You know the saying...
Her hair was irritatingly long and silky, adorned in gaudy jewels that ran down her luxurious locks bedazzling onlookers with undeniable beauty. It was quite obvious that she was of upper class blood and yet she often paraded around the market posing as a savant of the unfortunate. The way she would bow at peasants with feigned humility knowing full and well she, nor her family, would ever allow one to so much as stroll up to their front gates without sending them away with an upturned nose and a distasteful scowl. Everyone knew that only the cream of the crop was allowed the privilege of merriment with the Harlows; the crème’ de la crème’ and nothing less.
She visited the dress shop every Sunday religiously, accompanied by one of their burly bodyguards. With fists the size of boulders and a thunderous voice booming behind her there wasn’t a single civilian who dared cross her path without invitation. The visits usually consisted of those big men shooing away dirty beggars while she sauntered through the crowd, smiling apologetically whenever someone reached out to her and were pushed back by brawny arms. She was placed on a pedestal in the shop window as the seamstress took her measurements, taking turns pairing her with the most elegant garments made of the most expensive fabrics. The look on her face was typically one of uninterest and boredom, pretty eyes staring out into the distance. Most likely thinking about the next shindig and how grand it was going to be.
Today she sat staring with an especially solemn look, daydreams dancing in her head. Catching the eye of more privileged passerby, a pair of dapper men stop in to exchange words with the guard. The mountain of a man reaches inside his coat pocket and pulls out two cards, handing one to each gentleman. They receive the invitations gratefully; huge grins stretch wide on handsome faces. They turn and reach for her hand, kissing the back of it, before strolling out onto the streets again giddy with excitement. Whispering plans for the affair they were most likely going to attend later.
Brushing past, the scent of their cologne lingers on Danica’s nostrils. They don’t even so much as glance at her as she walks by, nor beg her pardon when the taller of the two bumps into her shoulder, forcing a parcel out of her hands. Poverty seeping from her pores, making her intolerable to their refined tastes. Her cheeks flush a bright shade of red, ruffled by their blatant rudeness. She gathers the dropped package and continues into the shop bitterly.
“Delivery for a Mr. Blakely” The announcement is curt.
“I don’t know about Mr. Blakely, but the seamstress is in the back although she’s a bit preoccupied with the lady’s orders at the moment.” The guard booms.
“I suppose I’ll have to wait then,” she sighs. Finding a nearby stool and sliding down onto it, happy to rest her aching feet.
He glances at them both, hesitating before he continues, “I’ll tell you what? I’ll go give her a shout for you. I’ll be back in second,” He promises the woman he was hired to protect. She gives him a reassuring nod and he trudges off to the backroom.
“Must be nice,” the woman says addressing Danica.
Danica’s face contorts into a mixture of annoyance and confusion. “What?”
“The simple life. You know, being able to come and go as you please with no worries”.
“No worries? You mean like planning parties and playing dress up?” Danica snaps.
“Oh no, I didn’t mean it that way,” the lady swears raising her right hand in the air in apology. “It’s just I wish I could – you know not be me sometimes. Not have to live this lifestyle”.
Danica huffs in disbelief. “Are you kidding me? You walk around here with jewels pouring from your head, wrapped in fancy furs and you want me to believe that you have it hard? You have no idea what it’s like to struggle everyday just to survive”.
“You don’t know that,” she retorts, taken aback. “You don’t even know me”.
“Everything about you tells me what I need to know. You were born into a rich family and you reap the luxuries of their fortunes while doing nothing. You don’t have to get your hands dirty or have people turn their nose up at you in disgust like you are some filthy sewer rat just because you were not blessed with money”.
“Blessed!? Ha!” The woman lets out a hearty mocking laugh unexpectedly aroused by Danica’s response. “You think that this life is a blessing? I assure you it is not! Nothing in this world is free, everything comes with a price”.
“Yeah, a price that you can probably pay twice while people like me must pour our sweat, tears, and blood out just to make ends meet. So how about you shut that pretty little trap of yours and quit whining to me about how bad you think you’ve got it, princess”.
The jeer stings. She opens her mouth to reply when she is abruptly cut off by the return of her guard, the pudgy seamstress hobbling close behind. She pinches her pursed lips tight and falls silent.
“Ahhh yes!” The old lady exclaims when she spots the package. “My order is here and right on time too.” She turns to Ms. Harlow, “Imported silks.” She says and gives her a wink. “I’ll be taking these on Blakely’s behalf, where do I sign?”
Relieved to be moving along, Danica exchanges package for signature proceeding to head out the door as the guard makes his way over to the counter to process his payment. Seizing the opportunity, Lady Harlow stands and reaches down in front of Danica obstructing her path.
“You dropped something,” she announces before dropping a silvery slip of paper onto her clipboard. The couple at the counter don’t seem to have noticed.
Danica acknowledges her with raised eyebrows.
“So, you can experience these blessings”. She whispers under her breath and gives her a big toothless smile.
Danica rolls her eyes and stomps off without saying another word, silver ticket pressed firmly against the clipboard by her thumb. The tail end flapping wildly in the chilly wind. She slides it off and carefully folds it, slipping it into her side pocket for safe keeping.
Reaching the front of her most humble abode, Danica kicks off her shoes and runs to the bedroom excitement roaring through her veins. “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god!” She shrieks out loud. “I can’t freaking believe it!” She glances at the paper for the hundredth time. Sure, enough there it was emblazoned in black ink:
You are cordially invited to:
Harlow’s Hallowed Home
For a wicked good time!
1273 Mellowbrooke Lane
In the midst of her exhilaration she momentarily wonders how a girl like herself happened to score an invite anyway, especially given how tart she was being towards Lady Harlow earlier. She shrugs away the creeping doubt. “She probably knows a real woman when she sees one,” she comments reassuringly, poking her chest out like a proud peacock. “Someone that is going to stand up to her and not worship the ground she walks on. Smarter than I thought.” Danica continues her search for a decent ensemble to put together as fantasies of the night to come play out in her eager mind’s eye.
It was rumored that many a lucky lady has happened their way into one of the Harlow’s parties and found their rightful husbands, running off to marry prosperous men. Never to be seen begging on the streets again. And tonight, she finally has her chance! Danica is dressed and ready to go in no time, heading out the front door to meet her new man and begin her new life.
The entrance to the Harlow’s Home is as spectacular as she remembered it to be in passing. Marble staircases lead the way into a grandiose foyer. Ceilings as high as the eye can see are painted in ornate gold leaf patterns that light the entire room in a sunny glow. Music and laughter spill out from inside. Delicious aromas of seasoned meats and baked goods waft through the air. A small crowd has already gathered near the entrance waiting their turn to get in. She peers over the ropes in anticipation, ticket crumpling in her impatient sweaty palms. A guard takes notice and motions for her to come closer.
“Silver ticket?” He asks plainly.
“Err yes, right here.” She hands it to him nervously.
“Silver tickets are that way,” he motions towards a side door, one of the many in the massive mansion.
Danica looks at it apprehensively. Noticing her hesitation, the man chuckles. “You must be new here.”
She nods her head in agreement.
“Well let me walk you over then,” The husky man happily leads her around the ropes. “You’re going to love it here; they make great things happen for the good ones. The girl’s will tell you all about it, I’m sure”. And with that, he inserts his key into the door and leaves her to her own devices.
“Welcome, welcome. Who do we have here?” Some cheery brunette strolls over to greet her.
“Well hello Danica! Everyone, say hi to our new guest!” She addresses the room.
There are at least twenty women lounging about the extravagant chamber. Mirrors cover the walls from the ceilings to the floors, making the room appear more enormous than it already is. Most of the ladies are preoccupied with either getting dressed or fixing their faces, noses practically pressed against their glass reflections. They mumble a simultaneous “Welcome Danica” before going about their business.
“Don’t mind them, they’re just anxious about today’s bidding. Everyone wants to win this. We hear he’s a decent one this time. Treats his like royalty. Now come along dear let’s get you into a more…” she gives Danica’s shabby attire a onceover “…uhhh…appealing look”.
Danica trails behind her confused. “Wait…what bidding? I didn’t know there would be a bidding. She bows her head shamefully, “I – I don’t have any money with me”.
“Oh sweetie! Nonsense!” She takes her hand affectionately. “You don’t have to pay for anything anymore. Everything will be covered by the Harlow’s while you are here - anything you want at their expense. That is, of course, until you are selected and then your needs will be covered by the highest bidder. But don’t worry they’re all filthy rich and some are decent looking too”. She smiles cheerfully at Danica.
Danica pulls her hand away. “What do you mean highest bidder? Why would I be selected? Her heart begins to pound fervently in her chest, paranoia creeping in.
“Honey are you ok? Maybe you should take a seat, I know this can be a lot to process at once but yes all of your dreams are about to come true”.
“My dreams?! What are you talking about??”
“You wanted to come here, did you not? Why else would you have an invitation?”
“Yeah, for the pleasantries and opportunities, not to be bid off to strangers like some hot commodity!”
Annoyed, one of the other ladies speaks up. “For some of us this is our best chance. Don’t act like you’re too good for it now. If you didn’t secretly crave all of this, you wouldn’t be standing here. Just be quiet and put the silks on”.
“Absolutely not!” she yells flabbergasted. “I rather dirty my hands every day than to be someone’s property. You can’t be serious, I’m out of here.” Danica turns towards the door.
“I’m afraid you can’t do that,” the brunette informs her, a sincerely sorrowful look on her face. “Once you’re in they won’t let you out. You belong to the Harlow’s now”.
“The hell I do!” Danica dashes for the exit only to find that there is no handle on this side.
“It can only be opened from the outside. I’m sorry hun, there’s really no way out. I suggest you don’t fight it too much, it’s not all that bad.” She offers some consolation, “If you don’t put up a big fuss you can have anything you want. Look,” She reaches for a picture frame resting on a nearby mantle. The image is of a smiling baby wrapped in what appears to be expensive fur surrounded by stuffed animals and various toys. “they make sure to take good care of my boy…better than I ever could”.
Danica stares at the image bewildered, “oh yeah? And at what cost to you?” she asks, cynicism in her tone.
The woman’s shoulders hunch momentarily as she lets out a deep sigh, “I haven’t held him in months. Heck, I haven’t seen outside in months,” she shakes off the reminiscence and puts on a chipper face, “…small sacrifice for a better life if you ask me”.
“If you ask Danica there isn’t much to miss out there anyway Margie. Since we all have it soooo easy around here…. right Danica?” A snarky Ms. Harlow appears, interrupting their conversation.
“You!” Danica yells accusingly. “This is all your fault!”
“Oh boohoo, like you’re so innocent.” She rolls her eyes. “I saw the way you’d look at me when I went into town. I’m surprised you haven’t turned green by now. I just gave you what you wanted”.
“I didn’t want this!”
“Well newsflash baby neither do I!”
“HEY!! What the hell is going on down there??” A towering guard roars through a gated window on the other side of the room. “Hailey don’t tell me I need to go in there and do your job for you, I don’t think your father would like that.”
“No, no” Lady Harlow assures him, “I’ve got this one. She’s fresh off the market, she just needs to be broken in a bit”.
“Well get to it!” he snaps. “We have a lot of guests up there tonight, we need a full display. I suggest you get that one in line before we make you fill her spot”.
Hailey grinds her teeth and locks eyes with Danica. “Oh, trust me that won’t be necessary”.
The gate slams shut, and Hailey slowly circles Danica; a crazed look plastered on her pretty face. The other women gather around now giving the quarrel their undivided attention.
“Wait…please,” Danica pleads. “You don’t have to do this”.
“Actually, she does,” the annoyed woman speaks out again no longer holding back. “Don’t act like you didn’t just hear the man. We all have to play our part.”
“I told you nothing in this world is free, everything comes at a price”. Hailey retorts sarcastically.
“But that can’t be,” Danica whines trying to make sense of it all. “You’re Harlow’s daughter…” She turns to the other women, “that’s how I got the invitation, she goes to market every week!”
“Yeah that’s because she’s the only one allowed to leave. She’s the recruiter: no girl’s, no gold. She must do as she is told just like everyone else.”
Desperation and hopelessness overwhelm Danica, tears flooding down her cheeks, the realization hitting her hard.
“There are only two options here…” Hailey starts, sliding a thick steel baton out of her waistband and smacking it against her palm exemplifying its force, “…the easy way or the hard way.”
Danica lets out a final pitiful wail before the skull cracking impact of the baton against the back of her head forces her to the floor. Hailey kneels digging a bony knee into her back. She yanks at a handful of hair wrapping it around her fingers before bringing Danica’s face closer to hers, “I guess that goes to show…” she whispers in a low menacing voice “…the grass ain’t always greener, princess