- Feedback for Episode 255: Variations on a Theme.
- It’s our first full-text story! Read OR listen to it! We’ll have the epub version ready for download in the next few days.
- Next week… Halloween episode!
Fuel by Matthew S. Rotundo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at escapepod.org.
By Matthew S. Rotundo
The third quarter report cards came out Thursday, and for Jamie, the timing couldn’t have been worse. The Nike man was coming over that night to sell his brother some new blood.
He took his time walking home from Gilder Middle School, weaving past cracks in the sidewalk and mud puddles left behind by the spring thaw. His pace slowed further as he turned onto Willow Avenue and saw his house, second on the left, a red brick ranch with spidery ivy growing up the east side. Old leaves, fallen tree branches, and other detritus left over from the winter littered the front yard. As he neared, he noted with dismay his father’s car already in the driveway.
“Damn.” Jamie trudged across the yard and let himself in the front door with his keycard.
Dad was at the hall closet, hanging up his overcoat. He stood just under two meters tall; a navy blue business suit wrapped his muscled frame. He beamed when he saw Jamie. “Hey there, kiddo. How was school today?”
“You’re home early,” Jamie said.
“Need to get ready for the presentation tonight. And I’d like you to clean up the front yard. Make sure you use the dirt rake to get up that thatch. Will you do that for me?”
Jamie opened his mouth to protest, but thought the better of it. “Sure,” he said. He unslung his backpack and headed for the stairs.
“Oh. By the way.” Dad fished in a suit pocket and produced a folded piece of paper. “I got this in my email today.” He opened the paper.
Jaime recognized the school’s letterhead on the printout. He slumped, leaning against the wall.
Dad tapped the paper. “What’s this C-plus in Basic Fitness about, kiddo?”
“I got A’s in my academic classes. They’re all honors courses, too.”
“I can see that. But we’ve talked about Fitness before, haven’t we?” Dad looked down at him with a disapproving arch of an eyebrow.
“So tell me. What happened?”
“It’s nothing. I’ll do better next quarter.”
“Did you fail the agility drills again?”
“I couldn’t do the pull-ups.”
Dad pressed his lips together and took a breath. “I’m not sure you’re giving it your best effort, Jamie.”
“I am. I really am. I’m just not very good at sports.”
“You get better with practice. Like your brother Scott.”
Jamie nodded, keeping his gaze down, hoping Dad didn’t notice the way he gritted his teeth when he heard his older brother’s name.
Dad clapped him on the shoulder. “Jamie, you’re twelve years old now. It’s really important that you find your best sport. College recruiters are already contacting boys your age.”
Jamie thought of his best friend Russell, who had just gotten his first recruiting letter the other day, from Penn State. Jamie hung his head even lower.
“All I’m asking is that you try, son. Will you do that for me?”
Jamie nodded again.
Dad folded up the grade printout and stuffed it into a pocket. “Hey, I have an idea. Why don’t you sit in on the presentation tonight?”
“Oh, man.” Jamie looked up. “Do I have to, Dad?”
“Why not? Maybe you’ll hear something you like.”
A groan escaped Jamie. He had homework to do for Advanced Literature–the next two chapters of _Dracula_, which he’d loved so far. But experience had taught him not to proffer academic work as an excuse. “Why don’t you guys just order Scott’s blood online? That’s what you usually do.”
“The Nike representative wants to show us some new and improved stuff. The best yet. Scott has regionals in two weeks, you know.”
“So. You’ll be there tonight, then?”
Dad clapped him on the shoulder again. “That’s the spirit. Now let’s get that yard picked up, OK?”
Jamie went upstairs to change out of his school clothes before getting to work.
“Fuel 6.1 is our latest release, and our best,” the Nike man said. “You can see from the charts how our refined erythrocyte design maximizes oxygen-carbon dioxide exchange, nutrient absorption, and hormone capacity. You folks have probably read about all that stuff already; it was part of the 6.0 rollout. But 6.1 also features enhanced thrombocyte function that increases fibrinogen production by as much as fifty percent. It lasts longer than 6.0, too. You can go up to four weeks without a new transfusion. And of course, Fuel still has the highest-quality, FDA-approved leukocytes and plasma substitutes available on the market.”
The Nike man topped two meters, taller than even Dad. He had dark hair streaked blonde. His skin was so deeply tanned that Jamie could swear it glowed. The salesman’s hands seemed huge, each big enough on its own to comfortably grip a basketball. He wore an immaculate black workout singlesuit that flowed with his movements. And he had the shoes, of course. Top of the line SuperJumps, solid black, like the suit.
He made his pitch in the living room, with the aid of handouts and multimedia charts from a display that stood on its own tripod. Mom and Dad, seated on the couch, paid close attention, nodding at appropriate times, asking occasional questions, laughing at the salesman’s jokes. Scott, just turned sixteen, long-legged and lanky, slumped between them with his arms crossed. His gaze wandered as the Nike man talked. Jamie sat in the rocking chair to one side, next to the bookcase filled with Scott’s track trophies and medals.
The Nike man continued: “Athletes using Fuel 6.1 have shown documented increases in metabolism, endurance, and recovery from injury. And if you purchase tonight, we’ll even throw in a free home transfusion kit.”
Jamie shook his head. Scott already had one of those. Jamie had set it up for him many times, usually on nights before track meets. Jamie had grown more proficient working the kit than his parents.
He glanced at the clock on the wall. The time was just after seven o’clock. If the Nike man finished his spiel in the next hour, Jamie would still be able to do some of his Advanced Lit homework.
“Wow,” Dad said, smiling and nodding. “That’s something, isn’t it, Scott?”
“I guess,” Scott said.
The Nike man gave an amused smile. “You don’t sound convinced.”
“I’m a sprinter. I don’t care about all that endurance stuff.”
“What’s your forty time, Scott?”
“Not bad. But suppose I were to tell you that Fuel 6.1 can improve your personal best by as much as a full second?”
“Yeah, right,” Scott said. “Whatever.”
“Regionals are only two weeks away, honey,” Mom said. She was small and wiry, with closely cropped hair and an angular face. She still wore work clothes–white top, pinstriped jacket and skirt, heels. “And didn’t your coach say you need to get under four seconds if you want to–”
Scott cut her off with an exasperated sigh and a roll of his eyes. An awkward silence fell.
The Nike man turned toward Jamie in the rocking chair. “How about you, Jimmy? This stuff is pretty cool, huh?”
“Uh . . . it’s _Jamie_.”
The Nike man put on a let’s-be-friends smile. “Do you think you would like to try Fuel? I’ll bet you’d like it.”
The salesman’s radiant good health made Jamie uncomfortably conscious of the paunch around his middle. “Um . . . no, thanks.”
“Why not? This is quality stuff, you know.”
With a sidelong glance toward his parents, Jamie said, “That’s OK.”
The Nike man’s smile became indulgent. “I understand, Jamie. You think that you could never be an athlete like your brother, or all the other kids. But 6.1 could be the key for you. Blood _is_ just like fuel, you know. The better the fuel, the better your body will work. In no time at all, you could be running track like your brother–”
Scott laughed. Mom shushed him.
“–or, with your size, maybe playing football. I could see you fitting in well at guard, or possibly even center.”
“You know, that’s what I keep telling him,” Dad said.
Jamie’s cheeks burned. Why couldn’t the guy just leave him alone and get on with the presentation?
The Nike man said, “You really shouldn’t overlook the benefits of athletic competition. Athletes are much less likely to get involved with drugs or alcohol, or drop out of school. You might even get to attend college on an athletic scholarship, if you’re good enough.”
“Will it make me smarter?”
Dad cleared his throat.
The Nike man cast a puzzled glance toward the couch. “Well . . . Fuel is designed to enhance _athletic_ performance.”
“He’s taking all _academic_ classes,” Scott said with a sneer.
“I see.” The Nike man’s smile thinned.
“He’s still taking Basic Fitness. And he hasn’t even started his Nutrition courses. Hell, when I was Jamie’s age, I had already gone through Advanced Conditioning.”
“We’re, ah, we’re very proud of him.” Mom, glancing uneasily at Jamie, patted Scott’s knee.
Jamie glowered at his smirking brother. “I got A’s in all my honors courses this quarter.”
The Nike man said, “Jamie, academic scholarships are mighty hard to come by these days. Take it from me, most schools just don’t have the necessary funding.”
Jamie looked at the floor. In a mumble, he said, “I guess I don’t care.”
“I’m sorry, Jamie; I missed that. What did you say?”
Jamie’s mouth drew tight, like a drawstring bag. The collective stare of his parents, his brother, and the Nike man weighed on him, suffusing him with a deep weariness.
“Jamie? What did you say?”
He raised his chin, scowling. “I said, _I don’t care_. All right? You happy now?”
The Nike man took a step backward.
“I don’t like football. Get it? I don’t like track, either. I don’t like sports. I got A’s in all my honors courses. Now will you just leave me alone? Please?”
His heart raced. He breathed heavily, as if he’d just run around the block. He wondered at his own words. Had he actually just spoken them in front of his parents? He turned to the couch, suddenly terrified.
“Jee-_zus_.” Scott stood suddenly. “Do I have to stay down here and listen to this crap, Dad? You’ve already ordered my blood. This guy’s just here to talk to Jamie, anyway.”
“Scott, you be _quiet_!” Mom glared at him.
“Why? It’s true, isn’t it? You’re just trying to get him with the program. Waste of time, if you ask me. His buddy’s already getting scholarship offers, and fat little Jamie just hides in his books. He’s a friggin’ loser.”
Dad stood, too. His face was stern. “That’s enough out of you, young man. You may go to your room.”
Scott set hands on hips. “And what if I don’t? You gonna ground me? I have regionals in two weeks. You wouldn’t want me to miss practice, would you?”
Mom and Dad exchanged glances. The Nike man looked at his perfect shoes.
“Shit. I’m going over to Kevin’s.” Scott stormed out the front door, slamming it hard enough to rattle the windows. One of Mom’s ceramic angel figurines fell from the knickknack shelf. The carpet cushioned its fall.
Jamie gaped at his parents. Neither one would meet his gaze.
And he understood why the Nike man was here. Why his parents hadn’t just ordered the new blood online, as they usually did. Why Dad had insisted on Jamie being present for the presentation. Why the Nike man had focused so much attention on him.
Jamie looked around the room. His gaze found the multimedia display on its tripod, charting the performance-enhancing benefits of Fuel. He had never felt so alone in all his life.
Slowly, he got to his feet. His throat double-clutched. “I think . . . I’m gonna be sick.” He headed for the bathroom on unsteady legs.
The sun had long since set before a timid knock came at Jamie’s bedroom door. It opened, and Mom entered. In the darkness, she was only a silhouette. “Jamie? Are you awake?”
He lay supine on his bed. “Yeah.”
She sat on the edge of the bed. “Honey, I’m so sorry about what happened tonight.”
“It’s okay, Mom. I’m sorry, too. For what I said.”
“Your father and I just don’t want you to miss out on any opportunities. Your friend Russell–”
“I’ve been thinking, Mom. I’d like to try the new blood.”
“You would?” She put a hand on his arm. “Oh, Jamie, are you sure?”
“I’m sure. Can we still get the free transfusion kit?”
“Well, actually . . . we hoped you would change your mind. We ordered the blood for you. The kit’s downstairs.”
“Oh. Good. Is it very much different from Scott’s?”
“Looks the same, I think. You should be able to assemble it yourself. You’ll probably be able to do your own transfusions, even.” She leaned over and kissed his forehead. “You’re growing up. Your father and I are very proud of you.”
Jamie was grateful for the darkness, so that his mother could not see his face twist with pain.
“You get some sleep now,” Mom said. She stood and looked down at him for a moment. Jamie imagined that she was probably smiling. Then she left, quietly shutting the door behind her.
Tears threatened, but Jamie fought them down. He had much too much to think about.
After his first transfusion, he would have a whole body’s worth of blood left over. _Normal_ blood. Usually, it was sent to the Nike people for recycling. But if Jamie could somehow hide it instead–store it in the basement freezer, maybe–then . . .
Regionals were only two weeks away. Scott would do a fresh transfusion the night before; he always did. Jamie would help him with it, as usual. And he and Scott had the same blood type.
In the darkness, Jamie smiled. The Nike man had called it Fuel. Well, knowledge was a kind of fuel, too. Mom and Dad and Scott didn’t understand that. Not yet, anyway.
He would get in serious trouble, of course. But it would be worth the punishment if, only for a moment, they would understand him at last. It would ease the loneliness.
Still smiling, Jamie drifted off to sleep.
About the Author
Matt wrote his first story—”The Elephant and the Cheese”—when he was eight years old. It was the first time he had ever filled an entire page with writing. To his young mind, that seemed like a major accomplishment. It occurred to him shortly thereafter that writing stories was what he wanted to do with his life.
Matt gravitated to science fiction, fantasy, and horror at an early age, too. He discovered Ray Bradbury’s “The Fog Horn” in a grade school reader, and read it over and over whenever he got bored in class. (Needless to say, he read it a lot.) Other classics soon followed—Dune and Lord of the Rings and Foundation, the usual suspects. As a boy, he often pretended his bicycle was Shadowfax, and that he was Gandalf, riding like mad for Minas Tirith. Yeah, he was that kind of kid. Half the time, his family and friends didn’t know what the hell he was talking about.
Matt’s story “Alan Smithee Lives in Hell” placed second in the 1997 Science Fiction Writers of Earth Contest. In 1998, he attended Odyssey. The workshop led directly to his first sale—”Black Boxes,” in Absolute Magnitude. In 2002, Matt won a Phobos Award for “Hitting the Skids in Pixeltown.” He was a 2008 winner in the Writers of the Future Contest. He has since continued to publish in various magazines and is the author of The Prison World Revolt series.
Matt lives in Nebraska. He has husked corn only once in his life, and has never been detasseling, so he insists he is not a hick.
About the Narrator
Dave Thompson aka the Easter Werewolf aka the California King is still uncomfortable with the notion of pumpkin beer, but don’t hold that against him. He lives outside Los Angeles with his wife and three children. Together with co-editor Anna Schwind, he ran PodCastle for five years, stepping down to focus on his own writing in 2015. You can find two of his audiobook narrations on Amazon: Norse Code by Greg Van Eekhout and Briarpatch by Tim Pratt. Dave is an Escape Artists’ Worldwalker and Storyteller, having been published in, and narrated for, all four EA podcasts.