Tess waited patiently as her identity was logged into the station database. They patted her down, scanned her eyes, and then took a new photograph. About a half hour later, Tess was brought to her cell and locked inside. She groaned and sat down on the small metal bench. Luckily, she was alone.
A few other holding cells had people in them, but they were mostly full of adult men and junkies.
After a few hours of isolation, Tess began to get restless. She saw people come and go all night, but no one ever came to speak with her. It was early morning by the time a police officer came to fetch her.
He unlocked the cell and held on tightly to her arm, leading her forward.
“Someone’s here to speak to you. I suggest you listen to what he has to say,” the officer said. “You don’t have many options left.”
Tess was confused, but she didn’t ask any questions. He brought her to a room where interrogations usually took place and shoved her inside. There was a man already inside, someone who wasn’t a cop.
She turned back to face the police officer, but he had already shut the door behind them. The man smiled and motioned for Tess to sit across from him.
He looked like he was in his early thirties, professionally dressed in a crisp black suit, and sunglasses tucked into his pocket. Tess thought he was fairly handsome, but she hadn’t seen many guys who looked like him. There was a strange confidence to him that made her feel uncomfortable.
He motioned for the chair again, still smiling. Tess obeyed.
“Tess Galvin,” he stated, looking over his tablet in front of him. He held it up, so Tess couldn’t read it. “And you’re eighteen?”
Tess nodded and brushed back some of her hair. She had a habit of looking down when people were talking to her, but she couldn’t stop looking into his eyes. They were green with flecks of yellow. Unnatural. Maybe even fake.
“Who are you?” Tess asked.
“People call me The Creator. I guess I prefer that name,” he said. When Tess continued to stare at him, he raised an eyebrow. “Are you okay with that?”
Tess shrugged. She knew something was off. This wasn’t a normal police investigation.
“Are you a gamer, Tess?” He asked.
“I’ve played whatever’s available for free, mostly the educational stuff. You can probably see from your background check on me that I’m poor,” Tess replied.
“I’m The Creator because I create games. I guess it’s not a very original nickname.” He paused. “Listen, Tess. I know you’re in a lot of trouble and you can’t afford to pay these fines. I also know you can’t afford to fix your hand or…your scar. You’re very beautiful, did you know that?”
Tess shifted in her seat and looked down.
“But without my scar, I’d be much better off. Right?” Tess said. “What advantage does being beautiful have? I’d still be poor. I still wouldn’t be able to…”
She cut herself off and bit her lip. The Creator looked at her curiously.
“You still wouldn’t be able to save your father?” he asked. “Having money fixes everything, Miss Galvin. Having money would save your father.”
“And what does this have to do with my face or my hand? What do you want from me?” Tess asked, frustrated.
He placed his tablet face down on the table and folded his hands in front of him, leaning forward. Tess looked at him again.
“I told you I create games. I need testers for my new game, but that’s not all. I need competitors,” The Creator said.
“I’m not a competitor. I wouldn’t stand a chance against people who have been playing games forever.”
“I’m not looking for gamers. I’m looking for people who have something to gain. I’m looking for fighters,” he replied.
“I’m not a fighter,” Tess replied.
“Please, just hear me out. It will be a television show with a prize. You’d be able to fix your hand and your face and you could help out your father. A couple months is all I ask. Don’t you want to give yourself a chance to get out of this dump?”
Tess thought about it for a long time while The Creator watched her. There was something strange about what he was asking, but she couldn’t deny the appeal. She could help her father and maybe even fix herself.
“But why me?” Tess asked. “I’m a criminal.”
“I have a soft spot for criminals,” he replied. “I guess you could say I used to be one.”
After a moment, Tess stood up from her chair and faced him. He smiled and stood up across from her. She was being manipulated and didn’t know why.
“I don’t trust you,” Tess replied. “And I don’t think I should do this. It just doesn’t make sense.”
Tess interrupted him. “Is that all?”
He walked closer to her and leaned over her to tap on the door twice. He slipped a card into the front of her jacket pocket.
“If you change your mind,” he said. “I’ll wait a few days.”
The police officer came in and escorted Tess back to her cell. A few hours later, she was allowed to call someone. A few hours after that, Cameron arrived with money to bail her out.
It was Tess’s only money, but it was all she had left. She left safety money with Cameron in case something happened to her father and Tess wasn’t around. But it wasn’t enough. She’d owe more fines in a couple weeks.
As she waited in the front office, Cameron took off. It was getting late and her parents didn’t know she was still friends with Tess. If they did, they probably wouldn’t allow her in the slums.
After everything was temporarily squared away, Tess hurried out of the station. She shivered as a cool breeze sliced through her jacket. She eyed a young man up ahead leaning against the building, smoking a cigarette.
Tess couldn’t tell how old he was right away, but she knew he had well surpassed his teenage years. He was only a few inches taller than her, with dark hair speckled with some gray on the sides. His beard was growing in, making him look in his late-twenties. When he looked at her, she maintained eye contact for a moment, stopping abruptly in place. His eyes showed unusual kindness…something she hadn’t seen in a long time.
He nodded at her, taking a long drag from his cigarette. He looked around before tossing it to the ground and snuffing it out with his boot.
“Hey,” he said.
“What?” Tess replied.
He dug into his pocket for a moment, but didn’t pull anything out.
“Nothing,” he said. “I’m sorry. I thought you stopped to talk to me.”
Tess glanced around and then focused back on the man in front of her. He was biting his lip and staring away from her, toward the city. She took a step closer to him.
“Were you just in the station?”
“Yes,” he said. Tess saw his eyes dart to her scar, but he didn’t linger on it long. He was being polite, which was more than she could say for most people. “Were you?”
“Can I ask you a question?”
“Sure,” he replied
“Did a man ask you to do something? Were you offered anything?”
He nodded enthusiastically and then extended his hand. Tess shook it.
“I’m Nate, by the way,” he said, pushing himself off the wall. “And yes, I met a man. The Creator. Thought that was a bit pretentious.”
“Did you accept?”
Nate nodded again.
“Yeah, I did. I don’t really have anything to lose.” He paused. “Did you?”
“No…I thought it was weird.”
They stood in silent for a few moments before Nate started to back away from her. He waved a hand and smiled at her curiously.
“It was nice meeting you…uh, what’s your name?”
“Tess,” she said. “Nice meeting you, too.”
“Maybe you should consider it. It’s a chance to get out of here and even if you lose, you might become famous.”
“That’s not really what I want.”
“It gets you what you want.”
He smiled at her one more time and then walked away.