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Authors: Sarah Gagnon

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BOOK: Date With A Rockstar
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Fluxem is a disease spread through saliva. The symptoms range from skin lesions, to red banding around the center of the body. As the disease progresses, a strong iodine smell may accompany the marks. Twenty-five percent of the world population reports symptoms of infection with the highest concentration being in poor communities.

Luckily or unluckily, the disease is completely curable for the bargain price of twenty thousand dollars—about the same as two months' rent in the nice part of town. Way too much frigging money for me and Mom. A private company developed the cure and they set the price. The government won't stand up to them, no matter how many Internet petitions I sign. The messed up part is that, in ten percent of Fluxem cases, complications occur and can lead to
death. People are dying. Maybe even me, and still they won't give it away. And there's no way with Mom's credit rating that anyone will loan us money, especially not for medical reasons because there'd be nothing to repossess.

When Fluxem first showed up in the populous thirty years ago, there were all these charities devoted to finding the cure and helping people. We watched the old videos in class. Everyone focused on the terrible new disease. Then five years later some big company found a cure, and just like that everyone stopped talking about it. The cure was found, so the rich people were safe. Never mind that most of the world can't afford it. Every few years it pops up on the political agenda of someone who's running for office, but so far nothing has changed. Too many people, not enough resources.

There's even a vaccine, but obviously that would be too late for me.

I'm a carrier, and I don't have 20K. But the producers of the show do. They're offering thirty thousand to the winner of the competition, and a “chance at love!”—whatever that means. I used the tax calculator on the government website and based on my earnings and the winnings, I'll get to keep about 19K. Almost exactly the amount I need. The money's a big enough sum that most of the eligible population in Boston is probably in line, and who knows how many others flew in. Based on all the company logos on the advertisements, the producers have tons of corporate sponsors. It would be fitting if one of the drug companies paid for the prize money that would allow me to get the cure.

I suck my lips in, embarrassed to be contagious. I don't have outward signs yet, but I know that could change. Just like I knew every day of high school that if just one of my classmates found out, everyone in the school would know within seconds. The government
might not provide medical treatment, but they'll sure buy TVs and computers for the populous if they think it will buy them votes. Most of the kids with money make smear videos for fun. As soon as they catch a student at their worst, the footage is repeated, then music and cruel titles are added. Wham, immortalized in the worst way. I just want to be left alone. I don't want anyone to have a reason to focus on me. And I'm a frigging idiot for auditioning for a TV show, but I really need the money. The alternative is years of saving for me and Mom. If there's even the slightest chance that Jeremy might pick me, then I have to try.

“In here.” One of the big guys opens the door and I step into a waiting room. The chairs are full of girls. I turn in a slow circle, not sure what I'm supposed to do next.

“You sign in at the front window,” the girl sitting closest to the door instructs.

“Thanks.” I nod at her, surprised anyone would bother to help me.

“I'm Cheyenne,” she says.

“Monet.” I think about shaking her hand, but don't. “Good luck.”

She smiles at me before I walk away. Her smile is better than mine—all glistening white teeth and radiating goodwill. I automatically like her and Jeremy probably will, too. I sigh as I sign my name on the clipboard at the front. I wish I'd taken drama classes and could play the part of someone more confident. I've seen pictures and interviews with Jeremy's ex-girlfriends, but I have no hope of pulling off that act. I'm going to be me. I set the pen back on the clipboard and pull my black T-shirt away from my body, trying to air dry it. Exhaust soot covers my butt from where I sat on the ground. Another black smear runs the length of one arm from where I fell asleep. Nice.

A shrill voice yells my name. She pronounces it wrong, emphasizing the “et,” and I cringe. A packet of papers waits for me on the counter.

“Read these over and sign the bottom of each form.”

I shuffle the papers around, trying to make sense of them. “What are they?”

“Legal releases.”

“Oh, right. Okay.” I take the stack and a pen from the dish. I find a seat near Cheyenne, but I don't want to break the quiet in the room by saying anything to her. The papers are weird. The overly formal language distorts the sentences. I think the studio execs are asking me and my family not to sue them for any reason, and for anything I say and do to be recorded. Well, it's reality TV; I can't expect them to do anything other than exploit every second.

Cheyenne leans in close to me. “I heard one of the girls who already went home say that she thought Jeremy is in the building. Like maybe watching the auditions through a secret window.”

“Oh.” Jumpy electricity flows through my legs. “Oh,” I say again like an idiot. I could find him now. I sign my name to the bottom of the first page and then on each subsequent page without bothering to read anymore. People flow in and out of the room. New girls are ushered in, and the girls who've gone in for their auditions walk back out after fifteen minutes. Has anyone been chosen yet?

The door to the left of the window opens. “Number forty-two,” a woman calls. The anonymous number reminds me of the health clinic again. Mom had insisted I go in and get checked out after Webber and her crew jumped me after school. My jaw was so swollen that Mom was furious enough to press charges. Then we found out one of them had infected me. Maybe my attacker didn't know she was contagious, or maybe
she thought it'd be funny to cost me 20K. I convinced Mom not to make it public, but ever since she's been working her ass off to pay for the cure.

I tuck my lips in again and hurry over to the woman.

“Put your phone and computer along with any other com devices in the bin here.” She points to a gray tray with a sticker with my number on it.

“I didn't bring any of those with me.”

She looks like she doesn't believe me and might call for a strip search.

“You know the rain? It always voids warranties.”

She narrows her eyes. “Just so that you know, if you're caught recording any portion of the proceedings, legal action will be brought against you.”

“I understand.” I follow her into another room where an older man in a tan suit lounges behind a desk. His nametag reads “Bill.” The top button of his shirt is open and his thinning blond hair flops forward. A chair, my chair, sits five feet away. Black one-way glass lines the wall behind the man and I feel people staring. Why did I think I could do this?

“Please, sit.”

I take the chair and stuff my backpack underneath. I'm so exposed, but I hold my head up regardless.

“You're seventeen?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Still in school?”

“I graduated a few months ago.” As I answer the questions, I stare into the glass. Is Jeremy back there watching the proceedings?

Bill tips his head and I notice a tiny black ear bud. How many people are on the other side of that glass? He scratches the side of his face before continuing. “How do you feel about dating?”

“I'm not sure what you mean, sir.”

“Do you like dating, do it often, that type of thing?”

I bite the edge of my fingernail. I need a good lie. Um. Yes, no, I don't know. I force my hands back into my lap. “No, sir.”

“No, you don't like it, or no, you don't do it?”

My mind is a befuddled mess. Why does he need to know this? Even if I wasn't contagious, most of the guys at school are drugged-out losers. “I haven't been on many dates, so I'm not sure I can judge how much I enjoy it yet.”

He nods. “Are you sexually active?”

I glare at him, then at the glass. He listens to his ear bud and then writes more. “Sorry, we're just trying to cut out the overly eager girls. Jeremy doesn't want to be mauled.”

He writes down more on his pad of paper and I want to leap up and read whatever the hell it is. My answers suck so far. I shuffle my feet together and try to sit up straighter. My socks are itchy wet. Come on, confidence. Don't fail.

“How about personal upkeep?”

“What exactly are you asking me here?” I try to subtly wipe the smudge off my arm. Am I not clean enough for the show? Give me a shower and a hair dryer. I could look better tomorrow. I force my lips into a pleasant smile. Damn nosy questions, but since I've been in line for days, I suppose they have no way of knowing whether or not I normally bathe.

“Hobbies?”

I should've thought this out ahead of time. I have a hobby. I work for the Metal Preservation Society. I'm not high up. I've only met my one contact, but the society's been around my whole life. The year I was born, China demanded our country pay back the debt we owed them and bam, the government came together to confiscate all the precious metals. I'm not sure how much they made, but China didn't declare war. Since that moment, the Society has been hiding
everything they can before the government melts it. They hide it, and me and a bunch of other artists make it into new jewelry. All highly illegal and not a hobby I can mention.

I smile and tuck my hair back, trying to think of a good lie. There is my rough-edged design on the back of the concrete foundation in the bank cafeteria. I had to dig my knife in so hard to make marks. I can't think of any other hobby to make up. “Graffiti-style scratching…uh, but not anywhere illegal. Oh, and I draw.”

He raises his eyebrows and I shift nervously. When the state joined with private companies to install graffiti-proof panels ten years ago, most street artists turned to chiseling designs right into the walls, but it's not exactly a socially acceptable hobby. His head tips, listening to something I can't hear. He's probably about to end the interview. I'm fairly sure he won't bother to mention my name to the authorities.

“Are there any particular buildings where your work is displayed?”

“Not right now.” He looks slightly bored and I get the impression the question didn't come from him.

“How about cancer?”

“Huh?”

He narrows his eyes in irritation. “You are aware that a quarter of the proceeds are being donated to the Global Skin Cancer Initiative, located right here in the heart of Boston.”

Wow. He sounds a little pissed about that. I wonder if that's how they bribed Jeremy into doing the show. Skin cancer's common with the depleted ozone, but I don't think much about it. “I remember Jeremy speaking about his family's struggle with melanoma, but I personally haven't been affected.” Would I stand a better chance if I had a friend with cancer?

He shrugs a shoulder. “Uh, huh. Well, you sound pretty good and rate high in overall appearance. Let me get you a few more forms to sign.”

What does he mean? Am I in? I try to finger comb the snarls out of my hair. Maybe whoever's behind the glass feels bad for me. Which is fine by me. Whatever it takes to get on the show.

“We're going to start filming the interview now in case you're selected later on. These papers are just your agreement to be filmed and other formalities.”

I nod. I'm doing well. Cameras are good. Even if they're right in my face, exposing me to the entire world. I can do this. No big deal. I glance down. The word disease is written on the bottom of the sheet of paper right next to the line for my name. Shit. I'm signing a declaration that I'm disease free. Sweat coats the back of my neck. I sign and hand the papers back. I realize I'm biting the inside of my cheek and relax my jaw. A hiccup pops into the back of my throat, tasting like bile. Being nervous is normal and so what if I lied. A tripod on wheels rolls through the door.

“What would you do with the prize money?”

“I would use it to help fund my college education.” I knew they'd ask that. Lucky I was prepared for that one. I mean, donating to charity might be a better response, but that might sound more like a lie.

The interviewer nods along. “What do you like about Jeremy Bane's music?”

“The quiet,” I answer without thinking. The desk guy frowns at my answer, likely wondering if he made a mistake putting me on camera. My hands tremble as I grip them together in my lap.
You can do this.
“I mean the mental quiet. When I listen, everything else in my life shuts off. I only hear the beat, the strange noises weaving with Jeremy's voice. Nothing more. No worries, no desires. Just quiet.” I glance up and the
cameraman wheels closer. The lens whirs as he zooms in on my face. How many people are behind the glass?

“How long have you liked Jeremy?”

The obvious answer is forever, but I don't say that. Every girl will say a variation of
that.
“Well, I don't know if I like him yet. I've never spent any time with him. So I only know that he's attractive and talented.” Ha, I sound good.

“When you imagine kissing Jeremy Bane, what location do you envision?”

The swimsuit cover photo of
Riffs and Reefs
magazine pops into my head. Smooth and bare-chested Jeremy, kneeling in the water, holding a guitar over his head. Memorable. He's definitely cute enough to kiss, but as soon as I imagine my lips on his perfect skin, I remember I'm contagious.

The interviewer clears his throat. “Um, a vacation spot.”

I tuck my hair behind my ears. The idea of kissing Jeremy Bane chokes me. Spreading my diseased saliva all over my favorite musician is a definite no. I fold my lips in. My heart beats in my ears. I've never kissed anyone, and unless I come up with a bunch of money, I never will. The guys in my social class can't afford the vaccine any more than I can afford the cure. If I chance the results, I might mark them for life, or lead them to their death. Then I'd feel so guilty I'd have to try to come up with even more money for medical treatment for them. I couldn't live with that guilt. Kissing's not worth it. The whole thing makes me sick. Maybe Jeremy's had the vaccine. But it isn't one hundred percent effective, and how would I be able to ask if he's gotten it without tipping him off to my diseased status?

BOOK: Date With A Rockstar
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