For ten Yuletides, Willard’s kids had frosted gingerbread cookies on this kitchen table, and Carl had straightened out crooked vanilla smiles. This evening, however, much heftier gentlemen replaced Willard’s boys, and Carl’s anxious drumming fingers replaced baked goods.
“Don’t worry, Willard. You’ll get your happiness back. I got this!”
After Carl drove their car into a telephone pole, Sharon underwent five months of rehab. Sadness had drained him and his wife. They had fought it, spending down their joint happiness account to zero. Once that was emptied, sadness transformed into nothingness. Bored silence at the dinner table became too much for Carl.
“You know I care for your wife, Carl. She and Monica laughed, baked, and joked about us. I know it was a big investment for Monica.” Willard, the center on his college’s championship basketball team, loomed over Carl’s chair. “To give a friend that much happiness…I almost had to freeze our joint account. Monica never could track her spending well.”
Five years ago, a tumor took Monica away. Carl had watched Willard’s happiness pour out in sobs. He had thought that tit would be Willard’s end, the cold life of a Stoic, of silent dinner tables awaiting him. Carl hadn’t known then about Willard’s new gig as a happiness dealer, and a lucrative gig at that. Willard’s newfound empire afforded three guards – built like power forwards – for his table.
He told Willard the loan was for Sharon, which was true at the start. But big grins and mirthful laughs were addictive, and Carl spent his loan fast. With the economy tanking, happiness fell into short supply. Ditching emotions for Stoicism worked great for thrifty people, but diving into debt felt so much better. Willard needed his loan back, though, and he had been kind: one extension, then two for old times’ sake, before Carl was deposited in this tasteful chair.
Carl gave his old friend a small smile, and his phone buzzed with his account alert. What did more red numbers mean anymore? “Sharon was always frugal, more so after the accident. I just wanted to help.”
Carl preferred chocolate chip cookies to gingerbread, and judging by the scent, the ones in the oven were done. Monica’s recipe, Carl deduced by the hints of vanilla and almond. Willard discovered baking after she was diagnosed, and he gained a knack for it. Rumor had it Willard’s overdue clients would get cookies before he cut their throats.
Willard waved at one of the guards, who prepared a platter while he studied his old friend. “But here’s the thing, Carl. How much did that smile cost you?”
The guard delivered piping hot cookies, and Carl burnt his tongue on one to buy a few seconds before shrugging. “What?”
Willard’s frightening gray eyes closed as he shook his head. “Please don’t do that. Though I understand how scary it is to sit there, how tempting it is to shade the truth.”
Another cookie left the platter, and Willard munched as he watched his tire-swing outside sway in the winter wind. “Seed funding, clients, bookkeeping…it was hard starting, Carl. A lot of powerful people weren’t keen to see me grow.” Willard leaned closer, spilling crumbs. “But tenacity and control, Carl, those were what got me here. Anybody can turn a profit from a little pool of happiness. But to really make it, you need to know everything. You can’t blink without knowing its cost.” He crushed his cookie, smearing chocolate on his weathered championship fingers. “So, Carl: How much did that smile cost?”
The second cookie tasted better than the first. Carl chewed slowly and stared with wide-open eyes. Ignorance had a certain face to it.
“I thought so. And if you can’t understand the value of happiness, how can I expect you to earn it back for me? I gave you so many chances. But this problem, now there’s a price to fix it my friend.”
Carl’s phone buzzed as he spiraled into a third mortgage. Maybe Willard was onto something about control, though that provided little consolation as Carl’s terrified fingers drummed the tabletop. He gulped and begged the cookie for inspiration.
“Hold on, Willard, please. We can still come to some arrangement. For old times’ sake, yeah?” Persuasion was costly: too much cheerfulness and hope.
His investment bombed as Willard leaned closer. “Carl, they’ll lock your account. You’ll have nothing left to give to any arrangement.”
His phone’s vibrations told him his time was ending. All lenders would blackball him. He’d plead for the fragments of happiness dropped in beggars’ tins. Maybe he’d actually give them to Sharon then. Sadness would be reckless now, but tears flowed anyway. “Willard, please,” he blubbered.
Carl hoped tears might work. Willard leaned back and ate another cookie. Carl’s situation was special, like Monica’s recipe. How many clients had helped his boys paint on gingerbread smiles?
“…take him out back.”
Three guards wrestled Carl. His phone went wild as the bank finally had enough. “W-wait, Willard! Don’t do this! Please!”
Tears froze in the winter wind as guards dragged him outside. As the smell of cookies disappeared, Willard smirked. “Put on your best smile, my old friend!”
You can read more of Alex’s stories at his site, Quik Fics.
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