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       Starters, p.4

           Lissa Price
 

  When we arrived back at the body bank, I wondered if Mr. Tinnenbaum would introduce me to the tall man from before. But we never saw him. Instead, Tinnenbaum handed me off to Doris.

  “Wait till you see what Doris has in store for you.” He grinned and then disappeared down the hallway.

  “It’s time to begin your makeover.” Doris flicked her wrist like she was my fairy godmother.

  “Makeover?”

  Doris eyed me from toe to head. My hand instinctively touched the end of my stringy hair, as if to keep her from chopping it off.

  “You don’t think we’re going to present you like this, do you?”

  I pulled my sleeve over my hand and wiped my face. She reached for my arm.

  “You’re one lucky girl. We’re going to give you a free makeover, top to bottom.”

  She examined my hand. Her nails glowed with a dazzling iridescent polish that reminded me of an abalone shell. Mine looked like I’d dug through tar at the beach.

  “We have a lot of work to do.” Doris put her hand on my back, guiding me toward a set of double doors. “You’re not going to recognize yourself when we’re done with you.”

  “That’s what I’m afraid of.”

  The first station was a human car wash. I stood naked on a raised, revolving platform and held on to a bar hanging above my head. Tiny goggles protected my eyes while bitter-smelling chemicals blasted my entire body. The fish-eye goggles made everything a little more surreal than it already was, including Doris watching me through an observation window. Large foam pads taller than my head pushed out from curved panels, moving closer and closer until I thought I was going to be smothered. But I held my breath as the squishy material conformed to my body and scrubbed it top to bottom. Finally, it stopped and pulled back for the last step, a high-powered water stream that sprayed from every direction and hurt like needles.

  I passed through a small chamber lit only by blue lights, and then a hot, dry one. In the last room, which looked like a doctor’s exam room, two Enders wearing protective suits scanned me for any bacteria. I was judged to be a clean palette and was whisked off for a series of beauty procedures. First up, laser treatments. This Ender team said it was just to clean up my freckles and teenage skin, but it took a long time. They wouldn’t let me see the results, but they assured me I would be pleased. I could see that they had completely healed the cuts on my hands from fighting.

  Next up, manicure, pedicure, and, as if I weren’t clean enough already, a full-body scrub. It hurt at eleven on a scale of one to ten, like they didn’t want any original skin cells left. Then Doris led me to a small room to meet their in-house hairstylist. She was the first Ender I’d ever seen with hair that wasn’t all white or silver. Hers had streaks of purple, and it went straight up in spikes.

  I tried to pass on the haircut.

  “Don’t be silly.” Doris leaned on a counter, drumming her nails with increasing speed. “She’s not going to give you a buzz cut. You’ll still have your lovely long hair. It’ll just be styled better. Give you some layers.”

  I let the spiky Ender put a cape over me, but the fact that she refused to let me see a mirror hardly inspired confidence.

  When she was done, enough hair lay on the floor to make a cat. I was dying to see the results, but no one seemed to care. The final torturer was a makeup artist named Clara, who spent over two hours brushing and rubbing color into every inch of my face. She lasered my brows and attached new eyelashes. Doris picked out some clothes for me to wear, and I changed in a small room with no mirror. Before I could even look at myself, I was rushed to another room, where I had to stand against a wall and pose for the camera.

  I tried to smile like the red-haired girl in the hologram Tinnenbaum had shown me. I don’t think I succeeded.

  When I left the holo room, I was mush. I didn’t feel made over, I felt run over.

  “Are we done?” I asked Doris.

  “For now.”

  “What time is it?”

  “Late.”

  She looked as tired as I felt. “I’ll show you to your room,” she said.

  “Here?”

  “You can’t walk home at eleven p.m. looking like that.” She leaned against the wall and drummed her nails.

  I put my hand to my face. Was I that different?

  “Haven’t you heard stories of rich men kidnapping pretty girls?” she said.

  I had. “Those are true?”

  “Oh, you bet they’re true. You’ll be safe here. And refreshed for tomorrow.”

  She turned. I followed her clicking heels down the hallway.

  “I don’t even know what I look like,” I said under my breath.

  Moments later, I was lying in a real bed. With sheets. And a cloud-soft comforter. I had forgotten the luxury of a clean bed, how sheets felt slippery against your skin. It was like floating in heaven.

  I couldn’t keep my hands from touching my face. My new skin was so smooth, it reminded me of when Tyler was a baby and I would pet his big pink cheeks. My mother had said I’d wear them out.

  Tyler.

  I wondered what he was doing. Was the new place Michael found safe? Did they have blankets to keep them warm?

  I felt guilty lying in this plush bed with a trillion pillows. Although the room was just another part of this large facility, it was made to look like someone’s guest room, with a full pitcher of water by the bed, next to a vase of daisies. It reminded me of our old guest room, which my mom had decorated with such love.

  I looked at the food they’d left beside my bed: potato soup, cheese, and a variety of packaged crackers. I was almost too tired to eat it. Almost. I ate the soup and the cheese but saved all the crackers to bring to Michael and Tyler, later, when I finally got released.

  It wasn’t until I woke in the morning that I realized that the one thing missing in this imitation guest room was a window. When I parted the pair of calico curtains hanging above my bed, all I saw was wall.

  I went to the door and put my ear to it. I could hear only the hum of an office building. I tried to open it to peek outside but it was locked. My heart sped up at the thought of being trapped. I took a couple of deep breaths and told myself the door was locked to protect me.

  I was wearing the white pajamas that had been on the bed the previous night. I opened the closet to look for clothes but saw my reflection instead, in a full-length mirror on the inside of the door. I gasped.

  I was beautiful.

  It was still my face, with my mother’s eyes and my father’s jawline, but it was so much better. My skin glowed with a flawless sheen. My cheekbones were more pronounced. This was what money could do. This was what every girl could look like, if she had endless resources. I got closer to the mirror and looked into my eyes, still smoky from yesterday’s makeup.

  I hadn’t had makeup on for a year. What would Michael say when he saw me?

  I focused my attention on the closet. One garment hung inside. A hospital gown.

  Doris unlocked my door and came in, wearing a belted pantsuit and a too-sunny smile.

  “Good morning, Callie.” She examined my face. “Sleep well?”

  “Great.”

  “They did such a nice job on you.” She scrutinized my skin and then leaned against the wall. She did that drumming thing with her nails, which was beginning to drive me crazy.

  “Don’t worry about your makeup. We’ll have it redone later. Follow me.”

  My stomach growled. I noticed the dinner tray from last night was gone. When had that happened?

  “Doris?”

  She stopped. “Yes, dear?”

  “Are we going to have breakfast?” I asked.

  “Oh, honey, you’ll have a feast later. All your favorites.” She stroked my hair.

  No one had done that to me since my mother died. It hit a trigger point for me, and I felt my eyes getting moist. A lump formed in my throat.

  Doris leaned closer and smiled.

  “It’s just
that you can’t eat anything before your operation.”

  I stared at the ceiling as they wheeled me on a gurney down an endless hallway. I had pushed the procedure out of my mind, but now it was here. I hated needles, hated knives, hated being put under and having no control. Maybe they knew that, because they had already started me on some tranquilizer. The pattern on the ceiling began to melt until it was blurry.

  Tinnenbaum had made the surgery sound simple. But I had overheard the surgeons when I was in pre-op. It was going to be complicated. I was too woozy to remember the details.

  The Ender nurse, trim and handsome, smiled down at me while he rolled my gurney. Was he wearing eyeliner?

  This was crazy. I was a wimp who got sweaty palms just waiting for a vaccination. And there I was, volunteering to be operated on.

  My brain, no less.

  Probably my favorite body part. No one ever complained about a fat brain. No one ever accused their brain of being too short or too tall, too wide or too narrow. Or ugly. It either worked or it didn’t, and mine worked just fine.

  I prayed it still would after the surgery.

  We came to a stop. I was in the operating room, baking under the bright lights. The nurse—his name tag read “Terry”—patted my arm. “Don’t worry, kitten. Think of it like the little microchip we put in our pets. Bing, bang, and it’s in before you know it.”

  “Kitten”? Who was this Ender? I already knew it was beyond microchipping. Arms rustled about me. Someone placed a cone over my mouth and told me to count backward from ten.

  “Ten. Nine. Eight.”

  That was it.

  I woke up in a bed in what felt like seconds. Terry, the nurse, stared down at me. “How you doing, kitten?”

  My head was like cotton candy, all fuzzy and limitless. “Is it over?”

  “Yup. The surgeon said it was a thing of beauty.”

  “How long was I out?” I felt myself moving slowly as I looked for a clock. All I saw was a white haze.

  “Not long.” He took my vitals. “Does anything hurt?”

  “I can’t feel anything.”

  “That’ll wear off. Let me get you upright.”

  He raised the top half of my bed and I began to feel a little clearer. My eyes focused. I hadn’t been in this room before. “Where am I?”

  “Your exchange room. Get used to it. It’s where you’ll make your exits and entries.”

  It was a small room with one window that looked out on a hallway. To my left, a panel that had to be a one-way mirror. Several silver cameras, one on the ceiling, two on the walls. To my right, a tall Ender with black eyeglass frames and long white hair sat at a computer.

  “That’s Trax,” Terry said. “We’re in his domain now, so he’s the king.”

  Trax raised one hand. Big effort. He may have been an Ender, but once a geek, always a geek. “Hi, Callie.”

  I raised my hand too. I noticed there was a plastic medical bracelet on my wrist. “Hi.”

  Trax pointed to various icons on his airscreen. “So, Callie, what do you want for lunch?”

  It had been a year since someone had asked me that question. I ran through my favorites in my head: lobster, steak—heck, even pizza would have made me happy. Would it have been pushing it to ask for caramel cheesecake?

  Before I could say a word, Trax grinned. “So how about we start with lobster bisque and then a steak pizza? With caramel cheesecake for dessert.”

  My mouth fell open. “But how—”

  “Don’t worry, we’re not mind readers. Food choices are easy. We ran your cerebral input against a small database and scored the hits.”

  “I don’t know if I like that.”

  “It’s okay. What your brain likes doesn’t really matter. You’re going to be asleep. We just need to make the clear connection between your brain and the renter’s. And this proves we have a connection from you to the computer. Your neurochip works. Yay.” He twirled his index finger.

  “Do they ever fail?” I asked.

  “Do computers ever fail?” Trax laughed.

  Terry patted my shoulder. I saw he had black nail polish. “Don’t worry so much, kitten. Just enjoy the ride.”

  Back in my little guest room, I sat at a table, wearing a robe. I ate the lunch they had ordered for me. It killed me not to be able to share this feast with Michael and Tyler. I was finishing the cheesecake when Doris came in.

  “See? I told you we’d feed you. Get enough to eat?”

  “I’m ready to explode.”

  “Can’t send out a rental without a full tank.”

  I wondered if I saw a bit of sadness in her eyes. If so, she shook it off. She opened the closet and pointed to a hanger with a casual pink top and white jeans. Underwear was also on the hanger, a modest polka-dotted bra and panties cut larger than I usually wore.

  “You can put this on when you’re done eating. Remove everything, including that.” She pointed to my handlite.

  “Will it be safe?” I wrapped my other hand around it.

  “Your belongings will be locked up securely.”

  “Who picked the clothes?” I kept my voice even in case Doris had.

  “The renter always dictates the wardrobe. Clara will come in here to do your makeup and brush out your hair, and you’ll be ready for your first rental.”

  “Now?”

  She nodded. “It’ll just be for a day. We always do it that way, sort of a dry run. To make sure it all goes as planned.”

  “Who is it?”

  She folded her arms and looked as if she were reaching back for a speech she’d given before. “We maintain complete confidentiality. Better for them, you, and us. It’s cleaner this way. We do screen our renters very carefully, so rest assured, this is a lovely woman.”

  “If she’s so lovely, introduce us.”

  “Don’t worry. They sign a contract too. They can’t do anything with your body that’s off-limits. No sports that are not on the accepted list, no car racing, skydiving, none of that stuff.” She put her arm around me. “We do have your best interests at heart. All you have to do is relax and collect your money at the end. You’ll see how easy it is. I’ve had some very happy girls go through here. Some of them come back to see me. And you’ll be one of them.”

  “One last question. I saw a man talking to Mr. Tinnenbaum who I haven’t met.”

  “When?”

  “The day I got tested. Tall, a long coat and a hat.”

  She nodded and lowered her voice. “He’s the big boss. The CEO of Prime.”

  “What’s his name?” I asked.

  “We affectionately call him the Old Man. But don’t ever repeat that. Now stop thinking so much and be happy.”

  Easy for her to say. It had been a long time since I’d been happy. A long time since life was just lip gloss and music and silly girlfriends. A long time since my biggest concerns were whether there would be a test or if I’d forgotten my homework. I was aiming for more like safe, free, and alive.

  CHAPTER THREE

  The mood in the exchange room crackled with tension. Trax sat at the computer console while Doris and Terry hovered over me. I was betting that Tinnenbaum was watching through one of the cameras.

  I was all ready to go, sitting in the chair with perfect makeup and hair. Doris put a charm bracelet on my wrist. It was silver with little sports charms.

  “Just a little something I give all my girls,” Doris said.

  The charms sparkled: a tennis racket, air skis, ice blades.

  “Touch it,” she said.

  She reached over me and, with her index finger, lightly touched the blades, setting off a holo-projection of blades spinning on ice.

  “Wow.” I touched the tennis racket and a tennis ball sailed through the air. “I love it. Thank you.”

  She seemed a bit flustered.

  “She’s nothing if not thoughtful.” Terry sort of sang this out.

  He put a smock over me to protect my clothing. Was he afraid I wo
uld drool?

  “It’s okay, you can lean back,” he said in a hushed voice.

  “It won’t muss your hair.” Doris patted the pillow. “It’s silk.”

  My chair was in its upright position. If all went well, I—my body, that is—wouldn’t be in this place very long.

  Somewhere in this building was my renter. She was sitting in a chair like mine. Soon, she was going to be controlling my body, as if she were me.

  The thought gave me a shiver.

  “Are you cold?” Doris asked.

  Terry became alert, ready to get me a blanket.

  “She’s fine,” Trax said. Our eyes met. No hiding anything from him.

  Terry wheeled over the anesthesiology cart with the cone. Soon, I would be out cold. Soon, my body would belong to someone else.

  I was dreaming. And I knew I was dreaming. They hadn’t told me this could happen. But there I was, dreaming. I saw Tyler, running out of a house by a lake. He had a huge smile on his face. He ran through the grass and picked up a fishing pole.

  He looked healthy. I wanted to tell Michael, but I couldn’t find him. I ran into the house, a large, woodsy cabin. He wasn’t in any of the rooms. Finally, I found him on the deck overlooking the lake. But when I ran to him, he turned and it wasn’t Michael.

  I heard voices far away. Mumbling.

  I recognized them. A woman’s voice. My mother?

  “Her eyes fluttered,” the woman said.

  Mom?

  “Callie? Kitten?” a male voice said.

  “Don’t call her that.”

  I opened my eyes.

  “How do you feel?” It was a woman, but not my mother. It was an Ender.

  “Callie?” A man wearing eyeliner bent over me. “How you doing, girl?”

  “Where am I?”

  The woman looked concerned. “You’re at Prime Destinations. You just had your first rental.”

  I remembered this woman. “Doris?”

  A relieved smile softened her face. “Yes, Callie.”

 
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