The wealthiest man in America has my blood on his hands.
I think I might die.
“Congratulations,” the announcer’s voice booms through the loud-speakers. He looks at me pointedly from his place behind the podium. I’ve already spent far too long onstage.
Jack Right stands with his fingers still extended, as if trying to create distance between himself and the specks of my blood on his skin.
“I’m sorry,” I stutter again. My mind seizes on the first solution— “you can wipe them on my dress.”
Out of all the things to have come out of my mouth, I chose the single worst thing. Who did I think I was? Who did I think he was? As if a multi-billionaire would reach out and gather my skirt in his hand, to use it like a dirty napkin.
In an instant, my face blooms with heat. I try not to let my legs move instinctively, and instead smile at him, turn my back, and walk briskly across the stage at what I hope is a refined and professional pace. The moment I descend from the stage’s staircase, I break out into a run. The heavy metal brooch, only half-fastened, flaps against my chest. Dear god, don’t let it fall off of me while I’m running to the bathroom.
There’s no lock on the bathroom door. At least all the stalls are empty. I grip the edges of the sink and look at myself level in the mirror. “Stupid,” I say to my reflection. My face stares back at me, frustratingly vacant. “Stupid.” My hands are sticky, and shaking. The smallest bit of red has made it from my lapel to the middle of my bust. And it stings, where the pin dug into me. I pry the sharp metal end out of my flesh with ginger fingers. It throbs.
So this is what triumph feels like.
“Angela?” Chrissy bangs through the bathroom door.
“Chrissy! Jesus, you scared me.”
“What the hell happened to you? You acted all weird onstage. What, did you get too starstruck? Start fantasizing about making Jack your sugar daddy?”
“Don’t be disgusting,” I snipe. “He stuck me with the pin. I started bleeding— a lot.”
Chrissy sighs and smiles, putting her hands on either side of my face. “Hey. Calm down. Don’t look so embarrassed. We’re here to celebrate. We’re the Chosen Ones.”
I laugh. I like when she describes it like that; like we’ve been selected to form some ridiculous mystical tribe. We worked hard to get here, that’s it. And she’s right. This is our moment of glory.
“Our coronation,” I say out loud.
Chrissy raises her eyebrow. “Exactly. Starting tomorrow, we’ll be the kings of Right Labs. We’ll be making monsters all day for the best company in the country.”
I can’t help but grin. Every year of school; every honors luncheon, every networking ball has led up to this point.
“I know you already have drafts,” I say to her, prying just a little.
“Of course. And you do too. I saw some of your drawings.”
I let go of the small hint of annoyance I feel knowing that she’s been prying. But at the same time, I feel pride. If she’s flipped through my draft notebook, she’s seen my best, most recent work.
I see them in my mind now, just waiting to be Fleshed and animated. The monster with the steel teeth down its back and the overactive saliva glands. The creature with the perpetually raised heckles, a cross between a werewolf and a rat. And the most exciting— an oozing, molting snake I engineered to open its mouth the width of a small child.
“I wonder where we’ll be Dropped,” Chrissy muses, reapplying her lipstick. “I hope I get the 34th ward. Their lore about monsters is so deeply rooted already. It would be fun to give them something fresh.”
I feel secret satisfaction at Chrissy’s predictability. Everyone wants the 34th— and they can rationalize it however they want, but it’s because it’s the easiest ward. The people there have been scared into line for generations already. And the more subservient the population measures up to be, the better the bonuses for the engineers.
I have more of a challenge in mind.
“I’m thinking about the 12th,” I say casually.
Chrissy stares at me. “Oh, really?”
“Yes. They were just recently put on the list for a drop. There’s been more political activism lately.”
“But they’ve never had monsters, at all?”
“Never. I think that’s what makes them interesting.”
Chrissy shook her head. “Right, and they’ll go through their phases of resistance before you could ever start earning good results. Everyone knows that the first reaction to monsters is disbelief. The fear has to be built, has to have longevity. Choice people have to die—” she holds out her palm as if reading her class notes from it, “not all at once. You’ll be 30 by the time they’re using monster lore to justify the State.”
“We’ll see,” I say with quiet surety. There are the ways we were taught in class, and then there are the new methods— methods I’ve studied and curated— tactics to take our lab-grown horrors and truly put them to use. For me, it’s not about earning bonuses. I’d like to see fear wielded for homeland security better than ever before. I’d like the be the best.
I look down at the pin by the sink, still tinged red, and go back to scrubbing my skin. The goal that I’ve been dreaming of since primary school, I suppose, is a simple one: to have the most blood on my hands.