A Soul of the Earth story
Stiletto Sally’s nails scrape the screen of her tablet as she flicks through my medical file. “Yesterday’s results are in. All your bodily functions are in order. And your intelligence test scores were satisfactory. We’ll allow you into the next phase.” She tucks the tablet between her pointy elbow and her ribs and clicks down the marble hallway.
Why a perfectly manicured model is running a trial for the largest bio-chem company still headquartered in New York is beyond me. I scuttle after her anyway. “And when will that be?” Thermodynamics starts in two hours, and it takes at least forty-five minutes to get from here to Washington Square Park now that the dredge has made it all the way up to Midtown. How did she get here and keep her shoes so clean?
“You’ll take the personality test now and if you pass,” she finally delivers a long-awaited squint at my face, “you’ll be invited to a special event tonight.”
“Another test right now? But I have class soon.”
Stiletto Sally—more commonly known as Ms. Montrose—emphatically drops her non-tablet-clutching arm to illustrate her annoyance with my apparently unreasonable question. “Miss Alice. There are literally hundreds of girls jumping at the chance to partake in this trial. If you are no longer interested, you know where to find the door. I’m sure a more eager participant will gladly take your place. And your paycheck.”
And there it is. The hook.
If they’re dishing top-dollar for some silly personality test, they might as well fork more cash my way. This morning’s intelligence quiz was a no-brainer. I finished in sixty-two minutes, then stared at my screen for another fifty-eight while the other girls groaned about not having enough time. All of them were dismissed, except for me. “How much does the next phase pay?”
Self-satisfaction drips from Ms. Montrose’s smirk. “You’ll receive two thousand for each completed test. And an additional five if you’re invited to the event tonight.”
Nine thousand dollars in one day. I don’t even try to close my mouth. “Okay, yeah. Let’s do it.” Thermodynamics can wait. It’s not even a requirement for the transfer to Ohio State since as a freshman, I only audit the class anyway. With the money from these tests, and potentially another five from the event, the move out of this sinking city will be paid for. NYU is not what it promised to be now that the mold from the flooded basements has soaked up the damp walls. Even the fourth floor isn’t stench safe anymore. But New York is still better than home, where we couldn’t bury mom in the mud, so we burned her. Just weeks after the sick chickens. Before everyone abandoned our town. Including me.
Ms. Montrose shows me into the tiniest room I’ve ever been—littler even than Cat Lady’s closet that I rent uptown so my mattress has a place to live, and I don’t have to crash on dorm room floors anymore. This personality-test chamber houses a small, gray metal table with three legs, accompanied by a matching chair, surrounded by grayish green walls that scream prison cell.
“You have five hours. Timer starts now.” She yanks the door shut so fast the pages stacked on the table sail off in protest.
“But I have to pee!” My hand reaches for a phantom doorknob. Seriously? Five hours stuck in this metal casket. “And it’s a paper test.” Crouched with barely enough space for my knees, I gather the sheets with countless questions off the gray linoleum floor. At least they’re numbered.
Would you rather watch a cat catch a mouse and eat it, or trap a mouse yourself?
What’s the point? Are they planning to inject me with cat DNA? Turn me into some feline hybrid that keeps the city safe from rodents? No need for that anymore. There are enough drowned rats floating around to feed all the cats in the city’s skyline apartments for a decade. If the city lasts that long.
The one pencil Ms. Montrose so graciously left me pokes a tiny hole as soon as it touches the—extra flimsy?—paper. I’d forgotten how genteel pencils are. How lightly one must handle these precious tools. Better not break the tip since she neglected to leave me a sharpener.
If the mouse was foolish enough to believe it could outsmart its predator, it deserves to be eaten. Let the cat have its
dinn supper. Of course, I get the one pencil with no eraser.
Can’t be a coincidence. There must be a camera in here linked to Ms. Montrose watching me for five hours from the comfort of her office chair—or the toilet. She must be riveted as I flip through page after page of increasingly odd questions regarding my opinion on world affairs and “state of mind as a female.” I alternate my answers between surprise and delight and total annihilation of positive psychology just to keep shit interesting.
Exactly three-hundred minutes later, the door flies open again. This time the paper corners just flutter in my grasp. I extend the perfectly aligned pile to Ms. Montrose. “Not sure why you need to know what I think extraterrestrials look like, but fine. Here you go.”
Ms. Montrose doesn’t even glance at my stack. “Leave those here. It’s time to get ready for the event.”
“Wait, I passed the test? But you didn’t even look at my answers.” My fingers are stiff from gripping the pencil and my legs sore from straddling the three-legged chair for an hour before I braced it against the wall and side-saddled that bronco. “Or were you just checking for claustrophobia?”
Ms. Montrose rotates ninety degrees and hightails. Speed-walking in heels is a skill this woman has mastered. “Pick an outfit. There’s a shower and make-up in the bathroom. Spruce yourself up.” Her look as she once-overs me must mean I stink. Her eyes linger on my formerly white Adidas, now permanently tinged green. “Luckily for you, we provide shoes as well.”
“And when will I get paid?” I wish my friends had been recruited. They’d kill for such money. And it would’ve been nice not to navigate this mental maze alone.
“Four thousand for today’s examinations has already been deposited in your account. The additional five will be as soon as you enter the event.”
“Five grand just for attending this shindig?” For which I apparently need to look and smell good. Not that I’m complaining. Throw your dough at me, Sally! I’ll clean up nice enough.
Ms. Montrose stops in front of a red, metallic door. “If you last till the end of the night, a fifteen-thousand-dollar bonus is yours.” She glares at me as if this is more than I could ever deserve.
And she’s probably right. Fifteen grand? That’s half a semester at Ohio. Fifteen grand less debt. And more money than I’ve ever made. “Last till the end? Like, stay alive?” I chuckle alone.
She grimaces and presses her fingers on a scanner. The door releases with a puff of air. “When you’re ready, take the red door on the other side. Just scan your hand.”
So, they fingerprinted me for more than a criminal background check. I’m in their system now. A heavy brick descends from my throat, silencing my growling stomach. “And what happens after this field experiment?” More corporal analysis? They did specifically state in the non-disclosure agreement that they’re not after my organs.
“Get picked first.”
The door clicks closed behind her. No handle.
Sixteen racks of clothing fill a luxurious locker room. Sequin dresses so short, they qualify as tank tops. Snakeskin leggings. Freakin’ ball gowns? My fingers run past a row of strapless tops in neon colors. Nothing is over a size four.
A red silk jumpsuit catches my eye. It’s the drapiest thing in here, with two large pockets on the front. Who doesn’t love a good pocket? The fabric glides through my fingers, shimmering like a ruby.
Behind me the door hisses. “So, I can pick anything I want and I get to keep it—no matter what?” The girl’s green eyes widen as she takes in the sheer volume of garments at her disposal.
Damn, she’s pretty. Countless freckles decorate her defined cheekbones, like fireworks celebrating her symmetry. Without confirmation, the door shuts behind her, wafting the long, ginger hair that cascades down her back. She looks so…clean. And she’s already wearing a short yellow summer dress that accentuates the tan on her skin—what does she need to change for?
“Hi! I’m Alice,” I croak, suddenly conscious of the brown mop of unbrushed curls knotted on top of my head. I quickly rub my finger along the corners of my eyes to check for crusties.
“Ginger,” she says.
“I can see that.”
“No, that’s my name.” Her impatience discloses my lack of originality.
“Sorry, I was trying to crack a joke, you know, break the ice? In case you’re nervous.”
Ginger riffles through the first rack like it’s done her harm somehow. “Why would I be nervous?” Not finding anything to her taste, she starts ransacking the one next to me.
“Do you know what we’re doing here? All these tests and stuff?” I hold my newfound outfit at a distance, so it doesn’t absorb my smell before I have a chance to shower.
“Nope.” Ginger crosses her arms down her torso, grabs the corners of her dress and yanks it up over her head. Her bare breasts are so staggeringly round and bouncy, I want to turn away, but why should I be uncomfortable for someone who isn’t? She slithers into one of the sequined tank tops. “What do you think?”
“Splendid. Looks like you could spin around the room all night.”
“What did you pick?” Ginger flits up close and checks the label of the soon-to-be-mine jumpsuit. “Nice.” She smells like marshmallow bubblegum and has the grace not to wrinkle her nose at me.
“I should shower.” But first… I scan the perimeter until I see a varnished brown door with a huge ♀ on the front. And a golden handle.
Ginger rummages through some products on the counter. “Put this on, after.” Her palm presents a glass perfume bottle that says nothing but N° 5.
The bathroom contains every grooming item a person could possibly need. If body wax had feelings, it would be offended by my sneering disposition. But I recognize the shampoo my mom would pick when she’d get her hair done at the salon, and I wouldn’t mind a whiff of her right now.
I haven’t felt this clean in forever—this place must have a top-of-the-line water purification system. The silky jumpsuit fits like it was tailor-made but electrifies my loose hair with its static energy. I spray some of Ginger’s potion to tame the fly-aways, find some glossy black pumps to raise me up so I don’t trip over the hems, and head for the red door.
“No!” Ginger’s surprised eyes connect with mine through the mirror. “Come here.”
I shuffle over. She could probably tell me to roll around on the floor and I’d do it.
Her soft fingers squeeze my chin as her other hand applies mascara to my lashes. She’s pasted powder all over her face, making it freckle-free. Such a shame—I liked her constellation.
“Were you recruited at NYU, too?” I mumble, so I don’t make her mess up my face.
Ginger’s perfectly plucked eyebrows twitch, then she shakes her head. “Dance studio. Five of us were invited. Now it’s just me.” She applies some gloss that immediately attracts my stray hairs and tastes like apple-cinnamon. “That’s better. Good luck.”
“Maybe I’ll see you in there?”
Ginger shrugs and turns back to the mirror.
I press my fingers on the soft pad to let it scan me and yank my hand back. Something pricked me! Three tiny red drops squeeze out from between the ridges of my fingers. Bastards could have just asked for more blood. Haven’t I been cooperative so far? I let them stick a wand up my vagina, for Christ’s sake.
I want to stomp down the hall, but the red bottoms of my shoes are so slippery, I’d break my neck on this white marble floor. So I flatten my palm against the white wall—pretending to keep my balance—and leave three red smudges on the otherwise pristine paint. So there.
Two men in black suits stand outside a large, double door.
“Is this where I’m going?”
Manscaped Goatee nods, while Hairless Harry opens a door for me. And suddenly, I’ve slipped into the fanciest club I’ve ever seen. TV show fancy. Movie fancy.
Low, black leather couches are framed by long, white drapes hanging from the thirty-foot ceiling. Cocktail tables with tropical flower arrangements surround a glossy dance floor. In the corners, dim-lit booths invite.
“Would you like champagne, madam?” The waiter’s question snaps me out of my transfixed state. Underage drinking laws must not apply here. The eye of a lion peeks over his burgundy bowtie. What other tattoos are hiding under that starched, white shirt?
I nod and take the tallest, slimmest glass I’ve ever held from his tray. What I really want is water. But at least I have something to hold now—I handed in my phone at the building’s entrance.
With the glass pressed against my sticky lips, I scan the crowd. About three dozen men—all suited and tied—hover around half as many gorgeous, scantily clad women. All they seem to have in common is a slender figure dressed in expensive garments and a high tolerance for ogling eyes and traveling hands.
Ginger sits in a dark booth, one long, bare leg bouncing over the other as her smile lights up the face of the middle-aged man leaning into her. He whispers something in her ear, and I can hear her cackle over the thumping of the music. I wonder what her real laugh sounds like.
Some ancient geezer at a nearby cocktail table gives me a double-take and beckons with his index finger. Navigating the streets of New York on foot the past few months has given me plenty of practice in pretending not to notice, and as quickly as my feet will pump, I hobble to Ginger’s booth.
“Hey, can I join you guys?” I slide into the booth across from her, putting the man she’s impressing between us. He’s quite good-looking actually—with sleek black hair and stubble on his square jaw. His jacket is unbuttoned, and his loosened tie hangs casually flicked over one shoulder, like a noose around his neck.
The man smiles at me with narrowed eyes. There’s something naughty about him. Sly. “Sure! The more, the merrier. We were just about to have some fun.”
“I’m Alice.” I extend my hand to him. Ginger doesn’t seem happy—her smile has turned phony. I hold my hand up as I retract it. Just trying to stay away from the creeps. Be my safe haven.
“So, Alice, how do you like Wonderland?” He laughs at his joke as he gestures all around. The screen on his gold watch lights up. He quickly pulls down his shirt sleeve to cover it.
“It’s very classy here. A lot of swanky people too.” I look at Ginger. She squirms—I think his hand is in her lap. But she doesn’t stop him. She probably knows about the fifteen grand too.
A waiter approaches carrying an oval tray by two ornate handles. He sets it down in front of Ginger. It’s a mirror with lines of white powder, and two small, golden tubes. My neck stiffens to prevent my head from shaking.
“Are you ready to party, girls?” The man, who never told me his name, nods encouragingly at Ginger. The fabricated smile forms on her face again. She picks up a tube, shakes her locks back, and leans over the tray. In her reflection, I see she closes her moistened eyes before inhaling a line of powder through her delicate nostril.
The man slides the tray across the table toward me. “Your turn,” he grunts, his voice suddenly harsh.
“No, thank you.” I giggle. “My nose isn’t hungry right now.” I almost slap my forehead. I hate when my thoughts slip past my tongue.
But the man doesn’t seem to mind. “No?” His dark eyes zero in on me as he leans forward. “Why not? The real reason.”
I direct my answer at my untouched champagne, not wanting to embarrass or insult Ginger. “Well, that’s basically poison. And I don’t really want it in my body.”
Ginger snorts, then washes whatever is stuck in her throat down with the remainder of her pink cocktail. Her face contorts, as if nothing could ever taste that bitter.
The man snaps his fingers at two circulating suits. “Miss Ginger here needs to use the restroom.”
“I’m fine, really,” she puts her hand on his arm, but he withdraws.
“Come with us, miss,” Suit One says.
Ginger glares at me, her nostrils flared, lips scrunched together into a tight knot. She slams her palms on the table as she stands.
It’s not my fault. My lips don’t move but I sympathize with my eyes as Suit Two grabs Ginger’s arm and leads her through a hidden door in the wall. The man brushes some invisible lint off his sleeve where Ginger’s hand just pled for survival, and slides a little closer to me.
“Ginger’s not coming back, is she.” I swallow my solitude and scan the space again. The girls suddenly seem severely outnumbered—several men surround each one. “May I know your name?” Maybe if I can keep this guy talking till the end of the night, I’ll make it through.
“You can call me George.” George’s eyes try to pierce through me, but I’ve got my armor on. The one that’s protected me since childhood. Since that day in the barn when the boys came to find me.
“Well, George. I guess it’s just us now.” I fabricate a smile of my own. What did Montrose say? Get picked.
“What if I asked you to do a line right now?”
“You wouldn’t mean it.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Well, if that’s what you wanted, Ginger would be sitting here right now instead of me.”
A smirk twinkles on his lips. Good. Be amused.
“What if I told you to do a line right now.”
This stumps me for a second. I want to tell him to go fuck himself and do his own lines, but that would get me kicked out in a heartbeat. Fifteen thousand. I might be able to catch up with Ginger, though… No, she blames me for being booted. Fifteen thousand.
“I’d kindly decline and ask for some alternative method to please you.” I deserve to vomit in my own mouth. Would I ever say such a thing? Did I just?
George does seem pleased. He leans back against the black suede upholstery and sighs. “What’s your number?”
Answering him is probably a requirement. Maybe I’ll just mix up a digit or two. “Six four six—”
George laughs. “Not your phone number. Your number here.” He taps the table, as if that explains everything.
“Oh.” Montrose never gave me a number, did she? The unfamiliar aroma of Ginger’s potion wafting from my hair tickles my nose. “Five. Number five.”
A puff of air escapes his lips. “That’s impossible. I’ve met hundreds of girls here. You can’t be number five.”
Hundreds of girls? How many participants do they need for this trial, and how hard can it be to qualify? And what do all these dudes have to do with it? “Maybe I didn’t get a number, but I assure you I’m eligible for this…experiment?”
George folds his arms, an overdose of smugness on his face. “Where are you from, Alice?”
Suffocated crops. Rotted porches. Dreary disillusionment. “Does it matter, George?”
He shakes his head. “You’re smarter than I expected. Cause you know—all that matters is where you’re going.”
I lean forward and his eyes dive down my top. “Where am I going?” I try to look as sultry as possible when his gaze snaps back up. My performance must be for more than money. I want to know why I’m here.
“I’ll need more convincing before I tell you anything, Alice. A lot more convincing.”
His skin and hair suddenly look greasy, as if his overall oiliness just swelled. His left eye twitches as it roams my frame, then he scoots even closer. His breath smells so artificially minty, he must be drinking mouthwash. “I need to know you’re worth it. Prove it to me.”
“Worth what?” I snap, almost unable to control myself from smacking his sticky hand off my leg. His ring finger is skinny under the knuckle. Dented and pale all around.
“Oh, I like a little feistiness. In the real world we’d have a blast getting to know each other.” He grins. There’s a tiny piece of green stuck between his perfect teeth. “But this is different. You’d be an investment.”
“An investment for an unreal world?” I huff. “Between that, the fertility testing, and the character inquisitions, it sounds like you’re bringing us to outer space to preserve posterity or something.” My sarcasm ceases soon as I see the nerve struck in his face. My eyes zigzag between his as my stomach does a victory dance. “Wait, I’m right? You’re all…leaving Earth?”
George’s hand retracts from my leg. “Too smart for your own good.” He shakes his head and snaps his fingers. “Miss Alice needs to use the restroom.”
Suits One and Two appear by the table’s edge. “This way, please.”
To stall the inevitable, I bring my champagne glass to my lips and scan the room over the rim again. There’s just a handful of girls left. Whether they’re lucky, or good investments, I don’t know.
I stand and square my shoulders. The four inches tacked on to my height add extra weight to my side eye. “Too bad you can’t handle a little intelligence. You’re going to need all you can get if you’re going where I think you are.” I raise one eyebrow for good measure. He said he likes feisty.
George snickers as doubt creeps into his face. He’s so easy to read. He should really work on that.
I follow the Suits through the door, down the hall, into an elevator, all the way to the front desk where my phone and a small, smelly bag with my clothes and shoes are returned to me. Seconds later, I’m out on the street. I search the frowning faces rushing down the block. Ginger isn’t here waiting for me.
I hike my silky, red pants up so the goo can’t infiltrate it. Should have switched into my sneakers before I stepped back outside into the dense air—browned and flavored by the million-acre Canadian campfire a few thousand miles north.
My phone rings. Unidentified number. “Hello?”
“Miss Alice? Come back in. You’ve been requested. New shoes are at the front desk.”
Green muck bubbles out of the vent, lapping up at my feet. The subways haven’t run in over two years. The trains have drowned along with the rats, as will the millions of people that are simply too stubborn to leave this forsaken place.
Am I worth their venture? Or am I too stubborn to find out?
My eyes itch. Space won’t smell like dust and decay. And I could use another pair of shoes.