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       Starters, p.19

           Lissa Price
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  I closed my eyes and let the kiss vibrate through my whole body. His scent—sort of woodsy and grassy—both calmed and excited me. His hair was so soft, almost too soft for a guy. His hands touched my face, my neck, my hair, as if he were discovering me, as if I were the first girl he’d ever touched. It made me feel so special. His hand stroked my hair and then stopped …

  … right where that metal plate was placed on the back of my head.

  He froze. “What is that?”

  I pulled away, a gasp escaping my lips.

  “I’m sorry,” he said, “I’d forgotten. You told me. That’s the … surgery?”

  The waitress bladed over with our food, interrupting us. The conversation halted while she fixed the tray to the car’s window edge. After she left, the food just sat there.

  “What you felt,” I said. “That’s what I have to tell you.”

  He looked at me. Waiting.

  I felt my stomach drop, as if I were in a fast elevator. Why was this so hard?

  Because it was so complicated.

  He took my hand. “It’s okay. Really.”

  “I’m not who you think I am.”

  A nervous half smile came over his face. “So who are you?”

  “Don’t hate me.”


  I wanted to stop time. He still liked me, still believed in me. And that might all end.

  He touched my cheek. “It’s okay, Callie. This has to do with that surgery you talked about before, right? There’s nothing you could say that would make me hate you.”

  “Well, let’s see how you feel when I tell you everything.” I took a deep breath, exhaled, and then went for it. “I lied. My name isn’t Callie Winterhill. It’s Callie Woodland. I’m not rich, these clothes aren’t mine, that car isn’t mine, and the house isn’t mine.”

  He stared for a second, and then shook his head. “I couldn’t care less if you’re rich or poor.”

  “I’m not just poor. I’m an unclaimed minor. I live on the streets, on the floors of abandoned buildings. I eat scraps.”

  I didn’t look at his face; I didn’t need to. I felt tension fill the car like a poisonous gas. I continued before fear could lock my mouth shut.

  “I needed money for my sick brother. He’s only seven. So I signed up at this place, Prime Destinations. We all call it the body bank. I was a donor, renting out my body to a senior named Helena Winterhill. It’s her house, her car, her life. She wanted to stop your grandfather from going through with the deal with Prime Destinations. I thought she was crazy but it turned out she was right, that the plan’s even worse than she imagined.”

  I rattled on, telling him everything, probably much too fast. He let me talk, never interrupting me. I left out one thing. I didn’t mention Helena’s plan to shoot his grandfather. Now that she was gone, I wasn’t about to unload that on him. This was a major info dump as it was. Why worry him over something that was no longer an issue?

  When I finished, I turned to him. He was still looking at me, and his expression wasn’t full of disgust, the way I had imagined. He did look solemn, though, and was totally silent. The waiting was torture. My throat went dry waiting for him to say something. Finally, he spoke.

  “This is so … I don’t know what to say.”

  “Do you believe me?” I asked.

  “I want to.”

  “But you don’t.”

  “It’s just kind of a shock, you know?”

  I pushed aside the hair on the back of my head and showed him the plate that Redmond had placed there. It felt like the most personal part of my body to expose, even more so than any private parts. This is me, I was saying to him. This is who I’ve become.

  “Under that plate, that’s where my chip is.”

  He didn’t say anything. I lifted my head and smoothed back my hair.

  “If you could convince your grandfather to renege on this partnership between the government and Prime … if you can show him how awful this will be, how it’s sending these unclaimed minors to their deaths, wouldn’t he want to take it back?” I blurted out, daring to hope I could have it all, the truth and Blake.

  There was a slim chance that the senator didn’t understand what Prime had in mind. Maybe he didn’t know about the permanency factor.

  Blake didn’t say a word. He seemed lost in thought, troubled.


  He wiped his hand over his face. “I’ll talk to him. No, wait, you talk to him. You can explain this better than I can.”


  “Tomorrow. It’s Saturday, he’ll be at the ranch. Come over before lunch. He’s a lot easier to talk to there. It’s his favorite place.”

  “He’s not going to listen to me. He hates me.”

  “We’ll do this together. He’ll listen to me. I’m his grandson.” He rubbed my hand. “All we can do is try.” He looked thoughtful. I could see he was still processing this new way of seeing me.

  We ate our meal in silence, and then Blake drove me back to my car at the other side of the lot.

  “See you tomorrow,” he said.


  He kissed me goodbye. It wasn’t like before. It carried the burden of my lies, which separated our lips like a layer of wax. I got out and he drove off. It felt as if a thousand-pound weight were pushing my feet into the ground.

  I got into my car and locked the doors. When I had gone to the restroom earlier, I had spoken to one of the Ender guards. I told him I was going to catnap in my car for a few hours and would appreciate it if he’d keep an eye on me. As I slipped him several large bills, he said he was happy to.

  I woke up around six a.m., with the sun in my eyes. I raised the seat back up to the normal driving position and ran my tongue across my teeth. I felt the back of my head where the plate was. It was throbbing in a nasty reminder of how it had betrayed me to Blake. I swallowed two of Redmond’s painkillers.

  The new phone was blinking. A zing had come in from Lauren.

  Lauren was still in Reece’s fabulous body, her long red hair glistening in the morning sun. “Tell me you have some good news, Helena. I’ve learned nothing about Kevin.”

  She inserted a card key into a gate, letting us into a small private park near her home in Beverly Hills. I was apprehensive about meeting so close to the body bank, but in addition to being gated, the park was also guarded.

  “People have seen him, even spoken to him, but no one’s spotted him in the last month,” she said.

  I knew I had to clear up who I was right away. I wasn’t going through the torture of indecisiveness again.

  “I’m not Helena,” I said.

  Lauren continued to talk, my words not registering at all. I had to interrupt her.

  “Listen to me. I’m not Helena.”

  Her mouth opened. She folded her arms. “What are you saying?”

  “I’m the donor. The body Helena rented. I’m really sixteen.”

  “Wait. When I spoke to Helena, she was in that body.” She gestured at me.

  “You were talking to me then. I was at Club Rune and at the Thai restaurant.”

  “That was you?” Her eyes flashed at me. “What happened to Helena?”

  I felt my heart sink as I was forced to recall Helena’s last moments. “She’s gone.”

  “She’s dead? Helena’s dead?” She put her hands on my shoulders and shook me. “What did you do to her?”

  “Easy, I didn’t do anything.” The armed guard looked our way. “It was someone at the body bank, at Prime.”


  “I don’t know.”

  “Then how do you know she’s dead?”

  “I heard her screams in my head.”

  “You what?”

  “Helena had the chip altered. By the end, I could hear her thoughts in my head. We were able to communicate.”

  Lauren let go of me with a shove. “I can’t believe it. I knew her for eighty-five years.” She took out a hanky and wi
ped away angry tears. “And now she’s gone.”

  “I’m sorry. I was getting to know her myself.”

  “How dare you say that!”

  “I learned a lot from her,” I said.

  “About what?”

  “About the senator. The Old Man.”

  She turned away. “I can’t do this. I can’t look at you. You lied. You let me think you were her. And now I find out she was dead all along.”

  “No, it’s not like that. It just happened.”

  “Why isn’t anyone who they seem to be anymore?” she said through gritted teeth.

  I looked at her, hiding in that teen body. I didn’t dare remind her that I could say the same thing about her.

  “At least …,” I said, “I believe Kevin is alive.” I thought bringing up good news about her grandson might soften her.

  “How would you know that?”

  “Because the Old Man is going to let subscribers do more than just rent—they’re going to be able to buy the bodies. My guess is that they’ve been testing this already. That would explain the missing teens, with no signs of struggles, no bodies.”

  A flicker of hope danced across her eyes. Then she scowled.

  “You don’t know anything. How can I trust anything you say? You’re wearing Helena’s jewelry, driving her car. Have you no shame?”

  “I want to help her.”

  “You can’t help a dead woman. You can’t help anyone.”

  She turned and walked away.

  “Lauren.” She didn’t turn around. “Or is it Reece?” I shouted.

  She kept walking.

  I stood there shaking. I’d thought she’d help me; she was Helena’s friend. She was the only one I could talk to about the missing teens.

  The guard stared at me. He put his hand over the gun on his hip and started walking toward me. I had been a guest of homeowner Lauren in this private park, and now that she was gone I had no reason—or permission—to be here.

  I headed for the gate.

  I pushed it open and ran out, letting it slam behind me. Just as I was about to get into my car, I looked across the street and saw someone I recognized.



  I ran across the street, dodging cars and bikes, waving both hands, but he didn’t notice me.

  “Michael!” I shouted, chasing after him as he walked away. “Michael, wait!” I ran up behind him and poked his back. “It’s me.”

  He turned. The sight of his face warmed me. I hadn’t realized how much I had missed that long blond hair, those soft eyes. He smiled, and my shoulders melted.

  “Wow, you look great,” I said, touching his expensive-looking jacket.

  “So do you.” He looked me over, undressing me with his eyes. “What’s your name?”

  The voice was Michael’s, but the words weren’t. I stared at his perfect face, his mouth, his eyes, his nose. No sun freckles or moles, no street-fight cuts. Just flawless skin and pricey clothes.

  A chill ran through my veins.

  This wasn’t Michael. It was a rental.

  Some Ender had rented his body. He hadn’t waited like he’d promised. He’d gone through with it before I was finished.

  “Who are you?” I asked, trembling.

  “Hey, I’m a sixteen-year-old stud. Like what you see?” He held his arms out and spun around 360 degrees. “Pretty cute, huh?”

  My breathing started getting faster. I couldn’t control it. I grabbed his fancy jacket in my fists.

  “Hey, easy,” he said. “That’s real Russian alpaca.”

  “I don’t care if it’s from Mars. How long have you had this body?”

  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

  I pulled him closer, tugging hard, making it hard for him to breathe. “If you’re going to lie, do it with your own wrinkly mouth. How long?”

  “I just got it.” His voice came out hoarse. “I just came out of Prime.”

  I released him. I couldn’t risk attracting so much attention. Already Enders were turning their heads.

  He straightened his jacket. “And I paid plenty for this body,” he said, his voice low. “So that makes it mine.”

  The guard in the park across the street stared at us through the gate.

  “You better take good care of it,” I said.

  “What, you know this guy or something?” He motioned to his body. “Honey, I’m going to have a great time with it. Why do you think I did this? I’m gonna go wild. Nothing’s gonna hold me back.” He roared with laughter.

  I was breathing so hard I was afraid fire was going to come out my nostrils.

  It just made this lowlife grin. Whoever he was.

  “You’re really sweet. You his girlfriend?” he asked. “Then maybe I got a bonus with this body, huh?”

  He put his arm around my shoulder. I threw it off.

  “Don’t touch me,” I said. “Because I don’t want to bruise that body.”

  Passing Enders stared at us. Then the creep did something I never would have imagined. He leaned in close, stuck out his tongue, and gave my cheek a long lick from jawline to eye. I pushed him away hard and wiped the slime with the back of my hand.

  “Stop it,” I said, gritting my teeth. I wanted to punch him so hard. But that was Michael’s body.

  “Well, it was fun having this little reunion and all, but I gotta go,” he said. “So much excitement, so much life out there, waiting … for me.”

  He winked, backed away, and then turned to hustle off. The guard was still staring at me from across the street.

  I’d found Michael, but I hadn’t found him at all. The guy who I could always count on, the thoughtful, sensitive guy, wasn’t there. Some slimy, ignorant old Ender, maybe two hundred years old, whose real body smelled like moldy cheese, was occupying Michael’s skin.

  Renting Michael. But he hadn’t said “rented.” He’d said, “It’s mine.”

  What if he had bought Michael? Was this one of the first official permanents?

  No. Please, no.

  I looked down the street but couldn’t see him anymore. I ran, pumping my arms. When I got to the corner, I looked up and down the cross street. Was that his brown jacket to the left? I opened my purse and snaked through the crowd of strolling Enders. My right hand slipped into my purse and gripped the gun.

  When I caught up to him, I pressed the gun into his back, covering it with my body so no one else could see.

  “Stop,” I whispered in his ear.

  I grabbed his arm to make sure he obeyed. He spoke over his shoulder.

  “Please don’t hurt me. I’ll give you my wallet.” The voice was too high.

  I turned him around and saw an acne-scarred face on the verge of tears. This was some normal Starter.

  “Sorry,” I said, and let go of him.

  He froze there on the sidewalk, in shock.

  “Run,” I said, and he did.

  I spun around, scanning the faces of the sidewalk crowd, but it was hopeless. I’d lost Michael. I’d had one precious chance to protect him as his body left the body bank. But I’d let him slip away.

  I wanted to cry, but all that came out were panicked breaths.

  This was worse than if I’d never found him at all.

  I stood in a daze while the sea of silver-headed Enders flowed around me.

  Which way back to my car? I had gotten disoriented. The last thing I wanted to do was to get any closer to the body bank. I took a second to get my bearings and then went north. Ahead, in the crowd of Enders, three familiar young faces headed my way.

  Briona, Lee, and Raj, their arms loaded with glossy shopping bags.

  “Callie!” Briona waved at me.

  They were wearing the latest fashions, from their ultra-hip sunglasses to their pointy designer boots.

  “Briona,” I said, trying to sound normal. “What a coincidence.”

  “No coincidence,” Raj said. “Everyone knows the best shopping is i
n Beverly Hills.”

  Briona gave a bright smile to Raj. “We popped in at Prime,” she said. “To ask about the new services.”

  “We just noticed your number came up on ours.” Lee held up his cell phone.

  “My phone’s not on,” I said.

  “Uh. Yes it is,” Lee said.

  I opened my purse, angling it away so they couldn’t see the gun. My old phone was lit.

  “How’d it get on? I turned it off.”

  “Purse call, happens all the time,” Briona said.

  I shut off the phone.

  “Did I see two phones in your purse?” Raj asked.

  “Yeah, one’s mine.” I closed my bag. “And one’s the donor’s.”

  “Here, let’s sit,” Briona said.

  Before I could protest, she pulled me by the elbow to a nearby table outside a small café. We were the only customers there.

  “Raj, go inside and get us some lattes,” she said, and he obeyed.

  “I can’t stay,” I said.

  “Only for a minute.” Lee sat too close on the other side of me.

  Nervous glances shot across the table. What was going on? Briona tapped her nails on the tabletop. Lee stared at her and she stopped.

  “So, did you hear about the announcement?” Briona leaned forward. “From Prime?”

  “Yeah. What’d you think?” I asked.

  “Can’t wait to go permanent,” Lee said. “Stop playing around, settle down and focus on building a new life.”

  “You have your eye on something special?” Briona asked.

  “No,” I said. “Do you?”

  “I have my eye on a cute little blond sixteen-year-old,” Briona said. “I could do a much better job of using her body than she could. And I’m so much smarter.” She rested her chin on her palm.

  Lee’s legs bounced up and down nervously. That reminded me of someone. I tried to remember.

  “It’s like that old expression, ‘Youth is wasted on the young,’ ” Lee said. “How about you, Callie, are you going to go permanent? With this body or another?”

  “Something wrong with this one?” I asked.

  “Nothing that I can see,” he said. His legs continued to bounce.

  “Going permanent sounds scary,” I said.

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