My stomach dipped as the blindfold was taken off, and despite my nervousness, I couldn’t help but gasp. The building in front of me was huge, with turreted towers and arched verandas, the soft cream stones gleaming in the sunlight. The smell of the lush gardens was loamy and sweet, and I could hear the ocean singing somewhere behind the trees.
“So, what do you think? Impressive, huh?” said the voice of the production assistant behind me.
Turning, I saw a cute, dark-haired girl, her nose freckled and her teeth white and even. For the last four hours, this girl had been a voice in my ear, accompanying me everywhere, even to the bathroom, but her face had been unseen what with the blindfold and all. Now, her face seemed strange, mismatched to the voice, not at all what I’d imagined she’d look like. I’d thought that Jodie would be tall and blonde and model-like, not a boyish figure in cut-off shorts and a shirt that tied at her midriff.
“Um, yeah, it’s pretty impressive,” I said, turning back to the building. “Actually, I can’t believe that I’m really here, that I get to stay here.” I could feel myself blushing a little, embarrassed at showing my naivety, my lack of class, maybe.
“Psh, it’s for work—that doesn’t count,” Jodie said, putting a hand on my elbow, her touch warm. “And if it makes you feel any better, I couldn’t even dream of staying somewhere like this.”
“Wait, you’re not staying?” I asked, turning back to the girl, anxious at the thought of losing the only familiar person I had here. Well, familiar was relative; we’d met only hours ago at the Minneapolis airport, but still.
Jodie shrugged. “I’m just an assistant,” she said. “I get to escort some of you guys down here, keep the secret, but after that I’m back to making coffee and running around delivering messages at the studio. Sorry, kid.”
It seemed strange to be called “kid” by someone I suspected was even younger than I was, but I let it slide. I wasn’t exactly the most worldly of people, and I often got mistaken for being younger than my real age.
“So, um, what now?” I asked helplessly, feeling stupid for asking, but not wanting to screw up or make a mistake either.
Jodie grinned. “Go inside, dummy,” she said. “Take your bag. There’s a concierge; he’ll show you to your room, and then you’ll get instructions. It’s all gonna be fine—don’t sweat it.”
“Yeah, right,” I said, looking back at the hotel, which now looked more intimidating than impressive. “It’s all gonna be fine,” I repeated, more for my own benefit than for hers.
“Good luck, Lana,” said Jodie, handing over my hold-all.
I waited until Jodie got back into the taxi before hoisting up my hold-all onto my shoulder and taking a tentative step towards the building. Why the hell was I putting myself through this? There had to be another way. And yet, I hadn’t thought of one if there was. So as far as I could tell, I didn’t have much choice. But there was still a part of me—a big part, if I was honest—that wanted to drop the bag and run, get the hell out of here. I glanced around again, seeing the lawns, the flowers, the tropical jungle beyond. Not that I knew exactly where here was, which could be a problem.
“All right, Lana,” I said sternly to myself. “Get yourself together. You can do this. Let’s go.” Talking to myself was a bad habit, but necessary sometimes to remind myself that I could do whatever I put my mind to. Maybe.
As confidently as I could, I strode up to the stairs, then climbed them one at a time, sweating already in the hot sun, until I was face to face with a glass door. The moment of truth. Once I opened that door, I knew, there was no turning back. I’d signed contracts and papers and scrawled my name so many times that my wrist ached, and I was committed.
I closed my eyes for a second, took a deep breath, and then pushed open the door. It opened more easily than I’d expected, and I almost fell into the air-conditioned foyer. Stumbling a bit, I managed to save my dignity only when a strong hand caught my shoulder.
“Can I take that bag for you, ma’am?” said a voice.
Looking up, I saw a tall, well-built man, his skin deep brown and his eyes trying to hide his amusement.
“No, no, it’s fine. I’ve got it,” I said, pulling my bag closer.
“Actually, ma’am, I’m required to check the bag, make sure there’s no contraband.”
Blushing again—another bad habit, I guess—I nodded and handed over my bag. As the concierge rifled through its contents, I took the opportunity to look around the foyer, noting the large reception desk that was empty, the chandelier that dripped glass from the ceiling, the deep-red carpet under my feet, and a large staircase that swirled up before splitting into two at the first landing. Not bad, not bad at all. Not bad for a kid from the ghetto.
Okay, like Minnesota actually had a ghetto. But I am poor. I see no reason to dance around the point. Ever since I could remember, since my father had walked out when I wasn’t much more than three, my mom and my little sister Suzie and I had scrimped and saved every penny. Lunch was peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and more often than not, so was dinner. I’d never set foot in a place anywhere near as spectacular as this, and as I looked around, I was afraid—afraid of touching anything, afraid of breaking something.
“All clear, ma’am,” said the concierge, breaking into my thoughts. “I’ll show you to your room now.”
I nodded, following him as he picked up my bag and set off up the grand staircase, feet silent on the deep carpet. We turned right when the stairs split, and on reaching the first floor we turned into a long corridor. He stopped in front of the third door, helpfully emblazoned with a large golden 3, which I was pretty certain wasn’t the hotel’s original door numbering. The door apparently wasn’t locked, because he opened it with the twist of a knob and walked inside, dropping my bag on the chest that sat at the end of a king-sized bed.
“Please stay inside your room until you receive further instruction,” he said.
And then he left, and I was alone inside the most luxurious room I’d ever seen. And still I was afraid of touching anything. Very gingerly, I sat down on the edge of the bed. What now? Was I supposed to just sit here and hang out? There wasn’t even a TV. It was only when I’d decided to take a shower and was about to get undressed that I checked the door and found there wasn’t a lock on the door either.
Screw it. I closed the bathroom door behind me and stripped off, seeing my own pale skin in the mirror, my long blonde hair stretching down my back. I stepped closer and looked into my own blue eyes.
“Get yourself together,” I told myself again. “This is what you wanted, remember?”
Well, it is and it isn’t, I thought as I played with the shower controls until I found an acceptable temperature. Yes, I’d prayed for it, prayed to be accepted. I’d entered as, well, I want to say as a joke, but it wasn’t really a joke. It was a hope maybe. A desperate chance, but a chance nonetheless. And as soon as I’d found out that I’d made it past the initial application stage, I’d prayed and prayed that I’d get this far. But that didn’t necessarily mean it was something I wanted.
The shower water was hot and steaming, feeling good on my clammy skin, dirty with plane air. I washed my hair, finding a vast array of bottles and lotions and all kinds of cosmetics next to the sink. And I missed Suzie washing my hair for me at home. She used to bend my head over the side of the bath and rub her little fingers into my scalp, carefully washing out all the suds. At least she had until recently. Now she was too sick and too tired to do anything but sit in the lounger in front of the TV, too tired sometimes to lift her own fork, meaning Mom or I had to feed her to keep her strength up.
I let the hot water rinse off my body before stepping out and pulling a thick white towel from a stack near the door. It felt weirdly like drying myself with a cloud. The operation Suzie needed was, according to her doctor, simple enough and had a high success rate, and she could be fine. He’d even assured us that insurance would cover nearly all of the costs, and I’d nearly laughed. Like people like us had health insurance. He’d got no idea that even this one visit to his office meant that none of us would be eating lunch for weeks and we’d all be walking instead of taking the bus anyplace we needed to go.
So we’d left and gone home and for a while just sort of hoped that everything would work out, that Suzie would just get better and then all would be fine. But of course she hadn’t—she’d gotten worse, and then there was the question of money and how to get it and the late-night, tear-filled talks after I’d half carried, half dragged Suzie to bed. And then this had happened. All this.
The mirror was too steamed up to see myself now, so I wrapped my hair up in a towel, decadently choosing a second dry one from the stack, and opened up the bathroom door. Deciding I needed to get over my fear of touching anything expensive, I practically threw myself down onto the bed, bouncing up and down before stretching out, my arms over my head, revelling in the space.
I knew what I was getting into. Everything had been explained to me. I couldn’t pretend I was doing this under duress or under any false illusions. And somehow, I’d kidded myself that I was equipped to handle it. I’d undergone all the interviews, then the medical tests and the blood work, and with my finger I could stroke a strange-feeling bump under the skin of my upper arm. A birth control implant, to stop any “little accidents,” as the nurse had said. And somehow, sort of, it had seemed a dream come true. But I hadn’t actually thought about the concrete specifics of what I was getting into.
Partly, I think, that was because I thought I might jinx myself, might somehow put myself out of the running if I thought too much about the chance I was getting. But partly it was because I didn’t want to think about it. And who the hell would have thought that someone like me would have been accepted anyway?
I was always a decent kid, and I am a decent person. I went to church on Sunday; my clothes were old but none too revealing. I’d had a couple of boyfriends, only one serious, and he’d broken up with me when I’d refused to “put out,” as he’d elegantly put it. I’d barely even kissed a guy, and now. . . Yeah, my brain still didn’t want to think about the specifics. Instead I wondered if the others were already here, hidden away somewhere in their own hotel rooms.
Sparked with curiosity, I thought about opening my room door and at least checking out the hallway, but the concierge scared me a bit, and he’d told me to stay right here, so instead I decided to check out my room. The cupboard under the desk turned out to be a mini fridge, stocked with drinks both alcoholic and not, which confirmed my suspicions that we weren’t in the US anymore, since I was a year away from being able to drink there. The large doors proved to be a closet—more surprising, though, was that it was already stocked full of clothes. Which, I guess, explained why I hadn’t been allowed to bring more than one change of outfit with me. The large sliding glass doors opened out onto a balcony. Stepping outside, I could just see the blue of the ocean over the tops of the trees. And that was pretty much it. My home for the next five weeks. Or less, depending on how things went.
I was unpacking my meagre collection of belongings—a couple of books, some makeup and personal stuff—when there was a knock at the door. Whoever it was didn’t wait for an answer before opening it and coming in anyway, the same concierge as before.
“They’ll be ready for you downstairs in half an hour,” he said. “You’ll find some of the outfits in the closet marked for certain occasions. Please wear the one that’s labelled with the word ‘welcome’.”
Again, not waiting for me to say a word, he turned around and left, closing the door behind him. Friendly guy. But half an hour, yikes—I was still wrapped in a towel. Grabbing my makeup case, I went back into the bathroom and prepared my face. Then I found a hairdryer under the sink and got to work.
I had barely five minutes left by the time I was done, and I spent at least half of that rummaging through the closet looking for an outfit labelled “welcome” as I’d been instructed. Finally finding it, I pulled out the hanger to see a long, formal dress. Deep blue, the same shade as my eyes, it had a large golden 3 picked out in sequins on the bodice. Okay, that was a little tacky, but other than that, the dress was beautiful and far nicer than anything I’d ever worn before. There was even underwear draped over the hanger. Time was running out, and I didn’t have time to think about it before I was pulling on the dress, except to notice that it fit perfectly. Like it had been made for me, which perhaps it had.
And then it was time and I was glad I’d been in such a hurry to get ready because it hadn’t allowed me time to think. And I wasn’t going to think now. It was beginning, and like it or not, I was part of it, and I needed to win. Desperately needed to win. For Suzie. For Mom. For me. I slid my feet into high-heeled shoes, wobbling dangerously for a second until I got my balance. Then I opened the door and stepped out into the hallway.