Dad’s been away at what he calls his work for weeks. Mom doesn’t like him to call it that, but whenever she complains, he says in his most pompous professor voice that the term is “neither archaic nor ridiculous.” Call it what you want, he’s gone to the museum before I wake up for school in the morning, and he comes home after dark too exhausted to even sit and enjoy screens with us.
Mom puts up with it because he’s not the only one. Every township in the New Communities has its own Museum of Curiosities filled with art, oddities, and unique objects. Each year, museums from two townships are selected to contribute to the Blowout. The curators spend months selecting and delivering truckloads of original treasures to the Big Box for the grand finale to the annual Black Friday Festival. Dad’s the curator of Abundant’s museum.
Today is Thanksgiving and our kitchen spent the morning generating the traditional foodstuffs: cloning turkey meat in the vat; harvesting, boiling and mashing tubers; making stuffing. I helped Mom print out our handcrafted batch of bright orange bricks of cheese. Dad finally finished at the museum, and we packed everything into the back of our solar car, climbed in, and told it to take us to the Big Box.
Dad projected the ceremonial legacy football game on the windscreen while we rode. The Third Coast Volunteers played a club team from the Northwest. The commentators explained the Byzantine rules like they did every year. Between plays a glossy-haired sportscaster interviewed a couple linebackers from the scarcity days when professional football teams played for staggering amounts of money. In the highlight vids they were huge, muscular and predatory, like Bargain Hunters. Now they sat, frail and shrunken, in the studio’s cushioned chairs. Our medtech could slow aging, but it couldn’t stop it, and these guys were really old.
Dad acquired some signed footballs once, but they were of little value. People forgot the players’ names after the leagues went belly up, and the balls were mass-produced. “Just because something is old, doesn’t make it unique,” Dad was fond of saying.
The sky was shot with gold as the sun sank behind the ruins of the Big Box store. We found a space at the fringes of the vast, cracked parking lot. Mom laid the cheeses out on a small table and hung our hand-lettered signs:
“Artisanal Velveetas” and “Blowout Sale!”
I snatched a cube as she was cutting them into bite-sized pieces.
“Trina! Hands off the merchandise!” she said, then popped a square in her mouth. “Okay, just one.”
I watched clusters of people strolling among the cars as the salty, creamy smooth cheese melted on my tongue.
People gathered around the bricks and cubes of cheese already sweating in the warm evening air. Mom charged 80 black-n-whites last year, this year it was 100. “Cost of living’s going up,” she said. One of the festival’s traditional greetings. Money’s illegal except at the festival. Once a year everyone makes stuff to buy and sell, just like in scarcity times.
Dad pulled out the thick stack of black-n-whites that we’d printed for the festival. They looked like the old paper money, except ours had a picture of Abundant’s board president on the front, on the back a line drawing of the façade of the Museum of Curiosities.
Dad handed a stack to Mom. She peeled a bill off and admired it. “Why look they put a picture of Dad’s home on the back.” It was a joke tonight; any other day there’d be an argument about the amount of time he (and lately I) spent there.
“The museum is my work.” Dad shrugged.
“The museum is your love. I should be jealous.”
Mom tied a small apron around her waist and shoved the wad of bills in the pocket, the cheap ink already staining her fingers. “Hard to believe people used this stuff every day.” She turned her attention to the small crowd gathering around the table. They held out their own crumpled bills. She began to haggle with the shoppers as if the pieces of paper meant something, as if she’d been doing this kind of business her whole life.
Dad stepped back. “I’m going to look for Cal, see how his home brews came out this year.”
Cal’s beer was terrible year after year, which was why he was usually the only one who hadn’t sold out by now. Dad pushed a wad of bills into my hand. “Enjoy the rides, Trina.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Have fun shopping you two,” Mom called over the heads of the people buying up our Velveetas.
I trotted off towards the rides, their bright colors winked under the tall parking lot lights. As soon as I was out of sight of our car, I picked out a kid walking in the same direction and cut across a row of cars to him. I stopped him and held out my black-n-whites. “Here.”
His eyes got wide.
“I hear the Tilt-a-Whirl has a long line this year.” The Tilt-a-Whirl was the best ride, and there was only one, so people could stand in line together like they used to in scarcity days. It was fun. You met people from the other townships, caught up with old friends and made new ones.
“Go on!” I shoved the wad into his hand. Tomorrow afternoon, black-n-whites would be fluttering all over the parking lot, trash to be vacuumed up by the recycle bots. The kid grabbed them and ran off.
I turned away from the rides and jogged through the parking lot as the last of the daylight bled out of the sky. People stood around glowing hibachis, eating vatted turkey and drinking homemade wine, admiring each other’s displays of hand-knotted bracelets and misshapen candies.
The banks of halogen lights surrounding the Big Box snapped on with a hum of massive electrical power. An aura of bright white light bounced off the broken walls of the old store, and the bleachers built around its parameter. I skirted the crowd already gathering in front of the locked front doors. As long as I found Mom and Dad in the stands before midnight, they wouldn’t think I’d done anything different this year.
I jogged up and down between rows of cars working my way towards the farthest reaches of the lot. These lights were older, dimmer, some of them broken. Most of the cars were dark and closed up, their humped backs throwing long shadows onto each other.
Back at the Big Box, the pregame show started. Out here, the music was reduced to a muffled bassline. I dug my hand in my pocket and felt for the small bag and the tiny objects inside – smooth in places, sharp in others. Mom would be mad if she found out. “Each tooth is your own singular creation,” she would say every time I lost a baby tooth. I kept them all locked in a sandalwood box on my dresser. Dad brought the box home from the museum for my birthday a few years ago, an undated antique hand-carved in India.
“If anyone asks, we’ll just say it’s on loan,” he’d said with a wink as I admired the deep red velvet interior.
After looting it this morning, I’d locked it, slipped the tiny key off my necklace and hid it in the backyard. This year, I would make a real purchase, something worthy of a place in the museum. I’d begged him to bring me along on his trips beyond the New Communities to search for new acquisitions. When Dad saw that I could acquire something of value, maybe he’d let me go with him. I’d worry about explaining how I’d come by the capital for the exchange later. Mom would just have to understand that Dad wasn’t the only one who wanted to have work.
It was getting late. I kept looking. No one would be chatting around this seller’s car. He wasn’t interested in the Blowout. He was here to do business. The real thing. I’m sure he saw me before I stepped into his old lantern’s narrow circle of light. He leaned against his car’s open hatchback, unkempt hair haloing his head, and smiled. I could just make out a row of teeth too small for his face. My heart hammered in my chest. I’d found the Tooth Fairy.
When I was little, mom had told me about the real tooth fairy; a thing that came in the night for children’s teeth. They would hide them under their pillows, but it would steal them every time, leaving only worthless coins in their place.
This Tooth Fairy was just a crazy man according to Dad – who didn’t want me anywhere near him. I could see now that it was true: he made dentures for himself out of the teeth he collected. I knew Dad had done business with him. Just this year, the museum acquired a small Lucite cube filled with teeth. I wondered if they’d met in this same parking lot to make the exchange, or if the Tooth Fairy had ventured into the museum in search of Dad.
I stepped closer and pulled the small clear bag out of my pocket. He smiled even wider. More teeth were strung on necklaces under his tatty jacket.
“So many,” he said appreciatively, dentures clacking. He reached back into the darkness of his car without taking his eyes off me and came up with a wilted green rectangle, which he examined unhurriedly. “How ’bout a real greenback? This one’s a Benjamin Franklin.”
“What else?” I squeaked.
He leaned in cupping a grimy hand around one ear, “What’s that?”
I clutched my bag, the teeth inside rattled against each other. I wanted to haggle with him the way my mom haggled over the Velveetas, so I pressed on. “What else have you got?”
“Little girl drives a hard bargain.” He turned away, rummaging among the shadowy objects in the back of his car, coming up with a small, exquisite porcelain figurine of a woman.
“Bone china,” he said. “One of a kind.”
I doubted that. It was what everybody said about their Black Friday merchandise. It could be the last survivor of a limited run, though.
The tiny woman held a delicate bouquet of red roses in one hand. The gold paint on her brocade bodice glinted in the lantern’s uncertain light. Her other hand plucked at the folds of a long pink skirt. It was beautiful.
In olden times, when the real tooth fairy visited those long gone children, the coins he left had been worth something. I knew those kids had been happy to sell their teeth.
I held out the bag. He reached out and snatched it with the hand holding the limp Ben Franklin. Reflexively, I grabbed at the bill as it fluttered toward the ground. The limp paper was soft and greasy at the same time, like a piece of cloth. I held out my other hand, but the figurine was gone.
“The figurine too, you agreed!”
“Agreed? You’ve got to be quicker than that,” he chuckled.
Was this how scarcity transactions were really carried out?
“You showed me, so that’s part of the deal.” The museum already had dozens of bills displayed, pinned behind glass like dead butterflies.
“How ‘bout a grab bag?” He reached into the hatchback’s shadows and came up with a small, brown box. “Just like the Blowout.” He held the box out.
I couldn’t move. Whatever was inside the box would be worthless, but I didn’t want to run away with only this paltry scrap of paper already sweaty in my hand. People were swindled all the time in scarcity days, Dad said, and today too, when the transaction meant something.
Shaking, I shoved the Ben Franklin into my pocket and took an unsteady step toward him.
The grin spreading across his face froze, and his eyes shifted up and away from me. I looked over my shoulder. Darren Jones stood behind me, dressed for the Blowout in a red and gold Team Abundant jersey. He was massive in his pads. The dim parking lot lights highlighted the curves of his dark features. His eyes glittered, fastened on the Tooth Fairy.
During the year, Darren worked as a security guard, strolling the Museum’s galleries, making sure thrill seekers didn’t try to take anything out of the building. “You make a deal with this young lady?” His usual quiet tone carried authority – out here, tonight, it had an edge of menace.
“Oh, yes! A lovely china figurine – just slipped out of my hand.” The Tooth Fairy babbled as he crawled into the back of his car. “One of a kind. A princess for a princess!”
Darren stood next to me, hands clasped in the same watchful pose he took in the galleries. After much rustling and muffled swearing the Tooth Fairy came up with the figurine. “See.” He said handing it over to me. “Always a fair exchange from the Tooth Fairy!” I took it without a word and turned toward the lights and crowds gathered around the Big Box.
“You’re a brave little mouse.” Darren said, falling effortlessly into step beside me. “Your dad know you’re running around the back lot wheeling and dealing?”
I couldn’t think of anything to say, so I just kept walking, worrying the smooth contours of the figurine with my fingers.
“I suppose you’re getting a little old for the rides.” He put an enormous hand on my shoulder. “You happy with your purchase?”
I handed the figurine to Darren. He cradled it in his huge palm. “It’s a pretty thing,” he said, giving it back to me. “I bet your dad will find a place for it in the museum.”
We were almost to the Big Box when a clutch of kids ran up to us. The tallest boy pressed a marker and a black-n-white into Darren’s hand. Darren winked at me as he autographed their bills.
“I’ll see you back at the museum, mouse,” He said signing the last kid’s black-n-white.
“Wait!” I pulled the Ben Franklin out of my pocket. “I got this too.”
Darren laughed. “I’m famous one day a year. Come by the museum on Monday, I’ll sign it then.”
“You got the pen now.” I said.
“You drive a hard bargain, just like your daddy.”
I turned, smiling over my shoulder at him. He smoothed the bill on my back, and I felt the press of the marker in the shape of his name as he wrote.
He handed it back to me. “It’s getting late. Run along, or we’ll both be in trouble.”
“Yes, sir.” I shoved the bill in my pocket, turned and trotted toward the crowd flowing toward the Big Box. I cut under the bleachers so I could climb the stairs that faced the rides.
The first seats started level with where the roof of the Big Box had been removed. Camera-drones hovered over the maze of weathered shelving and glass display cases. They swooped down to zoom in on the merchandise gleaming under the lights.
An announcer explained the origins and value of different items as they appeared on the big screen hung over the store. Several pieces from our museum were featured: a long tusk of intricately carved scrimshaw, the skeleton of a boy born with a clubfoot, a drawing by Frida Kahlo, a pair of conjoined frogs in a jar of formaldehyde.
I turned away from the screen and searched the people crowding the bleachers. They gnawed on turkey legs and talked excitedly through mouthfuls of popcorn. They wore their new purchases, knotted necklaces and earrings made from twisted wire. Mom waved from a few rows up. I pocketed the figurine and climbed up to where she and Dad sat.
“About time, Trina.” Mom handed me a paper boat with three misshapen cookies. “Did you spend all your black-n-whites?”
“Yeah, I’m broke.” The figurine’s porcelain bouquet dug into my leg when I sat down. Dad studied the screen, watching for the items from our museum that he wanted to retain and checking out the new inventory he hoped to acquire.
Soft blues and pinks of a painted lily pond filled the big screen. “There’s your Monet!” Mom shouted over the growing din.
Dad gave a tense nod. “Our Bargain Hunters have their playbook. They know what to go for,” he said.
The Monet wasn’t just valuable; it was one of Dad’s favorites. I would find Dad in the main gallery after hours, just looking at it. When I’d asked him why he liked it so much, he’d just said that there was more to scarcity times than we hear about now.
Everything was in protective cases, wire cages, Plexiglas for the paintings. Both the Shoppers and the Bargain Hunters could use anything that came to hand to acquire a piece of merchandise. In a good Blowout, the action could get intense.
It was almost midnight. The mob of Shoppers around the doors began to push forward then sway back before leaning into the doors again, their adrenaline rush rippled up through the bleachers. My own heart began to pound as a countdown clock replaced the swooping images on the screen. Just five minutes to midnight.
The festival always kicked off with a lottery for Shoppers. The thousand people who won tickets got to tear down the doors. Once in, they got a chance at a Big Box purchase.
The two eleven-man teams of Bargain Hunters followed the Shoppers in; they were suited up in helmets and pads and wearing their town jerseys. This year it was Team Abundant versus Team Bountiful, the township to the north of us.
“Well, it all looks good to me,” Mom hollered over the buzz of vuvuzelas. She smiled, but her eyes were hard, and I realized fully, for the first time, that she really didn’t like the Blowout. It made Dad tense, and there’d be weeks of more work getting the new acquisitions installed at the museum.
At ten seconds to zero, everyone started counting, “Ten, nine, eight…”
I could see Team Abundant’s glittering helmets at the back of the press of Shoppers, but couldn’t make out Darren.
“Seven, six, five, four…” Once the doors were breached, the Bargain Hunters would charge through the crowd to take up strategic positions inside the store. From there they would mount a series of coordinated sorties to capture the most valuable items for their town’s museum.
“Three, two, one!” A cannon fired, its report fading into a primal roar as the Shoppers moved against the doors. Within moments the glass shattered and dozens of gloved hands tore the metal framework away like it was tissue paper.
“And they’re in,” the announcer’s voice rang out as they flooded into the store. The big screen split to show a leaderboard with zeros under each township’s name.
Most of the shoppers went for the Grab Bags. The store was stocked with small, opaque boxes filled with shot glasses, beer coozies, sunglasses, and gaudy commemorative medals attached to hand-cut ribbons. All printed with “I survived the Black Friday Blowout.” The museum staff volunteered to fabricate loads of them at home so they could be categorized as “handcrafted.”
I whooped when I spotted Darren cutting through the chaos of Shoppers in a phalanx of red and gold jerseys. He was a head taller than his teammates and one of the best Bargain Hunters. He could have played for any of the townships in the Communities, but he worked at our museum and his allegiance was with Dad.
Four of Team Bountiful’s green and black clad Bargain Hunters charged across the floor.
“Bountiful’s offense is making an early move for the Ming Dynasty vase!” The announcer thrilled. Darren tackled the green player lunging for a case containing the tall vase swathed in layers of bubble wrap. They crashed into the counter sending the vase skidding across the floor.
Another green tackled the vase, but Darren vaulted the counter and was on him. Grabbing the thick red braid that stuck out from under his helmet, Darren yanked him off the vase. Two of Darren’s teammates scooped up the vase at a dead run, heaved it past the registers and into Abundant’s bin for the first score. We all cheered, Dad jumping up to pump his fist in the air.
The registers were just the parallel counters where the money-taking machines used to sit. The alley between one was painted red and gold, the other green and black. Beyond each alley was a bin. Once an item was deposited into a township’s bin that town’s museum took ownership. White pixels burst on the screen and fell away to reveal the new score. Mom stood. I jumped to my feet and gave her a high five.
Usually, the early game was all about clearing the Shoppers and strategizing, maybe sending a few faster Hunters to collect small, high-value items. After the initial rush with the vase, both teams worked to keep the Shoppers from carrying off anything too valuable. Most of them had already left, clutching their treasures, crunching broken glass under foot as they ran or limped through the exits beyond the registers.
The Bargain Hunters kept things to hand-to-hand with the Shoppers. The Shoppers weren’t always so honor-bound with each other. Medics in helmets and kneepads scurried around the melee, helping scraped and bruised Shoppers out; flopping an occasional dazed one onto a narrow stretcher, plunking a Grab Bag box on his or her chest before hauling them out.
Once the Shoppers cleared out, the teams settled in for the long haul and began systematically raiding the store. Abundance and Bountiful were well matched and kept trading the lead. People came and went from the stands, getting more food, spilling beers. Darren KO’d a Green over a framed woodcut by Albrecht Durer, then lobbed the woodcut, case and all, through the air. It skidded across the register counter and into our bin. A bold score, met with a roar of cheers and applause.
“We’re in the lead,” Mom said, caught up in the excitement despite herself. I whooped, but Dad just stroked his chin, studying the action on the screen. He wasn’t interested in how the small stuff redistributed itself. I wondered if he even cared which museum won the Blowout.
The Blowout ground on through the night. Little kids fell asleep on blankets laid out under the benches. Bountiful lost a man to a broken arm, and an Abundance player was pulled after a shelving unit collapsed on him. As the items dwindled the action intensified. Only a few scattered items remained. The Monet had been claimed when Team Bountiful’s big redhead singlehandedly dragged it through the registers while his teammates held our players at bay. Even as the Bargain Hunters fought on with wired energy, I sat exhausted and drained. It was almost dawn. The Blowout would be over soon.
The drones hovered over two players in an aisle beyond the emptied display counters. We watched them contend over the taxidermied lamb with five legs on screen. The extra one had grown out from between its shoulder blades. It flopped to and fro as they vied over the cage it was strapped into.
We’d had the lamb the year before last. I thought it was a fake. How hard would it be to just get an extra leg and sew it onto a perfectly normal animal? When I asked Dad he said it’d been verified, but in that dismissive way that made me think he didn’t disagree with me.
The camera cut to Darren as he converged with a group of Greens on the last container of sale items. Small things, a Faberge egg and maybe a collectible Barbie in the jumble. Then Darren came up with the box of teeth. Grinning, he held it up to the stands. He couldn’t see me beyond the lights, but knew I’d be there and that I’d get the joke.
Behind him, two Reds lobbed a piece of metal shelving at the green players crowding around the container. Darren turned, then jerked back as the shelf caromed off him before clattering to the filthy linoleum floor. The others turned their attention back to the container.
But Darren took a step back, lifting his hand to his neck to locate the source of the blood spreading down the front of his jersey. The players that hadn’t noticed yet continued to raid the container, running off in twos and threes toward their bins.
Darren fell to his knees.
The play slowed then stopped, then the Bargain hunters began frantically calling for the medics. After a concerted gasp, the crowd hushed. Even the announcer stopped talking. Darren disappeared behind a swarm of medics. My heart hammered. My own blood roared in my ears.
“Oh, Jesus,” Dad said.
All the players stood together; shifting from foot to foot as a dozen medics strapped him onto an elaborate stretcher. They rolled him out, a medic’s bloodied, gloved hand clamped over his neck. The crowd clapped uncertainly, pretending they hadn’t seen Darren’s empty eyes staring up at the lights as his face slid across the big screen. The remaining Bargain Hunters collected the last items without contending and walked them to the bins.
Mom stood motionless, wide-eyed, her hand clamped over her mouth. Dad sat heavily, staring at the backs of the people who still stood. The final score posted on the leaderboard. The turkey and the cheese and the too-sweet cookies all rose into the back of my throat. My legs went weak, and I sat down too.
The cannon fired. The Blowout was over. The entire inventory, newly divided into Abundant and Bountiful’s bins, would be shipped to each museum over the weekend where it would all be displayed until next year.
Horrified, murmuring, people drained out of the bleachers. We walked with them in silence, down the steps to the asphalt. We turned our backs on the Big Box and walked east toward the dawn light and our car. I didn’t wipe away the tears streaming down my face.
“People used to die on Black Fridays during scarcity times, too,” Mom said once we were in the car in a lackluster attempt to cheer me up. “Mostly shoppers.”
“They were all shoppers then,” Dad put in.
“No. There were bargain hunters, too.”
“Not like Darren.”
“He was one of a kind,” I said and Dad let out a sudden coughing sob. He gripped the steering wheel for a long time, then finally ordered the car into manual mode. Mom objected, but he said he needed the distraction. We pulled out of the parking lot and turned into the bright face of the sun. In the front seats, Mom and Dad continued to quarrel pointlessly, mechanically, as if it were a comfort.
I lay across the back seat and slipped my fingers around the figurine in my pocket, the porcelain now warm as flesh. The soft edges of the Ben Franklin curled around her skirts. I pulled it out and unfurled supple green slip of paper in the semi-darkness of the tinted windows.
The marker had bled through when Darren signed it, leaving a constellation of black dots across the balding man’s face. The number one hundred decorated the corners. I flipped it over and looked at Darren Jones’ autograph, infinitely more valuable now because it was unreproducible.
I folded the bill and slipped it back into my pocket. It would go into the sandalwood box with the figurine. I wasn’t going to trust either of them to the museum.
By day, Rebecca Schwarz is a mild-mannered editorial assistant for a scientific journal, by night she writes science fiction and fantasy stories. Her work has appeared in Interzone, Bourbon Penn, and Daily Science Fiction. She is currently writing her first novel. You can read about her writing life at http://www.curiousworlds.blogspot.com.