The Price of Words

“It’s so…” I sighed and stared at the dress.

“Colorful?” Phoebe guessed.

I shook my head.

“Stylish?”

“No.”

“Then I think I know what you mean.”

Dreamy, I thought. Charming, lovely, exquisite, ornate. It looks like something out of the fairytales my mother told me when I was little, before the laws took our stories away. Unfortunately, I couldn’t tell Phoebe any of this. I didn’t own the right words.

Phoebe loved language almost as much as I did. She understood the frustration of finding the right word at the right time but not being able to use it. She understood my yearning for all the words I’d never have.

“Shall we?” she asked, nodding toward the dress. I ignored the glaring eyes of the sales clerk and pulled up the PriceCheck application on my phone. With a quick wave of the device, I scanned the barcode printed on the inside of the dress.

Armatage Pointe presents: The Lillian

An image of the dress floated onto the screen, breathtaking and beautiful. The advertisement zoomed in to highlight the dress’s intricate patterns and stitching, then zoomed out to reveal its airy shape and flawless design.

Be the belle of the ball and the envy of your friends in the Lillian, the gown of your dreams.

In moments, the dress was seamlessly integrated into the pictures on my phone. There I stood, onstage at my school’s award ceremony, beaming in the dazzling dress. I saw myself surrounded by friends at my latest birthday party, looking absolutely radiant in its blue-green folds. I had to admit, it was a clever marketing ploy.

“If you decide to wear this dress for your next party,” Phoebe whispered, “at least warn the rest of us.”

I couldn’t help but laugh.

This dress would buy me thirty-seven new words, an intoxicating splattering of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. Thirty-seven new words to enhance explanations, deepen conversations, strengthen relationships.

I would never own a dress like this, and we both knew it.

Once my pictures disappeared from the screen, I scrolled through the dress’s care requirements and customer reviews. There was so much information to sift through to get to what I really wanted to see.

The dress was expensive. 1700 credits, which was almost all I had. But the words! This dress would buy me thirty-seven new words, an intoxicating splattering of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. Thirty-seven new words to enhance explanations, deepen conversations, strengthen relationships. Thirty-seven new words to roll around in my mouth, to let loose off the tip of my tongue.

My hungry eyes devoured the list, trying to digest each word and definition before the advertised offer expired. They wouldn’t be mine to write or speak, but no one could stop me from using them in my mind.

It hadn’t always been like this. When I was young, people could use any words they wanted for any purposes they chose. Freedom of speech, they had called it, freedom of expression. But then things began to change.

It had started off innocently enoughcorporations claiming ownership of their names and slogans, artists requesting rights to the lyrics in their songs. Soon, it became hard to keep track of which words were in the public domain and which words required rights. Laws were created to regulate the system, and our vocabularies were reduced to basic word lists. Now, each new word came at a price, and the cost was often too high to excuse.

I looked back at the words this dress would afford me. Ominous, surreal, whimsical, confound… I tried to hear them in my head, tried to imagine what they would sound like spoken through my voice. And then I saw it. I was so surprised, I almost said it out loud.

“It must be a good one,” Phoebe said softly, startling me out of my thoughts. And it was.

Dreamy.

She scrolled back through the list and pointed at the word. “Was that the one you” I nodded. She had known what I was thinking after all. Looking at price tags was often the closest we got to truly communicating.

Phoebe pulled out her phone. “You were meant to have this word. I wonder if it comes with anything else.” She opened her personal dictionary, accessed its word locating system, and entered “dreamy” in the search bar.

This component of the application acted as an inventory for available words. When information on a specific word was requested, it listed the brands that retained rights, as well as the sites and stores that sold their products. Querying for a potential purchase was one of the few times we could use the words we didn’t already possess, and buying sponsored products was the only way to legally obtain them.

“Pardon me.”

I looked up from Phoebe’s phone and turned to stare at the boy who stood behind me.

“Could you please excuse me?” he asked, nodding toward a sales counter, his politeness quickly merging with impatience. “I’m sorry to say my time is scarce.”

Dazed, I moved out of his way.

How many words did he have, how rich must he be, to be able to talk like that? “Pardon” was a rarity, an artifact among words, and “scarce” was also uncommon. Before Phoebe could stop me, I strode over to him.

“Your words are so…” I stopped, unsure of how to best complete my thought. Enthralling…impressive…envious… Words danced around my head, but I dared not let them spill from my mouth.

“Dreamy?”

I shook my head. All those words, and he couldn’t choose one that fit?

…I wondered if the entirety of my life would be spent chasing the wisps of words I could never afford to have, and something inside of me snapped.

“Do you have anything with ‘dreamy’?”

I realized he was talking to the sales clerk, and then I realized she was looking at me, gesturing to the dress I still held in my hands. “That’s the only piece in the store.”

Actually, Phoebe texted, that’s the only piece in the state. She sent me a screen shot of her search results, and my stomach sank. If she was right and “dreamy” was meant for me, the universe had a strange way of showing it.

Nevertheless, I felt a sudden possessiveness over the dress. When the boy went to reach for it, I pulled it closer.

“I just want to see it,” he said, annoyance apparent in his voice. “You’re not actually thinking about buying it, are you?”

“I’m considering it.” I held the dress up to my body and let my eyes linger on the fabric against my skin.

“There’s a clearance rack on the other side of the store,” the sales clerk assured me. “It may have something more suitable for your price range.”

I felt my face flush. My mind still churned with the words I had just seen, and I suddenly felt desperate, angry, sad. For the zillionth time, I wondered if the entirety of my life would be spent chasing the wisps of words I could never afford to have, and something inside of me snapped. I risked a glance back at Phoebe. Her eyes widened as she realized what I was contemplating. I frowned slightly at the dress as if this was something I did all the time, as if I wasn’t shaking inside. “I’ll take it.”

As the sales clerk busied herself wrapping up the dress and adding its words to my personal dictionary, the boy pelted her with questions. Where else could he find the dress? Did ‘dreamy’ come standard with all Armatage Pointe special occasion dresses, or was it specific to this color and style? When did they expect to receive their next shipment? When she told him it was a limited edition dress and I’d just purchased the last one, he stifled a scream.

“Isn’t there anything you can do?” he asked the clerk. “I’ve got to have that dress.”

“I’m sorry, but all sales are final.”

“You, then!” he exclaimed as the sales clerk handed me the dress with an apologetic smile. “I’ll buy it from you!”

“It’s not for sale.” I grabbed Phoebe’s arm and started toward the store’s exit. In less than a minute, we were deposited back into the middle of the mall.

“Don’t you at least want to hear my offer?” the boy asked, hurrying to keep up.

“No.”

“Why not?”

I shrugged off his question like it didn’t sting. “I just don’t, okay?”

“I’ll give you twice what you paid.”

Phoebe gasped, but I refused to consider all I could buy with those credits.

“What’s your problem?” I asked, whirling around to face him. “You have plenty of words. Can’t you let anyone else…” I winced, realizing I was going to embarrass myself with my inferior lexicon.

He waited.

“Can’t you let anyone else…widen their vocabulary?” I sped through the last part, mumbling the words to make them as unintelligible as possible.

“You mean ‘expand their vocabulary’?” His eyes laughed at me, and I wished I had a larger selection of insults to choose from. Not wanting to subject myself to further ridicule, I turned toward the mall’s exit. I was furious with him, with my lack of words, with the world and the way things were.

“Come on!” he shouted at the back of my head. “I was only kidding.”

I walked faster.

“Wait! Where are you going?”

Silence was my only response.

I was furious with him, with my lack of words, with the world and the way things were.

“You don’t understand!”

No, I thought, I don’t understand. You have more words than I’ll speak in my entire life, yet you feel entitled to the few words I possess. How am I supposed to understand that?

Phoebe caught up with me quickly. As we neared the mall’s exit, I reached for the door, thankful to put this whole ordeal behind me.

“I can get you more words!”

My fingers froze, inches from my escape. I slowly turned to face the boy, his desperate syllables still bouncing around in my brain. “What did you say?”

His eyes widened as if he was just now realizing the implications of his offer. They darted back and forth, scanning the surrounding area, and for good reason. An unsanctioned transfer of words was a sizable offense, punishable by law.

Once the boy was convinced no one had overheard, he turned his attention back to me. “I can get you,” he repeated through gritted teeth, “more words.”

I glanced over at Phoebe who immediately shook her head. Her pleading eyes told me I’d gotten into enough trouble for one day, and she was right. Still, I was curious.

I studied the boy’s face, trying to gauge his sincerity, and he flashed me an infuriatingly charismatic smile. “I’m sure we can come to an amicable agreement,” he said. “I have plenty of words. It’s just a matter of determining which ones you’d like.”

He approached us and took out his phone, once again exuding nothing but confidence.   Maybe Phoebe was right. This sounded too good to be true.

The boy’s hopeful eyes rested on me for a moment. When I offered no response, he sat down on a nearby bench and gestured for me to join him. I followed but remained standing.

Sighing, he glanced at his watch. “I’m sorry to say this offer won’t last long. I really don’t have much time.” Against my better judgement, I sat down.

I watched as he opened his dictionary. He scrolled through his wordsso many more than I’d ever seen on one person’s phoneand chose a collection titled Excess & Expendable. Then he turned his phone toward me.

“What’s in it for you?” I asked softly, holding his gaze. “Why does this one word matter so much?”

He shrugged. “Why does any word matter? You should know better than anyoneone word can mean the world.”

His phone still glowed in front of me, and I couldn’t resist it any longer. I dared to let my finger scroll through the endless sea of letter combinations, dared to lose myself in the mesmerizing waves of words.

“Where did you get these?” I breathed.

When he didn’t answer, I glanced back up at him, but his eyes had moved to something behind me and his face had changed somehow.

I turned to follow his gaze. “What is it?”

The boy made no move to respond. Instead, he frowned and slipped his phone back into his pocket. My hand was left hanging awkwardly in the air, and I was left embarrassed, hurt, confused. Hadn’t he been the one to suggest this in the first place? Had I done something wrong?

Frustrated, I looked back over my shoulder and followed his eyes deep into the mall. At first, I didn’t notice anything unusual. Then I felt a chill creep up my spine. One floor down and several stores over, a man stood, watching us.

How long has he been standing there? I wondered. Long enough to hear the boy shout that he could get me more words? Long enough to see me scroll through the dictionary on his phone? This man could mean trouble, and I sensed that the boy felt it, too.

I watched as the boy slowly stood and took a small, unsteady step toward the mall’s exit. That was all it took to set things into motion.

“Jace!”

The man’s voice rang out like a shot from a pistol. One by one, people turned to stare, first at the man, and then in our direction. The mall became eerily quiet as he pushed through the crowd, his eyes never leaving the boy.

In seconds, Phoebe was by my side. “Let’s go,” she mouthed, nodding toward the exit. “Now.”

I shook my head, willing her to understand.

His phone still glowed in front of me, and I couldn’t resist it any longer. I dared to let my finger scroll through the endless sea of letter combinations, dared to lose myself in the mesmerizing waves of words.

I couldn’t leave an opportunity like this, not without exploring it first.

I looked back at the boy, whose name, I guessed, was Jace.

“What’s going on?” I demanded.

This seemed to snap him out of it. He shook his head and muttered something under his breath. Then, with fast hands, he snatched my dress and took off running.

“Hey!” I shouted after him. “HEY!”

“I know you’re upset, but” I didn’t catch what Phoebe said next because I’d already left her behind.

I sprinted from store to store, stopping only to survey my surroundings. The mall was big, but I was fast. Jace couldn’t have gotten far.

When movement on the far side of the food court caught my eye, I was ready. I narrowed in on my target and chased after him, trying my best not to be seen.

“Jace!” I hissed once I was within earshot. He ducked into a bookstore. “Ja

“Shhh!” He grabbed my arm and pulled me behind a shelf of world language books.

What I wouldn’t give, I thought, to live in a world where I could speak a multitude of languages instead of fighting to speak just one. I lowered myself to the floor, fuming and catching my breath.

“Who was that guy chasing you?” I demanded between gulps of air, “and why did you take my dress? I’m afraid turquoise isn’t your color.”

His voice sounded almost amused when he answered. “I don’t want your dress.”

“Good.” I grabbed the gown and glared at him. “It better not be ripped.”

He smirked, which only frustrated me further.

“If you didn’t want the dress, why did you take it? Its words were already added to my account.”

His grin spread farther across his face, and things started to make sense.

“You wanted me to follow you.”

“You’d still be looking for me if I hadn’t wanted to be found.”

“So what, you think stealing my dress and making me chase you around a mall is going to get you my words?”

“You’re here, aren’t you?”

“Ugh!”

Panic passed over his face at the volume of my voice, but I was so mad I didn’t care.

“You don’t know what it’s like, watching every word that comes out of your mouth, browsing only to come across words you can’t afford. You don’t know how it feels to not be able to share your ideas with your family or your friends, to

“How do you know?” he snapped. “Do you really think you’re the only one who’s affected by all this? That you’re the only one who cares about having words?” His reaction stunned me into silence and, when he spoke again, his voice softened. “I didn’t have a choice, okay?”

We both sat there for a moment, not saying anything. Then Jace’s phone buzzed. After reading the message, he dragged a heavy hand across his face.

“Will you please tell me what’s going on?”

He looked back down at his phone and sighed. “Your new word is the last one I need for a collection I’ve been working on for one of my customers. That customer,” he said, gesturing back into the mall, “as a matter of fact.”

As if on cue, his phone buzzed with another alert.

“If I don’t get him his words, I’m going to lose out on a lot of business . . . or worse.”

Getting caught cheating the system could mean a fine in credits, or worse, a fine in words. I’d had a few docked here and there, but an infraction like this? It could cost me a third of my vocabulary.

He started opening his Excess and Expendable list again, but I held up my hand to stop him.

“I don’t want your secondhand words,” I told him, “and I especially don’t want the ones I won’t even be able to use.”

“But

I pointed to the heading at the top of his list. “I know what those words mean.”

I continued, frustrated I couldn’t use the first words that came to my mind.

“I also know that my word must be (valuable) worth a lot. It came with a (limited edition) special dress and, with the (plethora) number of words you have, you still don’t have it. I want to make sure I’m (compensated) treated fairly.”

He ran a nervous hand through his hair. “Okay . . . then what do you want?”

“I want to know how to get the words myself.”

The feigned confusion on his face almost made me laugh. Everyone knew there were groups who cheated the system, who bought and sold words like candy and never got caught. Still, his reaction didn’t surprise me. I’d expected him to play dumb.

“I have a feeling you don’t get all of your words by running off with pretty dresses.”

Jace laughed and studied me for a moment. “You’re an interesting girl, you know that?”

I wasn’t sure if it was a slight or a compliment, so I remained silent. After what seemed like an eternity, he shrugged. “Fine. Why not? Desperate times call for desperate measures, right?”

Anticipation surged within me as I thought of all the words I could acquire.

“But I want to make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into.”

Here we go, I thought. The part I’ve been trying so hard to forget.

I smoothed out the bag that held my dress and tried to force down the lump in my throat. Getting caught cheating the system could mean a fine in credits, or worse, a fine in words. I’d had a few docked here and there, but an infraction like this? It could cost me a third of my vocabulary.

“I know the risks,” I told Jace, “and I’m willing to take them.” I took out my phone and drew in a deep breath. “What do I do first?”

He didn’t waste any time getting started.

“Open your browser,” he instructed. “Then, enter this address.” He typed a URL into his phone and held it up for me to see. In seconds, I was connected to a depressingly ordinary-looking site.

“What does this have to do with

“Just trust me.”

I copied the web address and pasted it in the middle of one of my notes for safe keeping. Then I nodded for him to continue.

“Click here,” Jace said, pointing to a link. His voice was barely a whisper. “They post clues in the forums.”

I hurried to keep up as he navigated through the message board, guiding me through thread after thread.

“Now open your dictionary app.”

“Wait.” I lowered my phone to stare at him. “You get your words through your dictionary? How is that possible?”

“The occasional glitch,” he said with half a smirk. “One of the app’s developers feels generous or makes a mistake… If it’s subtle enough, it gets past information security. You wouldn’t believe how many hours people spend trying different combinations and techniques in hopes of finding such an oversight.”

“And these people post clues on this site?”

He nodded.

“Here’s something.” He stopped on a post about halfway down the page. “Do you see this word? The one that’s miscapitalized?” I scanned through the list and nodded.

In the post, it was written opTimism. Normally, I would’ve rolled my eyes at such a careless error, but now that I knew it was intentional, I was intrigued.

“Enter it into the word locator.”

It’s one word, I told myself, it’s only one word, but I felt like I was losing my vocabulary all over again. Jace had been right. One word could mean the world.

“Capitalized?”

He lifted his finger to his lips. Once we were quiet, I heard it, too. The man was still out there, calling his name.

“Is he dangerous?” I whispered.

“Do you still want these words?”

I bit my lip and nodded.

“Enter that word, ‘optimism,’ into the word locator, with the capitalization shown. Now, do you see how it’s the letter ‘t’ that’s capitalized? It’s the third letter, right? That means you have to hit search three times before closing out.”

My fingers fumbled to type the word into my phone. I hit search three times and clumsily closed out of the application.

“How did you know to do that?”

“There are all sorts of clues. Rhyme, punctuation, figurative languagethe list goes on and on. They have to be complicated enough to mask the glitches from those who would fix them but simple enough to be deciphered by those who know to look.”

“I had no idea.”

“Most people don’t.”

It was an amazingly frustrating realization. All this time I’d spent wishing for words, and the clues had been here all along.

“How many words do you get with each glitch?”

“It varies. Some give just one. Others yield entire collections. Once you know what to look for, they add up quickly.”

As he spoke, the man’s voice got louder, and my heart threatened to pound a hole in my chest.

“Okay,” Jace said, urgency apparent in his voice, “I held up my end of the deal.” He gave me his sixteen-digit dictionary code and showed me where I could safely post my word in exchange. I nodded and tried to ignore the nausea that swept over me.

It’s one word, I told myself, it’s only one word, but I felt like I was losing my vocabulary all over again. Jace had been right. One word could mean the world.

Before I could change my mind, I sent him “dreamy.” Only after I transferred the word did I realize that I hadn’t even spoken it while I’d had the chance.

“Jace!” The man was close now. Really close.

Jace peered around the bookshelf and swore under his breath. “You can’t be seen with me. You’ll have to make a run for it.”

“What?”

“Turn off your phone. Don’t turn it back on until you’re someplace safe.”

I hurried to power off my device. “But

“I’ll be fine.” He gave me a half-hearted smile before he stood and stepped around the bookcase. “Where’ve you been?” he called out to the man. “I’ve been looking all over for you!”

Before the man could answer, he took off running. Again. At least this time, he left me my dress.

I had no other choice, so I ran in the opposite direction, as fast as my long legs could carry me. I didn’t stop until I was on the bus headed home.

Once I was safely in my room, I locked my door and took the dress out of its packaging. It seemed out of place in my hands, my room, my life. Still, I had to admit, it was beautiful. I let my fingers caress the silky soft fabric and wondered what it would feel like wrapped around my skin. Richluxurious…dreamy. I mouthed the word, but unspoken, it felt hollow. It made me feel empty, too.

Catching sight of my reflection in my mirror, I thought back to the pictures the dress’s advertisement had fused together earlier that day. So much had changed since then. I stared at the dress for a moment, still stunned that I’d dared to buy it, disbelieving that I’d given up the single word I’d purchased it for.

After one last longing glance, I stashed the gown in the back of my closet and watched it crumple like a lifeless butterfly. It had to stay hidden for now, but I’d find a chance to wear it someday.

Sighing, I slid my closet door shut and sat down on my bed.

I mouthed the word, but unspoken, it felt hollow. It made me feel empty, too.

Then I took out my phone and stared at its blank screen.

What had happened to Jace after I’d left? Was he able to access my word? Did he get his collection to the man chasing him? Had anyone seen what we’d done? Questions swirled around my head as I clicked on my phone.

The first thing I saw was a string of texts from Phoebe. Where are you? Did you get your dress? Are you alright? The messages were from over an hour ago and I felt a stone of guilt settle in the pit of my stomach.

I should’ve thought to text her sooneronce I’d found Jace, once I’d recovered my dress. I should’ve checked that she’d gotten home okay, should’ve apologized for running off. Now, I knew, I should text and invite her over so I could explain everything.

My finger hovered over Reply but then hit Close instead. As nice as it would be to share the day’s events with someone and absolve myself as a friend, it was too dangerous. I’d get back to Phoebe, with minimal details, soon. There was something I had to do first.

I said a silent prayer and selected my dictionary app.

To my dismay, a cursive uppercase D appeared on the screen, an icon meant to inform me that the application was loading. It always showed up at the most inopportune times, and now was no exception.

As I watched the thin line loop and curve to create the letter over and over again, the day’s events began to replay in my mind. I found myself analyzing each decision, every word. There were countless implications for trouble within them.

My actions could’ve been caught on the mall’s security cameras. Someone could’ve noticed my suspicious activity online. Authorities could be in the process of tracking me down at this very moment. They could be on their way to my house right now.

Stay calm, I told myself. Everything’s fine.

I watched with growing anxiety as the scripted D was leisurely traced over and over again. My dictionary never took this long to load.

I tried closing out of the app but couldn’t. I tapped the phone, softly at first, then harder, until I was jabbing at its screen. What if my dictionary didn’t open? What if something had gone wrong? What if nothing had changed or, worse, if all my words were gone?

Please be there, I thought. Please, please, please be there.

When the scripted D disappeared and the application finally opened, my breath caught in my throat. I frantically scrolled through my collections, thinking this wasn’t possible, thinking I’d somehow made a mistake.

There were sixteen words in my Merchandise collection that hadn’t been there before. An added forty-three appeared in Plants and Animals. My Emotional Reactions set showed an increase of seventy-nine words, and Arts & Culture was up by ninety-one. I kept scrolling, astounded, disbelieving, thrilled. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of words that hadn’t been there before. And they were all officially mine.

I opened a collection at random and scanned the list, dizzy with excitement. My eyes smiled at each new word as if we were long-lost friends.

“This is…” I hesitated. My eyes scanned the room and my ears strained to listen for any unfamiliar sounds. I looked out my window and double checked that my bedroom door was locked. Then, I looked back at my phone. I found an appropriate word, and I breathed it to life. “Amazing.”

I waited, half expecting law enforcement agents to storm my room or one of my parents to wake me from the fog of this wonderful dream. When nothing happened, I followed with more words, enunciating each letter sound, savoring every syllable. “Elated,” I whispered. “Overjoyed.” My heart sang as I set free words that hadn’t graced my lips since I was just shy of nine years old. I didn’t stop until I’d gotten through them all.

I counted a total of eight hundred fifty new words, and that wasn’t even including the thirty-seven I’d gotten with the dress.

Thirty-six, I reminded myself. I was surprised at the pang of regret I felt, even with all the new words I’d been granted.

Before I knew what I was doing, I tabbed back to the forums. I scrolled through the messages, trying to find the thread Jace had shown me earlier, wondering if I’d ever know who to thank for this precious gift.

My eyes landed, almost immediately, on another miscapitalized word. I studied it for a moment, disbelieving, and then everything clicked into place. With trembling hands, I opened the word locating system in my dictionary app.

I knew I could get into trouble for this. I could lose every last word that I had. Still, I couldn’t stop the smile from spreading across my face, and when my tears fell, they were of only surprise, gratitude, and joy.

I entered dreamY into my dictionary, hit search six times, and closed out of the application.

Maybe Jace wasn’t such a bad guy after all. Maybe there was still reason to hope for a change. Maybe, someday, we would live in a world where words were considered priceless but the price of words was free.

Jennifer KaulJennifer Kaul lives in Minnesota where she writes and works in education. Her stories stem from the happenings in our world and the what-ifs that swirl around her head as a result. Her hope is, through her writing, to encourage thought and conversation and to make the world a better place. “The Price of Words” is her first published piece. jenniferkaul.wordpress.com.