The Love Market: Chapter Two

Last year, I think it must have been because it was near my birthday before this one; they said I was old enough to be cut. Peter fought them on it, said I was too young, another year wouldn’t hurt, and they agreed to put it off until my next birthday. I asked why he had said I shouldn’t be cut, and he told me. ‘The sooner they cut into you, the sooner you’ll be put to work. The sooner put to work, the sooner they’ll move you to another part of the House where I can’t go.'”

Across a few avenues and a few blocks up from the factory, through polar winds that should have been degrees warmer this late in spring, the two tromped to Gregor’s flat. Ignoring froze-down cars and abominable beggars, Piper figured the walk should have taken only a few minutes, but Gregor was prone to stopping, checking his phone and various screen ads for the Love Market.

As one of the particulars of most men her age, Heather, a shapely woman maybe in her forties or older with enough plastic under the skin, popped on the corner post beside the traffic lights, he gestured. Piper had seen Heather before, seen as in through one of the headsets after she and Gregor had finished. She wasn’t Gregor’s usual choice, but she figured variety was the spice of life. Heather was a special case, by in large, and it was likely Gregor only dipped into that end now and again. Not too many marketers reached that age and could still pull down enough to survive and keep up the necessary surgeries that kept them in vogue. Without a doubt, people of all ages stood as idols in the Love Market, but so few went beyond thirty. If they reached that age and could keep going, their age became their entire draw and aesthetic.

Though Heather was beautiful with smooth caramel skin and luscious locks of gold offset only by a streak of white cutting down her perfectly shaped heart face, Piper couldn’t imagine anyone stomaching being in the market so long. To be the center of attention forever would be wonderful, that much was true, but to constantly be available for candid screen sessions, romantic interludes with top bidders, and for every product of your body to be a commodity, Piper wondered how she could do it. Jessica Star was the anthesis of this lifestyle, retiring just at thirty, and as might have been expected, never heard from again. ‘Maybe,’ she considered, ‘Heather can’t let go of the spotlight even after all this time.’

Finally, after twenty minutes in the cold, a walk that should have been five, the two ended up in the entryway of Gregor’s flat. He patted his pockets before sneering at the panel beside the elevator and then back at Piper as though she were judging his every movement. After a moment, he threw away what little pride might remain in his breast and pressed the call button for apartment A44. Static filled the space before a gruffer version of Gregor’s voice answered, “What is it?”

“I forgot my key again. Can you buzz the elevator and leave the door unlocked?”

The speaker bubbled with static and hoarse, half-coughed laughter, “I’ll unlock the door, but you’re taking the stairs, hot shot. Learn you better to wake up on time.”

“Asshole,” Gregor turned, expecting to see Piper gone, “You don’t mind walking up four levels, do you?”

“Let’s just go back to my place instead,” she shrugged.

“Not unless you got a pair of new sets or a set, at least. Yours is old model crap that I’m not going to touch, no offense, and I don’t have the funds to pump into your set so I can have a good time.”

“Then I guess I don’t mind,” Piper sighed and let Gregor take point.

The stairs up to the flat were in no better state than the streets that had brought them from the factory. There was a lack of debris, but the lighting in the stairs was worse, and the smell of scattered garbage and human byproduct made the climb far more unwelcoming. Where there was some effort for sanitation and light in the windowless stairwell was the public view and usage screens that dotted the landings between floors. All three played the same rotating slideshow of flesh; Lexi, the tomboy, Marisol, who used to be Juan, Jarrod, just a year from fourteen, and Esmeralda, who may have served as the furthest outsider from the group.

As they ascended to floor four, Piper wanted to nudge one of those viewing through early-era glasses. She wanted to know who they had chosen. Though the selector permitted a few more models than displayed, Piper wondered if any of them had chosen Esmeralda. Despite being so radically different from herself, she felt some recognition and overlap between herself and one of the few dark-skinned marketers. Maybe that isolation, that singular nature, was what she felt connected with, or it could have been that lack of desirability ascribed to herself and those of dark complexions.

The hall leading to Gregor’s flat was the first clean space they had been since leaving the plant, which said very little of the corridor. There was one of the many vagrants, possibly a former neighbor to Gregor, who had stationed himself at the far end of the hall just below the wall-mounted heater. The unit wasn’t even giving off heat, the coils had been painted red as though glowing with warmth, but that was chipping away. Piper would have assumed him dead if not for the rasping breath reverberating from the corner as she followed Gregor to his apartment.

She had never been inside the man’s home and regretted letting him inside her own. Yet, her expectations for the man’s mode of living were vastly overindulgent against reality. His flat was barren, sparse wasn’t the right word, as the place may as well have been emptied to the point of uninhabited. The living space was a set of folding chairs that had seen better days set around a card table supported by two limbs that belonged with a third that was utterly foreign and a fourth makeshift from old books, garbage, and a half-broken milk crate. He immediately went into the kitchen and hit the cycle button for the air and the filtering tab for water. Both devices running could short out the circuits, which would mean days without for the family, but the noise they made seemed to be the aim of their use. Gregor gestured to a red door with a street sign pocked with bullet wounds, informing Piper where to go. Without question, though plainly irritated by the act, Piper obliged as her host made his way through the kitchen to a second hall with only one closed door.

Piper didn’t bother keeping track of Gregor and instead decided, if nothing else, she might get a bit of dirt on the man to keep his mouth shut the next time he thought to make another snide remark. However, where her room may have been spartan, saved for a few wall hangings, an ”outdated headset, and a few extra devices to accompany her one luxury, Gregor’s was overfull with items of excess and pleasure. His walls were covered in shelves which were themselves covered in innumerable collections of things a child would consider embarrassing to have on display. There were figurines of caped heroes and half-clad barbarian women, cases and covers from video games and B-movies from ages past, obscure memorabilia from long-dead food franchises, and a collection of empty, dust-covered soda cans set up as though trophies.

Just as Piper was about to reach out and touch one of the generously endowed female figures, she heard a shout and a door slam shut. She withdrew her curious fingers and waited for a breath before considering sneaking out and forgetting the whole affair. However, just a few moments later, Gregor came in in a huff with a bowl of reconstituted fruit and two home-bottled waters. Standing there, he didn’t regard his room any different than if he had come home alone as he kicked away a pile of empty chip bags and cans from a mound, scattering them across dirtied dishes where food had become as material as the heavy-duty plastic they were made from. Finally, after tossing the fruit on the nightstand, littered with clothes, dirty even if they had just been washed, Gregor rolled onto his bed and undid the belt. With a look that morphed from irritation to disgust, then softened into what a vulnerable yet recalcitrant youth might exhibit after a tantrum, he regarded Piper.

She felt scandalized for having even been a partial witness to whatever had just occurred beyond the red bedroom door. The notion of asking seemed taboo, more so than anything a marketer would sell on their most desperate day. Still, she had come all this way, and there was no work for her tomorrow or possibly ever again if things were in a downturn like all the whispers around the factory insisted. Taking extra care not to disturb any of the disarray that constituted the bulk of the floor, she came to the bed with its thrashed, ununiform, and likely unclean sheets and sat at Gregor’s feet.

“You can go if you want,” tense features went slack and over-relaxed, weathering away the mature and revealing a gentle child that had been wrapped in so many layers of trauma it was unclear what was in his true mind. Almost out of a sincere concern for this man she thought of as something of a friend, but primarily out of pity, she began to help undress Gregor. She untied the work boots, which seemed a size or two too large for him. Then the socks, stained, torn, and worn down to almost translucency, were rolled off and set inside the boots beside the bed. Despite the mess, Piper couldn’t bring herself to allow the place to look more ill-suited to life than it did now. Finally, she tugged at the legs of his pants, not so much in a provocative manner as so much of an attempt to make the man more comfortable.

A sharp breath was held and prolonged indefinitely as Gregor’s underwear were exposed and with them, the trace of his manhood beneath the cotton. Piper almost let out a chuckle as she folded his pants but knew it would be taken the wrong way. Of all the attire the man possessed, the only things that looked relatively new and untarnished were the undergarments, formfitting, almost a size too small, and striped in lime and charcoal. Less so for what was beneath, but the relaxation marred by a slight anxiety creasing his brow allowed Piper to feel cool and serene. The encounter was nothing like his visits to her apartment, where they had behaved as animals, and the very sense of romance was saved for whoever he wanted to see through the visors.

At last, pressing a warm hand to cold flesh, Piper allowed herself to creep closer to Gregor, who watched with intensity. She slipped off the strap of her overall, matching the other already loose and hanging, before sliding the oversize, grease-stained corduroy away. Her snowy thighs, a bit too wide, lined with faint lines on the inside and touched by the ends of stretch marks at the top, slid through sheets that may have once been satiny but were now so corroded and pocked with crumbs they could hardly feel as any comfort to flesh. Piper didn’t bother with subtly caressing and kissing his thighs and further up, remembering that Gregor’s body resembled a hairless cat better than any of the male market models. In that moment, she did not care as she slipped fingers under the man’s almost feminine undergarments, feeling the only organic softness in the room not belonging to her person. As she looked up to meet his gaze, to see that anxious delight in his dull brown eyes, she was instead met with the chrome and orange visor, the second to that which Gregor was adjusting on his own head.

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