Terms Apply by Max Christopher

Terms Apply
Max Christopher

I picked up this year’s free car today, regretting my decision to walk the six blocks to the dealership. Horrible biped dogs leaned in doorways, wagging their tails listlessly when a person walked by. Seeing them made my skin crawl.

“How are you?” one said. How sounded like a howl. Houuu.

I adjusted my grip on my bag so I could swing it, sped up and almost caught a heel in a grate.

The attendant wore too much expensive cologne. Nearby stood a biped dog.

“Can’t you get rid of that thing?” I asked.

He shrugged. “They do no harm.”

“But this is a place of business.”

“No money changes hands.”

The car was huge and fire-engine red. “I’m not even sure why I came today. Why do car companies manufacture the things now?”

“It’s a beautiful automobile,” he said. “People like to keep busy. To feel useful. There’s an exhilarating freedom now.”

“What freedom?”

“Gone are the days of choosing between paying rent or getting a nice new automobile,” said the attendant. “Well!” He clapped his hands and dug into a pocket. “Here you are.”

They key was symbolic. The car had already been coded to my patterns.

“Now,” he said. “Certain terms apply.”

“What?”

“My little joke. There are no terms.”

He left.

As I slid onto the seat the upright dog wandered over. I yanked the door shut.

“Go on,” I said. “Get out of here.”

“Nowhere to go,” it said.

“That has nothing to do with me.” I saw that the hideous creature was female.

“You have family to fill seats?” it said. “Children?”

“Shut up,” I said.

The dog blinked at me slowly. Its skull was huge, making its eyes appear small.

“You know there are no children,” I said. “That was cruel.”

“Sorry,” the dog said. “My kind also cannot make pups.”

“They should never have made you brutes able to talk.”

“Hard for dogs too.”

“You’re monsters. You’ve no right to live.” I felt the backs of my knees sweat.

“Want to belong to person.”

“I’ll call the police.”

“Police have all they can do with roving gangs. Large sections of city are already – “

“Those gangs have dogs like you. I see the news. You’re their enforcers, their – their killers.”

“Dog will kill to protect master.”

The dog was at the driver’s side door. It took me a panicky moment to find the backup manual door opener. I grasped the old-fashioned handle and swung the door open with all my force. It struck with a whunk and knocked the dog sprawling on the asphalt. It hitched over on its side, got one arm under it, then the other. Its bulging skull was cut.

It heaved itself to its feet and regarded me gravely.

“You’re bleeding,” I said.

The dog didn’t say anything.

“It’s wetting your fur,” I said.

“My breed has hair.”

Something in me slipped. “You’re a bastard breed!” I shrieked. “It’s like God stops creating so the devil steps in. Only the devil is us.” I felt tears on my cheeks. “We can’t make more people but we made you.”

“Can’t make pups.” The dog’s snout was stubby, perhaps so its strange mouth could form articulate speech.

“Were you supposed to replace children? Give us something to take care of and talk to that could talk back? Something to teach and watch grow? I wanted children.”

The dog looked at me, the blood on its skull glistening.

“When I missed a period my first year in grad school we sat on our ugly old green couch and talked about it.” I gripped the steering wheel. It was pearly white and felt a yard wide, with a half ring of metal for the horn and a thick logo in mother of pearl and red enamel.

“We were calm. The time wasn’t right. Up to our butts in debt in an apartment with bugs. We’d have had to quit school.” I flicked my nails over the logo, making a deep satisfying noise. Cars were like this long ago, unapologetically grand. “We wanted to wait until we had our degrees. Then until Bill’s practice was going. We behaved responsibly.

“Then the babies stopped. We told ourselves we were lucky. We’d be spared so many heartaches. An illness from which a child didn’t recover, a fall from a tree fort that left some kid paralyzed. Being yanked from sleep by a call from the police. Watching them grow up to hate us. Watching them grow into unhappy adults. Watching them grow . . . ” I leaned my head against the steering wheel. “No schoolyard bullies. No falls, no cuts and bruises to kiss and make all better. No crying, no little – ” I gulped air. “No little arms around my neck.” I hadn’t cried in years. The morning I woke up alone and read Bill’s note was a bleak tearless relief.

The dog whined.

“Hey!” The attendant crossed the lot gripping a metal three-hole punch, giant napkin stuffed in his collar. “Are you still here? Get out of here. Shoo!”

The dog whirled, foreshortened snout rippling in a snarl. The attendant dropped the punch, spun and raced away with both arms raised. The napkin flapped up over his face.

A bark of laughter shot out of me. I dug out a tissue and scrubbed at my face.

“What’s your name?”

“No name.”

“I teach classics,” I said. “How about Penelope?”

“Good. Good.” It sounded like panting.

I found the button and the passenger door opened like a great red bird extending one wing. “Come on. I’ll see to that cut.”

“Can’t sit like that.”

I closed the passenger door and opened the back door. “Terms always apply.”

She climbed in. We drove away.

Terms Apply by Max Christopher 1

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