You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone

By Jess Charle

Would you describe yourself as spoiled?

My pencil glided over the paper, a smooth trail of graphite following. With a satisfying scratch, I circled “No.” The smell of fresh paper and pencil shavings took me back to high school. Before I was an adult. Before I knew how difficult life could get.

Would you describe your close friends as spoiled?

I hesitated.

First there was Meredith. Meredith, whose parents made damn sure she never endured hardship. Who paid for her Ivy League degree out of pocket and financed extended trips abroad in the name of their only child’s self discovery. Who owned the luxury apartment Meredith called her own. Who nested her in the comfort of unearned extravagance.

Meredith is an artist, they’d say. Meredith is a tortured soul who needs freedom to work on her novel without the hideous distraction of a 9 to 5. She is a creative who cannot be caged by the struggle of the common folk, but must sit and be and think and ponder and write and give a voice to the common folk and their struggle.

Then there was Erica. Erica, who glided by on her looks. Who didn’t have to work on her personality because she didn’t need one. Who could be rude without consequence. Her instincts unchecked, her id free to roam. Why would she think about you when everyone won’t stop thinking about her? It’s not inconsiderate if there’s nothing to consider. If she forgot who you were, you should’ve made yourself more memorable.

I circled “Yes.”

My eyes scanned the last question.

On a scale of 1-10 with 1 being the least, how appreciative are you of what you have?

What did I have? A shitty job, a tiny overpriced apartment. Jiggly upper arms, frizzy hair. My hand hovered over the 4. Robert’s warm smile. His soft kisses.

Sighing, I circled 8. I had a shelter, a stable relationship, a loving family. Life was good. Even if other people had it better than me.

Around me were 11 other people seated at small identical desks completing short identical surveys. Different shapes and sizes, ages and races. All completely forgettable.

A woman in her mid twenties sat at the front of the room poking at a tablet. She wore a neat expensive looking grey sweater. Her brown hair was pulled back into a tight bun. The desk she sat at was modern but simple, the desktop empty but for a plain water bottle. Both the desk and woman looked like they were from an IKEA catalog. Generic but tidy, desirable but empty.

I walked towards her, my completed survey in hand. She looked up from her tablet with a small smile and gestured to the corner of the desk.

Her voice was smooth but neutral. “Thank you, Laurie.”

I placed my answers face down beside her, completing the nostalgic experience of taking a quiz.

“Please proceed to the waiting room. We will get you once it has been processed.”

Not wanting to make additional noise, I nodded and smiled at her, but she was already looking back at her screen.

An hour later I sat in front of another tasteful but bland desk. Dr. Howden scanned the tablet in front of him, his fingertips pressed together.

Finally, he looked up at me. “Thank you for participating in our study, Ms. Cartland. We here at the Galvin Institute depend on volunteers such as yourself.”

I smiled. $300 to come fill out a survey, yeah no problem mister.

“Of course.” I said politely.

“We’d like to invite you to continue as a participant. The study is 6 days and pays $900 a day, along with a $1,000 signing bonus.”

My mouth fell open. “Sorry, how much?”

Dr. Howden’s smile tightened. “At the completion of the study you will have been awarded $6,400.”

I quickly calculated the cost of my morals. Is it worth $6,400 to inject myself with something that would make me lose all my hair? I shrugged internally. It’ll grow back. Probably. There’s always wigs.

“Is the study risky?”

“Oh no, not at all. All we ask of you is to answer 3 simple questions every day.”

“You just want me to answer questions?”

Dr. Howden opened one of the desk drawers and placed a tablet in front of me. It was identical to both his and the woman from the study’s.

“The Galvin Institute will provide you with this tablet for the duration of the study. Every night at 6pm it will notify you to answer three simple questions. You will then have an hour to answer them. Once your answers are submitted, $900 will be directly deposited into your bank account.”

He looked at me over his wire frames. “Do you accept?”

My heart thudded in my chest. “What happens if I answer incorrectly?”

He smiled again. “The questions are subjective, so there is no wrong answer.”

I bit my lip, looking down at the desktop in front of me. There must be a catch. There’s always a catch. Hesitant to accept his insane offer without some sort of probing, I looked back up. “Can I opt out at any time?”

His smile faltered for a moment before he continued. “Of course, but you will forfeit all payment up to that point.”

I picked up the tablet and examined it. On the back was a subtle green logo with the initials “GI” in a pyramid.

Dr. Howden continued. “The focus of this study is appreciation and gratitude. The questions are designed to encourage self reflection.”

I nodded, “sounds easy.”

“It is!” He said, turning his own tablet towards me to reveal an electronic contract. He held out a thin stylus. “Oh, and please note that your tablet is programmed to only ask the questions and cannot be used for any other purpose.”

The drag of the stylus was smooth and frictionless as I signed my name.

“Thank you, Ms. Cartland. We look forward to working with you here at the Galvin Institute.”

“This has to be a scam.” Robert said, his beer hovering in front of his mouth as he eyed the tablet resting on the table beside us. We had both tried playing with it, but the screen would only illuminate to show a timer counting down to 6pm. No games, no other screens.

I shrugged. “The building was super nice and it all seemed on the up and up. I doubt they’re going to try and use my information to drain my bank account or something. Besides,” I rested my hand on his, “it’s for the wedding.”

He sighed. “You know, you’ve got to stop pushing that.”

I stuck my tongue out at him teasingly.

A loud electric jingle made me jump. The screen of the tablet was now bright white. Black font was neatly written across at the top.

I picked it up as Robert stood to look over my shoulder. On the screen was a question:

What was something bad that happened to you today?

Other than applying for the study my day had been pretty uneventful. I clicked my tongue thoughtfully before answering.


A circle appeared at the bottom right corner that read “submit.” I pressed it and the second question appeared:

What was something good that happened to you today?

I smiled.

Dinner with my boyfriend.

Robert kissed my head as I hit submit.

On a scale of 1-10, with 1 being the least, how appreciative are you of what you have?

The numbers 1 through 10 were beneath in small circles. I felt Robert’s warmth beside me and pressed “9.”

The tablet made a small chime as the words “Thank you!” jumped on screen. Little bits of blue and yellow confetti fell around it before the screen went black again.

My blood vibrated hot beneath my skin as I excitedly logged into my bank’s mobile app. My checking account was, indeed, two grand larger.

“Not a bad day’s work.” Robert said as he returned to his seat.

I woke up the next morning to the shrill sound of my phone ringing. I looked at the clock. 9:31am.

“Ugh, fuck you!” I groaned at the ceiling. I closed my eyes tightly before opening them again, my room slowly focusing around me. Without looking I reached over and yanked it from it’s charger. My phone’s screen was filled with the smiling face of Meredith. I groaned again as I answered.

“Dude, it’s Saturday. What…” A high pitched squeal interrupted me.

“Random House bought my book!!!”

I sat bolt upright. “Sorry, what?”

“Random House, Laurie. Fucking Random House!!”

The meaning of her words slowly dawned on me through the cloud of sleep.

“Random House the publisher bought your book?” I asked, incredulous.

“Yes!! Ah, we need to get coffee NOW!”

Thirty minutes later I sipped my latte while Meredith regaled me with the story.

“I thought it was really weird when they scheduled a meeting first thing Saturday morning, but you know? It’s Random House, so I couldn’t say no! Apparently one of their agents saw some of the chapters I published online and fell in love!! They’re offering me a $20,000 advance!”

I choked on the warm liquid running down my throat.

“I know, right!?” Meredith squealed.

“Twenty grand!?” The words came from my mouth violently as I tried to regain control of my breath. “Twenty grand for your first novel!?”

Meredith nodded, beaming.

“It’s not even done!”

“Oh, I know! I know! But you know what, I think this is really going to help motivate me to finish! My skin is tingling with creative juices!”

Your skin is tingling with $20,000. I bit back my tongue and gave her a weak smile.

“Congratulations Meredith. That’s awesome.”

Meredith and I met in college. We were both wannabe novelists, both women, both freshmen, and both living in Andrews Hall. We didn’t become friends because we connected artistically, we became friends because it was easy.

While I had thrived in school, Meredith had coasted. She graduated because she went to most of her classes and turned in most of her homework. Like our friendship, she succeeded because she didn’t fail.

After graduation I got a job in publishing as a lowly editorial assistant. I was paid the bare minimum to review encyclopedias written by retired middle school teachers. It sucked but it was a job. Without it, I’d be homeless.

Meredith was a trust fund kid. I was not.

I made a point of working on my novel for at least three hours every week. I was 60,000 words deep into a dramatic look at the repression of women in the early 19th century through the eyes of Charlotte, a lowly chambermaid working for a handsome but distant oil tycoon. Meredith, on the other hand, would write a few pages when the mood struck. Since graduating, we met monthly to discuss our progress and keep each other motivated, but more often than not the night would devolve into expensive drinks at bars filled with men with shirts inexplicably half unbuttoned. And while I woke up regretting all my decisions and trying not to vomit in my cubicle trash can, she’d remain untouched. She’d wake up at noon to order pizza and watch a marathon of shitty reality shows about overly dramatic rich people who also didn’t have any responsibilities.

Meredith’s novel, smartly titled A Rabbit Disturbed, was about an evil toy bunny that traumatizes a young boy. Imagine if Stephenie Meyer wrote a novel adaptation of The Velveteen Rabbit after watching the entire Chucky canon while on acid. Oh, and Miss Meyer also doesn’t know what a rabbit is.

The three chapters I read, the only three Meredith had bothered to write, were so bad that my main criticism was towards our college for giving her a degree in creative writing.

But maybe I was being pretentious. Maybe I just didn’t understand Meredith’s genius. I took another swallow of my latte as she planned out the evening’s celebratory activities as if planning a bachelorette party.

I was in a bar bathroom when the tablet chimed. I steadied myself against the sink before pulling it from my bag.

What was something bad that happened to you today?

It was early but my mind was already drenched in vodka. I definitely wasn’t happy. I had thought drinking would make me feel more euphoric, would let me get caught up in Meredith’s excitement, but instead I felt ineffectual and ignored. I thought of my novel and the stupid melodramatic character that I had poured all my creativity into for the past two years. I was miserable. Frustrated and defeated.

But what was I going to write? That one of my oldest friends had succeeded?

If you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all. With my bare fingertip I rubbed my answer against the screen.


What was something good that happened to you today?

I gritted my teeth.


On a scale of 1-10, with 1 being the least, how appreciative are you of what you have?

I pressed “3” without much thought and dropped the tablet back into my bag as the bright “Thank you!” lit up the screen.

I woke up Sunday with a pounding headache. I looked at my phone to see several Facebook and Instagram notifications. All likes and comments on the many celebratory photos I was tagged in, all congratulating Meredith. I let my phone fall from my hand as I turned over, allowing myself to sleep in.

The chime of the Galvin Institute tablet rang out as I sat on my couch mindlessly watching tv.

What was something bad that happened to you today?

It was an innocent question. At least, it seemed innocent. And yet I felt a pang of frustration. Meredith was still riding the high of the best day of her life while I sat there very consciously not working on my novel. Robert was busy with his family all night, leaving me alone to wallow in my self-pity.

I wrote “hangover” before clicking submit.

What was something good that happened to you today?

I lifted the stylus, preparing to write “nothing,” but stopped short. This was a study of gratitude and here I was with absolutely none. I thought of Dr. Howden reading my responses. Judging them.

I got to sleep in.

On a scale of 1-10, with 1 being the least, how appreciative are you of what you have?

I pushed thoughts of Meredith out of my head as I surveyed my apartment. It was small and sparsely furnished, but the walls were lined with well read novels. I hugged my soft throw and took a sip of my tea, letting the worth flood down into my stomach. Ignoring the split second of burning at the back of my throat that told me it was still too hot to drink that fast. Feeling as if I had thoroughly experienced a moment of mindful appreciation, I pressed the tip of the stylus against the 7 with a sense of accomplishment. I was rising above my disappointment and struggle.

Dr. Howden would be proud.

My phone vibrated and I was surprised to see a text message from Robert’s mother.

Hi Laurie! Happy early birthday! Are you and Robbie free next weekend to come over for a birthday dinner?

I scrunched my eyebrows together. That’s odd. I guess Robert already went home.

Curious, I called him. He answered on the fourth ring.

“Hey, what’s up?”

“Oh hey, is this a good time?”

“Sorry babe, I’m still at my parents. Can I call you back afterwards?”

Icy fingers clasped around my heart. I swallowed.

“Oh, sure. Um, do you want to come spend the night when you’re done? I miss you.”

There was a pause before he continued. “Sorry, Laurie. I can’t tonight. Maybe tomorrow.”

“Okay. I love you.”

“Love you too.”

The next morning I lay in bed feeling empty, worthless, and defeated.

I stared at my ceiling, trying to rationalize staying in the comfort and safety of my bed. What would happen if I just don’t go to work? I’m so unimportant. Would anyone even notice?

It was bagel Monday though. And I did like bagels.

Three hours later I sat at my desk regretting my decision. One of the other editorial assistants had called out sick and I was getting the brunt of my boss’ post-weekend wrath.

How fucking ironic, I thought as I scrolled past unread email after unread email. One email was three paragraphs of all caps red text berating me for the misspelling of Juan Ponce de León in an entry that was written and published five years before I was hired. I took a bite of my free bagel as I kept scrolling.

At lunch, Erica and I went to our favorite burger joint. Erica was an editor and close friend whose long blonde hair and curvy figure made her the center of attention more often than not. And she knew it. She could be narcissistic at times, but she could also be really sweet and what I needed that day was fried food and a friendly ear.

Her eyes lit up and she leaned in conspiratorially. “Maybe he’s ring shopping.” She whispered, raising a perfectly manicured eyebrow.

I brought a french fry to my lips. I hadn’t thought of that. I put the fry back down on the plate untouched.

“You really think so?” I asked, butterflies fluttering low in my stomach.

She winked before taking a bite of her burger.

Returning to my cubicle, my high spirits were immediately dashed by an unread email marked important. The subject line was empty and only two words were written, all lowercase, in the body of the email: see me.

Harold Bradford sat behind his desk, the glow of his computer illuminating his glasses. He was a chubby man in his late fifties with wiry grey hair that wrapped around his head, leaving a round dome of perfectly hairless scalp in the middle.

“You wanted to see me, sir?”

“Yes, please sit down Ms. Cartland.” He said, his eyes never leaving the screen. “This will only take a minute.”

I sat down as he continued to tap at his keyboard. I pulled the hem of my skirt mindlessly as my eyes scanned the shelves of books behind him.

Finally, he looked up.

“Ms. Cartland, I asked you here to discuss your recent work performance.”

My stomach sank.

“Your work has been…” He tilted his head back, eyeing me through his thin spectacles. “Slipping.”

A heavy silence fell between us.

“I-I-I’m sorry, Mr. Bradford.” I stammered.

“You seem to think this job is… beneath you.” He sniffed. “And while your BFA from Dartmouth is quite impressive, your work here lately is not.”

“I understand.” I nodded, cringing at the waiver in my voice.  “I promise to work harder in the future.”

“There is no future, Ms. Cartland.”

I stared at him, mouth agape.

He turned back towards his computer, “Mrs. Littleton will explain your severance package.”

My body and mind was numb as I left his office.

The warm water lapped at my skin as I sat in the bathtub. A glass of white wine stood at the side of the tub, the half empty bottle on the floor. Robert had suggested that I could use this time to work on my novel, but I knew that was misguided. I needed to immediately focus all my attention on finding a job. Once that severance ran out, I wouldn’t be able to pay my rent, let along my bills or student loans. Oh sure, there’s forbearance but that’s just an ugly band aid. The interest would gather like bacteria in an infection, following me for the rest of my life.

The smell of Robert’s spaghetti and meatballs permeated the steam of the bathroom and I felt comforted slightly.

What was something bad that happened to you today?

I was fired.

What was something good that happened to you today?

I brought the stylus down, thinking I’d write something like, “my soon-to-be fiance was there for me,” but I hesitated. I thought of the phone call last night. The uneasy feeling that came with it.

Instead I wrote, “Bagel Monday.”

On a scale of 1-10, with 1 being the least, how appreciative are you of what you have?


The sound shook me and I jumped, cold water splashing around me.

“Babe, wake up!” I squinted to see Robert looking down at me.

“What happened?” I sat up and looked around. The wine glass had fallen from the tub, shattering on the tile floor.

“It’s okay, stay there.”

He left and I stood, grabbing my towel from the door and wrapping it around my shivering body. I must’ve been dreaming.

“What time is it?” I asked the empty room.

“Almost seven. You’ve been in there for almost two hours.”

Panic rose like an electric shot through my spine.  

“The tablet! Where’s the tablet!” I cried, jumping out of the bath. Glass cut into the bottom of my foot. “Ow, fuck!” I cried.

Robert appeared in the doorway holding a broom. “Laurie, stop! What are you doing?”

“The survey! The survey!” I pushed him out of the way, limping into the living room. “Where is it? Where’s my bag?”

Robert grabbed my arm. “Laurie you’re injured, stop!”

“$900!” I desperately pulled myself from his grasp, falling painfully to my knees. “$900!”

The alarm rang distantly from where my bag lay forgotten by the front door. I crawled towards it, shaking with sobs. I could hear Robert talking to me as I reached it, but his words were muffled and inconsequential. As I opened my bag my hands felt bloated and numb, as if I were wearing gloves. My fingers clasped around the hard familiar plastic and I pulled the tablet out.

4 seconds remained on the timer. Tears flooded my eyes as I poked desperately at the screen but it wouldn’t respond to my waterlogged touch.

“No, no, no.” The black digits counted down to 1 before dissolved into nothing.

A wave of despair crashed over me as I watched the numbers appear once again. 23:59:03. The seconds ticked down. Tiny insults adding to the bloody mess of my ego.

The next thing I remember was waking up late in the afternoon. My body was sore, my head foggy. A sharp pain radiated from my left foot and I wanted to cry, but there were no more tears.

There was a buzzing coming from my nightstand. I picked up my phone to see a new text message alert.

Hey babe

I stared at the words in confusion. Behind me I could hear the shower running. Robert hadn’t left. I saw the name at the top of the screen. “Erica.”

That’s odd. I opened the app to a chat I didn’t recognize. Messages I didn’t remember sending or receiving. I scrolled up to an image. It was a selfie of Erica, but she was wearing lingerie.

Realization hit like a cement brick. The phone in my hand wasn’t mine.

The shower stopped. My breaths grew short and ragged, catching in my throat in sharp gasps.

“Babe, are you okay?”

A shadow filled the door and approached me as my vision turned red.

I awoke on a hard, cold surface. I tried to move but my body screamed in pain. A bright light hurt my eyes as I slowly blinked them open. The room was grey and dingy. I sat up stiffly and looked in front of me at a wall of metal bars.

My head buzzed with questions, my eyes wide and seeing, no longer blinded or discomforted by the sudden light. Above me stood a police woman.

“Glad to see you finally awake, Ms. Cartland.”

“Wh-what happened? Where am I?” I tried to recall recent memories. The bath. My foot. Erica. Robert.

“We got a call about a domestic disturbance at your residence. You were found standing over your boyfriend’s body, a pair of bloody scissors…”

The cop continued but the sound was eclipsed by a sharp ringing noise in my head. My brain buzzed with shock as I sat back against a wall, bringing my knees to my chest. The room began to spin and it felt like I was falling into the buzzing. Into the void of complete and utter surrender.

An electronic alarm echoed off the cement walls, shrill enough, and familiar enough, to burrow into my numb thoughts.

“It’s 6 o’clock, Ms. Cartland.”

I looked up to see the cop holding out the Galvin Institute’s tablet through the bars of the cell. I stared at it, uncomprehending.

“It’s time to take the survey.”

“What?” I looked at the cop, tears I didn’t think could exist forming at the corners of my eyes.

The cop cleared her throat and dropped her arm, the tablet hanging uselessly beside her.

“What was something bad that happened to you today?”

I looked at her with confusion and pain.

“What was something good that happened to you today?” The cop’s voice was flat and stiff. Robotic.

A sob broke out of my mouth violently. I clutched my hands to my ears, desperately trying to block out her voice.

“On a scale of 1-10, with 1 being the least, how appreciative are you of what you have?”

I opened my mouth, a scream pouring from my throat like vomit, filling the small room.

Reality snapped around me, as if a door opened in a vacuum. The world sucked past my body as I ascended painfully to the heavens.

My eyes were assaulted once again with a bright light, but this light was softer. Cleaner. Nicer. I was in a white room, a simple desk in front of me. Behind it sat Dr. Howden.

“Thank you, Ms. Cartland, for your participation in the study.” The corners of his eyes wrinkled with a warm smile.

My breaths came to me in gasps. I looked around at the innocuous room. It was just like it had been days before.

“I… I don’t understand.”

Dr. Howden gave me a tight smile. “Only a few hours have passed since you completed your survey. You have been under electronic hypnosis. Since signing the contract none of your actions, or the actions of your loved ones, actually occurred. It was all…” he twirled his finger, “in your head. I gave you a slight sedative before you awoke to help the transition along. You should be feeling more…” He smiled, “relaxed soon.”

I nodded dumbly. The numbness weighing my body down was no longer raw and uncomfortable but calming.

“Now,” he said, sliding a tablet across the desk. “If you’d please sign these release forms, you can be on your way.”

My hand shook slightly as I reached out and drew a simple line across the center of the page.

“Very good. You may now be excused. Your designated contact is waiting in the lobby.”

I stood uncertainty and began to leave the room before he added, “oh and as I explained before, since you opted out prematurely you forfeit all reimbursement.”

My stomach tightened as I saw Robert. His face set in bored concentration as he scrolled through his phone. Feeling my stare, he looked up and smiled warmly. “Babe!” He stood and walked towards me, arms outstretched. “How did it go?”

I clenched my jaw as he brought me to his chest, his body pressed against mine. My skin grew hot with anger and my stomach turned with disgust, but the tranquilizer slowly quelled my hatred.

He hadn’t really cheated on me, had he?

Robert took me home and made me spaghetti, just like he had last night. Except last night never happened.

The next day was a normal Saturday. I had coffee with Meredith as she told me about a new guy she met. On Sunday I had dinner with Robert and his parents. Monday I nodded at Mr. Bradford’s requests and listened to Erica complain about her yearly review. Friday Robert took me out for my birthday and proposed.

My life is meaningless now. Trivial and petty. These people I once loved no longer feel real. Their lives are stupid and useless, filled with made up milestones to give the illusion that life is moving forward. That they are making progress.

I could no longer pretend to enjoy it, so I left. I don’t have a destination, but instead I’m letting my short life roll over me like the waves of an ocean. Massive and unknowable. It doesn’t matter where I am or where I end up. It’s all so permeable. All so temporary. Why bother clinging to something when it’s not really yours to begin with. And yet the questions still run through my mind.

What was something bad that happened to you today?

Nothing. Nothing bad happens anymore. Nothing happens anymore. Life passes. I exist. I question reality and then find I’m too tired to care.

What was something good that happened to you today?

Nothing. Objectively, nothing good has ever happened to me. It’s all a farce. Life is just a series of signals that our mind misinterprets as something organized and purposeful. And yet we run forward with abandonment, counting the seconds until there are no seconds left to count.

Tonight I’ve found myself somewhere in Pennsylvania. The red numbers of the clock illuminated 6:00.

The sky is a beautiful amber above the mountain tops.

On a scale of 1-10, with 1 being the least, how appreciative are you of what you have?

No longer applicable.


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