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art by Jonathan Westbrook

The Small Print

Amy McLane lives in Arizona with her husband, son, and lovably dimwitted Siamese cat. As Amy Beth Forbes, her work has appeared in various publications including Realms of Fantasy and The Best of Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. You can find her at group blog The Parking Lot Confessional.

***Editor's Warning: Disturbing, Adult Tale***
Nobody can do what I do. That's why they come to me. And I do what I do because I got to eat like everyone else. But I hate seeing one like her walking in here.
She's cute, with earnest eyes peaking from under a glossy fringe, and I can tell by the healthy flush of her skin that it's her first time. She sits down in the chair opposite my desk and sets her purse in her lap. The strap of the purse is frayed around the edges, and the heels she tucks together neatly look secondhand. Her dress is white, printed with cherries, and is so thin from repeated washings I can see her chemise beneath it.
"Can I help you?" I ask. In my pocket my hand rolls the beads on their string. Say no. Click. Say you need directions to the library. Click. Say you're here for vengeance, pull a gun out of that purse, and shoot me in my lying face.
"I have a summer's day," she says, "that I'm willing to sell."
"Are you sure?" I put my hands down on the desk between us.
She smiles. Dimples. Oh God, I really don't want this one. The buyers are going to love her.
"The Druskies call you Padre Smallprint, because you're always hunting for the catch."
"That's because everyone who walks through my door is an idiot."
She pulls back, surprised at the insult. Her fingers squeeze her battered purse. "I know what I'm doing."
"You do, do you? So what happens next?"
She looks to the side. "All right. Maybe I don't."
"First, I extract the memory. I estimate its market worth, I pay you, you leave."
"And what happens to my memory?"
"I sterilize it, and I resell it."
"Strip you out of it. So it can be used by someone else."
"Really?" She leans forward. "I never heard about that part. Mind if I stay and watch?"
"I take the memory. I pay you. You leave. That's it. You ready now, or do you want to sleep on it, maybe come back tomorrow?"
"I'm sorry, I'm just curevious." She shakes her head. "Blah. Curious. Nervous. See what I mean?"
"Yeah, I do, Honey. That's why I'm telling you to sleep on it."
"No, thank you. It has to be today."
I stand. "Follow me."
I lead her into the back room. She looks around as she enters. Her face is calm, but her eyes are like a wild thing's. There's not much to see. A bookcase cluttered with empty glass bottles and jars, a lidded hamper crouched next to a wardrobe, a side table huddled against an elephantine fainting couch.
"Sit," I say, locking the door behind us.
She perches on the edge of the couch. I take a jar from the bookshelf, one that used to hold baby food. We won't need the canning jars, the whiskey bottles. Not yet.
I sit beside her. She tenses. I set the jar on the side table next to me and unscrew the lid. She watches like I'm pulling the legs off a roach.
"How old were you?" I ask.
Frassetto, then. Frassetto was going to chew through this one like a rat with an apple core. "And the day?"
"In August. Before the rains."
"Close your eyes. Hold the day in your mind." I put my hands on her temples and she flinches. "Last chance to say no."
"Please. I need this."
"Then try to relax."
I close my eyes and delve. I smell the carnation bloom of her skin ripen into bloody meat, the rich, fatty tallow of her brain. I forage past the top layer of her thoughts, a babble of surprise, fear, greed, attraction, and repulsion, a running trill of oh god what am I doing, I need this, I need this and Kitt needs this and maybe we'll have something left over, and I wish Mama Dee had warned me he was handsome, oh my god his hands are so cold….
The summer's day beckons, sunrise over a wheat field, a plate of oatmeal and brown sugar, a tall glass of milk. I watch her set down the glass, lick her upper lip clean. Flick I see her hiding from her brothers in the berry patch. When they are gone she plays with a doll she believes herself too old for. Flick She watches a grasshopper crawl over a leaf, then strips all the bark off a birch stick. Flick
I shadow her as she walks down a country road, scuffing at stones and chewing pickle weed. She whispers under an oak tree, secrets to her best friend, a small, gap-toothed child who is leaving her, going west with her family. Flick She helps her mother cook bean soup, corn bread, apple betty. She helps her brothers eat it. Flick Her mother tucks her in, kisses her brow.
As she sleeps, I bow close, to feel her breath passing from her lips. I touch the corner of her blanket. And I pull, I pull the memory of the blanket, and the berries, the grasshopper, the childish secrets and the glass of milk with beads of cold sweat running down the sides, the cloudless bright sky and the smell of the wheat ready for the scythe, I pull it all into my hand, flicking my wrist to snap it free of its moorings.
I slam back into my body sitting on the fainting couch. The girl has fallen across my thighs, or I have dragged her down. Her hair sprawls over my lap, her face waxy in repose. One of my hands is smashed against her temple, the other clutches the memory. I slide my hand down the side of her face to cradle one pale cheek.
She gasps. Her lids flutter. She begins to cry soundlessly.
"The hard part is over," I say, keeping her pinned. I look at the memory curled up in my palm, rosy and round like a crabapple. No more dog stew, no more rotgut. Get that landlord off my back, at least until the rains.
I slide the memory into the jar. I screw the lid on one-handed, set the jar on the table, and look down at her lying in my lap like a crumpled piece of paper.
And I kiss her a little, on her chin and nose and mouth, and she doesn't resist me, because doesn't she know me? Hasn't she always known me? I have been there since she was a girl-child of eleven. A shadow in her mind, where there should have been a summer's day. She has always belonged to me.
She sits up, brushing at the front of her dress as if I do not know everything about the body beneath. She takes a handkerchief from her purse and carefully blots the traces of her tears.
"How much?" she asks, and I feel a stab of admiration at the even tone of her voice.
Her jaw drops. "That's all?"
"For grasshoppers and apple betty? You're goddamn right that's all. That's the best price you'll get by a long shot. What, you want to take it to someone else?"
She looks hard at the jar and not at the door, and for a crazy moment I see myself chasing her down the street.
Her jaw sets. "Forty-five."
I laugh. "I don't barter."
"Forty-five." She licks her lips and I wonder if she tastes me there. "I need it."
"What for?"
"It's none of your business."
I raise the jar overhead. "Then I smash this, and we'll call it even."
"Don't!" She grabs for it, but I have the reach on her. She subsides onto the couch, her mouth a bitter twist. She doesn't want to fight me. She knows what it'll turn into.
"Fine," she says, "I'll take what you pay me."
I hate the dull look in her eyes now. It reminds me of her future.
I shake my head, set the jarred memory out of her reach, and take out my wallet. "Listen, sweetheart, you're to blame for everything that you'll lose. Didn't I try to stop you?" I fold two twenties together and press them into her palm. "And you mocked me for it."
She looks at it. "I can't make change."
I swap the wallet for a cigarette and a light. "Consider it a signing bonus." I exhale. "And for God's sake wipe that look off your face."
She stuffs the money into her purse like an urchin hoarding half a loaf. Assuaged, she remembers herself and stands.
"You're filth, you know that? You're a monster."
"It's too late for dignity. Cigarette?"
"I don't smoke."
"You will." I examine the stub in my hand. "They say cigs used to be long as a woman's finger, take you ten minutes to smoke. Guess everything's got its fairy tale."
She turns her head. "Why didn't anyone tell me it would be like this?" Her voice is so low I can barely hear her.
"You haven't been in the city long, have you? No one cares. They just pretend to." I sigh a fume jet and stub out my butt. "Except me. But I'm the one you don't want to care about you."
Her eyes frost up at the idea. Good. I want her to leave mad, to leave hating me. She bursts from the front office into the street, fades into the foot traffic, another flashing minnow in the stream.
She'll be back.
I turn the sign on the front door to CLOSED, flip the deadbolt. I go into the back room, take off my clothes, and hang them in the wardrobe. I take a folded cloth from a stack in the bottom of the wardrobe.
Setting the jarred memory on the floor, I unscrew the lid and kneel before it, spreading the cloth over my lap. I dip my fingers in, and have time to think, I can't believe I gave her forty for this, I'm getting soft, before I find her hiding in the memory like a little white pearl. I meet her in the little glen, the fruit of the blackberries ripe and sweet around their tiny, bitter seeds. She scoots next to me, so that we kneel together in the dewy grass. She laces her fingers in mine. My breath quickens as she fills me, carnations and sweat and wheat fields, thick hair gleaming in the sunlight. She fills me until I know nothing else, and then I feel myself close around her like a steel trap and I devour her, I consume her in a blinding white light of pleasure until there is nothing left.
Blinking away sweat, I prop myself upright. Before me sits an anonymous memory of a summer's day. It could belong to anyone, used for any number of things. Its market value has increased exponentially. I screw the lid on, sit back on my heels, and think about a smoke.
Then I fold over the stained cloth on my lap to a dry corner, give my crotch a quick swab. Throw the cloth into the hamper, dress, and take the jar back into the front room. Fumble a marker out of the desk.
I put away the pen, pry up the false board under my chair, and hide the jar in the dark. Sit down at my desk and pick up the rotary. Better not to wait.
"Frassetto." His voice is a wheeze over gravel.
"It's the padre," I say, "Got something for you. A sweet little summer's day on the farm."
I can hear him breathing into the mouthpiece, can almost smell the dust of it.
I clear my throat. "It was her first time."
"I'm sending Raoul directly."
I open the door and set myself down on the front stoop, listening to the endless babble of the city as I smoke. Bicycle bells and barking dogs, children shrieking, men arguing, engines coughing, the coleoptera clacking their mandibles as they hump along, and the chop chop chop of the watermelon man's hatchet as he sings.
The more I'll see her, the more I won't want her to come. But they never get that--they never realize that the bond goes both ways. I used to try to tell them, thinking it would make it easier.
She'll come back. She'll come and come until there is nothing left of her, nothing for me to use, until every last decent memory is of me, and memories of me are not something I can sell my clients. They like birthdays and solstices, first kisses, first places. They like to play baseball games, sing arias, fly biplanes. They like to have sex, to eat ice cream, to laugh until their sides ache, to hold their infant children for the very first time. And she'll sell it--she'll sell it all to me. And I'll pay my rent. Get my shoes heeled. Maybe even take a long weekend, that'd be nice. Take a train to the ocean. Wander into the surf. Watch the seagulls circle and scream.
I exhale; grind out my cigarette on the battered sidewalk. Every time there's a new one I can't help but wonder, maybe this is it; maybe this is the one who will destroy me. She's in me now, a song caught in the back of my mind on an endless loop. One I can't let go of, one that can't let go of me.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, February 26th, 2013

Author Comments

This story is a reinterpretation of the song “The Small Print” by the rock band Muse. I had this urge to tell a tale from the point of view of a monster, so I started to write about “the priest God never paid.” I realized someone so cynical would probably think like a gumshoe in an old noir, and once that voice was in my head, the rest came easily.

- Amy McLane
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