Bonus Story: Ripening
This story takes place in 1973
Jimmy hid in the back corner of the closet he called a bedroom, reading, a mound of clothes and blankets set up to block the view from the doorway. Dad wouldn’t like the book, and he had a habit of throwing out stuff he didn’t like. Or burning it. That had been hard to explain to the librarian… “Sorry, my dad threw the book in the fireplace.” He didn’t want to have to go through that one again.
“Jimmy!” His dad’s bellow, just as he was getting to the good part, where Merlin saved the day, made him jump. Crap, had he forgotten to put the dishes away? Burnt dinner? He tucked the book under the pile of clothes and hurried out into the living room.
Dad was standing in the living room with the sort of guy Jimmy never expected to see in their house, unless he was Child Protective Services. Shit, if the teachers had called CPS again… Jimmy got ready to run.
But Dad was smiling, and the man was looking at him strangely, not like the CPS lady had looked, with a pinched frown, but more like the gym teacher looked when no-one else was around. Jimmy faltered. Dad smiled like that when he won at the tracks, or when Mom got a good run of tips at work. “Jimmy,” he said, through that payday smile that meant he’d already been drinking, “this is Lee. This is my son James, Lee.”
The well-groomed man – no beard, Dad always said Never trust a man with no beard - nodded politely at him, and Dad gave Jimmy a little shove, sending him stumbling towards the man in the expensive-looking silk shirt.
“Go with him. You belong to him now.”
“What?” He twisted to look at his father, but Dad was already turning away, and Lee had his hand-with-the-manicured-nails on Jimmy’s shoulder.
“Come on, let’s go.”
“Just like that?” He jerked away, but the smooth hand was stronger than it looked. “What about my stuff?”
The man paused, as if the question took him by surprise. “Is there anything you really want to bring with you?”
That, in turn, took Jimmy by surprise. Was there? The library book wasn’t his. The clothes were mostly hand-me downs. He’d outgrown the toys, and the paint set was at school, where Dad couldn’t burn it. He shook his head no. “I guess not.”
“Let’s go, then.” He got the feeling his answer had pleased the guy, but he couldn’t help stalling a little more.
“Where are we going?”
“To my house.” He pushed Jimmy gently towards the door. “You’re mine now, James. I’m going to take good care of you.”
“I don’t understand.” He stumbled out the door, looking at the expensive car in their grubby gravel driveway. It was a lie, though; he was pretty sure he knew what was going on. “My dad… You can’t do that, can you? Sell your kids? Buy people?” People really didn’t do that, did they? He wondered at his lack of panic as Lee guided him to the passenger’s seat.
“People are bought and sold every day,” Lee answered him, casually, like talking about the weather. He buckled himself in and gestured for Jimmy to do the same. “Sometimes people call it something different. Sometimes it’s bribes or salaries or favors; sometimes it’s as direct as it was today, an exchange of cash.”
“You paid my dad money for me.” Saying it flat out like that made it sound more real, more final. “That’s not legal, is it?”
“Of course not. But lots of things I do aren’t legal. The police and the judges can be bought and sold the same as anyone else.”
“Oh.” Lee drove for a while, out of their neighborhood and into one with big houses on bigger lots. Jimmy waited a while, till they looked like they were slowing down, before he asked, not really sure he wanted the answer, “why did you buy me?” What do you want a skinny little nothing like me for?
Lee took his time answering, too, pulling into a long gated driveway and fiddling with the security pad before he spoke. “You’re still too young…” he began.
“Thirteen,” Jimmy countered hotly.
“Too young,” he answered firmly. “But if I’d left you there until you were old enough, chances are you’d have gone sour.”
“You make me sound like a piece of fruit,” he complained. “Pick me early and let me ripen on the windowsill?”
“More or less,” he agreed. The garage had three other expensive, shiny cars in it already. “The windowsill, in this case, being my House.” He said “house” like it was something more than four walls and a roof, although, looking at the place, Jimmy could see why.
“So. You bought me to ripen me.” He wrinkled his nose; the sentence didn’t sound any less ridiculous out loud than it had in his head. And besides, he was going to piss the guy off if he kept asking questions.
“Yes,” was all the man said, though, as he opened Jimmy’s door. “I bought you early, to ripen you to my tastes.”
Lee knelt in front of him, holding his chin in his implacable grip.
“Your father called you Jimmy. Does that mean your name is James?”
James was what the teachers called him, usually when he was acting out. Jimmy was what his father called him: “Jimmy, go get me another beer.” Both names seemed wrong for this big stone house with its pillars and golf-course lawn and this so-elegant man in front of him.
“I don’t want to be Jimmy anymore.” Jimmy played baseball, badly, and got caught skipping class. He had a feeling there was going to be none of that, here. And... “Jimmy is what my father called me. And he sold me.”
He hoped he didn’t sound too ungrateful. The room the man had given him was big, the bed soft, the food good, the clothes new. But his father had still sold him, like a used car.
The man was smiling, so it couldn’t be all bad. “All right. You don’t have to be Jimmy anymore. We’ll call it a fresh start, why don’t we?”
He could only nod. He’d expected an argument.
“Then what do you want to be called? How will you Name yourself?”
There was a book, one he’d had to hide, too full of fairy shit for his father, not school-book enough for the teachers. “Ambrosius,” he murmured. It was a long name for a skinny used-car kid, so he shortened it. “Ambrus.”
The newly-christened Ambrus found Lee’s House strange, but not as strange as he’d feared. The collar Lee had locked around his neck wasn’t heavy, like he’d thought it would be, although he never forgot he was wearing it.
It didn’t make him nearly as self-conscious as he thought it would, either, because most of the grown-ups in the House (and many of the visitors) wore similar collars. Some were bigger, or made of leather or some sort of plastic instead of metal, but they are all very distinctly collars, and he heard more than one of the collared people refer to themselves as slaves, or as pets.
He wasn’t sure how he felt about being a slave, but the ones who called themselves pets seemed content, comfortable in their role. They did what they were told, and they were rewarded, kind of like show dogs, or like being in school. You did what the teacher wanted, and she gave you a gold star. He could handle that.
The others who lived there didn’t seem to know quite how to deal with him at first – everyone else was an adult, even if just barely – but one, a pretty dark-haired girl named Agate, decided he would be sort of a mascot for them, and everyone else followed her lead.
So it was that, by the time his training began, Jimmy-who-was-now-Ambrus was a pet to pets, and errand-runner and sometimes-spoiled kid brother to a houseful of slaves. Before he’d come here, he hadn’t know that slavery still existed in the world; now that he was here, he wasn’t sure it was all that bad. Everyone had enough to eat and a place to sleep; their clothes fit and were new, not hand-me-downs, even if they were generally skimpy and snug.
He knew, generally, that sex was involved. He wasn’t as young as Lee seemed to think he was, and the innuendo didn’t go over his head like the others acted like it would. There was a lot of sex happening in the background, although they were careful to make sure he never saw any of it. Sex with the visitors, sex with the slaves and pets, sex with Lee. Everyone seemed to be having sex, regardless of the gender of the participants. Everyone but him.
He knew that was what Lee meant by the whole shelf-ripening thing; Lee was going to train him, until he was old enough by Lee’s standards, for the sex. It seemed kind of silly to him – why not start now? – but Lee had bought him, and he was Master now. Ambrus’ first lesson was Do Not Question the Master, and it had been an easy one to learn – it wasn’t all that different from Don’t Argue with Dad, except the results of disobedience were less painful and more clear-cut. So he shut up, learned to smile, and began his training.
Antonio taught him about wines. From the handsome, swarthy teenager he learned how to open bottles, how to pour, how to pair them with foods, and how to taste them; he got giggling drunk while learning how to taste red wines, and spent a fun hour with Antonio trying on Agate’s clothes. Lee had frowned, and spanked them both, but Ambrus had seen the smile behind the frown, and not minded the punishment much at all.
Agate, once she forgave him for trying on her clothes, taught him how to care for said clothes, or, more specifically, the Master’s wardrobe, how to lay out an outfit and how to shop. Shopping was a skill he didn’t think he’d enjoy, but with Agate and the Master’s bodyguard Leo along, it had turned out to actually be fun.
Jenna taught him massage, and Joe taught him the basics of cooking, and all of them, in turn, taught him the ritual phrases, the body language that would be expected of him. He learned how to bow gracefully and how to grovel submissively, how to walk just behind his Master, to properly look like a lovely and obedient accessory. He learned how to say “yes” so that the “no” he meant was clear, and when it was acceptable to do so. He learned how to accept punishment without appearing upset, and, in learning when he actually should appear upset, learned how to cry prettily.
He grew older, although not much taller or broader; Lee told him, seeming very satisfied, that it looked as if his growth had been sufficiently stunted in early childhood; he would always be slight and short. He made, he was told, a very pretty young butler, and a very sweet pet.
“Tonight,” Lee told him, on a day that seemed to him much like any other (it was his birthday, but it had been a long time since he’d seen a calendar), “we start your real training. Be dressed to serve the party by eight.”
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