“I told Peter about the cyclones and what I thought of them, and he told me again that it didn’t work like that and that when the time came, it would be safe for me to leave the House. But I told him the same thing I would have told him any other time before the past few days: I didn’t ever want to leave the House. I had only ever seen the halls leading to the other dormitories, where I would sometimes have playmates to visit. The outside, I didn’t know what it would look like or feel like, but I knew it scared me to my core. I didn’t want to leave the House, or Mister Andre, or even my room with its dull, slick cream-colored walls in a completely egalitarian and spartan design. I wanted to dig in my heels and say no, that I would work from this room in the House the rest of my life if I needed so long as I was safe with Peter. Everything else could fall away, but the safety of my room, visitors or not, work or not, storms or not, cut or not, I could not do without it or Peter.”
“And this is where dreams go to die?” Fatimah asked though the notion hadn’t been a clarification, simply another condemnation.
The day’s gloom was singed away around the edges of the city’s heart, its neon life vanquishing the eternal forces of sorrow and snow. From afar, it was like looking at a box with a candle inside, bits of light escaping through seams and gaps in the structure. Yet, inside the four-block radius that compounded the Love Market, it was equal to standing inside a tremendous bug zapper. Light bloomed and blossomed in every spot. Neither the press of a nightlike sky of storms nor a narrow alleyway provided the slightest bit of shade. The snow too was cast away, and the paths were made almost so clean that they could have been hallways inside an upscale apartment. And then there were all of the signs that populated the streets in lieu of all but a smattering of human lives.
On street corners, some replacing traffic signs, there were faces in all manners of pleasure and arousal. Stretching down the lengths of buildings so that an entire body would be twenty times that of the real thing were semi-clad if not fully disrobed models. Spanning from building to building, morbid streamers of moral decay were the barcodes and scan labels for free trials or sales information. Icons, massive digital displays, hovered over glass cubical-like bus stops outfitted with multiple terminals. Those beckoning from the stations bedecking the streets were always the hottest commodities in their prime. The entire section was awash in the beaming lights of desire, and Fatimah cared not for the slightest bit of it.
She nudged Piper, who could have been, had Fatimah not known better, in the midst of a drug-addled vision. Rubbing her eyes, bleary with the sight of so much flesh, so many offers to be loved and touched if only the price was right, Piper once more recognized her purpose here. Still, coming out of the stooper, she asked, “Aren’t you interested? There aren’t a lot of girls here that look like you. I think you might get by just with some pillow talk or candid videos for a while. You can always opt-out, take the money and run, you know?”
“I’d rather endure numbers of horrid and painful fates than sell my flesh like the butcher sells the flesh of lambs. In so many ways, those in charge aren’t too different than such a professional, save the morality of it all.”
“Could you set aside your beliefs for five seconds and look at your options, Fatimah,” Piper sighed and shook her head at work boots that should have been garbage years ago, “You have a golden ticket without having to do all that much. I’d trade you places any day just to sit in the lap of luxury for a few minutes. To know that I won’t go hungry, that I have a home, that I can rest, or that I’m wanted.”
Together, they stood in those streets filled only with the recorded sounds of pleasure, the clicks of cameras, and the utterance of extreme and uncouth things. Piper was still trying to collect herself and decide what she would do next while trying to quash the thoughts racing through her mind. This was a dead end, asking Fatimah to put herself on the Market or expecting her to help should she somehow have a change of hearts. Abandoning her would do no good; she could always ask someone else for help getting to the Wilderness. And within the week, she would be in a training camp or sent directly to the sight of the nation’s next battleground.
The letter hadn’t specified where she was going or what war they were waging this year. It could be across the sea, the other side of the world, or even a domestic squabble between homegrown terrorists and the administration. For all she knew, Piper could be getting sent into the Wilderness itself to carve out more room for the cities to breathe. That thought only served to perturb her further. She might be charging in alongside so many like her to put holes in those brave few who tried to escape the net of the city. She could be putting a bullet in the head of a former schoolmate, through Gregor’s heart, or even Fatimah. Again Piper had to struggle out of the muddled mess her mind had sunk into and regard the woman patiently waiting at her side.
“There’s a little more… I just have to ensure you know what you’re about to give up, right? Afterward, I’ll take you to where you get out of the city,” Piper informed, her eyes unable to keep locked on Fatimah for long. Despite herself and her more natural desires, she had trouble differentiating if she was to show her friend her way out of poverty or if she was to covet her. Piper hadn’t ever taken much interest in other women, though many had looked enough to captivate her. Fatimah hadn’t been one such creature initially, but with ease, Piper could see reaching out for her in that way. Yet, she corrected herself, held tight to the belief she could dissuade the woman from leaving for the Wilderness. And if she could keep Fatimah in the city, have her enter into the Love Market, she could stay and afford to pay off the draft board while hanging on in the shadows as her manager.
Retaking point, Piper led Fatimah along an avenue lit with so much neon the sun, if ever it did shine in the place, would be dim by contrast. Despite the lighting, the division the two were headed for was a calmer scene than most of what was depicted on billboards and screens upon first entry from the industrial quarter. Here there were fewer, if any, of the public virtual booths that came with privacy curtains. The booths still stood but were built into walls in the same way public trial booths were. These, however, were not for quick glimpses of anything you could desire but directories as well as news stands. Since there were so many changes in the lives of those on the Market and the Market itself, it was sometimes necessary to acclimate oneself to these modifications. Past the row of public booths, the duo rounded a corner into an alley that would serve well if Piper decided to make fantasy a reality.
Four doors led into the buildings that hemmed in the narrow passage between streets. All four were green save one that had been checkered with black to indicate specialties the other three did not offer. Piper let Fatimah pick which they would enter, but disgusted by what she could only guess were sorted acts, she allowed her guide to choose. Without thinking, Piper chose the closest and led Fatimah into a stale eggshell-hued corridor lit with migraine-inducing fluorescent bulbs that hummed and whined and forced a headache into every skull. There were booths set up on each side, segregated with a singular plexiglass panel on either side. They were much like visitation booths in old-fashioned prisons. A telephone was stationed at the right of each cubicle. Piper directed her charge to a cell labeled ‘Tiffany,’ sat her down, and inserted her card to allow the lowest level of credit to be deducted. Stepping back, she perched behind Fatimah as the show commenced.
The room was dark, lit from behind a curtain with a blue-hued light that was undoubtedly a neon sign. There was no action, nothing stirred save an analog clock on the wall that ticked away the hour little by little. Piper began to count the clicks from the old timekeeper, wanting to ensure she got her money’s worth for her charge. After a few seconds, Fatimah looked back at the other woman, “It’s empty.”
A shape turned in the dimly lit bed, soft snores rose and fell away before the screen turned off. Turning again, Fatimah looked unimpressed.
“See, it’s easy. These women, well sometimes men, don’t do anything more than live their lives, and they live ten times better than anyone with a real job.”
“How is that?” Fatimah, bored and tired, asked with deliberate disgust.
Piper searched around as though the answers were scrawled on the other screens. Realizing they more or less were, she guided Fatimah to one of the booths across the way, “This one, we’ll try this one.”
As this screen came to life, there was immediate action. The camera sat opposite a table as though strapped to a person’s head as they ate dinner with another person. The model in frame, however, was the only one eating. This woman was consuming an absurd amount of food, piles of fast food burgers, and other fried and decadent dishes. Not only was the woman stuffing herself to bursting, but she also did so in a vulgar and hasty fashion, as though she was soon to be drafted to a country far from home. At this, within seconds, Fatimah shielded her eyes and fought back a wretch, “This is grotesque. Why would you have me watch this?”
“Um… some people get paid just to eat and act like they’re out to dinner with the viewer. Not this one, I’d guess, but look,” in the corner of the screen, an icon representing incoming payments popped and showed the equal to Piper’s last paycheck. Again she stabbed a finger toward the screen, “See? You wouldn’t have to do this, but you could make a living just living, don’t you understand?”
“I really don’t. I don’t know how anyone could respect themselves doing these things and letting people watch. Worse, those people pay money to see this. I had thought those who wanted for pleasures of the flesh were horrid, but this changes all of that.”
“Okay, one last go. I’m sure one of these models is going about a normal day. That’s what you get to do, just live, and people will pay you,” Piper wasn’t quite sure she believed it herself, despite seeing it for so long.
The final screen, one under the name Amy, flickered on at the exchange of credits to open on an unexpected scene. Under a sickly, overly white light, the room was a grim pallet of reds and brown, and there was no model to be seen. Fatimah began to question if this was what she was meant to view when a shape crossed by the camera. Piper had gone silent as a heavy-set man slumped down against the wall opposite the camera. He was bleeding, he was nude, and he had in his hands a thick piece of material and bloodied knife. Staring at the camera, he took the shroud and spread it over his face, revealing the wrinkled remains of Amy’s once smooth, flawless face. Without flinching, the man draped the flesh over his own face and began to saw away at his manhood with the knife. The feed cut out before he was through with the act.
Fatimah absently asked, “Is this it? I can grow fat, sleep, or die. This isn’t life. This is to exist as a cancer.”