[Image Credit: Nicole Eisenman, “Guy Capitalist”]
The price sticker was small, yellow, and rectangular, reading $1.99 in familiar, convenience store type. Ryan was mid-way through a PowerPoint presentation (Stock Control: An Approach for a Digital Future) when he noticed it on his wrist.
Let’s consider this chart for a moment, he said to his colleagues.
He turned towards the screen and used the subsequent moment of torpid reflection to surreptitiously remove the sticker, folding it neatly in two and letting it fall to the floor.
Moving on, he said, let’s review the forecast for South America.
As the meeting was breaking up and everyone was shaking hands, Ryan found another price sticker, this time on his forearm. It looked exactly like the sticker before, only this one was green and read $8.99. He took this as a good sign. The future of stock control was in safe hands.
The next morning, as he was washing his hair, Ryan found a third sticker. This one was white, and for just 25 cents. More appeared throughout the day. An itch behind his ear revealed a pastel pink $1.99, while an irritant in his shoe turned out to be a baby blue $5.48, lodged between his toes. He noticed several price stickers on the floor around his desk during the afternoon, and as he climbed into bed that night, he extracted an uncomfortable $6.99 from his boxers.
The following day, Ryan woke up to scattering of stickers on his pillow. But it was only when he looked in the mirror to brush his teeth that he realised the extent of the condition. Ryan’s whole face was spotted with price stickers. They ranged from $0.99 (his right earlobe) to $199.99 for his left eyebrow, and came in a variety of pastel colours. His nose, which he considered one of his better features, was priced at $129.99.
Even more alarmingly, the rest of his body seemed to be similarly labelled, his arms, legs, and chest all covered with a range of stickers at various prices. He moved to a full-length mirror in his bedroom to inspect the extent of the outbreak. The prices were everywhere, from head to toe.
Ryan spent the next hour peeling them off in the shower. It was a painful process, leaving the skin beneath the stickers red and raw. They were fixed directly to his skin, his body hair sprouting though each one, many splitting themselves into three parts when removed. The crop of stickers growing around his genitals proved particularly difficult to remove.
As soon as he finished, Ryan dressed quickly and was on the way out the door when he glimpsed a flash of green on his face in the hallway mirror. He recognized it immediately. Left eyebrow, $199.99. Further inspection revealed more of the stickers had reappeared, in exactly the same places and of precisely the same amounts, the ink in some cases hardly dry. He unbuttoned his shirt and exposed a chest full of prices.
Ryan called in sick and spent another hour scraping himself clean again before turning to the world for advice, searching online for symptoms or, better still, a treatment. But after a morning spent investigating, the closest he came was an image of a man with a series of barcodes tattooed to various parts of his body. Eventually, he gave up his search, and returned to the mirror. Each one of the stickers had returned.
As with the stickers on his face, the ones on his body ranged widely in price, and with no discernable logic – his left shoulder blade was $17.99, while his right was almost twice as much at $34.99. His redundant nipples were just $8.99 each, but his equally pointless navel was set at $74.83.
Deciding not to waste anymore time picking off the stickers, Ryan instead went back to bed. When he woke several hours later, rubbing a dozen tiny pricepoints away from the corners of his eyes, he felt a fresh crop of prices across his body. These new stickers were different from the previous ones – they were larger, for a start, and contained more information.
He peeled one slowly from his chest. A bar code ran across the length of the sticker, a series of numbers beneath the lines. Under both, in a more modern typeface, was the now familiar pricing, and this time, a description: sternum. One on his arm read lateral epicondyle, $26.50. He peeled one off his forehead that read supraorbital foramen. It was priced at $88.99. While the prices all ranged as widely as before, there was one similarity to each of the new price tags – his name, R Y A N, written across the top of each one, in spaced-out block capital letters, his very own retail chain.
Ryan coughed, sending a flurry of stickers fluttering to the floor. Ciliated pseudostratified columnar epithelia, read one. Mucus, read another. All were evidently available at R Y A N for a steal at $0.02. He felt more stickers in his mouth, and fished several out with his $9.99 left index finger. Molar. Buccal mucosa. Uvula.
Ryan sat back and considered his sudden launch upon the market. He was, he considered, worth a fair amount, when added together. And he couldn’t even see the mark-up on his internal organs, though when he studied his arms he occasionally caught a glimpse of the prices beneath his skin, attached to the mechanics of his internal workings: muscles, sinews, bones, the numbers shifting minutely inside his body, swayed by involuntary movements within. Inside, surely, was where the big money was, he thought, his major reserves. Kidneys, lungs, liver and heart. The Fort Knox of his body, caged and impenetrable, hiding a visceral fortune.
The more Ryan thought about it, the more he liked the idea. He had never considered his worth as such, and even during his annual meeting with his financial adviser, he had only fleetingly addressed the issue, and then in the most mundane of terms. But his assets were now exceptionally, and uniquely, evident. He called in sick for the rest of the week, having decided his life too valuable to be wasted at the office. He spent the next day working out the balance of his bodily account, creating separate statements for his limbs, his torso, his head. He filled ledgers with figures, spreadsheets with data, estimating the value of his innermost riches and revelling in his net worth. When he wasn’t tweaking the presentation, he spent time watching television, appraising the competing physical properties of newsreaders, reality show contestants, porn stars.
At the end of the week, while running an inventory of his body in front of the mirror, Ryan noticed something protruding from one of his ears. It was another price tag. This time, however, it dangled on a thin strand of plastic that ran through his earlobe like a piercing. Over the next few hours, several more of the plastic tags sprouted, through his nose, navel, and cheek. By that evening, there were dozens of them across his whole body. They rippled over his skin when he moved, waving like a field of wheat. To Ryan’s delight, his body evolved further still in the following days, developing magnetic strips and hard cased security tags that pierced themselves through his skin. They buzzed each time he turned on the microwave, when he switched channels with the remote control, when Human Resources called his cell phone to remind him that he would need a doctor’s note to account for his absence. Ryan had never felt happier, more alive. Every tag was a reminder of his combined holdings, a sum total he had neglected to balance against the mundane and constant cost of living.
And so it came as a shock when over the weekend, while admiring himself in the mirror, he noticed another change. Not with his plumage of tags, strips, stickers and brightly-coloured anti-theft dye packs, but with the prices themselves. His right eyebrow, now skewered with a plastic tag, was no longer priced at $199.99. It had dropped to $194.99. A quick stock check revealed that other items had been reduced as well. He calculated that the discounted rate wasn’t the same across the board, varying from half a percent to 50% in the case of his knuckles.
The following week Ryan turned analyst, plotting the price of his body and turning his kitchen into an exchange, filled with charts, graphs, and tables. His fridge became the market for his head and its constituent parts, the kitchen table, his torso, various cupboard doors his limbs, with the rest of the space being devoted to the alternative investments, mucus, saliva, earwax, tears. Spreadsheets ran across every surface, digests of his personal market data creating an index that indicated one clear pattern. His decline was constant, and with every passing day his losses became more dramatic, implying that this was no simple market correction. As prices fell in one part of his body so others nearby wavered and shed value as well, whether out of sympathy or in to panic was unclear from the charts. Ryan was in the throes of recession.
He wondered what to do. He suspected that he had simply neglected his capital reserves. He could have gone to the gym more often, it was true. Taken better care of himself. Bought organic. Had less to drink. Meditated. There was a potential fix to all of these problems, but such investments could take years to yield results. He needed something more immediate. Steroids sprang to mind, but he had little experience with controlled substances.
He cleared his fridge of junk food and ordered fresh groceries online, purchasing as many health-popular items as he could remember, a superfood league of blueberries, pomegranate seeds, grains, and quinoa, together with vitamin supplements and components of the periodic table, calcium, iron, potassium, zinc. He followed fitness regimes he found online, and purchased an arsenal of apparently ingenious exercise devices he had previously ignored in commercial breaks, AbToners, QuadTrainers, TriFlexors, TorsoTrimmers. He added his heart rate and body mass index to a new set of charts, hoping the new market conditions would restore confidence in his financial system. He ignored repeated calls from Human Resources as he toned, trained, flexed and trimmed, sweat tags collecting on the floor around him, water, methylphenol, urea, one cent.
But after a week of clean, healthy, rewarding living, nothing had changed. His prices continued to drop. He knew there was still a chance that his slump would bottom out, but he realised he had to consider a far, far bleaker prospect: the complete crash of his entire financial system, a total depreciation of his assets. He couldn’t imagine what this might involve. So far, none of his prices had reached zero, though many of his parts had entered the penny markets. No-one was buying.
He needed a capital injection, and fast. His financial adviser rarely had any advice other than to hold a long-term view, the banks had their own problems, and he could hardly count on a pawn shop for sympathy, with their murky displays of hard luck and broken ambition.
But this was an opportunity, he thought. As his problem was physical, so the solution could be viral. So as the next week began, he decided to turn to the social markets and crowdfund himself. He spent hours putting together a pitch for potential backers, explaining the unique opportunity he was offering and drawing attention to his many assets. He would ask for a round million dollars which, he calculated, would be enough to edge him into the black, long enough until he could attract more serious investors and, eventually, consider an IPO. His rewards started with t-shirts and beer koozies, and went up to a tooth, his left pinkie toe, and one of his kidneys. It was, he declared online, an unmissable opportunity. Unfortunately, the project was reported as a violation of community standards within an hour of going live. The only person to back him before its removal was someone from Human Resources, who evidently only did so in order to leave a comment on the project message board telling him he’d been fired.
With his prices hovering dangerously near rock bottom, Ryan decided his only option was a straight auction of the various body parts he had intended as rewards for his backers. Just one kidney, he had learned, could fetch as much as $300,000 on the black market, possibly even more, and it took him less time than he imagined to unearth a potential customer in the dark recesses of the internet. The buyer in question was willing to offer $250,000 no questions asked, as long as Ryan was willing to bring the merchandise to him several states away. Ryan agreed immediately. It would mean driving through the night, but he felt certain the sale would secure the future of the rest of his body.
Ryan had not left his house in several weeks, and had stopped looking at himself in the mirror days before. As he walked out the door the signs of his cash flow crisis were grotesquely evident. His left eye was stitched closed by a series of tags, his head was covered with equal parts plastic tagging and hair, and virtually every remaining stretch of skin was plastered in stickers featuring barcodes, stock numbers, product descriptions and prices. He could no longer speak, a security tag having pierced his tongue to the side of his cheek some days earlier. His prices were all in single digits. He realised he was almost worthless.
The journey started out uneventfully enough, and Ryan spent the first two hours on the road thinking about how he would convince his buyer to invest in a time share on his other organs. He had just decided on a suitable lease agreement when he realized he was almost out of gas. Miles from the nearest town, he coasted to a stop in a side road and stepped out into the night, the gently rustling mass of tags that covered his body making his silhouette a blur in the moonlight.
With no other cars in sight, he set off in the direction of what he hoped would be the closest service station, shuffling his way first through a cornfield, then into a small wood. He trudged between trees until eventually he reached a clearing in which someone had dumped what looked like the contents of a small apartment, all in various states of decay: a collapsing, sodden couch, a mildewed mattress, a rotting coffee table, a series of disintegrating cardboard boxes, their contents of crumbling books and worn clothes spilling in places onto the mossy ground.
Ryan had no idea where he was. He lowered himself onto the old couch, his price tags crunching beneath him. He closed the one eye he could still open and tried to hear the sound of the wind in the trees through the clusters of dye packs that had overtaken his ears. He wondered whether anyone had tried to calculate the value of everything around him, the leaves, the grass, the air.
When he tried to raise himself, Ryan discovered his arms would no longer move, and even if they could, he was unable to feel his legs. He was dimly aware of an absence of sensation in other parts of his body, too; his breathing had become laboured, as though only the smallest section of his lungs were still working. So this was it, he thought. Collapse.
Maybe, he decided, it wouldn’t be so bad. There had been crashes in the past, and the markets had always somehow bounced back. He tried to remember the economic disasters that had come before: Tulip Mania in the seventeenth century, the South Sea Bubble in the eighteenth century, the Wall Street Crash of 1929, but found even his memory had begun to falter as one by one his neurones and synapses shut up shop for good. He was left with a scattered, random series of images and sensations, what was left of the empty shelves in his brain – a butterfly, the sound of a theremin, a sense of indignation, the feeling of hot sand underfoot, the color blue. And then, nothing.
Andrew Lloyd-Jones was born in London, England and grew up in Anchorage, Alaska. He won the Fish Prize with his story “Feathers and Cigarettes,” and his writing has featured in The London Reader, Blue Lake Review, Serving House Journal, and in the Canongate collection Original Sins, amongst others. Andrew produces and hosts Liars’ League NYC (www.liarsleaguenyc.com), a regular New York-based live literary journal and podcast, showcasing original short fiction from emerging writers.