Prompt: yawp; compensated dating
I’m not stupid. I have been paying attention long enough to notice when things started to change. It started with Dad’s work hours. He used to stay late sometimes or leave earlier in the morning to make a meeting. Then he started leaving every morning at eight. He’s home every day by six. Every day. Sometimes, after she picks me up from school, Mom goes grocery shopping. She puts everything on credit cards these days. So I started snooping. No one thinks about how much a sixteen-year-old sees; no one thinks of hiding things where they won’t find them. They’re only making minimum payments on the cards. The checking account only shows withdrawals, pages and pages of them. Yet we’re eating the same foods, Mom just traded up for a better cell phone, and my closet is overflowing.
I’m not stupid. I’m sixteen and I have to save my family.
For once, rumors at school proved both true and useful. There’s a girl who always has the latest electronics and jewelry and music. Rumor has it she goes on dates with older men, like an escort, and the money pays for anything she wants. We’re not friends; we had never even spoken. But I got her to tell me how she does it.
This is my third date with Alex, who hates it when I call him Mr. Q, as it says on his profile. He says it sounds like an action movie villain. The dating service paired me with him for my first date. Every time I sign up for new date, he’s the one who gets me. The service does everything online and for a company that doesn’t officially exist, they act like professionals. Still, I’m scared. I wonder if he’s obsessed with me. This doesn’t give me the ego boost I expected. I wanted to call this date off, but I made almost a thousand dollars from the last one. I can’t turn that down.
We meet at Fuller Plaza. There is a steakhouse of the top of Brooke Hotel, with views of the whole city. Alex hasn’t said, but I assume that’s where we are going. The ground level of the plaza is all jewelry and furniture shops and boutiques clothing. I sit on a bench in the middle of the walkway, in plain sight of at least thirty people. My parents think I’m at the movies with friends. No one knows where I really am or why. I could disappear and no one would even know where to start looking. That scares me most of all, the idea that I could just get swallowed up by the earth and no one would know it. So I make sure everyone here can see me.
I wore a short, teal dress. It’s unconventional. I want to look at least legal, to not stand out so badly, but without looking like I’m trying too hard to be “grown-up.” I’m pretty good at this part of it. I think I’m supposed to act younger, more fawning, but that part I’m no good at. Alex seems to like me, of course, if three dates in a row are any indication. We’ve not had sex. I wonder if he will ask. I wonder what I will say.
Alex shows up in a suit that makes my teal dress feel frumpy. He’s beautiful and I haven’t figured out why he even needs to hire dates. He’s the sort who seems to have everything going for him. Sure, he can be a little odd–the occasional too-long pause in conversations and a biting wit that just verges on mean at times–but nothing his looks and money and charm can’t overcome. He offers me his arm. “You look lovely, Emma.”
I cling to him more closely than usual; I got cold sitting on the bench. “Are we going to the Brooke?” People look at us, but their eyes slide away. We don’t look like we’re having enough fun to be doing anything inappropriate. Alex is not old enough to be my father. We look nothing alike, anyway. He’s blonde to my brunette, willowy to my stalwart. Rich to my poor, I tell myself. Still, we look like maybe we’re perfectly normal.
“That’s right,” he answers even as we walk through the sliding doors. The Brooke is beautiful enough to make me just a little giddy. Everything shines. The bellhops wear little caps. It’s like we walked into the twenties, trapped in one luxurious night forever. “There’s a party and the hostess would never let me hear the end of it if I came alone.”
In the elevator, though, he does not press the button for the top floor. He presses the fourteenth. “Where are we going?” My stomach and my heart are fighting to see which can reach my throat first.
“A party.” Alex glances down at me then he turns to lean against the wall, facing me. “I think you’re ready for this.”
“If you do anything to me, I’ll scream.” Five. Six. Where can I run to when we hit fourteen?
“Yes, I imagine you would yell your head off. And fight. You would go for my eyes, I think. You never waste time. I like that about you.” Eight. Nine.
“Why are you doing this?” Now, in this moment, at last, I feel stupid. Suicidally stupid.
Alex scowls. “Please don’t start the amateur theatrics now. I chose you because you’ve proven yourself to be calm and mature and not inclined to jump to conclusions. We are going to a party. No harm will come to you, at least not any that I intend to permit.”
And as the floors tick away, I think that maybe I believe him. “What kind of party?” My hands are sweating and I hold them away from my body so I don’t mess up my dress.
Twelve. Fourteen. There is no thirteenth floor, according to the elevator controls. When we step out, though, the plaque next to the doors says thirteen. Alex smoothes his hair and it is the first time he’s looked nervous. “An unusual one.” He turns to me. His eyes are black. All black. I clench my jaw and stay quiet. He smiles, confident and pleased and just starting to be familiar. “Good. I knew you were the right choice. Just stay close to me and we’ll get out of here alive.” I wondered how literally I should take that.