Half down. No refunds. Prices vary by customer. Contracts sacred.
And of course, it’s a parking ticket, because that’s how Simon Barell’s day/week/life goes. It’s just the way the joke would go. He gets in, rests his forehead on the wheel for just a few seconds, just to breathe, before looking at the paper to see how much money he’s going to lose and how much his wife is going to yell at him.
There’s a card that slips out. White fancy paper with shimmering gold script: Leave It Behind: Exit Agency- Half down. No refunds. Prices vary by customer. Contracts sacred. And an address.
He flips it over, trying to figure out what it really means. A new debt consolidation agency? A travel agency? He drops it in the cupholder.
It’s 5:25 pm when he pulls in the doorway and turns off the car. He plays a game that he doesn’t really care about. By now, all the levels look the same and yet he still watches the stupid ads just to pass.
It’s 6:15 when he finally gets out. His wife scowls at him from where she is putting the rest of the meal into Tupperware.
He serves himself and watches it spin around in the microwave.
He tries to pat his wife’s shoulder and apologize but she is stiff with anger.
His daughter, Sarah, is screaming. She needs a bath. She smacks him in the face. He almost cusses.
His wife kisses him as they tuck Sarah in, but it is short and cold on his cheek.
He wakes up to Sarah’s feet in his face. Another bad dream. Oh, and apparently, potty-training wasn’t as complete as they hoped.
He doesn’t have time for this. He has work in the morning. He sleeps in the recliner, wakes up with a crick in his back and not enough time for breakfast.
After work, he sees that business card again. He types the address into his GPS. The GPS can’t find a 486, but there’s a 485. The heading feels warm under his fingers: Leave It Behind: Exit Agency.
Buying names is exceptionally easy these days. They sell for cheap: a chance for a $10 gift card, 5% off one purchase, a five minute game with 30 seconds.
Wishes are harder. People don’t say or believe them as much. You don’t meet young adventurers in the woods or gentle maidens at the wells anymore. No use in building gingerbread cottages or growing golden apples.
Instead, they bustle along in their metal machines like a swarm of dull beetles. It is a sort of magic, she supposes, horseless carriages rushing along on the oil of ancient monsters, but she wishes they had more class. Fast does not require a lack of elegance.
But perhaps that is just hunger. She misses the taste of wonder. The sweet airy delicacy is rare now. It used to be easy, a window that showed the other side of the world, lights without flames, doors that opened by themselves. But now, they had all these things themselves and they were bored.
You might think it would be easier for the Others like her: the Fae, the Hollowbacks, the Hill People, the Shadow Folk, the Jinn, the Ones who Walked Out of the Lake. Now, when no one is warned anymore, when people don’t count teeth, or make sure the pretty girl has a back, to never give their name nor give promises, to never accept anything not explicitly named as a gift. To not ever bet on the future. That not-lies may still be deceitful with words curving around meaning. You never know who you are talking with on the internet.
But it doesn’t work properly without the Look, at least, for herself and most of the Others. It’s like trying to eat steak through a sieve.
That’s why a lot of the Others take work as taxi drivers, janitors, waitresses, and cashiers. Lots of people around them talking carelessly and nobody asks their names.
She goes with business cards, occasionally online ads as well. Hers are more efficient: no printing cost, no postage, no mailing list. She takes leaves and breathes them out to seek out strong discontent, transforming themselves according to the recipient. Sometimes, they are thrown out and she can feel the spark disappear but usually, they stick in pockets and in purses, never forgotten, until the person eventually wanders in her shop.
Simon finds, once again, the GPS can not be trusted. There clearly is a 486, with large windows and a bell that rings when he comes in.
It does have a travel agency vibe, although it’s not until he leaves, that he realizes that he never really saw what was on the posters. The lady comes from the back and he follows her to her office. She’s real pretty.
“May I have your name?” she asks, palm open on the table.
“Simon Barell,” he says.
“Full name?” She asks.
“Simon Rodgers Barell.”
Her palm closes. “Thank you.”
She has such beautiful brown eyes.
“I, uh, found your card.”
“May I see?” she asks. It is always curious to see what they turn into. The man, Simon Rodgers Barell, tastes salty and bitter with self-pity and spice of frustration.
“So, what exactly is this place?” He asks, looking around, expecting forged passports.
“It is as the card says, an agency that allows you to leave your old life behind.”
“Ah, no, I don’t want anything illegal," but he doesn't get up.
“I break no laws.”
“So, what would it cost?”
It is not about firstborn sons, jewels, or gold. That is human superstition. It is about value. Children were generally treasured, that’s why they were worth so much. Favors, too. Now, she takes money and stocks from businessmen, photographs, cars, even two Ziploc bags of cocaine once. Hours from children, the lessons of grey hair from the old. That’s why the price varies by customer.
“10 Saturdays, 3 hugs from your daughter, and a kiss from your wife.”
“But that isn’t-“
“My prices are my decision. My contracts are sacred. If you change your mind, you may, but I never give refunds.”
“And how long will it take?”
“Six weeks,” she sees the protest, “I rush it, bad things happen.”
He thinks of going back to sitting in the driveway, “Ok.”
She hands him a bracelet, “Keep it on. Six weeks."
And somehow he believes her.
His wife doesn’t seem as angry that night.
When he goes to pay the parking ticket, they can’t find it in the system. Someone finally says they will check on it for him. They never come back, so he sits there until the office closes, leaving guilty and relieved.
Another customer comes in the shop. He says he found her on some web page. He wants her to fix his life immediately, scratching at his arms and looking over at the door.
“You can not afford it again,” she says.
“I’ve never been here before!”
“Yes, Nicolas Morgan, you have. You paid me with two bags of cocaine.”
“That’s not my name.”
“I don’t leave holes,” she says, “Back then you had a Grandma who mortgaged her house for her, you had ambition and dreams (broken, but there). There were people who loved you. But now, you have nothing to trade. 2 years: no relationships, no love, only lusts. No dreams, only shallow cravings, cowardice, and pride. This is my livelihood, not a charity. You are no longer to my taste. The Jinn would probably take you but they are not as gentle as I am.”
He tries to raise his gun but she stands, showing herself, tall and pale, her hoard of sold memories behind her, and he ran, carpet grass tearing at his feet.
The Jinn will probably take him. They like the spice of anger and humiliation. There are others who prefer the sourness of jealousy and vanity or the heat of lust. Sorrow is powerful, too.
She can still taste his fear, heady like whiskey. No wonder Others get addicted. She must be careful. She sits for a moment before going to the playground. Hopefully, she can get some warm happiness or crispy curiosity to clean her palette.
Things are becoming strange around Simon.
The business meeting ends without them assigning anything to him. Ryan passes gum to everyone else before putting it away and Simon quickly pulls his empty outstretched hand back into his pocket.
The gossipy receptionist, Mrs. MaCarthy, didn’t wave at him in the morning.
His wife doesn’t scowl at him anymore. She starts cooking one person freezer meals. He gets home and there are no leftovers. He has to order McDonalds.
Sarah has stopped tugging at him.
He wants to have a nice dinner with his wife before the Goodbye, but he can’t remember when he met her.
His mother mistakes him for a telemarketer.
Did he have one brother or two?
He finds his lunchbag in the trash.
There is a child in his house. She is his child. He doesn’t know her name.
And one day, he sees the woman in the house with him’s naked fingers, and he knows something is wrong. He rushes away into the shop, the bell clanging behind him.
He sees the Lady, still pretty, but now he notices the thirty rusted lockets around her neck and the cardboard boxes behind her.
“Something’s wrong! I don’t know If I have dementia or everyone else does!”
“You wanted to leave,” she said, touching his bracelet, “you forget them and they forget you. Is it not the kindest way?”
“I don’t want this!”
“I don’t do refunds. If you want them back, there will be additional charges.” If she was a Jinn, she would not offer this, but very few actually went all the way. That’s why she required payment upfront. “One thousand apologies and one thousand thank-you’s.”
He nods and she slides the bracelet off. “It will take time,” she warns.
He never finds the shop again but he sees her in a coffeeshop and buys her a latte.
“My thousandth thank-you,” he says, “I didn’t realize what I was going to leave.”
She doesn’t care about coffee but the warm creaminess of human gratitude is very nice.