Story art by Kat Otis.
From the author: I am Selfish. Every generation of my family has one person like me, who understands that there is power in a good deed done with no expectation of reward.
I am Selfish. Every generation of my family has one person like me, who understands that there is power in a good deed done with no expectation of reward. Of course, since I know about the power, my good deeds aren't selfless and the whole Altruism thing doesn't work for me. Knowledge is supposed to be a power in its own right, but in this case it pretty much just sucks. It sucks so much that my Aunt Josie – also Selfish – didn't even wait for my eighth birthday before explaining Altruism to me. She gave me her diary, then drove home and closed the garage door but never turned off her car.
Most of the time I don't miss her – I hardly knew her – but I really could have used someone else to talk to the day the school bus didn't come.
I was leaning against the brick wall of my high school and reading The Great Gatsby, secure in the knowledge that our bus wouldn't show up until my little sister Emily finished helping her friends with their geometry homework. Our bus always showed up five or ten minutes after the other buses left – however long Emily needed on that particular day – and then we would hit every single green light all the way across town until we arrived home exactly on time.
When Emily started packing up her geometry book, I stuffed my own book into my backpack and pushed myself away from the wall. Then I stopped.
Our bus wasn't anywhere in sight.
I went to the curb and craned my neck around, searching the parking lot beyond the bus lanes. It shouldn't have been that hard to spot a big yellow school bus.
So I looked for whatever else was going to happen instead. I was betting on a teacher dropping a stack of papers right as a gust of wind hit. That or a dog racing across the street with his leash still trailing behind him. Emily would be all over a lost puppy.
Worried now, I turned around to see Emily sitting cross-legged on the sidewalk and chatting with her friends about one of the boys in the choir. Emily and I were only two years apart – fourteen and sixteen – and people sometimes mistook us for twins even though I was an inch and a half taller. We had the same dark brown hair, green eyes, and freckles all over our faces. But the biggest difference between us was something no one could see – Emily's Altruistic, and I'm not.
Emily caught me looking at her. "Something wrong, Meg?"
"The bus is late," I said, wondering if she knew why.
She rolled her eyes. "It's always late."
"Never later than you need it to be," I said, and she gave me a puzzled, slightly concerned look. I call it Altruistic Confusion: the look someone in my family gets whenever I mention their special powers in front of them. "Think we should call Mom or Dad?"
Emily's frown deepened. "It's only been, like, ten minutes."
I shifted my weight and glanced back over my shoulder, hoping to see the bus. Emily was right, though she had no clue what her words meant to me. I didn't have tangible proof that anything was wrong. Mom was Altruistic, too – she'd never understand why I was calling, any more than Emily could. Dad was normal, but it took a certain aptitude for denial to marry an Altruist – he'd probably think I was begging for a car of my own or something similarly "teenagerish". If I had a dollar for every time he gave me the Life Isn't Fair speech, I could buy a half-dozen cars.
After a few more minutes spent looking for a nonexistent bus, I finally pulled my book back out and pretended I was reading. But really I kept a lookout for a rain of toads or maybe a freak tornado, because I knew I had to be missing something important.
After another twenty minutes, the students from our bus began to give up on it ever coming. I was all for calling Mom to come pick us up, but Emily convinced me not to inconvenience her. I agreed, mostly because after a selfless suggestion like that I half expected the bus to show up.
Our house was three miles from the high school, but it was a gorgeous fall day and halfway home we stopped at 7-11 for Slurpees. That was the other reason I'd agreed to walk – Emily knew all about my Slurpee addiction and mercilessly enabled it when she needed to convince me of anything.
On our way out of the 7-11, Emily dropped our change into the charity jar on the counter. As the door jangled shut behind us, I looked around to see if one of our neighbors had pulled into the lot, or at least one of my friends in their parents' car.
I was starting to get a little freaked out. Stuff like this just didn't happen to an Altruist. I could live with all the weirdness that was my family, but only because there were rules – Altruism made sense to me. This was like the laws of gravity failing. Maybe Armageddon was looming. Or maybe – just maybe – I was going crazy.
As we headed off down the sidewalk, a burst of inspiration hit me at the same time as a bout of brain freeze. Ow. But really, the answer stared me in the face every time I looked in a mirror. If Emily had become Selfish, like me, then of course the whole Random Acts of Kindness Brings Random Rewards thing would stop working for her.
"Hey, Emily, you ever notice anything... weird happening around Mom? Or one of our cousins?"
"I dunno," Emily said, slurping through her straw. "Like what?"
"Like every time they do someone a favor, something good happens for them," I said, scooping a bit of Slurpee out of the cup with my spoon-straw.
I sighed, torn between relief and disappointment. Aunt Josie had claimed there was only one Selfish person in each generation, but killing herself had kinda diminished my opinion of her trustworthiness. Still, she probably hadn't lied about this. And I guess it was nice to know Emily hadn't become my replacement because I was about to die.
But it would have been even nicer to have someone else who saw the same things I saw and would believe me if I told them something was wrong. Because if Emily was still neck-deep in Altruistic denial, something was definitely wrong.
We beat our parents home from work, despite the fact that we were two hours later than usual. With Emily's Altruism on the fritz, I didn't want to let her out of my sight so I threw her favorite movie into the DVD player. It didn't take more than five minutes to get her glued to the TV. The whole time we were watching, I puzzled over my sister's problem. This wasn't a temporary glitch – it had happened at least three times since school got out. Had her Altruism been working at breakfast? I couldn't remember.
When Mom got home, Emily stopped the movie and popped up to go help with dinner. Normally I avoided the kitchen like the plague, especially when more than one Altruist was in there cooking, but this was important enough that I grabbed my book and pulled up a chair at our kitchen table to watch the show.
Altruism isn't all about big showy displays of generosity and similarly dramatic results like the bus; a lot of the time it's as simple as passing the salt unasked for and then stirring the pot at exactly the right moment to keep it from bubbling over. Mom in the kitchen was like a professional ballerina, each movement precise and choreographed for maximum effect. Mom and Emily together were like a duet, each hitting their cues and dancing around one another with none of the clumsiness of real people in normal life. Or at least, they usually were.
Neither Mom nor Emily acted like they noticed anything wrong, but I could tell. It was like the prima donna dancing with the understudy – beats that weren't quite right, little hesitations and accommodations that marred the dance's normal perfection. Mom had to work around Emily, who was never quite where she needed to be, or was there a split second too late and with the wrong utensils. At one point, Emily actually clipped a plate with her elbow and nearly sent it crashing to the kitchen floor before Mom could catch it.
It got too painful for me to watch any longer, after that. Especially when their cheerful conversation about Emily's upcoming Biology test revealed that neither of them could sense the utter wrongness that had invaded Emily's usually graceful dance. I made some lame excuse and fled from the kitchen.
The problem was, I didn't understand Altruism as well as I should have. I understood my Selfishness a little better, but not much. Everything I knew I'd figured out by trial and error, clinging to a single, long-ago conversation with Aunt Josie as proof that the things no one else noticed were actually real. My ignorance was my own fault. I knew where to find the answers to my questions.
I just really, really hadn't wanted to read Aunt Josie's diary.
It took me about ten minutes to dig it out of a pile of junk in my closet. I sat down on my bed and laid the book on my lap, staring at it. Anyone could be forgiven for mistaking the heart-covered pink book for an ordinary diary that any little girl would own. There was an alphabet lock on its golden clasp, so that only someone who knew the password could open it. I think that was the only reason my parents let me keep it, once they realized that Aunt Josie had given it to me the day she died – they thought I'd never be able to actually open it.
I sat there staring at the locked diary until Dad knocked at my bedroom door and told me it was time for supper.
All throughout the meal, I kept hoping that Emily would just suddenly get better. A quick pass-the-salt-please and everything would be back to normal. Instead, things were even worse than they had been in the kitchen. About the time Emily dropped her fork on the floor and Mom had to get her a clean one, Dad asked, "Are you feeling all right, hon?"
"Fine, Dad, why?" Emily stared at him in full-fledged Altruistic Confusion. Mom's expression was only a little less Confused.
"Oh, nothing," Dad said, retreating instantly. "I'm going to go watch the game." He took his dirty dishes to the sink, then escaped to the family room.
"I'm going to go read," I said, getting up to follow him.
"On a Friday night?" Mom asked, raising her eyebrows.
"Have to finish The Great Gatsby by Monday," I lied. I'd gotten really good at lying over the past eight years, though it was usually just a lie-by-omission. I actually felt a twinge of guilt before I remembered that telling her the truth would be useless and only upset her.
"Well, then I'll take care of your dishes for you," Mom said, picking up her glass just as Emily's elbow swept past where it had been on the table. "Go on."
I raced up the stairs to my bedroom and threw aside my pillow to get at where I'd hidden Aunt Josie's diary. It took me about two minutes to guess the combination, but only because I tried a couple variations on Altruistic before I tried Selfish.
The click of the lock opening made me freeze, diary still held shut in my hands. It wasn't too late. I could lock the diary up again and fling it into the back of my closet – or the trash can – and try to find some other way to help my sister.
"Don't be a wuss," I lectured myself, settling down onto the bed and opened the diary to its first page. "It's just a book." Just the random ramblings of my suicidal aunt. Of course, there was a distinct possibility that reading her diary might drive me nuts, too. Or worse, it might make me realize that everything she had told me about Altruists and being Selfish was just one last delusional cry for help before she killed herself.
I smoothed out the page with my hand, closed my eyes, and reminded myself that something was wrong with Emily. And the book had to hold the key to helping her.
Which meant I had to read it.
It started off as a normal enough diary. Well, besides the Dear Megan as opposed to the Dear Diary salutation – she'd apparently started it after she figured out what I was. But then Aunt Josie began writing about her life, describing the actions of Grandpa, Mom, and all my other aunts and uncles in incredible detail.
After about two pages I figured out why. Every single incident she recorded was a clear case of Altruism at work. She was trying to prove to me that her family was Altruistic, that she hadn't made it up. Only after about fifteen pages did she ever use the word. I hit page nineteen before she even hinted that she was Selfish.
Strangely, that made me feel better. If she was working so hard to convince me she wasn't crazy, then it must have crossed her mind that she might be. And I was pretty sure that crazy people – the really whacked out ones – never even considered that possibility.
So I was reading along pretty happily until I hit the bottom of page thirty-two. The ink was blurred with water spots, but I puzzled out the words anyway. Dad gave the homeless guy a twenty, but nothing happened. His Altruism was all used up. That was when I knew he was going to die, though I couldn't tell anyone.
I turned the page, holding my breath half in anticipation, half in fear.
It went on with a story about something Mom had done the day after his funeral. I flipped through the next few pages, certain I had to be missing something. This was what I'd been looking for – Grandpa's Altruism had stopped working, just like Emily's – but other than those three cryptic sentences, there was absolutely nothing about Grandpa’s death.
"Aunt Josephine!" I threw her diary across the room and it crashed into the wall.
I scrambled off my bed and got to the diary right as Mom knocked on my door. "Megan, honey, is everything all right in there?"
"Fine, Mom!" I snatched up the diary and flung it into my closet where it landed with a slightly softer thump. I ran to my bedroom door and opened it before Mom could decide to peek in. "I got pissed off at Gatsby."
Mom grinned at me. "It's a horrible book, isn't it?"
"I've read better."
"Why don't you come downstairs and we can watch a movie or something? It is Friday night, after all."
I hesitated, torn. I really didn't want to read any more of the diary. But if Aunt Josie was right, if Emily's Altruism going on the fritz meant she was going to die, I had to figure out a way to save her. "I think I really just want to finish this, so I can enjoy the rest of my weekend."
Mom nodded. "Well, if you change your mind, you know where to find me."
"Yup," I said, and we exchanged smiles before I closed my bedroom door.
Just to be on the safe side, I put my copy of The Great Gatsby on my nightstand, so I'd have my excuse close to hand if Mom came to check on me again.
Then I dug Aunt Josie's diary back out of my closet.
I fell asleep reading Aunt Josie's diary, but didn't realize it until the sun hit me in the face the next morning. I glanced over at my clock, groaned and buried my face in my pillow – 7 A.M. on a Saturday morning! But I got up, went downstairs and grabbed a can of Coke to caffeinate myself so I could get back to work.
About the time everyone else in the house was stirring, I finally got to the end of the diary. Aunt Josie had drawn a family tree on the last page, as if she was afraid I wouldn't know who was part of the family and who wasn't. That was nice and all, but it would have been a lot nicer if she'd answered some of my questions. Any of my questions.
There was absolutely nothing in the diary, aside from that one cryptic remark about Grandpa, that I hadn't figured out on my own.
I sat staring at the diary for a long time, my eyes burning with unshed tears. The diary had always been like a safety blanket sitting in the back of my closet, a promise that there were answers I could look up if I couldn't figure things out on my own. Aunt Josie might have killed herself, but until the moment I finished reading her diary I'd believed she hadn't left me totally alone and clueless. But she had.
Selfish. Completely and utterly selfish as well as Selfish. What would it have hurt her to give me actual help? She wasn't here anymore, so it didn't matter if anyone thought she was crazy. And if she really didn't want people to think she was crazy, she shouldn't have gone and killed herself!
I started to throw the diary into my trash can and pretend it never existed, but at the last minute something occurred to me. Opening it back up to the family tree, I began to run my fingers over the names. I was the Selfish one in my generation. Aunt Josie was the Selfish one from my Mom's generation. And someone had to have been Selfish before her and taught her everything she knew, or at least explained to her what she was. Odds were they were long dead – I only had one living grandparent and that was on Dad's side of the family – but at least if I knew who the Selfish one had been, it would give me somewhere else to look.
Grandpa had been Altruistic, of course. His two older sisters had been Altruistic as well – I had a baker's dozen of second cousins from those branches of the family true, though they weren't as Altruistic as Emily. The power faded down some branches of the family, though I couldn't explain why. I'd tried to trace out the genetics of my family, during ninth-grade Biology, and the only conclusion I'd come to was that Altruism wasn't explainable by modern science. Big surprise.
Grandpa's brother Lon was a dead-end on the family tree. According to the birth and death dates, he'd lived to his seventies, but never had any children. That was promising; it meant I didn't really know much about him, other than the fact that he'd existed.
I closed up Aunt Josie's diary and hid it under my pillow again. Then I went downstairs to find Mom in the kitchen, cooking breakfast.
"Morning, honey," Mom said, as she chopped up red peppers to go into the scrambled eggs. "How'd The Great Gatsby go?"
"It's an evil book and I should have come down to watch a movie with you." I grabbed another Coke and perched myself on the edge of the kitchen table.
"Sorry to hear that."
"Eh, I'll live." I waited a moment, to make sure we were finished with that line of conversation, then said, "Mom, can I ask you a completely random question?"
"Sure." Mom picked up the cutting board and used the knife to slide the bits of pepper into the pan.
"What happened to all your aunts and uncles? I mean, I know two of them stayed here in town, but what about all the rest?"
"That is random," Mom said, smiling over her shoulder at me as she began scrambling the eggs. "Well, let's see. I have an Aunt Vivian who moved out to Seattle, Washington. And Uncle Martin settled down overseas with a girl he met in France, during the war."
"World War One?" I teased.
"Or Two," Mom shot back without missing a beat.
"Is that it?"
"Um," Mom said, which was so uncharacteristic that I leaned forward, my heart pounding a little harder than normal. "Uncle Lon stayed nearby, but he never had kids and he died a few years after you were born."
"Nearby?" I asked. "So like, in the next town over, or something?"
"Um," Mom said, again. She turned to face me, a slightly concerned look on her face. "Belmont. McLean Hospital."
"Oh." McLean Hospital was an insane asylum. Psychiatric hospital. Whatever you want to call it. "He was crazy?" No wonder Aunt Josie had been so worried about sounding insane.
"He was all right most of the time," Mom said, biting her lip as she studied my face. "His delusions really only got bad when he was around family, which was why your great-grandparents decided to send him away."
Well that answered that question. Great-Uncle Lon had been Selfish, which was a complete dead end. I couldn't exactly go asking for my great-uncle's medical records, and if he'd spent his whole life in the hospital he probably hadn't left behind any personal effects.
"Fun," I said, hoping I sounded appropriately detached and not like Mom had crushed my one last hope.
"That sort of thing does happen," Mom said, looking relieved that I hadn't kept pressing her. "Will you go let everyone know breakfast is ready?"
"Sure Mom." Even though I went to find the rest of my family, I'd never felt so alone in my life.
After breakfast, Emily and I finished the movie we'd started Friday. Emily still wasn't back to normal and I was too worried about her to pay much attention to the TV. I ran through everything I'd read in the diary, over and over again, but it didn't help. If I believed Aunt Josie, Emily was going to die. I refused to just sit back and let that happen. I had to be missing something – I just needed to figure out what.
And nothing helped me think better than a Slurpee.
"Mom," I said, popping up from the couch as soon as the movie's credits started rolling. "I'm going to bike down to the 7-11."
"If you want, you can take the car," Mom said, looking up from her knitting – she was making one of those comfort blankets that our church gave to people in the hospital.
"Car needs an oil change!" Dad shouted, from upstairs. It must have really needed an oil change, if that was Mom's reward for her Altruistic offering of the car to me.
"There's a Jiffy Lube next to the 7-11 on Prospect," I said and Mom nodded.
"Can I come?" Emily asked.
I hesitated. I would rather Emily didn't leave the house – I could totally see someone crashing their car into us on the drive over. But if Emily came with me, then at least I'd be able to keep an eye on her. If I left her at home, one of her friends might call and she could run off on her own. After all, Mom and Dad wouldn't see any reason not to let her go and I could hardly explain it to them. "Sure."
Emily ran off to find her flip-flops and Mom got up to fetch the car keys for me. "Put the oil change on the credit card, okay?"
"Sure." I'd gotten the card when I first started driving, but I was only supposed to put gas on it. Everything else – including Slurpees – I had to pay for out of my weekly allowance.
Emily came clattering back down the stairs, then we headed out.
We dropped off the car at Jiffy Lube and were about to go down the street to the 7-11 when I noticed the bank next door to us. "Wait up a sec, I want to get some cash out of the ATM." I had five dollars left in my wallet, which was enough for two Slurpees and not much else.
The ATM was out of order, of course. That was just my luck, even if it wasn't usually Emily's. While I stood there glaring at the machine, Emily wandered around the side of the building, towards the front doors of the bank. A moment later she poked her head around the corner and called, "The lobby's open for another five minutes. And there's no line. Come on."
That was more like it. I let myself get hopeful as I followed Emily into the bank and up to the teller. The place was pretty deserted – just a teller and one other bored-looking guy sitting behind a desk over by the safety-deposit boxes.
Emily chatted with the teller as I filled out the withdrawal slip and got twenty bucks out of my checking account – enough to keep me in Slurpees until Monday, when Mom and Dad gave me my allowance.
Behind us, bells chimed, announcing the entrance of another customer slipping in just before closing. I put my money and receipt into my wallet, then turned to see a man standing right behind me, shifting his weight from foot to foot. That was weird enough to set off my internal alarms even before I noticed his eyes were very wide, pupils dilated all the way even though the bank was well-lit.
I don't hang out with a bad crowd at school or anything, but I'm also not an idiot – I can tell when someone's high on something.
My heart started pounding double-time and I grabbed for my little sister's arm. "Come on, Emily-"
He pulled out a gun and started shouting. I was too busy staring down the barrel of his gun to process his words, but Emily jerked me down to my knees and I realized he must have been ordering us to get down on the floor.
I went down onto my stomach and fought back the urge to scream when he stepped over me, pausing for a second to snatch my purse. He shouted at the teller again, ordering her not to push some alarm and demanding all her money.
That would have been a really good time for Emily's Altruism to start working again. A passing cop would be perfect. Or maybe the guy could have a sudden heart attack and keel over. I'd have even settled for a freak electrical fire.
I stared into my little sister's frightened eyes and was absolutely terrified that Aunt Josie had been right – Emily was going to die.
The pitch of the robber's voice changed, going even higher and I lifted my head a few inches to see what was happening. The robber was pointing his gun in the direction of the desks. The man by the safety deposit boxes must have done something. Had he pushed a silent alarm? Was help coming?
"I told you not to move!" The robber shouted.
Time seemed to slow, as the robber spun around to face the teller again. He pointed his gun at her, hesitated, then lowered the gun. I was practically beneath his feet, so Emily came into his line of fire first. He put his other hand to the gun, steadying it as he aimed.
This was the moment. He could have shot the teller, but he needed her to empty out the cash registers. So instead he was going to shoot Emily to make his point. The worst thing about it was I knew Emily wouldn't have it any other way. She was far too Altruistic to let a stranger die in her stead.
I'm not Altruistic, I'm Selfish. And that was my baby sister!
I grabbed for his legs. There was a loud crack and I couldn't help screaming. I was pretty sure everyone else was screaming, too.
The robber staggered and fell to the floor beside me. I scrambled to my hands and knees, determined to grab his gun before he could shoot again. Then I froze, staring in shock.
His gun had exploded. Pieces of it rained down around us as he clawed at his hands and face, howling in agony.
"Emily? Emily are you okay?" I turned and found my sister, sheet white and trembling, on her knees beside me. "Emily?" I grabbed her and pulled her close, searching for any sign that she'd been hurt.
"I – I'm fine – ohmigod, Meg, what were you thinking?"
The teller reached us before I could answer. She grabbed my arm. "Come on, move!"
Emily and I staggered to our feet, and the teller hurried us towards the door, away from the writhing would-be robber.
On our way out, Emily held open the door for the teller and the other bank employee.
A police officer rounded the corner of the building. "Wait – don't close yet, please! Your ATM is out of order-"
Emily's Altruism was back.
I was so relieved I collapsed down onto the sidewalk and laughed until I cried. Emily sat down beside me and wrapped her arms around me, just holding me tight. We stayed like that until the other cops arrived.
The way I figure, Aunt Josie had it wrong. Altruism isn't something that can just turn off, like flipping a switch. But the good karma that results from all Altruists' gifts can get dammed up, sort of like filling a reservoir, so that when they really, really need a little bit of good luck, it's ready and waiting. And because they're so Altruistic, when that dangerous moment comes, they're more likely to use it to save someone else than to save themselves.
Either that or grabbing that would-be bank robber was the one selfless thing I've done in my entire life, and his gun exploding was my reward.
The second possibility bothered me more than I thought it would, and I ended up testing it a few days later. Mom and Dad had decided to take turns ferrying me and Emily back and forth to school, like something bad might happen to us if we weren't under lock and key. I couldn't really blame them, and it was nice not to have to ride the bus. Especially since my parents were always happy to stop at the 7-11 on the way home.
As my sister and I walked out of the 7-11, Slurpees in hand, I caught sight of a bum loitering just out of sight of the cashiers. He looked so sad and beaten down that, on impulse, I fished five dollars out of my wallet and gave it to him. Only afterwards did I realize what I'd done was completely selfless.
The bum immediately headed into the 7-11 and I turned to watch him through the store-front window, wondering and worrying.
He went up to the front counter and bought a lottery ticket. I stood there, my stomach twisting itself into knots, as he scratched off the ticket, crumpled it up and threw the it into the trash can.
I couldn't help but grin as I shook my head. I'd leave the Altruism to Emily and Mom and everyone else. It was their job to save the world, one good deed at a time.
Me, I'm Selfish. They're my family, and I look out for what's mine.
This story originally appeared in Scape.