Portrait of a Donor: A Starters Story, p.1Lissa Price
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Text copyright © 2014 by Lissa Price
Design by Christian Fuenfhausen
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York.
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ISBN 978-0-307-97853-0 (ebook)
First Delacorte Press Ebook Edition 2014
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Portrait of a Donor: A Starters Story
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Portrait of a Donor
A Starters Story
I hate marshals, with their ZipTasers and guns, but I have no choice other than to sit and face one. This one looks like he’s about 100, maybe 150. His white hair is trimmed short, and like most marshals, he’s muscular. I perch on a chair on the other side of a fancy white desk in Doris’s office at Prime Destinations. She’s never going to use it again. As of tonight, the body rental business is over.
Is that a good thing? I’m not sure. But it’s not up to me. I’m just a Starter and one of their many body donors, now out of a job.
The marshal focuses on his airscreen, finishing up notes from the last donor interviewee. I’m wearing a short silvery-green illusion dress—Doris’s choice, not mine—and I’m freezing my butt off. It’s all about looks, everything sexy and shiny. My long black hair has been perfectly straightened, but my makeup—heavier than I would choose—has to be smudged by now. It’s past ten p.m. and I’m exhausted. I just want to get out of this chaos. Everyone who ever had business with the body bank seems to be here tonight, the night Prime was taken down.
I turn to my left and see the next Starter to be questioned. He waits nervously, bumping the doorjamb with his shoe. He’s an East Indian guy, with smoky, smoldering eyes almost too pretty to belong to a boy. We look at each other, and for a second, the fear disappears from his face and he gives me a half smile.
“State your name and age.” The marshal’s stern voice makes my muscles tense.
Marshals. I just want to get out of here. If I could run away, I would, but they’re crawling all over the place. They hate all Starters but especially some of us who aren’t perfectly chalk white. I read the shift in their eyes as soon as they see the color of my skin. I call it “the black eye.”
“Briona Johnson. Sixteen.”
“And you were an employee of Prime Destinations?”
“No,” I say. “Just a donor.”
He’s trying to trick me. Catch me admitting I was working for them so he can lock me up.
He squints. “But you were paid, weren’t you?”
“No. They were going to give me a stipend for volunteering my body.” I smile and make an effort not to appear smug.
“So you were paid,” he says without any fear of looking smug.
“Do you see any money in my hand?” I spread my palms. “You’re shutting them down now. Who’s going to pay me my hard-earned cash? My … stipend.”
He leans forward. “You were sleeping, girlie. Sure wish I could get paid to sleep.”
If only he knew about the memories I have to relive every day. Memories of what my renter did in my body. Secrets. Lies. Guns.
But I’m not about to tell him that. They’ve already got Doris in cuffs—she’s the PD employee who took over my body. I don’t want to give them any excuse to lock me up too.
They always find a way to blame the Starter.
I hear a noise outside the office. I turn and see Smoky Eyes still waiting, his arms folded. He looks away, pretending he’s not listening. Past him, there’s the source of the noise. Ender renters shuffle past the door as they’re escorted down the hallway. Will the marshals arrest them? Doubt it. They weren’t working for PD, just using their services. Besides, they’re old and rich. It’s always the Starters like me who suffer.
“Do you have a legal guardian?” The marshal taps his airscreen and then stares at me.
“Yes. My grandma.”
I make a point of returning his stare. It makes the lie more convincing.
“What is her address?” he asks.
I hesitate. I haven’t had to answer that for several months. I used to have a false address memorized, but now my mind goes blank. What can I say?
Something draws the marshal’s attention. A second, thinner marshal stands in the doorway.
“We’ve got to move this line,” the thin marshal says, “or we’ll be here until Christmas.”
“All right.” My marshal taps his airscreen again. “You’re dismissed.” He waves a small metal tube over my inner wrist and it microsprays the letter “M” in black. Branded. “It’ll wash off in a day. If we need you, we know where to find you.”
I leave as fast as I can without running. If you run, they ZipTaser you. It’s instinct with them.
Smoky Eyes straightens. I tell myself I’m not going to look at him. But I walk past and of course look right into those eyes. He stares back as if he’d like to say something but not now. Not with marshals waiting.
“Next,” the seated marshal says.
Smoky Eyes doesn’t move. It could be fear of the marshal, but I like to think he can’t tear himself away from my gorgeous self.
“Now!” the marshal shouts.
Smoky rolls his eyes in a goodbye gesture and goes in. The Starter behind him, an Asian guy, moves forward. He looks like he recognizes me, but I don’t know him.
“Wait outside,” the Asian guy says to me. “I want to talk.”
The hall is packed with the donor Starters in line and the renter Enders moving past them. I’m caught in the shuffle and couldn’t stay if I wanted to.
“Why?” I shout back.
“I know you,” he says.
Over the heads of the Enders, I look at him as I’m forced to keep walking. He’s hot. All donors are. Still, if I knew him, I think I’d remember. I’m ready to dismiss him as a flirt when a memory flashes through my mind.
He stares at me. We’re in a club. I’m sitting in a deep-cushioned chair in this classy place—around a caffeine table. He is sitting across from me. And next to us is Smoky Eyes. He calls the Asian guy Lee, and Lee calls him Raj.
They’re talking about secrets and lies. How we have to act casual, not slip up, so the girl doesn’t guess who we really are. What girl?
Then I follow Lee’s stare and see a Starter moving closer to sit in the last chair. She wears a shimmery dress; she’s obviously another donor, by her perfect skin and long, glossy hair. There must be an Ender renter inside, but she doesn’t act like other renters. She’s nervous, cautious. She says to call her Callie. The two guys put on big smiles for her benefit. I do the same. I feel an overwhelming sense of deception. I drum my fingers and then I get it. I know who had that habit—Doris. I’m Doris wearing my body.
I blink and come out of the memory. The crowd of Enders has pushed me down to the end of the hallway, far out of sight of Lee. We spill out to the lobby, which is filled with more p
Doris is still where she was when I saw her right before the marshal’s interview: leaning against a wall, her arms cuffed behind her. I look around and see other Prime employees: Tinnenbaum, the front man, and Rodney, the driver and bodyguard. They’re also cuffed and pouting.
And then I see her. The donor girl from my memory: Callie. She’s talking to an Ender in a suit, probably a detective. She sees me staring. Her expression goes through a rainbow of changes. At first she recognizes me and looks angry. Then she shakes it off, as if she was wrong. Or calming herself; I can’t tell. Should I try to talk to her? No, she’s returned her attention to the detective.
I stand in the middle of the lobby, completely confused. Why am I getting these memories? They’re not really mine. I was asleep at the body bank when Doris was using my body. No one explained to me that she was my renter; I figured it out from the flashbacks. But they come in pieces, flashes, without reason.
I need to get out of here. I head for the door.
Instead of Prime’s doorman, a marshal stands by the exit.
“Have you been questioned?” he asks me.
I hold up my arm and show him the “M” brand on my wrist. He nods and unlocks the door so I can finally leave this disgusting place.
I step into the cold night air and am hit with the sight of several marshal cars parked out front. My heart beats faster. I fear the sight of a marshal’s car will have that effect on me for the rest of my life,. But the cars are all empty: everyone is inside the body bank.
It’s late, the streets deserted. If any Starters were around, these marshal cars would make them disappear fast. All the shops are closed, but a few restaurants are still open.
Lee told me to wait. His words echo in my head. I know you.
A small café across the street still has its lights on.
I jaywalk over there. Out of the corner of my eye I sense a man watching me. I turn to check. He’s a tall Ender, muscular, with a tattoo on the side of his neck. An animal? It’s the head of a leopard. Everything about him screams “predator”—the tattoo, his defiant stance, his long white hair like a mane.
I hurry to the café. When I reach the door, it’s locked. I bang on the glass, but the lone Ender inside wears earphones as she wipes the counter.
I hear footsteps behind me. I turn, prepared to fight. The leopard man stands about ten feet away. He pauses, staring at me, sizing up his prey. Someone shouts behind him.
It’s Smoky Eyes. Raj.
“Leave her alone!” Raj shouts. “Get out of here!”
The Ender backs away, looks from Raj to me. His lips form a half smirk. He seems to be calculating whether he can take us both on. I plant my feet firmly and clench my fists.
“We’re young, we’re fast, and there’s two of us,” I say.
Raj slips his hands into his coat pockets. He points one of the pockets at the Ender, as if he has a gun.
Tattoo Man raises his hands partway in surrender. “Don’t worry. I’m leaving.”
He has a slight accent, but I can’t tell what it is.
“Maybe next time,” Tattoo Man says.
Not if I can help it. Raj and I watch him walk away.
“You don’t have a gun,” I say to Raj under my breath.
“No. Just a finger that wants to be.”
I see sweat beading on his forehead. He jokes, but he was scared too. Across the street, light bounces off the tall, shiny doors of Prime Destinations as they open. I stare at the “PD” design on the doors and feel my heart beat. I thought that place would save me, but it was a nasty joke. They owned me. I’m walking away tonight, but am I really free?
Lee comes out of the building and looks around until he sees us.
Raj knew of a rooftop bar that wouldn’t card us. So I’m sitting here with him and Lee around a fire pit, sipping sparkling water. Déjà vu of that night at the club. Turns out Raj has cash. He didn’t do the body bank for the pay; he did it for the nose job.
“My grandparents wouldn’t let me have the surgery,” Raj says. “They could easily afford it, but they’re just so old-fashioned.”
“I’m sure mine wouldn’t either,” Lee says. “But they’re dead. Wouldn’t get the vaccine.”
“Why not?” Raj asks.
“Because they were scared,” I say.
“Yours too?” Lee asks.
I nod. My grandma was sure the shot would kill her. She didn’t trust the government. Who could blame her?
I wonder if Raj has a home. I wonder where I’ll sleep tonight.
“So you said you remembered me,” I say to Lee.
He looks down. “I get these memories.”
“We all do,” Raj says. “What do you remember?”
“Scary things. Weird things. I don’t understand.” Lee puts his head in his hands for a moment. “I remember …” He lifts his head. “… this long, long fall in the sky. I see the ground below me coming closer and closer. Then, just as I’m going to hit it, I stop.”
That sounds familiar, his body falling. I think I saw it.
“Yeah. You did that,” Raj says. “And get this: you did it for fun.”
“Really? No way,” Lee says.
“You’re lucky that body still has two arms and legs,” Raj says, pointing at Lee. We piece together our memories, each of us offering bits of the puzzle until we make a whole picture. We get to the conspiracy part.
“So you were Doris,” Lee said, pointing at me. “And you were …”
“Rodney,” Raj says.
“Who’s Rodney?” Lee asks.
“He drove for Prime. And was their bodyguard,” I say. “And you were Tinnenbaum,” I say, looking at Lee.
“Yeah, that’s the worst,” Lee says.
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“He was involved in some messy stuff.” Lee shakes his head. “Something really bad.”
“What?” Raj asks.
Lee rubs his arms a moment, then becomes still. “I remember I ordered someone at Prime to kill one of the renters.”
Raj and I stare at Lee. He swallows so hard I see his Adam’s apple move.
“Which one?” Raj asks.
“Don’t know.” Lee looks at us with haunted eyes.
“It wasn’t you,” I reach out to touch him. To quiet him.
The look on his face … I can tell that he knows that, but he doesn’t really know it. His eyes tear up.
“Yeah,” he says. “But I remember it. And it was my body.”
“So these three Prime Enders—Doris, Rodney, and Tinnenbaum—used our bodies to spy on donors?” Raj asks.
“Not all donors,” I say. “One.”
“I remember her,” Lee says. “Said her name was Callie.”
“We did things with her,” I said, remembering. “Drove around …”
“We ran with her, out of the Music Center,” Raj says.
“We chased her,” Lee says.
“She got away.”
“She’s okay,” I say. “I saw her at Prime just now.”
“It’s getting late.” Raj pays the bill. “Guess I should go home.”
So he has a home. I turn to Lee. “Have you got a place to go?”
He shrugs. “I gave up one of the best squats ever. Thought I was gonna sail out of Prime a rich Starter.”
“Me too,” I say.
Joke was on us. I risked my life for a big payout that would have meant my survival. And then … I get zip.
“So you guys have nowhere to go?” Raj asks.
Not only do we have nowhere to go, we have no money. We shake our heads. I hold my breath to see what he says next.
Raj gets a cab and takes us to his home in Westwood. I’m relieved not to have to find someplace to squat at this late hour. I don’t think I could face another cold office building after all we’ve been through tonight. I was hoping Raj’s place would be low-key, but I swallow hard when I see the neighborhood and size of the houses. R
“What about your grandparents?” I ask as he pays the cabdriver.
“I’ll sneak you in the back,” he says.
Lee and I wait for Raj to get out of the cab. I tower over Lee, especially with the killer heels Doris picked out. We both look up at Raj’s mansion. It’s two stories, surrounded by a tall, ornate iron fence. Suddenly I’m small and unimportant. I don’t belong here. A shiver goes through me and I blame it on the night air.
Raj gets out and unlocks a side gate. He walks us to the back of the house and then stops by the rear entrance.
“Wait here,” he whispers.
Lee and I stand there, by a fenced-in swimming pool and a pool house.
“You smell that?” I whisper to Lee.
He sniffs. “No. What?”
“Money,” I say.
Lee smiles. My family was always just squeaking by. My mother’s teaching degree was worthless when she moved to California after she married my father. After they divorced, he never paid a penny of child support. My mom and I were left to fend for ourselves. Money was always on our minds. Everything we bought was generic. People like Raj never have to choose between a brand name and a plain white box.
The back door opens and Raj motions for us to enter. Lee extends his hand in a ladies-first gesture. I roll my eyes and go inside.
Raj whispers to us as he leads us down the back hallway. “My grandparents are out.”
“Then why are you whispering?” I ask.
“Because. The servants are sleeping.”
So colonial, this boy.
He takes us to one of the first doors, which opens up to a humongous media room Burgundy velvet theater seats circle the room, facing the center. Spotlights supply the only light, making the space dramatic.
“This is great,” Lee says in a hushed voice.
“And it’s soundproof,” Raj says. “The servants aren’t allowed in here, so it’s all yours.”
He opens the cabinets above and below a counter near a sink. There’s every kind of snack food I could imagine—popcorn, candy, chips, cookies. The refrigerator is stocked with drinks and the freezer with ice cream, air yogurt and frozen bananas. On the counter are an espresso maker and a smoothie blender.
Portrait of a Donor: A Starters Story by Lissa Price / Young Adult / Science Fiction have rating 3.6 out of 5 / Based on25 votes