Client: Kendrick Johnson
Vermillion Regimen I
NOTE: Cardio Only – Prelim week
1.5x miles treadmill running, 1.5x miles treadmill walking.
WARNING: Do not raise heart rate over 105!
She runs because she must. She runs because it seems to her that running is all she can do, will do, has ever done. Her skin is tight and sallow and the slightest exertion exposes her veins like underground rivers unearthed by erosion. A bandage binds her left thumbnail where it cracked in two a couple of days ago. Her eyes are saucerous globes, moon-like in retracted sockets. Her forearms are toothpicks, her legs spindles of iron as they pump in rhythm, banging her feet along the treadmill’s black belt. The readouts on the treadmill record heart rate and distance run and comparison to Regimen. The comparison between Regimen and Activity is in the red. Soon it will start chirping. Then a warning exclamation will come up. Then a warning exclamation and multiple blares. Then it will shut down. Except it won’t. She has seen to that.
Running is hypnotization. She is in a trance as deep and complex as any Mesmer could conjure up. She has not blinked in an absurd amount of time. She stares across the treadmill into the mirrored wall and a ghoul stares back, the only one in the gym, a ghoul in a skin-tight sweatsuit revealing her ribs like rounded ocean waves and pressing her nonexistent bust flat. She’d once had breasts. Small things; as a teenager she’d stand looking in the mirror willing them to, one might say, engorge. They never did. Now they are gone, for all intents and purposes. It saddens her in the same deep, occluded part of her mind that makes her run on and on.
The Headdress is clamped tightly on her head. Two electrodes sucker onto her temples, several more, needle-like, jabbing into her forehead and scalp, hidden behind a translucent bar of mysterious polymer, a cylinder curled into a halo, in which small fairies of light chase each other about until the naked eye can only discern a bar of solid yellow. That bar, now, is solid white, and the Headdress is emitting a peculiar humming noise. But that is good. That is just what she wants.
Client: Lauren Davidson
Red Regimen VII
Cardio: 1x Miles elliptical; 1x miles treadmill or open air
Weights: 5 sets (10-8-6-4-2) Bench Press up to 80% of Surrogate Maximum, increasing by 5%
5 sets (10-8-6-4-2) Squat up to 80% Surrogate maximum, increasing by 5%
5 sets (25-25-25-25) sit ups with medicine ball (5lbs or heavier)
She is sitting on the rubber-matted floor of the gym, stretching her calves, the clatter of banging weights and whining treadmills creating an inimitable tortured melody, the air redolent with sweat and cast iron, and bright with the fluorescents and the glow from other Surrogate Headdresses.
It is Rian, the senior manager, who hired her nearly a month ago. He is accompanied by what appears to be a rotund salmon with thin-framed glasses and a bad perm.
“Heather, this is Mary-Ann Postelcraft,” says Rian. “Mary-Ann, this is Heather, our newest, and may I say, one of our finest Exercise Surrogates.”
“He’s too kind,” Heather says.
“Mary-Ann is interested in becoming a client,” says Rian.
“Oh, this is just marvelous,” says Mary-Ann throatily. “I can’t believe I’ve never heard of this place before. It’s a miracle. It’s a life-saver.”
“We’re trying to keep the client base small until we’ve gained enough prestige to handle a deluge,” says Rian, straight out of the company projections. “But Heather’s about to start a regimen, and I just wanted to show you what the process is. Heather, do you mind…?”
“Of course not,” she says. She gets nimbly to her feet, fixing her eyes on Mrs. Postelcraft. “What do you do?”
“She owns a 40% stake in her husband’s printing business,” says Rian.
“It’s called Printercraft!” says Mary-Ann Postelcraft, laughing merrily. “It came to my husband in a dream. The Lord has done good to bless us.”
“I see,” says Heather.
Rian says: “You starting, Heather? Great. Now, okay, now you see that device there she’s putting on, Mrs. Postelcraft? We call those the Headdresses. They have their own scientific name, but basically they’re what our researchers call quantum-based kinetic energy dispersal units.”
“Yes, dreadfully boring stuff. Suffice it to say that they burn the clients’ weight, and I’ll show you… okay, see those little balls of light that appeared when Heather turned on the Headdress? Now after she puts it on… okay… they start moving, see? And when her activity increases they start going faster and faster.”
“Oh, I feel dizzy! This is simply amazing.”
“It is indeed, Mrs. Postelcraft, it is indeed.”
“Will I have to wear one of those things?”
“You will, Mrs. Postelcraft, but we have several custom models. It’ll be just like wearing a ball cap. The surrogates here will work out, and your body will receive the fruits of their labor. We try to have two surrogates per client: a primary and a backup.”
“Will I get to meet them?”
“Of course. In fact it’s essential that the client and surrogate maintain a good rapport. We’ve selected a group of suitable candidates and you can pick the two you like; we try our best for each client/surrogate relationship to be a good fit.”
“Don’t you mean a perfect fit?” says Mary Ann Postelcraft, looking very pleased with herself.
“You’re very astute, ma’am.”
Heather has heard very little of this. It has drifted to the edge of her consciousness like the chirping of crickets on summer nights. She’s in her zone, where thinking is discouraged and memories arise, unbidden yet perfectly recalled. There’s a black coffin, and a crowd of well-wishers. There’s a clown inside the coffin that used to be her own living father. There is concealer to hide the grey in his cheeks and blush to bestow a false veneer of flowing blood. There is food and sympathy. There is food rotting untouched in the refrigerator. There is a dark house where she sits alone. There is sadness and emptiness. Then there is anger, and the anger does not abate. It only focuses.
Red Regimen VII
Circuit: 20 minutes, three sets. One minute rest between sets.
Sets: 25 reps bench press with bar only.
50 calf raises with dumbbells @ surrogate comfortable weight
She is drying her hair in the mirror when she sees him come up behind her. She groans audibly.
“Go away,” she says.
The man is young, handsome, hairline starting to recede and a smile bearing the undeniable influence of orthodontic work. He is the second longest tenured employee at PerfectFit, and he has made sure she knows it. Multiple times. Aaron. That’s his name. Aaron. He is the backup Surrogate on half her clients.
“I just wanted to let you know I figured out what you are,” he says.
“Congratulations.” She finishes drying off and wipes the several clumps of hair off her towel. He watches this with obvious concern and it infuriates her. She pulls her hair back into a ponytail and turns to him.
“Can I help you?” she says.
“Obsessed. That’s what you are.”
“Thanks,” she says.
“No really. I’m not talking outta my ass here, I’m a professional.”
She stomps by him as he’s speaking, but he turns and follows her, almost slipping on the damp footprints she’s leaving on the slick tile.
“You know you’re supposed to dry these up after yourself,” he says.
She opens her locker, removes her plain white underwear, and pulls it on. “A professional of what, exactly? Flexing your biceps in the mirrors?”
He puts his hands over his heart. “Oh, man. Right in the sternum. I’ll give you that one. Okay, technically I’m not professional yet. I’m still a year from my Ph.D.” He taps his temple. “Psychology.”
This is both unexpected and unwanted information. She suddenly feels like a puddle. “That’s interesting.”
“Look,” he says. “I don’t know your deal, all right? And it’s not really my business. But seeing as I’m backup for a lot of your people–okay, I’ve worked here for five years, right? It’s a cool job: cutting edge technology, decent pay, keeps you in shape. I consider myself pretty dedicated. Staying late and all that, dutifully backing up when primaries get sick or whatever. So when I leave two or three hours after my shift and you’re not even slowing down, with this look on your face like you’re about to grievously injure somebody, yeah, I get a little concerned. The fact you could hide behind a weight bar doesn’t help. I just wanted to let you know I’m here. To talk, if you feel like it. 75,000 dollars-worth of debt says that I’m a decent guy to do that with.”
She takes a deep, steadying breath before she turns to face him. “Duly noted,” she says, somewhat strained.
Fortunately, he doesn’t notice. “Okay. Walk you out?”
She rolls her eyes but acquiesces. As they ride the elevator to the top floor, he says, “So I don’t have to worry about bodily harm?”
“I can’t even wield a butter knife. So unless you can exercise someone into the hospital, no.”
“Fun fact: you actually can,” he says, as if he were reciting facts about his coin collection. “None of the managers mention that, of course. Rian spits all this jargon at the clients to make it sound like we’re literally burning the client’s fat, but all that happens is the Headdress reads our brain activity, transmits it to the client’s Headdress, and the client Headdress creates similar conditions in the client’s head. The client’s brain thinks the client’s body’s undergoing this massive physical trauma, so it sends the correct chemicals to start burning fat for energy and repairing muscle even though it’s not torn–it’s all up here.” He taps his temple again. “It’s why this job keeps my interest. Perfectly encapsulates the mind’s power over the body.”
He gabbers on telling her stuff she already knows. He’s the most talkative psychologist Heather has ever heard of. Perhaps that why he hasn’t graduated yet.
Client: Shamine Williamson
Green Regimen XIV
Lat Pulldown (10-10-5-5) up to 70% surrogate max increasing 10% each set
Rowing: 30 minutes, desired avg. hpm 155
Shoulder shrugs (5-5-5-5-5) @ surrogate comfortable weight
She grasps the Headdress by the cylindrical glass halo and pulls it off. It is warm to her touch. She wonders, idly, if Shamine Williamson, an unknown distance away, is pulling hers off at the same time. If she ever washes it or if she just hangs it on a hat rack. What she does while Heather burns her calories: read? Lay back on the lazy boy, channel-surfing? Gorge herself? That would be ironic, but it wouldn’t surprise Heather in the slightest. She’s been mildly curious if the clients actually lose as many pounds as the readouts estimate upon completion of a daily Regimen, when a little anthropomorphic dumbbell gives her a thumbs-up and says “Great Job… Heather! Shamine (or Jerry or Claxton) has lost… X pounds today and… Y pounds over the period of service thanks to your hard work!”
She dumps the Headdress into one of the circling washbins, which disappears on a track behind the wall where decon hides with its cancer-causing chemical cleansers. She’s pulled out of her reverie by a name: “Kendrick Johnson.”
Two female surrogates stand furtively behind one of the squat racks, spying on Rian’s office, where an absolute whale of a man sits on a chair that doesn’t look up to the task.
“Are you sure?” one says. Sarah… or Kate.
“Ugh. I’d recognize his fatass anywhere,” says the other. Lora. Definitely Lora.
“You talking about the guy in the office,” says Heather.
The two Surrogates’ blanch, as Heather has never spoken to them before. “Uh, yes,” says Sarah/Kate, recovering first. “He’s what we call a regular.”
“Asshole loses a hundred pounds, quits paying, then gains it all back in a year,” says Definitely Lora, not even trying to hide the disgust in her voice. “Comes crawling back every time.”
“Every time?” says Heather wispily.
“Six, to be exact,” says Sarah/Kate.
“Holy cow,” says Heather.
Definitely Lora shakes her head. “It’s eating all that 4 Diamond food. Two ribeyes a night and a freaking Chocolate Lava cake. He’s the owner of–”
“Coronado Resorts Group,” says Heather.
“So you know, then.”
“My dad used to work for them.”
“Yeah? They had a bunch of layoffs a while ago, right?”
“Two years, two months, 5 days,” says Heather. “Their profit margin was down 3%.”
“I had him the last time he came in,” says Definitely Lora. “He likes the pretty ones. Says he likes to get friendly with the people working him out.”
Sarah/Kate makes a face. “If he picks me, I’m quitting. I mean it. Make sure he doesn’t–” She turns toward Heather, ready to impart some motherly wisdom, but Heather is already gone.
At her apartment that night she does something that she has not done in a long time, and pulls the box down from the top shelf of the closet. She selects the top most album and thumbs through it, slowly, deliberately, taking in each photograph. Here’s her father, hair gone salt-and-pepper, in his work uniform with the Coronado insignia on its left breast pocket. Here they are at an amusement park in front of a statue, a kind passerby taking a photo for them, her father behind with his hands on her shoulders, she in a pink tank-top and a deep tan and a ridiculously overblown grin. Here’s one she took of him at the beach in her sophomore year of high school, leaning against the wooden rail of the boardwalk, the sun set but for a tiny slice of orange glow clinging on in the background, over the ocean.
She thinks, all at once, of the hospital room. The teal coverlet and the ancient air-conditioner and the tiny television. He is vivacious, much more than he has been in the months since the layoff: laughing, flirting with the nurses. She tells herself that the energy is a good sign, that he will construe this as more warning than omen. She tells herself that he’ll perk up. The job he’d worked for thirty years may have had no more use for him, but this, this right here, might spur him to find a purpose again. She tells herself that, but her gut feels the distance in his eyes the other visitors don’t know him well enough to see. Her gut twinges; her head dismisses. Six months later he is in the black coffin with the clownish rouge on his cheeks, and she realizes that the energy was not a refocus on life, but a windup to saying goodbye.
She looks through each of the albums, and she steels herself, and she reminds herself why it has to be done.
Client: Emilia Lopez
Yellow Regimen XVI
Cardio: stairmaster 1 hr. desired hpm 144
2x miles treadmill with 10% incline desired hpm 144
Lunges (5-4-3-2-1) @ surrogate comfortable weight
There is a sign on printed paper with large red letters and multiple explanation points on each of their lockers:
IF YOU SPILL WATER ON THE LOCKER ROOM FLOOR, CLEAN IT UP. SAFETY IS EVERYONE’S RESPONSIBILITY!!!
She yanks the sign free from her locker, crumples it up and tosses it in the trash. Pulls a black hoody with a Reebok insignia over her head and fluffs out her hair where it’s caught beneath the hood. She washes off the strands that came out in the sink before walking downstairs and knocking on Rian’s office door. Rian cranes his neck to see who it is through the window before beckoning her to enter.
“Hey,” she says. “You wanted to see me.”
“Yeah. Just wanted to check with you on a couple of things. You’re the backup on the Kendrick Johnson account, yes?”
“I believe so,” she says.
He thumbs through his tablet and confirms this. He sighs wearily. “Melissa had an accident in the locker room the other day. Thinks she slipped on some water that was puddled near the door. I keep telling Jeffrey that we need to replace that tile with something less… anyway, I’m sure you saw the signs.”
“Yeah,” she says. “I was wondering what that was about.”
“We’re going to go over it at the next staff meeting. It hurts everybody to be that negligent, and it’s not like the custodians can clean up every speck of water every second of the day.” He wipes his hand through his hair harshly and drums his fingers on the edge of the desk.
“Was it bad?” she says.
“Worst fall I’ve ever seen,” says Rian. “At most we’ve had a couple of sprained ankles. Melissa has a sprain, and a broken rib, and a broken nose. Says she just walked in, felt her balance give way, and that was all she can remember. Looks like she got her teeth kicked in, honestly.” He shakes his head and looks at her like he’s just remembered she is there. “Sorry, I’m drifting. It’s been a long day. Just wanted to make sure you know you’re on the Johnson account until she recovers. Hope that’s okay.”
“Of course,” she says.
Day 175, Again
The Headdress is a leaden clamp upon her forehead. Her pulse pounds in every conceivable location and the sweat pours off of her in buckets. Rian is gone. The other surrogates are gone. Everyone is gone, because Kendrick Johnson is rich, fat and also a nighthawk. She imagines him rubbing shoulders and leering gleefully with all his other fat rich friends, horfing down food she could never afford while pointing at his Headdress and nudging people with his elbow, take a look at this, won’t ya? They got me again!
Her sweatsuit is sodden, clings to her like a second skin. Her crotch is chafing uncomfortably, every breath is like inhaling flame, but she does not stop.
She is in a diner. A cheap place with Formica tables. The grill and stove sit behind the counter up front. You can see the cooks working. She always gets a BLT here, but not today. Her father sits in front of her. He is still in his khaki jumpsuit with the Coronado insignia on the left breast pocket, his hands greasy and the jumpsuit stained with the byproducts of maintenance work. He’s a young man, still in possession of all his hair, and almost none of it gray. But for the first time she can recall, she gets the first inkling of understanding that it’s just possible he might not be immortal. That he too might die. For the first time that she can remember, he looks what her peers might refer to as ‘old.’
Hot chocolate steams in a mug before her, the whip cream melting fast. She said she wanted it but looking at it makes her gag.
“I, uh…” he says. A stutter. He swallows hard. She doesn’t want to hear it. Part of her already knows what’s coming.
“Did she say when she’s coming back?”
“Uh…” He clears his throat. His hair is stuck up at all sort of crazy angles. She’d giggle if she didn’t want to vomit.
He decides to just go through with it: “She called me. At work today. She said… she said she’s not coming back. I’m sorry, honey.”
It is as if someone has plunged a knife in her gut. Tears spring to her eyes and fall almost at once, even though it makes sense. Even though she had seen it coming, in a way, if she’s honest with herself. “Why?” she says.
“She uh… she’s just tired. Your mother… she’s not evil…”
“Yes she is. She’s the most evil person ever. I hate her.”
Usually a comment like this would be followed by a stern admonition, but today he just looks at her resignedly. “It’s okay. I think I do too, a little. But we can’t change what’s happened.”
The waitress comes to check on them. She’s an older woman with stringy gray hair. He says they’re fine. The waitress is attuned enough to read the situation. She leaves them: a hunched older man and an eight-year-old girl, crying silently as not to bother the other diners.
“I’m sorry,” he says.
She can’t respond. It is the worst day of her life.
“Who’s… who’s going to take me to school?” she says. “Who’s going to do all the stuff she did?”
“Well, sweetie, I am.”
She looks at him, astonished. It has never crossed her mind. Her father doing laundry? Her father cooking? I mean sure he helped out before, but all by himself? With all the other stuff he has to do? As if reading her mind, he places his hand on hers, squeezes hard.
“It’s going to be tough,” he says. “On you and me both. But we’re all we have now. We’re a team.”
“Like Batman and Robin?”
“Yeah, like Batman and Robin. And like Robin, you have to help me out. Be my little sidekick. Help around the house. I won’t be able to be here all the time. But I’m going to do what I have to. You don’t have to worry. We’re going to get through this.”
“How do you know?” she says.
He pinches her nose. “Cause you’re my daughter. You can handle anything, I know it.”
Sweat and tears mingle indistinguishably on her cheeks. She knocks the treadmill speed up higher, and higher. Her body is wracked with pain. The readouts are screaming at her, the whole display flashing bright, desperate reds and yellows. Something clicks deep within the treadmill’s innards. Is the Headdress smoking? I s she imagining that? She grits her teeth, running, running, running, faster, faster, faster on and on and on. Running until with an oxygen-starved heave of breath she gives out and her legs slip from under her and she falls, the treadmill belt running her into the ground before the emergency key detaches and it jerks to a halt.
She lies there for a while, gasping, half her joints throbbing sores of pain.
The gym is still, dark, silent and indifferent. “I’m fine,” she says to the equipment, which does not respond. She groans, turns over, gathers herself, rises with a grunt and a hiss, and limps towards the washbins, cheerily clacking along like nothing has happened.
She pulls off the Headdress. She grimaces in pain. There are several cracks in the halo, and one small piece is missing. After thinking this over, she reaches up, feels around her forehead, then yanks the piece out. Blood starts gushing down her face. She puts the Headdress and the bloody piece gingerly into a bin. She runs her hand through her hair, checking for any other pieces. When she looks, there is no glass. Just a large clump of hair.
She has never seen Rian so out of sorts. He is pale, and drawn, and he smells like he hasn’t showered in a couple of days. The television in his office is tuned to a 24 hour news station, playing the same thing it has since the news broke. It is muted, but she doesn’t need to hear to know what the heads are saying.
“Obviously accidents happen,” says Rian at last. “We’ve never encountered a situation like this before, but it was inevitable. Really.”
She can’t decide if he expects her to say anything. But then he goes on:
“I just… I guess I don’t understand… I mean, to go so far off the Regimen…” His mouth opens and closes a few times as he casts about vainly for the words. “I just… why?”
“I had the wrong Regimen,” she says. “Thought I was working on Mrs. Kleiner. She was almost at the end of her run. Heart rate much higher.”
A less distraught man would realize that a quick look at the workout schedule would cast some heavy suspicion on this excuse. Rian, however, is very distraught. More than that, he is groping.
“Yes, of course,” he says. Then, working it over and over into a PR excuse: “Yes, of course. Human error. Gross negligence on your part. We’ve let you go effective immediately. All we can do. Heartily sorry.”
It’s fascinating, really, watching him build the press conference in his mind. The television shows a picture of the PerfectFit building set alongside a smiling, much thinner portrait of Kendrick Johnson, a handsome young man with sharp blue eyes. She wonders how long it will be before the press gets ahold of a picture of her.
“You’re not being charged, thank God,” says Rian. “Last thing we need is that kind of circus. I don’t think the police quite have a hand around what kind of… circumstance… this falls under. I mean it’s in our contract that we can’t be held accountable for any bodily harm…” he trails off again, his gaze going distant, to visions of reporters and questions and cameras. She waits patiently until he returns to the now.
“No hard feelings, I hope. The faster we can move past this, the better. You, uh, you understand what I mean?”
The sun is bright outside, but it’s a muggy brightness, a wan brightness, more soporific than invigorating. Two news vans are parked in the Fire Lane. A long-haired man with a tripod slung over his shoulder tosses a cigarette on the blacktop and stamps on it. She sees Aaron, her shadow and her bane, coming up the parking lot on his way in, all tan skin and toned biceps. No smile though. Their eyes meet. It is an eternal instant, and a million thoughts fire through her mind: reasons and excuses and platitudes. She could tell him she is ready to talk, now. She could tell him she had her reasons, and most people would call them good reasons, worthy reasons.
But he looks away and strides past her without the barest form of acknowledgement, and so she walks on to her car. It is oppressively hot inside and the leather seats burn against the bottom of her thighs through her pants. She grips the steering wheel, singeing her hands.
“I need to eat,” she says.
But she isn’t hungry. She closes her eyes, as if listening for something. Approbation from a dead man, perhaps. But she doesn’t feel much of anything. She doesn’t know what she is supposed to feel. She’d been hoping for vindication, or at least satisfaction. Instead there is the same old void, that familiar old vacuum. But that is all right. It is better than feeling guilty. It is better than feeling bad. She has gotten used to feeling nothing.
Cameron Huntley is a freelance journalist who quit a steady job to pursue a dream of writing full time and questions that decision more and more every time the rent’s due.
Header image created using in-house stock and stock provided by bstocked