Short Story, Schmort Story
Apparently, I suck at short stories. I completed the Las Vegas story, past the deadline, yes, but determinedly finished it. However, I don’t see the story I wrote fitting in anywhere, except a Las Vegas anthology. It has a Twilight Zone-esque feel, without being dark enough for the magazines asking for that style, such as LampLight or Another Dimension.
The Houston Writers Guild posted a contest for a mystery themed anthology. All submissions must be under 5000 words. Well, I don’t write mysteries. I have read a few mystery novels, though not one mystery sits on my shelf. I watch quite a few mystery shows: Bones, The Mysteries of Laura, NCIS, etc. If I’m going to be a writer, I should stretch my typing fingers. I decided to attempt the challenge.
My mystery started with a pre-teen boy spying on his grumpy neighbor who always yelled at the neighborhood kids to not wake up the fairies in his bushes.
As I progressed in my brainstorming, I googled the elements of a mystery. The terribleminds blog popped up with “25 Things you need to know about writing mysteries.” First of all, the article greatly entertained me. Secondly, a death is required for a story to be deemed a mystery.
Hmmmm, a death. I know: a dragon corpse! (Yes, dragons. I seem to be incapable of avoiding the mythical beasts.)
The blog stressed the importance of having AT LEAST three suspects.
Okay, how about the grumpy old man, a too cheerful young housewife and a crazy hermit who lives in the woods behind the neighborhood. Yes, I like it. Oh, and all of these characters are not what they seem.
I became thrilled with the concept of a small Texas town and an enchanted wood. I am not a pantser as readers of this blog are already well aware. I bulleted my scenes and created the plot. By the time I was satisfied with the twists and turns and character development, the outline was 4458 words long.
Well, crap. The HWG submission asks for less than 5000 words. Short story fail! I have created another world and another novel without finishing my first two projects. Grrrrrr!
Hence, project number three, tentatively called Willowwood: The Case of the Fallen Dragon, has been filed in a Scrivener folder. I shall return after I finish the first draft of Gabriella and Periwinkle and the revision of Tarbin’s True Heir.
Since I don’t know what else to do with the A Time Share in Vegas story, I’ve decided to attach it for your reading pleasure. Enjoy!
The heat smashed into Gwen Miller’s face as if she walked into a wall of fire. After freezing in the Treasure Island Casino, the woman welcomed the warmth as it absorbed into her bones. Her stiff muscles, earned while sitting at a flashy machine wasting all of her nickels, loosened.
Gwen put on her expensive-looking sunglasses to block the glaring sun. The middle-aged mother of three slung her tote bag over her shoulder as she tried to decide what to do next. She had to entertain herself until her husband, Randy, finished his required meetings at his Information Technology convention.
Gwen decided to hoof it across the street to the Venetian and do a little window shopping. She was on strict orders not to spend the money needed to purchase tickets to a show tomorrow night.
Business cards decorated with mostly naked women littered the crossover. The conservative housewife made a show of averting her eyes from the obscene suggestions of the phone numbers. What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas, right? Who would know if she had a little surprise waiting for her husband when he came back to the hotel room?
Gwen giggled to herself, abashed by her bold thoughts. Las Vegas had a way of making the impossible sound possible.
“Hey, Gwen.” A rambunctious brunette waved from the Venetian side of the bridge.
Gwen’s blush deepened as she waved back at Renee Thatcher, the wife of another IT professional from Randy’s company. Luckily, no one could read her mind. The mother and wife smirked at the out of character things Vegas made her consider.
“Are you heading to meet anyone?” Renee joined Gwen heading to the Venetian.
“Nope. Just thought I’d do a little exploring while I wait for Randy.”
“Kyle is occupied in the same meeting. Mind if I join you?”
“I would love the company.”
As the hot air became sweltering, the women passed the Venice-like gondola moat in front of the Venetian Hotel and Convention Center. The crystal clear water subtly cooled the air. The gondola drivers wore the silly flat hat, black and white striped shirt and red satin cummerbund featured in cartoons.
“Much cleaner than Venice, but without the charm.” Renee wiped sweat off her forehead with a handkerchief from her purse. “And the weather stayed comfortably in the mid-70’s during the day.”
“I forgot you toured Europe last summer.” Gwen resisted asking how Renee paid for the trip. Randy and Kyle held the same position in the company, making their pay comparable. Both families had three children. Gwen could never see her family traveling to Europe. The plane tickets alone were out of reach. “How was it?”
The serenading tenor’s voice followed the women as they passed under the Italian style façade complete with a griffon on the upper most tower.
“Enchanting.” Renee sighed as the cool air hit her face upon entering the building. “We explored Venice, Rome and Florence, followed by a couple days in Paris before flying home.”
“I’m horribly jealous. You’ll have to tell me the details so I can live vicariously.”
Renee and Gwen chatted as they rode up a set of escalators next to the Blue Man Group Theater in the center of the huge hotel complex.
As the escalator cleared the floor below, Gwen held her head high, staring at the intricately painted ceiling. Puffy white clouds floated across a delicate blue sky. The artificial lighting accurately recreated natural light as the sun fell below the city line. The women stepped from a bustling Vegas into a peaceful Italian Piazza in the early evening. The alabaster, pillared storefronts with pointed lancet arches above rounded ones reminded Gwen of the unique combination of Gothic and Byzantine architecture she saw from pictures of Venice.
“I have to give them credit for the reproduction. It’s much smaller, obviously, but the designers captured the feel of Venice.” Renee pointed to the fishbone laid tiles. “The floor pattern is almost identical.”
Gwen felt the calming nature of the piazza atmosphere. The crowd itself moved at a slower pace, enjoying the sights and sounds.
The fruity, acidic smell of wine permeated the air as the women passed Wolfgang Puck’s restaurant. At first, Gwen thought someone had spilled a bottle. She noticed the sensation germinated from the sheer number of people enjoying a glass of wine on the patio spread out into the piazza. Seldom had Gwen witnessed Americans relaxing in this manner.
Renee babbled on about the similarities and differences with the real Venice, while Gwen soaked in her surroundings. Her envy grew with Renee’s descriptions. If Renee ruined Vegas for her, Gwen would be pissed.
The suburbanites passed a troupe in full Renaissance garb performing a farce for a laughing audience. Vegas certainly did not leave out any details. More evidence of this trend jumped out as Gwen reached the Grand Canal. She heard the soft splash of an oar as a gondolier punted his small vessel forward. His deep baritone vibrated in Gwen’s chest along with the wink he offered her from below.
“They build a second water system on the upper floor of the hotel?” The mother wondered if it would be overtly embarrassing for her to take a ride by herself when the boats were mostly full of couples.
“The gondola rides in Venice are much more intimate. This area is so cramped, you are on display.” Renee scrunched her nose in disgust. “The gondoliers are singing for the entire floor here. In Venice, he’s singing to you and your partner.”
Gwen hugged her purse to her chest. Okay, no boat ride.
The thirty-something year old thought she might have to ditch Renee. She had not done such a thing since she was a teenager. Gwen loved Vegas for giving her the impression of Italy, which she knew her limited pocketbook would never allow her to explore. Renee was making her imagination inadequate.
“Enough lolly-gagging. Let’s get to shopping.” Gwen changed the subject before her envy took hold.
Gwen felt like a one percenter, milling through the expensive art shops and clothing stores. She hoped the illusion would keep her mind off of traveling to exotic places.
“I love this store.” Renee towed Gwen into the Dior store.
The women were enveloped in the cloying odor of expensive perfume. After trying different designer scents on every exposed piece of skin on her arm, Renee purchased her favorite. Gwen felt like she had taken a bath in the cologne without touching any of it. She would live without a fancy scent. Randy loved her the way she was.
Gwen had a much harder time in Coach, as the high end accessory store tempted her with many ‘c’ bags in conservative colors. Renee gave in to temptation with a small tan wallet. Gwen’s cheeks turned pink as she clenched her teeth to resist making a purchase of her own. She promised Randy she would only window shop. They saved the exact amount needed to buy an expensive dinner with drinks and tickets to a show.
“Let’s go to a store that we don’t have in our mall.” Gwen suggested. Hopefully, the novelty would keep her spirits high.
“Let’s go to Il Prato.” Renee placed her new purchase into her designer bag and led the way.
The women entertained themselves trying on gold and silver masks, extravagantly decorated with feathers and beads. Gwen wished she had a masquerade ball to attend to have an excuse to buy one of the masterpieces.
Down the Grand Canal, Ripa De Monti tormented Gwen with exquisite glass pieces, including a teardrop vase in swirled reds and oranges, big enough to hold a dozen roses. As happy as the color and shape made her feel, she could not think of a single spot in her over-crowded house to put such a work of art.
“This piece will do nicely.” Rene stared at an oblong vase, about three feet tall with shades of blue swirled through its length.
“How will you get it home?” Gwen looked behind her at the red and orange vase that pulled at her heart strings.
“I’m sure they’ll ship it.” Renee inspected the price tag in front of the vase.
Gwen looked over her shoulder and whistled. She started to walk out of the store, assuming Renee would follow after the sticker shock. When she did not hear the clicking of the young mother’s heels, Gwen turned around.
Renee was speaking to a sales person whose upturned nose clearly said she did not think the suburbanite could afford her merchandise. Renee whipped out a credit card and handed it to the surprised woman. The sales person’s demeanor instantly changed as her facial features softened. She moved with alacrity to the register to ring up the purchase and get Renee’s information for shipping.
Gwen stood shocked at the entrance to the shop. She noticed her jaw hung open as Renee sauntered to her, folding her receipt and putting it in her new Coach wallet.
“What do you do for a living again? I know we talked about this at the company Christmas party, but I can’t remember.” Gwen held on to the hope that Renee held a high paying job which allowed her to afford these luxuries.
“On ‘Renee and Kyle: a blog for the bored’ it says a taxi driver for the kids. The pay sucks, but the hours aren’t so bad.” Renee half smiled at Gwen.
The envious woman forced a laugh, pretending comradery. Maybe Renee had a shopping addiction and her family was drowning in debt. Somehow, that thought made her feel better.
“We do make extra money with our time share though.”
“With your time share? I thought those things were gimmicks.” Gwen sneered at the idea. But she could not deny how easily Renee spent money.
“Not this one. Thoughtful Exchange pays extra for extended use of certain locations because of the high demand.” Renee’s face looked more serious than Gwen was used to on her friend. “That’s how the European trip was paid for.”
“I didn’t even think about it.” Gwen lied. She tried to change the subject. “Let’s check out the art.”
The women stopped in a Thomas Kincaid gallery and gawked at the Disney-inspired pieces. Gwen’s heart had a soft spot for princesses, especially Ariel, the mermaid. Her eight year old would love a print for Christmas. The four digit price tag had the mother delicately replacing the art and exiting the store with her purse and limbs tucked out of the way.
To her relief, Renee left empty-handed as well. If her shopping buddy bought a princess piece, Gwen might have lost it.
“Snack time.” Gwen announced as the earthy sweet smells from Godiva drew her into the clean, white store to peruse their delicacies.
“Dessert before lunch? You’re a bad influence on me, Gwen.” Renee purchased a box of mixed chocolates. “We can share.”
“I just want one of those.” She pointed to a dark chocolate, strawberry-filled truffle inside the display window.
The clerk put the delicacy in a small white bag and rang her up. Gwen had to purchase something to ease the tension of window shopping when her friend was spending money like it grew on trees.
The responsible woman decided to explore the Madame Tussauds wax museum. Spending time gawking at the sculpted celebrities sounded like a safer activity than the temptation surrounding her.
“I’m tired of shopping. Do you want to meet some celebrities instead?” Gwen took the brochure of Madame Tussauds out of her purse.
“Yes, ma’am. The one in London is on the itinerary for the UK visit next summer.”
Gwen resisted the urge to groan out loud. Barely.
Crossing the last hallway before hitting the exit to the museum, Gwen’s eyes caught a stunning large bag with bright orange and pink stripes, resplendent with soft pink flowers highlighted by a deeper red. Lime green circles added movement along the sides. The canvas bag seemed to be lit by a spotlight, the shimmer of its finish darkened all the other bags in the display window.
Gwen’s feet refused to carry her any farther.
The woman’s discipline weakened as she stared at the bag through the window. The longing surprised her. Something inside of Gwen needed that bag. The focused woman sensed Renee studying her.
“Let’s go look at it.” Renee took her hand and pulled her into the store.
The smell of leather permeated Vittorio, overwhelming any inherent odor from the scarves or jewelry. Gwen saw purses of varying sizes in silver, gold, purple, red and orange. The only one she saw with a pattern was the one that called her into the store.
“Can we see the bag in the window please?” Renee asked a salesperson.
The tote was large enough to hold Gwen’s laptop, along with any other sundries she required. Zippers on both sides could be opened to allow more wiggle room. The wide shoulder straps, for comfortable transport of a heavy load, were accompanied by a smaller set tucked inside.
“That beauty is featured in the spring collection.” The saleslady, too beautiful to be working in a retail store, explained as she handed the bag to Renee.
She immediately tucked it into her friend’s arms.
Gwen was in love.
“I’m just looking.” Gwen muttered instinctively, though her eager eyes said otherwise. She sighed in pleasure as her hands examined the accessory.
“The inside of the bag is lined with a honeycomb patterned linen.” The saleslady ignored her customer’s protest. She pointed to the inner details with her perfectly manicured fingernails. “As you can see, the intricately sewn pockets allow plenty of room for compartmentalizing, essential in a large purse that can quickly become a bag of I-can’t-find-it.”
“How much is it?” Gwen did not see a price tag. That was always a bad sign.
Gwen’s jaw dropped. That was their entire fun money for the next two days. That was three weeks of groceries.
“Don’t let the dollar amount stop you.” Renee spoke in her ear, like a little devil on her shoulder. “You have been responsible all day. This is Vegas and you can splurge a little.”
A little? Gwen thought. She played with the magnetic clasp set between the smaller, inner handles. Her desire for the elegant bag filled her senses. She could feel her heartbeat in her ears, almost like lust.
“Can we have a minute?” Renee asked the saleslady. Her waifish model figure walked away to the register, while keeping an eye on the tote bag.
Gwen blinked twice. She could not spend that kind of money on a bag. Yes, she had the money, but that was all they had. Randy would flip his lid.
“Look, Gwen. I know you don’t collect a paycheck. I know how difficult it is to run a household on one check, even when your husband makes decent money.” Renee put her hand on Gwen’s shoulder. “That’s why you came to Vegas for the convention, right? You only need to pay for one plane ticket and a couple meals that aren’t company events.”
With tears in her eyes, Gwen looked up at Renee. “It’s not like we’re starving. So we don’t have six pairs of shoes or designer clothes, we’re doing fine.”
The bag felt cool in her hand, comforting, like it belonged with her. She could not abandon the poor thing to sit in the window forlorn and unloved. She also could not spend all of her husband’s relaxing money on a single, frivolous item. Could she?
“I understand. I really do. That’s where the Thatcher’s were until they found Thoughtful Exchange. The lucrative investment helps bring in enough extra cash to experience the adventure of life.” Renee wiped Gwen’s tears, careful to not smear her mascara. “Let me set you up with the sales representative who can guide you through the process.”
Renee pushed the bag to Gwen’s chest like she was showing her how to hold a baby. “Now let’s take this bag home where it belongs.”
So much of herself went into her family and her community, the mother of three did not always know who she was. Right now, with that designer luxury held close to her heart, Gwen knew who she needed to be. That person started with this bag.
Gwen marched to the register and presented her almost maxed out credit card.
Randy and Kyle met their wives outside the Venetian by the gondolas.
“Hey, baby. You ready?” Randy leaned in to kiss Gwen, who happily reciprocated.
“I hope you had a good time shopping today.” Kyle stood beside his wife.
Gwen thought it odd that Kyle did not kiss Renee or touch her at all. The couple usually could not keep their hands off each other. She did not dwell on the anomaly. The new owner of a designer tote was in too good a mood to let clouds darken her light.
“I had a great time today.” The glowing woman adjusted the brightly colored bag on her shoulder. The mystery of her joy over cloth and a few clasps flashed through her mind. For now, Gwen chose not to question the feeling.
“Don’t forget what we talked about.” Kyle shook Randy’s hand as the couples parted ways, then he turned to his wife. “Do you need help with those?”
“Yes, please.” Renee relinquished a couple bags to her husband, as they made their way across the street to the hotel.
“Did you notice anything odd about Renee today?” Randy lowered his voice as the Thatcher’s crossed the street. “Kyle referred to himself in third person, twice. It was out of character for him.”
“She was more formal than the last time I hung out with her. Nothing major.” Gwen tried to remember anomalies from the day of shopping. “She did splurge to an absurd degree.”
“No purchases for you?” Gwen’s husband raised an eyebrow at her empty hands.
“Only a tote.” Gwen twisted sideways, giving her husband a peek at her new pride and joy.
“That’s definitely bright. It suits my vivacious and spirited wife.”
Gwen tucked her hand in his offered elbow as he led her down the sidewalk toward Mandalay Bay. She held off all confessions for later. She wanted to bask in the glow for a while before she had to face the consequences.
“You are going to love RiRa. Best Irish Pub in town.” Randy flashed his winning grin at his wife.
Gwen understood why he was so good at his job. With his permanent smile and easygoing manner, he made customers feel safe as he made their computer systems talk to each other properly. Clients repeatedly offered him jobs, trying to tempt him away from the consulting firm.
“Is that the pub you went to last year at the convention?”
“I must have eaten lunch there almost every day. The bartender knew my name by the time I left to come home.” Randy automatically slowed down his pace so his petite wife did not have to run to keep up.
“I can’t believe I’m finally in Vegas! I’ve sat at home with the kids for the past three years horribly jealous of your adventures.” Gwen squeezed his elbow.
“I have the rest of the day to spend with you. Let me know what you want to do and it’s done.” Randy confidently weaved his wife through the lunch crowds. “We need to get tickets to the comedy show tomorrow night. Otherwise, we’re free.”
Gwen heard Renee’s voice in her head. The card for the time share representative was in a pocket of her new bag. All she had to do was present the card to the kiosk in front of the Treasure Island hotel. Renee said Thoughtful Exchange would take care of the rest.
First, she had to convince her husband to give it a try.
On their way back to the hotel after lunch, Gwen worked up the courage to broach the subject.
“My love?” She used the most seductive voice she could muster.
“Yes, baby?” Randy smiled down at her.
“While Renee and I were shopping, she told me about the time share she and Kyle bought from Vegas three years ago.”
“Oh no, not you too. Kyle talked my ear off all morning about Thoughtful Exchange. I don’t want to waste my afternoon listening to those experts at manipulation wring my ear about what a good deal their program is.” Randy brazenly swatted his wife on her rounded behind. “I thought I might actually get laid. One thing I’ve never done in Vegas.”
“Well, you can mark that down as a done deal.” Gwen giggled appreciatively. “But what are we going to do after? I don’t want to hang out in the pool all day tomorrow. We can do that at home. I want to explore.”
“I know, baby. I want to see more of Vegas as well. But our budget is not budging.” Randy kissed Gwen’s hand as he guided her back to their hotel.
“We’ll get free tickets to the comedy show at the Paris resort as well as Cirque de Soleil or Blue Man group tickets, if we go to the time share thing. Plus, Renee and Kyle earn extra cash because of the popularity of their location.” Gwen tried to convince her husband.
“Kyle said that’s how they paid for their trip to Italy last summer.” Randy rubbed his face with his hands. “I’ve been sitting for hours today already. I don’t want to listen to more boring talk.”
Randy lead Gwen across the street at a light. They were close to the kiosk Renee suggested Gwen sign up at. The woman adjusted the straps on her beloved bag with her free hand.
“Can we talk about it later?”
“Absolutely. You can talk all you want and I’ll nod and pretend I’m listening.”
“Ha, ha, very funny. But seriously?” Gwen clutched his hand with both of hers as she beseeched him to comply. “We could see the comedy show, another show and get a free dinner for the time cost of a two hour presentation.”
Randy stopped walking. Gwen felt her husband lifting his defenses. She went in for the kill.
“You know, after the presentation, I could put on that tight little top and short shorts and ride the Gilly’s bull.” Gwen held her breath.
“That won’t be the only thing you’ll be riding tonight.” Randy squeezed his wife close. He planted an aggressive kiss on her eager lips.
It would all work out. She knew it would.
A middle aged man with a smile that dominated his face greeted them. ““Welcome to Thoughtful Exchange! My name is Charles Heinrich. You must be Gwen and Randy. Renee Thatcher told us you were coming.”
Charles’ full head of salt and pepper hair swayed back and forth as he vigorously shook the couple’s hands. His youthful enthusiasm felt out of place in the mature body. The sales representative ushered his clients to a private room.
“I thought we were supposed to listen to a group presentation about the benefits of buying into your time share properties.” Randy hesitated to sit down.
His muscles were tense as if he was preparing to go into battle. Gwen squeezed his hand in support.
“Thoughtful Exchange works a bit differently than the time shares you might have heard about. Please have a seat and I will explain.” Charles sat at the table and turned the screen of a laptop toward the couple.
Gwen took a seat still holding her husband’s hand. Reluctantly, Randy took the seat next to his wife. She squeezed his hand again. After hearing the part where they can make money with this investment, Gwen hoped her husband would open his mind to the possibilities.
The salesman hit play on the promotional video. Cheesy music, heavy with cello crackled from the speaker. Charles lowered the volume to lessen the distortion.
“Sorry about that. The last couple was a bit hard of hearing.”
The video opened on an average, middle class couple sitting at a local bar. The woman twirled her empty bottle staring into space, while the man shoveled French fries into his mouth without coming up for air. A narrator’s deep voice spoke over the scene. The cadence of his voice suggested peace and belonging. Its tone confused Gwen who was expecting the fast paced, don’t-think-just-buy voice typical of TV sales ads.
“Life gets repetitive.”
The scene switched to the same couple watching their kids play on the playground.
“You have family obligations and work obligations and community obligations.”
Now the wife, in a formal dress and heels, walked beside her husband, in slacks and a button up shirt. The man held the door for his partner at an expensive restaurant. She entered with a plastered on smile that did nor travel to her eyes.
“Even when you are lucky enough to go out on the town, you see the same sights, the same restaurants, the same teams play.”
The video couple waited in line for a roller coaster at an unidentified theme park. Their faces still look bored.
“You vacation at the same local spot every year, because the plane tickets and lodging of a new, exotic location are cost prohibitive. So, you stop taking vacations.”
The screen couple returned to the first scene at the sports bar. They wore different clothes, but the same expressions.
“Thoughtful Exchange can get you out of your rut. Our program makes it affordable to travel to a new location every trip.”
The soundtrack livened as the scenes switched quickly between many couples. An excited pair explored the Statue of Liberty. A younger duo hiked through the Colorado mountains. A retired pair held hands, watching the sun set off the Oregon coast.
Gwen sat at the edge of her chair. The narrator’s voice continued as the scene switched to the featured couple walking into a storefront with the Thoughtful Exchange logo over the door.
“With cutting edge technology, we have developed a safe process for exchanging bodies between members of the program.”
The narrator droned on about the details of a mechanism that put the user’s consciousness into the body of another human being. The featured couple sat in chairs that looked like dentist chairs, as people in lab coats attached diodes to their heads. Gwen heard the words and saw the images, but her brain could not digest their meaning.
“Is this some kind of joke?” Randy knocked over his chair with a more visceral reaction.
Charles closed the laptop.
“I keep telling management that the video never gets watched past that part, but they insist on me showing it to the clients.” He mumbled to himself as Randy glared at him, face beet red.
“Gwen, let’s go.” Her husband helped her to her feet.
“That’s why I have started to use an alternative method.” Charles pressed the button to an intercom. “Please let the Thatcher’s in now.”
“The Thatcher’s? Renee’s here?” The familiar name brought Gwen out of her stupor.
“Of course, they are. They want to see the conclusion to their little farce, don’t they?” Randy tightly squeezed his wife’s hand. “I’m going to strangle Kyle for wasting my time.”
Renee and Kyle came through the door, tangled in each other’s arms, laughing. Renee separated from her husband and gave Gwen a huge hug. Kyle ducked as Randy took a swing at him, missing his co-worker by a few inches.
“Hold on, Randy. It’s not what you think.” Kyle held his hands up, warding off another attack. “We just returned from our helicopter tour.”
“The beauty of the Grand Canyon still has us giddy.” Renee returned to her husband and wrapped her arms around his waist.
“Grand Canyon? But that trip takes all morning and we were shopping all morning.” Gwen did not understand what was going on.
“And you were in meetings with me.” Randy’s squinted eyes dared Kyle to contradict him.
“I’m afraid my clients were out all morning while two of my employees spent the day with you.” Charles pressed the buzzer on the intercom again.
The pair at the door backed up as a man and a woman dressed in business suits entered. Both of them had sun-kissed skin that contrasted oddly with their professional demeanor. A vision of Renee and Kyle standing in front of the Venetian flashed through Gwen’s mind. These two strangers had the exact same stance and facial expressions.
“Wow. You two changed quickly.” Kyle whistled.
“Bermuda shorts and flip flops are not work approved attire.” The woman winced as she brushed her cheek with her finger.
“I’m sorry, Gretchen and Allen. We did put on sunscreen. I swear.” Renee sheepishly offered an apology.
“You’ve gone too far with this, Kyle. Are you trying to insinuate that you switched bodies with these two so you could go gallivanting at the Grand Canyon instead of attending business meetings?” Randy sputtered, his anger making him unable to form any more sentences.
“I had no intention of using their services this trip.” Kyle threw his hands up in protest. “I mean, I’m in Vegas.”
“I asked Mr. and Mrs. Thatcher if they would be willing to let us borrow them for half a day so we could recruit more clients. The larger our partner pool, the more opportunities we can offer. We, of course, pay for the privilege of borrowing their bodies off contract.” Charles handed a check to Renee, who folded it and put it in a tan Coach wallet.
“You bought that with me today!” Gwen pointed at the accessory as it disappeared into her friend’s purse. She wanted to end the elaborate practical joke and get her husband home before he killed someone.
“I love it! You chose well.” Renee pulled the wallet back out to admire it.
“You were with me.” Gwen protested.
“Actually, that was me.” The woman Renee called Gretchen raised her hand. “I had a charming time with you today.”
“And I get to keep all the purchases.” Renee kissed the Coach wallet and put it back in her purse.
“Without paying the bill.” Kyle high fived his wife.
“Please ask Gretchen and Allen about the day you spent together. I assure you they will remember the details.”
“What did we have for lunch?” Randy glared at the man called Allen.
The professional folded his hands in front of his body looking slightly bored. “The meetings concluded before lunch. You met your wife for lunch and I joined Gretchen for the exchange.”
Gwen had a slight recollection of Renee referring to herself in third person. “What did we have for a snack?
“I bought a mixed box of chocolates for Renee.” Gretchen brushed a stray hair out of her face, careful not to touch her burnt skin. “You chose a single strawberry cream filled truffle.”
“Look. We could ask you questions all day, but how do we know that Renee and Kyle did not fill you in while my wife and I were at lunch.” Skepticism clouded Randy’s words.
“Try something harder. We could not have told them everything.” Renee suggested.
“We are not talking to you right now.” Gwen shot lasers at her once friend. Whether this was real or a joke, Renee still deceived her.
“We’re leaving.” Randy focused on the door with Gwen in tow.
“If you give us five more minutes, I will throw in a second free dinner for two at the Public House in the Venetian.” Charles held up two vouchers in his hand. His wide, innocent eyes contrasted oddly with the con that Gwen could sense but not identify.
Randy hesitated. He loved that restaurant for their superior tap selection and the poutine that complimented the beer.
“That’s two free dinners. Even if we are being punked, we’re getting compensated for keeping our temper.” Gwen snatched the vouchers from Charles and offered them to her husband.
He read the fine print on the offer. “Fine. You have another five minutes.”
“Gretchen, Allen, if you will please describe the entire morning you spent with our prospective clients. Leave nothing out.”
Gretchen recited step by step the shopping morning Gwen spent with Renee. The surprised woman had a hard time not believing her. It felt impossible that Renee could have related every, single detail of the morning enabling Gretchen to recreate it flawlessly. Of course, switching bodies with another person also sounded impossible.
Judging by her husband’s wide eyes and slack jaw, Allen was as successful at his recitation as Gretchen.
“Ninety-seven percent of the clients invited to join leave without exploring the opportunity further. Of the few who stay, seventy-five percent are not compatible with the technology.” Charles must have sensed their waning resistance. “Would you like to tour the facilities?”
“What do we get in return?” Randy raised an eyebrow at the sales rep.
Charles laughed heartily. “I see you have figured out the system. How about tickets to Cirque de Soleil AND Blue Man group? No choice necessary.”
“Alright. Let’s see how far they’re willing to take the farce.” Randy pulled Gwen in for an embrace. She could feel him frown at Kyle over her shoulder.
“Excellent.” Charles clapped his hands together. “Right this way.”
The door to the lab, located at the end of the hallway from the meeting room, opened automatically as the group approached. An antiseptic-tainted breeze whisked through the entryway. Inside, long fluorescent lights set into the ceiling illuminated six sets of dentist chairs. Gwen knew they weren’t actually dentist chairs, but she could not come up with anything more familiar to call them. Different colored wires connected each chair to its own bank of computers mounted to the wall. Gwen was reminded of the room-sized processors you would see on old Star Trek episodes. A technician in a white lab coat stood at attention in front of each terminal.
Two of the chairs were occupied. Technicians placed sticky tabs, attached to the wires, on the heads of the clients who stared at the ceiling. When they were finished, the men in lab coats looked questioningly to Charles.
“Please don’t let us interrupt your work.” The sales rep dismissed their hesitation with a flip of his wrist.
The technicians turned to their terminals. One held up his thumb, quickly followed by the second. They both hit a bright red button under their keyboards, then began typing furiously. The machine hummed as a digital screen scrolled data only the technicians understood.
“Nothing’s happening.” Randy pointed out. Gwen thought she heard disappointment in his voice. Maybe he wanted this to be real as much as she did.
“Their expressions haven’t changed.” Gwen noticed.
“You can’t tell anything’s happening when you’re in the chair.” Renee explained. “You’re in your own body. You blink. Then you’re in someone else’s. It’s so weird.”
“And exhilarating.” Kyle added.
“Assuming this is all real, the cost has to be prohibitive. I don’t see how we could invest in the program.” Randy crossed his arms.
“That is the beauty of the program. It costs you nothing out of pocket.” Charles waited for the pivotal information to sink in.
Gwen and Randy exchanged bemused looks.
“You will receive two weeks of free vacation in another client’s body with the opportunity to earn extra money if you help recruit more clients or allow us to use your physical self, more than the allotted two weeks.” Charles smiled at Randy’s darkening expression. “We have wealthy customers who pay dearly to spend time anonymously exploring a city. Since the two of you live in Chicago, a favorite stop for American as well as international celebrities, your unknown faces are much sought after.”
The humming stopped, distracting the conversation. The technicians removed the diodes from the clients who both sat up, appearing unharmed.
“At least, we know it won’t hurt.” Gwen observed.
Her brain swirled with the possibility of this technology. Randy still looked skeptical. Gwen could conceive only one way to know for sure.
The mother of three took a deep breath and sat down at an empty chair. She pointed to the adjacent chair. “You’ll have to switch with me. You won’t believe anything I say and I won’t believe anything you say. This is the only way.”
“At this point, what else is there left to do?” Randy relented, claiming the seat next to his wife.
The confident façade on the technicians’ faces turned to puzzlement at the unknown clients before them. Charles nodded his permission. The lab coated individuals placed sticky tabs on the couple’s heads.
“It’s a little disorienting the first time. But you gain your footing pretty quickly.” Renee held Gwen’s hand while the technician readied the machine.
Gwen resisted the urge to jump up and run out of the room. The prospect of switching bodies sounded enticing until she heard the machine hum behind her. The woman held completely still, afraid any movement would interrupt the process. The clicks of the technician on the keyboard filled her senses. Doubts flooded her mind. What were the side effects of this process? What happens if your body dies because of something stupid the borrower does? Who gets to keep the surviving body? What about her kids? Would they be exposed to a stranger in their mother’s body? Maybe they needed to discuss this more.
The technician’s typing stopped and the humming machines quieted.
The reclined woman stared at a water spot on the ceiling. Was that there before?
The technician pulled the sticky tabs off her neck.
“Ouch.” Gwen said.
She heard Randy’s voice. His technician must be removing the tabs off of him as well.
Dammit. Gwen thought. It didn’t work.
Gwen rubbed her neck where the adhesive had been. Her hand grazed thick stubble. It felt like she rubbed her legs after not shaving for a week. Renee was right about being disoriented.
The woman fought her embarrassment at falling for the ridiculous concept. She would not be able to face anyone at home once this got out. They would have to move.
She looked to her left to see how Randy was handling the disappointment. He was gone. She sat up in a panic. Someone was in the chair to her right.
Gwen watched herself sit up in the adjacent chair. Her face, no longer controlled by her mind, still displayed the shock she felt.
Gwen rubbed her thin, bridged nose, so like her husband’s. Instinctively, she pushed her hair behind her shoulder. Her hand touched air. Her hair was not long enough to reach her collar. She rubbed the short brown hair parted to the left on the top of her head.
“It’s real.” Gwen said in Randy’s voice.
The couple stood facing each other between the chairs. Gwen looked down at her husband inhabiting her body. Randy smiled large enough to show all of his wife’s teeth. The married couple held hands as they turned to Charles.
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