Sure, I’ll just enjoy being frozen with nothing but my thoughts! Bitch! Lauren thought, but without the computer there, it was no use. She stood there, trying not to fall asleep, lest she become completely dead; the only way she could be sure she was alive was if she kept thinking about something, anything. Suddenly she felt another pang in her head like a shock wave. Part of her hoped that the Reaper was coming for her trapped soul, while another part hoped it would blow her shell off and she could get out and go home. But what happened instead was weirder.
“Hey, new girl! You can’t see me, because I’m on your right, but what did they do you for?” a voice said into her brain. Just what I need, to be hearing voices. Lord have mercy on my soul...
“Lauren, s’?” asked another voice in her head.
“Girls, girls, go slow! She’s new, she’s afraid, and we’re all in her head without an explanation. I’m Lori, the girl across from you, the one in the pantyhose and blue minidress. You should be able to see me. This is the master interface, so we can talk. Sort of. It’s more like IMs. Our brains are wired into the computer, remember? This helps the computer to keep our brains alive despite the whole not breathing thing. It also keeps us in a database, so it’s pretty schitzo at first. Don’t get into a really involved conversation, or you’ll really go mad, but we can chat a little. Well, really, it’s some computer in the basement talking to itself, but it works. It keeps you sane by being insane. No need to ask, this stuff is real. I got it for running up fifty thousand in credit debt and having nothing to pay them with. When they say shoplifters will be persecuted, that’s not a typo.”
“Um, I’m Lauren. I’m wearing why I’m whatever the hell I am,” Lauren said, feeling the words stay in her head and echo oddly.
“Yeah, it’s weird. I’m Maggie, over on your right. They got me running a whole bunch of clothes out the door. They got you with the anti-theft blow gun? You don’t wake up from that until you’re plastic,” the first voice said.
“Well, yeah, but aren’t they going to find us? I was with my friend Cassie, and she’ll tell someone I was missing.”
“And they’ll find some borracho or some sick puppy and blame them for it,” the second voice said. Lauren went through the conversations and recalled that that was probably Monica, if the first voice had been Maggie. It gave her something to do as she stood and stared at the customers, counting each one as something to do until she was free... someday, somehow.
The shop lights went dark, and Lauren came out of the fugue state she’d put herself in. Suddenly she started moving toward the wall. Unable to see anything that wasn’t directly in front of her, Lauren squirmed internally with fear, but she saw the column across from her moving and realized that she was on a conveyor belt. It moved back slightly, revealing to her that the wall was hollow as she moved steadily down into the bowels of the department store. The belt came to a stop in a dark gray room in the basement with other mannequinized girls. From the static in her head, there were a lot more people there than she could see.
“Hey there, newbies! Welcome to the best years of your lives!” one of the salespeople said from the front of the room. While none of it was wired directly to her head, she could imagine the booing and hissing that her comrades in plastic were hurling at the idiot who dared to say that being buried alive in plastic and chemicals somehow made these the best years of their lives.
“Don’t mind the stand-up routine. The salesgirls’ brains are about as plastic as our bodies,“ Maggie said... or something... in Lauren’s head. Lauren still didn’t understand the whole “thought patterns being exchanged in a chat room in the basement”, but she could feel the static of girls chattering through the salesgirl’s speech. It was creepy, but at the same time, it meant that she was alive and her brain was awake.
“Now, I know what you’re all thinking. Why would being trapped in a plastic shell be the best years of your lives? Think about it! Everything is being taken care of for you! No rent, no scrounging for work or food, no classes, no stress, just being forever beautiful at the greatest department store chain in the world! Darryl’s will be the best caretaker that you could ever have, and you will find that being beautiful forever will have its advantages down the line. So enjoy it! It’ll be the most fun you’ve ever had if you do!” the salesperson said with a giggle as she flicked on the television to a generic primetime lineup of teenage melodramas.
“You have got to be kidding me. Don’t tell me anyone falls for that garbage,” Lauren thought, and even when she realized everyone else could hear her in their heads, she didn’t apologize.
“Well, it’s true! I mean, we get to rock the hottest clothes ever sold! Don’t forget that part!” someone said. She didn’t recognize the voice, but she got the feeling that she didn’t want to know them.
“That’s Ellie. She’s an idiot. I don’t know how she’s still alive, she thinks so little. You’ll get that little speech every day from whoever draws the short straw. Then they turn on the CW all night, as if being a mannequin wasn’t torture enough,” Maggie explained.
“She’s right about one thing, though. If we’re stuck here, at least we’re not aging and we get put in the sexiest clothes. About the only good thing,” Monica whispered.
“I’d rather be walking and talking than stuck as some cyberturtle!” Lauren snapped back.
“Cyberturtle! That’s a new one!” Maggie laughed.
Lauren let herself go into a daze again, trying to ignore the voices echoing and whispering in her head like an unruly high school class. Her eyes were fixed on the screen, but she didn’t process anything that was happening until the doors flew open and the room was flooded with people in blue jumpsuits and salespeople rolling racks of clothes. “Good morning, ladies! Time to go to work!” the salesperson announced with a lilt in her voice that irked Lauren. Her brain came back to life the same way it did most mornings: groggily and begrudgingly. The urge to yawn was overwhelming, and only her inability to do so prevented it. The salesperson grabbed a computer printout, started pushing some pedestals aside, and let the blue jumpsuits start dressing the various mannequins.
“Ellie, Ronnie, Lulu, and Mona get to go to the main floors today! No more tilting on the escalator ramp for you!” the salesperson trilled as the jumpsuited group did up the four in stylish school outfits and Mary Janes. “Schoolgirl skirts and pretty blouses- oh, it must be spring! Aren’t you the little trendsetters now? Off you go!”
As the chosen four were carted out, Lauren felt herself go horizontal as she was changed out of her skirt and into a yellow minidress. She could see in front of her that the rest of the escalator group were in different colors and styles of the same basic dress. It was visually chaotic, but oddly stylish. She felt her arms go over here head as if she was in the night club.
“Friday. Always the club stuff on Friday. Oh, they change us every day. It gets annoying, but it draws tourists,” Maggie explained. Lauren got turned to face Maggie, who was in the same dress, but in dark purple, before being wheeled in front of a mirror, where two jumpsuits pulled and tweaked her skirt until it was just right. Once the salesperson indicated her satisfaction, Lauren was put back on her pedestal and back p onto the escalator ramp as the store prepared to open.
“Hiii, sexy! I love night club day!” one of the sales girls said with a giggle, openly staring at each girl as she road up.
“Man, if they weren’t plastic, I’d be getting their digits,” a salesman said with a leer.
“What the hell is with them? They know what happened to us! One of them slathered me in this shit!” Lauren thought, trying to figure out how to get it to Maggie.
“Look who’s talking! A little less loud and a little more focus, if you’re not screaming it to the entire room. They always mock us. I always wondered about that, but luckily it’s only before work. I can’t stand it either, although with the way we’re dressed, it’s going to be a long day,” Maggie lamented.
““Eh, it’s not so bad. These dresses are nice and tight. I know if I were walking, I’d love to get a boy in one of these. Oh, you can’t see how sexy I look, mami,” Monica said, obviously still reliving the moment they put her in front of the mirror.
“Some girls are into tight skirts and falling boobs,” Maggie said. Lauren didn’t reply. She had to admit that she looked stunning, and that they had spared no expense for the dress they had put her and the other girls in. If she had been coming in as a customer, she would have tried it on- well, I would have tried to steal it, but that’s what landed me here in the first place, and it’s not like I could afford to buy it- rule of thumb, the less material there is, the more it costs. These dresses must be worth a second mortgage!
As the customers filed in, Lauren could tell that they were eying her all over, as they were doing with all the mannequins. The cheerleader in her wished for a way to flaunt her assets even more, even if her sensibilities knew what was happening. Of course, the random comments in her head in Monica’s lightly accented voice about her everlasting hotness helped Lauren keep focus on what she was- someone being kept prisoner in a very warped and evil way that overcorrected for one small mistake. Still, she took pride when a young man took out his cell phone and snapped a picture, or a woman commented on how great her dress was. It was the finest department store in the world, after all, and she was dolled up in nothing but the best. And they know what my assets are, too! With the blasting music, she could almost imagine herself dancing in the tight skirt, with every man in the club drafting a futile plan to pick her up and take her home.
But imagining was all she could do, trapped in this plastic shell, reduced to thoughts and the hope that someone, anyone might recognize her beneath all the plastic and start asking questions. It was a long shot, because she’d been with Cassie, and as much as she loved her friend, Cassie’s attention span was so short that Lauren would be lucky if Cassie remembered that they’d been hanging out together right before Lauren vanished.
“...already arrested that perv, but hey, if they feel so sorry for us that they gave us all free gift cards, hey, here’s to Lauren, no matter where she is!” Lauren heard coming up the escalator.
“Like, not cool, she’s somewhere at the bottom...” And as her former teammates passed out of shot of whatever they put in her to allow her to hear, her old life was gone. It had only taken a second, not even long enough to make out who was saying what, but she knew that the others were right. Basic retail law: take the bad press for the three or four times your name got dropped, pay off the victim’s family (and in her case, a gaggle of cheerleaders who were easily distracted by sexy objects), blame someone who belonged behind bars anyway, let him notch one on his belt that he didn’t do, and just like that she was gone. Lauren was sure not everyone had been that easy, but they’d had decades to work out every story in the book. They knew what they were doing. Her parents would likely buy the story that she was dead in a ditch somewhere, take the settlement money, have a church service, and that would be the end of it. She wanted to cry- she tried to cry- but instead her mind tingled with another person’s thought.
“Those the people you were with? That’s awkward. You’ve got me and some of the others, if you want us. That’s the other reason they put the new kids on the escalators, you know. I’ve only been here a week and a half, and that was the easiest to figure out. No one ever looks long enough to even think that the dummy looks like anyone, let alone you, and you realize that you’re never getting out. I was just a punk bitch. They told my crew to beat it and get on with their lives, and maybe they wouldn’t join me. Perils of being the best looking of the group,” Maggie said, trying to comfort Lauren, but Lauren could feel herself shutting down emotionally. She didn’t want to think about what her friends’ exit meant. She didn’t want to think at all, because it hurt too much. If she was stuck like this, maybe it would be easier to-
“Get your angst out of my head!” Maggie interrupted. “Don’t accept your fate! Think about it! We’re spending all day here and all night awake, brain fully functioning but doing nothing except listening to commercialism and dreck. It’s hard to think after a while, but you have to.”
“That’s crazy! I mean, I do look hot in my dress, but that doesn’t mean I’m happy to be this... thing that I am!” Lauren protested.
“Exactly! Keep that anger burning and it’ll keep you from accepting it. I’m not worried about you. You have a brain, and I can chalk the short skirt thing up to peroxide poisoning. It happens to the best of us,” Maggie teased.
“Hey! I was born that way!” Lauren protested, but she could hear the laughter in her thoughts, and for a moment the sadness of her plastic prison went away.
Then she heard a strange, faint voice that felt like it was coming from behind her. “Damn, what- huh?”
“Another new kid already, crying for help,” Maggie explained.
Lauren realized that she should have recognized the anguish- it had been her yesterday, after all. “So what’s your story? I’m Lauren. What’s your name?” she asked in as friendly a tone as she could.
“Oh, now I’m hearing voices. What the hell happened to me?” the strange voice replied. Lauren couldn’t see anyone she didn’t recognize from the night before, so whoever it was was behind her and probably to the left of Monica.
“I got this, Lauren. Don’t worry, if you’re here long enough you’ll figure out how to handle it,” Maggie said as she explained to the new mannequin her fate and how she could communicate, even if she wasn’t sure if she was alive or dead at that point. The stranger calmed down enough to tell them that her name was Meka and she tried to trade in her jeans. Judging from her strident complaints about the pink minidress she was wearing, she at least hadn’t had to spend the day wearing her shame.
If her lungs had still been working, Lauren would have sighed at the speed at which the store was collecting people, and it made her curious.
“Something to talk about, I guess. Don’t worry about Meka, she’ll doze off, they all do. So if you’re into the inner workings, the girls lounging in front of us are our... den mothers, for lack of a better phrase. They mostly talk to the new arrivals, but don’t swear or act too weird, or they’ll tell on you to the sales staff. They aren’t bad people, just stuck up and way too loyal.”
“Well, Lori mentioned that she got this way by racking up a credit debt that would make Paris Hilton blush...”
“Never thought of it that way, but it makes sense. Who better to beat loyalty into you by some idiot who was so loyal they ruined themselves for the company’s profit?” Maggie theorized.
They passed the day in back and forth conversation and exchange of conspiracy theories, with other people occasionally throwing in their two cents. Periodic grumbles from Meka, constant declarations from Monica about how hot she was, and snippets of other people’s conversations drifted through Lauren’s head. Finally, at the end of the day they slid down into the secret room, and Meka woke up.
“If I get out of this shit you caked me in I’ll kill you with my- no, fuck that, I’ll kill you with your bare hands!” she screamed at the top of her mental lungs.
“Oh, it’s not that bad. You can stand around all day and not be a ho! I mean, how else can you be sexy forever?” Monica blurted out.
“Damn, for someone who can’t drink, Monica’s had enough Kool-Aid to be wasted beyond recognition!” Lauren said with alarm.
“You weren’t here when she got here. She’s a little ditzy. Doesn’t surprise me one bit,” Maggie replied.
“So let me guess, that’s when they move you?”
“That’s one of the big ones. If you show any signs of wanting to be a mannequin forever, that’s when they move you. But that’s the big one. The salespeople love that.”
“I guess all that CW would do that to you. I can feel my brain starting to melt- is this supposed to be putting me to sleep, or doing something else to me?”
“Only worry if you start giggling all the way through. I’m gonna zone out. Hear you in the morning.” Maggie’s mental presence receded, and though Lauren did what she thought of as poking her a couple of times, she got no response. Meka was still kicking and screaming in ways that would have raised Lauren’s hair if it weren’t plastic, Monica was so busy fantasizing about herself that Lauren thought she needed her stand moved forward slightly, and the others were busy talking to each other, zoned out for the night, or too far away to get a read on. She sent out a couple of general messages asking if anyone wanted to talk, but when she got no answer, she let herself drift off to sleep as she stared at the screen.