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art by Shothot Designs

Perfect Black

A nominee for both the Nebula awards this year and winner of the Hugo for "Bridesicle," Will McIntosh’s work has appeared in Asimov’s (where he won the 2010 Reader's Award for short story), Strange Horizons, Unplugged: The Year's Best Online Fiction 2009, and many other venues. In 2005 his story "Soft Apocalypse" was nominated for both the British Science Fiction Association and the British Fantasy Society awards for best short story. His story “Followed,” which was published in the anthology The Living Dead, is currently being produced as a short film. Will is a psychology professor in the Southeastern U.S. He became the father of twins in 2008, which explains the precipitous dropoff in his productivity in 2009-10. The story that follows is a companion piece to "Perfect Violet", which was first published in On Spec, and appeared in Science Fiction: Best of the Year 2008.

When Jahn stopped to flirt with a girl selling potatoes in the alley, he got that mirror deja-vue feeling, as if he'd been there before, only he'd been selling the potatoes. Even the sound of water dribbling from a nearby pipe onto the pavement seemed familiar.
The more he thought about it, yeah, it was an old, rusty memory (maybe from way back in the day when you had to inject them), but he'd definitely done one of this chick's memories once. The perils of buying from local memory shops. Once he'd bought one of his own by mistake.
"Look," he said to her, smiling big and kind, "I know I'm scary-looking, but my bark is worse than my bite. I'm just scary-looking 'cause I'm an artist. And a musician. Mostly a musician, actually. My name's Jahn." He held out his hand.
The potato girl glared at him, tiny fists on slim hips.
She reached into her trashcan full of potatoes, shuffling them around like they needed to be rotated or something. The conversation was evidently over. Jahn watched her tiny hand rummage. She was so damned cute. What was it about Asian chicks? Maybe it was the way they were shy and confident at the same time.
That was a decent line for a song, actually. He fished his palm-pal from his pocket and whispered into it. The Asian chick didn't seem impressed.
"Jahn! C'mon, let's go!" Tracer called from the street, his arms folded. Jahn held up a finger, turned back to the potato girl.
"Well, maybe next time I see you, you'll know me, since now we've met?"
He rejoined Tracer, and they continued their aimless stroll, winding through the rusting cars, ancient battered appliances, and the occasional bone. Despite the rejection Jahn was feeling perfectly violet. Tracer went on about something and Jahn nodded while watching people drift past looking hungry and tired, occasionally waving at a friend, feeling blessed that he had food in his belly and a room to go home to.
The amputated stump of the Empire State Building and the burned-out Chrysler Building loomed between brick tenements. They'd been so beautiful when he was a kid--bright silver steel, sunlight glinting off checkerboard windows. At least, he thought they'd been intact when he was a kid. Was he old enough to have been alive before the Empire State Building was taken down?
"Hey, c'mon," Tracer said, grabbing Jahn by the elbow, pulling him toward a memory boutique. "I scored ninety bones selling those pictures--my treat."
Inside, Tracer went straight to the "Adults Only" section. Jahn browsed the aisles of finger-sized vials, most of them red, some brown, a few leaning toward pink. The valuable ones were displayed behind the counter--row upon row of dazzling violet, and a few at the top black as midnight, for people who liked that kind of thing.
Jahn's fingertips tingled in anticipation. Doing memories had two hooks that kept him coming back. There was that initial jolt--the strange images, thoughts, emotions, that hit you like an ice cream flavor you'd never tasted before, one that you hadn't even imagined could exist. Then, later, the memory expanded your past, gave your life twists and turns, complexity and richness. Do enough memories and you'd feel like you'd lived a hundred years. Do enough top-shelf violet and black memories, and that hundred years would be one hell of a carpe diem ride. But for that, you had to be rich.
He wandered through "Action," "Family," "Crimes." The "Unclassifiable," sign caught his eye. Pot-luck memories. He pulled a vial at random. It was a red one, an upper, though not even closing in on violet. He was definitely in the mood for a happy memory, even if all he could afford was just mildly happy. He held it to the light. Murky, like the water that came out of his faucet. Not vivid. Oh well.
He didn't even bother putting it in the scanner to read what it was about. He met back up with Tracer, who bought it for him, good as his word. Tracer seemed grateful he'd picked a cheap one.
As soon as they got outside Tracer pressed his vial against the shunt at the back of his thick neck and pushed the plunger. A wide smile spread across his face. He gasped. "Oh, baby. Oh god, this is a good one. Come on, I need to hurry home and experience this memory in the privacy of our bathroom."
Jahn did his memory. It was not as dynamic. It was a woman's memory of a night out drinking. Pretty disjointed; the girl seemed out of it, or maybe she'd sold too many memories and was a moon-brain.
Then Jahn noticed the music.
On her way home from the bar, stumbling drunk, she'd composed a song in her head. But composed wasn't the right word--the song popped into this girl's head whole. And it was a good song. No--it was a great song. Just vague lyrics, but the sounds--it was complex, layered, sort of a fusion of fuzz-jazz and postal. But not really. It wasn't like anything Jahn had ever heard. It was brilliant. The chick had vaguely hummed it, off-key, as she headed down an open manhole into the underground. But her humming didn't come anywhere close to what was going on in her head. The memory ended there, with the girl climbing down a ladder into the tunnels.
"Oh...oh..." he blurted, yanking out his palm-pal and trying to get it all down, notes on notes. It was even beautiful on the screen. "I have to get home."
"Did you get a sex one too?" Tracer asked, beaming.
As soon as he got home Jahn retrieved the weathered black cord snaking out of the apartment's antiquated net-jack, plugged the spiral of faded gold prongs into his palm-pal. His heart thumping, he downloaded the first stanza into the copyright checker. No matches! Nothing even close. Jahn couldn't believe it. He loaded the whole song and copyrighted it.
It was his!
Then it occurred to him: the woman--if she'd sold this memory, which on the surface was mundane and almost worthless, maybe she'd sold more at the same time.
"Trace?" Jahn unplugged, pounded on the bathroom door.
"What? Jeeze, I'm busy in here!"
"I need to borrow the rest of that ninety you made today."
"What? No way! All of it? Not a chance."
"Trace, I never ask you for nothing. Do me this favor. I'll pay you back plus ten."
Trace groaned. "In my wallet. On the table."
"Thanks man, I gotta go out for a while."
The guy at the memory boutique did a neurotransmitter match on the memory Jahn had bought, compared it to inventory, and came up with eleven matches. All of them were crap--muddy reds and milky browns; more browns than reds--but still, they added up to a hundred ten. He had to have them all.
He went into a booth and extracted three of his own good memories to make up the difference. He hated doing it, hated the itchy feeling it left, the vague, patchy disorientation of giving up slivers of his past. But he couldn't afford to miss even one of the vials. He left the shop wondering what memories he'd sold, but certain it was worth it.
At home, he lined them up on the table. Tracer watched, his eyes growing wider each time Jahn's hand went back into the bag.
"You're going to fuck yourself up good, you know that? You out of your mind? You can't do that many memories at once. You won't barely know who you are when you're done!"
Tracer was right, but he was going to do them anyway.
Most of them were sex memories--fat men with fish breath grunting on top of her on a filthy squeaking mattress in a wet basement. Jahn got an especially clear memory of the stiff springs pressing against the knobs of his spine. It made him want to puke, mostly because the memories were from the chick's perspective. That was temporary; over time the details would drift, like they always did. In a year Jahn would remember looking down into the woman's face, and would forget the feel of those squeaking springs. He didn't know what her face looked like, but that didn't matter; soon the face of some woman from his past, or from some vid, or even the potato girl, would be pasted there as the memory folded and twisted until it more or less fit the other details of his life. It was strange how much the mind hated inconsistencies, the lengths to which it would go to make someone else's memories fit the general story of your life. Strange and wonderful.
Only one of the woman's memories had music, but, oh, it was worth the cost of admission to get that one song. It was as complex as the first, but more aggressive, driving. It made Jahn feel flat-out powerful, like a werewolf.
Jahn loosened the mic stand, adjusted it up to fit his six-five frame, tapped it twice and got two nice muffled thumps.
"I've got some new juice to try out on you tonight," he said, adjusting the frets on his 12-string Stratocaster to an E major key signature. He'd had to change the songs from E flat major to E major to make them easier to play.
The place was crowded with the usual mix of Lower Manhattan rage addicts, their pupils fixed and dilated, and Upper Manhattan scenesters, wearing expensive knock-offs of Lower Manhattan rag-fashion. The scenesters stood out like tics in a cheese omelet, but didn't know it. The racial mix was an equal blend of black, white, Asian, and indeterminate biracial, like Jahn.
Everyone was talking, no one was looking at him on the little step-up stage in the corner except Tracer and his date--a round-faced chick with a wide burn scar on her neck--and a couple of his music buddies. Jahn turned and cranked his amp two notches
Were the songs as good as he thought they were? He was about to find out. He launched into the first. It was a ball-twisting composition, but he'd practiced his ass off to get it right.
All around the bar, mouths fell open. A chill rippled up Jahn's spine as he watched the faces turn to stare, stunned, eyes wide. A scenester woman, dressed in a shirt with studied casual food stains, dropped her drink. The glass shattered silently, the crash drowned by Jahn's guitar.
Jahn leaned into the voice-mic and in his booming baritone sang the scat he'd added to the composition. The crowd pressed toward him, like they wanted to touch the music, press themselves right against it. A fist shot into the air near the bar--it was Tracer, his head thrown back and his mouth open wide.
Something clicked into place, and Jahn didn't need to think about his fingers anymore. The Stratocaster played him. Rapture coursed through him like electric blood.
When he finished, the cheers were a solid wall of sound. He wiped sweat from his forehead, threw his hands into the air, then clasped them over his heart. This was what he'd always dreamed of. Musical transcendence. Union of Jahn, music, audience.
In the moment of silence between the last few claps and the beginning of the second song, a sobering thought tore through Jahn like barbed wire: You can't make a career off two songs.
A street sweeper rumbled along a side street, churning up plywood and cardboard shelters, its whooping alarm warning tenants to get their asses clear or be swept with their houses. The street tugged at Jahn's memory.
From an open second floor window, a fat old woman with no front teeth stared at Jahn, her mouth curled in suspicion. Jahn jolted to a stop. There was a courtyard on the other side of the street, tangled with rusted iron catwalks. An ancient solar panel clung to the side of one building--a useless dinosaur. The scene jangled his memory; the woman had been here... she'd been here to visit her family. It was a brown memory, dingy and somber as the surroundings. She didn't like her family.
A back door on the ground floor of the courtyard caught his eye. A mop handle leaned up against the wall beside the door, a plastic bucket beside it. A line of marigolds struggled to survive in a stingy strip of cracked dirt. This was the place.
When he knocked, a white woman cracked open the door. She had a bland face, her cheeks mottled with broken blood vessels, and she wore a white frock that almost looked like a nurse's uniform. She reminded Jahn of an alcoholic nun.
"Hello, I'm a friend of your daughter--"
"Did something happen to her?" the woman asked, suddenly anxious.
In the background, Jahn heard a man shout "Who?" Loud footsteps headed toward the door.
"I wouldn't know, I've lost touch with her. I'm trying to contact her."
A big, unshaven face poked through the door above the woman. "Who're you?" the man demanded.
"A friend of your daughter's--"
"She okay?"
Jahn managed to dodge the obvious, that he didn't even know their daughter's name. Eventually the woman gave it up--her name was Leisle. They didn't know where she was. When Jahn asked offhandedly if they had a picture of her, they didn't ask why he needed the picture, given that he was her friend. They were only concerned that he pass a message to her.
"Tell her we love her," the woman said, the words awkward on her lips. "She's very special, our brave little girl," she added before closing the door.
In the photo Leisle was sitting at a kitchen table, unsmiling. In fact, she looked angry. She was good looking in that addict way: pretty, but with the face of a fifty year-old smoker lurking just below the surface. Scrawny as an abandoned puppy. The ribs in her upper chest jutted like rows of extra collar bones above a low-cut t-shirt.
She looked familiar.... Jahn was pretty sure he'd seen her around the neighborhood; either that, or someone whose memories he'd bought had seen her.
Jahn took to walking the streets of his neighborhood. Even a man of his size and appearance--the war paint, the chaotic mass of long, thick hair--couldn't wander without fear of getting jacked and memory-wiped, so he used most of the money he'd made playing those two songs over and over at different clubs to buy a portable bodyguard. It was the size of a rat, all glinting, polished steel. Whip-fast. It was armed to bite, slash, and shoot, and understood seventy commands. He kept the bodyguard in a pouch clipped to his belt.
When he finally spotted her, she was leaned up against a wall in a trash-strewn alley smoking a cigarette, her face lit by a naked lightbulb over a delivery door.
Jahn took a couple of steps into the alley.
"There's a guy with a meat cleaver right through this door," she called, rapping her knuckles on the door. "Get lost or I'll sick him on you." Her face was haggard, her mouth an angry snarl, but her eyes... her eyes were on fire. They were gold, with green flecks. Intense, even in the shadows.
He held his open hands in the air. "I just want to play something for you."
"Play something for me? What, you going to serenade me? A little mood music while I take my God-damned eleven minute break?"
Jahn pulled the player from his back pocket, held it up, took a few more steps into the alley and played the song. She looked toward the stars, smiling a little as it played.
"Okay, so you got taste."
He waited for the moment of recognition, but it didn't come. Had she just composed that song, played it in her head while she walked, then forgot it? He looked at her intently. Where did that sort of brilliance come from?
"What?" she said, frowning.
"You wrote this. I bought a memory that belonged to you, and got the song from it."
She folded her arms across her chest and soaked in the information for minute. "So? What, you hunted me down from the memory, to, what? Say thank you?"
He closed the distance between them until he was facing her. "I want to buy more."
She looked startled, covered it by laughing harshly. "Yeah."
"I'm serious."
She tilted her head. For a moment she looked like a young woman, and Jahn realized that she was--no more than twenty-five or six. He'd tagged her as mid-thirties.
He pulled a memory vial from his shirt pocket, held it up to the light where she'd be able to see the color. Violet. Clear as bottled water. A five-hundred-dollar memory.
"For one good song," he said.
The smile disappeared; her eyes flashed razors. She smacked his hand violently, almost jarring the vial loose. "I don't want your shit!" She shoved him in the chest, took another swipe at the vial. He raised his hand over her head so she couldn't reach it.
"Get the fuck out of here," she said.
"I'm sorry!" Jahn said, backing up a step. "I can give you cash. I just figured..."
"That I was a memory junkie? Wrong." She calmed down a little. "You got cash? I'll give you a song. Otherwise take your shit and get out."
They walked along the river while Leisle thought up a song. Out on the rickety, half-rotted wooden docks a woman washed clothes in the thick grey water. A couple of old men played dice. Two younger guys were fighting, but only with fists, and not very enthusiastically--probably making a memory to sell.
"Got it," Leisle said.
Jahn pulled out his palm-pal, enabled the composition function, held it out to Leisle.
"What's that?" She looked at the screen. "I don't know how to write music."
"Well, how am I gonna get the song?"
She shrugged. "I could hum it."
A tugboat's deep bass horn blew, echoing off the water.
Jahn shook his head. "I know what your humming sounds like. That won't work." He sighed. The two fighters on the dock were now taking off each others' clothes. Jahn wondered if they were any more interested in screwing each other than they'd been in fighting each other. Sex sold. "We'll just have to extract the memory. I'll pay the fee out of my end."
"Oh no," Leisle said, stopping short. "I don't sell memories."
"But...yes you do. I bought a bunch of them."
"I had no choice," she hissed, "I was hungry. I have a job now." She brushed her hair roughly out of her face. "And I only sold incidental stuff. Nothing core."
"Well this is an incidental memory too. The only reason you--"
"Look," Leisle said. "My family is Slanghe Melath. I was raised in the faith, and even though I don't follow most of it any more, there are parts I still believe in."
Jahn nodded. Things started clicking into place. One of his old music buddies had been Slanghe Melath. "You worship memories, right?"
"No, we don't worship memories. But we know it's a sin to buy or sell them. Memories are the core of the soul. If you sell them, you corrupt yourself."
"Whatever," Jahn said. Every week there was some new church popping up with a set of arbitrary rules. Must be a thousand little religions in Manhattan.
"How many times have you been in love?" Leisle asked suddenly.
"What? Where did that come from?"
"How many times?"
Jahn shrugged. "I don't know. Three times."
"Are you sure?"
Jahn was about to say he was, then hesitated. There was Eun, Kerra... and he was pretty sure he'd been in love with a woman named Maya, a small woman who'd been blind in one eye. Even thinking of her now, he felt a soft longing. But he couldn't remember where they'd met, or how they'd broken up. And what about that girl when he was sixteen? Had that been him?
"No," he finally admitted.
Leisle sneered. "Your life is a fiction. Your soul is made from parts of other people, stitched together."
"How many times have you been in love?" Jahn countered.
"Never," she answered immediately. "See how certain I am? My soul is intact."
Jahn followed the sound of shrieking birds overhead--something had died in the underhang of an elevated trestle. Big black birds were eating it.
"What if I give the memory right back after I get the song?" he said, wanting to get the conversation back on track. "I'll only borrow it."
Leisle shook her head. "You'll contaminate it."
"You must be close to your family, to be so devoted to their faith." He had enough of her memories to know it wasn't true.
"I don't have a family," she said.
Two men, one carrying a piece of wood with nails jutting from one end, came out from under an overpass and headed toward them. Jahn activated the bodyguard. It scurried down his leg, glided silently beside him. The men changed course quickly.
Leisle cackled. "You better run, river shit!"
"What if it were a gift?" Jahn said. He was pretty sure that was allowed under their rules.
"It's not a gift. You're paying me for the song, plus a cut of profits." That was a new twist. Jahn let it go. Actually, cutting Leisle in on the profits was a good idea--it would provide incentive for her to compose more songs.
"I'm paying you for songs, not memories," he stopped walking, looked right at Leisle, "but knowing how you feel about memories, I'd understand the significance of the gesture, and consider it a gift of great value. I'd be carrying a small piece of your soul."
Leisle stared at him. Jahn could tell she was searching for signs of insincerity, the hint of a smirk, and he congratulated himself on his poker face.
"You know more about Slanghe Melath than most people. Okay. Yeah, a gift. Just one," She said. "Come on."
It occurred to him that he mostly meant what he'd said. The little mattress rat walking beside him was a musical genius, and the idea of absorbing pieces of her left him a little awestruck.
She slammed the dented sliding door of the extraction booth that sat on the corner, outside the boarded-up Civil Defense store, and led him down the street, to a playground engulfed by kudzu. They sat on a hump that was probably a picnic bench under the big seafoam green leaves, beside a bigger hump that may have been a giant collapsed habitrail, surrounded by kudzu-wrapped swings. Leisle held up her fist. The silver tips of three vials were visible in the crook of her hand. "Choose."
Jahn looked at her, puzzled.
"These are my gifts. One is the song, the other two are pieces of my life. Go on," she lifted her fist higher.
He chose one, held it up to catch the light. It was the blackest vial he'd ever seen.
"Go on," she said when he hesitated. "You can't have another if you don't accept it."
Reluctantly he pressed the vial against his shunt.
The memory ripped through him like a piledriver.
The smell of frying meat and overripe produce. A swirling wall of adults surrounding her, brushing against her. The burble of voices, shouting merchandise, bargaining, begging. Her little hand engulfed by her mother's.
She's looking back through the breaks in the crowd, catching staccato glances of her little brother, no more than three, standing in the center of the market among busy strangers, screaming for mommy, looking all around, the tips of his fingers pressed to his wet mouth.
Mommy tugging Leisle's arm, hurrying away.
Mommy, you forgot Canton!
Be quiet. Just keep walking.
Canton screams Leisle's name once, twice; only it sounds more like "Leedle." One final glimpse of Canton, his eyes round with fear.
Jahn fell off the bench, curled up into a ball, his hands over his face. Emotions ripped through him--guilt, shock, helplessness.
Leisle laughed. "Plenty more where that came from. Why don't you try another?"
Jahn looked up at her. She held out the other two like she was offering smokes.
"No way."
Leisle stared at him, her fist out.
"Why?" he asked. He gripped a handful of vines, heaved himself onto the bench, still doubled over. He pulled his feet up and hugged his knees.
"You like memories, don't you? What are you complaining about? These are hundred-dollar blackies."
He wiped his eyes with the heel of his hand. "Why are you making me do them? What's the point?"
She pushed her face so close he could smell her last cigarette. "You want my music? You understand where it comes from."
The music. He wanted that song. He just had to think about the blackies as entertainment, like a horror movie. It wouldn't be so bad if he wasn't sitting right next to the person who'd actually gone through it.
He chose another vial. It was another black one.
She's so hungry; it feels like a horrible itch, deep inside where she can't scratch it. She's sitting on a stone curb, her chin on her knees, ten feet from a woman selling walnuts out of an old doorless refrigerator tipped on its back. She tells the woman how hungry she is; the woman ignores her.
Her mother appears around the corner; she's just swallowing something. She runs her tongue over her teeth, then smiles at Leisle, holding out her hand for Leisle to grasp.
Jahn turned to Leisle. "I'm so sorry." He wrapped his arms around her. For a moment she melted into him, then she was coiled rope, pushing him away.
Jahn played the latest song for her on the narrow roof of his apartment building, six stories above the street, in the shadow of a taller building that bore a vertical sign reading "Ed Sullivan Theater," one of many signs around the city that meant nothing to anyone, but must have once upon a time.
When he finished, Leisle clapped twice, a cigarette dangling from her lips.
"You can't even read music," Jahn said, shaking his head in disbelief. "You're a savant, you know that?"
"Yeah, sure."
"You really don't understand how good you are, do you?"
Leisle blew smoke, staring out at the red brick buildings stained to black, at the huge billboards, some still sporting images of long-dead people staring down, like modern gods, at the city streets.
"Make me a few more songs, and then I'll give a concert, and you can see how people react," Jahn said. "We're gonna be rich, you know that? Upper Manhattan rich."
Leisle glanced at him. "I'll be happy with 'I don't have to wash dishes with other people's masticated food on them anymore' rich." She dug in her pocket, and held out three more vials. He scooped them out of her palm eagerly.
There were always three--a song, and two others. Every morning Jahn woke with a twisting in his gut, assailed by memories, and every morning he had to remind himself that these weren't his memories, that this wasn't his family. The memories fought to meld, and he fought to keep them distanced. And they just kept coming, as if she had a limitless supply, an entire childhood spent in hell. No wonder she was so damaged.
Leisle had started writing down all the memories before she extracted them, and occasionally quizzed him to make sure he wasn't selling them at the boutique.
He started with the black ones.
The first wasn't too bad: Leisle had stepped on a yellow jacket's nest wedged beside the steps leading to a porch. Wasps swarmed out of the hole, stung her legs and face. She swatted at them, screaming. Nobody came to help. She raced inside. Her father was on the phone. He covered the receiver, told her to shut the hell up, and went back to his conversation.
"When did you live in the country?" Jahn asked.
"I don't know," she said, flicking the butt off the roof in a flash of sparks. It was getting dark.
"You lived on a farm--your brother once lowered you into the well in a bucket and threw snakes down at you for a laugh."
"If you say so. I don't have that memory any more."
Jahn did the other memory. It was a bad one, a strange one. Leisle was about twelve, lying in a pile of corpses in a mass grave. A face with a badly swollen eye was inches from her own. A fly crawled across the eyelid. It stopped to rub its little hands together. The swollen eyelid flickered, as if the owner were trying to open it. A moan. Then a voice from above: "Is this how you want to end up?" The sound of a shovel in dirt, then the heavy patter of soil hitting her head and shoulder. Laughter.
"These can't all be your memories," Jahn said. "You were tortured in a prison camp? When? By whom?"
"I don't know."
"It reminds me of the insurgent camps of the twenties, after the water wars. But that was before we were born. And in the farmhouse--your father was talking on a phone with a cord! You had antique phones around your house when you were a kid?"
"I don't know! And I don't want to be reminded of it, okay? What, you think I bought all this black shit with my dishwashing money? Filled myself with the darkest memories I could find?" She stood, jabbed a finger at him. "You want my fucking songs? Then shut the fuck up. You take the memories I give you and shut the fuck up and pay me my money, got it?"
Jahn studied her carefully. He nodded. "Absolutely."
A guy with dyed white hair stared up at Jahn, tears streaming down his cheeks. The Orange Pekoe bar swirled with movement. Bodies dancing, writhing, jumping. They knew something important was happening, just as Jahn knew. This music was alive; it was breathing. It was a green shoot on the tip of a long-dead branch. Lower Manhattan had something new.
A woman waving her arms in the air suddenly fainted. Her date caught her, dragged her out of the thick of the crowd.
Leisle was sitting at the bar fingering a blue neon drink. She looked shocked, a little disoriented. She finally understood. Jahn hoped it would heal her a little. And the part of her that was in him. He still couldn't understand how all of those different, awful things had happened to her. It was just too much.
Without thinking, Jahn had deviated into a throbbing, aching improvisation. Leisle caught his eye, nodded approval, and winked. Maybe. Maybe there was hope for her.
He rode the solo, feeling pride that a sliver of the performance was his, that he could ride up front with Leisle-the-genius for a moment. Then he returned to the bridge.
Leisle glanced toward the door, and her expression returned to its usual scowl. A group of unlikely bar patrons had entered. Jahn recognized them from a dozen black memories: the bizarre clothes, the wooden way they moved. There were five of them: Leisle's mother, father, brother, an old hag that must have been Leisle's grandmother, and a doppleganger of her mom--probably an aunt. The sight of them disgusted him. What the hell were they doing here?
Tracer appeared out of nowhere, ready to protect Leisle, but she warned him off with a brief headshake. She said something to her family, pointed at Jahn, then at herself, then swept her hand to take in the two or three hundred other people in the bar. She poked herself in the chest three or four more times.
Jahn let it go. He played. He watched the faces and fed off their energy.
While the applause was fading and Jahn was unstrapping his guitar, an Upper Manhattan type approached him with a smile and an outstretched business card. Jahn put down the guitar and walked right past him, to the unlikely group congregated at the bar.
"Hello again," he said tightly.
Mom and dad nodded in unison. Grandma limped forward, strained against her curved spine to peer up at Jahn.
"Did our Leisle really make up them songs?"
"Every last one." He thought he understood now: Leisle wanted to show them she was doing well, that they hadn't beaten her. "Leisle is the best composer alive." He looked into Leisle's eyes, which were ablaze with triumph. "Even she doesn't realize how good she is."
Grandma nodded, satisfied. "She gets her talent from her great-great grandfather. Evan was his name. Back when I was a girl living in the country, Grandpa Evan used to play on the porch after supper. He could pick up any instrument and play it right off."
The country? Jahn heard the whine of angry wasps, could almost feel their stings. "Was it a big screened-in porch, with a row of deer antlers mounted on the crossbeam?"
Grandma's eyes widened.
Jahn felt like he'd been jolted with a tazer. He was on the edge of something; he could almost see it. He looked at Leisle, to see if she'd registered any of this. Nothing. She must have heard these stories a hundred times. She was too close to it.
It was time to get to the bottom of this. "It's warm in here. Why don't we go outside?" Jahn said. He headed for the door, held it open until they followed. Grandma was staring at him, her mouth opening and closing like a fish. He motioned to Tracer, who followed them out.
Jahn activated his bodyguard and pointed at Leisle's father. "Throat. Hold," he ordered. The bodyguard shot up dad's body, clamped itself around his neck, razor teeth poised over his jugular.
Shouts erupted. Leisle's brother moved toward Jahn, but Tracer stepped in front of him. Leisle looked more curious than anything. Jahn thought he saw the hint of a smile.
He wheeled toward mom. "Tell me what happened to Leisle, or I'll cut his throat."
"What?" mom said, her doughy face blank.
"Ready!" Jahn said. The bodyguard reared up, tensed.
"It's none of your business!" Grandma said.
"It's certainly her business," Jahn growled, gesturing toward Leisle. He grabbed mom by the arm, gripped it tight. "Tell me what's going on. Why would Leisle have memories from that farmhouse?"
"Don't do it Ariel!" Grandma shouted after her. "Don't you do it."
Mom hesitated.
"Left calf! Disable, five!" Jahn ordered. The bodyguard was down the father's back in a blur. It bit a chunk out of his calf, right through his dungarees. Dad dropped, screaming, his hand clamped over a bloody hole.
"Stop! All right!" Mom howled.
Something even better occurred to Jahn. "You see that street down there?" He pointed. Mom nodded. "Around the corner there's an extraction booth. I want you to extract a memory of what happened. Do you have that memory?"
Mom swallowed thickly. She nodded.
"Good." He let go of her arm. Mom ran stumbling toward the booth, ignoring Grandma's shouts.
Leisle stood over her father, whose eyes were glassy with pain. "Serves you right," she said.
Mom returned clutching a vial. Jahn took it and held it out to Leisle. Leisle eyed it as if Jahn were offering her a warm turd.
"Trust me."
She considered. She took the vial, reached around to the back of her neck and inserted it.
Her mouth formed a rictus "o", and her eyes rolled up, exposing red veins on white. She inhaled sharply, and screamed until all the air was expelled from her lungs.
Jahn put a hand on Leisle's shoulder. "What?"
Leisle leaped at her mother, knocked her to the ground, wrapped her hands high on her mother's throat.
Jahn pulled her off, strained to hold her wrists as she launched herself first at her mother, then at any family member in her line of sight. She kicked out at her brother using Jahn as leverage. Tracer, who had her brother in a headlock, pulled him back just in time.
Jahn reeled Leisle in, wrapped his arms around her. "Tell me," he whispered. "Tell me what happened."
His voice brought her back. She looked up at him.
"They're holding me down, pumping me with memories," she said, panting as if she were running while she spoke. "One after another after another. All of them black, all my family's black memories. For hours. I'm screaming and screaming, trying to break free--" she broke into sobs.
"You sacrificed for the family," her father said. "Better just one suffer."
"Tell me," Jahn coaxed, ignoring her father.
"Mom is whispering to me, telling me what a brave girl I am, what a special girl I am."
"You are special," her mother protested.
Leisle went nuts again, and Jahn was sorely tempted to let her go.
"Why did you extract her memory of that day? Why couldn't she at least know where all the memories came from?" Jahn asked.
Silence. Jahn barked an order at the bodyguard.
"She might have taken them back out. It's a sin..." Mom said.
Jahn stared at the woman in disbelief. She didn't even look remorseful.
He called off the bodyguard. "Get out of here."
Leisle passed the portable extractor to Jahn. It was the latest technology, affordable only to rich people--Upper Manhattan rich.
"Your turn," she said.
She picked up her brand new guitar, carefully placed her fingers at C major and strummed.
"Okay, let's see. I'm almost certain I've never been out of the city, so all my memories of other places can go." He isolated a memory of a river canoe trip, toggled the extract function, and the memory was gone. The vial was reddish-pink. He stood, held the vial out past the bridge's railing between thumb and forefinger, then let it drop. It shattered on the rocks below. The rocks were covered with broken glass, mottled with pinwheel streaks of pink and black, red and brown.
"I'm sick of this fucking note. Give me something else," Leisle said, still strumming C major.
He eased back into his folding chair, lifted her fingers one by one, shifted their positions. "G major," he said. She tried it out, her eyes on high beam, staring at the finger placement. He only had to show her once. When she was ready, their band was gonna cut flesh.
He handed the extractor to Leisle. "Your turn." She leaned the guitar against the railing. Waves lapped gently against the shore below.
"Is it better, knowing all those things didn't happen to you?"
"How come?"
Leisle retrieved a black vial from the extractor.
"Before I thought my family was just crazy. Now they don't have any excuse." She flipped the vial off the bridge. It spun end-over-end, broke with a high-pitched tink. "They found a loophole in the faith, a way to be pious and comfortable at the same time. That's worse than if they were just bastards who did terrible things to me."
"Yeah, I see." Jahn put his arm around Leisle's shoulders. She tensed, but let him keep it there.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, December 10th, 2010
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