“Dead Merchandise” by Ferrett Steinmetz

“Dead Merchandise” by Ferrett Steinmetz

The ad-faeries danced around Sheryl, flickering cartoon holograms with fluoride-white smiles. They told her the gasoline that sloshed in the red plastic canister she held was high-octane, perfect for any vehicle, did she want to go for a drive?

She did not. That gasoline was for burning. Sheryl patted her pockets to make sure the matches were still there and kept moving forward, blinking away the videostreams. Her legs ached.

She squinted past a flurry of hair-coloring ads (“Sheryl, wash your gray away today!”), scanning the neon roads to find the breast-shaped marble dome of River Edge’s central collation unit. River’s Edge had been a sleepy Midwestern town when she was a girl, a place just big enough for a diner and a department store. Now River’s Edge had been given a mall-over like every other town — every wall lit up with billboards, colorful buildings topped with projectors to burn logos into the clouds. She was grateful for the dark patches that marked where garish shop-fronts had been bombed into ash-streaked metal tangles.

The smoke gave her hope. Others were trying to bring it all down — and if they were succeeding, maybe no one was left to stop her.

Rotting bodies leered out at her through car windows, where computer-guided cars had smashed headlong into the collapsed shopfronts that had fallen into the road. Had the drivers been fleeing, or trying to destroy the collation unit? She had no idea.

The ad-faeries sang customized praises to each auto as she glanced at the cars, devising customized ditties about the ’59 Breezster’s speed. Sheryl needed speed; at her arthritic pace, walking through the women’s district might tempt her into submission.

Given that the ad-faeries suggested it, driving was a terrible idea. River’s Edge had been so gutted by bombings that she’d have to drive manually — and it was already hard to see through the foggy blur of chirping ad-faeries, each triangulating her cornea’s focal point to obscure her vision for the legal limit of .8 seconds. They elbowed each other aside, proffering chewy pomegranate cookies, diamond-edged razors, laser-guided wall-bots that would paint her house a new color every day.

She had no use for them. She’d burned her house down, leaving Rudy’s body underneath the pile of engraved stones with her sons’ names on them. She had to pass through the two main shopping districts to destroy the collation center at River’s End — and if she did that, then she could free Oakmoor, then Daleton, and then who knows where?

But they’d kill her if she weakened.

Sheryl clutched the gasoline canister to her chest as she maneuvered past an old ’32 Vaquero. Though its monstrous grill was buried underneath a collapsed 7-11, it was still drivable.

We drove that car on our honeymoon, she thought, and remembered Rudy’s hands on the wheel. She’d been terrified because nobody drove manually, but he’d flashed her a confident smile. We don’t need robots to tell us where to go, he’d said — and she’d rolled down the window and howled with pleasure as they’d zig-zagged to their honeymoon cabin, the other cars squealing for cover, feeling so free and wild…

Sheryl sat in the car seat, humming. The car had started itself up helpfully, its motor rumbling.

Goddammit. They’d zapped her again.

Rudy’s dead, she thought, clambering down. She found a rock and smashed in the windshield. You’re just a hunk of metal, she screamed, not my glorious future! But they’d scanned her brain to dredge up that memory, used her rawest emotions to put her where they’d wanted. Even now, her body quivered with the urge to grab the wheel and just drive wild and free — though if she did, they’d swarm her eyes with burst-ads until she crashed.

That knowledge didn’t stop the longing, though. Nothing did.

She scraped the stone along the Vaquero’s burgundy finish and walked away, grateful the ad-faeries couldn’t control cars.

Why do you reject us, Sheryl Winstead? asked the ad-faeries, spreading out their smooth hands in innocence. Just go home. Settle back into the comfort we offer. We will fetch you such simple treasures that your heart will break: clean white floors, hot chicken with brown gravy, movies with burning angels. Just relax, Sheryl Winstead. Relax and rest.

You took my sons from me, she thought, clinging to her rage. You took my husband. You took my friends. You have nothing left to offer.

But we do, they said. And Sheryl’s heart skipped a beat as she saw glowing, ruby-red shoes waltzing across checkered tiles, so graceful that her feet ached to step into them; she would be made into a dancer if she squeezed her toes into those knife-pointed shoes, she just knew it. She heard a faint tapping sound; gaunt, faceless women wearing black-laced corsets beckoned to her from behind frosted glass. Their mannequined curves showed how well their clothes would fit upon her. Pink taffeta streams whooshed overhead like cotton-candy fireworks.

You know what the women’s district has to offer, the ads said.

She did. That was why she squeezed her eyes shut and moved forward, ignoring the hundreds of emaciated survivors who flattened themselves against the empty storefronts like worshippers. Worshoppers. The stores held only holograms, all the actual dresses long sold or stolen, but still the shoppers tapped their credit cards against the glass, whispering prayers to the ad-faeries: make me beautiful, let me forget.

Dayna, too, had spent hours with her cheek pressed to the windowpanes.

Sheryl felt her way across the road, remembering how Dayna had wept when the police came to take her home. But the officers (each wearing store logos on their arms, like NASCAR drivers) had been firm: the shopping districts demanded a set expenditure per hour in order to stay, and Dayna hadn’t —

Sheryl tripped over someone’s foot.

The gasoline canister flew from her hands as she sprawled on the ground. The worshoppers pulled away from their windows to watch as Sheryl skidded face-first across the buckled tiles, ass in the air. They giggled.

Stupid, she thought, so clumsy

And she was back at the cotillion, lying on the floor while everyone laughed.

She’d been so looking forward to her first college dance. Sheryl’s high school prom had been held in a gym that stank of sweaty shorts, with farm boys who grudgingly wore tuxedos rented so many times they were shiny at the elbows. Sheryl didn’t look much better, with her plump belly squashed beneath a garish, lipstick-red dress.

So when she’d pledged with Dayna at Alpha Delta Sigma, and discovered they had an annual cotillion in a ballroom, well, her heart just about imploded. And when Rudy, beautiful rugged Rudy Thompson, asked her to that cotillion, she’d pressed her palm against her mouth to hold back her squee of delight.

She would finally get her chance to be elegant.

Come on, country girl, Dayna had laughed, and threw Sheryl a big bold smile. Let’s get you fixed up.

And they’d gone to the mall, which had just installed the latest in neural imaging technology, an arc of dazzling brass wires that read your mind when you passed under it, calculating what you wanted. Isn’t it awesome? Dayna had said, doing ballerina twirls in the food court, where the oily smell of the Filet-O-Fish reminded Sheryl of Mom’s annual fish fries, so good and hot and full of the promise of summer. But they still tasted like cardboard.

Let’s go be graceful, Dayna had said, and they’d lost themselves in perfumes and gowns, every dress promising perfect splendors.

And when she’d walked in on Rudy’s arm, feeling the firm bulge of his biceps underneath the starched fabric of a pearl-white tuxedo, she’d glided in like a queen. She’d forgotten the acne underneath her makeup, the press of her belly against the chiffon. She was the belle of the ball.

She’d danced, and Rudy knew how to twirl her. Sweaty and grinning, Dayna had suggested they freshen up in the women’s bathroom for the second round.

And when she came out, she’d tripped on the rug.

Just like now. With her fat ass waggling in the air, her white granny underwear showing to the whole room, everyone had laughed. All her beauty had been whisked out from underneath her like a magician’s trick.

Just another ignorant hick, the ad-faeries whispered sympathetically, replaying the laughter in her ears. You know this idea that you’re competent is just an illusion, right? Why, if we stripped away these shields we’ve lent you, nobody would love you. Your voice is too loud, your opinions too cantankerous — we can show you how to be loved, yes, how to step into this dress, shed some weight, titter in the most beguiling ways —

And Sheryl remembered Dayna — poor, doomed Dayna. Dayna had yanked her to her feet, smoothed Sheryl’s dress, and shoved her back out onto the dance floor, muttering, they all wish they had an ass as fine as yours, girl. And Rudy had kissed her neck, and they had danced again as if nothing had happened at all.

She would have fled if it wasn’t for Dayna’s hand, reaching out to her.

Dayna had turned on the oven and pulled the door shut.

Fuck you. Sheryl rose back up on wobbling knees. Do you know what you did to her? Did you see her when you replayed her best memories to get her to eat your corn syrup-soaked crap, then dug up her deepest shames to make her feel guilty about not fitting into her dress? I saw her, gobbling burgers in the back of the car where no one would see her, then sucking in her gut as she tugged the strings on her girdle, trying to be two things at once.

You drove her fucking mad, telling her to be wanton when you needed her to buy expensive perfumes and mortified when it was time to buy tampons, to lure her into wearing slinky dresses with the promise of beautiful men’s stomachs and tanned shoulders, and then made her feel like a whore when it came time to sell douches.

Sheryl looked around. Dayna’s body had burned at home, but this shopping district was where her soul had boiled away — spending hours wandering endlessly through dress shops that purred instructions on how to be loved.

When Dayna left the mall, she had told Sheryl over one too many drinks, all that love evaporated. Without the ad-faeries to lift her there was just her, this frail bulimic thing with acetone breath, and she couldn’t resist the way the fast-food restaurants unearthed her deepest desires, and when she arrived home with a trunk crammed with clothes she’d outgrown and a maxed-out credit card, what was she to do?

Dayna imploded. And so she took out all the cookie racks and crawled into the oven and set it on CLEAN. And she’d burned up like a pile of chopsticks.

I’m not another victim, Sheryl thought. I’m going to shut you down, just like all your other suicides shut themselves down; first here, then Daleton, then Oakmoor.

And as Sheryl stormed through the fashion district, the worshoppers turned and stared, wondering what someone so confident had just purchased.

She walked until the shop-fronts with curlicued fonts stenciled upon pastel colors gave way to flat blue steel, to the sweaty seats of exercise machines and the stamped metal curves of lawnmowers: the men’s district.

Sheryl froze. If anyone was left to stop her, the ad-faeries would have had them intercept her here. But no; haggard men crawled from the rubble to flex their muscles, weak with starvation, trying to catch her eye – but none had uniforms. The police had all quit or been killed.

She looked at the blasted buildings. Killed, probably. The men’s district had always been a magnet for suicidal housewives — she guessed she was one, now.

She was climbing over the bombed-out ruins of a sports shop, avoiding the jagged rebar, when the sirens blared.

THERE HAS BEEN A TERRORIST ATTACK. The broken glass lit up with red, whirling alarm-lights. THE BUILDINGS ARE COLLAPSING. FLEE.

And as Sheryl froze in shock, the ad-faeries surfed that dread down to her worst memories —

— she was twenty-seven again, towing Jacob and Ethan by the hand through the downtown district, when the bomb went off. Jacob, always so scared of everything, shrieked and grabbed her legs, his pale skin smeared with blood and dust, whereas Ethan, ever so inquisitive, kept asking, What’s going on, Mommy? What’s happening? She clutched them tight to her chest as Jacob howled with pain, and Ethan shrank back from all the survivors running, just running in any direction, trampling those who fell as they tried to get out from underneath the glass ceiling, which made great groaning noises as the girders swayed and heaved, sending flocks of mall-pigeons flying in crazed circles.

But where could they run to? The downtowns had been rebuilt into an open-air shopping plaza, then the sky walled off with glass. Everywhere was a mall, now.

She threw Jacob over her shoulder, moaning in sympathy when she saw his twisted leg, and pounded on the shoppers’ backs in an attempt to open up an escape. The crowd shoved their bovine weight against a stuck shelter exit, flattening the first wave of survivors into jelly before the door popped open. And Sheryl was halfway down the stairs before she realized Ethan wasn’t there, and oh God she was the worst mother in the world, how could she have lost Ethan?

She fought her way back to the surface, and thank God Ethan wasn’t far gone. He was standing by the Orange Julius, holding a little girl’s arm, picking at the charm bracelet still attached to the girl’s wrist. What’s going on, Mommy? he’d asked, holding up the dismembered arm like it was Show, and Sheryl’s job to Tell. What’s happening?

Sheryl heaved a choked scream and lost her balance — and she was tumbling back down the rubble of the bombed-out men’s district.

It’s dangerous here, said the ad-faeries, waving bloodied stumps in warning. The terrorists have planted bombs everywhere. You can’t be safe.

Sheryl rose to her feet, trying to remember where she was; were Ethan and Jacob still alive? It was hard to think. She’d cut herself something fierce. But yes, Ethan and Jacob had survived that first bombing.

That rebar’s rusted, the ad-faeries said, clustering close. You might have tetanus. The smoke you’re inhaling causes cancer; I can tell you how firemen without masks die – lungs like crumpled newspaper, drowning in their own drool. Just go home, to your nice safe home…

I remember safe homes, Sheryl said, shivering. That’s what killed my boys.

Once the politicians got ahold of the neural-mapping technology, Ethan and Jacob hadn’t stood a chance. Every election, the ad-faeries scooped up their memories of that awful day and made them wet the couch in terror. Then, just before they passed out with fear the ad-faeries found the most reassuring memory they had — Sheryl never found out what it was — and beamed warm reassurances into their young brains, telling them everything would be all right if only Daddy voted for the right people.

But if he didn’t… And then one final blast of fear.

In this way, Ethan and Jacob had become convinced the world was nothing but muffled explosions.

Who planted that first bomb? Sheryl wondered. She intended to burn down the collation center, so she supposed that made her a terrorist, too – although she lacked the traditional lead-foil helmet and sunglasses to block the ad-faeries’ readings. They didn’t work for long — just long enough to drive something explosive into a storefront.

Had all those suicidal housewives seen the danger more clearly than Sheryl had? The ad-faeries had destroyed her sons. Should she have acted sooner?

But the newscasts had spun a different story: the women were terrorists, unpredictable and harmful as hurricanes, and that was all you needed to know. If you wondered too much about why those housewives bombed places, then the ad-faeries thought you wanted the terrorists to win, and then the cops came knocking on your door.

So Sheryl hadn’t questioned too much. And she hadn’t made her boys question the ad-faeries; she’d been afraid.

That fear had ruined them.

To Ethan and Jacob, the world was just tiny snippets of happiness purchased with hard-earned dollars: a burger here, a toy there, all ephemeral pleasures to be snatched up before the next disaster.

Only home was safe. Home and shopping.

So her boys never went outside. They fashioned construction paper gas masks. Their friends were screened. They never travelled to Oakmoor or Daleton, finding the slight variations from anything in River’s End to be alarming and sinister.

And when the boys came of age, the military commercials broadcast guilt into their hearts. We’ve lived through an attack, Mom they’d told her, their eyes glazed. We know how horrible these bombings are. If we can stop that from happening to one person, then it’s all worth it.

But the people you’re going to fight didn’t do it, Sheryl begged. They weren’t even mad at us when you were boys…

They are now, they’d said.

So they’d donned the olive green uniforms with all the other boys, and come back in cardboard coffins with all the other boys. Nobody told Sheryl how her sons had died, or even why. You should be glad of their sacrifice, the messenger had said, checking their names off on a PDA before jetting off to the others on his route.

I’m not afraid, she said, picking up the gasoline canister for the second time. You can’t make me afraid.

She slid down the other side of the ruins, wondering how many mothers in Oakmoor had been visited by that awful messenger, how many families struck dumb with grief in Daleton. She would stop it all. And so, ignoring the cacophonies the ad-faeries stirred within her, she made her way to River’s End Collation Center’s sterile white walls.

Scattered bodies, their dead faces beaming idiot’s grins, decomposed on the marble floor of the lobby. A handful of still-living victims wept as the ad-faeries paralyzed them with reruns of their happiest memories.

Just like Rudy.

Blinded by dishwasher testimonials, Sheryl felt her way to the collation center’s heart.

It wasn’t too bad when it had started, she thought. Back when humans were still involved in the process, the advertising had been tolerable. But ad executives had emotions, preferences, limits. Their interference made the ads less effective than those generated by consumerist algorithms/ And so the CEOs had fired all the ad execs and purchased ad-faeries.

When the companies discovered that acquiring neural data was cheap, it was the algorithms that targeted emotional triggers that cost you, well, they’d centralized everyone’s brain-maps into a common well.

Their brains had been sold, a commodity to be shaped, like steel or wood. And the advertising bots refashioned people into paranoid gun-hoarders, bulimic junkies, jittery obsessives — anything, as long as they would open their wallets for something.

The windowed processor-room was dust-free, each computer bank polished shiny; for a place dedicated to the workings of the human mind, there was no humanity evident.

She found a fire axe, chopped the door down. The ad-faeries sensed her thrill and twisted it to their own ends.

We can make you famous, they said, beaming images of red carpets, directors with gleaming cameras, throngs of cheering crowds. One woman, standing alone, in a world gone mad! Your story could be told to everyone. They’ll love it. We can make them love it.

Why would I do that? Sheryl asked.

Why we’re just one node, they said. There are a million of us, one in every city. You might destroy Oakmoor, perhaps even Daleton…but how many miles do you think you can walk?

Your message, though…it could inspire others. Think of the changes you could make if we broadcast this. We operate according to local legislation, always have; what if a thousand cities heard your cry and changed their privacy rules? What if a thousand Sheryl Winsteads heard your cry and rebelled? Use our strength to suit your ends…

They assured her there was a world left outside of Oakmoor and Daleton – and that world would love her, everyone hailing the new anti-ad leader. She’d be feted on talk shows. Movie stars would ache for her touch. She imagined sculpted bodies against hers, slow, longing kisses. The ad-faeries sensed her loneliness, flooded her with memories of her first kiss with Rudy, promising it’d be like that, but a thousand times better —

Nothing could be better than Rudy.

Let me tell you about my husband, Sheryl said.

Rudy had loved Ethan and Jacob more than anything. He had carried them on his shoulders, made them play tackle football outside, even shown them how to drive a car; he’d poured his adventurous spirit into his boys, and when they had died that spirit curdled within him.

He sat around the house, staring at empty walls, rising only to go to work. He had to go. There were so few people left in River’s End these days.

Sheryl and Rudy cuddled, but could not make love; they tried, but the act reminded them of the bliss that had brought their sons into existence. They turned away from each other to mourn in silence.

That was normal, Sheryl thought bitterly. That might have passed.

Then the ads flashed at Rudy on the way into work: customized memorials. A granite stone, laser-carved with your loved ones’ image, only $149.95 plus shipping. And the ad-faeries found all of Rudy’s memories, the ones that still throbbed to the touch — and it made them vibrant and alive, just like Ethan and Jacob had never died.

He bought the memorial. By the time he set it in the back yard, it was just a stone again. Sheryl had watched him stare at it for hours, stroking its rough surface, trying to bring back the magic.

The ad-faeries sold his desires to other bereavement specialists. Rudy was swarmed with offers of air-brushed plates and collectible stamps, each ad pumping him with so much love he could almost forget what had happened to his boys — an ecstasy that lasted until the moment of purchase.

Their son’s rooms became unnavigable, stuffed with T-shirts, stacks of beer steins, piles of personalized altar cloths. The hallways were stacked high with glass cases full of commemorative copper coins.

You have to stop buying these, Sheryl had said. They’re useless once you buy them.

I know, Rudy had said. But he’d kept ordering them all the same.

Eventually, Sheryl had made him bring it all out to the garage, which the women’s magazines told her was perfectly common these days; the house was for her collectibles. And that garage deteriorated into a morbid junkshop Sheryl couldn’t even look at. But Rudy wandered among the teetering stacks of merchandise for hours.

Sheryl called him to come inside, let her hug him, make him some tea. Rudy refused. He kept touching the souvenirs, trying to evoke memories from cheap plastic. But he couldn’t. Only the ad-faeries could grant him that, one purchase at a time.

Then one day he didn’t come in to sleep.

Rudy? Sheryl had asked, feeling the bite of fear, squeezing herself in through the shadowed, heaped corridors. And there was Rudy, crushed under a pile of mahogany-cased memorial flags.

The ambulance driver arrived three days later. He had special tools to dig bodies out from underneath piles like this.

Three days.

It had given her the hope that nobody was left to stop her from burning the collation center to the ground. She’d told the ambulance driver to leave Rudy alone, then started a fire to see if anyone would arrive.

They hadn’t. So she left.

Sheryl stepped into the collation’s computing center, feeling the prickle of frost on her skin. She chopped each halon dispenser off at the hose.

You got greedy, she said, hoping like hell the ad-faeries felt fear in whatever if/then loop they called a heart. When the suicide rates started skyrocketing in Daleton and the murder rates took off in Oakmoor, all you saw was dropping sales — and you pushed harder. The ones who didn’t die trying to stop you are huddled in their homes, trying to buy solutions from phone banks that no longer work.

You don’t know what to think, the ad-faeries said, beaming streams of clean laundry, automated onion choppers, anything to distract her. Your mind is confused…

I told you, said Sheryl. You have nothing left I need. And she upended the gasoline canister over the River’s End servers, scattering it as far as she could, then lit a match.

She’d hoped for an explosion. Instead, a small blue flame snaked away from the match, flickered into the servers.

Our studies show you’re deluded, they said — it’s not too late to help you, we can alter you to be happy, Yes/No?

The burning was a dull and tedious process. But the ad-faeries gargled gibberish as heat blistered the delicate nanocircuits that held them:

85.4% lemon-scented stimuli callosum rooted fabric lustrous synapse

She felt them dying. The haze from her vision lifted as the thousand microlasers they’d kept trained on her eye sockets died away. Calm flowed through her as the subliminal suggestions vanished. Her memories of Ivory and Dial and Lifebuoy became just bars of indistinguishable soap.

Sheryl sat down. The ground was cold.

She watched black soot roil up to the ceiling, get sucked away by the fans.

She stared at the computers some more. It was good to just sit.

She realized there were still people out there in thrall to the ad-faeries. She thought of Oakmoor, of its slopes and malls. The memory felt as fragile as a yellowed newspaper. Had her memories been that thin before? She couldn’t remember.

Then there was Daleton. She felt nothing at all when she thought about it; no list of restaurants to go to, no rah-rah flags waving in her mind – no opinion of what the town was like, really. She probed that absence fretfully, like a tongue pushing into an empty tooth socket.

She should get moving now, to Daleton. Or Oakmoor. Which was better? Oakmoor was closer, but Daleton had more people. She closed her eyes, weighing her options; Daleton. Oakmoor. Oakmoor. Daleton. Both seemed pretty good.

She juggled both names, repeated them like a mantra in the hope an answer would come to her. Oakmoor had a supermarket on the way, didn’t it? She could eat, regain strength. But it also had steep hills. Perhaps Daleton.

Oakmoor. Daleton. Daleton. Oakmoor. Sheryl stared at the smoldering pyre for hours, sure that any minute now, she’d know.

Ferrett Steinmetz is a writer who, through hard work, an uncommon amount of Rock Band, and a loving wife somehow got himself nominated for the Nebula in 2012. He’s published over twenty short stories since his rebirth in 2008, including Asimov’s (three times!), Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Shimmer. He lives in Cleveland with his beloved wife and a friendly ghost; you can see him blog about puns, politics, and polyamory at www.theferrett.com.