Robert is twelve and his life consists of school and boring parties organized by his father or his father’s business partners. He spends all the time there wandering around huge, professionally decorated houses and hiding in the bathrooms for fear of being caught. He knows he should be mingling with the guests and making small talk. But he’s always the youngest one at those parties and he’s not good at small talk anyway (not good at any kind of talking, really), so hiding seems safer. At least this way his father won’t know how bad his people skills actually are.
And sometimes he goes into huge walk-in closets attached to master bedrooms and sits there, surrounded by pretty shoes and scarves and silk dresses. He doesn’t dare touch anything, but there’s a smile on his face. Since his mother’s death, this is the only thing that makes him really happy.
Robert is sixteen and, apparently, too old to go to his father’s annual Christmas party without a plus one.
“Is there no one you’d like to invite? No one you’d like to spend some time with?” asks Uncle Peter, because his father is too busy to bother with such trifles.
There is. Molly who sits in front of Robert in English Lit has the bluest eyes he has ever seen in his life, but he can’t get up the nerve to ask her. So he shakes his head.
At the party, there is a blond girl in a very short black dress hanging on his arm. Her name is Alison and that’s the only thing he knows about her. That and the fact that she works at an escort agency and that his father hired her for him.
But none of that matters later, when they end up in the bathroom and Robert feels the pressure of her lips against his.
“Not bad for a first kiss,” she says after a couple of minutes.
“How did you?..” he starts to ask, but then looks in the mirror and stops dead.
“Oh, you’ve gotten a bit of my lipstick on your lower lip. Here, let me,” says Alison, and wipes it away with her fingertip. “Okay, all gone. Should we go back now?”
“Go, I’ll follow you in a couple of minutes," Robert answers, and notices proudly that his voice doesn’t shake.
He spends the next fifteen minutes staring at his reflection.
Robert is seventeen when he starts dreaming about her. He doesn’t dream every night and the dreams are all different, but all of them include a tall young woman with blue eyes and full lips and freckles on her cheeks. Sometimes she sits in front of a mirror and puts the finishing touches on her make-up. Sometimes she tries on a long red skirt. Sometimes she dances in a club until it’s three a.m. and her feet in four-inch heels are killing her. Sometimes she makes blueberry pancakes for her girlfriend.
It takes Robert three weeks to realize that the woman bears a strong resemblance to him.
The day after Robert’s nineteenth birthday, Maurice Fischer says, “Your mind has to be protected from a possible extraction, Robert.”
A man who was introduced as Mr Smith talks for what feels like hours about PASIV devices and dreams and projections and Robert tunes it all out. But then, one phrase actually sparks an interest and Robert says out loud, without even realizing it, “Become whoever he wants?”
“Exactly”, the man replies, patiently and politely. “A Forger can change his appearance in a dream to whatever he wants in order to facilitate the extracting process and that is what makes him so dangerous and…”
But Robert doesn’t listen any more.
“Your chances of finding a Forger in this place are slim to none, my dear Mr Fischer. Fortunately, it seems like it’s your lucky day.”
A voice startles Robert, who almost trips because of it. Two weeks after meeting Mr Smith for the first time, after formulating this mad and brilliant plan, Robert has finally found this place. A place where people dream. Being recognized right away is unexpected, though.
Robert turns and sees a man in a shirt of such an atrocious shade of pink it is unbelievable someone would actually consider wearing it.
“What do you mean it’s my lucky day?” Robert demands. “And how did you know?..”
“Oh, your attempts at being sneaky aren’t half as successful as you think they are, love, although I grant you, they are charming,” the man replies. “Word goes you are looking for a Forger. Well, here I am, the best one there is.”
“But it was you who found me. Why?” asks Robert.
“I am just curious, love. Why would someone like you need someone like me? It doesn’t look like you plan an ordinary extraction. So…”
“So why should I believe you? How do I know you don’t work for – for my father or…”
“You don’t. You just have to trust me.”
Robert takes a deep breath and says, “Okay. I need you to teach me how to change my appearance in dreams.”
“Why?” the man wonders, and for the first time during their conversation his voice doesn’t sound sarcastic or patronizing.
“Because this, this body - it isn’t me.”
She has never said it out loud before.
“Okay then. Tomorrow at two p.m. you should come here. I’ll share your dreams. My name’s Eames, by the way.”
Afterwards, she realizes she doesn’t remember what Eames looks like. She remembers the pink shirt, though.
Some time later (five days? seven weeks? eleven months?), she sits in front of a mirror and closes her eyes, just for a moment. Just like Eames taught her to. When she opens them again, the reflection in front of her changes to a pouty-mouthed redhead. She contemplates her new face for a couple of minutes. Wasn’t she going to wear that red dress later, the one Eames likes so much? But red hair doesn’t really go with it, so maybe she should just change again. She wanted to try out that dark haired girl from –
“Are you here, darling?” she hears suddenly, before the door of her hotel room opens and Eames comes in.
“Hey, I didn’t expect to see you here today,” she says, smiling. Eames looks good, long curly hair running down the shoulders, the eyes impossibly green, a little bit darker than the short party dress.
“Well, I didn’t expect to see you here today, either,” Eames answers, with an apparent edge in the voice.
“What? Why?” she says.
“Because you aren’t supposed to spend so much time in your dreams. Isn’t your father going to get suspicious?”
“No, he doesn’t care what I do. He doesn’t care one bit,” she answers bitterly.
“But still, you can’t spend all the time here. This isn’t real, remember? This isn’t your life, darling.”
She turns away. “This is my life, okay? This is the only place I can be myself.”
“No, it isn’t because it isn’t you. These women whose faces you wear – they are just masks under which you are hiding yourself.”
“Why are you saying this to me?” she says, her voice shaking.
“Because I – care about you.”
“Then why can’t we just?..” she says, turning around and looking at Eames’ mouth. The lips seem so, so soft. If only she could- “We can live here, just you and me, you know? Would that be so bad?”
“Yes, it would. You can’t expect me to pretend to be a woman all my life, just so you can be in love with me.”
Half an hour later, Eames will wake up. Until then, neither of them says a word.
She gets a present from Eames for her twenty-second birthday. She finds it in the pile of presents accumulated during her obligatory birthday party which Uncle Peter organizes for her every year.
When she opens an ordinary-looking package, she finds a pair of shoes with four-inch heels, and a card with three words written on it: To Miss Fischer
She announces that she is going to break up her father’s empire during a press conference, two weeks after her father’s funeral.
During the press conference, she wears a black suit, a black tie and silver cufflinks. And the shoes Eames sent her.
She thinks it’s a first step.