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       Starters, p.5

           Lissa Price
 

  “How did it go?”

  She patted my shoulder. “You were a big success.”

  I was dying to know where my body had been. What sports did I play? My arms weren’t particularly sore. Same with my legs. So weird being unaware for a whole day where your body went and what it did. Who you met, who you liked, or didn’t like. What if my renter had made someone mad? Would I have a new enemy?

  I looked at my body. All parts in working order. One down, two to go. I was one-third of the way to my goal.

  Trax asked me a list of questions, a kind of debriefing. There wasn’t too much to say; I couldn’t remember anything other than my dream. He was interested in that and recorded it. Evidently, it wasn’t unusual to dream. He wanted to know if I felt rested and refreshed, and I had to admit that I did.

  Terry checked my blood pressure and my temperature and nodded to Trax.

  “It’s all good, little lady,” he said. “You’re good to go on your next rental.”

  “I don’t get a break?”

  “What for? Your renter ate and took care of all your bodily needs,” Trax said.

  “Not that kind of break,” I said. “I need to go somewhere.”

  His eyes widened. He leaned forward and called out, “Doris.”

  Within moments, Doris came clicking into the room. “What’s wrong, Callie?”

  “Can I go now, before the next rental?”

  “Leave? Why?”

  I looked down. Maybe it was better not to press this.

  She put her hand on my back. “Why not just carry on? It will be over before you know it. So much work has been invested in you. Why risk your payout? You could get an injury out there.” She fluttered her hand and grimaced as if the outside world was hell.

  She was partly right. But it was where I lived, after all.

  “If you don’t fulfill your contract—providing a healthy, fit body—you won’t get paid.”

  “Do you have another renter waiting?” I asked.

  “Yes. And she’s a …”

  “… lovely woman?” I rolled my eyes. “Okay, let’s do it.”

  “Wonderful. This one will be three days.”

  The second rental flew by, like the first. One thing I learned: when you’re out cold, time sails. I had strange dreams again but couldn’t remember them. There was one odd thing I noticed when I came to. I had a four-inch gash on my right forearm. It didn’t hurt—they must have used some numbing spray—but it was hideous. Doris got me into the laser room. They healed it so there were no scars, but I wanted to know how it had happened. They wouldn’t tell me. Maybe they didn’t know.

  Doris took me back to her office. It was decorated in whites and golds, sort of neo-Baroque. She had me sit and informed me that my third and last rental would be for an entire month.

  “A month?” I gripped the chair. “I can’t be away for a whole month.”

  “This is normal. We start with shorter terms to make sure everything’s fine before we move to a longer rental.”

  “Nobody told me this would be for that long. I have to see my little brother.”

  “Your brother?” She pushed back a lock of hair from her eye. “You never said you had a brother.”

  “What’s wrong with that?”

  “You were expressly asked whether you had any living relatives when you signed with us.”

  “I thought you meant parents, grandparents. He’s only seven.”

  Her shoulders relaxed. “Seven.” She stared at the wall. “I see. Well, they’re still not going to let you go. They can’t take that risk.”

  “What can happen to me? I might cut myself?” I stood and gestured to the arm where the gash had been. “I take better care of myself than your lovely renters do.”

  She shook her head. “Sorry, Callie, it just isn’t done.”

  “I want to talk to Mr. Tinnenbaum.”

  “You sure you want to do that?”

  “Positive.”

  Doris spoke to the unseen microphone in the room. “Mr. Tinnenbaum, please.”

  She straightened her suit and smoothed her hair. Then she started that awful nail drumming on a counter. After a few moments, Mr. Tinnenbaum marched into the room.

  “Callie is requesting a leave to see … her brother.” Doris put emphasis on the word “brother.”

  Tinnenbaum shook his head. “Impossible.”

  “No one ever told me I’d be gone for an entire month,” I said. “Shouldn’t that have been clear before I started?”

  “You never asked. And you didn’t tell us you had a brother,” he said. He shifted his weight. “As for the scheduling, we often don’t know the schedule until we’ve already begun the process. That was the case this time.”

  “But you knew that might happen. I didn’t even know a month was possible.”

  “It’s in the contract,” he said.

  “In the fine print?” I turned to Doris. “Something that important should have been said.”

  “Just like you should have told us you had a brother,” Tinnenbaum said.

  Doris looked at the floor.

  “I really need to see him before I go, to let him know how long this will be. He’s only seven and I’m all he’s got.”

  “Perhaps we could have someone check up on him?” Doris looked at Mr. Tinnenbaum.

  Tinnenbaum’s head gave the most imperceptible shake.

  “I don’t want to be difficult.” I made a point of standing as tall as I could. “I’m guessing the process goes a lot smoother if you have a cooperative donor. But I won’t be feeling very cooperative if I can’t speak to my brother first.”

  Tinnenbaum nervously tapped his toe, as if it helped him think. “What time is her exchange tomorrow?” he asked Doris.

  “Eight a.m.,” she said.

  He chuffed like a horse. “I will give you three hours and a bodyguard who will watch you every second. Don’t do anything foolish, because we can monitor you via that chip in your head.” He pointed at me. “Keep this body exactly as it is. Because right now, it still belongs to us.”

  I never once saw his teeth. Guess he was all out of smiles.

  I followed Doris back down the hallway. “I’ll have to get you some fresh clothes,” she said. “I’ll meet you in your guest room.”

  She ducked into another doorway, and I continued on to what I remembered as my guest room. But when I opened the door, there was another girl standing there. She was about my age but had short black hair. She was changing her clothes, already in a pair of flowered pants, but held a top to her chest to cover her bra.

  “Sorry,” I said. “I must have the wrong room.”

  I realized her room was decorated exactly like mine, only in shades of green. I closed the door. The next door was my room. In pink.

  Doris came a minute later, holding some white pants and a top. “You’ll want to shower. And here’s a change of clothes. You’ve been wearing those too long.”

  “Where are my own clothes?”

  “Honey, we disposed of those the minute they came off you. You can keep these.”

  “What about my handlite?”

  Doris opened a drawer. She took out the handlite and held it with as few fingers as possible. “Rodney will escort you home. No need to stop for food. You won’t be hungry for hours.”

  “I won’t? Why?”

  “You’ve already eaten.”

  It was so weird having people know more about your body than you did.

  Doris walked me to an underground parking structure that connected to the back of Prime Destinations. Rodney stood by a town car. He had a short fuzz of silver hair, and his biceps were so massive that his suit looked ready to burst.

  He noticed I was carrying the handlite. “You won’t need that,” he said. “I’ve got a mega-torch.”

  I put the handlite on anyway. It felt good and solid to have it on my wrist again.

  “She’s your responsibility,” Doris said to him. “Get her back here no later th
an twenty-two hundred.”

  “Yes, ma’am.” He opened the back door for me, and I climbed in.

  Rodney got into the driver’s seat. Doris watched us go.

  I noticed a food container on the seat next to me.

  “That’s for your brother.” Rodney gestured to the container. “From Doris.”

  It smelled good. “Yum.”

  He pulled out into the Beverly Hills traffic. “She’s a sweetheart. Known her for over sixty years. We used to work in the travel industry together, back when you could travel. Now nobody can leave the U.S. with the other countries paranoid about the damn spores. And no one will come here. Mexico, can you believe they built that wall so Americans couldn’t cross over?”

  I let Rodney babble on. My mind wasn’t on Ender stories. They always went on forever because they had so many decades to cover. All I could think about was getting to see the two people I cared about the most in the whole world.

  I pulled Michael’s map out of my handlite pocket and used it to navigate to the new home. When we got to the right street, I saw several abandoned buildings. The first one had been stopped midconstruction. A skeleton that had never seen life. The building Michael and Tyler were in was the fourth one down. Rodney parked the town car in front.

  He led the way, carrying his mega-torch. I had never had a bodyguard before. It kind of made me feel like I was the president’s daughter. Rodney held open the large glass door for me.

  “What floor?” He arced his flashlight around the lobby.

  “Third.”

  “You like climbing stairs, huh?”

  “Third floor equals safer. More getaway time.” I flicked on my handlite. “If we hear screams downstairs, we’ve got some time. Maybe run for the fire escape.”

  We took the large open stairway to the third floor. Rodney led the way, shining his light into each abandoned office we passed. A figure came out and stood at the end of the hallway, holding a large pipe like a weapon. It was Michael.

  “Stop!” Michael said.

  I pointed my handlite to my face. “Michael, it’s me.”

  Rodney put out his arm to restrain me. “Stay back.”

  I ducked under his arm. “He’s my friend.” I ran down the hall. Michael held his defensive position until I got closer.

  “Callie?” The pipe fell out of his hands and clanged to the floor.

  I threw myself into his arms and hugged him. Rodney came up and stopped a few feet away.

  “This is Rodney,” I said. “He works for Prime Destinations.”

  Rodney nodded as Michael eyed him suspiciously.

  “So you’re not done?” Michael asked. I shook my head.

  “I can only stay a couple of hours. How’s Tyler?”

  “He misses you a lot.” Michael aimed his lite at my hair. He reached out and rubbed a lock. “I didn’t recognize you. You look so different.”

  “Bad different? Or good different?” I asked as we walked.

  “You kidding? You look fantastic,” he said.

  He led us into a room at the end of the hall, a space with carpeting, which helped make up for the fact that we no longer had sleeping bags. Tyler sat in the corner, a dark green blanket over his legs.

  “I’ll stay here,” Rodney said quietly, nodding at a chair by the door. He set up his light so it illuminated his part of the room.

  I went over and knelt beside Tyler. I reached out to give him a hug, but he pushed me away.

  “What happened to your hair?” Tyler aimed his lite at me and scrunched his face.

  “Don’t you like it?”

  His eyes scanned my features. “What’d they do to your face?” He tugged at my new dangling earrings. “Those are dangerous.”

  “This place, where I work, they made me pretty and dressed me up. Don’t you like it?”

  “You’re just going to get dirty.” He looked at me like I was stupid. “And who’s that?” He pointed across the room at Rodney.

  “Someone I work with. He gave me a ride.” I showed Tyler the box. “He also gave me this yummy food for you. It’s still warm. Smell.”

  “It stinks.” He turned away.

  I moved to his other side. “Tyler, I know you’re mad I’ve been gone.”

  “You’ve been gone a week.” His face was flushed. He was on the verge of tears.

  “I know, I’m really sorry.”

  “Seven whole days.” A week with no dogbot, no images of our parents, no familiar surroundings, and no sister.

  “But hasn’t Michael been good to you? Didn’t he get you this blanket? And that water bottle? Looks like you guys have been eating okay.”

  I glanced up at Michael, leaning against a filing cabinet that was part of the new fort. He shoved his hands in his jeans pockets and nodded.

  “In fact, I’ll go get us all some water now.” He winked.

  After he left, Tyler turned to me. “Callie?”

  “What?”

  “I’m glad you’re back,” he said in a soft voice. He reached out and I put my hand in his. “Even if your hair’s funny.”

  “Thanks.” I leaned in until our heads touched. I wanted so much to stay with this moment, this hard-won truce, but I had to tell him the truth. “I wish I could stay. But I’m just here for a couple of hours. I have to go back to work.”

  He let go of my hand. “Why?” His eyes welled up.

  “Because I’m not done.” I put my arms around him and held him tight. “I need you to be brave for me. Because once we get through this, we’re going to have a home again.”

  He held on to me. “Really?” he whispered, his voice cracking. “Promise?”

  It broke my heart.

  “I promise.”

  We sat on the floor around a crate that served as a table. Michael’s handlite flickered in candle mode as Michael and Tyler finished eating the box lunch of fried chicken and potato salad from Doris. Rodney had moved his chair to the hall, but within sight. He had ear buds in his ears and moved his head to some beat.

  “Is it good?” I pointed to the chicken.

  “ ’S’okay,” Tyler said as he sucked on a bone. “We’ve been eating pudding and fruit cups.”

  “Church south of the old airport gave them out,” Michael said. “Twelve-hour walk, round trip.”

  “Where’re you getting the water?” I asked.

  “Houses around here. I just never go to the same one twice.”

  “Just think,” I said to Tyler. “Soon we’ll have a kitchen and water out of a faucet.”

  “Where are we going to live?” Tyler asked. “After you get paid all that money?”

  “Anywhere we want,” I said.

  Tyler tossed up his arms. “The mountains.”

  “Why there?” Michael asked.

  “So we can fish,” Tyler said.

  Michael laughed. “Fish? Why?”

  “Our dad promised he’d take Tyler fishing,” I said. “Then the war started.”

  Michael patted Tyler’s shoulder. Talk of the war always dampened the mood.

  “So what about you, Cal?” Michael asked. “You a fisherwoman?”

  “Not really.” I thought about the time I was eight. Dad helped me catch my first fish. Catfish. But I couldn’t stomach cleaning it. Instead of getting mad or frustrated, Dad just smiled and did it for me.

  “I’ve never been to the mountains,” Michael said. “What’s it like?”

  “Clean. Crisp.”

  “And there’s fish,” Tyler said.

  “That aren’t contaminated, like in the ocean,” I said.

  “True,” Michael said. “But you have to be brave to fish. You know why?”

  “Why?” Tyler asked.

  “Because you have to handle slimy, gooey worms.” He tickled Tyler’s stomach. “Oops, I think one got loose now. He’s crawling down your shirt.”

  Tyler giggled like he was five again.

  After the laughter died away, Tyler started to crash from his big day. It wasn’t
long before he fell asleep, his head on my lap.

  “So, tell me. What was it like?” Michael looked at me.

  “Unbelievably easy. It’s just like sleeping.”

  “Really?”

  “Yeah.” We kept our voices low, so as not to wake Tyler. “And I’m getting paid for this. Hello, house money.”

  “A real home again. He’ll love it.” Michael looked down at Tyler.

  “You too,” I said.

  He shook his head. “I can’t mooch off you.”

  I wanted to protest, but I held back. Maybe for him, this was too much, too soon.

  He dipped his head and caught my eyes with his. “Maybe, if I did the body bank too, we could put our money together. Maybe buy some little place outright.”

  I smiled. The thought warmed me. No more running. After three years, we’d be of legal age and could do anything we wanted. Get real jobs.

  Michael came over and sat next to me. He put his arm around my shoulder and sniffed my hair.

  “Smells like … cherries,” he said.

  “Is that good?”

  “What do you think?” He smiled. “It’s like you were a car, a nice car, that hadn’t been washed for a year,” he said. “And then you got a wash and wax and all the trimmings.” He flicked my dangling earring. “You’re sparkling, but you’re still the same great car.”

  I turned to him and leaned in closer. His eyes searched my face as if asking permission. I nodded slightly and, without thinking, licked my lower lip. He leaned down to me, but just then Rodney knocked on the wall.

  “Callie? Sorry. We’ve got to get you back.”

  Michael closed his eyes. Bad timing, we both knew it.

  “Okay, Rodney. Be there in a minute.”

  We heard him walk back into the hallway. Tyler woke, sat up, and rubbed his face. I touched his arm.

  “Tyler, I’m going to have to go. So listen to me, please. You and Michael are a team now, okay?”

  “A team,” he said, his voice slowed by sleep.

  “I’ll be thinking about you. I’ll be gone a long time, a whole month, but then I’ll be back for good. No more leaving. And everything will be better. Okay?”

  He nodded. He looked so solemn, it made my heart ache.

 
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