Read the First Six Chapters From K. M. Szpara’s Docile

There is no consent under capitalism.

K. M. Szpara’s Docile is a science fiction parable about love and sex, wealth and debt, abuse and power—available from Tor.com Publishing on March 3, 2020. We’re thrilled to share the first six chapters below!

To be a Docile is to be kept, body and soul, for the uses of the owner of your contract. To be a Docile is to forget, to disappear, to hide inside your body from the horrors of your service. To be a Docile is to sell yourself to pay your parents’ debts and buy your children’s future.

Elisha Wilder’s family has been ruined by debt, handed down to them from previous generations. His mother never recovered from the Dociline she took during her term as a Docile, so when Elisha decides to try and erase the family’s debt himself, he swears he will never take the drug that took his mother from him.

Too bad his contract has been purchased by Alexander Bishop III, whose ultra-rich family is the brains (and money) behind Dociline and the entire Office of Debt Resolution. When Elisha refuses Dociline, Alex refuses to believe that his family’s crowning achievement could have any negative side effects—and is determined to turn Elisha into the perfect Docile without it.


 

 

1
ELISHA

After today, I will have seven rights.

“One,” I whisper. “Retention of the right to vote in a public election. Two: the right to adequate care: food, water, shelter, hygiene, and regular medical attention.”

Abby rolls around in her little bed. The old wood squeaks as she settles back under the covers. That’s the only right that would’ve done my younger sister any good. Here, she’ll make do with the occasional medical clinic and home remedies.

“Three: the right to anonymity of surname.” I squeeze my eyes shut. Pressure builds between my brows. After today, I won’t be a Wilder.

“Four.” I pluck the photo of my family from the windowsill. “The right to one personal item.” It’s the same one Mom took with her. She won’t miss it. She probably can’t even remember it.

That visit was the last time she was anything like herself. We had our picture taken by a man at the fair. His camera had an old-fashioned lens that reminded Dad of his childhood.

It was years ago, anyway. Abby was only a baby, all wrapped up in swaddling. Dad still had his beard, a smile nestled in the middle. I’d just grown one tiny hair on my chin and couldn’t wait to show Mom how manly I was becoming.

“Five.” I resume my count. “The right to personal physical safety.” My heart beats a little faster. “Six: the right to sexual health and protection from pregnancy.” A breeze cools the heat on my face.

Between school and work and helping around the house, I’ve never had time for relationships. And I’ve certainly never had time for sex. Where would I have done it, anyway? On my mattress on the floor, next to my little sister’s bed? I know a few guys who use the community barn, but between the squawking and cow shit I could never bring myself to join them.

Besides, I’m counting on Seventh Right to save me from anyone who tries to violate Sixth. “Seven: the right to refuse or demand Dociline, and at any time to change your mind.”

I rise from bed as quietly as possible and pull on my jeans. No sense in changing my shirt. I put on an old pair of sneakers, leaving my good boots for my sister. She’ll grow into them eventually. I doubt they let Dociles keep their clothing.

One personal item.

I slip the family photo into my pocket and tiptoe out of our room without waking Abby. Regret tugs at my heart as I close the door. I didn’t even say goodbye, not a word or a kiss on the cheek while she slept. Nothing. Not for her, not for Dad.

I linger at his bedroom door for a moment before going to the kitchen. Mom doesn’t look up from the floor. She sweeps back and forth over the same worn-down spot, even when I put my hand on her shoulder.

“Hey, Mom, it’s Elisha.”

“Hello, Elisha.”

I hold on to the moment when I can pretend she remembers I’m her son, and that it’s not ten years of Dociline bending her to politeness.

“I miss you so much.”

“That’s nice,” she says, her voice smooth as fresh-churned butter.

“I wanted to let you know I’m not mad at you.” I take the broom with no resistance and lean it against the wall.

“Okay.” She smiles, but her eyes are empty, expressionless.

“And I love you.”

“Okay.”

“I understand why you left us. And when you’re better, someday—”

“Okay.”

I pause. It would be easier if she didn’t reply at all, rather than in that monotone voice, following the same script, over and over.

“Someday, I hope you’ll forgive me for doing the same.”

“That’s nice.”

“I need your signature.” I flatten the Office of Debt Resolution form on the table and find her a pen. My parents aren’t married—not legally, anyway. Get married and you—and your children—inherit your partner’s debt. Like each of them don’t have enough separately. No, this is the form that signs both of my parents’ debts over to me, so I can sell it. Sell it all.

Dad already signed, assuming it was for Abby, like we’d discussed. It was that or wait for the police to drag us all off to debtors’ prison. They only send out so many notices.

I trace the scar tissue that patterns the inside of my left wrist. The mark stands out, dark and ropey from years under the sun, a fat “S” with a “U” slicing down its middle. If I close my eyes, I can still smell the dollar sign burning into my flesh, hear the cop calling me a drain on society.

Mom finishes her signature, dots the i’s in “Abigail,” and stares at me, still smiling. Waiting for my next order.

“Thanks, Mom.” I kiss her cheek.

“You’re welcome, Elisha.”

I fold the paper and hold it tight, afraid to lose it. One more stop before the ODR. I lock the door behind me and bury my key in the flowerpot on the porch. When I look up, I see the Falstaffs’ front door open and close, one house over. Dylan stuffs her socked feet into oversized boots. She crosses her arms to secure an old crocheted blanket over her pajamas and hops over, still squeezing her shoes into place. “Where’re you running off to? Can I come?”

The two of us have snuck out more times than I can count. Midnight swims in the reservoir; talks on the bridge, our bare feet dangling over the edge; that time we walked to Hunt Valley for a party in one of the old office buildings and ended up sleeping in an abandoned unit overnight, talking about what we’d do if we didn’t stand to inherit our parents’ debts. I’d go to the University of Maryland, get my teaching degree, put all the tutoring I’ve done to good use. She’d travel to an elephant sanctuary in Thailand that she read about in an old textbook. I told her it probably didn’t exist anymore; she told me to mind my own dreams.

I smile at the memory, but hers fades when she sees the forms in my hands. I tuck them under my arms, but it’s too late. Dylan knows me better than anyone; she’s practically my second sister. After her father took his life and it became clear that my mom was no longer herself, Dad and Nora began spending more time together. We have three surnames between us, but we’re still a family. Even after what our parents went through—what we’re dealing with, now.

“I have to.” I have trouble looking into her eyes. “We received a final notice. The interest is—”

She wraps her arms around me before I can finish. Warm together inside the blanket, I never want to leave.

“I don’t want you to go,” she says, voice muffled against me.

“I don’t, either, but it’s me or Abby.”

“I know,” she says. “Just seems like everyone’s leaving, lately, and too few of them come back. Even fewer like their regular selves.”

“Don’t worry. I won’t let that happen to me.”

“Well, do what you have to, but if it gets too hard, talk to your caseworker.” Her father hadn’t. He didn’t make it.

“I will.”

“And I’ll see you in six months, okay? For your visit.” Dylan drapes her blanket around my shoulders. “Don’t fucking freeze to death on your way.”

She shouldn’t waste it on me—I’ll have to give it up—but I’m too cold to refuse.

When I slide out of her grasp, I know I can’t go back for another hug or I’ll run back inside and do the same with Dad and Abby and then I’ll never leave. There’s no time to waste. Last I heard, the walk from Prettyboy Reservoir to Baltimore City took twelve hours.

 

I don’t have a watch, but the moon hangs high overhead when I make it to the entrance ramp for the interstate. A single strip of undisturbed pavement lines the center of 83 South—a path barely wide enough for a car and mostly used by bikes and pedestrians. I doubt the pockmarked road has seen much action since the last police raid.

I count the few cars that pass instead of thinking about how I’m going to miss my sister growing up or wondering whether Mom will ever snap out of it. I’m up to thirteen—the last car sunflower yellow and shaped like a cat ready to pounce—when soggy fields transition to neighborhoods and the pavement to a darker, smoother texture. My fingers are numb where they poke through the crocheted blanket.

South of Exit 20, cars crowd 83. I fall into line with the other pedestrians who exit onto the local road. A metal sign reads: “Welcome to Hunt Valley!”—one of a few struggling towns along the way. A diverse group of smiling cartoon people wave at me; I do not return the sentiment.

I thrust my hand into my pocket and rub the wad of cash, worn soft by too many hands. The only thing I need in order to register with the ODR is a state ID. The amount of money and red tape that stands between me and one of those isn’t worth the hassle. I started saving for a fake one the day Dad told me his plan to register Abby with the ODR.

She’ll fetch the most, Dad said. She’s got the most life ahead of her. But I’m twenty-one, old enough to consent. I’ve heard stories about trillionaires fucking their Dociles, and trillionaires? They pay. If I could sign with one of them, I might be able to sell off all our debt. I might be able to keep the collectors and cops from ever coming for my family again.

So, while Dad’s smile faded and his energy dropped, I pocketed a few dollars from our take at the Hunt Valley farmer’s market and stayed out late tutoring kids who couldn’t make it to their “local” schoolhouse an hour away; a dollar per hour isn’t bad, out here.

Our neighbor Shawna’s the only one who goes into Baltimore City regularly. She and her wife have a tandem bicycle, and since they both work for the government, it’s not too bad of a deal. She hooked me up with the forger in the city. Fifty dollars, she quoted. I re-count my money as I pass the patchwork houses that pop up the closer you get to the city. Dad told us they used to be called McMansions. The ones out our way crumbled to the foundations, long ago, before everyone with money moved into the center of the city. We built them up with logs and stones and makeshift cement and what house parts we could scavenge from abandoned neighborhoods. Here, the first floors are still intact and squat looking without the former second floors to top them off.

Locals inhabit abandoned chain stores and restaurants. Office buildings house people instead of corporations. A grocery store spills out into the parking lot where folks trade and donate canned goods. And an Empower Maryland banner hangs over an old movie theater advertising supplemental education, daycare for working parents, skills training, and public assistance. They’ve come to our farm a few times. Donated winter boots, blankets, a bike every few years. They help some, I suppose, but we sure haven’t felt it in Prettyboy.

 

Buildings thicken the closer I get to the center of the city, and corporate-sponsored clothing thins. People in these neighborhoods can afford to buy their own. Cold claims the sweat on my back, as I fold Dylan’s blanket over the TruCare Insurance logo on my shirt. It was free.

No one seems to notice, all too busy speed-walking to work or breakfast or whatever they do for fun in the city. I’ve only been a handful of times and never for fun. Heard they ride bicycles that don’t move and soak in bathtubs full of chemicals. Along the city blocks, trees grow from predesignated holes in the ground; their branches are trim and tidy, their roots don’t sprawl. Pink and yellow flowers—colors you shouldn’t see yet in January—hang from streetlamps in metal baskets with some sort of fake brown grass.

I wonder if anything here is real or if it’s all plastic. Like I’m walking through some child’s play set. Even the buildings look unreal, the marble shaped into arches and frills and angels, painted baby blue and gold and red.

Ahead, a hand-painted sign reads: “Eddie’s of Mt. Vernon.” My destination. I didn’t think people worked until 9:00 a.m. in the city, but the clock tower in the distance only reads 8:00 and already shops are opening. It smells like filth and perfume.

I walk around back of the grocery store until I come to the dump-ster. When she sees me, a woman nudges the man beside her. He stomps out his cigarette and heads inside.

“You Shawna’s friend?” she asks, wiping her hands on her coat. She looks more like a butcher than a forger.

I nod and hand her the fifty dollars.

“She told me a guy from the county was coming in for a fake.” She counts the cash and pulls out a tablet. “Stand against the wall. Don’t smile.”

No problem, there. I stare at the tablet, while she takes my picture, then glance left and right.

“Stop looking so suspicious,” she says. “We’re just two friends taking pics.”

Easy for her to say. Someone is bound to see us, and I cannot get arrested. Not when I’m so close. She shoves a plastic card into her tablet, then pulls a stylus from her coat pocket and moves it over the screen, like she’s writing in a foreign language.

“Write in your full name, address, age, and so on. Skip whatever you don’t know and I’ll make it up.”

The stylus slides too easily over the tablet, but I know most of the answers, and hand it back to her when I finish. After a few more minutes, she rips the plastic card out and hands it to me, still warm.

“There you go, kid.”

I examine her work because I feel like I should, not because I know what to look for. “This’ll fool the card readers?”

“Yeah.”

“Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it. There’s only one reason someone from the county buys an ID.” She pushes up her sleeve to reveal a scar that looks like mine did ten years ago.

“The ODR’s about a mile down Charles Street.” She eyes the blanket Dylan gave me. “You going to make it?”

“Yeah, thanks,” I say, pocketing the ID.

“Maybe I’ll see you around.” She opens the back door of the grocery.

“Probably not.”

We share a shrug and I leave in the direction she pointed. The only things I look forward to are the heat and sitting down.

 

 

2
ELISHA

A middle-aged white man at the front desk gulps his coffee. “Welcome to the Office of Debt Resolution; how can I help you?” Little brown drops stick to his graying beard. He dabs at them with his shirt sleeve.

“Checking in.”

He taps at his computer. The keypad flickers under his touch. “ID?”

I pass the fake over the counter. The man scans it without a second look.

“Elisha Wilder.” He pronounces it “E-lish-a.”

“E-lie-sha.” I correct him, but he doesn’t seem to notice. Probably no one will, from here on out.

“Twenty-one years old, biological child of Abigail Wilder and David Burns. Are you here to represent both lineages?”

“Yes.”

“Multilineage Debt Resolution Consent Form, please.”

I dig the signed paper from my pocket and hand it to him.

“All right.” He stamps it and scans it into the system. “How much debt do you want to sell off?”

“All of it.”

For the first time, he looks at me—all of me, like he’s buying me. “Not sure you’ll fetch three million. Maybe with some cleaning up.” He checks my ID again. “Well, you are over eighteen. That’ll boost your price.”

I’ve never been so conscious of my appearance. No one in the county cares about scraggly hair or freckles. Only that you’re strong enough to help raise a barn or dexterous enough to patch up clothes.

“Sign here.” He pushes a clipboard in front of me. “And initial next to the life term clause, in case someone goes for it.”

The words “life term” send a chill through me. Mom sold almost a million in debt for ten years. Of course, terms must go longer—I knew that deep down—but hearing someone say it? With a breath to center myself, I do as instructed, and the man scans it alongside my consent form.

“You will receive your ID back upon completion of your service term. Hold on to this”—he hands me a new card—“for now. It contains your rights, calendared alerts for all forthcoming elections in compliance with First Right, a copy of your parental consent form, and the agreement you just signed.” He punches a hole in the top of the card and hooks an ODR lanyard through it, then continues in the same droll tone. “Report to the second floor for the remainder of processing. Per Third Right, all interactions from this point forward are anonymous. Disclose your surname at your own risk. If at any time you feel your rights have been violated, please contact this office per the information on the card. Thank you and have a nice day.” The man returns to his computer, as if bored by the speech he’s forced to give over and over.

“Thanks,” I mutter, and head for the stairs. I expected the inside of the ODR to be marbled and bright, like the rest of the city, but, inside, the carpets are worn and the only elevator is out of order.

On the second floor, a Latina woman with warm skin and a bob of shiny black hair takes my new card and scans it. Age lines frame her smile and eyes. “Confirm your name, age, and gender, please.”

“Elisha—” I stop with the Wilder “W” formed on my lips.

“It’s okay,” she says. “Everyone does it. I promise to forget your personal information.”

I return her smile. “Elisha, twenty-one, male.”

“You passed the quiz. My name’s Carol; I’ll be your case manager.” She pulls up one of my documents on the flimsy little card. “Says here you’re trying to pay off three million.”

I bite my lip to stop myself from making excuses. Not all the debt’s ours, personally. According to Dad, everyone in our family used to attend college, graduate school—for generations they became doctors and artists, professors and architects.

But when the Next of Kin laws went into effect, all their debt passed down to their kids after they died, and to their kids, accumulating over decades before people got smart about that kind of thing and stopped getting married. Combine that with credit card debts, student loans, utilities, mortgages, and healthcare, and suddenly you’re living in the outer counties of Maryland, four million under. It’s taken us years to get even this far—to fend off debt collectors and the threat of debtors’ prison. Took Mom ten years and she only sold off one million. Look what that got her.

But Carol doesn’t react like the man downstairs. “It’ll take the right Patron, but we might be able to make that happen. Come on.” She takes my hand like I’m a small child.

I hold tighter than I mean to.

“First, a shower. Changing room’s over there; you can drop your clothes in the donation bin and put on a pair of scrubs when you finish. Place your Docile card and personal item in this resealable bag for safekeeping.” She holds it open.

I hesitate.

“You’ll get them back after you’re cleaned up, I promise. Fourth Right.”

I breathe deeply and forfeit my belongings. After Carol closes the curtain, I do the same with my clothes. I wince as I pull my shoes off, exposing my blistered feet to the air. They go into the donation bin first. Each item of clothing, one at a time, another part of myself gone.

Only the crocheted blanket remains, still on the bench where I tossed it. It’s going to be donated. Someone cold will feel my family’s warmth. I hug it tight against me one final time, breathing in the scent of the wood stove in Dylan’s house and the cat her mother, Nora, refuses to kick out during winter.

I drop it into the bin and force myself to get in the shower. From now on, all my needs will be provided for. That’s exactly what Dad was clinging to when he suggested Abby. But what good is a comfortable house and new clothes when you’re drugged out on Dociline?

“Scrub everything real good in there!” Carol shouts over the rush of water.“Rinse and repeat. And use conditioner; I don’t care how short your hair is.”

I haven’t used a conventional shower in years, much less all these products. Seaweed and saltwater shampoo? I could have jumped in the reservoir before trekking down here.

I step out smelling like minerals and chemicals, an imitation of the beach. The scrubs I put on are loose and comfortable; still, I glance at the donation bin. What’s left of my life is in there.

“There you go, much better.” Carol squats down to examine my blistered and bleeding feet. “Grab your personal item and Docile card and follow me.”

There aren’t any licensed doctors in my town, just people who know what to administer for a broken bone, or burns. I’ve had to drag my family into the city for regular checkups—Mom for blood tests—every year, despite Dad’s objections. What’s the extra medical debt when you’re millions under? But this ODR doctor applies medicine and real bandages for free. He draws blood and injects vaccines. By nightfall, I feel like one of the farm animals.

“I’ll be back for you in the morning.” Carol leaves me in a room full of metal-frame bunk beds.

A few men look up when I enter. Some look freshly scrubbed like me, others tired and rumpled from a long day of interviews. I discard any notions of solidarity or conversation and settle into an empty bed. In a few days, they’ll all be loaded up on Dociline, happily serving out their terms.

 

“There,” Carol says, smoothing my hair into place. “Who knew you had a face under that shag?”

I never cut it in the winter. Warmer that way. But I smile for her in the mirror.

I’ve spent all morning imagining home. No one’s called to report me; Dylan must’ve told them, but, if not, Dad will find out when the ODR sends him notice of all debts cleared.

“Please let him make it,” I whisper.

“What was that?” Carol finishes scrubbing the calluses down on my hands.

“Nothing, sorry.”

She puts down the pumice, rinses away the dead skin, and rubs thick lotion into my palms.

“Today, someone is going to inspect every inch of you to determine if you’re worth the price you’re asking for. They’re going to ask you a bunch of personal questions you aren’t prepared for, and if they decide to take you home with them—” She holds my chin and forces my eyes onto hers. “—you will spend the rest of your life speaking when spoken to. So, for god’s sake, son, if you have something to say, say it now.”

A thin layer of tears seals my lashes together. When I open them, her face runs like rain before my eyes. She called me son. Her voice didn’t sound much different than Mom’s in that moment.

“I’m scared.”

“It’s okay. The Dociline makes it easier.” She touches her wrist like so many debtors do. “Seventh Right.”

“Can I tell you a secret? You won’t tell the Patrons or write it down in my file?”

She nods and holds my hands, still tender from her cleaning.

“I’m going to refuse.”

“Refuse what?”

“Dociline.”
Carol flinches, then laughs. “No.”

“Yes.”

Her smile fades, lips thin to a line. “You shouldn’t tell anyone that.”

“You’re not going to—”

“No, and neither should you.” She nudges me onto my feet. “It’s for everyone’s good, you know. They want a happily obedient drone, and you don’t want to be too aware of what’s happening. Trust me.”

She pushes me into a room full of clothes and starts throwing them at me. “Put these on. Hurry up.”

I duck behind a curtain, too shocked to move.

“No one’s going to buy a sluggish Docile.”

“I don’t have any underwear here.” I sift through the pile.

“You won’t need any. Go on.”

I hike up the jeans. I’ve never worn a pair so tight before. The shirt hugs the lines of my arms and chest in ways that would make farmwork uncomfortable.

“I’ve seen a lot of Dociles, Elisha; I know how to sell them.” Carol yanks the curtain aside. “You have a nice body. Let the Patrons touch you. Don’t aim for three million; aim for five. Don’t speak unless spoken to, or do anything unless you’re told. Don’t lie, but definitely don’t tell them you’re going to refuse Dociline. Got it?”

I barely nod. The clothes are only the first chip off any notion of dignity I’d brought with me.

Carol checks her watch. “The Patrons should be arriving. You ready?”

“Yes.”

She pinches my cheeks until they burn. “You look like a ghost.”

 

The slam of the heavy metal door still echoes in my brain. Carol’s left me in a room with two chairs across a small table. I step toward the closer chair, then stop.

Don’t do anything unless you’re told. Aim for five million.

I clasp my hands behind my back to still them.

A loud buzzer signals the door. I straighten to my full—though unimpressive—height. My heartbeat radiates through every inch of me.

The door bursts open and a white woman with an unnatural-looking tan saunters in, still eyeing a tablet. My file, probably. She sits across from me and looks up, lips pursed, eyes darting everywhere.

“Turn around,” she says.

I move slowly, dropping my hands to my sides. Feels more like I’m trying on clothes in a fancy boutique than selling myself.

“You’re twenty-one?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She swipes to a new page on the tablet, her inch-long fingernails scraping the glass surface. “My daughter’s going to the University of Maryland. I don’t want her getting involved with anyone she shouldn’t. You know how college is.” She waves her hand like my answer is “yes.” It isn’t. “Take your shirt off; let me see your muscles.”

I comply, draping it over the free chair.

“Yeah.” She smiles. “Not bad. We’ll bulk you up. But my daughter, she’s into those punk skinny boys anyway, so whatever. You know how to handle a girl, right?”

“Handle, ma’am?”

“You know, in bed.”

Does she want me to have sex with her daughter? “No, ma’am.”

“Eh.” She winks. “We can fix that, too.”

I picture myself smashed between this woman and her daughter, in bed at some fancy university. I realize then that I might cave. I might take the drug.

She walks over and squeezes my arms. Then my crotch. I tense under her touch, trying my hardest not to recoil.

“Three mil, huh?” She plays with a strand of my hair.

A buzzer sounds and the attendant opens the door. After the woman leaves, I let out a sigh so big I think I might pass out.

The next Patron has salt-and-pepper hair and looks like he hasn’t seen the sun in a decade. He wears a vest and pressed slacks. He doesn’t sit; he walks right over to me. I haven’t even put my shirt back on.

You have a nice body. Let the Patrons touch you.

“How much can you lift? From the ground.”

We don’t have weights, at home, so I hope my answer doesn’t sound off. “Around two hundred pounds, sir.”

“Any experience with manual labor?” I nod.

“Well?”

“I’ve worked on a community farm most of my life, sir.”

“That’ll do,” he says, and walks out, not waiting for the buzzer. Him I could live with. It would be like back home, except without my family or friends, or hope for a future.

Three others interview me, but I immediately dismiss them as options: a young woman who silently measures various parts of my body; a couple, who ask if I have experience raising children, because they’ve just had screaming triplets; and an older man who asks about my threshold for pain.

After him, I wait—five minutes, ten, fifteen. Cold air tickles my skin. I want to put my shirt on and sit down, but that would probably cost me three million dollars.

Finally, the door opens. This man is younger than the others, white, probably late twenties or early thirties, and dressed in colors as bright as the flowers outside.

He sits opposite me and casually unbuttons the top of his shirt, the fluorescent light glinting off a ring on each of his fingers. “Put that shirt back on and have a seat.” He brushes his blonde hair out of his face, but it falls across his tan forehead, like the model on the shampoo bottle I used this morning.

It’s inevitable that I’ll hate anyone on the other side of this table—anyone who could make my family’s debt vanish with a single paycheck. Yet I relax in his presence. It’s the way he treats me—like I’m an equal part of this interview. Then, I imagine him fucking me. If he’s a trillionaire, like I suspect, it’s inevitable. Despite his money, he is attractive. And I realize, out of everyone I’ve interviewed with today, I want him to pick me.

 

 

3
ALEX

I arrive at the boardroom before everyone else. Our meeting isn’t until 8:00, but the sunrise looks even better through the Smart-Glass that surrounds the space than it does outside. Nanotech enhances the burnt-orange and red-wine sky against the gray-blue ripples of the harbor. Sensors warm the room slowly and strategically so that the brisk transition from Baltimore winter to climate-controlled office doesn’t shock my body. I only really notice that I’ve warmed up when I remove my jacket.

A Docile takes it, disappearing into an alcove and returning with a petal-pink porcelain cup and saucer. I take it, the coffee already doctored to my taste with cream and sugar, cooled to a temperature that won’t burn my tongue. He silently returns his attentions to the plants that decorate the hallway.

Though most of Bishop Laboratories is underground, the boardroom is situated on top of the Maryland Science Center. The institution was nearly bankrupt when my family stepped in to save it, several generations ago. Dr. Alexandra Bishop I, my grandmother, all this is her legacy. I sit in the warm leather chair where she first declared her intentions for Dociline. Where my father, Dr. Alexander Bishop II, developed Formula 2.0, and where I will soon begin work on Formula 3.0.

I breathe the coffee so deep I’d swear the caffeine absorbs directly into my bloodstream through my lungs. One perfect cup, every morning. With a few taps of my fingers, my SmartRings bring up monitors where the sunrise once was. Fifty-three minutes, I note, then review my presentation.

Board members trickle in at the top of the hour. They shed their jackets, exposing colorful sweaters and scarves and pocket squares. Sitting in brown leather chairs, they look like rows of neatly planted flowers. I smooth down my tie, slide my fingers over the engraving on the white-gold clip my grandmother gave me. Legatum nostrum futurum est.

To be a Bishop means to shape society—the future. That’s the charge I received from my grandmother, along with my name. It would be hard to expand our fortune by marrying into a wealthier family—few exist—and yet the pressure remains, not only to preserve our legacy but to enrich it.

My friends Dutch and Mariah enter together with only a wink in my direction. The two of them stayed up all night, listening to me practice, helping me refine my points, until we’d gone through half a dozen bottles of champagne and as many rewrites of my plans for Dociline. It doesn’t hurt having the support of the CFO and a shareholder who also happens to control most of the country’s media.

My father arrives last—on purpose. When he enters the room, it falls silent, the meeting begins. And, for once, I’m nervous. He sits opposite me, each of us crowning one end of the table. Out of habit, I trace a groove in its underside that’s grown slowly smoother and deeper over the years.

“Welcome, everyone,” I say, “and thank you for joining me so early. I am excited to share my vision for—”

Dad raises his hand. My presentation vanishes from the surrounding monitors. “There’s something we need to discuss before you begin, Alex. If you don’t mind me interrupting.”

My smile contracts, nerves hum with anxiety. “Of course, my apologies.” I sit and adjust my tie again for want of something to do. If I settle my hands, I’m afraid someone will see them trembling.

With a tap, my father draws up a file and slides it into the middle of the table. Though I can’t read the font from where I sit, I recognize the form: Termination of Intent to Propose. I clasp my hands under the table. I know where this is going.

“You broke things off with Dr. Madera?” Dad leans on the table and stares directly across it, at me.

“Yes.”

“Why?”

I glimpse the horror frozen on Dutch and Mariah’s faces. I have to fight to keep the same off of mine. I’m dizzy and cold and warm and light-headed, suddenly and simultaneously. I clear my throat and breathe deep, sit up straighter.

“Is this something we need to talk about here? I don’t want to take up any more of the Board’s time than necessary.” I smile for good measure.

“Yes, Alex, I’m afraid it is. As I and others have explained many times, who you partner with affects not only our company’s reputation, but also its finances. The stability of your personal life has direct bearing on your potential as CEO. Now, we are all allowed to figure ourselves out, determine the kind of person we want to partner with.”

“Dad, please,” I say more sternly than I should in front of others. But for goodness’ sake, he’s embarrassing me. Dutch and Mariah avoid my eyes when I look to them. Did they know about this? If there was discussion—no, they wouldn’t have.

“You’re turning thirty, this month, Alex. You’ve worked at Bishop Laboratories all your life and will see it into the future. From that seat, you will influence the lives of billions of Americans. They will look to you to make responsible decisions, both for the company and your private life.”

“I am aware,” I say, stiffly. “There are plenty of other options that we can discuss later—”

“Our lawyers don’t see as many options as you’d think. Fortunes are fragile. The wrong match could easily topple everything we’ve worked for.” Dad folds his hands and looks thoughtfully at them. “Given that, we are willing to give you more time—the public will understand that recovery is necessary after a breakup—but meanwhile, we, the Board, would like you to invest in a personal Docile as a symbol of your commitment to this company.”

As if my work doesn’t follow me home enough—and I do like my work, but a man needs a break. That’s one of the reasons I terminated my relationship with Javier. He was always over or out with me. Always around and never engaging enough that I wouldn’t rather have spent the time alone. So what if he was perfect on paper? I’m the one who would’ve had to live with him for the rest of my life. “I don’t need a personal Docile. I work with thousands of them, every day.”

“Then,” Dad continues, “you’re welcome to review the remaining, eligible partners—”

“No.”

“Appearances matter, Alex. You know that. The CEO of Bishop Laboratories will be perceived as incompetent—naked—without a partner or a Docile on his arm.” Dad stands, pushes his chair back, and motions for the waiting Docile to bring his jacket. “If you cannot handle dating, and you cannot handle a Docile, then you cannot handle Bishop Laboratories.” He adjusts his scarf and dons his hat. “For now, I suggest you think about what this company, and your place within it, means to you.”

As he leaves, I suppress the urge to defend myself. To pull up progress charts and statistics, all my carefully crafted plans. If he isn’t going to listen, I’ll have to adjust. I can do this—I can play along, prove how serious I am about the company’s future and that I can work with the Board. I can use this opportunity to invest in a personal Docile whom I can inject with Formula 3.0. Use him to show everyone what I can do. What my legacy will be.

 

I’ve been waiting at the ODR for fifteen minutes when a white woman dressed like a flight attendant enters the lobby through a door marked “Employees Only.” She approaches me, then squeezes the handle of her white cane and retracts its laser length. “Dr. Bishop?”

“Yes. Call me Alex,” I say, extending a hand.

“I’m Charlene Williams, your Patron Liaison.” She shimmies the lanyard of her white cane into the crook of her elbow and we shake hands. “I hope I haven’t kept you waiting too long.”

“No,” I lie because I’m polite. “Not at all.” I would’ve sat, but the plastic-covered chairs were not encouraging. Like most government entities, the Office of Debt Resolution is housed in a half-restored historic building. Though the façade is painted mint green and the decorative floral architecture restored, its insides are furnished with unraveling carpets, outdated filing systems, and the slight scent of mildew.

Luckily, Bishop Laboratories has a bid on an exclusive contract with the ODR for renovations. Looking around, I see the need is more dire than anticipated. If corporate representatives and people of means don’t feel welcome at the ODR, fewer will become Patrons, and debt will spiral out of control, again, which is the opposite of our aims. But Charlene seems kind and eager to help and none of this is her fault, so I don’t mention it.

“Your father’s asked me to work as an intermediary between the ODR and Bishop Labs, so I’ve compiled a list of Docile profiles based on the memo your assistant transmitted.” Charlene hands me a thick tablet with a rubbery case, squeezes the handle of her white cane, again, and leads me down the hall, the laser scanning side to side.

“Thank you.” I scan the selected men’s photos and those statistics that preview alongside them. I tap the profiles of those I find physically unattractive and delete them from the queue, followed by those who never attended an accredited school and those without much debt. If I am going to do this, I’m going to do it right. I fake my enthusiasm for enough people that I lack the energy to do the same for a partner or Docile.

“Have you made your selections?” Charlene opens the door to a room marked “Patron Lounge.”

I glance at the few remaining profiles and feel disinterest stirring in me. “Is there a master database I can browse?”

“Yes. Technically.” She takes the tablet from me. “Though I’ve been advised that you’re supposed to select from the prescreened profiles I showed you.”

“I’d love to do exactly that, Charlene, but…” I search for the right words, not wanting her to tell my father—or the Board—that I was being difficult. I have to assume they tapped her, directly, to handle my case. “This Docile will be injected with the developing Formula 3.0, so I can’t pick just anyone. He needs to be in enough debt to accept a life term, smart enough so that I can subject him to periodic tests when he returns, sober, from family visitations, attractive enough to accompany me from political functions to Board meetings, and after-parties. If I’m going to accomplish the tasks set forth by my father and the other Board members, I must be allowed to select my subject.”

I swallow hard, hoping she buys my speech. Why do I feel like I’m back in high school, bullshitting a paper? I’m better than this. Charlene pushes the tablet back into my hands. “I must not have given you the correct selections. My apologies.” A smile tugs at the corner of her mouth.

It takes me longer than it should to understand. Charlene is ambitious. I’m the Bishop who’ll oversee the ODR’s renovations, should we win the contract with them, and I’ll be the one to appoint capable employees to help us. I accept the favor and file it away for later, as she intends.

Charlene waits patiently while I scroll through the full database, narrowing down my options, then sorting by the most recent arrivals. I see him right at the top of my results—the one I want. I know because I find myself thinking, when I tap his profile, even if he’s a bit too skinny or attended an unaccredited school, that I can still work with that.

His photo isn’t like the others’; it’s not staged. Strands of dark brown stick up from his freshly cut hair, like someone had just run their fingers through it. Probably a caseworker—not him. He stands in his clothes like he’s not wearing any, slightly hunched, arms crossed in front of his body. Covering himself as if his tee shirt and jeans are painted on his bare skin. Unlike the Board’s selections, he’s imperfect. His white skin is freckled and pink, if not sunburnt despite it being winter, and though a thin layer of gloss coats his lips, they’re cracked and dry.

Not all Patrons can afford to pay off as much debt as he has, but I can afford all of his time. Long enough that his lips will heal and soften. The Board wants me to invest, and this one will be an investment on multiple levels. “I’ve made my selection, Charlene, thank you.” I hand her the tablet.

She runs her fingers over the surface, then cocks her head. “Only one?”

“Yes.” I anchor myself with the word, remind myself that I’m Alexander Bishop III and not only do I get what I want, but I know what I’m fucking doing. “Only one. Only Elisha.”

 

Elisha’s not wearing a shirt when I enter the small, windowless room. He tenses, still standing, as I take the chair opposite him. It’s different being in the room with him. I have to remind myself of my confidence. He’s no different from the Dociles I work with every day.

Except I have to win this one’s favor.

I take a deep breath, then beckon him over with the crook of my finger. “Put that shirt back on and have a seat.”

He breathes out—possibly for the first time since I entered the room—and scrambles to comply. I do my best to examine his body without being too obvious. I’m either the hero offering him comfort and privacy, or the stranger making him feel uncomfortable, and wouldn’t he rather sign with the former?

“My name’s Alex; what’s yours?” I ask, even though I already know.

“Elisha,” he says.

“Nice to meet you.” I hadn’t decided whether I was going to keep his name until I heard him say it. Most Patrons don’t, and at Bishop Labs we assign them numbers. On-meds don’t know the difference and it helps to distance Patrons from their Dociles’ pasts. It’s a business relationship. There are boundaries.

“You too,” he says, probably a lie, and right now I need him to be honest if I’m going to make an informed decision. Debtors have been known to lie to fetch a higher price, but that’s not my only motivation. I want a feel for his voice, his demeanor—before the Dociline smooths it all down. Formula 2.0 only does so much; it makes people more willing, more at ease, more comfortable. It doesn’t invent skills or knowledge, and strong negative personality traits have been known to pierce through. Otherwise, I wouldn’t even bother talking to them; I’d just pick the prettiest one.

“I’m going to ask you a few basic questions and I want you to answer honestly.”

“O-okay.”

“I work with Dociles, so there’s nothing you can say that’ll surprise me. I just want to make sure we’re a good match. Does that work for you?”

He nods.

“I’d appreciate if you’d answer me out loud.”

“Yes—sorry.” He squeezes his eyes shut and shakes his head, berating himself. “Yes.”

“No big deal,” I say, hoping to put him back at ease. I pull up his profile on the tablet and review it.

“You have no criminal record outside your debt history—complaints from creditors, a few police citations, including a home visit fourteen years ago—is that correct?”

“Yes.”

“Good.” His record is standard, cleaner than most debtors’. Plenty resort to theft and violence in their desperation. I will not have one of those types in my house, even on Dociline.

“I see you attended an unaccredited school.” My only reservation about him. Schooling in the counties is often spotty at best. “Would you mind elaborating on your education?”

Elisha rubs his left shoulder with his right hand—a guarded position. He remains that way while he explains. “We were only unaccredited because we couldn’t afford to pay state-certified teachers, but I learned the basics: reading, writing, math, local history.”

I wouldn’t describe those as “the basics,” but it’s better than nothing.

“How long did you attend?”

“I completed all the compulsory grades, first through eighth. After that, I attended night classes. Had to work during the day.”

“What kind of work?”

“Whatever was asked of me.” He shrugs. “Clearing weeds, cutting wood, tending the animals, mending clothes or houses. In my free time, I tutored those who couldn’t make it out to the schoolhouse.”

“And you’re healthy?” People with chronic illnesses have been known to scam the system, selling themselves for the required medical care. Sometimes a Docile’s healthcare costs the Patron more than their debt. I’m not looking for that much of an investment.

“Yes.”

“Good. Do you have domestic experience? Cooking, cleaning, that sort of thing.”

“Yes. I managed most of the household while my—” He stops and bites his bottom lip, unsure if he’s supposed to continue.

“While?” I can’t make him tell me anything about his life, but now I want to know.

Elisha sits up straighter. “While my mom was serving her term. For ten years.”

I force myself to say, “Good,” rather than probe. This is a business relationship, I remind myself. His history won’t matter once he’s on Dociline. “I only have a few more questions; then you can ask me yours.”

“Okay.” He tucks his hands under his legs and leans forward, opening himself up to me. For the first time he appears interested.

“Are you attracted to any specific gender?” The more the better, to be honest. Not only do I plan to fuck him, but it’s expected I’ll share him with others at social events. Already I’m not looking forward to it.

“Men,” he says, tentatively.

Too tentatively. I wait while he reconsiders.

“Men?” It’s almost a question. He looks up, lips moving slightly, as if he’s counting to himself. “I notice men.”

“Sounds like you don’t have any sexual experience.”

He shakes his head and tucks a stray hair behind his ear before remembering he’s supposed to answer me out loud. “No. I do experience sexual attraction; I’ve just never had a chance to…”

Elisha blushes as he forces his eyes to meet mine, and suddenly I’m imagining him shirtless, in my room, on my bed. I wonder what he looks like naked, what all those freckles and muscles would feel like against my skin.

I hold his gaze. “Had a chance to what?”

“Have sex.”

I let the word “sex” hang in the air.

“Are you attracted to me?” I ask, finally. A dangerous question. If he says no, I’m not sure I’ll be able to proceed, and then I’ll have to resort to one of the Board’s picks. For the first time during this interview, he holds the power.

After a few seconds of consideration, he says, “I find you attractive.”

“Good.” I let my breath out slowly to hide my relief.

I debate asking what he thinks of me as a person, but it’s clear he’s torn and I don’t want to tip the scales out of my favor. Elisha has more debt, less education, and less experience than the pre-approved Dociles my assistant sent over. But under his calluses, I see an opportunity to show my father, and the Board, what I can do. That I’m capable of handling my personal and work life. That with enough determination, I can turn a desperate debtor into the perfect Docile. With Formula 3.0, Elisha will become my legacy.

 

 

4
ELISHA

“Elisha!” Carol waves me into her cramped office. A mixture of papers and tablets crowd the desk and filing cabinets. “Sit down. Glad you found me in this maze of a building. I have good news.”

I can’t return her smile, because any good news also means the end of my freedom. A small piece of me had hoped to drag out the process, unwind my nerves.

“Each Patron who interviewed you made an offer, though I have a feeling you’ll only be interested in one.” She hands me a tablet—the nicest one I’ve ever held.

I grip the sides tightly, afraid to drop something I can’t afford to replace. “What do I press?”

“Oh, right there, hon.” She taps a spot on the screen and it lights up. “Move your finger up and the page will follow.”

I forget how to read for a moment. The letters are jumbled squiggles. What am I looking for? A name, an amount, a term length.

I see it underlined: William Barth, three million dollars, thirty years. I’ll be fifty-one when I’m free.

“Thirty years is an extremely generous offer for three million.”

I tap Barth’s picture and it fills the screen. He’s the one who asked about manual labor; I recognize him now that I’m less nervous, now that I can put a name with a face. The work doesn’t scare me—I do enough, already—but, staring at his name, now, I realize I’ve heard it before, from folks at the farmer’s market. How he’ll buy anyone’s debt—quantity over quality. Then it doesn’t matter if a few can’t keep up. If they get injured or die.

At least my family would get to keep the money. Patrons are supposed to take care of your health—Second Right. They break it, they buy it.

“By law, you’re required to view all offers before making a decision,” Carol says. “And you’re allowed to wait if none of these appeal to you. But I don’t know if another like Barth’s will come around again. He doesn’t usually bid so high.”

“Where are the others?” I set the tablet down and Carol taps to a window with Patron photos, each representing a different offer.

My fingers slip across the glass surface, slick with sweat. There he is. Alex—I read his last name aloud—“‘Bishop.’”

“Hm?” Carol cranes her neck to look as I touch his picture.

I skim his offer the second it appears. Dr. Alexander Bishop III, three million dollars, life term. My whole life. I’d die in this stranger’s house, without my family.

My fingers brush the screen and another underline catches my eye. “‘Docile’s immediate family will receive a monthly stipend of one thousand dollars for the duration of his life, revocable at the Patron’s discretion.’ Is that normal?” I ask Carol.

Her face twists in discomfort. “No. And, paired with a life term, I admit, I’m suspicious of his intentions.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Elisha, do you know who he is?”

“A trillionaire?”

“Not just any trillionaire. His family owns Bishop Laboratories.” When I don’t react, Carol leans across the desk. “They make Dociline.”

“Oh.” Oh.

And I’m going to say no. Can I say no to him? Will I, when it comes down to it? If I can, this might be my best offer. I shudder remembering the woman who wanted to buy me as a pet for her daughter.

I take the tablet and read the entire contract again. With a thousand dollars a month, my sister might be able to afford the University of Maryland if they saved properly and she took a job. It might incur some extra debt, but it would also get her a real job in Baltimore City, where she might make enough to pay it off.

“I get two visits home per year,” I say. I’ve already memorized every Docile-related law and regulation; I know the answer’s yes.

“Yes,” Carol says anyway, “but keep in mind this is a life term. With Barth’s offer you’ll be free by your fifties. You can retire with your family.”

“On what, my nonexistent savings?”

Carol sits back; hurt creases her face.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to snap at you.”
“I’ve had worse. People aren’t at their best once they’ve registered with the ODR, and I can’t blame them.”

We both look at the contract in my hands. “If I live until I’m eighty that’s about sixty years of stipend. With twelve months in a year it comes out to… seven hundred twenty thousand dollars.” Alex Bishop is exactly what I came looking for: a trillionaire who’ll use me for sex rather than dangerous labor, and is willing to pay extra for the privilege. “How do I accept his offer?”

Carol waits with me on the sidewalk. The others who’ve signed contracts boarded the bus for delivery hours ago, but Alex left instructions that he would send a private car.

“Stop playing with it.” She swats my arm away from my back be- fore I can scratch between my shoulder blades again. That’s where they implanted the ID and GPS microchip. People do the same thing to dogs.

“I can’t stop thinking about it,” I confess.

“You will shortly, trust me.” She wrangles my hand into hers in order to hold me still.

I squeeze back. People in brightly colored suits brush past us, not giving me a second look over their pastel ties and floral scarves. If they stand still too long beside the painted ODR, they clash with it. None of them know where I’m going or what’s just happened to me. It hasn’t even hit me, yet.

When a black car pulls up, Carol tightens her grip. It parks and an older white man exits the driver’s seat. “I’ve never ridden in a car before,” I say, because anything else I’d express would be pure terror.

Carol hugs me before I can let go. “You’ll be fine; I know you will.”

I nod in the crook of her shoulder. “I have the ODR’s contact just in case.”

“Call me if there are any violations of your rights.” She stands back. “I don’t usually say goodbye.”

“What’s the point?” I shrug. The driver opens the back door for me. “Most people won’t remember you anyway.”

She looks like she’s going to cry. I feel like I’m going to throw up. Somehow, I get in the car. The driver closes the door and I immediately start swiping my fingers over the panels on the door. A lock clicks; lights dim. One of these has to— The window rolls down.

“I’ll remember you, Carol,” I say.

Her waving figure is cut off as the window rises, not by my doing.

“Windows up. For your own safety,” the driver says. “And fasten
your seat belt.”

I look at the seat for a belt. Finding nothing, I meet his eyes in the mirror again.

“Behind you, on the right.”

It’s exactly where he says. A belt stretches out when I pull, click- ing into a metal end on my other side.

“Thank you,” I say, trying to get comfortable. It’s not hard. The leather warms beneath me, the air around me. The strap is a little annoying, but I don’t dare remove it.

People rush around outside, swinging briefcases and drinking coffee from paper cups. I’ve never understood why someone would throw away a perfectly good cup after using it once. Everything is disposable here, even people.

I watch through the window as families wait at crosswalks that look freshly painted in order to reach towering glass buildings on the piers along the harbor. Beside the water, there’s a giant building people call the Power Plant. It’s not a plant, anymore. All the working-class people must’ve been pushed out so the rich could gut it for fun. Restaurant signs are attached to the painted brick—salmon colored, probably to remind folks of the sea—with a giant guitar fixed to the top. It’s not like the ones my father and his friends play, but sleek and shiny, like it might launch into space.

We stop at several shops and spas before reaching a tall red building that faces the water. Similar to others I’ve passed, the painted marble is shaped into flourishes and flowers around the doors and windows. This time, when I get out of the car—still raw from the waxing and plucking and scrubbing—the driver unpacks the bags of clothes and hands them to a doorman. Standing on the sidewalk, I tilt my head back until I’m staring almost into the sun. Beneath the roof, human figurines guard the building’s corners—or they hold it up.

I want to ask if this is Alex’s house, but I’ve barely spoken a word since leaving Carol behind at the ODR. For all I know, these people will report my behavior, and I don’t know my new Patron well enough to gauge his reaction.

“Dr. Bishop left this for you.” The doorman hands me a small, sealed envelope, then resumes loading my shopping bags into a trolley.

I take it and press my finger between its fold. “Thank you.” The paper’s so nice, it takes me a minute to rip the envelope open.

I read the handwritten script quietly to myself: “‘Take the elevator to the top floor. Stand beside the window and look over the harbor. Do not turn around—wait for me. Alex.’” I fold the thick note between my shaking fingers, hoping there is only one window, and that I don’t suddenly have to pee or need a drink of water, or anything that requires me to turn from the window.

When I look up from the note, I realize I am alone. The door-man’s gone. I could run. I’m free and undrugged. The only thing that can force me to follow Alex’s instructions is myself.

I step into the waiting elevator.

The microchip in my back would locate me the instant I ran. They’d find me. Alex would be unhappy with me, and the rest of my life would begin miserably. He could withhold the monthly stipend—even if it’s pennies to him. That’s what the contract said.

When I press the button for the highest floor, it lights up and a soothing, electronic voice says, “Welcome, Elisha.”

I almost reply before telling myself it can’t hear me; it’s a machine. And, yet, it knows my name.

“Penthouse,” the elevator announces with a ding.

When I walk forward it’s not with dread but wonder. The entire outside wall is glass. I feel like a god looking out over the city. Ships in the harbor look like toys, floating in a bathtub. I can see right down through the triangular glass of the Aquarium’s rainforest exhibit; I asked Dad to take me so many times as a kid, but even when we all had bikes to travel into the city, the ticket price was too steep. My new shoes slip on the polished hardwood floor as I wander closer for a better look. Every step I take forward is another I can’t take back. Don’t turn around. My eyes wander over marble counter-tops, plush navy furniture, soft light from invisible sources. As soon as I reach that glass, I’m committed to the view until Alex shows up. I close my eyes and breathe deep, clinging to the last few second—minutes, hours?—that are my own.

But the light scent of vanilla and wood invades my nostrils, re-minding me I’m in someone else’s home. And not just four walls to keep out animals and a roof to stop the rain. This is not a shelter; it’s for pleasure. And I’m another decoration, picked out to complement the space.

I wait. Outside, the sunlight moves across the water.

The soft ping of the elevator might as well be thunder. I stare even harder at the ant-sized people below, determined not to turn around. Behind me, footsteps echo off the high ceilings.

Don’t look. I can’t look. I want to look. I have to remind myself to breathe. My heart races faster than a car. Even when the room falls quiet, I know I’m not alone.

 

 

5
ALEX

Elisha stares out the window, hands clasped formally behind his back. His skin is still pink from the salon, but the clothes do him justice; they’re colorful, pressed, formfitting. He should be comfortable, and yet he’s so stiff, I imagine he’d tip right over if I prodded.

I shrug off my coat and open the closet as quietly as possible, like he might run away if I make a noise. I can’t scare him off—he can’t even leave. He’s my responsibility, now. The realization settles into my body like the first shot of alcohol on a night out: warm, invigorating, dangerous. I can do this—want to do this. This is not a punishment; it’s an opportunity.

Quietly, I close the closet door and roll up my sleeves as I go to join him. Continuing to follow my instructions, he doesn’t turn around. I linger behind him. What do I say, Hope you had a good ride? How was the spa? Good to see you?

We’re still strangers.

“What do you think of the view?” I ask, unsure whether small talk is the right choice.

“It’s beautiful.” The natural timbre of Elisha’s voice throws me off.

He’s not on Dociline—not until tonight. Maybe that’s why it feels so weird, standing next to him like we’re in a bar and I’m trying to pick him up. After I inject him, it’ll be easier. He’ll be happy simply standing there, waiting for my next instruction. Fulfilled rather than stiff and nervous. It’s making me nervous. I chose a Docile over a husband because the latter requires emotional labor that I don’t have time for and now I’m pulling my weight, anyway.

Get over it, Alex. It’s just for one night.

“The inside’s not bad, either,” I say, finally. “Follow me. I’ll show you around.”

He follows me into the kitchen, where I point out appliances camouflaged into the room’s woods and whites, all clean for this evening’s party. I slide a recessed wine rack out from between the pantry and the refrigerator, grab a bottle of red—don’t even check the label. Elisha watches while I set a wine glass down on the kitchen island.

Before I know it, I’m asking him, “Do you want one?”

I set down a second wine glass, not waiting for his response.

“Um.” He looks around like someone’s going to catch him drinking on the job. There are no other rules here, besides mine. “Sure, I guess.”

By the time he’s answered, I’ve already filled both glasses. I down half of mine in one gulp. The lump catches in my throat and I feel it push down my esophagus. Across from me, Elisha brings the rim of the glass to his nose and sniffs it, but not like I would at a restaurant, more like a dog sniffing another dog’s ass. After watching me finish my glass, he puts his own to his lips and sips.

I pour myself another, store the rest of the bottle in the rack, and push it back into hiding. “You don’t need to know much about the kitchen. I’ve hired a caterer to manage tonight’s party.”

When he doesn’t ask what kind of party, I go on, anxious to fill the silence. “A birthday party.”

More silence.

“It’s my birthday.”

For the first time, Elisha’s face relaxes. He almost smiles. “Happy birthday.”

“Thank you.” The wine is already absorbing into my bloodstream and loosening me up, excising my anxiety. I take advantage of it and explain: “After we finish the tour, I’m going to run a few last-minute errands while the caterers set up. I’ll be back in time to introduce you to…” No point in explaining to Elisha who everyone is. He won’t really remember once I inject him. “Everyone.”

“Okay,” he says. Clearly, that was enough for him.

Elisha follows me upstairs, silently and slowly, trying not to spill his wine, his glass still almost full. I wait at the top of the steps, looking down on my home, out its floor-to-ceiling windows, and at the younger man whose debt I purchased.

He glances up at me and smooths back a strand of hair threatening to liberate itself from its new sleek style. His lips are slightly reddened with wine, face slightly flushed. I remember why I picked him and how this won’t be all work. Once he’s dosed up, we will definitely play.

“This is my bedroom.” I wander in, at ease in my most private space. Though the bed is made and my clothing hung, my personal laptop still rests on the blue-gray down comforter and a rocks glass sits on a coaster on the nightstand. Remnants of last night’s Scotch stain its bottom.

I glance over my shoulder to see Elisha lingering at the threshold. “You are allowed in,” I say, though he knows that. He eyes the bed with trepidation, standing as far away as he dares.

“You’ll sleep in here with me.” I walk to the left side of my bed frame and kneel to point out the adjustment I had made. “This is your bed.” When I wave my hand over a sensor, the trundle glides out silently, already fitted with matching bedding. Elisha doesn’t react to our sleeping arrangements, which, I admit, are more intimate than the capsule bed setup Mariah keeps, or the separate rooms Dutch’s Dociles sleep in.

“The only other rooms, up here, are the bathroom and my office.” I point to both of their doors in turn. “The latter of which is always locked when I am not using it. Do you have any questions?” I ask. He looks nervous, still, though I feel much better with twelve ounces of wine in me. “I’d rather you ask now. I’ll be busy entertaining guests later, and will expect you to handle yourself.”

Thirty slow seconds pass.

“Yes,” Elisha says. “What do I do, tonight, exactly? Follow you around? Wait upstairs? Are there any guidelines…”

I blanch like a schoolboy who’s forgotten his homework. Rules. I should’ve thought up rules. I finish my wine and set it on the nightstand. “Yes.” I can make shit up on the fly. I do this kind of thing all the time for investors and reporters and people who ask me how I’m doing.

“I’ll put the rules up on the wall for you to study while I’m running errands. Memorize them.” I sit at my small writing table, pull a touch keyboard up on its surface, and begin to type.

  1. Always answer aloud when people address you, and do so honestly.
  1. Do not speak unless spoken to.
  1. Consult me, first, if someone makes a request of you.

I hesitate, debating whether that is enough, before adding one more.

  1. If you require my attention for a non-emergency, say, “Excuse me, Alex,” and wait for me to address you. Always speak up in an emergency.

There. That’ll last the night. Good job, Alex. “If you have further questions about any of the rules, now is the time to ask them.”

Elisha bites his thumbnail while he rereads the rules. “Don’t do that,” I say. “I just had them manicured.”

He removes his finger from his mouth and forces his hand to his side. “Is there a certain way you want me to stand or sit when I’m not doing anything?”

Good question. “Yes,” I say before even having thought of the answer. Thank god he won’t remember any of this once he’s on Dociline. This time, I take a cue from Dutch, who treats his two Dociles more like pets than sex toys. “Unless otherwise directed, you are to sit on the floor beside me or stand with your hands clasped either in front of or behind your body. And look at me when we speak to each other.”

“Okay,” Elisha says, reviewing the rules one last time. “Will I be…” He hesitates, trying to form his question.

I’m enraptured simply watching him think. “Will I be expected to do things at the party?”

“Like, entertain?”

“No, like…” He shrugs, looks between the bed and the ceiling, stuffs his hands in his pockets.

Oh. I know where this is going. “Say it.”

Elisha flushes rose gold. “Like, sex?” He sets his half-full wine glass on the writing table and folds his hands together to quiet their trembling. He can’t even look at me. “I’ve heard stories.”

Once Elisha gets some Dociline in his blood, he won’t be so nervous. Correction: he won’t be nervous at all. I almost wish I’d been on Dociline for my first time. I’d gladly forget a few of my first partners. He straightens as I walk toward him, hands still in his pockets, eyes on the floor, then me, then the floor, and then me, again—I draw so close he startles backwards. I reach out, instinctively, to catch him. This is the closest Elisha and I have ever been. I can feel the heat from his skin, hear the arrhythmia of his breath. “Have you ever kissed anyone?”

“No,” he says.

I hadn’t been planning on being intimate with Elisha until he injected Dociline, until he was obedient and eager. But a selfish part of me wants him to remember this. To feel it fully.

I tilt his head back until we’re looking into each other’s eyes, and then at each other’s lips. His are flushed, like rose petals beneath mine, and part easily when I kiss him. He nuzzles my hand when I rest it against the side of his face. Suddenly, I’m struck by how much trust he’s placed in me. He anticipated this—and more. Sought it, even. And I’ve barely thought through tonight.

I pull back first. His cheeks and lips ripen with blood. “Now you have,” I say.

I release him and walk to the door, pausing at the threshold. “The caterers are due any minute. Do not go downstairs or interact with them. Guests will begin to arrive in two hours. I expect you’ll have memorized the rules by the time I return.” I check my watch. “Be here, in this room, at six forty-five.”

I leave without the option for further questions. If I stay, I worry I won’t be able to improvise any longer. And that I’ll want to kiss him, again.

 

 

6
ELISHA

My eyes bounce between the rules and the clock. It’s 6:40, and Alex doesn’t seem like the type to be late. Everything here is so neat. Nothing stands out—even my bed is tucked away. Invisible, silent. Nothing takes up space in this immaculate house. Not for long. Not once I refuse Dociline.

6:41: I wonder if I should be standing when he arrives.

Alex said, Be here. Technically, I’m here.

He didn’t say to sit down. I don’t want him to think I’m too comfortable or lazy or—

Did it say anything in the rules about standing and sitting when he’s not around?

I skim them again, glance at the clock, run a finger over my lips. I can’t stop thinking about the kiss—about how warm and sure his lips were against mine. How I liked it. How I shouldn’t have liked it.

The elevator dings. I’m suddenly light-headed. What if I forget a rule? Did I decide to stand up or keep studying? I can’t remember.

I stand and push the armchair in, so it looks like I’ve been standing the whole time. My heart beats against my eardrums as Alex climbs the stairs.

I’m supposed to stand with my hands clasped if he’s around. My hands close behind my back.

The door opens.

Alex walks right past me and sets a black box on his nightstand. I immediately wonder what’s inside, then bite my lip to stop myself from asking. Rule number two: don’t speak unless spoken to. I glance over my shoulder as Alex rustles through a bag. He catches me when he surfaces, holding a pile of folded clothing and a pair of shoes.

“Put these on.” He presses them into my arms.

“Okay.”

“And it’s unbecoming of a Docile to peek around. Suppress your curiosity, for the night.”

How am I supposed to do that? Elisha Wilder: the first man to suppress hundreds of thousands of years of human instinct. I hold the shoes so tightly, the laces dig into my arm. “Sorry,” I manage to say. “I will.” A lie. I’m not supposed to lie, but it’s what he wants to hear.

“I know it’s difficult,” Alex says, and I momentarily feel better, until, “The Dociline should help.”

My lips part—just enough to fake a breath and not betray speech. I’m torn between Carol’s advice not to tell anyone I’m going to refuse Dociline and Alex’s first rule, that I always answer honestly.

He hasn’t directly asked.

This is the one thing I can hold on to. It’s my right to refuse.

“You may change in the bathroom,” he says. “And don’t touch your hair.”

“Okay, thank you,” I say, still unsure how to respond to commands. But it satisfies Alex, so I disappear into the bathroom and turn the lock. I barely have time to set the clothes down when there’s a knock on the door. I open it to Alex.

“Don’t lock doors,” he says, then pushes it closed.

I clench my hands into fists, but resist slamming them against the door. This is how it’s going to be, from now on. Following Alex’s rules, living to his standards. Don’t lock doors—I want to tell him to fuck off, but I suppress my feelings. Good practice for the rest of my life.

I pull off a shirt that isn’t mine and replace it with another, wiggle into sleek pants that fit tighter than any I would own. My hair doesn’t belong to me. I wouldn’t have touched it before he had it styled, but I don’t touch it now because I can’t. This is Alex’s hair, Alex’s shirt, pants, designer underwear.

“Elisha” can’t exist in this form, anymore. Not if I want to survive. I have to retreat into this body—into the few parts of the mind that aren’t Alex’s. The parts where my heart beats and memories live.

The door startles me when it swings open. “Finished?”

I nod, quickly followed by a verbal “Yes.” Rule number one.

“Come here; let me see.” Alex beckons and I follow.

He adjusts the seams of my button-down shirt, lining them up with my shoulders. It unbuttons lower than I’m used to, makes me feel naked even though it’s only my collarbone and a hint of chest. I don’t dare try to cover up.

I suck my stomach in when Alex grabs my belt. He unbuckles it, tightening the leather a notch. The khaki pants sit right above my hips, crisp and soft, with a line pressed down the front of each leg.

He tucks the shirt back into them. “What’s rule number four?”

“I should say, ‘Excuse me, Alex,’ if I need your attention, and wait for you to address me. Unless it’s an emergency.”

“Good. What if I sit down to eat?”

“I should sit beside you, on the floor.”

“Good. Stand like you would if I were speaking with a group of people.”

I clasp my hands behind my back. The stance makes me feel exposed, even though I’m only with Alex.
Only with Alex? Did I really think that? He’s still a stranger, one who holds my life and my family’s finances in his manicured hands. I’m stupid to think I’m safe around him.

“Excellent,” he says.

At least I’ve passed the oral exam. “How do you feel?”

The polite response is good, thank you. It’s what I’d have said to any Patron who interviewed me. Not Alex, though. I give him the honesty he says he wants.

“Nervous.”

“Why?”
Why does he think? “I’m afraid I’ll forget a rule.”

“Don’t be. You have them memorized.”

If we were really having a conversation, I’d say, “Doesn’t matter. I’m still terrified.” But he hasn’t asked me any further questions, so I can’t speak up.

I bite my lip.

Alex catches the movement like a skilled hunter. “Don’t do that in public.”

“Sorry.”

“One last thing.” He glances at the door. Voices have begun to fill the downstairs. “Not everyone is like me. Some of my guests may have different expectations of you than I do. Their expectations do not matter. They do not hold your contract and they are not the ones who will discipline you if you do not live up to their standards. I am. I’m the only one whose opinion matters. Remember that.”

“I will.”

“Good.” Alex takes a deep breath, like he’s about to jump off the rocks into the reservoir. “Then, let’s go.”

I clasp my hands so tightly behind me, my fingers numb. My whole body tingles, as if my heart has sucked up all the blood in my veins. That’s why it’s throbbing in my chest—like a blood bomb waiting to explode.

Electronic music rises to meet us as we descend the stairs. I don’t know the artist; we only get the news radio station out where I live. Lived.

People stand in groups around tall tables with tiny plates on them. I ignore my stomach when it growls. Haven’t eaten since the ODR this morning.

That was only this morning? Sixty more years…

“Alex!” My head turns at his name, because I’m not my own person, tonight. I’m his shadow.

“Dutch, hey!” Alex shakes hands with another white guy who shares his shade of tan, topped off with slicked-back brown hair that’s so dark it’s nearly black. Green and white stripes trim his navy-blue blazer. His smile unnerves me.

I was counting on standing beside Alex quietly, so it catches me off guard when his friend Dutch points at me. “Who’s this?”

“This is my new Docile.” Alex steps aside so this man can see me. “Elisha.”

He didn’t teach me how to introduce myself, so I say nothing. “Elisha, huh?” Dutch says. “You mind?”

Mind? Mind what?

“Not at all.” Alex gestures to me.

What does he not mind? I look to him for any hint, but Alex is only watching. He’s on their side, not mine. Dutch runs his hand through my hair—the hair I’m not allowed to touch—traces his hands down the sides of my neck and out across my shoulders, stopping only to squeeze my arms.

He makes a smug, satisfied face at Alex, then continues. I purse my lips and let my eyes drift upward as he circles my waist. “Not bad,” he says. It’s almost clinical when he runs his hands over my ass—like he’s checking to make sure I have one—except for the slight squeeze.

I grit my teeth and force myself not to flinch. Not to slap his hands away.

“How is he in bed? Bet those lips feel like crushed velvet against your dick.”

I expected that Alex would fuck me. I didn’t expect that he’d talk about it with other people so openly. As if it isn’t hard enough ignoring all instincts to protect myself, I have to pretend I’m not here while they discuss it.

“Remains to be seen,” Alex says.

He doesn’t meet my desperate glances, but doesn’t deepen my humiliation, either, changing the topic. “How’s Opal? I heard there was a pregnancy scare.”

Dutch’s mouth gapes in shock. “I would never violate Sixth Right. Opal is always on her happy pill. Well, my happy pill.” He laughs.

I hold down bile. I assume they’re talking about his Docile, in which case Dociline is that girl’s “happy pill”—whatever her real name is. Can’t possibly be Opal.

I try not to listen to the rest of their conversation, tuning my ears to the music and nose to the smell of seafood and spices. Abby and Dylan will be setting the table, about now. Dad and Nora finishing dinner—chicken soup, maybe, if there’s any meat left from the weekend’s slaughter.

My stomach gurgles again.

“Whoa, I think he’s trying to tell you something, Bishop!”

“I wouldn’t mind some food, myself,” Alex says. “After you, gentlemen.” He turns to me. “Elisha, wait for me by the window.”

“Yes, Alex.” As I turn to obey his “request,” I hear Dutch and his buddies joking.

“On a first-name basis already? Are you sure you haven’t fucked him, yet?”

I focus on a cruise ship, below. Inside, figures move amidst colorful, strung-up lights. They don’t look like they’re dancing to the thumping beat of Alex’s party on board the boat, but I pretend because any sound is better than people talking about me.

“Well, well.” The smooth voice belongs to a familiar-looking East Asian woman a few inches taller than me, with sleek brown and black curls, and bright pink lips. She blends in with the rest of the guests, wearing a fitted short-sleeve dress that matches her lipstick, patterned with neon-green palm leaves. The colors are so bright, I can’t look directly at them.

“Looks like Alex went through with it.”

I don’t reply because she hasn’t asked me anything. I do look twice over my shoulder, hoping that Alex will appear.

“Though I don’t remember seeing you among our selections,” she says. “What does he call you?”

I have to answer. “Elisha.”

“Is that your given name?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She smiles, clearly amused. “This your first day? Must be. You don’t sound like you’re on Dociline.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I say, skipping over her implication that I’ll be drugged before the night’s over.

“You are in for quite a night.”

“Yes, ma’am.” My response doesn’t quite fit her statement. I sound like my mother.

I startle when Dutch bumps into me from behind. “Bishop, you can’t just leave your toys lying around.” He makes a show of repositioning himself, brushing a flat hand across my crotch.

Alex catches the momentary horror that flickers across my face, but doesn’t return it. He sits on a love seat beside the woman in the neon dress.

I can’t afford to panic. What am I supposed to do with myself? Sit. I’m supposed to sit on the floor beside Alex when he’s seated, but that means walking past his friend Dutch. The one who can’t keep his hands off me.

“Your Docile looks lost,” she says.

Alex glances around the room, then lowers his voice as if he might be found out. “I can handle him, Mariah.”

As soon as he says her name, I realize where I know her from. Mariah VanBuren, VanBuren Media. Her name and face are on the billboards that line 83. Of course, she didn’t introduce herself to me. Why should she? My world consists of sirs, ma’ams, and Alex.

“Elisha.” He calls me to his side like a pet.

I go, grateful for the direction, and settle on the carpet beside the sofa. Around me, their conversation carries on. My stomach rumbles again. If I could quiet it, I would.

Suddenly, Alex’s hand appears poised in front of my mouth, holding a little ball of crab meat. He’s barely paying attention to me, still laughing at whatever joke Mariah has told.

He must want me to take this. It’s right in front of my face, and he knows I haven’t eaten all day. I reach for it, but he stops me with a slight shake of his head. What am I supposed to do?

Alex lowers the food to my mouth again and I understand. As if it isn’t enough to sit at this trillionaire’s feet while his friends ogle and touch me, discuss my body and what they’d like to do with it. I eat out of his hands like one of their million-dollar designer dogs. I cost about the same.

Lumps of crab stick to my throat like bugs in sap. Another appears and my jaw drops to accept it. I close my eyes as my lips close around Alex’s fingers. He lingers, waiting while I chew. I’m meant to suck his fingers clean. They taste like spices we never had access to on the farm.

“Look at him!” someone says. A laugh, then, “He loves it.”

“Crushed velvet.” I hear Dutch’s voice over the others.

When Alex draws his hand back, I bury my face in the side of the couch. I’m on fire. The corners of my eyes burn. I want to cry. Tears would feel so good, like ice against my cheeks.

I hate myself, my decision, for keeping my objections to myself, for enjoying Alex’s touch, for eating his expensive food and wearing these overpriced clothes.

A hand strokes the side of my head, sliding down the back of my neck. I should jerk away, but instead I lean into Alex’s touch. No guests are looking at me, anymore. I close my eyes and relax my forehead against the couch, focusing on the slow circular motions of his fingers.

“Elisha,” he says, eventually. I look up.

“It’s time. Come on.”

“Coming.” I follow him.

The party has only grown. Dead-eyed Dociles glide through the crowd handing out little plates of food and colorful glasses of alcohol to guests dressed in navy, salmon, canary, jade—bold colors crammed together in plaids and stripes, on scarves and belts. I remember the dull TruCare Insurance shirt I ditched at the ODR. Everything is brighter in the city.

“Stay here,” Alex says. “I’ll be right back.” He goes upstairs.

I watch him the whole way, staring at the door even when he disappears through it. I don’t think I can handle another guest roping me in for conversation and touching me. Luckily, Alex is quick and no one so much as looks at me.

When he rejoins me, he’s holding the black box from earlier. I barely have time to wonder what’s inside, before he calls for attention.

“Friends.” He raises his glass of bubbly alcohol. “I want to thank you, first, for attending this”—he smiles—“self-indulgent shindig.”

The crowd laughs.

“I hope you’re all enjoying remaining young while I age.” More laughter. I am expressionless.

“And I want to share an inaugural moment with all of you.” He puts a hand on my back. “If you haven’t yet had the pleasure of meeting my new Docile, allow me to introduce Elisha.”

Now everyone looks at me. I want to duck behind Alex, but he positions me in front of himself.

“This is our first day together, and I look forward to many more.” I’m relieved I’m not forced to agree.

Behind me, Alex is quiet. Though something rustles, I don’t dare look. I lift my arms as he reaches around from behind me to unbuckle my belt.

My ears ring, hands tremble. Is he planning to fuck me right here? In front of everyone? An involuntary gasp escapes me when he pushes my khakis down around my thighs.

I can only hear my heart beat; I miss when Alex pulls a chair up behind me.

“Elisha, sit down,” he says, as if he’s repeating himself.

I can’t reply like I’m supposed to. I can barely bend my knees.

Alex rounds the chair, finally, holding a glass vial of yellow liquid. He inverts it and stabs a needle through the stopper.

He’s not going to have sex with me? That’s some kind of medicine. What medicine could I possibly need? The ODR vaccinated me against everything.

“This won’t hurt.” He draws back the plunger.

“Excuse me, Alex?” I say.

A yellow drug fills the plastic tube. He doesn’t answer. “Excuse me, Alex,” I say louder, in case he didn’t hear me.

Instead, he flicks away any bubbles and opens an alcohol swab. It’s cold against my thigh.

“Excuse me, please, Alex.” This time I don’t wait. He can scold me if he wants. “What is that?”

“Dociline.” The accompanying look is meant to quiet me.

But it’s my right to say no. This is my one chance to speak up and he can’t stop me.

“You need to relax your muscle or this will hurt.” He places one hand on my knee to steady me.

I close my eyes and muster up a deep breath. “I respectfully refuse.”

“What?”

I open my eyes on his and try not to stutter, but words tumble out of my mouth without thought. “I don’t want it. I don’t want Dociline. It’s my right to refuse.”

“Do you know who you’re talking to, Docile?” Dutch steps into our space and I recoil, nearly toppling my chair.

“I—”

“This is Dr. Alexander Bishop the Third.” “It’s—”

“The CEO of Bishop Laboratories.” He stops only inches away, red-faced and pointing.

“Dutch, you don’t have to—”

But Dutch grabs the syringe from him and holds it in front of my face. Tiny bubbles pop and disappear inside the translucent yellow drug. I turn my head and, like a photograph, the syringe blurs and the lined faces of Alex’s guests come into focus. They murmur among themselves. The woman in the neon dress cringes.

“Bishop Laboratories invented Dociline,” Dutch says. “You’re going to refuse what this man created for you? After he bought your whole family out of debt?”

“That’s enough,” Alex says, in the same tone he uses with me.

It affects Dutch similarly. He caps the needle and slaps it down on a side table before disappearing into the crowd with a huff. Alex ignores him as he turns to address his audience.

“All Dociles are guaranteed seven rights, the last of which is the right to refuse or demand Dociline. I knew that when I bought his debt—everyone knows that about any Docile. Elisha’s decision is not up for debate. Elisha,” Alex says, looking only at me. “Put yourself back together, go stand in my room, and wait for me.”

“Yes, Alex.” I hurry to my feet, turn away from the crowd, and fasten my pants. They all watch as I go upstairs.

I close the door as quietly as possible and stand there for a minute with my face pressed against the wood, still holding the knob. A few nervous tears rim my eyes. I wipe them on my sleeve and run my hands through my hair before remembering I’m not supposed to touch it.

I’m about to flop down on the bed and curl up on the unwrinkled covers when Alex’s words come back to me: stand in my room. Does he actually want me to stand, or was it an expression?

When has he used any kind of expression or euphemism with me? Not once since we met. Alex always says exactly what he means. At least that doesn’t force me to guess.

I stand in the middle of his room with my arms clasped behind my back. White numbers glow on the wall opposite Alex’s bed: 8:30 pm.

By 9:00, my shoulders ache from the backwards pinch. I stretch my arms over my head and around my chest, then switch, clasping my hands in front of me. The other acceptable position.

At 9:45, I squat down, gluing my eyes to the door in case I need to shoot up.

I walk in a small circle until 10:15, shaking my legs out to get the blood flowing. I try to distract myself by thinking of home, but that only worsens my nerves. When I hold out a hand, it’s still wobbly; my ears still ring and the corner of my vision still grays.

At 11:00, I start negotiating with myself. Alex isn’t here. I can sit down and he won’t even know. If I kneel, all it’ll take is a quick roll back onto the balls of my feet and I’m up.

The second my knees hit the floor, the stairs creak and I jump upright. I remain still until 11:15. It’s not him. Probably a guest. Dance music seeps up through the floorboards. Every song has the same beat and the same accompanying squeals and chatter.

Come midnight, I’m hugging my right knee to my chest with my eyes closed. Balanced, I breathe in and out. Slowly, I change feet, pulling my left leg against my stomach, holding it there while it tingles. I wriggle my toes inside my new, expensive leather shoes.

The door opens and my eyes follow. I stumble, almost falling over as Alex sets the black box on top of the little writing table. He only looks at me for half a second, jaw set, lips thin, face blanched. Before I can do something stupid, like apologize, he goes into the bathroom and closes the door behind him. I haven’t done anything wrong. Never lied, followed all of Alex’s rules. And yet the whole room seems to throb with my heartbeat.

 

Excerpted from Docile, copyright © 2020 by K. M. Szpara.

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