All four walls of my cell are mirrors.
The light on the ceiling flashes red and pinpricks of crimson bounce around the room. Red, huh? That’s a bit sudden, seeing as the last examination was only a couple of weeks ago. I grin at the light, and my smile is reflected by the endless versions of myself that surround me. The light flashes again.
I drop into a push-up position. The concrete floor is so cold my hands go numb then start to burn. Up, down. Up, down. A strand of mousy-brown hair falls over my eyes. That color will be the first thing they change about me.
If I’m chosen, that is.
If I’m good enough, that is.
On flash nine I jump to my feet. Gritting my teeth, I grab my shirt and pull it up and over my head. The voice of the LIC’s events coordinator rings through my mind: When you’re examined, be proud to display the bodies you’ve worked so hard to create. You’re all incredibly beautiful young men, and you should relish the chance to show everyone how handsome you are.
I scrunch the shirt in my hands for a second—just a second—crushing it beneath my grip. Adrenaline pumps through my torso and my arms, making them feel electric. I toss the shirt into the corner of the room, then lower my eyes and force myself to do what they want me to do every morning: look at the boy/man/whatever I’ve become.
The countless hours I’ve spent working out have obviously had an impact. Still, I’m far from perfect. I mean, I have abs, which took forever to show, and I’m proud of my arms. But my skin is stormtrooper white, I have a mole on my left hip I’m really self-conscious about, and my chest is getting hairy. When did that happen? I touch my now-hairy chest. Oh great, another thing to stress about. I wish I could tell myself that it’s nothing, that they’ll fix whatever flaws I have if I’m chosen, but I can’t. Another boy was once dismissed because they said his nose was unpleasant. If an oddly shaped nose is enough to get rejected, I’m sure my pale, weirdly hairy body isn’t far behind.
I don’t linger on my face. It’s not hideous or anything, it’s just kind of boring. Plus, it’s destined to be changed. I close my eyes and try to get rid of the depressing thought. To make it through, I need to be positive.
I’ve worked frigging hard on my body, though. I open my eyes, then flex my biceps and smile. I’ve definitely bulked up since the last examination, and I hope I’m not too big to be a Nice. All the superfun and superrigorous personality testing they make us do here has shown that Nice is the disposition for me. But they’ve made a mistake. Me, a Nice? Yeah, right. Sure, I try to be friendly and I don’t like hurting people’s feelings, but that doesn’t mean I’m a Disney prince.
The light flashes again. I pull my trousers down, leaving me dressed only in sky-blue trunks. As I throw the pants away, my door hisses and slides open. I wince and raise a hand, my forearm protecting my eyes from the burning whiteness of the hallway.
I walk outside and stop in front of my door. The others are already standing in front of their cells. The floor of this hallway is white concrete, but the walls and ceiling are long, smooth mirrors.
Dozens of guys are visible, all dressed in the same trunks as I am. Most are busy staring at themselves, fixing their hair, practicing their smiles, or flexing their biceps, but a few are looking from side to side, sizing up the competition. Those are the threats.
We don’t talk.
We know better than that.
“Turn,” booms a tinny voice.
With a shuffling sound, we turn to the left and stare down the hallway. In front of me is a guy so ridiculously buff I instantly lose all pride I have in my body and seriously wonder why I even try. His back is muscles on muscles on muscles. How does he even work those muscles out? Extremely complicated yoga?
It turns out the back belongs to a not-so-complicated guy named Robert. He says that name was given to him by his birth parents, but that’s a huge lie. We aren’t the result of loving families: we were taken, probably as infants, from families that couldn’t care for us. Some people think our parents were tricked into giving us up, believing we were going to a family that wanted us. Others think they sold us to the LIC. I lean toward the former because the thought is comforting, and to me, that’s more important than the truth.
Unlike Robert, all I have is a number: 412.
Robert’s a Bad for sure. It’s evident in the confidence-killing meatiness of his back and in the uneven tribal tattoo that covers his right shoulder. Even the people in charge here must think he’s 100 percent Bad, as someone borderline like me would never get permission to destroy his so-called wholesome image as he’s done. He catches me looking and his top lip curls into a snarl.
“You may now proceed to the main hall.”
My feet plod on the icy concrete as we walk down the hall. Moving slowly, we pass through a set of frosted-glass doors into a large rectangular room. There are no windows, so the only light comes from the long fluorescent tubes that run along the roof. The light is just a touch too bright; the dial turned a fraction too far.
At the front of the room is a huge screen. Beside it is the events coordinator, a slim man wearing a tailored black shirt tucked into dark-gray slacks. Usually he’s the pinnacle of male grooming, but today his short hair is messy, spiking up in uneven tufts, and his pants are slightly creased.
“Hey, guys,” he says. “I know you weren’t expecting an examination today, and I’m super sorry about making you do this, but it’s kind of an emergency. A particularly important young woman has shown signs that she’s ready to select a partner, so two of you have to be sent in right away. We’re looking for a boy-next-door Nice and a mysterious, tortured-soul Bad.”
Aren’t they always?
“Five Nices and five Bads from this floor have been identified as a potential match, so, obviously, they’ll be examined. And guys, I know this test is late notice, but I’m your pal, so you can trust me when I say that if your number is on the screen, it’s there for a reason. It means our complex compatibility algorithm has concluded that she will fall for you if you spend time with her. How cool is that? Now, let’s see who made it to the next round.”
The screen flashes and the numbers appear. I scan the list, my heart racing. Come on …
My number is there, in the very middle. Thank you, complex compatibility algorithm! I take back all the times I called you rigged. It’s been over a year since my number last appeared, and in that time I’ve totally committed myself to being the perfect Nice. Now I’ll find out if that’s enough to succeed, or if I’m destined to die before I’m even given a chance to fight for my life.
“Nices go through the door to the left, Bads to the right. If you’re not sure what your disposition is, that’s fine, the color of your number will tell you. Nices are blue, Bads are red.”
My number is blue, confirming my suspicions: they think I’m a Nice. I quickly glance at the other chosen guys. I ignore the Bads, because they never pick two Love Interests from the same floor, so these Bads will never be anything to me. The Nices all have light hair and boyish faces. She has a type. Three of them are about my age, but the one directly in front of me is much younger, probably eleven or twelve. He has no chance of passing this examination, but is going to be forced through it anyway.
I clench my hands into fists. He shouldn’t be here. I can’t say anything now, because if I do we’ll both be punished, but if I fail the examination I’m going to take him aside and make sure he knows I care about him. The boy shuffles toward the doorway. I wait for a second, because Nices don’t lead, then I join the line. The glass panes separate, revealing a square room. We enter.
In the doorway I tense. At the back of the room, standing still, is a Stalker. I’ve seen one in person only a few times, but fleeting encounters have been enough to give me nightmares.
It’s a tall robot, standing at around eight feet, with a hulking, all-black body. That’s not the worst part, though; that honor goes to its head, which looks like a mannequin’s: no eyes, no nostrils, lips pursed. Right now, the body is totally black, which means it’s currently dormant. My heartbeat steadies. It can’t move unless its lights are on, so this one isn’t here to hurt anyone. It’s here to keep us in line, and to remind us what will come after us if we disobey.
The door at the back of the room opens, and a short, round man in a striped navy button-down and black slacks enters. They’d kill me if I looked like that. A stethoscope hangs over his shoulders.
He hooks the stethoscope into his ears, then walks up to the first boy, who is flexing his biceps. The doctor ignores the showboating and presses the metal end of the stethoscope against the boy’s chest. After a few moments, the doctor switches the stethoscope for a tape measure and measures the boy’s torso. I was the last to enter this room, so I’m at the end of the line. Now I feel like that was a mistake. What if they find the perfect Love Interest before they get to me?
As I wait my turn, I stand with my back straight and my fists clenched. After what feels like forever, the doctor beckons the boy in front of me forward. The kid takes a tentative step toward the doctor, then raises his hands. He’s so small. The doctor narrows his eyes, and the boy lets out a little sob that breaks my heart.
“Runt,” says the doctor. “Get out of here. Next.”
The kid scurries away. I step forward, taking his place, and the doctor presses the end of the stethoscope onto my chest. The metal is freezing, but I keep my face expressionless. Still, I can’t control my heartbeat, so he must know I’m feeling something, even if he doesn’t know what it is. He’ll probably put it down to nerves, and that’s partially true, but if I’ve done my job right he’ll never suspect that I’m feeling frustration or maybe even anger at the way they’re treating the kid. A Nice would never feel such unsavory things.
He pulls the stethoscope away. “Arms up.”
I raise my arms over my head. He leans in close and wraps the tape measure around my chest and pulls it tight, pinching my skin. I grit my teeth. He smells like cinnamon candy and body odor.
He takes a step back. “Flex.”
I tilt my arms back, arch my spine, and flex my biceps as hard as I possibly can.
As he wraps the tape around my right bicep I notice there’s a blue line drawn on the measure. It must be to make sure I’m not too big. Bads can be as buff as they want, the bigger the better, actually. For a Nice, the aim of the game is lean. I need to look friendly and cute, but when I take my shirt off I need to be ripped. Just in an approachable way that doesn’t look like I work out much. Like these muscles happened accidentally, the result of playing outside with a golden Labrador or good genes or something like that.
My bicep falls within the acceptable bracket, so he moves across and checks my left.
“Good job,” he says as he drops the tape measure. My mouth falls open an inch before I catch it. I’ve never been complimented by a doctor. Not even once. “Now tense.” He places his palm on my stomach and presses. I feel my own firmness against his skin. He pulls his hand away and nods at the hair that covers my chest. “That’ll need to be fixed. Nices can’t be hairy. But other than that, your body is in excellent condition. Great work.”
I want to jump up and down, or pump my fist, or do something to show how freaking fantastic his words have made me feel, but I remain still.
He turns to the guard. “This one and that one—” He tilts his head toward the boy at the front of the line. In the corner of my vision, I see him turn and look at me, sizing me up. I keep my attention focused on the guards, as if not looking at him will wipe him from existence. “—can advance. The others aren’t ready.”
I crack and turn to face my competition. He’s got hazel eyes, and his nose and shoulders are covered in freckles. He looks like an average nerdy-in-a-hot-way Nice.
For my sake I hope that’s all he is.
“You first,” I say with a gesture toward the door.
When he thinks they aren’t watching, he narrows his eyes at me. “How kind of you.”
I blink, startled. I didn’t even think that he might be offended by the offer. Obviously he thinks I was being a smartass or something, but I really wasn’t, it was just instinct.
“Sorry,” I say. “I didn’t mean to…”
The door opens. He sneers one last time, then steps through.
Suddenly the room is eerily quiet. So this is it. My interrogation, also known as my best shot at getting out of here this year. I exhale. I know I’m as prepared as it’s possible to be, but I can’t shake the feeling that my best efforts aren’t enough, and that I’m doomed to spend my whole life here. The thought makes me shiver.
After an eternity, the door slides open. I gulp, then step forward. The door whooshes closed behind me.
The room is plain, the walls smooth and featureless. Sitting at a stainless steel table is a trim man with rigidly perfect posture and solid gray hair. Despite his hair color, his eyes are bright and his face is mostly wrinkle-free, so pinning his exact age is difficult. I’d guess late thirties or early forties.
He gestures toward the seat. “Congratulations on making it this far. My name is Rodger Craike, and I’m the manager of the Love Interest Compound. You will call me Mr. Craike or sir, nothing else.”
He picks up a tablet and starts scrolling. I sit and peer at the screen. Huh. It’s filled with reports from my monthly integration exams. Because the LIC is so isolated, we have to take classes to keep up with pop culture, and each month we’re quizzed to make sure we’re keeping up to date. It’s usually about big movies, popular TV shows, and hit songs, which we are required to know by heart in case of karaoke or sing-alongs. For Bads and select Nices, sports are included, but I don’t have to learn about that because they decided I’m more of a nerdy-boy-next-door type. Thank goodness. Anyway, we do all this so we can “integrate seamlessly” with the real world when the time comes. Their words, not mine. I know my test scores are good, but he’s frowning at them like I failed every single one. Why?
“I should thank you, sir,” I say, trying to draw his attention away from whatever is wrong with my scores. He keeps reading. “For giving me the gym equipment and the food. I wouldn’t look this way without you.”
“We provide the equipment, you do the work.” His eyes flick down over my body. “And you’ve done an exceptional job. You’d be surprised how many Nices ruin their bodies by making themselves too big. But you understand what it means to be Nice, don’t you?”
I shrug my shoulders. “I hope so.”
He tilts his head back and laughs. Recovering, he leans forward. “Maybe, after all this time, we’ve found a genuinely nice guy.”
Or someone smart enough to know how to play the system.
“Enough pleasantries. As the manager of the LIC, it’s my job to make sure every Love Interest is the right man or woman for the job. So I’m going to ask you a few questions to see how well you’ve applied yourself to your time here. Are you ready to begin?”
“What disposition are you?” he asks.
“Why do you think that?”
“All the tests told me that’s what I am.”
“You think they made a mistake?”
“No, it’s not that,” I say. “It just feels weird to call myself Nice; it seems boastful. I’m not perfect by any means, but I think I’m a nice person. Plus, I’m so obviously not Bad. I’m good at making people laugh, not manipulating or intimidating them.”
“Some people would say making someone laugh is manipulating them.”
“Some people,” I say, “would say if laughter is a manipulation it’s the best one there is. It makes people feel good. Who cares how that end is achieved?”
He looks down and starts typing something on his tablet. The room fills with the sound of his fingertips hitting the screen. I breathe in through my nostrils, then exhale slowly.
Finally, he lowers the tablet and rests it on the table. “A lot of Nices have told me they’d give their life to save their rival if they could. Would you be willing to do that?”
I look down at my hands. The true answer to this question is the reason I know I’m not a genuine Nice: I’m not ready to die, and I’m not willing to give up my life for anyone else. I’ve always known that if I made it out of the LIC I’d fight as hard as I could to make sure I got the girl and survived. It’s what I hate about myself the most.
I meet his stare. “I would be willing to do that. Sacrifice myself, I mean. I’d do it in a heartbeat.”
He grins. “You know what I think? I think you’re a great actor. I know you’re lying, yet I find myself believing you. It’s truly a rare gift.”
I tense, and it spreads through my entire body, with cold dread creeping down from my cheeks to dwell in the cords of my shoulders. He knows.
“Oh, don’t look so scared; it’s a good thing. You’re going to be a spy, after all, so being able to act is one of the most valuable skills you could have. And you clearly are a natural liar. But I’m not interested in an actor who needs to memorize lines; you need to be able to improvise. So answer these questions with the first thought that enters your mind. If you pause, you’ll fail. Now, why do you think your Chosen should pick you over your rival?”
“I don’t. I just hope she does.”
In his eyes, I see him ticking the boxes.
“Elaborate on that,” he says.
“I want her to pick whoever will make her the happiest. And if she’s a better fit with him, I’ll gladly accept my fate.”
A total pushover? Check plus.
I imagine myself standing naked in a massive steel room: the incinerator. Feeling the cold dry air on my skin, the metal beneath my feet. The split second of agony before the roaring orange flames turn me into ash. Stop thinking about that. Focus!
“There must be some good things about you,” he says. “Tell me about them.”
“I’m a good listener. And I can be funny sometimes, I guess.”
“If you caught your Chosen kissing your rival, what would you do?”
I lower my eyes and bring on the tears. When I feel them behind my eyelids I look up at him, my entire body radiating hurt. I stare at him for a moment, drop my mouth open a fraction, then turn my head away.
“I’d look at her like that. Then I’d walk away. Next time I saw her she’d probably apologize if I were still in the running, so I’d tell her she doesn’t ever have to explain herself to me, and that I only responded in that manner because I love her so damn much. I’d tell her I’m glad it hurts because it proves how much I care.”
“Would you fight for her?”
“If I had to, yes.”
“When will you first try to kiss her?”
“I won’t. I’ll wait until she kisses me. But I’ll kiss her on the cheek after our first date.”
“What would you do if she texted you in the middle of the night and said she was lonely?”
“I’d drop everything and run to her as fast as possible. I’ll be there for her whenever she needs me. No matter what.”
“Now, I have one last question, and in many ways, it’s the most important one, so think for a second before answering. If you get it wrong, you’ll be dismissed.”
I wipe my sweaty palms on my legs. This is it. One last question.
“I’m ready,” I say.
“Do you think you will fall in love with her?”
I smile, because I know the answer, and that means I’m finally getting out of the LIC. There’s no way I can get it wrong, because the answer to this question has been drilled into me every single day I’ve been here.
“It doesn’t matter,” I say. “She’s the hero of this story, so how I feel is irrelevant.”
He leans back on his chair and grins.
Copyright © 2017 by Cale Dietrich