When the dam failed, Glad River surged to several times its usual width and power, transforming the entire valley into a roiling bowl of mud soup. Thirty-odd hours after the flash flood began, news choppers swooping in from the city recorded overhead images of ballooned livestock and rusty cars like fishing bobbers drifting between the mostly bare trees of spring. As news spread nationally over days and weeks, TV reporters and late-night hosts would prove unable to resist every kind of flat-falling “glad” pun.
Len Taylor’s hometown, the low-lying hamlet of Gladville, took the brunt of the storm and the publicity. More than half the homes had taken on water. In the mobile home park the morning after, mothers and kids of any and all ages bailed out their trailers with buckets, frying pans, and empty milk jugs.
During the worst of the storm, Len had squinted through the plate glass door of his recently completed home’s third story balcony, which on clear days offered an unobstructed view of the Glad and a handful of houses in between. During each flare of lightning, he’d strained to make out the boxy outlines of a pair of buildings he owned on the opposite side of the river. Len thought the main lab might be alright. But the production and storage facility where more than a million Gladipren pills sat in their eco-friendly packaging awaiting shipment, appeared to Len’s eyes like a glowering half-submerged bull elephant in the dark.
“Honey?” Len’s wife, Christine, called over the thrashing din. She sat cross-legged on the carpeted floor of the upper den, deep into a game of Candyland meant to distract and calm eight-year-old Olivia and five-year-old Grant. The kids gathered closely on either side of their mother, burritoed in the quilts from their beds, wide-eyed and jumpy.
“Are we still…how are we doing?”
Len peered toward the lawn beneath the glow of the exterior lights, which the back-up generator was so far doing its job of keeping lit. A grassy swamp had certainly formed but it likely wasn’t enough to overwhelm the home’s raised concrete foundation. Len sent up a mental thank you to Bill, his architect. If only he’d had Bill design the storage facility, too, instead of salvaging and repurposing the decrepit former bolt factory as part of his grand plan to revitalize Gladville. Then maybe his life’s work wouldn’t be at risk of literally dissolving.
An uncomfortable black haze began to creep at the edges of Len’s mind. He yanked his perma-optimism back into place. “We’re doing great, sweetie,” he said. “I think we’ll weather the storm just fine.”
ᐧ ᐧ ᐧ
Len hoped the cameras aboard the news chopper that whomp whomp-ed above him were trained elsewhere as he surveyed the damage.
Buoyant objects had sailed the violent waters like floating battering rams into the old bolt factory’s lower windows and walls. Skeletons of uprooted trees, wooden lawn furniture and siding, at least one of the Crosby farm’s bulging dairy cows. Much of the detritus had caught hard at the windows, causing parts of the hundred-year-old brick to buckle. Some had shot clear through.
Sweeping his flashlight beam across a graveyard of saturated materials, Len discovered that only shards of wood pallets remained where the pills had been neatly stacked and bound together in bales using translucent wrap. There was now no trace of the plastic, and the hundreds of thousands of cardboard Gladipren sample boxes had broken down into a film of grayish pulp that was already congealing into fetid archipelagos.
Len presumed that the potent white pills, which he’d sunk his life and much of his own money into, had simply liquified. Undoubtedly he was standing in buckets of it now, protected only by his rubber galoshes.
“Oh boy,” he breathed, turning his gaze to the slowly receding waterworld sprouting soggy homes. Residents of Gladville were beginning to wade outside to inspect the destruction and find out how neighbors had fared.
The whomp whomp-ing above mixed with the sound of Len’s own blood surging through his temples.
ᐧ ᐧ ᐧ
The email had read:
Dear Mr. Taylor,
On behalf of Irving Pharmaceuticals, I’m “glad” to inform you that we would like to move forward with a partnership to bring your company’s revolutionary antidepressant medication product, Gladipren, to market. As per the attached contract, our strategy will be to proceed initially with a soft launch toward industry professionals, to aid in familiarization. Marketing informational packets will highlight the outstanding trial results and FDA certification. Attached are our suggested sample packaging designs (we’ve chosen biodegradable, great for PR), which upon your signoff, will be printed and delivered to your facility. Attached as well, is our offer of growth funding to be paid prior to a full market launch. If everything is to your satisfaction, please sign and return all attached documents to our Legal Team, cc-ed here.
We look forward to hearing from you, and wish you and your family a “happy” holiday season.
VP, New Business
It was the single most miraculous piece of mail, physical or electronic, Len had ever received. Better than his acceptance letter to Harvard. Better than the notifications about major awards he’d won in his field. Better than any job offer, including his previous position as VP of Product Dev at a massive Boston biotech company.
Len had been working doggedly toward this day for well over a decade, all outside of his regular gigs. He’d begun by leasing a small lab space downtown and hiring a few of his ex-coworkers. When Irving showed interest in funding trials, he ditched the VP job and plowed everything he had into building up his tiny nothing of a company, Glad Pharmaceuticals.
The Gladipren seed itself had been planted during the most excruciating time of Len’s life. The day of his mother’s funeral. It had taken place three weeks before his graduation from Harvard and nearly a year to the day after the first time she’d fumbled with the box cutter. That incident had occurred two years after his father had succeeded on the first try with his pistol, following long, drawn-out years of the choking gasps and eventual demise of the Pierson Bolt Company. Both services had been held at the Gladville Funeral Home. For years afterwards, Len would fantasize about buying and tearing the place down, taking a match to the wreckage.
With the email from Irving, Len had officially set something right. Done something good. He had returned to this place where pain boiled quietly below roofs and skins — and he’d brought a tangible solution with him.
was a hundred times more powerful and effective than any existing
antidepressant. It worked almost instantly. It was also non-addictive, and
there were absolutely no side effects. The drug could, and as long as the
rollout was successful, would end suffering. Everywhere. Full stop.
ᐧ ᐧ ᐧ
Less than a week had passed since the Big One, as locals called the flood (or the Mad Glad Bad, as the internet referred to it), and the water in their part of the valley had largely retreated into the ground, when Len began noticing the change.
It didn’t take a scientist to see it.
Selena Wilson, who had been a fringe member of Len’s ‘smart kids’ group of friends in high school, hiked up the still-waterlogged hill to his house from her own, a few streets away. Len was working both the computer and phone trying to handle an onslaught of questions from Irving’s executive, marketing and PR, dev, and legal teams.
Did any of the samples survive? How about the machinery? Well, can you rebuild it? What about the active ingredients, how long to source and replenish the supply? Sorry, also, Darla McCormick is asking if you and your family are ok, I’ll tell her you’re all fine...
“Lenny,” Christine whispered from his office door. She pointed downstairs. “Selena is here, she seems… concerned.”
“Be right there,” Len mouthed. It was a good twenty minutes before he was able to escape a tense call with one of the lawyers.
He found Christine in the front sitting room with Selena, two ice-filled glasses resting atop coasters, a chilled bottled water nearby, on the coffee table before them. Christine fixed him with a rigid stare and inaudibly exhaled.
“Selena, it’s nice to see you,” Len moved in for a hug but Selena didn’t stand. Len tried to turn it into a smooth slide onto a chair near the sofa, but landed abruptly. “How are Ronny and the kids?”
“They’re fine,” Selena said with steel in her voice. “In fact they’re wonderful. In fact they’re happier than I’ve ever seen them.”
“Well, that’s great to—”
Selena cut him off. “Lenny. I’m going to ask you a question, and I want a straight answer, ok?”
“Ok. Yes, of course, Selena.”
She took a deep breath. “Look. People have been starting to act a little…weird. Since the Big One. Ronny, as you know, has always been a bit dark. Black moods and such, a lot of the time. But he’s been singing, Len. Singing. Like a goddamned American Idol or something.”
Len crossed his arms and concentrated on keeping his heart rate steady. “Well…he sounds like a man who has survived a terrible ordeal and is embracing life.”
Christine chimed in, “Yes, like gratitude at being ali—”
“No.” Selena held up a hand. “Not like that. Like he’s, I dunno, high or drunk.”
“Maybe he is?” Christine said, almost hopefully.
“Ronny barely touches Tylenol,” Selena snapped. “And Steven and Ron Jr. are acting totally unlike their normal depressed teenage selves. Like, they’ve turned into comedians overnight. My house is a 24/7 variety show, and it is very effing bizarre.”
There was a long pause as Selena glared at both of them pointedly. Finally Len said softly, “Sorry, I think I missed the question?”
“The question is, Len, is there something in our water from your little pill factory across the bridge? I don’t drink water, I drink soda pop. But my family drinks water, obviously so do a lot of the neighbors, and more than a few of them have started acting like a bunch of grinning hippies.”
Len had witnessed it, too. People walking around smiling at everything like drunkards. Before, a lot of them probably were drunk. But the flood had hit the local liquor store, and as far as Len knew, the owner was still keeping the store closed in order to deal with all the broken glass and mud.
“Huh. No, no, I haven’t seen anything like that. Have you seen anything like what Selena’s describing, honey?”
“Sweetie, what I’ve seen is just a whole lot of gratitude here in Gladville. Hardly any deaths from the whole thing. A true miracle. God bless us.”
Selena looked from Christine to Len. Her slack jaw closed into a firm line and she nodded almost imperceptibly, as if to herself. She stood and put on her jacket.
“Ok then. Thank you both. Tell little Grant and Olivia hello from their neighbor — where are the kiddos anyhow?”
“Visiting their grandparents,” Len replied, not bothering to stand.
“Your folks, I assume,” Selena flashed an innocent gummy smile at Christine. “How nice that they can get out of town for a bit.” Then she reached down and picked up the half-full bottle of water. “Mind if I take this with me? The store’s all out of bottled water.”
“Absolutely, Selena,” Christine said, standing and leading her toward the door, “And be sure to boil your water at home before anyone drinks it, for a while. Everyone should be doing that.”
have been boiling the water, Christine.” Selena turned back vehemently before
stepping outside, “So has everyone else. We’re not that stupid.”
ᐧ ᐧ ᐧ
It was Selena. One hundred percent, Len had no doubt.
The first reporters knocked at his door not 48 hours after she’d exited through it. The tough questions he’d been fielding from Irving Pharma were all but replaced by new, infinitely sharper ones.
Sir, we’re reporting on a possible contamination of the local water system by your privately-held pharmaceutical company, what can you tell us? Tests are showing a pervasive substance within local wells. Some residents are also reportedly testing positive for it and exhibiting unusual behavior, presumably as a result. Sir, is the substance lethal? Will it harm residents? Is your company responsible for poisoning Gladville, sir? Mr. Taylor, if you could just answer our questions — sir, please don’t shut the door. The people have a right to know!
For several days, Len and Christine remained in their home, shaken, holed up mainly in the third-story den. From that vantage point, through the glass balcony door, they watched a mob swell with local, then state, then national reporters with TV cameras. Gladvillians collected too, yelling and holding signs scrawled with phrases like, “This is not normal!” with an arrow pointing to a delirious yellow smiley face.
Christine was entranced by the TV news coverage, which looped cuts between their dark-windowed house on the hill, dopey beaming residents, and footage taken from the helicopters the day after the flood. There was Len with his bright raincoat and galoshes, shining a flashlight into the old bolt factory’s dank and crumbling interior, standing in faintly milky colored water, detectable only from above.
Len, frankly, was surprised it took even that long to receive the email from Darla.
Dear Mr. Taylor,
On behalf of Irving Pharmaceuticals, I regret to inform you that due to the recent events and your company’s failure to deliver your product, per our agreement, we have decided to terminate all contracts and initiatives with Gladville Pharmaceuticals. This will be effective immediately, as recommended by our legal team.
Deepest apologies, and wishing you and your family all the best.
VP, New Business
ᐧ ᐧ ᐧ
As the flood water had subsided, so eventually, did the crowds outside. The internet was slower to let go of the “glad” puns. The state conveniently stepped in just as the bad publicity began, supplying bottles to the entire town until the water system could be declared safe, which took quite a while.
Christine was able to handle only so much of the shouting and constantly circling choppers. Without saying a word, she took the Jag and set out for her parent’s place before sunrise on the fourth day of the news-pocalypse, as she called it, to be with Olivia and Grant.
Lawsuits stalked Len for years after the Big One. Glad Pharmaceuticals dissolved as quickly as its one and only product had. But it was the thickening black haze in his mind that ultimately unmoored him from his family.
“We could have been so happy,” Len was heard muttering often on the streets of Gladville. That was long after the divorce, after his adult children stopped coming around. No one knew who the “we” was supposed to be, and it didn’t really matter, that dude was certifiable. Up there alone in that big house on the hill overlooking the ruins of the bolt factory. Perhaps he had even been able to see the Gladville Funeral Home when it burned to the ground one clear spring night.
The blaze made national news, drawing TV cameras to record the scene. The building burned so vividly, many thought it rather beautiful, from afar. You almost couldn’t help but smile.
Kirsten Smith is a writer, photographer, and travel-addict who lives and works in San Francisco. Her work has appeared in Esoterica Magazine, and more. Check her out on Instagram @the_wallflower_wanderer, and Twitter @Kirsten_Wanders.
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