“I have called your brother,” Beth said, trying to keep impatience and desperation out of her voice. “He won’t listen to me. Please listen, Darleen.” Her now-ringless fingers clutched her cell phone. “Your father’s settlement check bounced. I have no money.” She’d sold the last ring three weeks ago.
“But you still have the house,” her daughter said.
“You know he took the house, Darleen,” Beth said, trying not to sound whiny. “For that girl.” Her voice trembled. Darleen seemed wilfully stupid, as if she wouldn’t believe this was happening to her mother.
Beth hadn’t believed it herself. Her numb incredulity had cost her everything.
“Her name is Farrah,” Darleen reminded Beth with reproach. “We were girl scouts together.”
You were not in scouts “together.” She’s eight years younger than you are and she’s taking my home, my husband, and apparently my settlement as well. Beth didn’t say it. Her pulse beat in her ears. The sickening feeling of drowning and falling from a height intensified. They’d had this conversation before. Yet her daughter made her say it all again, as if the truth would be different this time. Beth’s head throbbed.
“Mom, can’t you stay there another month or so? We have the Chinese exchange student in the spare room.”
Panic rose in Beth’s chest and stuck in her throat. Something moved on the edge of her view. She turned her head swiftly. A cockroach crawled down the wall of her motel room. She squeaked and shrank away in revulsion. A bed thumped rhythmically against the other side of the wall.
Over the phone, Darleen sighed. “I suppose we could let the au pair go. You could have her room. You still don’t have a job?” Her tone implied, You’re not trying, are you, Mom? With audible reluctance she said, “You like babies. It’ll be something for you to do. Only for a month or so, though. We were so hoping they would learn French early. You know you don’t speak French.”
Beth confronted her failures for the hundredth time. She wasn’t enough, she never had been enough, she never would be enough. Nobody would hire her. Her son was five states away and apparently too high to talk on the phone. Her daughter would graciously let her babysit for a month or so.
That was a new offer. Beth sensed it was the limit of Darleen’s generosity. Somehow in twenty-eight years of endless care and worry and the thoughtless outpouring of her love, she had failed. She hadn’t learned how to get through to her kids. Her heart twisted in her chest. But I love you! she wailed inside, unable to say it aloud for fear of what Darleen would say back. I would do anything for you!
“If we let the au pair go, we can put the money we save into their college funds,” Darleen added, as if talking herself into it.
Beth couldn’t listen to another word. Carefully she thumbed the phone off. She pulled in a shuddering sigh, and pain tore her in half. Then she breathed in again, and pain tore her in quarters. If she kept doing that, she’d soon be in tiny, tiny shreds.
She’d tried to kill herself two months ago and failed, too angry to die. She’d shut herself in the garage with the Audi’s engine on. If I kill myself now, she’d thought that terrible night, I won’t have to go through the dreary pulling-myself-together part.
Everyone seemed to see all this as inevitable, survivable, no worse than breaking your leg. Beth’s world had ended. Why didn’t anyone see that?
By the time the rage hit, there was no air left in the garage. She’d forced herself out of the garage and crouched, coughing and vomiting on the driveway, feeling life return like a pillar of fire inside her.
Then she’d taken as much cash as she could find, packed one suitcase, and moved to this roach-infested motel in the city.
Tonight, she found herself looking at the suicide option again.
Her anger had burnt itself out. Now she was just afraid, paralyzed, and every breath brought back the voices of her children rejecting her when she needed them the most. That betrayal was tearing the heart out of her body. She would die rather than feel it.
Her Coach clutch lay next to her phone, the sensible strap grubby from being carried every day while its companions went one by one to the pawn shop. Beth opened it and found her last two twenty dollar bills. Could she afford to get drunk enough to kill herself?
If she spent it at a liquor store, definitely, yes. But Beth couldn’t be alone one more minute. The idea of spending her last night in this room, drinking herself to death, was too sordid. No. A few cheap margaritas and then she’d step in front of a train.
She went to the bar around the corner.
That was where the evening went strange.
Now Beth sat at a rickety cocktail table in a grim neighborhood bar, drinking margaritas and staring in disbelief at the woman who had just offered her a contract with hell.
Many things about the encounter felt dreamlike. That may have been the margaritas. Or it may have been the words, sign up for our succubus team.
The woman across from her seemed about thirty-eight. She was physically perfect, but not in-your-face with it, as if her beauty was an afterthought. Because what she had most of all was power. This fascinated drunk Beth.
“No,” the woman said. “I’m not human.”
Beth’s jaw dropped. “Did I ask that out loud?” In dreams, people read her mind all the time.
“No,” said the demon, if that was what she was. She called herself Delilah. Her business card lay on the rickety table, black with glowing red writing, and orange flames licking around the name, real flames, real smoke—how did that work?
“Three-D printing?” Delilah said and winked. “You didn’t answer my question. When did Blake serve you the papers?”
Beth thought. “Four months and three days ago.”
“You’re pretty sure you want this?”
“I’m pretty sure,” she said slowly.
When Blake had left that morning, swinging his briefcase at that cocky angle as usual, she’d wondered why she wasn’t more shocked. Shock had built gradually over the following weeks as Beth assessed her options, her funds. She couldn’t find work. Her kids wouldn’t listen.
Whoever said, Home is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in, was never divorced.
The rage came back, and tequila spread heat down to her toes. “Tell me again what you’re offering and what it’ll cost me.”
Delilah nodded. “You get a new body and you get to design and redesign it. Most of the girls change it up a lot before they settle on a look. The body can be as young as you like. It won’t age.” She warned, “You will have to feed it a lot to keep it just the way you want it.”
“Boo hoo,” Beth said. “What’s the catch?”
“We’ll get to the catch,” Delilah said. “You also get paid and you get lodging. I haven’t seen the team’s accommodations, but the pay is very nice. It’ll cover a car, jewelry, vacations, all the clothes you can possibly wear.”
“What about the sex?”
“That could be in the win column or the catch column, depending on your perspective,” Delilah said. “You will like sex. That comes with the body. If you have hangups or kinks, you work that out on your own. You can certainly afford a shrink. But you’ll like it and you’ll be expected to go out and meet men.” Delilah’s teeth gleamed. “And if you want, mess with them.”
This introduced a new line of thought entirely. Beth assumed this would be some exotic form of prostitution, a fitting end to a life wasted on being good. Apparently there would be emotional compensations as well.
“Define ‘mess with,’” Beth said.
“You know. Fuck them. Fuck with their heads. Give them what they want but make them suffer. Use, abuse, tease, whatever. We’re not fussy. The Home Office,” she pointed up, “disapproves of sex. Ergo, no matter what kind of sex happens, the Regional Office,” she pointed down, “approves of it. Of course, if you can score other stuff the Home Office disapproves of, that’s gravy.”
Beth nodded cautiously.
“Basically your charter says, tempt, tempt, tempt, have sex, have it early, have it often. You get paid on a quota, so you have to score three different times a month, that is, three different individuals. If men don’t float your boat, you can try the other fifty-one genders. Temptation is all that’s required. If you go the distance, however, you get a bonus. The girls really like their bonuses.”
Delilah smiled. “Oh, and another plus, no pregnancy, no VD. Perfect health. So you can skip the condom. Make your mark nervous when he notices. Beyond that, well,” she gestured, “have fun with it. We like you to enjoy your work.”
Beth wasn’t against enjoying sex. Blake was the one who had withdrawn. At the thought of messing with the kind of men who made you want them and then ignored you, she began to feel alive.
“I can make them suffer?” She was thinking of all Blake’s lies, not just at the settlement hearing but decades of them. She felt so angry.
“Sure. Knock yourself out.”
“Can I start with my husband?”
Here Delilah smiled warmly and genuinely. “By all means.”
Beth could feel a plan forming inside her like a dark sword of justice, sharp and pointy. At length she said, “The catch. How do I pay for all this?”
“Well, we no longer buy souls,” Delilah said apologetically. “It’s the overhead. Regional Office Inhuman Resources has determined that outsourcing to independent contractors is way cheaper than maintaining all those full-time people.”
Beth stared at her with polite incredulity. “You’re shitting me.”
“I’m only partly shitting you.” Delilah chuckled. “Yes, the Regional Office is that screwed up. But the truth is, nobody can take your soul. Not us, not the Home Office. It’s yours. You can’t be parted from your soul because your soul is you. People can lose contact with their own souls. But that happens here, in the field, because of all the distractions.”
“In the field.”
“On earth, in life. Lots of distractions. Eating, pooping, fucking, drinking. Messing over your ex-husbands.” Delilah flashed her a grin. “Life distracts you from the center of yourself and makes you do things you’ll be sorry for in the morning.” There was a warning, if Beth had ever heard one.
“So? I can quit anytime?”
“Yes. But you probably won’t. If you’re upset enough to take this step, you probably don’t want to feel the things you’ll have to feel, so that you can get past all this shit and take your life back.”
“Nobody can give me my life back,” Beth said sharply.
“Exactly,” Delilah said, showing her teeth. “So you’ll work for us until you don’t want to any more. No more overhead, remember? All we’re out is thirty pieces of silver a month and your rent.”
“And I’m out…what?” Beth couldn’t believe it would be this easy.
Delilah looked serious. “Depends how long it takes you to get tired of the job. Could be weeks. Could be two hundred years. The catch is, by the time you’ve decided to move on, the world will be different. You say your husband stole twenty-eight years of your life. Well, honey, I’m not here to talk you out of anything. But you helped him do it. You could have walked, just as you can walk out of this contract—”
“No, I could not have walked out,” Beth said strongly. “I had kids. I had a life. We were married,” she shouted, and gasped, choking back the next words, all the words she’d raged aloud in empty rooms.
The rage boiled back up in her. How am I going to live with this anger? I can’t. I can’t breathe. Something is ticking in me, only it’s already exploded, and it won’t stop exploding until I can explode back.
Delilah leaned forward and said kindly, “Why don’t you just buy a gun and shoot him? If you don’t kill him, it’s only about three years’ jail time, and then you can get on with your life.”
Beth considered this suggestion on its merits. “Because,” she said finally, “you’re right. It’s in me. This ticking bomb. This avalanche of change. I’ve just realized we’re separate people, Blake and I. He obviously saw it sooner than I did. But.”
“All the same, you want to make him suffer.”
Beth looked up. “Well, yeah. Duh.”
Delilah’s brow furrowed, as if she were trying to guess how messed up Beth was. Beth had a crazy idea the woman was concerned about her well-being.
“I’d like to be young again,” Beth said. “I’d like to have the hope back that he stole and used up and threw back in my face. I’d like to have the power in a relationship with a man. And then kick his ass,” she grated.
Delilah eyed her a moment longer, then shrugged. “That’ll get old fast.”
“What do you care? I thought outsourcing was cheaper. Or do they dock you if the signee cancels too soon?”
Delilah shook her head. “Nope. My job is to start things. Don’t you worry about me. Think about the catch a little more. With a new body? You won’t look like Mom to your kids any more. Your grandkids won’t recognize you. By the time you’re sick of the job, they may all be dead.” She put a forefinger on the table. “Sooner or later, you’ll lose everyone you know and love.”
“I think I missed that boat already,” Beth said sadly. “Show me your contract.”
“Nuh-uh,” Delilah said. “Tomorrow, when you’re hung over and having second thoughts.”
“I won’t have second thoughts,” Beth said, taking a pen out of her purse.