“Microchips?” Andie said, choking on the word.
“I think we need to look at the fine print of those contracts,” Elijah said.
The two of them sat there, shocked, for a few seconds. When Elijah stood, he rushed to the door of the recording room and ran up the hallway, Andie on his heels. They found the others talking and laughing in the kitchen.
“Oh, where were you two?” Carmen asked suggestively.
“Who has their BetterCorp contract?” Andie asked, hearing her voice raise an octave. She tried to calm her nerves, but her body wasn’t cooperating. She felt her limbs vibrating and her stomach behaving like she was on a roller coaster at the fair.
Gwen looked up from a plate of nachos, mid-bite, and said, “Mwe! Why’d-ou- need-it?” she said through a mouthful of chips, cheese and salsa.
“We haven’t read through it yet.. have you?” Elijah asked as Gwen went to her bag in the living room.
Gwen shook her head as she handed the contract over to them. Elijah took it then sat on the couch. Andie sat next to him, looking over his shoulder. She caught a whiff of his cologne, a delicious mix of cardamom and bergamot– but she tried not to let that distract her.
“Where do we even start looking?” Elijah said while he flipped through the many sheets of paper.
They’d been flipping through pages for ten minutes when they were interrupted by Marcella, Gwen and Pete. They came over to ask what their sudden desperation was about. Elijah and Andie took everyone back to the recording studio and played them the covert conversation between Lucy and Lawrence. After a shocked silence, the reactions varied.
Pete stormed out of the house, yelling about lunatics in Hollywood and that he wouldn’t be back. Marcella followed Andie back into the living room in silence, where she grabbed the contract from her own bag, set it in her lap, and stared at it blankly for ten minutes before opening the front cover. She didn’t say a thing for hours, and at times Andie wondered if she was even reading the words on the pages.
When Carmen walked back from the recording studio, she seemed unfazed. “I’ve heard about this before,” she was saying to Nate, “and it’s not that big of a deal. I bet they just want to give us a way to keep weight off.”
“You’re probably right, but why didn’t anyone mention that this was the “experimental” part of our contract?” Nate shot back.
“Maybe it’s not. Maybe all BetterCorp contracts have them now; we don’t know. All I’m saying is, if it lets me eat whatever I want and keeps me in a size two, I’m fine with it.”
“I don’t even think they’re talking about us,” Vincent said, opening the fridge for the sixth or seventh time since he’d gotten there.
“What else would they be talking about?” said Nate. “And you better hope it helps your weight with how much you shove into your face,” he added.
“I’m trying to bulk up!” Vince said, obviously offended. He shut the refrigerator door, looking annoyed, but then opened the pantry instead. Andie went back to skimming the contract with Elijah, trying to avoid thinking about how close he was to her on the couch. Trying not to reach out and trace the tattoos on his forearm with her fingers.
Focus, she thought.
The sun was setting by the time Andie and Elijah were skimming the 160th page of the contract. Much of it was legal jargon that Andie couldn’t understand, but her interest was piqued by the parts about modeling opportunities and acting classes, red carpet interview etiquette and diet regimes, all of which were explicitly detailed. The glamorous life she’d dreamed of came with many contingencies. She’d stopped to read those more closely than the rest. From what they could tell, BetterCorp was going to shoulder a fair share of burden as well– each of them was being promised a contract no less than three years, with review and renegotiation after that time. They all would be getting enormous amounts of cash for their projects, on top of BetterCorp allowances for food, clothing, cars, and anything else they could dream of, up to five million each per year.
Two hours passed, and some of them had lost interest in the contract altogether. Those who remained were getting restless.
“I feel like we’ve been reading footnotes for the past twelve pages,” said Elijah. “There’s only so many times I can read the word ‘Agreement’ before my eyes cross–”
“Guys,” Gwen interrupted.
“Can someone just make a bulleted list for me?” Pete said, yawning. He’d returned an hour after listening to the recording acting like he hadn’t stormed out. When he saw the group reading, he jumped in to help.
“What if we assign pages–” Marcella began. It was the first time she’d spoken since the recording booth. Andie raised her eyebrows and looked toward her friend. Marcella gave her a reluctant smile.
“Hey! LISTEN!” Gwen shouted. Andie and Elijah both jumped, and everyone in the room turned to listen, including Carmen, Vincent and Nate, who paused their video game.
“Go to page 270! Now!”
With fumbling fingers, Andie flipped to page 270. There, under Section 84:
It is hereby agreed upon by Recipient in accordance with BetterCorp’s surgical policy…
Blah blah blah… Rules about rhinoplasty and augmentation swam around in Andie’s brain as she marveled at how thorough BetterCorp had been in writing this contract.
Addendum 5.5: Recipient agrees to notify BetterCorp of plans to alter Recipient’s appearance 30 days prior to consultation, subject to formal review by representatives of BetterCorp and not to be performed without express written permission from Recipient’s management team…
Addendum 5.6: Recipient agrees, as terms of acceptance to be employed by BetterCorp and its affiliates under the Contract, that a surgical procedure wherein a small device “The Chip” (refer to Section 90) is implanted under the skin is to be performed within 2 working days following signature.
Marcella read the Addendum aloud to the rest of the group before adding, “Section 90 says we won’t be put under anesthesia or given a day off of work because the procedure is minimally invasive. It lists some potential complications, but they just look like medication disclaimers. ‘Nausea, body sweats, insomnia..’ The only other thing it says is what company manufactures the chips…”
“–Enigma Systems,” Pete read aloud.
“Never heard of them,” Nate said.
“Obviously,” Gwen deadpanned.
“I think we should call Aunt Lucy,” Nate said, ignoring Gwen’s sarcasm. “I’m sure she’ll explain everything.”
“She’ll explain that we’re getting microchipped like a bunch of pets?” said Elijah.
“I mean, aren’t we signing a contract that says we’re basically BetterCorp’s pets anyway?” Carmen quipped.
“No, we’re signing a contract that says we work our tails off,” said Andie. “And then BetterCorp makes our lives easier for it.”
“Yeah, ok,” said Elijah, getting up from the couch. “If you all think it’s cool to have some tracking device implanted under your skin, go for it.”
“You sound like one of those conspiracy nuts,” Vince mumbled. Nate and Pete nodded in agreement.
Elijah walked out of the room without another word, but to Andie’s surprise he didn’t leave the house. She saw him heading back up the hallway to the recording studio, away from the group. She thought about following him, thought about trying to talk it over and calm him down, but she didn’t know him well enough to feel like it was her place, and she didn’t know how she felt about the situation herself. She decided to let him be alone. They’d talk things over tomorrow, she thought, when everyone had had time to think.
The next morning, the sun woke Andie from an unrestful sleep. She’d had confusing dreams that twisted in her mind, waking her throughout the night. She couldn’t recall what they’d been about, but remembered a sense of dread each time before waking. She rubbed her eyes and stretched, suddenly remembering where she was. The space in the bed where Marcella had slept was made, the sheets pulled tight and each throw pillow placed where it belonged. Laughter echoed up from below her room, but Andie wasn’t sure she was ready to face the new day. Her phone chimed from the bedside table.
Text Message from Marcella
Come downstairs soon! Lucy and Lawrence are here.
Andie sighed and dragged herself out of bed, feeling a spike of nerves. She’d talked with Marcella the night before as the two of them were lying in bed, the only light in the room coming from the pool, which was below their oversized window. They talked about the day’s events, and Marcella teased Andie about her crush on Elijah. When Andie mentioned Nate, Marcella only rolled her eyes and waved away Andie’s questioning expression. When talk turned to BetterCorp, Marcella was encouraging, explaining that all business through them had always gone well for her. The two of them had sleepily agreed that they would sign the contracts if the microchips were meant to help them.
After getting dressed and brushing her teeth, Andie made her way to the front sitting room where everyone had convened the day before. Hearing all of the voices coming from the kitchen, Andie chose to sit next to Nate, who was eating a banana and reading a newspaper.
“Aren’t those for old business men?” Andie asked, motioning to the newspaper.
Nate smirked. “You’ve discovered my alter ego.”
“Anything good in there?”
“Is the news ever good?” Nate asked, cocking an eyebrow. “Here, have the rich and important people section,” he said, handing her the Society pages.
It was, Andie realized, the first time she’d ever read a newspaper. A fact that she told Nate with a laugh.
“I didn’t realize rural America was a newspaper dead zone,” he said.
“Well, I didn’t realize Los Angeles was full of pretty boys who are interested in current affairs,” she quipped, shaking the pages open. “Besides, in Iowa we don’t really care what–” she scanned the page for a name– “Mr. and Mrs. Edmund Decker wore to the CHLA Charity Banquet.”
“Right, right, so many got cows to tip, so little time,” Nate said.
“And you’re probably only looking for hair gel coupons in there,” Andie said.
Nate shook his head, smiling, and started to come back with another remark when everyone in the kitchen began filing in to the room. Lawrence and Lucy came in last, and Lawrence’s face looked strained.
“Alright everyone, I think it’s time to get down to business,” he said. Andie folded up the newspaper, looking away when Marcella caught her eye and then looked at Nate sitting on the couch next to her. Andie scooted a little further toward the other side of the couch, but Vince sat down next to her, filling the rest of the space.
“I have some good news and some bad news,” Lawrence said. “The good news is that all of you here now get to stay, if you choose to join the talent represented by BetterCorp. That is due to the bad news, unfortunately. If you haven’t noticed, Elijah isn’t with us anymore. He decided to leave without signing the contract. We and BetterCorp wish him all the best in his future endeavors.”