Short Fiction Monday: The Rising Cost of Insurance

This story originally appeared in Escape Velocity Magazine, Vol. 3, and was reprinted in Escape Velocity: The Anthology.


The Rising Cost of Insurance

Timothy's secretary was a blonde, and this alone was responsible for the affair. It wasn't his fault. During his formative years he had developed an attraction for fair hair, probably because of his mother. Then he married a brunette who refused to dye her hair, which, he decided, was also not his fault.

His secretary said, “Mrs. Anderson is coming in today at ten o’clock. I forgot to tell you last night.” She sat facing away from her desk, watching him through the open doorway into his office. Timothy wanted quiet. She had opened his door to deliver a memo from Corporate and had refused to shut it on her way out.

“You can't just forget to tell me things. It's your job. Don’t let it happen again.”

She smiled, as if his order were some little joke. Then she kicked her legs out and spun around slowly, a carnival ride for the elderly. He would fire her, except she would certainly run to Corporate and his wife and spew every disgusting detail of their affair. It would mean the end of his marriage. Worse, the end of his job. And he was damn good at his job.

9:45. His desk was clean. He pulled up Mrs. Anderson’s file on his computer so it would be ready. The insurance agent had dealt with all the necessary prep work. As an adjustor, it was his job to make sure the damage claimed matched the level of insurance purchased.

He never understood why people wanted to meet with the adjustor. Did they think they could get more coverage after the fact? That wasn’t how insurance worked.

At ten o’clock a woman appeared in the front office. She wore a black dress that reached her ankles, covered her arms, and erupted white lace at the neck. She had put on black eye makeup that now traced a River Styx down each cheek. Apparently she had come directly from her husband’s funeral.

She exchanged words with the secretary -- he had stopped thinking of her as Janet, because the affair needed to end -- and made her way around the desk and to his door. It framed her for a moment. A sad portrait. He urged her to come in, to sit down. She did.

He decided to begin traditionally. “Allow me to offer our condolences.”

“Thank you,” she replied, and the corners of her mouth twitched upward, a nervous reaction or an attempt at a smile.

“Let’s see what we can do for you today.” He clicked his mouse. “Your deductible is 20,000 dollars. You know, we normally take care of all this through the mail.”

“Do you take Visa?”

He smiled. “Of course. Do you remember if you had your Visa card with you at the time of the accident?”

“I… yes. I know I did. It was in my purse. He was holding my purse.”

She choked and covered her face with her hands. “Please,” she said, “please. He’s my husband. You can… I know you can… Please!”

Timothy pulled on a grave expression. “It would be good to go over your coverage again, I suppose, before I return to the scene. Feel free to stop me if you have a question.”

She nodded, drying her eyes on the sleeves of her dress. Behind her, his secretary was pulling the neckline of her shirt down, revealing pale cleavage. He forced his eyes to the computer screen.

“You had our Basic Liability coverage, which is far less than we recommend. That’s also why your deductible is so high.”

“I know.”

“Therefore, and I’m sorry to say it, but it appears we can only cover the other driver and his… three passengers? Yes, three. And their car.”

He clicked Print and waited as the printer beside him spit out three forms.

“I just need your signature on this.” He passed it across the desk to her. “There’s a pen right there.” It was attached to a black tether, because too many people had stolen his pens, and they weren’t cheap Bics, they were very nice, custom made, with his name and address on them.

She picked it up. Her hand seemed like gelatin, the way it wavered, the way the pen shook in her grip. She signed. He took the paper back and was surprised to see that, despite her condition, her signature was very neat. He folded it and slid it in his pocket.

“There’s a lot of paperwork involved. I’ve always said, they can invent a time machine --” now his secretary was licking her lips and twirling a strand of hair between two fingers -- “uh… they can invent a time machine, but they can’t come up with an alternative to all this paperwork.”

He always thought it was funny -- or at least interesting -- but Mrs. Anderson did not react.

She stood, but her legs appeared to be unable to support her body. She leaned heavily on the back of her chair with both hands. “Please. I’m just asking you this as a favor. Please. Please. He’s my husband.” Her mouth moved some more without sound.

His secretary was now leaning forward in her chair and folding her arms beneath her chest, pushing up her breasts. As Mrs. Anderson composed herself, Timothy thought maybe seeing Janet wasn’t such a bad thing. He realized he could stare at her cleavage all day, and it was pretty funny watching her pretend to be picking something up off the floor as Mrs. Anderson turned to leave. Not funny. Cute. He found it cute. He wanted to invite her into his office right then, clear off his desk with a swipe of his arm just like he’d done the first time, just like he’d seen in movies.

But no. He had to take care of Mrs… He checked the screen. Anderson. Mrs. Anderson. It would be an easy one. He looked at the glass front door. Mrs. Anderson was on the other side of it now.

“I’m going to take care of the Anderson case,” he said. “Do I have any more appointments this afternoon?”

Janet crossed her legs and leaned forward again. “Nope.”

“Good. You’ll be here when I get back, won’t you?”

“You'll be gone, like, two seconds.”

“Right." He felt himself blushing. "I’ll see you in a few.”

He stood, walked out into the front office and through a side door. He flicked on the light switch. The room was as big, or better, as small as his office. The walls, the floor, the ceiling, were silver. It was like stepping into a house of mirrors. A person could see their every flaw from every angle.

In the center of the room, as silver as the walls and floor and ceiling, stood the Machine. Like a convex mirror, it made him look fat and stretched. Smooth and round. It was shaped, Timothy was often embarrassed to acknowledge at get-togethers, like a giant egg.

The front of the thing jumped out a few inches with a hydraulic hiss, then slowly moved to the side, allowing him to enter. As he climbed in, he thought about his wife, just for a moment. He thought about his upcoming, promised promotion. Then, as he seated himself on the low bench and watched the door slide shut before him, he pictured Janet’s thighs, which he had always really enjoyed. He punched the case number into the numerical pad that glowed on the wall beside him.

The trip always jarred him. He shut his eyes as the Machine began to shake. Colors danced across the insides of his eyelids, oranges, blues, reds, greens, and other colors he knew no names for. A spectrum, he’d heard, outside the normal realm of what he should be able to see.

Then it was over, and the door slid open, and he stepped out into the same room as before. This time, he walked behind the Machine and through the back door, which opened into a garage that smelled equally of motor oil and new leather. Two cars, one silver, one blue, stood parked before two closed garage doors. To the side, various tools that the mechanics used on weekends for general upkeep. He climbed in the car nearest him, pressed the button to open the garage, and backed out into early evening. It still bothered him, entering and leaving different times of day as quickly as passing through rooms in a house.

He drove to the corner of Clark and Addison.

He parked and checked his expression in the rearview mirror. Thinking about Janet kept forcing a smile onto his face. He needed a neutral expression. He had to be calculating. This next part would be dangerous. He would be stopping an accident, but the people might prove difficult to deal with.

He thought of his wife, and the smile melted away.

In the glove compartment he found the beacon light, a big red and blue thing shaped like an ice cream cone. He stepped outside. There was the car. He turned the beacon on and stepped into the street. He had to turn his face away because the light was so bright. He thought about Janet, and her thighs, and all of her, and he started to get aroused -- so he thought about cold showers and baseball and his wife.

The car slowed to a stop. Behind him, a car passed through the intersection. If he hadn’t been there, the Andersons’ car would have smashed into it. There would have been several deaths, although currently Timothy couldn’t remember how many.

He tossed the beacon back in his car and stepped to the driver’s window. Mrs. Anderson rolled it down.

“Good evening. I’m Timothy Richards from Our Family Insurance, and I’m here tonight to prevent an accident.”

“Good God!” Mr. Anderson said. He was a middle-aged man in a business suit with a receding hairline. He held his wife's purse on his lap. “When would it have happened?”

“Several seconds ago. The car that just passed through the intersection. Your car would have smashed into theirs, killing the occupants.”

“Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” Mr. Anderson said. “Damn it, Rebecca, I’ve told you to pay attention. I’ve told you a thousand times.”

“Oh my,” was all Mrs. Anderson said.

Timothy reached into the inner pocket of his coat and pulled out a small black device, the size and shape of a pack of cigarettes. “Mr. Anderson, could you please step out of the vehicle?”

“Why?” Mr. Anderson said.

“Sir, I need you to step outside the vehicle immediately. We are in danger of negatively impacting the flow of time.”

Mr. Anderson appeared confused, but he handed the purse to his wife and climbed out. Timothy rounded the car and placed the black device on Mr. Anderson’s chest. A moment later the older man crumpled to the ground. Mrs. Anderson screamed.

A minute of hysteria passed. Mrs. Anderson was inconsolable. Timothy placed the black device back in his pocket.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” he said.

“You’re sorry? You just murdered my husband!”

“Your husband would have died in the wreck, and allowing him to live might have altered time in a potentially catastrophic way. It is for the best.” He pulled the form from his pocket. It remained intact, signature and all. It would stay that way until he returned to the present. “You signed this, in the future. Can I please have your Visa card? If the deductible extends beyond your credit limit, you will be billed for the remainder.”

She was crying. She took the form from him with quaking hands and held it up. In the waning light it must have been hard to read. She shook her head. “Why? Why did you have to… Those other people would have died?”

“Yes.”

“Then, haven’t you changed the course of history by saving them? Why did you… why did you kill…?”

“Ma’am, I do apologize, but we always recommend stronger coverage. May I see your Visa card?”

She sat in the driver’s seat and shook her head, back and forth, back and forth, like a pendulum. Timothy reached across her and took her purse. She didn’t move. He opened it, leafed through tampons and loose change and packs of Kleenex until he found her Visa card. He placed it in his pocket. “Your card will be returned to you upon verification of fund transfer. Now, if you’ll excuse me--” he snatched the form from her hands--“I must be on my way. Direct any inquiries to the Our Family Corporate Office.”

He turned on his heel and left the woman to her tears. As he climbed in the car, he was already thinking about Janet. He pushed thoughts of his wife from his mind. No guilt tonight. Not tonight. Tonight would be for Janet, and then tomorrow, at the corporate dinner, he’d receive his promotion. Maybe he would take a vacation. With Janet? Yes. He would call it a business trip.

In his rearview mirror he saw the Wreckers arriving with their flatbed truck to collect the Andersons’ car. Right. He had forgotten. The car had been totaled. Or would have been. He was supposed to stay until the Wreckers arrived. Oh well. They were there. No harm done. He couldn’t see the woman anymore. Maybe she was calling a cab.

He forgot her even before he arrived back at the office, back to the present, at which point he really forgot her. Time flowed forward. She had never been to his office. To Timothy, she didn’t exist.