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       Starters, p.8

           Lissa Price

  I turned to the left at the half level, passing various portraits. They were all of the same woman—Mrs. Winterhill, no doubt—at different stages of her life. She was always beautiful, with high cheekbones and a strong nose and jaw line. Her eyes followed me.

  I reached the second-floor hallway, which was dimly lit by wall sconces. I turned to my right. There were several doors on either side of the hallway, and all of them were closed. Did anyone else live here? I figured I was about to find out.

  I opened the first door on the right. I waved my hand where the light pad should be and the lights came on.

  This first room looked like a guest room—no personal items in sight. I shut off the light and went to the next door, which proved to be a sewing room. The next room was a bedroom decorated for a teen girl. I wasn’t sure if it was Mrs. Winterhill’s fantasy teen room or whether an actual teen lived there. I was relieved to see that it was empty.

  I went across the hallway. The first door I tried was locked. I continued to the next door, where I found what I was looking for—Winterhill’s master bedroom. An ebony four-poster bed sat in the center of the room. The posts twisted like taffy, each one ending with a claw clutching a ball. Over the bed hung a gold-colored canopy with precise pleats gathered in the center. The green-and-gold striped spread had generous tassels dangling at each corner. A mountain of pillows crowned the head of the bed.

  The best thing about the bed was that it was empty of any Mr. Winterhill.

  As inviting as the bed looked to me, what drew my attention was the area to the left of it. There was a separate sitting area with a chaise lounge and a small antique desk. On the desk was a flat, inlaid wooden box.

  I opened the box. Inside was a computer.

  I hurried to bolt the door, rushed back to the computer, sat down, and kicked off my heels. I noticed a yellow light on the panel and I waved my hand over it. The airscreen appeared above.

  If a power or cell outage had hit Beverly Hills, maybe that would explain why I had lost my connection to my renter. I searched the Pages.

  Nothing came up. I continued to read, but the news wasn’t anything new.

  I searched for my mom and dad, hoping some pictures of them still existed somewhere. I found one of them at a party. I stared at it, soaking up every detail of their faces.

  I sank low in the chair and felt my eyelids getting heavy. It was two a.m.

  Next to the computer was a holo-frame with an image of Mrs. Winterhill. Her name was etched into the edge: Helena Winterhill. Her features were the same as in the wall portraits, but this was a more recent image of her. Although she appeared to be around a hundred, she still had a great figure, as well as an elegance and a strength about her.

  “Helena Winterhill, where are you?”

  She just smiled back at me.

  I rose, slipped off the party dress, draped it over the chair, and crawled into bed in my underwear. I pictured Tyler and Michael in their little fortresses, already sound asleep.

  In the morning, I opened my eyes to a gold canopy above me. Beneath me, silky smooth sheets. My head floated on the world’s softest pillow, while the delicate scent of cedar blended with honeysuckle, making the room incredibly relaxing. I was in definite princess territory.

  I climbed out of bed and picked up my renter’s cell phone. No call from Prime. Was I being too optimistic to hope I could somehow salvage this?

  It was nine o’clock. Michael would be getting washing water for Tyler about now.

  I walked over to Helena’s bathroom. A large, open marble area defined the shower. As soon as I stepped close enough, a waterfall began to flow from the ceiling. There were two pads for adjusting the temperature. I waved my hand in front of the red one to make the water warmer. I slipped out of my silk bra and panties and stepped under the waterfall.

  I felt a second of guilt about the waste of so much water. Just a second. It was so refreshing to close my eyes and feel water flowing over my head. I was renewed.

  I wrapped myself in a thick heated towel and wiggled my toes on the fluffy rug as warm air jets blew my skin dry. When I bent down to pick up the bra, I remembered the paper Michael had handed me when we’d said goodbye. I’d stuck it inside my bra.

  Only that had been a week ago. A different bra.

  I went to the dresser in Helena’s bedroom. I was going to check the underwear drawer, but a piece of paper on top of the dresser stopped me.

  The paper had crease marks from having been folded. It was a drawing of me. My face. I didn’t remember posing for it, but it was definitely Michael’s style. This had to be the paper he handed me before I left with Rodney.

  Helena must have found it hidden in my—our—bra.

  I stared at the drawing, mesmerized. It was beautiful. Ethereal. And a little bit haunting.

  It wasn’t an exact likeness. He took artistic liberties, like giving me two different-colored eyes. But I saw it as a perceptive interpretation of my spirit. It made me wonder, was it because Michael was such a gifted artist? Or were we that connected?

  I wasn’t sure of the answer, but I was touched. I put it back on top of the dresser.

  The dark wooden paneling of the bedroom concealed two closets. I opened the first one and sorted through the Ender-wear: dark suits and dresses, all in a size way too big for me. I tried the next closet and found clothing for me. Just my size.

  I picked out some jeans and a knit top and put them on. Perfect. On the dresser was a locket on a chain that went well with my outfit, so I put it on. As I fastened it, I felt my hair was still damp. I guessed I hadn’t stood in front of the jets as long as I should have. When I patted the back of my head, I touched something odd—the incision where Prime had inserted the chip. It was an oval shape. It was tender.

  Also on the dresser was the watch I had been wearing last night. I could only guess how much it must have cost. It could probably feed a family for a year. I opened a drawer and put it away. I didn’t want to be responsible for that if it got stolen or damaged.

  I held up the evening bag from last night. Too dressy. I found a cool leather shoulder bag in the closet—just right—and transferred the driver’s license and the cell phone into it. I took out the wad of cash and fanned it. It wasn’t really mine. But I needed it now, for gas and food, while I tried to figure out what was going on.

  I decided I would keep track and pay Mrs. Winterhill back out of my paycheck. After counting the bills, I transferred the cash to the shoulder bag.

  There was one more thing in the evening bag. Madison’s card. It read “Rhiannon Huffington.” The holo showed Madison as she really was, a plump 125-year-old woman in a silk caftan, with a toothy grin. She was blowing a sassy kiss and winking. This was the big woman inside little teen Madison. Rhiannon might be ditzy, but she sure knew how to enjoy herself. I had to hand it to her.

  I slipped her card into the shoulder bag.

  I put away last night’s clothes and made the bed. Then I realized that Mrs. Winterhill probably didn’t ever make her own bed. She had that housekeeper. So I messed it up. I was about to leave when I noticed I’d left the computer out.

  I sat down and closed the box that held the computer. Maybe there was something else here that might tell me more about Mrs. Winterhill. I opened the desk’s side drawer and saw only pens and notepads. But in the middle drawer was a silver case sized for business cards.

  “Helena Winterhill” was the name on the cards. The hologram picture was the same as the one on the desk. I took out a couple of cards and slipped them into my purse.

  Helena’s cell buzzed. I looked at it. Someone had sent a Zing.

  It read: I know what you’re going to do. DON’T. Don’t do it.

  I stopped. Who was this? Some friend of Helena’s who had discovered her little renting excursion? Enders could be so judgmental.

  Or did this have something to do with the Voice?

  I dropped the phone into my purse. I wanted to get out of there, and I wanted
to do it without running into the housekeeper. I unbolted the bedroom door and peeked out into the hallway. No one was there, not in either direction. I closed the bedroom door behind me as quietly as I could and went down the stairs.

  When I turned at the half-level landing, I saw the housekeeper waiting for me at the bottom. She had a watering can in her hand. She set it down on the floor near the table with the flowers.

  “Good morning, Mrs. Winterhill.” She wiped her hands on her apron. She wore simple black pants and a black shirt.

  “Good morning.”

  I tried to determine which room would lead to the garage entrance. I wasn’t sure.

  “Breakfast is waiting,” she said.

  “I’m not hungry. I’m going out.”

  “Not hungry?” She pulled her head back as if this was something Mrs. Winterhill never said. “Are you ill? Should I phone the doctor?”

  “No, no. I’m all right.”

  “Then you must at least have your coffee and juice. To wash your vitamins down.”

  She turned and walked down the hallway, leading me to the gourmet kitchen. Like the bathrooms, it wasn’t true to the period of the rest of the house but instead was filled with the latest modern conveniences.

  The smell of cinnamon filled the kitchen and made my heart ache. It reminded me of happy weekend brunches Mom, Dad, Tyler, and I used to have when we were a family. The housekeeper had set a place for me at the large center island. A massive silver bowl was filled with cut fruit, including my favorite: papaya. I could feel my mouth watering.

  I sat and put my napkin on my lap. The housekeeper had her back to me as she fussed at the stove. I looked to the right and saw a short hallway that led to a door. Was that the way to the garage? She came over carrying a pan and put a piece of French toast on my plate. It had been so long since I’d seen French toast. She brought over a sifter and sprinkled powdered sugar on top, just like my mother used to do.

  I was starving. I had no idea when Mrs. Winterhill had last eaten, but it felt like it had been days. The housekeeper had mentioned vitamins. Interesting that my renter was so keen on taking good care of a temporary body.

  Everything tasted so good, so fresh. The juice was like ambrosia, a mix of several tropical flavors. I was happy to see a pitcher there because I was so thirsty. I stared at the cornucopia of fruit and wondered if there was any way I could get some to Tyler and Michael.

  After I had finished my meal, the housekeeper brought me a small bowl of vitamins. The pills were all different colors, so I assumed she wanted me to take all of them.

  “Have to take care of that body,” she said. “Even if it isn’t yours.”

  I nodded, my mouth full of vitamins, and drank some juice. I put my napkin on the counter and stood. “Thank you. It was delicious.”

  The housekeeper shot me a funny look. I wondered if that was the wrong thing to say. I walked to the door that I hoped would be my exit.

  I put my hand on the knob and pulled it. I was facing the pantry.

  “What are you looking for?” the housekeeper asked.

  I scanned the shelves and grabbed a Supertruffle. “Found it.”

  I came out and saw another door through a small side foyer. That had to be it. I was about to walk that way when a sound startled me.

  It was the front doorbell.

  The housekeeper left to answer it. I went to the side foyer and opened the door. I smiled when I saw the yellow rocket ship and the other cars waiting like my trusty steeds.

  I heard the housekeeper calling to me as she rushed back to the kitchen.

  “What is it?” I asked.

  “There’s a … boy here to see you,” she whispered, her face pale.

  “A boy?”

  She brought her wrinkled hand to her mouth and nodded. Her features were twisted, as if she had the worst possible news in the world to relay. She let her hand fall to her apron and clenched it.

  “He says you have a date.”


  I hurried to the front foyer with the housekeeper on my heels.

  It was that guy from the club, Blake, wearing jeans and a leather jacket. What was he doing here?

  “Hey, Callie.”

  “Blake.” I walked to the marble table to anchor myself. In the daylight, his eyes were actually more piercing.

  “You feeling better?” he asked.

  “Yeah, thanks.” Had he come all this way just to check on me?

  “As I told Eugenia”—he nodded to the housekeeper, who stood behind me—“we had a date for noon.” He looked from her to me. “You didn’t forget, did you?”

  How did he know where I lived? I stammered something incoherent.

  “You did,” he said, sighing.

  I looked back at Eugenia. At least now I knew her name. “Could you … please?”

  She headed toward the kitchen. I turned back to Blake.

  “When did you ask me out?” My mind was racing. Images of the evening blurred together. “And when did I say yes?”

  He stepped closer. “When I met you last night, sitting at the bar in Club Rune. Don’t you remember? You couldn’t get the bartender’s attention. I ordered for you.”

  “The bar?”

  “We talked, had some laughs. You said you like horses,” he said.

  I had been in Club Rune, but I hadn’t sat at the bar. He must have talked to Helena, before I reclaimed my body. That was how he’d known my name. His gaze was so intense, I thought it would melt me. I ran my fingers over the cool marble table. The overwhelming perfume of the flowers was not helping.

  “I wasn’t feeling like myself last night,” I said.

  He lowered his head to catch my gaze. “You want a rain check?”

  I was about to turn him down, because theoretically, I was working. But the body bank hadn’t contacted me yet. They knew how to find me via my chip. And they could call Helena’s house if they wanted to reach me. So far, I hadn’t done anything wrong. I was just waiting for them.

  And the memory of that voice in my head convinced me I should not go to them.

  “No,” I said.

  He looked at me with a question on his face. “No, meaning no?” he asked. “As in go away, don’t ever bother me again?”

  I smiled. “No.” It was fun teasing him. “No as in no rain check needed. Just give me one minute, okay?”

  I dashed upstairs to Helena’s bedroom. I told myself the real reason I could justify this date was because I needed a big favor from him. This was my chance to make friends with an actual teen, not just some Ender claiming to be one. A teen with a car and the freedom and ability to go anywhere. He could deliver a favor and Tyler and Michael would benefit. I’d wait for the right moment and ask him.

  I took the drawing of me off the dresser, folded it up, and slipped it in my purse.

  Blake and I walked outside together. His car, a sporty red bullet, waited in the curved driveway. It had a brushed metal finish with smooth lines and no useless extras. He opened the door for me and then got in on the driver’s side. The restraints whirred as they hugged us to the seats.

  I noticed the gate was open. Maybe it hadn’t closed last night?

  As Blake pulled away, I saw the housekeeper, Eugenia, standing at a window on the second floor. Disapproval clung to her face like an extra layer of powder. And in case I wasn’t getting the message, she shook her head from side to side.

  We drove through the gate and onto the street, and suddenly my stomach tightened.

  What was I doing?

  “You okay? Comfortable?” Blake asked.

  I nodded.

  I was a sham. He was rich and I wasn’t, yet there I was, pretending, wearing pricey designer clothes and acting like I lived in a mansion, with a servant, even. I knew I should tell him the truth about me, but how would it sound? Blake, guess what, I’m really a street orphan who sleeps on the floor of abandoned buildings and is only alive because of food salvaged from restaurant garbage bi
ns. I have no home, no clothes, no relatives. Nothing. And worse, I sold my body to this place called Prime Destinations. Two weeks ago, I didn’t look like this. They lasered and bleached and plucked and buffed me. And technically, this body now belongs to an Ender named Helena Winterhill, because she paid for it. You could be dating her right now, some hundred-plus-year-old woman, and not even know it. What do you think of that?

  I looked over at him. He was blissfully unaware, driving with ease. He caught me staring and smiled, then focused his attention on the road.

  I leaned back in my seat and inhaled the scent of new leather.

  Did Cinderella ever consider fessing up to the prince, that night she was enjoying herself in the fancy ball gown? Did she even think of telling him, oh, by the way, Prince, the coach isn’t mine, I’m really a filthy little barefoot servant on borrowed time? No. She took her moment.

  And then went quietly away after midnight.

  As we drove, I did the math in my head. I was thirteen when the war broke out and had been living the street life since I was fifteen. That was a pretty good excuse for this to be my first date. What I knew about dating came from watching holos with my dad, who loved them so. I remembered going out to the local Xperience for the total immersion of sight, sound, and weather. I missed how the seats would rumble and shift, making it feel like you were really in the cockpit of a spaceship or gliding along, flying with fairies. I loved it so much, I used to dream of doing it for a living, working with the creation of Xperiences when I grew up.

  For me, dates were something out of musicals, where everything went perfectly, or comedies, where everything was zany and wacky. Which was it going to be?

  Blake took me to a private horse ranch in the hills north of Malibu. The one time my dad had taken us riding at a public stable had been nothing like this. Those horses had been dull and tired, and we had mostly walked on flat, dry trails surrounded by skeletal shrubs. I’d thought it was the greatest—what did I know? But Blake and I rode through lush meadows on spirited Arabians with glossy chestnut coats. We trotted on a path through a pine forest and crossed bubbling streams. It was just the two of us, no other riders—no other people at all—as far as I could see. Blake was the better rider, but he paced his horse to match mine. I didn’t want to go beyond a trot. I didn’t dare risk falling and hurting myself.

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