A surprising, humorous work of fiction that serves as a warning to always read the fine print…
by: Torrey Kurtzner
Deep within California’s vast Central Valley, a quaint farmhouse stood nestled among the agriculture. To the untrained eye, this farmhouse was unremarkable. But for Special Agents Palmer and Johnson, it potentially spelled trouble.
The sharply dressed agents had just parked their black sedan in the driveway of the farmhouse. Behind the wheel sat Agent Palmer, a hardened and seasoned vet. Beside her sat Agent Johnson, a soft-spoken and inexperienced rookie.
Agent Palmer held a voice recorder to the right side of her mouth.
“It’s ten hundred hours, Pacific Daylight Time,” she reported. “Agent Johnson and I have arrived at the homestead of Carmelo Romano. There appear to be two bedrooms and a loft present on the second floor of the dwelling. I will report back with our findings.” Agent Palmer stashed the voice recorder in her suit jacket. She turned to face her partner.
“How are you feeling, Johnson?” she asked.
“A little on edge,” the rookie agent admitted.
“Don’t sweat it, kid — I’ll be with you every step of the way. Just follow my lead, and we’ll get out of here in one piece. Do you have the evidence?”
Agent Johnson took a deep breath and nodded. He retrieved a black briefcase from beneath his seat.
“Good,” Agent Palmer said approvingly. “Let’s rock.”
A composed Agent Palmer knocked on the front door of the farmhouse. Agent Johnson stood close by, palms sweaty, briefcase in hand. After a few seconds, a weathered Italian man in his mid-fifties opened the door. He briefly examined the sharp-dressed agents before shaking his head in frustrated disbelief.
“Carmelo Romano, I presume?” Agent Palmer asked.
“Yeah, what do you want?” Carmelo replied gruffly.
“I’m Special Agent Palmer. This is my partner, Special Agent Johnson. We have a few questions for you.”
Before Carmelo could respond, a six-year-old boy appeared next to him. The child tugged at Carmelo’s pant leg.
“Are these friends of yours, Papa?” the young boy asked.
“We’ll see, Geppetto,” Carmelo answered lovingly. “Run along and play. I’ll be right in.”
Before leaving, Geppetto greeted the agents with a friendly wave. Agent Johnson smiled and waved back. Agent Palmer ignored the child and kept her eyes focused on Carmelo.
Carmelo returned his attention to the agents.
“Are you two with the DEA?” he asked in an aggravated tone.
“Not quite,” Agent Palmer said with a smile.
Carmelo reluctantly led the agents to his kitchen table, where the three adults settled down. Nearby, Geppetto played with building blocks and occasionally glanced over in his father’s direction.
In an attempt to alleviate the tension, Agent Johnson offered some friendly small talk.
“This is a lovely slice of land you have here, Mr. Romano,” the rookie agent expressed cordially. “I’ve never been this far into the valley.”
“Let’s cut the bullshit,” Carmelo snarled. “Whatever dirt the FBI has on me is old news. I’ve paid for my sins at San Quentin. Want proof? Call up the DEA on your way out the door.”
Unfazed by Carmelo’s sour attitude, Agent Palmer clasped her hands together and rested them on the kitchen table.
“Mr. Romano, we don’t work for the FBI,” the seasoned agent asserted. “Furthermore, we’re not here to unearth your criminal record as a former drug-runner.”
Carmelo’s ill-natured confidence suddenly disappeared under a wave of confusion.
“We work for Sweet Dreams Incorporated,” Agent Palmer continued. “Our intention is not to waste your time. The sooner you provide us with the answers we seek, the sooner we’ll be out of your hair.”
“Sweet Dreams Incorporated?” Carmelo replied, at a loss for words.
“Yes, that’s right,” Agent Palmer answered matter-of-factly. She then motioned towards Agent Johnson approvingly.
Following her lead, Agent Johnson placed the black briefcase on the kitchen table and opened it. He proceeded to fish out a copy of a receipt from an IKEA store located in Emeryville, California.
“Mr. Romano,” Agent Johnson began. “On August third of twenty-twenty, you purchased three Sweet Dreams pillows from an IKEA in Emeryville, California. Today marks the one-year anniversary of your purchase.”
Carmelo’s mouth was agape with puzzlement.
“How did you get a copy of my receipt?” he inquired.
Agent Johnson ignored Carmelo’s question and continued his prepared speech.
“On behalf of Sweet Dreams Incorporated, Special Agent Palmer and I are here to perform a quality assurance survey. Do you have any questions before we proceed?”
Carmelo’s face slowly transformed from a look of bewilderment to a full-blown cackle. He proceeded to laugh for several minutes before an impatient Agent Palmer nudged Agent Johnson’s shoulder. The rookie agent nodded affirmatively and cleared his throat.
“Please try to stay focused, Mr. Romano,” Agent Johnson asked kindly.
“Whatever,” Carmelo scoffed as he wiped away tears from his eyes. “Let’s get this over with.”
Question number one,” Agent Johnson began. “Do you have grievances with any of the three pillows you purchased?”
“Zero,” Carmelo answered hastily.
“Question number two,” Agent Johnson continued. “Based on comfort, how would you rate your pillows on a scale from one to ten?”
“Ten. I feel like I’m resting my head on a cloud every night,” Carmelo remarked sarcastically.
Although she was not amused, Agent Palmer remained calm and collected while Carmelo slyly ridiculed the survey.
“Okay, final question,” Agent Johnson announced. “Would you recommend Sweet Dreams pillows to a colleague?”
Carmelo stood up from his chair and loomed over the agents.
“The second you two clowns leave my house, I’ll shout from my rooftop and spread the good word,” he replied antagonistically.
Rattled, Agent Johnson turned to Agent Palmer for guidance. She simply nodded. The rookie agent took a deep breath and returned his attention to the towering Carmelo.
“Well,” Agent Johnson began, “We appreciate your enthusiasm, Mr. Romano. But before we leave, we’ll need to review your tags.”
For the second time that day, a wave of confusion drowned Carmelo’s mean-spirited confidence.
“Tags?” he asked.
“Correct,” Agent Johnson replied. “It’s imperative that we examine your three pillows to confirm that the tags haven’t been tampered with.”
“I thought paying customers could remove those tags,” Carmelo retorted.
“Not according to the fine print,” Agent Palmer interjected as she retrieved a Sweet Dreams pillow tag from the black briefcase and handed it to Carmelo.
“Read it,” she demanded.
Carmelo reluctantly took the tag and read it aloud. “Under penalty of the law, this tag must never be removed by anyone. If tampered with, the offender can face up to five years in prison.”
The color in Carmelo’s face suddenly depleted. He looked Agent Palmer in the eyes.
“You’re joking,” his voice quivered.
“I’m afraid not, Mr. Romano,” she replied. “I take my job very seriously.”
Concerned, Geppetto got up from his building blocks.
“Is everything okay, Papa?” the child asked.
Frozen with fear, Carmelo couldn’t muster the strength to answer his son. Agent Palmer stood up from her chair and faced Carmelo.
“Take us to the pillows,” she commanded.
There were two bedrooms located on the second floor of the farmhouse. The first room the agents entered belonged to Carmelo. On his mattress was a tagless Sweet Dreams pillow.
Agent Palmer retrieved a small magnifying glass from her suit jacket to more closely examine the pillow.
“Judging by the clean pattern of the tear, it appears this tag was removed with scissors, most likely within forty-eight hours after purchasing,” Agent Palmer hypothesized.
Agent Johnson proceeded to take photos of the tagless pillow with his cellular phone.
“I’ll tell you, Johnson,” Agent Palmer sighed. “Twenty-five years on the beat, and it doesn’t get any easier to see a tagless pillow.”
She turned to face an uneasy Carmelo, who was lingering just outside his bedroom.
“Looks like you’ll be spending more time in San Quentin, Mr. Romano,” the seasoned agent declared. “You’re up to five years at the moment, but I have a hunch we’ll be adding more time to that sentence.”
Flustered, Carmelo burst into his bedroom.
“Now wait just a goddamn minute!” he yelled. “How do you know it was me who made that tear? Maybe the pillow was sold to me in that condition!”
“Negative,” Agent Palmer clapped back. “The three Sweet Dreams pillows you purchased were sold with their tags properly in place. The IKEA in Emeryville provided photographic evidence to prove it.”
The hardened agent stared the trembling Carmelo dead in the eyes.
“Face it, Mr. Romano,” she said calmly yet sternly. “The evidence isn’t in your favor.”
Agent Palmer proceeded to exit Carmelo’s bedroom, with Agent Johnson following close behind.
Carmelo’s breathing began to intensify as his thoughts ran amuck with anxiety. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted a pair of scissors on his dresser. Though hesitant, he eventually grabbed the shears and exited his bedroom.
The second bedroom on the second floor of the farmhouse belonged to Geppetto. On the child’s mattress was another tagless Sweet Dreams pillow. As the agents went to work on examining the pillow, a menacing Carmelo quietly entered the room, scissors in hand. Unaware of his imminent presence, the agents remained exposed as Carmelo crept closer behind them. Just as he was about to stab his shears into the back of Agent Palmer, the emotional call of his son’s voice broke his concentration.
“What’s going on, Papa?” Geppetto cried.
Acting fast, Carmelo backed away from Agent Palmer and swiftly concealed the scissors in his back pocket. All three adults then turned to see Geppetto, who stood just outside his bedroom.
“Are you in trouble, Papa?” Geppetto tearfully inquired.
“I’m afraid so,” Agent Palmer interjected bluntly with zero concern for Geppetto’s emotional wellbeing. “Right now, your father is looking at a ten-year sentence, and that could easily increase to fifteen.”
Enraged, Carmelo turned to face Agent Palmer.
“Do not talk to my son that way!” he shouted.
“Get ahold of your emotions, Mr. Romano,” Agent Palmer retorted calmly. “I merely presented your son with the facts that he wished to know.”
As the two adults continued to argue, Geppetto’s crying intensified. Unlike his hardened partner, Agent Johnson was affected by Geppetto’s grief. Seeing that the situation was escalating to unprecedented extremes, the rookie agent decided to take matters into his own hands.
“I’m going to try something,” Agent Johnson said aloud. He then slowly approached Geppetto on bended knee, greeting the child at eye level.
“Geppetto,” he said calmly. “Please forgive Agent Palmer. She’s all business, but she means well.”
Through tears, Geppetto glanced towards Agent Palmer. Though the seasoned agent was skeptical of her partner’s soft-spoken approach, she remained quiet and let the situation play out. The child then returned his attention to Agent Johnson.
“I’m not going to lie to you,” the rookie agent continued. “What she said is true. Your father is going to prison.”
While remaining on bended knee, Agent Johnson turned around to face a crumbling Carmelo.
“But as long as he cooperates, there will be zero complications.”
He turned back to face Geppetto.
“We’ll set up a situation where you can visit your father regularly. It won’t be an easy adjustment, but it’s the best I can do. Does that sound okay?”
Though Geppetto was still in an emotional state of shock, his loud weeping had de-escalated to a light sob. Eventually, the young boy nodded his head in approval.
Agent Johnson smiled faintly. Upon standing, he turned to face Carmelo with newfound confidence.
“Mr. Romano, let’s not make this any more difficult than it has to be,” the soft-spoken agent reasoned. “Where’s the final pillow?”
After some hesitation, Carmelo pointed upward at a pulley cord hanging from Geppetto’s ceiling.
“It’s in the loft,” he said with a sigh.
Carmelo grabbed the pulley cord and pulled it downward. A rickety ladder proceeded to reveal itself.
“I wouldn’t recommend all of us going up,” Carmelo explained. “It’s pretty cramped, and the floorboards aren’t in the best shape. If you wait here, I can grab the pillow.”
“Nice try, Mr. Romano,” Agent Palmer smirked. “You’re not going anywhere without us.”
Frustrated, Carmelo glared at Agent Palmer. In an attempt to prevent further chaos from developing between the two, Agent Johnson stepped forward.
“I’ll follow you up, Mr. Romano,” the rookie agent declared. “Palmer, do you mind staying down here and watching Geppetto?”
Agent Palmer looked her partner in the eyes. Despite being his superior, she wasn’t mad at his newfound streak of confidence. On the contrary, she was proud.
“Alright, Johnson, the ball is in your court. But if anything funny happens up there, yell to me, and I’ll walk you through what to do.”
Grateful to have her support, Agent Johnson nodded.
“I appreciate this, Palmer. I promise I won’t let you down.”
Carmelo and Agent Johnson proceeded to climb the unstable pulley ladder. True to Carmelo’s word, the loft had a claustrophobic vibe. Cardboard boxes were scattered carelessly throughout the space. In the back corner, a large window provided the only source of light for the two men. Oddly enough, this natural light source happened to shine brightly on a box labeled ‘Sweet Dreams Incorporated,’ which sat prominently in the center of the loft.
Being the first to climb the ladder, Carmelo approached the box and revealed the third and final pillow. To Agent Johnson’s surprise, the tag had not been tampered with.
“Good news, Palmer!” Agent Johnson shouted through the loft’s uneasy floorboards. “This pillow’s tag hasn’t been removed!”
Overjoyed, the rookie agent turned to face a distraught Carmelo.
“Congratulations, Mr. Romano! You’ll only have to serve a ten-year sentence!”
Carmelo did not reciprocate Agent Johnson’s enthusiasm. Realizing his uneasiness, the soft-spoken agent took a deep breath and attempted to rein Carmelo in.
“Mr. Romano, Agent Palmer and I need to take you into custody now. Please put down the pillow and step forward.”
Suddenly, Carmelo reached into his back pocket and retrieved the pair of scissors. He placed the pillow’s tag snugly between the shear blades.
“I’ve got a better idea,” Carmelo said as he slowly backed towards the large window at the end of the loft. “You two pack up your shit and leave, and I’ll spare this pillow’s tag.”
“Johnson?!” Agent Palmer yelled from below the loft’s floorboards. “Talk to me! What the hell is going on up there?!”
“He’s got a pair of scissors to the tag!” Agent Johnson shouted back. “He’s trying to bargain!”
“Mr. Romano!” Agent Palmer yelled from below the floorboards. “You are making a grave mistake! We do not negotiate with tag-cutters!”
“Well, then I’m gonna cut this pillow’s tag right off its goddamn seams!” Carmelo hollered back. “There’s no way I’m going back to San Quentin! You can’t make me!”
“Johnson!” Agent Palmer shouted through the floorboards. “Draw your weapon on Mr. Romano! Do not let him cut that pillow’s tag! That’s an order!”
Agent Johnson reluctantly pulled out a handgun from his suit jacket and aimed it at Carmelo.
“Are you kidding me?” Carmelo clamored in disbelief. “You pillow fucks are packing heat?”
“Mr. Romano, I don’t have time to explain the nuanced intricacies of my profession!” a trembling Agent Johnson replied. “Please put down the pillow!”
The two men stared at each other for several harrowing minutes. Both were vibrating with fear, and neither was willing to back down.
“Mr. Romano,” Agent Johnson spoke softly. “Think of your son. Do you want him to grow up without a father?”
Carmelo shook his head while his upper lip quivered.
“No…but I can’t go back to prison,” he sobbed.
Carmelo’s grip tightened on the scissors.
“Please don’t make me do this,” Agent Johnson begged.
Carmelo gritted his teeth.
“I’m sorry, Geppetto!” he shouted.
The scissors began to slice into the tag. Agent Johnson closed his eyes and reluctantly fired several shots into Carmelo’s chest. The bullets traveled through Carmelo’s heart and penetrated the large window he was standing behind. As he staggered backward, Carmelo’s body went through the glass and disappeared from the loft.
When Agent Johnson opened his eyes, the world felt disoriented. In the distance, he detected muffled screaming, but he couldn’t identify the voices. Trudging forward into the blurry unknown, he attempted to call out to Carmelo.
By the time Agent Johnson reached the broken window, his vision had improved. Looking outside, he was finally able to observe the chaos of his actions.
On the ground was Geppetto bawling next to his father’s lifeless body. The image shocked Agent Johnson’s psyche to its core. He had never drawn his gun before, and yet here he stood, a killer.
A few feet away from Carmelo’s body was Agent Palmer, who was cradling the third Sweet Dreams pillow like a newborn baby. The seasoned agent looked up at her shell-shocked partner and smiled proudly.
“Congratulations, Johnson!” she beamed. “Mr. Romano was barely able to slice the tag! Thanks to you, this pillow will make a full recovery!”
Agent Johnson glanced back over to Geppetto, who was now attempting to shake his dead father awake. As the child continued his fruitless efforts, the rookie agent clasped his hands over his face and screamed in anguish.
Deep within California’s vast Central Valley, the black sedan containing Special Agents Palmer and Johnson moseyed forth. But this time, they weren’t alone.
Two passengers were seated in the back. One was Geppetto. No longer crying over his fallen father, the child appeared dead inside as he impassively stared out his passenger window. Resting buckled in the seat adjacent to Geppetto was the recovered Sweet Dreams pillow.
Behind the wheel, Agent Palmer occasionally checked her mirrors to examine the status of the inanimate pillow. Meanwhile, a visually disturbed Agent Johnson observed Geppetto with his mirrors.
Agent Palmer held her voice recorder to the right side of her mouth.
“It’s fourteen thirty hours, Pacific Daylight Time,” she reported. “Agent Johnson and I are escorting a slightly damaged Sweet Dreams pillow back to headquarters for rehabilitation. On our way, we plan to drop Geppetto Romano off at a nearby foster home. We left the remains of Carmelo Romano with local authorities.”
The hardened agent turned to face her soft-spoken partner with a look of admiration.
“I’d like to take a moment and commend Agent Johnson, who acted bravely on his first field assignment,” she continued. “When we return to headquarters, I’ll be recommending a promotion for this fine agent.”
Agent Johnson’s breathing began to intensify. Images of a lifeless Carmelo and a crying Geppetto flashed internally. He couldn’t take it anymore.
“Stop the car!” he begged.
Agent Palmer quickly pulled over next to a sprawling field of tilled soil. Agent Johnson frantically exited the vehicle. He attempted to gain control of his breathing as he paced back and forth on the field. But no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t get a grip.
Agent Palmer stepped out of the car and approached her distressed partner.
“I can’t get them out of my head, Palmer,” Agent Johnson whispered in between heavy breaths.
“Johnson, you did the right thing,” the seasoned agent said reassuringly. “You saved a pillow from being detagged.”
“I murdered a father!” the rookie agent exploded. “I took away a child’s innocence! Doesn’t that mean anything to you?!”
“It used to.” Agent Palmer responded passionately, releasing a tidal wave of repressed emotions in the process. “But there’s a greater purpose in life that I’ve learned to focus on, Johnson, and that’s the pillows I protect!”
The two adults fell silent. After a few deep breaths, Agent Palmer managed to calm herself.
“You did everything in your power to prevent a catastrophe, Johnson,” she continued in her usual cadence. “Carmelo Romano willingly chose to throw his life away. You can’t blame yourself for that.”
Emotionally exhausted, Agent Johnson collapsed. After several seconds, he glanced over at Geppetto, who remained withdrawn in the back of the black sedan.
“I’m sorry,” Agent Johnson said faintly, his eyes transfixed on the child’s thousand-yard stare.
Without warning, the rookie agent pulled out his handgun and aimed the barrel against the right side of his skull. Before Agent Palmer could intervene, he shot himself. The sound of his death echoed across the countryside.
Agent Palmer lamented to the sky. After several minutes, the hardened agent managed to compose herself. She then proceeded to carry her partner’s corpse to the back of the black sedan. Once Agent Johnson’s body was stored safely inside the vehicle’s trunk, Agent Palmer retrieved her voice recorder.
“It’s fourteen fifty-five hours, Pacific Daylight Time,” she reported with a hint of remorse. “Agent Johnson has taken his life. Another young talent lost to the harsh realities of this profession. I’ll contact his family on the way back to headquarters. The paperwork on this one is going to be a fucking nightmare.”
While putting away her voice recorder, Agent Palmer noticed that Agent Johnson’s lifeless eyes were still open. Using her fingers, the seasoned agent gently closed her partner’s eyelids for good.
“Sweet dreams, kid,” she sighed.
Torrey Kurtzner is an out-of-work writer and master of self-deprecation. Against the better judgment of his peers, he’s determined to pursue a career within the creative arts, even if it kills him. He’s on Twitter @YabbaDabbZoinks.