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Rules for Disappearing, The (The Rules Book 1) by Ashley Elston (1)

“WHAT do you want your name to be this time? We have about thirty minutes.”

I stare at the muted television. The only light in the room comes from the flashing images on the small screen, one of those old Meg Ryan movies that’s on all the time. A movie I’ve seen so often that sound isn’t necessary.

All the other times they asked me this question, I’d stressed out searching for the perfect name. I used each available moment going back and forth, trying to decide.

Not this time.

“Meg,” I answer.

“Meg. Do you want just Meg or maybe Megan with Meg for short?”

“I don’t care.”

“What about her?” A hand points down to the lump of girl next to me. My arm curls around her sleeping form, and I fight the temptation to pull her in close.

It’s very late, somewhere around three in the morning, and I hate to wake her for this. She was pissed when I made this decision for her last time. I picked the wrong girl’s name from that show she likes. Luckily for her, it had been our shortest identity.

I shake her gently.

“Hey,” I whisper. It’s been hammered into us not to use our real names. Ever. With the suits watching, I can’t call her anything. “What name do you want? I don’t want to pick for you again.”

She tosses around, trying to wake up. Slowly, her eyes open. “What’d you choose?” Her voice is hoarse.

“I went with ‘Meg.’”

Lines race across her crumpled forehead. It’s almost like I can hear the wheels in her brain turning over possibilities. Each time she’s had to make this decision, she’s chosen a TV character she likes. Can’t think if there’s one left she hasn’t used.

“I don’t care,” she answers in a ragged huff.

Just like that she shuts off. Her eyes close and her knees curl in closer to her chest. My throat constricts. I hate seeing her like this. “What about Mary? You’d be a cute Mary.”

She’s quiet a moment more and then gives me a small nod.

If she doesn’t like it, I’m sure we’ll be changing them again soon. At this rate we will go through a dozen names. “We’ll be the M&M girls. How’s that?”

A ghost of a smile crosses her face, and she drifts back to sleep. I watch her for a few seconds. She’s talking less and less with each move, and I’m scared she’ll stop altogether. She doesn’t act like an eleven-year-old anymore. Most days she needs help bathing and doing her hair, like she’s five or six. And it’s not like Mom’s up to the task.

The woman taps her pen against a clipboard in an annoying rat-tat-tat. She told me her name at some point, but I’d stopped trying to remember them all months ago. I assume my earlier position.

“Mary. She’ll be Mary.” I’m exhausted. Drained.

“Do you have a preference for middle names?”

“No.”

“All right, Meg.” Just like that, we are Meg and Mary. We will not be called anything else until the next move. “The only thing left is your appearance. From your file pictures, I see that you have—until this point—gotten away without any major alterations. Sorry to tell you—that’s not the case this time.” The woman squats lower.

“I brought a few things. We can start with you, and let Mary sleep a little longer.” She shifts around the bed until she’s blocking the TV. Her feet are planted squarely on the floor, and both hands ball into fists at her waist.

“We’ll have to cut your hair and change the color. I also brought contacts for you to change your eyes from blue to brown. Hopefully, that will be enough.” She talks slow and draws every syllable out like she’s trying to get through to an old person or a small child.

Ignoring her, I stare ahead as if I can still make out the images on the TV behind her. The old me would have revolted. My hair and eyes are my most striking features, and I know it. Up until this point, I’ve only lost my name. After this I will be unrecognizable.

I count to sixty in my head before I start moving. Inch by inch, I slide from the bed, careful not to wake “Mary” up. Her new name doesn’t fit, but that will change in a few days. The bathroom is small and smells like mildew. There’s only one light over the sink. It’s a single bare bulb that gives off a really hard light compared to the muted images from the bedroom. I force my shoulders back and step in front of the sink.

No matter what changes the suits make, that girl in the mirror bolted with this last move. Gone. Pieces splintered away with each new identity, but the last big chunk shattered the second the suits yanked us from our beds in the middle of the night and threw us into that windowless van. No tears after this loss. Not after everything else that’s gone.

My long blond hair is thick and streaked with natural highlights that can only come from hours in the sun. It’s straight and falls well below my bra strap. It’s beautiful hair.

“Cut it off.” My voice is firm.

The woman comes up behind me and gathers my hair into a ponytail. Once it’s secured, she pulls it down, loosening it a small amount. She withdraws a large pair of scissors from her bag and takes a deep breath, as if she too understands what a travesty this is, and begins to cut. It takes a few moments and several attempts, but finally the entire ponytail is gone.

She holds the hair, still bound together, in her hand and offers it to me.

I can’t look at it. “Just throw it away.”

The woman takes the scissors and cuts smaller pieces here and there. I watch as a short pixie-like style begins to appear. She puts the scissors down and reaches back into the bag. Pulling out an over-the-counter package of hair dye, she studies the directions on the back. In my other life I would never have stooped so low.

I glance at the box and read the color as “Espresso on the Double.” The woman works the color through my hair, and I relax my clenched hands from the edge of the porcelain bowl.

Rinsed, I get the first glance at my new look. The woman takes out a pair of colored contacts and hands them to me.

She demonstrates, using her own contacts, how to put them in and how to care for them when I take them out. After several tries I finally get the lens in the right spot. I examine my reflection for a few moments more. The changes transform my face. My eyes are larger. The angles are stronger. My face looks too thin. The woman is right—no one from my former life would ever recognize me. I am truly gone.