want to know why you won’t bring Adam back.”

“I don’t want to,” Jen mumbled. “You should choose someone else.”

“How about this . . . you can give it away. We can do another drawing, live. You can pull a name out of a hat or something.” Lisa paused. “Have you considered selling it? You obviously aren’t well off. Maybe you could go into early retirement.”

“I have to go,” Jen said.

“You could sell it to the highest bidder and donate the money to a non-profit.” Lisa laughed. “A local cat rescue or something.”

“If you want to bring Adam back, go for it,” Jen said. “But I don’t want to do this. I don’t want any part in it.”

“Tell us, Jen, what is it about Adam that you hated so much you’d refuse his dying wish?”

“Hate him?” Jen stifled a sob. “I loved him, but we weren’t right for each other. I didn’t ever want him to die. I broke up with him before the diagnosis. I had no idea he’d go to such . . . such extremes. But that was how he was.”

“So, you’re saying you refuse to allow him this opportunity?”

“Please, choose someone else.”

#

Most of the staff left her alone at work the next day. A nurse who’d never spoken to her before now was the first to break the staff’s strange silence. “You see all this sickness every day.” He motioned around the dining hall, where most of the residents sat drooling or staring at their laps. “If I ever get to this point I’d rather be killed than brought back to life to go through it again.”

“It’s just . . . I don’t know,” Jen said. “I can’t be the first one to make this decision. Adam suffered at the end. What if he comes back and has to go through it all over again?”

“But you’re stubborn,” a voice behind them said. “So, you’re going to hold out because it’s the opposite of what the country wants. What’s good for humanity. You’re refusing the dying wish of the love of your life.”

Jen turned to see a full camera crew behind her with the same TV host at the lead.

“What if I brought back someone like Hitler?” she asked. “You can’t control who I choose, can you? I won a contest. What if I decided on someone and they suffered once they were brought back?” Her voice cracked and she blinked back sudden tears. “What if the corporation starts selling these opportunities and buyers who should never have the choice, finally get to mess with the cycle of life?”

“It’s not about that. It’s about love,” said the male nurse. He forced his way in front of Jen and smiled at the cameras. “I love all of humanity. Love is what matters. I understand this project and its intentions.”

A crowd of attendants, nurses, housekeeping and dining staff, circled around him, murmuring approval.

Jen sensed all cameras zooming in. “How long have we worked together?” she asked him. “A year? You’ve never said a word to me before tonight. I don’t even know your first name.”

“My name is Mitchell.”

“Mitchell,” Jen began, “No one knows how they’ll die but until then, I hope you have a wonderful life knowing that I choose you. You are my choice.”

The camera crew scrambled, the nursing home staff gasped. Several residents looked up from their laps and stared ahead.

Jen removed her ID badge and walked past the television crew. The host chased her. “Jennifer Applegate. May I have a final word?”

Jen continued walking. “No. I’m going home. To love up my cat.”

 

 

 

 

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