The Magic Number (Short Story)


“She shows me the bill, and it’s 400 bucks.” Rich, a middle-aged man with a receding hairline and a pudgy waist, was in knee deep in a long story about his girlfriend, Cindy. As he and his coworker, Brian, rounded out their shifts with a sweep of the floor on the south corner of the warehouse, they always passed the time with idle chatter. Rich took up most of these conversations; his girlfriend was usually the primary topic. “So I told her,” Rich continued, “how much is that stupid dog even worth? If I had a car that cost that much each visit, I’d scrap it and get a new one.”

Brian, unlike Rich, tended to withhold his opinions. He kept his attention focused on his broom, carefully navigating a growing pile of dust and debris. At this point in their daily conversations, Rich rarely required input. He was the type that could put a dollar in the vending machine and extemporaneously provide a half-day seminar on which item he chose. Brian worked at the warehouse for just a few months, but that was enough time to realize that these rants only required responses every few minutes, rotating between “Uh-huh,” “Yep,” and “How about that.” Sensing a break in Rich’s story, Brian offered up an “I hear ya” to say something different. As he said it, he changed position and took long strides to perform a final sweep around the area. Rich followed suit.

Rich continued. “I’m just saying, how much is too much to pay to keep a dog in operating condition?”

Brian blinked back to attention and asked, “Operating condition?” Sometimes the only way Brian would engage in one of these long stories was after the inevitable callous remark. Rich was intelligent, but his limited worldview often got the better of him. His stories were usually peppered with racist or disparaging remarks. “It’s a dog, not a machine, Rich,” said Brian. “I mean, it has feelings and emotions. Dogs are smart. We’re not talking about jellyfish here.”

“Smart or not, they do cost money. All I’m asking is how much is worth it?”

“It’s really up to the owner, isn’t it? Some people would pay anything to keep their dogs alive, yet some others would leave their dogs behind when they move away.” At that, Brian’s thoughts drifted toward his secret game. He shook them away; the time wasn’t right. He kept quiet as they reached the end of the aisle, their brooms hitting the wall in unison. The edges were always the hardest to sweep with their large, shag-carpeted monstrosities. Brian lifted and scooped his broom in the crevice, a feeble attempt to draw out the debris. Rich let him work at it, taking the opportunity to lean against the top of his broom handle.

“That’s true, I guess it would be up to the owner,” Rich said. “But there has to be a limit. I mean, no matter how much you love your dog, there has to be a point where you say it’s not worth the capital costs.”

“You make it sound so emotionless,” Brian said, still working the edge. “These animals are like family. You’re making them sound like a real estate investment.”

“Well, maybe I am, but how else would you look at them? They cost money.”

“Yeah, but again, it’s it up to the owner to decide how much to spend.”

“That’s exactly my point,” said Rich. “How do you decide how much is too much?”

“I’m guessing you think Cindy’s dog is in the ‘too much’ category.”

“Hell, yeah,” Rich said, his voice building enthusiasm. “I mean, that last bill was 400 bucks!”

Brian straightened and faced Rich, matching his posture by leaning against his own broom handle. “Okay, so 400 is too much to pay for a dog. What makes you say that?”

“We don’t have $400 in the bank.”

“So there you go – you wouldn’t pay that much because you don’t have it. What if you were Bill Gates? That wouldn’t even be a drop in the bucket.” Brian grabbed his broom in both hands and headed back to their dust pile at the end of the aisle.

Rich followed behind. “I don’t know,” he said. “I’m not sure that’s really the answer. Even with an infinite paycheck, there still has to be a limit. After all, I’m pretty sure with enough money, you could rebuild your dog into a cyborg. You could probably implant all of the original dog’s emotions and memories. It doesn’t have to die if you’re willing to throw millions at it.”

They reached the pile. Brian took a few steps past it, grabbed a hose hanging from the ceiling and moved it to the pile. He flipped a switch on the side, and with a loud swoosh, a vacuum motor kicked on in the distance. In seconds, the debris sucked up through the hose and was gone. Rich flipped it back off, the fading sound echoed through the empty warehouse. He released the hose, letting it swing freely as they both walked away, brooms in hand.

After a beat, Rich said, “It sounds like you don’t think animals have an inherent monetary value.”

“What’s that?”

“You didn’t think there’s a limit on what you could pay to save a dog’s life, so I’m wondering if you believe that’s true for all animals.”

“Not inherently, but to someone who’s emotionally invested in that animal, then sure. I don’t think there’s too much to pay to keep it alive.”

“Let’s try a thought experiment, then.” Rich loved thought experiments. “Okay, let’s say you owned a beetle, and you absolutely loved that thing.”

“I’d name it Chappy,” said Brian.

Rich paused to let his quick response sink in, then kept going. “Okay, let’s say, um, Chappy, gets sick. But you’re in luck, there’s a doctor in town that can save him.”

“Phew, good news.”

“Okay, so the doctor tells you that it will cost 100 bucks to fix the beetle.”

“How much did I pay for the beetle in the first place?”

Rich pondered a bit. “15 dollars.”

“Then no, I wouldn’t pay 100.”

“Even if the beetle meant the world to you?”

Brian smiled. “I see where this is going. I wouldn’t spend the money because I could easily buy a new one. And since the beetle doesn’t have a personality, a replacement would be completely adequate. By buying a new one, I saved 85 dollars.”

“So there you go, that’s what I’m saying. There really is a limit to any animal, sounds like you just have to quantify your emotional bond.”

“There’s more to it than that,” Brian said. “Even in that example, you gave me an easy figure to work with. What if I didn’t buy the beetle? Say I found it on an expedition through the Amazon. Let’s say it’s the only one known in existence. What if I couldn’t replace it so easily?”

While Rich pondered the point, they arrived at a storage closet and put their brooms inside. They turned around and headed for the door, about 100 yards away on the opposite wall.

“Irreplaceable…that’s an interesting twist,” said Rich. “That’s more than just an emotional connection. In that case, 100 dollars doesn’t seem so bad.”

It wasn’t often that Brian got to control the scenario, so he ran with it. “Okay, let’s up the ante. Let’s say the fix was 200 dollars. Would you do it then?”

“Well, yeah,” said Rich. “But you know what I’m doing, right? In my mind, I’m calculating the expense of the Amazon trip, how much I spent on the flight, the tour guide, the equipment, then the cost of the stuff I needed to bring it home safely. I’m back to looking at the beetle as an investment, and I’m considering the cost of repair against that.”

“Yeah, you could justify spending thousands to get the beetle back in shape, but you’re still missing that critical component.”

“Which is…?” Rich asked, puzzled.

“The emotional attachment,” said Brian. “In this example, this is a beetle you love. When deciding whether or not to pay the bill, you wouldn’t do any of those calculations. You’d just pay whatever it cost.”

“See, I don’t think I would. Everything has value. Okay, remove the emotion thing.”

“No, that’s what I’m trying to bring back.”

“Hear me out,” said Rich. “Let’s say I had a duck and wanted to sell it to you. How would you determine how much it’s worth? I could give you a price, but it would be up to you to decide what you want to pay.”

Brian sighed. He looked ahead to the warehouse door, still 50 yards away. Would this be wrapped up by the time they reached it? He figured not. “Okay, to play along, I’d consider how badly I needed the duck and how limited the supply was. I’d also do a check for how much money I had available. Would the purchase of the duck take away funds I needed for anything else?”

“Exactly. Even without prompting, you know exactly what it takes to assign value to the duck. You even listed them out: existing supply, where it fits in your priorities and how much you needed it. That’s basically all it comes down to.”

“Plus your emotional attachment.”

“But I don’t see that as a separate item,” said Rich. “I think your emotions help you decide the existing supply – that goes back to the irreplaceable factor. Emotions help you assign priority, and they help you determine how much you need it.”

Brian acknowledged the point. “Okay, but even in that scenario, you ignored how much money you actually have available. It’s all meaningless if you don’t have the money in the first place. I might think it’s worth the value you put on it, but I wouldn’t pay a cent if I didn’t have the money.”

“And now we’ve gone full circle.” Rich’s voice had the tone of disappointment. Instead of one of his grand revelations, they ended back where they started. “Despite everything, maybe it really is about how much you have to spend in the first place.”

Brian just ended a discussion with Rich before they left the warehouse. That had to be a record. In those last few moments as they walked in silence to the door, Brian considered his options and whether this was the right time to reveal his secret to Rich. Did he have it? He subtly ran his hand against the outside of his pocket and felt the bulge from the contents inside. Everything was there. It was time.

As they reached the door, Brian stopped short. Rich turned to push the bar with his back, but hesitated when he saw Brian was no longer beside him. “What’s wrong?” Rich asked.

“What if we were talking about your girlfriend?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, what if it was your girlfriend that was sick and you were presented with an expensive treatment? Do the same rules apply?” Brian raised his eyebrows.

“Of course not.”

“But why?”

“Because I love Cindy,” said Rich. “Plus, she’s a human being. No amount of money would keep me from saving her life if I had the chance.”

“I know that’s true on a theoretical and emotional level, but let’s do another thought experiment. You told me that you don’t even have 400 dollars to your name. Let’s say Cindy gets sick. The doctor gives you the option to let her die peacefully tonight, avoiding all the suffering that would go with a long, drawn-out illness, or you could opt for a treatment plan that would cost 2,000,000 dollars. Even if the hospital lets you divide it into monthly payments, they would each be 250,000 dollars, plus interest.”

Caught up in the scenario, Rich didn’t notice how strange it was that Brian could come up with these details on the spot. Brian continued, “You could pay the bill, but you’d have to give up your house, your car and one meal a day for the rest of your life. Beyond that, every cent you earn until the day you die would pay for her treatment. You’d never have a penny to buy anything beyond your basic needs. Even with all you have, you’d still die in debt.”

“Would the treatment save her life?”

“Sure. Maybe they can even guarantee it.”

Rich thought for a moment. “Yeah, I’d do it. No question.”

Brian let a smirk slide across his face. “Actually, I don’t think that’s true,” he said. “I think you’d opt for the instant-out option.”

“Why do you say that?” Rich asked, mocking offense.

“Because you won’t even save a puppy for 400 dollars. Sure, that treatment would save Cindy’s life, but it wouldn’t give her immortality. She could get hit by a bus the next day.”

Rich said, “You’re right.”

“What’s that now?” Brian held his hand to his ear to exaggerate the point.

“I said you’re right. For as unlikely that scenario might be, there’s no way I’d give up all my finances and future finances to save her life.” He looked away in thought. Almost to himself, he said, “Geez, that sounds callous, doesn’t it?” Rich kept his gaze on the ground in a rare moment of self-reflection.

“It does,” Brian agreed, “especially when you say it out loud.” Seeing Rich deflate, Brian tried to lighten the mood. “But, that scenario was extreme. That wasn’t really fair.”

“Are you married?”

The question caught Brian off guard. In the months he worked at the warehouse, no one had ever asked him about his past. Out of instinct, he held his hand over his pocket while he answered. “Why do you ask?”

“Because isn’t that part of the whole marriage vows thing?”

“What is?”

“The idea that you’d sacrifice your life for the other person. ‘Til death do us part.’ When you get married, you agree that you’d do anything for your spouse. I don’t see how this would be that much different,” said Rich.

“You don’t exactly sign a death pact when you get married, but I see your point.”

“That’s it,” Rich declared. “I’m changing my answer. If I really love my girlfriend, I here solemnly vow to forego all of my assets and future earnings to save her life, even if it’s temporary.” Rich held up his hand like a Boy Scout making a pledge.

“How very noble of you.” Brian stepped forward and pushed into the door beside Rich, breaking the conversation and moving them outside. The parking lot was empty aside from their two cars parked at the opposite end. The air was cool without a breeze.

In all his time at the warehouse, Brian searched for the right candidate. In his former jobs, the candidates were usually in a leadership position or upper management. It was unusual to find someone with this view of money this low on the totem pole. Rich said he would give up everything for Cindy, much like all the others said they would. And they completely believe they would until they understand what’s really at stake. Brian reached into his pocket and pulled out its contents, holding everything tightly in his hand as they walked.

“Are you really satisfied then?” Brian asked. He kept his gaze on his hand.

“Absolutely, I am.” Rich spoke without any hesitation. “If I’m really willing to sacrifice my life, that means more than just dying. I would do anything.”

“And you’re definitively saying a human life is invaluable?”

“That’s right.”

“You know,” Brian said, thoughtfully. “I think that’s the biggest mistake we make as a culture, this thought that a human being is worth anything.”

“Mistake?” Rich slowed his pace, letting Brian get a few paces ahead.

“As a society, we devote endless resources to save a single life. We’ll pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into a treatment if it lets the patient live even a few weeks longer. We’ll send a dozen troops into enemy territory to save one prisoner. We’ll put up thousands of dollars each year for a single inmate, someone who already proved they can’t live in society, but we won’t even consider execution.”

“I’m not sure what you’re getting—”

Brian kept on. “I’m just saying, you were right in the beginning. There really should be value placed on our life. Without that number, we’re vulnerable to pointless mistakes, mistakes that have a ripple effect across our entire economy, across generations.”

The words hung in the air. Rich took a moment before responding, “Okay, so what’s that magic number?”

Brian came to a halt and turned toward Rich, who stopped just before running into him. Rich took a step backward to maintain a comfortable distance, meanwhile, Brian kept his gaze fixed on the contents in his hand. He looked up a Rich and said, “Remember that scenario earlier, the one about your girlfriend?”

Rich nodded.

“Okay, then let’s throw out a number. Let’s say it’s two million dollars. A human life is worth exactly that.” He opened his hand. Rolled up inside was a coiled stack of multicolored papers, well worn through years of handling. He unrolled the papers slowly, displaying a collection of large denomination bills and some official-looking slips Rich didn’t recognize. “I have in my hand a collection of antique, Civil War-era silver notes, mature savings bonds, a few war bonds and a sizeable interest in a technology company.” He flipped through them one by one as he described them. “All in, there’s about 2.2 million here. I can’t say for sure because the value grows each day.”

Rich stared at Brian’s hands.

“What would you say to giving up your girlfriend for everything I have here in my hand?” Brian held the bills out to Rich.

Rich scoffed. “What do you mean? Is this one of those Indecent Proposal things?”

“Oh, please.” He let out a chuckle. “No, no. I’m not asking to sleep with your girlfriend, nothing like that at all. I’m giving you an opportunity.”

As Brian held the bills toward Rich, they caught the moonlight, a celebration of color reflected back. The different colors of the stock certificates, bank notes and bonds seemed to bounce with energy despite the dim light. Rich reached out, surprised that Brian let him grab all of the contents in his own hands. As he looked at the stack, he asked Brian, “And what’s the opportunity?”

“You leave tonight. You take this money and run. None of it is traceable, not even the company stock – it’s all routed through a tax-free, international account. Just hop in your car, head out of town. No final words to your girlfriend, no calls to family. You just leave. Tonight. I’m proposing that your life is worth 2.2 million. You can take this and live the life you’ve always wanted.”

Rich thought of his bank account, his lifelong struggles with finances. He thought of Cindy. A moment ago, the great memories of her made him want to give up everything, but now they were replaced with memories of stress, of all night fights. He thought of that yipping dog and its hair on all the furniture. He thought of his sorry excuse for a job cleaning up a warehouse, breathing in asbestos all day. He thought of his childhood dreams, his wishes for fame and fortune. As he held the stack of notes in his hand, his mind flashed to a future he controlled. He smiled as he looked back at Brian.

“What will it be?” Brian asked. “Are you taking the money and running?”

* * * * *

The next morning, Rich lay awake in bed. He was mentally and physically exhausted. He rolled over, trying hopelessly to find a comfortable position.

From beside him, Cindy opened her eyes slowly. “Is something wrong?” Her voice groggy through broken sleep.

Rich took a breath. “It’s nothing. Go back to sleep.”

She was back asleep before he finished the sentence. He stared at the ceiling. Despite his best efforts, the thought Cindy had better be worth it repeated on an endless loop in his head.

Last night, he gave it up. It seemed like the smarter choice – true love over an escape. Now, hours later, staring at the cracked ceiling in a musty, old apartment, he realized his life would be different. There was new pressure on his relationship with Cindy. There was new pressure on his job satisfaction. There was new pressure on his long term goals. He had to prove to himself that they were combined worth more than $2.2 million. How much more? He had to figure out that magic number.

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