“May Nothing but Happiness Come Through Your Door”
by Robert Bagnall
The weirdest thing is that I distinctly remember when it happened, how things changed, the shock, the incomprehension. But I don’t remember how it was before. Just that everything had changed.
But you never concentrate on how things are because you never think they’ll be different.
Take my advice. Wiggle your toes.
Go on. Do it now. Put this down and do it now.
Remember that feeling, the sensation of each toe moving. If you ever lose your toes, at least you’ve had a go at remembering the feeling. You’ll thank me.
But that’s a lot harder to do with reality.
It was a Sunday. I was lying in bed thinking about getting up and playing with my doll’s house. I was thirteen years old. I know that because it’s a date that gets quoted endlessly. July 4th 1776. December 7th 1941. September 11th 2001. And that day.
The first I knew was a stifled, “What the…” from my father. My mother screamed. Not a full-bloodied horror-movie scream, but a noise that was both throaty and shrill, like she was breathing in and out at the same time.
I leapt out of bed and pushed open the already ajar door to their room. My father was sitting on the end of the bed in his pajamas. They were purple gingham. I think he’d just opened the curtains when he realized something was wrong.
He was glowing.
It wasn’t like bad sunburn or too much time under a sunlamp. He was glowing like the dial of an old wristwatch. Luminous, dayglo orange.
My mother gave another gasp and rolled out of bed to her dressing table and stared at herself. Not as incandescent as my father, but definitely radiant, and not in a good way.
“What the…” was all my father could say, pulling up his pajama shirt to examine his belly. It was as bright as the rest of him; the effect was perfectly even, like he’d been dipped in something.
Only then did I think of myself. I checked my hands, turning them over. Nothing. Just the same flesh tones I had gone to bed with.
“Can you get a doctor on a Sunday?” I asked, knowing, even at thirteen, that this somehow wasn’t doctor territory.
“There’s the hospital,” my mother began, but there was a lost, distant tone to her voice, like she was talking about stack heels as a way of reaching the moon. We knew what an illness looked like and this wasn’t it.
“Something we ate?” my father suggested, knowing full well as he said it that nothing could be further from the truth. There was disappointment in his voice: he’d promised to take us out in his new Mustang ragtop. It had only been delivered the afternoon before. He’d seen it, bought it, just like that. It was important to him. Looking like he did, I knew he knew this wasn’t going to happen.
“Do you want me to make coffee?” I said. I’d been shown how, but even at age thirteen I wasn’t allowed to do so on my own. I was considered clumsy. Suddenly a silver lining appeared in the cloud of this crisis. “I could do the pancakes as well.”
“No,” my mother barked.
“Why not?” my father said. “Coffee can’t make things any worse.”
“The water,” my mother exclaimed, without clarifying whether poisoning, radioactivity, or something even more sinister was being insinuated.
It wasn’t just us. It was all over the news channels. Shots of glowing people standing in hospital anterooms and corridors, baffled doctors saying they’d prescribed vitamins and aspirin, other baffled doctors saying there was nothing they could prescribe.
On some channels there was nothing. A blank screen, or adverts on a constant loop — “It sands, and steams, and all for twenty-nine, ninety-eight!”; “At last, the paper paperclip!” — or soap re-runs. None of the news reporters themselves were glowing like my parents were. That’s what they were looking for: a steady image of somebody else to compare against. And then in the high eight-hundreds we came across a Mexican news channel. None of us spoke Spanish.
“He is,” my mother shouted.
“He isn’t. He just looks like that.”
My mother glowered at my father. “How do you know?”
“How do you know?” he came back at her.
They both looked at me. I stared hard. He did look a bit glowy, I suppose. But not like Dad. I began to make a noise, a filibustering non-committal noise that couldn’t make up its mind.
“Go and make some coffee,” my mother barked.
Instead of Church that morning we scoured the internet, the radio, television, any source of knowledge however speculative. These were the facts we established:
1. The glow was everywhere. Global.
2. It didn’t seem to discriminate. Rich and poor, black and white, educated and uneducated. Middle America had it bad.
3. Except for children. No babies or toddlers had the glow.
4. Nobody seemed ill from it. No fever, no aches, no pain. If you were ill you would have been ill anyway.
5. One or two people died, as they would have done anyway, and it was reported that the glow ceased at death. The first suicides were reported a few hours later.
6. Nobody had a clue what caused it, or how to get rid of it.
In those first few hours, when they realized that it was already a problem shared, so it may as well be a problem aired, there were several celebrity outings. The first few were sheepish “yeah, me too” moments. By mid-afternoon well-known figures were standing at the gates of their mansions, pointing at the orange skin that surrounded their pearly grins, their luminous wives next to them.
By lunchtime all the news channels were all back up and running. There was a fairly even spread of the luminous and the normal. Neither seemed to know which state should generate the most embarrassment, so they all pretended that nothing was wrong. It was surreal.
We channel-hopped, checking the state of the flesh on view, scoring them out of ten, no longer listening to a word of the reports. We decided that Dad had it bad, an eight or nine. My mother was more of a four.
And then, by that evening, the mood changed again. Somebody shouted “plague” and that was that. Stories appeared of people frothing orange at the mouth, luminous zombies ripping the heads off babies. Hokum, all of it, but people’s credulity for bad news never ceases to amaze. The first brave people who had literally dared to show their faces were ostracized. By nightfall there were riots. Somebody a couple of towns away got set on fire. At least that’s what we heard, but that may have been hearsay as well.
For a week my father phoned in sick and my mother phoned out for groceries. Once I caught him stealing a glance at the Mustang that sat parked out front, his face a mixture of regret, bewilderment, and anger. And then, out of the blue, he said to my mother “I’m getting rid of it.”
“What?” we both said at once.
“The Mustang. I can’t, I just can’t…” His hands went towards his face by way of explanation.
“What about the money? You know how much you’ll drop?”
“I’ll just cancel the credit agreement. I have twenty-eight day’s cooling off. To change my mind.”
There was a moment’s silence. Normally this was the signal for someone to say, “Juliette, leave the room,” but somehow the glow had changed everything. I was the one still normal, the one who wasn’t infected. I may have barely been a teenager, but I had status.
“I thought you paid for it with your bonus?” my mother asked.
“I didn’t get a bonus,” my father said flatly. “Nobody got a bonus. I got it on credit.”
“But… you said…”
“I know what I said.”
My mother gazed into the middle distance. My father looked at the floor. She drummed her fingers on the worktop and, when she couldn’t think what else to do, left the room.
“Christ,” he called at the back of the door. “It’s not like I got fired.”
Emotionless, he picked up the telephone and arranged for the Mustang to be collected. He’d only ever driven it on test, in the rain, never once with the top down.
He didn’t watch when they took it away, just signed the papers with a thousand-yard stare. He looked like somebody had died. But there was something else about him. It took a moment for us to work it out. He wasn’t glowing like he used to. My mother gave a gasp and I ran to hug him.
But all it did was make my father mad. “I just sent it back,” he bawled like a toddler whose toy had broken. And he immediately got on the phone to see if he could cancel his cancellation. He couldn’t and stormed off to chop wood in the garage.
My mother raised an eyebrow but I could see his point. The Mustang was cool. And what was the point of going to work if you couldn’t have cool things to show off?
My father took the train to work the next day, his skin tone no worse than if he’d spent too much time on the beach.
“It’s been suggested that the mystery skin condition that is affecting millions of people all over the globe is somehow linked to levels of personal debt.”
I wasn’t really paying attention to the talking head on the television news, just slopping together a PB&J, but as soon as they said it I stopped in my tracks.
Then they cutaway to a scientist in a t-shirt, “I can’t explain how, but there’s a strong correlation between how much you owe and this mysterious skin luminescence.” There followed another cutaway to a scientist in a suit and tie to tell us how absolutely, absurdly impossible it all was.
The newspapers had a field day. “You Owe You Glow.” “In the Red.” Cartoons had the American nation aglow.
Anecdotes not dissimilar to my father’s story began to circulate. You can prove anything by anecdote, the scientists said, given enough of them. Auto-suggestion. Mass hypnosis. But, all over the world, the stories that paying off debt made the glow subside, whereas borrowing money turned up the dial, just wouldn’t go away.
Live on air one man’s sizeable credit card bill was paid off and his glow all but vanished. Camera trickery, lots said when the experiment was repeated and it didn’t work. But then it emerged that, for the sake of his marriage, the second human guinea pig hadn’t been entirely honest about the degree to which he was in hock. He thought if he could just get the debt down to what he could just possibly pay back in his lifetime that would be good enough.
It was beginning to look as though the scientists were wrong.
“What about Mom?” I asked.
“Yeah, what about Mom?” my father joined in. To us, it disproved the theory.
My mother misread the jokiness of the question. “A few store cards. The spa. A little online poker. It’s not a crime.”
My father looked like he’d been slapped. “Online poker?”
“I’m paying back the interest each month. It’s not getting any bigger. I’m not letting it.”
The irony that none of us could see her blushing wasn’t lost on me.
The truth emerged in the shape of a small, bespectacled man with wavy hair and a tweed jacket, a man called Mason Fornum. He dressed like he was twenty years older but living a hundred years earlier. He claimed to be misunderstood. Which is entirely understandable because what he had done was incomprehensible.
To illustrate, here is a transcript of one of the initial police interrogations eventually released under the Freedom of Information Act:
Detective A: “What is the glow, Mister Fornum?”
Fornum: “It’s harmless.”
Detective B: “We didn’t ask whether it’s harmless. We asked what it is.”
Fornum: “I just wanted to reassure you.”
Detective B: “People are doing their nuts over this thing. There’ve been suicides. That doesn’t sound like harmless. What it is?”
Fornum: “I’m not sure you would understand.”
Detective B: “Ain’t nobody else in the room.”
Detective A: “If you try to explain it to us, Mister Fornum, then we may be able to get the right technical experts in to cope with the detail. Why don’t you start with us?”
Fornum (reluctantly): “The glow is caused by a subcutaneous nanobot vibrating within the visible spectrum. The nanobots self-replicate and have been dormant in the environment for approximately three years. I activated them. They are everywhere, in countless billions across the planet. The energy comes from the host…”
Detective B: “You mean the victim.”
Detective A: “Go on, Mister Fornum.”
Fornum (reluctantly): “The energy comes from the host. The wavelength — the color — is fixed, but the host subconsciously instructs the nanobot as to the amplitude — how much to glow.”
At this point there’s a pause as the detectives take this in.
Detective A: “Subcutaneous nanobot? You mean like a microscopic robot in the skin?”
Detective A: “Some people glow more than others. But that comes from the host? It’s not a case of how many nanobots they’re infected with?”
Fornum: ”I object to the use of the word ‘infected’.”
Detective B: “You’ve spread a cancer.”
Fornum: “Oh no, a cancer is quite different.”
Detective A: “I don’t get it. The host decides how much he glows? So how did I decide to glow?”
Fornum: “You have debt, Detective?”
Detective B: “That’s none of your Goddamn business.”
Fornum: “The nanobot knows. It is the host’s level of debt — frivolous debt, debt to buy luxuries — that causes it to glow. The more bad debt we have, the stronger the glow.”
Detective A: “How in God’s name does a microscopic robot know about what I owe? And whether it’s good or bad debt?”
Fornum: “At a fundamental, subconscious level, we almost always know. It’s like guilt. With the exception of the true psychopath, we can fool ourselves on only so many levels. How long do you have to discuss the problem of consciousness?”
That this was ever released by the government has led to speculation that there is whole, deeper layer of cross and double cross, and what I have transcribed above is simply part of the smokescreen. I have no idea. I enjoy conspiracy theories, but I don’t subscribe to them.
What I do know is that two days later Mason Fornum was found dead in his cell.
They called Mason Fornum a terrorist and, yes, he did strike a sort of terror amongst us. Imagine knowing, just by looking, whether your boss, your colleagues, your country’s leader, has really earned that wristwatch, that car, those clothes. Liars were exposed. Hypocrisy was uncovered. My parents’ story was just a small-scale example of what was writ large across America, across the world.
But you can’t make an omelet without breaking legs, as a long-ago ex-boyfriend used to say. There were a lot of people whose quiet dignity was disturbed by Mason Fornum’s work. The dirt farmers whose ambition was to pass their debts on to their sons, if only the banks would give them enough time. The families on skid row who weren’t part of “the problem,” they just wanted to own their own home. What good was exposing their financial struggles?
Mason Fornum was no longer amongst us to explain his rationale, but he did leave behind a manifesto, written in a spidery hand and found in a left luggage locker in Pasadena, as if anticipating his arrest. To quote: “America. It is our job to consume, to over-consume. It is our patriotic duty. It is what makes our country great. Supersize my house, supersize my car, supersize me. We live to buy, to have, to display our success through material possessions. But if the world lived like America we would need four planets. We do not have four planets.”
Mason Fornum did the impossible. He changed that.
You want an illustration? Some time after Mason Fornum released his subcutaneous nanobots, before we had heard of them or him, but when we knew what the iridescence meant, I went to the mall. I was sitting outside in the sun with my girlfriends with a soda, shooting the breeze. Two cars pulled into the lot simultaneously. One, shiny scarlet, an Italian stallion, the engine all throbbing throaty roar. The other, something Korean or Indonesian, at least ten years old, with rustspots and a twisted hubcap that made it look like one wheel was about to fall off.
They arrived simultaneously, curving in from different sides, the path of each a mirror image of the other. In perfect unison. They swung into their spaces like some automotive equivalent of synchronized swimming.
Statisticians tell us this kind of thing happens all the time, and we shouldn’t get surprised or excited. Maybe it happens all the time to statisticians.
The almost-choreographed vignette attracted not just my thirteen-year-old attention but that of a group of older girls: trainee sexual predators. They swung their legs off the high seats and sucked at their sodas, with full knowledge of their suggestiveness. Together we watched as the doors of the cars opened as one — this should have been staged, set to music — and two young men got out.
The one who swung himself lithely out of the sportscar was muscled and groomed, every smart, casual crease perfect. I’m not sure how to describe what got out of the other car but my recollection is that most of it was misbuttoned.
Speedster strutted; hayseed scratched. The male model casually removed his sunglasses; the remedial student gazed at signs trying to find meaning.
But the difference we all latched on to was that the man with the rustbucket looked natural, whereas testosterone Testarossa glowed like a volcano. The older girls collapsed with laughter. I tried to choke it in, but I couldn’t help myself and within moments the parking lot was braying. But not at the failure. At the apparent success.
Those girls taught me a lesson. Before Mason Fornum we would have looked at the strutting peacock with envy, we would have wondered what we would need to do to be with him. But what good are the peacock’s feathers if borrowed on the never-never?
Suddenly the thing that defined America, material possessions, became mere trinkets in our eyes, stuff and nonsense of no significance. We began to see what people really had, not what they wanted to show us.
Mason Forum changed our world. I only change my car once every five years. I grow my own vegetables. I keep chickens and bees. I sew and barter and re-use. My husband is a management accountant who carves wooden toys. We could do so much more if we moved out of the city.
It took me years to understand the science. I doubt anybody did at the time except for Fornum himself. We have subcutaneous nanobots for crime now. I helped to develop them. Now the police pick up anybody a serious shade of green and work out what it was they’ve done. That’s what investigation is. But most of their work is done by the public. Some minor misdemeanor; you start to shimmer? Simple: go online, pay the fine. People voluntarily join community service. Nobody asks what you’ve done. You just join in, pick up a paintbrush or a litter sack and work away, repaying their debt to society until their green glow is gone.
Of course, there were people who wore their glow as a badge of honor, but they soon found that, outside of their own, they were shunned. They couldn’t get credit, couldn’t get service, couldn’t gain respect beyond their own ‘hood. Pressure told, people changed. Inevitably some stayed feral, but at least they’re contained. Although, as Mason Fornum himself pointed out, the true psychopath slips through the net.
Somebody even released a nanobot nicknamed Pinocchio. Didn’t make your nose grow, just turned you a pale yellow. Unregulated, the United Nations declared it illegal but once it’s out there there’s little that can be done. On balance I think it was a good thing. Not everybody agrees.
Some say that Mason Fornum took away our choice to lie, to live beyond our means, to commit felonies. Those civil libertarians can say what they like, but they can’t deny they’re saying it in communities that are virtually crime free, truthful and trusted. To quote the last line of his manifesto: “May nothing but happiness come through your door.”
Mason Fornum is my hero.
Robert Bagnall currently lives on the English Riviera, within sight of Dartmoor. He has completed four undistinguished marathons, but holds a world record for eating cream teas. The two may be related.
He was a recent finalist in the Writers of the Future competition, and had a story featured in last year’s NewCon Publishing’s Best of British Science Fiction 2016 anthology. He would also, gentle reader, appreciate help in elevating sales of his novel 2084, available on Amazon or directly from Double Dragon Publications.
He can be contacted via his blog, meschera.blogspot.co.uk. He doesn’t like dogs and is allergic to cats.