In the Land of Opportunity, Sophie Wilkins lived in a shining seaside city called Important. Many of the residents of Important were simply Awesome, even by their own high standards. Not every resident could truly be accepted as Awesome, however. To be recognized as Awesome required a clear sense of Self-Importance, which was difficult to get and maintain. The criteria were necessarily vague (to keep out the riff-raff), but many citizens sought Self-Importance through physical perfection. This need to be Awesome was an emptiness Sophie could not seem to assuage, however much she tried. Nevertheless, she fed the hunger often and well, on a continuing basis.
Today, Sophie was meeting her best friend Winnie at an Important restaurant. Sophie was looking forward to the outing, since she’d found in Winnie a kindred spirit, another inadequate being in search of relevance. Sophie arrived a little early in order to soak in the Awesome ambiance. The restaurant was chic, sophisticated and fashionable—in short, everything that Sophie was not. Sophie realized that she was a mere mortal, one who dared trespass on the sacred feeding grounds of the Important elite. It wasn’t money that she lacked, oh no. Sophie had plenty of that from Daddy. There was something more obvious that set her apart from her chosen crowd. It was an absolutely unshakeable sense of Self-Importance that had always been elusive. Sophie knew if she could only lose the extra weight that haunted her, she would finally feel superior. And in that way, she would begin to gain some acceptance in this town of wraiths.
While she waited for Winnie at a table next to the restrooms, Sophie sopped up the olive oil on her bread plate with the scrumptious rosemary bread that the waiter had left. Olive oil was supposed to be very beneficial, health wise. With that in mind, Sophie poured out another large pool of flavorful oil from the pretty, hand-painted bottle in the center of the table. It was a good thing her friend Winnie was running late so Sophie could ask the waiter to bring more breadsticks. That way, Winnie wouldn’t realize that Sophie had polished off the whole basket all by herself.
Sophie watched as a designer-clad sylph undulated in her direction. She was the kind of Awesome goddess, Sophie reflected, whom probably always fit in anywhere she went. Sophie hated her instantly, so it came as somewhat of a shock when the golden-haired beauty slid into the chair across the table from her. Sophie was so surprised she almost forgot to wipe her shiny fingers on the white tablecloth.
“Winnie!” Sophie shrieked, oblivious to the somewhat hostile stares of the über-fab that surrounded them. “What have you done to yourself? You’ve dropped a ton!”
Winnie giggled, but pretended not to have heard. She perused her menu with exaggerated interest, wishing to increase Sophie’s curiosity by suspense.
“How did you lose so much weight? Did you get your stomach stapled?” Sophie hissed in a stage whisper that no one could miss, if they’d been at all interested in what someone like Sophie had to say. But Winnie only shook her head.
“A spa?” Sophie asked.
“Have you been in jail?!” Sophie demanded.
Winnie finally laid her menu aside. “Sophie, I’ve turned over a new leaf. It was horribly expensive but I hired a personal fitness trainer!”
Sophie deflated like a blowfish. “I was hoping you’d found a new pill,” she said. “Fitness trainers are too much work. I think I’ll pass.”
Winnie grinned. Light from the amazing serpentine chandeliers reflected off her perfectly glossed lips. She held up a pale pink business card. “I knew you’d want to know, so I brought this for you.”
Sophie took the card from Winnie and glanced at it. It was from a facility just a block or two away called The Hourglass. Sophie had never heard of it before.
“Go check it out,” Winnie urged. “Trust me, you won’t be disappointed. I could not believe how little I had to do to get in shape. The results are guaranteed. Oh, and be sure to tell them I referred you so I get a free week of maintenance.”
Sophie stared at her formerly fat partner-in-whine. The results did not lie.
After spending the night with a can of cake frosting, Sophie woke up nursing a jealousy hangover. She called The Hourglass for an appointment—right after a breakfast of a frappuccino and a couple of cream cheese-filled pastries. It wasn’t easy finding the place; the name was nowhere on the front of the building. Sophie understood completely. She’d heard a lot of Important businesses went incognito that way and sought patrons by referral only. It added to the aura of exclusivity. Sophie was super glad they didn’t consider her riff-raff.
The owner and manager of The Hourglass met her at the desk. Lucy was a gorgeous redhead with a slamming body. Although Lucy gave Sophie a personal tour of the facility, Sophie couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed. The exercise equipment was high-tech and sleek and all, but The Hourglass appeared to be a gym like every other workout place Sophie had ever blown off.
Suddenly a petite blonde caught Sophie’s eye. She was pumping away on an exercise bicycle with demonic concentration. Sophie had known her since high school. “Juliana!” Sophie cried. “Hey there.”
Sophie was puzzled when Juliana didn’t respond to her greeting. In fact, there was no hint of recognition on her perspiration-covered face at all. Lucy merely smiled and beckoned Sophie into her office.
Sophie settled her plush behind on the sleek leather chair positioned in front of Lucy’s impressive smoked-glass desk.
“I know Winnie Bloom and I can’t believe she stuck to any program long enough to look the way she looks now,” Sophie said. “And I’ve never known Juliana Worth to break a sweat, not even at Neiman’s Last Call. I don’t get it.”
“Winnie was enrolled as a Platinum Client. It’s our most exclusive and popular program…among the people who matter,” Lucy said, with a little wink. “We enroll select people by referral only. Juliana Worth is Platinum too.”
“Sounds expensive,” Sophie said. “Why the referral angle?”
“The program we’ve designed for our Platinum Clients is on the cutting edge of scientific research,” Lucy confided. “We like to know with whom we are dealing.”
Sophie was intrigued. “How does it work? I don’t enjoy jumping around with an empty stomach.”
“The Platinum Program is geared to address that discomfort factor, Sophie. Most people can’t stick with a fitness routine long enough to get fit and start feeling good about themselves,” Lucy said. She leaned forward as if to reveal a confidence. “Our secret to success is our ‘loaner’ feature.”
“Loaner?” Sophie repeated. “Like when you get your car repaired?”
“Precisely. As a Platinum Client, Sophie, you may select any of our staff trainers with whom to trade bodies. You take the loaner home as your own. The trainer takes your body and does the rest.”
“Shut up,” Sophie said. “That’s impossible.”
Lucy laughed. “The woman you know as Juliana Worth is out shopping in air-conditioned comfort right now in a loaner bod to die for. The woman you spoke to a few minutes ago is actually our staff trainer Nancy. She’s a former beauty queen from Texas.”
Sophie squirmed in her chair, wondering if she could make it to the door without Lucy catching her first. “You’re nuts.”
“You’ve got about thirty-five pounds of body fat to burn off,” Lucy said. “One of our top-notch trainers can whip you into shape in about two months. During that time you’ll be using a loaner. Think about it, Sophie. You’ll experience for yourself what being in peak physical condition feels like. At the end of your membership, you return the loaner and resume your own fit body. After that, it’s all maintenance. No sore muscles, no hunger, no unpleasantness whatsoever. Just guaranteed results.”
Lucy’s voice was mesmerizingly persuasive. Perhaps it was her morning frappuccino, but Sophie wanted to believe her so badly she could taste it.
“Tell me, how did Winnie look when you saw her?” Lucy added. “Our trainer was especially proud of her work on that body.”
Sophie knew she’d literally do anything to look as good as Winnie had yesterday. “Can we do it now?” she asked. “Right now, before I change my mind?”
Sophie dove into her Prada handbag for a credit card.
“You’ll be very pleased with your results,” Lucy said. “Let me get your contract.”
Lucy took Sophie’s credit card imprint and handed her a contract. Sophie was a little surprised that it had already been filled out, but figured Winnie had supplied them with her personal information. Sophie pointed to the bottom of the page, where a paragraph was outlined in red.
“What’s this?” Sophie asked.
“That section deals with our remedies should you breach any part of your contract. We take an extremely large refundable deposit on top of our program fee to ensure the return of the loaner,” Lucy replied.
She handed Sophie a credit card slip and a pen. Sophie’s eyes bugged out when she saw the total, but Lucy was prepared to address her concerns.
“The deposit is sizable, but we can’t afford to take chances with our loaners,” Lucy said in a reassuring tone. “You might like to know that we do donate a portion of forfeited deposits to the homeless.”
At the moment, Sophie couldn’t care less about charity. She held her breath as she scribbled her signature on the credit card slip and contract. Lucy folded up Sophie’s paperwork and slid it into a discreet pink envelope. She handed the envelope to Sophie along with a promotional Lucite key chain embossed with The Hourglass logo.
“You are now a Platinum Client! Here is your contract and a complimentary key chain. Now for the fun part…are you ready to pick out your loaner?” Lucy asked.
About an hour later, Lucy escorted Sophie to the door. Sophie had taken possession of her loaner, a gloriously sexy twenty-three year old body with long stems and high cheekbones.
“Bye, now, and congratulations Sophie!” Lucy said. “We are working on the new you as we speak.”
Sophie emerged from The Hourglass and out into the sunshine. She strode down the sidewalk, relishing the feeling of Self-Importance that seemed to seep upwards from the Important pavement. Powerful men stared in admiration and beautiful women stepped aside as she approached. Sophie’s victory lap was disturbed only by an old, haggard bag lady that lurched into her path.
“Please help me,” the bag lady pleaded.
“Watch it!” Sophie said, not all that steady in her spiky heels.
“Be careful, dear,” the bag lady called out as Sophie pushed past her. “I was like you once.”
“Get a job,” Sophie muttered.
Sophie lived the next seven weeks in a near constant state of ecstasy. She bought a new candy-apple red convertible just so she could cruise Important with the top down. She tore through every boutique that had ever intimidated her, shopping for anything and everything that caught her fancy. Each purchase added to her feeling of Self-Importance. She took long walks on the beach, clad in a tiny thong bikini, relishing every conversation that came to a halt as she sauntered by. Sophie went dancing almost every night at a super-exclusive club in West Important called Third Circle, where she made friends with a bartender named Dan. One night Dan gave her a business card along with her pomegranate martini.
“You have an admirer over there,” he said, pointing. “Your drinks are on him.”
Sophie glanced over to see an older man sitting by himself at a corner booth. He raised his glass in a silent toast to her. Sophie giggled and turned back toward Dan. “He’s gotta be kidding, right?” she said. “He’s old enough to be my grandfather.”
“He’s also rich enough to buy and sell everyone in this club ten times over,” Dan said. “He owns his own plane and a yacht. You could do worse.”
Sophie left the card on the bar, downed the martini, and left the club. Maybe she could do worse but life was good right now and she wasn’t that desperate. When she got home it was nearly dawn. Sophie punched the message button on her answering machine and flopped down on the sofa. Her heart sank when she heard Lucy’s voice.
“Sophie, your Platinum Program is ending in a few days and it’s time to return the loaner. I have to tell you that you look marvelous!” she said. “We’ll see you at The Hourglass Friday morning. After the transfer, we’ll get you started on maintenance. See you then!”
Sophie groaned. She noticed a framed 8”x10” photo of her and her parents on a bookshelf nearby. The three of them looked happy, but extremely ordinary. They had no Self-Importance at all and suddenly Sophie was depressed.
Sophie returned to The Hourglass Friday morning, as scheduled. Still in the loaner, she sat in Lucy’s office to wait for the unveiling of the new her. Lucy pressed the button on her intercom system, almost unable to curb her excitement.
“Veronica, it’s time,” she said.
After a few moments, the personal fitness trainer called Veronica entered Lucy’s office, in Sophie’s retooled body. Sophie had to admit she’d never looked better. Her body was several sizes smaller than the last time she’d seen herself, and a lot more toned. Her hair had been newly styled. Even her skin and makeup were flawless. She looked very nice. But she was still Sophie. She didn’t have any Self-Importance whatsoever and would never be Awesome.
There was a mirror behind Lucy’s desk and Sophie caught a glimpse of herself in it. There was simply no way she’d ever possess as much Self-Importance as the loaner, no matter what. Suddenly it didn’t seem fair. She’d paid all that money, to what end? Just so she could turn back into a pumpkin at the appointed hour? The whole thing stank. Sophie got to her feet.
“I’m so impressed,” she said. “This is really amazing. Can I hit the ladies room before the transfer? I drank a lot of frappuccino this morning.”
“Certainly,” Lucy said. “It’s down the hall and to your right.”
Sophie looked herself in the face as she passed and had to suppress a shudder. Hopefully, this was the last time she’d ever have to see herself again.
Moments later, Sophie burst out the front door of The Hourglass. Lucy could have her deposit if she wanted, but Sophie was keeping the loaner. As she ran, Sophie accidentally bumped the bag lady that had taken to haunting that part of the sidewalk. Sophie didn’t stop to help when the bag lady fell down, but she could have sworn she heard the woman burst out into hysterical laughter.
Sophie drove her convertible home, but kept going when she saw an enormous, black SUV in the driveway. A couple of very large and intimidating men were camped out on her doorstep. So Sophie went to Winnie’s apartment, unannounced. Her friend answered the doorbell, dressed for the gym.
“Soph! I thought I’d be seeing the new you today. I mean, the old, new you. What are you still doing with the loaner?” she asked.
“I walked out,” Sophie replied. “They can have my deposit.”
Winnie’s eyes widened in horror. “You don’t realize what you’ve done! Didn’t you read the contract?”
“I don’t care,” Sophie said. “Look, I need a place to stay for awhile until things calm down. Lucy’s got a goon squad staked out at my place.”
“No way. Don’t involve me or I’ll get in trouble, too. Take my advice and get that loaner back to The Hourglass pronto or you’ll be very sorry,” she said.
Winnie slammed the door shut. Sophie kicked it in frustration.
“Thanks, pal,” she snarled. “I hope your silicon drops off!”
Sophie only had a few dollars in her Prada handbag, so she drove to the nearest ATM to withdraw some cash. Unfortunately her account had been locked. She tried to use her credit cards at the restaurant around the corner, but every single one of her cards was declined. Embarrassed, Sophie gave them all the money she had, but it didn’t cover the bill she’d run up over a lunch of Fettuccine Alfredo and wine. She offered to let the manager hold her driver’s license until she paid her tab, but the manager became suspicious when her photo didn’t match her face. The manager walked off with the license in his hand and Sophie suspected he was calling the police. Suddenly Sophie didn’t feel quite so Self-Important. She made a break for it.
As she drove away, Sophie began to regret her purchase of the bright cherry-red convertible. Her car certainly wasn’t designed to blend in. She pulled into the nearest shopping mall and parked her convertible in the garage. Sophie sat there and tried to figure out what to do next. She wished she’d thought this whole thing through a little better. She couldn’t go home and she didn’t have any friends willing to take her in. Her parents lived on the far outskirts of Important. Sophie could drive there in two hours but she had no money and only a quarter tank of gas. Besides which, Lucy had undoubtedly sent a goon squad to watch out for her at her parents’ house too. Maybe it would be a good idea to leave Important for a while.
Sophie waited until nightfall and then drove to Third Circle in West Important. She didn’t look that Awesome in her skinny jeans and t-shirt, but the doorman recognized her anyway and let her in. Sophie went directly to Dan.
“Have you seen that rich old geezer in here lately?” she asked. “I’d like to talk to him.”
Dan had a pomegranate martini ready for her. He handed it to Sophie and jerked his head toward the corner booth where the man usually sat. Sophie took the martini and walked over to the nice, wealthy old gentleman who was going to help her get out of Important.
Six martinis later, Sophie found herself being poured into a limousine. The old man, whom she insisted on calling Skipper, was taking her to his yacht.
“I want to go someplace that’s not here, Skipper,” she said, trying not to slur her words too much. “I’m tired of Important people, Important clubs and Important restaurants. I want to be Awesome somewhere else. Maybe we could leave the Land of Opportunity altogether.”
The headlights of the sleek, black limo cut through the streets of Important like a beady-eyed shark. Feeling safe at last, Sophie fell asleep.
When Sophie woke up, her vision was blurry and she couldn’t tell where she was. It was daylight—that much she knew—and she remembered drinking pomegranate martinis all night long. Oddly enough, though, Sophie didn’t have a hangover. She just couldn’t see very well.
The blurry outlines of a woman’s body became visible.
“Sophie? Are you awake? You slept a long time,” Lucy said. “The transfer process is always harder when there is alcohol involved.”
“Why can’t I see?” Sophie asked, in a panic.
She didn’t even recognize her own voice. It sounded shaky, like that of an old woman.
“Here you go,” Lucy said, sliding a pair of eyeglasses onto Sophie’s face.
Sophie could focus now. She was back at The Hourglass. The personal fitness trainer Veronica was standing in the corner of the lab, so obviously Sophie had been returned to her old body. Sophie was disappointed and more than a little mad.
“Is this a joke?” Sophie asked. “I don’t wear glasses.”
The glasses slipped down on her nose a bit and Sophie reached up to push them back. A shock went through her as she realized her arm was withered and mottled with age. Sophie shrieked.
“We’ve exercised the repossession clause outlined in paragraph three of your contract, and therefore you’ve forfeited your entire deposit,” Lucy said, with a tone of regret. “Not to mention the fact that poor Veronica is going to need some serious reconditioning, I’m afraid.”
The lab door opened. Sophie’s eyes narrowed with anger when she recognized Skipper. He must have been working for Lucy the whole time. And right behind Skipper was Sophie’s former body, now obviously occupied by someone else.
“But that’s my body,” Sophie said. “I want my body back!”
“We’re keeping your body deposit too,” Lucy continued. “But we’ve given you another vessel, Sophie! I told you that we would donate a portion of your deposit to the homeless.”
Veronica and the woman in Sophie’s former body pulled Sophie to her feet. As she was escorted toward the door, Sophie looked into the full-length mirror on the wall. Stunned, she realized she’d become the decrepit old bag lady from the street.
Dressed in shapeless rags, Sophie was led out into the alley behind The Hourglass. Lucy pulled up a shopping cart and put Sophie’s palsied hands on it.
“There you go, Sophie. A little something to get you started. I’m very sorry you breached your contract this way, but rules are rules,” Lucy said. “I’d head over to the park if I were you. That’s always a good place for new ones to start. Good luck!”
Lucy disappeared through the rear door of The Hourglass and shut it behind her. Sophie opened her mouth to say something, but there was no argument to make and no one around to hear her. Suddenly numb, Sophie did what she’d been told. She pushed the cart down the alley, across the street, and into Important Park. Sophie had driven by the park almost daily, but she’d never noticed the number of homeless before. Wordlessly, Sophie pushed her shopping cart toward the group as she joined her new clique…