LiVE THE DREAM
These words flashed before Caitlin Neil’s closed eyes on her red-eye flight back to Los Angeles.
It wasn’t home, but her so-called base. Her name wasn’t even Caitlin Neil.
Nevertheless, as the Company had promised her, she had come to like both. Until now.
“Hello. This is your captain speaking. We should be at LAX soon. ETA, 3:00 AM.”
The witching hour.
Where had she heard that? In her half-asleep, half-drunk state, Caitlin didn’t care.
Not Caitlin. Carol.
She knew that. So did her various agents. The thing was, she was supposed to forget.
The first time she’d seen a kiosk ad for LiKE, LLC., she’d been blinded via her multifocal contacts. Garish colors. Startling strobe effects. Smiling faces. White-capped teeth. Full-lashed, winking eyes. Yet somehow the lowercase i had unnerved her the most, out of place among its brethren.
Along with the slogan that had just registered on Caitlin’s groggy radar screen, so did this one:
WE LiKE YOU
Did they really?
Madeline from PR, her first and foremost handler, had certainly said so.
“You’ve got potential,” she’d enthused with an ear-to-ear grin at their first meeting. “I know – lots of people say that, and lots of people hear that. Yet you have that extra something special that puts you several cuts above the rest. Too bad no one else has noticed. They don’t care. Am I right?”
“Well,” Carol Nonager had countered, one year ago to the day. “I wouldn’t say no one.”
“Who’ve you got?”
“My supervisor. She’s been good to me at the dentist’s office. Coworkers, too, who are finding me more and more indispensable as our new hires get less and less reliable. Millennials and Gen Z.”
Madeline had grimaced in sympathy. “Where have all the X’ers gone? Many have come here.”
“What exactly are you offering?”
“A total makeover. Plastic surgery, natch, but also a new lease on life. In fact, a new one.”
Carol had blinked hard. “Beg your pardon?”
“Relax. You’re not coming back from the dead.” Madeline’s high, tinkling laugh had bubbled right through Carol’s blood and bones to the soul within. “Here at LiKE, we’re all about transformation. Not only will you get top-of-the-line cosmetic procedures, but a new name and occupation. In fact, after you fill out our SecondScenario questionnaire, you’ll get the job you’ve always wanted.”
“A New York Times bestselling author?”
“If it’s in the metric, you bet.” Madeline had paused, tipping her hands into a pyramid. “Something tells me ‘dental receptionist’ wasn’t what you dreamed of being when you were five years old.”
“Or forty-two. However, I’m still having to pay off my student loans.”
“For what degree?” Seeing that the older woman had bowed her head in shame, Madeline waited.
“Ouch.” Madeline’s own Gen Z colleagues said Oof, but she figured that would turn Carol off. “I have a feeling that won’t pan out unless you have a little help. That’s where we come in. Our LiKE-ABILITY career counselors will make sure you have the best fit for your highest ambitions.”
“Now you’re talking.” Then Carol had made her wait. “How much will all this cost?”
“Fifty grand at the outset, but I told you you’re special. For only ten thousand dollars, we’ll foot the rest of the bill. I’m serious. We’ve never met a woman with so much promise before. In the past, all our clients were” – Madeline had lowered her voice – “rich white male assholes. With their money and prestige, they could have bought a whole ski resort and retired early. But no. They had to take the Faust – er, fast route and go for the gold one more time.” Gigantic eye-roll.
“Not you, Ms. Nonager. You’ve never even had silver or bronze. Am I right?”
Carol had nodded, her eyes wet.
“Got a family? Partner? Children? Friends who mean more to you than a monthly lunch date?”
Four shakes of the head. Carol had tried not to look pathetic but knew she’d already failed.
Thus she’d signed on the dotted line and been wheeled off to surgery before she could say fine print. In truth, she hadn’t cared about it. She knew she should have, but in the heat of the moment, strapped to the gurney and full of more adrenaline than had surged through her in years, let the whys and wherefores be damned. She’d be the person she’d always known she could become.
Now, in the dim ambient lighting of her plane to L.A., Carol dreamt again – and remembered.
Her transformation had been a smashing success. Looking twenty-two instead of forty-two was the icing on the cake. She’d also been given intravenous vitamin supplements and bone enhancers to ensure her body maintained youthful vigor, along with coenzymes and an implant for continued mental acuity. No middle-aged fog would creep up on her, or early-onset dementia. The doctors had done such a good job that the newly-minted Caitlin Neil had become LiKE’s new poster girl.
Fame and fortune were now hers for the making. At her beachfront studio home, she’d set to work.
She’d been shocked to find out that two books had been pre-written for her by some drudge in the Career Assessment Division. Murder mysteries for women: “Sale-acious” and “Drop a Shopper.”
“Gotta have some previous visibility,” another agent had told her. “Unknowns are profit poison.”
Thus Carol/Caitlin had buckled up, laughed and binge-drunk her way through both titles.
Vapid materialistic crap! She’d shouted that to the rooftops, but of course, no one had heard.
“I want to go in a different direction,” she’d advised her advisor. “Serious, resonant stories.”
“See, here’s the thing. People don’t so much want stories as content. Popular then, popular now. What’s hot this week is hot next week. Movie tie-ins, social media presence, Twitter-style format.”
“But what about meaning?”
The Zoomer had almost burst out laughing, then said: “They want more of this.”
In Carol’s mind, the bubblegum-pink cover of Pay the Price and the electric-blue one of Buy, Buy, Die! spun into view like album covers in musician biopic montages. They showed her what she’d accomplished in the short span of a year. Lots of writers couldn’t produce that much content.
So why hadn’t she been content?
Looking back, even through a wine-filled haze and a lack of restful sleep for weeks, Carol knew she should have sported an attitude of gratitude. Her new releases had garnered the #5 spot on the NYT bestseller list. In no time at all, and with further coaching from her LiKE-ABILITY retinue, she’d hit #1. Her student loans were well on their way toward landing in her permanent outbox.
On top of that, she had a team of maids and chefs to make sure her toilets were scrubbed and her meals were cooked to personalized perfection. As for friends? Who needed those in real life if they were nobodies? Dental receptionists, for that matter? Her new teeth had all been capped, so. . .
Carol/Caitlin jerked awake. Had a flight attendant come to her? Nope. An auditory hallucination. She fell back asleep as quickly as she’d been jolted back to reality. The voice spoke again:
“They control everything – your face, your body, your books. Your first and last name.”
“I know that.” She murmured this out loud through grinding teeth, but nary a soul noticed.
“We both do, but look.”
The earnest face of A.S. Walker, now Libra Wright Retenue, filled Carol/Caitlin’s dreamscape.
“This isn’t LiKE, LLC’s first rodeo,” A.S./Libra had explained. Some fan at a signing – no, a real author at a smoke-and-mirrors cocktail party Carol/Caitlin herself had hosted. “It’s their second. Just like it’s our second time around. In fact, they used to be called SECONDS, or the Company.”
“How do you know?”
“Trust me. It’s not on Google or any other part of the Internet, even the dark web. It’s a type of MLM, a word-of-mouth-only pyramid scheme. I was sponsored. So were you, though you might not know it. If you don’t refer a new client at the end of this year, they’ll terminate your contract.”
“What’s that got to do with right now?”
“Everything.” Libra had sunk to her knees in front of Carol, clutching a half-full glass of Brut.
“I was like you. Forty-something, childless, friendless except for a few acquaintances who couldn’t spare the time to do anything more than once a month, if that. They were all too busy. I wasn’t. I didn’t even have a job. I lived off a disability pension: a moocher. A drain on society and all that. I had all the time in the world. Now I’d do anything to get it back. Back from people I LiKE.”
“That’s too bad,” said Carol/Caitlin, “but at least I wasn’t like you. Thank God for that, I guess.”
Libra had leaned in. “What’s your new last name?” she’d whispered with sweet champagne breath.
“Spell it backwards.”
In spite of her own woozy booziness, Carol had sat up ramrod-straight. “Lien.”
“Right. Retenue? It means “retained,” or “held” in French. I’m held. You’re held. We’re all held, even our ancillaries and helpers. Our household staff. Our handlers and agents. Not everyone is a Second, but if you’ve signed on with the Company, you’d better do as they say.”
“Write your mysteries. Refer as many new clients as you can. Be happy for your second chance.”
“Well, I’m not,” Carol/Caitlin had nearly spat, “and I don’t believe you. Get off your knees, girl.”
Libra had. She’d also mouthed the word “please” before she’d left the party. How pathetic.
Carol had hung on a while longer, but no matter how hard she tried, Caitlin hadn’t taken hold for more than a few weeks at a time. In the middle of writing her third shopping-centered caper, “Everything Must Go. . .”
“This is your captain again. Landing in Los Angeles in ten minutes. LAX, ten minutes.”
Ten minutes more to dream. . .
In the middle of writing her third shopping-centered caper, “Everything Must Go,” the NYT-bestselling novelist had made her final decision. She’d return to LiKE/SECONDS/the Company/whatever it was called and be born once again. She’d get – thirds? Yeah. That was what she needed. Then she’d succeed.
She had to. She was no rich, white male asshole. She was an ordinary gal with extraordinary goals. She’d been hardworking, loyal, and kind to the people she’d known – her boss and coworkers. Who better than Carol Anne Nonager-turned-Caitlin Neil to achieve what almost no one could?
She’d pick her own name next time. Her own genre, too: historical fiction. Resonant. Meaningful.
In the field of her dreams, Madeline from PR thought so too.
“Great!” she cried. “We’re all about recycling. Sustainability. Let’s get you into surgery again.”
Sanitized and scrubbed, she was. Strapped to a gurney with a leather restraint – did it have to be so thick?
“Just out of curiosity,” said Madeline, “are you religious?”
“If you count watching ‘How To Get Away with Murder’.”
“Ha! One of our Nones, then: an ever-widening category when it comes to faith. You’ll be fine. Just remember that nothing and no one is ever wasted here at LiKE, because we. . .like. . .you.”
The plane landed. Carol/Caitlin/soon-to-be Delilah Roberts got off and met her grinning agents.
“Welcome home,” they said, “and welcome to yet another new life.”
Carol’s spirit overflowed with the thankfulness lacking in her previous two lives: so meaningless. So insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Lacking in value and substance. Utterly deficient.
Her third time around wouldn’t be. After all, it was the charm.
They grinned and embraced her. They grinned as they washed every inch of her year-old form.
They grinned as they read her some pamphlet about doorways and transitions and whatnot.
They grinned as she thrashed on the gurney, suddenly having a bad reaction to what she heard.
They grinned as the needle pierced her skin, preparing her for true rebirth, where she’d be eternally
Credit : Tenet
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