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“It'll be good for you Liz” her boss said. “I know how hard it is to travel abroad due to the industry, but with 00-Life you can travel anywhere or experience effectively anything with almost no hassle. Normally the cost is a bit much for your average schmuck, but I booked you and some of the other girls some spots on the twenty-seventh. You're always among our top earners and consistently bring in consistent profits. Consider this a thank you for all of your hard work.”
“Thanks Frank” she said, “but I'm not sure I fully understand what I'm getting into.”
He laughed a deep, resonant laugh. “Just have fun—you're over-thinking it. This is your chance to be anyone or go anywhere, no strings attached. It's not real, but it might as well be.”
“Now if you'll excuse me, I believe that we both have some work to attend to.”
Knowing her cue, Elizabeth got up from her chair and headed toward the door, leaving Frank alone in his office. She always felt like Alice in Wonderland after leaving his office, everything inside was abnormally large in order to accommodate Frank properly. His desk and chair were a good foot higher than what a normal person would use and his hulking frame made them seem average. Even the door was enlarged in width and height to allow him to easily pass through. She grew in size from a child to an adult as she stepped out into the hallway that lead to the dressing room.
As she changed, Elizabeth checked the date, it was the twenty-fifth. Two more days. She could do two days.
“So what are you going to wish for?” it was Monique.
She was already dressed and sat with her legs crossed on the long couch at the back of the room and kicked her feet back and forth. Her straight black hair was cut into a bob with bangs that framed her mischievous face. She grinned.
Elizabeth was taken back to her first day at work, over a decade ago. She was young, afraid, and had been out of options. Monique had signed her contract only a few weeks before Elizabeth and had helped her adjust to her new life. With her pale skin, petite body, and penchant for misbehavior she had earned the nickname of “imp” from Frank. To Elizabeth she was a guardian angle, in spite of her blunt speech and often abrasive habits.
“Oh, so you knew about this 00-Life business already? And when were you planning on telling me?”
“Actually I've known for a few weeks, but I was waiting to make sure that it wasn't just the big man trying to get revenge on me.”
“Revenge? What'd you do this time?”
“He's been on my case for smoking too close to the side entrance again. Something about 'keeping up appearances' or whatever. Keeping up appearances? We work in a fucking brothel!” she let out a quick twinkle of laughter. Elizabeth thought that she sounded like a fairy and found herself trying to suppress a giggle of her own.
“You should really--” she started.
“Yeah, yeah. Stop smoking, it's bad for my health and all that” Monique replied with a singsong voice. “I don't smoke because it's good for me. I do it because it makes me look cool and sexy, she blew Elizabeth a kiss.
“LADIES, YOU'VE GOT FIVE MINUTES” the receptionist's voice came hammering through the door.
“THANKS PEGGY” Monique hollered back. Then she laughed again. “Damn it feels good to yell. You ready Lizzy?”
“Yeah,” she double checked her makeup in the mirror. “Let's go.”
Peggy was waiting for them at her desk. She was an imposing woman in her late fifties and was probably quite beautiful in the past, but now kept a much more matronly figure. Her long red hair was tied up in a tight bun and she was almost never seen without her tortoise shell glasses. Though Frank was the owner of the business and provided the money for its upkeep, Peggy was their true boss. She kept the building running and well maintained while making sure that appointments where scheduled and properly adhered to. She looked up from her computer.
“Monique, I have no appointments for you, so you've on standby for now.”
Being on standby wasn't so bad, because if there were no walk ins or you weren't requested midway through the night, you didn't have to work. But if you didn't have a client, you also didn't make money off commission or tips.
“As for you Liz, you've been booked for the whole night by one 'Louie Lowman'.”
“Lucky” muttered Monique under her breath.
Elizabeth mulled over the name, she couldn't remember any regulars who went by that alias, especially not anyone who would put in a request for her specifically.
“This will be his first time booking with us, so I'm glad that he'll be in your care” Peggy continued, ignoring the interruption. “It seems that he saw you in one of our late night ads, so at least those weren't a complete waste of money. He'll be here at 10:00.”
“Oooh, a secret admirer” teased Monique as she headed for the side door. “Good luck!”
“You better not be going out to smoke already!”
“Oh, I wouldn't dream of it Peggy!”
So this was Louie. Elizabeth sized him up, he didn't amount to much. He was an old man, maybe in his mid-to-late seventies; short of stature with a slender frame and dressed in an antiquated style. His wire frame spectacles were perched on a sharp nose and his thin, clean-shaven face was creased all over from a lifetime's worth of emotions. In his hands he held a flat cap and it's absence revealed a thinning head of slicked-back silver hair.
“Hi, I'm Lou,” he introduced himself with a handshake.
“Well come this way Lou” she said. “I'll be taking good care of you tonight.”
“Oh I'd like that” he grinned sheepishly, “It's been such a long time since anyone's taken care of me.”
She beckoned for him to follow with a curl of her index finger and he followed her down the hallway to room 103. She sat down on the edge of the bed, he sat in an armchair in the corner of the room.
“So, Mr. Loman, what can I do for you this evening?”
She reached for his belt.
“No no” he interrupted her, “that won't be necessary. I just wanted someone to talk to. You remind me of my late wife Eleanor, you see. I thought if I could just talk with you I wouldn't feel so old.” He looked so small, like a child in their grandfather's recliner. “You know, I used to be afraid of getting old, but here I am—an old man. I guess it snuck up on me.” He chuckled sadly. “I miss her, I really do, but I have to wait until the good lord calls. She wouldn't be happy if she knew it was by my doing, no sir...” he trailed off. Elizabeth found herself stroking his arm consolingly. “This might be a bit much to ask” Lou ventured, “but do you sing? Eleanor had the most wonderful voice and she would sing to me when I was stressed.”
“Sorry, but I don't think--” started Elizabeth.
“No, no don't worry about it, just do your best, I'm sure it will be wonderful. As long as it's something slow I'll be asleep in no time at all.”
Elizabeth started to hum a song she had heard on the radio. She didn't think that she was a particularly talented singer, but halfway through the second verse, Lou was fast asleep. She took off his glasses and laid them on an end table next to his cap before slipping quietly out into the hallway.
“Peggy! He's asleep. It's only been like fifteen minutes.”
“Oh, so soon? I figured he wouldn't take all night, but he instructed me beforehand to let you know that you could leave when he fell asleep. He paid your rate for the whole night, so you effectively have a paid vacation. Some men are strange like that.”
Elizabeth left to look for Monique. She found her loitering around by the side entrance.
“Glad to see you not smoking at least.”
“Yeah, well I can't afford it if I don't get any work. Unlike you, I don't have a Mr. Moneybags to full book me every night. Speaking of which, how was Mr. Lowman?”
Elizabeth explained her encounter with the old man.
“Damn” sighed Monique. “I wish I looked like some old guy's dead wife.”
“Anything catch your eye Ma'am?”
“Well, quite a few things actually. Do you have any recommendations? This is my first time here.”
“Oh don't worry,” said the attendant. “Plenty of people are only able to join us for a single session, so I often recommend that they start somewhere in the middle of a longer simulation that they're interested in so that they can get right to the action” she smiled. “in media res, if you will.”
Elizabeth looked back at the options menu. Even if she ignored the “Create Your Own” button there were still hundreds of pre-made scenarios for her to choose from. Each simulation had its own little preview window on the screen, often highlighting decadent riches or incredible opportunities for adrenaline highs. Others showed strange alternate worlds where fantastic beasts roamed and the normal rules of Earth no longer applied.
But she was drawn toward a rather unassuming preview. In the picture an old brick red SUV with a black roof rack was parked in front of a cabin in the woods. The cabin was paneled with dark brown wood and had green and white painted trim. Smoke gently curled up from the chimney and a warm golden light radiated outward through the cabin's many large glass windows. It was all so nicely nestled in between strong, dark pines. Ferns and moss covered the ground where there was no path and wrapped the base of the trees. The simulation was titled; “Family: Old Growth Forest”.
“I think I'd like to try this one.”
Elizabeth came to on her back in an all-white room with the glow of white fluorescent lights overhead. She was in a large bed with freshly pressed white sheets. The room was slightly cool, but she was comfortable under the blankets. Machines made gentle whirrs and murmurs in the background. She felt pleasantly tired, as if she had just completed a long workout.
The door opened and a plump nurse entered with a small bundle in her arms and a satisfied smile on her round face.
“Congratulations Ms. Smith. I'll be returning Jonathan to you now.” She handed the newborn to Elizabeth. “I'll let you rest now dear. Press the call button if you need anything.” She slowly backed out of the room and gently closed the door behind her with an affectionate wave.
Finally alone, Elizabeth looked down at the child in her arms. She was amazed at how small he was, how intricate were his hands and fingers. He reached a tiny pink hand upward and grabbed her by the finger. She wept.
“Monique, I wish you could have been there, it was one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen.”
“I don't know—Fiji was pretty beautiful too. You should try that simulation if we ever get the chance to use it again.”
“If? We have to. It was so real. I have to see what he looks like all grown up!” said Elizabeth.
“Lizzy, do you know how expensive that one session was? Maybe if you don't eat for a few weeks you could pay for another one, but what's the point? It's just another distraction. It's not real. We should keep saving our money so that we can buy out our contracts and put down a deposit on a place up north.”
“Yeah...” said Elizabeth, her eyes out of focus. “Up north... I think I'd like that.”
“Just think about it” said Monique, “the dark green of the trees, the fresh mountain air. It'll be like a postcard, we'll have a cabin or a nice rustic cottage—we just have to endure through another five years of this shit.”
She had finished undressing and stood barefoot next to Elizabeth in a green gossamer slip.
“It would be like a dream.”
“No Lizzy, it's not just a dream. We can make it happen! Think of all the money we've been saving. We're on the right track, we have a plan, we have a way out—it just takes time.” Her normally diminutive five foot three frame had grown with her passionate energy. Monique was an imposing force, an Atlas—who could lift and shrug off the world with the strength of her conviction. “Now go out and make a billionaire exceptionally happy and see if he'll donate to take a year or two off our sentence.
That evening was a rush of flesh and whispers for Elizabeth, but their probing grasps and rough words never penetrated her inner sanctum. For the first time in a long while she could retreat inside herself to an inner room. With the blinds drawn the carnal world rushed along outside without disturbance.
Elizabeth took off her slip and put it on to the pile to be washed. She stepped into the dark shower, with its small, crimson-red tiles and large rainfall shower head.. She adjusted the handles and let the warm water flow over her bare skin. She watched as it swirled between her toes and down the drain. She thought about the 00-Life simulation and about Jonathan. Did babies need to be bathed? How often? Did she have to use a special soap? Elizabeth realized that she had no clue as to how to take care of a baby.
“I'm home” she announced to her dark apartment. The conspicuous emptiness answered back. She dropped her work bag by her shoes and flicked on the light. Her sock-clad soles padded across the living room carpet into the linoleum of the kitchen. She wasn't particularly hungry, but knew that she had to eat something. There should still be some frozen dinners in the freezer. She picked one out at random and put it into the microwave. Elizabeth looked at the box as her future meal rotated in the light—Salisbury steak. Wasn't that just a fancy name for a hamburger patty? Maybe she should learn to cook.