“Where shall we go tonight?” Euan caresses my cheek with the back of his hand then brushes a stray braid away from my face. He is propped on his elbow next to me in the classic post-coital pose. I suppose he thinks he looks suave, but he doesn’t. He just reminds me of a kid trying to pull off a look that’s too big for him.
I slide my arms around his neck and smile into his movie-star blue eyes—his best feature, by far—while trying to guess the kind of music his Internal Life Soundtrack app is playing. Things can get a little unpleasant when I get it wrong. Fortunately, Euan is not exactly complex. Tonight, I’m sure it’s something romantic: classical or old standards. If it were opera, his eyes would be tinged with melancholy. Were it passionate and dark, like Mozart’s Requiem, he’d be all over me. Something sophisticated, then. Not jazz. French.
“Paris.” I place a butterfly kiss on his chin. “Take me to Paris.”
“Perfect,” he purrs. “See? You’re perfect for me. I don’t know what you’re so worried about.”
He throws the crumpled sheets off both of us, leaving me shivering, and scrambles from the bed, humming La Vie en Rose. As I reach down to pull the sheets back over my shoulders, I watch him stride across the thick grey carpet toward the bathroom. My stomach clenches. I can’t do this.
Euan is so scrawny I can count the knobs of his spine. His skin has a risen-from-the-grave pallor and a clammy feel. His blond hair hangs in limp greasy strands. None of this stops him from swaggering around as if he were a bronzed muscle-bound god, though. Like Apollo himself. From the way he always glances in the gilt-framed mirror over the fireplace, I’m pretty sure he’s installed a Self-Image-Enhancing app in his SmartBody so that he sees a more chiseled or brawnier version of himself in any reflection. Then again, maybe he doesn’t need an app. Rich people can see and believe whatever they want.
He goes into the bathroom, and I hear him take a long splashing pee. With him gone, I rub against the silken bedcovers, wishing I could somehow upload their softness into my body and then download the feeling into Alannah’s cheap, scratchy sheets. I bet if I had a SmartBody like Euan’s, there’d be an app for that. But the best I can do is memorize how it feels so I can describe it to her later. I want my daughter to know these things exist. I want her to believe that one day, she will feel such buttery sensations against her skin. And not because she rents out her body like I do. But because she’ll be part of the “Hard-Working Class,” as we’re supposed to call the wealthy now.
The toilet flushes and I hear the whirr of the safe opening. I go stiff. I know Euan keeps the safe in the bathroom, but I’ve never been able to find it. I imagine the shower panel opening up to reveal a vast treasure trove resembling Aladdin’s cave, except instead of being packed with pearls, rubies, and emeralds, it brims with pills, powders, and herbs.
I know he’s got the usual Category A goods, basic psychotropics, sedatives, and stimulants, because that’s what he deals to people like me from the Shirker Class. But he’s also got Category R–restricted–stuff that he filches straight from Pharmakon, his daddy’s lab. These are absolutely forbidden to Shirkers. Stuff like Tricky, a Virtual Reality psychotropic. Or Qwik, a scarce, astronomically-priced nootropic that boosts your IQ to genius levels–a secret favorite, Euan tells me, among the highest tier of Hard-Workers saddled with shit-for-brains kids. He boasts, too, about having Category X items–government use only–like Scopa, a potent mind-control drug that allows you to dominate another person’s will. Permanently.
Even with all Euan’s connections and his Hard-Working family, he would have trouble avoiding jail time for dealing Category R drugs to a Shirker. You have to earn the right to have those drugs. And if I got caught buying? They’d bury me under that jail.
Still, I’d do almost anything to get my hands on Qwik. It’s the one thing that would secure Alannah’s passage out of Shirker. She’s only ten and as sharp as a razor, but that’s not enough. She’s got to stand out. Hard-Workers will have to need her brains to let her rise.
Euan emerges from the bathroom wearing dirty black jeans and white tee-shirt. He grins as he holds up a baggie with several pills in one hand and a sheer black dress in the other.
“Special night, special dress,” he says.
Thinking of Alannah helps me to slip out of bed and wrap my arms around his narrow waist. “You’re amazing, Euan,” I say, dredging up all the sincerity I can muster. “Thank you.”
He kisses me, thrusting his tongue in my mouth so deeply, it’s hard not to gag. Eventually, I push him away and make a fuss about wriggling into the dress. When I’m done, he runs his hands over every inch of my body, grinning and wetting his lips like he’s about to eat me. I just stand there. Oh, I can’t.
He takes my hand and pulls me towards the bed. “We’ll go on a bateau mouche. Ever done that?”
I shake my head. My heart is pounding so hard, I can’t speak.
“It’s a boat cruise on the Seine river. You’ll love it.” Euan jumps on the bed and digs the baggie out of his pocket, calling, “Projector!”
Instantly, a huge blank screen materializes and hovers before us. He gestures for me to sit beside him. I climb onto the bed and he slings his arm around me.
The screen fills with an image of a long white double-decker boat with hundreds of empty seats bobbing upon an olive-green river. Cottony clouds scud across a sheet of blue sky, and diamonds seem to glint beneath the surface of the water. Behind the boat, I recognize the flying buttresses and massive spire of the Notre Dame Cathedral. We tripped there once before.
“Nice, huh?” He rummages in the baggie and pulls out a pink pill. “Ready?”
I nod but don’t take the pill from him.
“Come on, it’s just Tricky,” he says. “Same as always. I’ll tell you when it’s the other stuff. Just take it.”
I picture Alannah at home sitting on her mattress on the floor, fixed on one of my old history textbooks, ignoring the roaches that scuttle by. I look at the screen again. If she makes it to the Hard-Working Class, maybe she’ll go to the real Paris someday.
It excites Euan to place the pill on my tongue, so I turn towards him and open my mouth. He sticks the pill in with two fingers, dragging them across my tongue as he withdraws. Then he slips a tablet into his own mouth, and pulls me back onto the pillows, wrapping his arms around me while we wait.
I close my eyes. Darkness. Then Tricky floods my brain.
Now, I’m on the boat, standing at the white railing looking out at Notre Dame. The sun feels warm on my face, and a breeze sends my braids fluttering. There’s a squawk above me. I look up–a seagull. It hovers over the boat, then dives toward the glistening water. Does Paris have seagulls? I don’t know. But it all feels so right, so good. I understand why Shirkers aren’t allowed Tricky. Who would ever want to be in the real world, if you could be in one like this?
Euan calls my name and appears beside me, holding two glasses of champagne.
“Cheers,” he says, handing me one.
“Is this real?” I say, holding the glass up to the sunlight.
“Sure,” he says. “Right from France.”
“No…I mean, are we really drinking it?”
“Do you taste it?” he asks.
I sip it and feel the bubbles fizzing on my tongue. “Yes.”
“Then it’s real. Why not?”
I don’t know. As always, Tricky makes me feel confused, but tranquil also. I take another sip of champagne and gaze at the slate rooftops of the city.
“Let’s make it a night cruise,” Euan says.
Darkness instantly falls, and tiny yellow stars blossom above. The Cathedral, illuminated with a warm light, stands bold and brilliant against the black sky. Its beauty bedazzles me. Euan laces his fingers in mine and I find that I have no urge to pull away.
The boat begins to drift down the river, and we look out at the twinkling, still city. Euan points out several majestic buildings as we pass: Hôtel de Ville, the Town Hall; the Louvre, home to the Mona Lisa…Musée d’Orsay, a train station-turned-museum.
We reach the Eiffel Tower, which sparkles like a bejeweled bride. Euan says:
“I’m going to put my Life Soundtrack on speaker.”
“Okay,” I say.
A lingering, dreamy melody surrounds us. It’s La Vie en Rose, the song he was humming earlier. Euan, holding me from behind, nestling his chin on my shoulder, asks if I understand the lyrics. I shake my head.
“It’s about a woman who sees life through rose-colored glasses when she’s with her man. She’s so happy everything turns beautiful.” He turns me to face him. “That’s what I want for you.
All at once, I remember our deal. That tonight’s the night. I look out across the dark river, suddenly seeing nothing.
“Euan…isn’t there any other way?” I say.
But we’ve been through it all before. I have nothing else to offer him. Alannah gets Qwik only if I take Scopa. My free will, my mind, will be under Euan’s control forever.
Euan traces the length of my collarbone with his index finger and then taps my temple.
“I want all of you,” he says, wetting his lips. “Every bit.”
My fear is present but distant, like the bedroom I know we’re still sitting in.
“I want to make you happy. I want to make Alannah happy,” he continues. “I swear, that’s all. Don’t you feel happy now?”
Do I? Is this drugged peace the same as being happy?
“This isn’t real,” I say. “It’s just Tricky. How can I trust you?”
Euan shrugs. “I’m taking a big risk by giving a Shirker Qwik. If I get caught, who knows what will happen? And with the Scopa…Either the government will kill me or my dad will.” His lips twist bitterly as they always do when he speaks of his father.
He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a vial of whitish powder along with the baggie. There are three pills left inside. He shakes the bag in front of me.
“This is Qwik. All Alannah needs is three doses, and she’ll be the smartest ten-year old in the country. It’ll become untraceable in her system thirty-six hours after she takes the last one. And she’ll be smart enough to reveal her enhanced intelligence gradually. She’ll get a good job. She’ll become a Hard-Worker. She can get a SmartBody. She can travel and be free.”
He holds up the vial. “Here’s the Scopa,” is all he says.
The lights from the Eiffel Tower shimmer and sparkle as La Vie en Rose continues to play. My head spins. How real is any of this? I feel rather than hear Euan whisper: I’ll take you to Paris every week. Venice, Morocco, too. Anywhere you want. All the Tricky you want. Just let me have you. All of you.
I know what I must do. I reach for the vial with shaking fingers.
“How does this work, again?” I ask.
“Just inhale it,” he says. “I’ll say your name and your mind will imprint on my voice. And that’ll be that.”
I unstopper the vial. Euan’s breathing is shallow as he leans forward to watch me. Even through my Tricky haze, I see the same greedy expression he wore when I put on the dress, when he touched me all over. La Vie en Rose is no longer playing; his Life Soundtrack has switched to Holst’s Mars, from the Planets Suite. He is tense. This is real.
I pour a mound of the powder into my palm.
Euan leans in closer.
When I blow the Scopa into his face and scream his name, a tiny part of me pities him, this poor sap who never understood the limitations of a rose-colored world. But mostly I feel alive and ferocious; gloriously ablaze with love for Alannah–a happiness that’s always real.