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A Sale Lease-Back by Aneeka Usman

"Selling? Yeah, I am aware that’s what people call it," he tittered.

Contrary to what I was told, he didn’t have pointy, shark-like teeth. I swallowed my drink and my pulse resumed its rhythm. He was appealing if not charismatic, so unlike his popular culture image. His eyes weren’t as bright and probing as I imagined them to be. He was fashionably dressed, nothing extravagant but impressive. Had the face of a family guy, perfect for the Christmas season advertisements. Earlier, he greeted me with a genuine smile. Even the building wasn’t as grand or imposing. It wasn’t even the tallest. In a city full of skyscrapers, it was just another glass brick box, another corporate headquarters. I was simultaneously disappointed and relieved.

“It’s not exactly selling. I am not sure why they call it so.” He stared at the wall behind me as if the answer was somewhere on it. "No offense but humans are kind of slack about fact-checking. I mean it was bad in the past, but now it’s getting worse. The best way to get people talking about something these days, literally anything, is to put it out on social media. Get a YouTuber or a Tik Tokker to make a video and, bam, you got everyone talking about it. People will pass on anything without verifying it." He poured another scotch and pushed the glass towards me. I hesitated just a bit before accepting it.

I think it was Marlowe, not social media, who popularized the idea, I tried to remind him.

"Ah, that relic! Do you think people still read that kind of stuff?" He scoffed.

"I do and I am sure I am not the only one." My cheeks turned red at the sound of my voice.

"Yeah, you and some dinosaurs may be, but for most of your kind, it’s the memes that are keeping that myth alive. Technically, it is not selling your soul, your inner self, whatever you call it." He tapped his stylus on the tablet. "Leasing perhaps, but not selling. To sell means to give up possession. To say you just plain old 'sell' in this case would be incorrect because you do not lose possession." I raised my eyebrow and he coughed. "You do not transfer ownership —my role is only ministerial." He scanned my face— for signs of doubt probably— and smiled reassuringly.

"Trust me. I am more empathetic to humanity than I am generally credited for. My goal is simply to empower people in crisis." He pointed his stylus at me. "We don’t just offer financial assistance, anyone can do that. We provide you with the knowledge and expertise you need to achieve your goals."

We were finally getting to the point. I tightened my grip on the briefcase I was holding, cleared my throat, and began the speech I had spent hours rehearsing. "These are desperate times for our nation…"

"Save your breath," he abruptly interrupted me. "It’s your first time here, right?" He chuckled. "Anyone who comes through the doors is either desperate or radical. And we usually have more of the former than the latter: Mohammed Suharto, Pavlo Lazarenko, Ferdinand Marcos, and the list goes on. We had quite a few radicals after Doctor Faustus, but very few literary eggheads like him. Sorry, I am digressing. Please continue." He rolled his fingers in the air, picked up his drink, leaned back, and took a sip.

"You are right." After an awkward pause, I began again. "This is the first time for me, but not for my country. We are working on meeting the financial goals that our former prime minister agreed on last year but, unfortunately, as you may know, the recent climate changes and the floods have pushed us further down the poverty line. With our government in power, I am sure we will be able to meet our goals in the next two to three years, but this year is a test. You can see it for yourself." I took out a black folder from my briefcase and handed it over to him.

"Thank you for this, but we have all the statistics we need." He put the folder down on the table. "It’s truly sad. We feel your pain. Well, now that you are here, you don’t have to worry about anything. We will take care of it. That’s what we do." He knocked on the folder emphatically.

He tapped the screen in front of me and it lit up with bold red numbers flanking a network of squiggly lines. From the top of the page, half-naked, lynx- eyed kids with scaphoid abdomens were staring right at me. I looked away.

"I know exactly what you and your country need." He clicked on a tiny remote control and the screen was now showing a luxury apartment with its wide windows exhibiting bewitching views of the city skyline. "We have 300 million dollars approved in aid for your country. What you do with it is at your government’s discretion. However, we have a few requirements. Here, these documents exactly detail where, when, how, for what purposes, and with whose cooperation you can use 250 million dollars. Strangely, I couldn’t find anything about the remaining 50 million. Must be an error." He smirked and slid his tablet towards me. This time, I took my time and didn’t reach for it.

"Our program is results-driven and our goals are—as I have said earlier— your goals. My team and I are here to make your dreams come true. But do you know what gets in the way? Do you know what gets between you and success? You. Yes, you and your inhibitions. Some call it conscience, others moral sense, but what it really is human phobias." He clicked the remote again and images of human brain anatomy appeared on the screen. "These phobias manifest right here, in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex region." He pointed at the region where I saw tiny dots blinking.

"This part of your brain controls social emotions: how you understand and respond to others’ attitudes and views. We can tweak it a little and can rid you of all your phobias and hesitations. You will feel freer and stronger than you were ever before."

I was in trance for a few minutes. Didn’t know what to say.

"Don’t worry." He leaned forward to pat my hand. "As I said, everything that belongs to you remains intact and remains yours: your mind, body, and soul. Think of it more like a sale-leaseback. It’s a minor procedure really. Will not take more than 30 mins. We will just plant these tiny bugs in your head. You would not even know they are there."

I took the bugs from him. On my palms, they were tiny as moles but gleamed like diamonds.

"Oh, by the way, which Ivy League school did you say is your son’s first choice?"

I mumbled a university’s name that I vaguely remembered.

"Nice! Heard your ex-prime minister’s son is at Oxford. You guys got some smart kids, great genes, I must say!"

I carefully put away my folder back into my briefcase and picked up the tablet.

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