By dusk the roads he drove were no longer paved. Ruts carved deep by spring rains suggested long disuse. The swaying of the car and the constant grinding of gears eventually jolted Jenny out of her romantic dreams. She moved away from George and sat looking at the pines which met above the road.
"We're lost, aren't we?" she asked.
"What's that?" he shouted to be heard above the roar of the motor.
For a minute or two longer he continued to drive until he saw an open space under the trees. He pulled the car into the clearing and snapped off the ignition. Then he looked Jenny full in the face and answered her. "No, Jenny, we aren't lost; I know exactly what I'm doing."
"Oh." He was sure she had understood him, but she said, "We can spend the night here and find the lodge in the morning. It's a pity we didn't bring something to eat." She smiled ingenuously. "But I brought the compound; and we have each other."
They got out of the car. Jenny looked up at the sunset, dull red above the trees, and shivered; she asked George to build a fire. He tucked the ignition key into the band of his white trunks and began to gather dry boughs and pine needles from the floor of the forest. He found several large branches and carried them back to the clearing. There was enough wood to last until morning--whether he stayed that long or not. Jenny had lugged the seats and a blanket out of the car and improvised a lean-to close to the fire.
He piled on two of the larger branches and the bright glow of flame lit their faces. She beckoned to him and gave him a bottle of the compound, watching bright-eyed as he emptied it.
With her lips parted, she waited. He did nothing. Slowly the light died in her eyes. Like a savage she flung herself into his arms. He steeled himself to show absolutely no reaction and finally she drew away. Trembling and with tears in her eyes, she whispered, "The compound doesn't--" The look of pain in her eyes turned to terror. "You're immune!"
"Now you know."
"But who told you--" She searched his face, shaking her head. "You don't know, do you--not really?"
Instead of replying, she asked, "You brought me here deliberately, didn't you?"
"So we wouldn't be interrupted. You see, Jenny, you're going to tell me where the compound's made."
"It wouldn't do you any good. Don't you see--" He closed his hands on her wrists and jerked her rudely to her feet. He saw her face go white. And no wonder: that magnificent, granite hard body, which she had bought in good faith for her own pleasure, was suddenly out of her control. He grinned. He crushed her mouth against his and kissed her. Limp in his arms, she clung to him and said in a choked, husky whisper, "I love you, George."
"And you'll make any sacrifice for love," he replied, mocking the dialogue of the television love stories.
"Then tell me where the compound's manufactured."
"Hold me close, George; never let me go."
How many times had he heard that particular line! It sickened him, hearing it now from Jenny; he had expected something better of her. He pushed her from him. By accident his fist raked her face. She fell back blood trickling from her mouth. In her eyes he saw shock and a vague sense of pain; but both were overridden by adoration. She was like a whipped puppy, ready to lick his hand.
"I'll tell you, George," she whispered. "But don't leave me." She pulled herself to her feet and stood beside him, reaching for his hand. "We make it in Hollywood, in the Directorate Building, the part that used to be a sound stage."
"Thanks, Jenny." He picked up one of the car seats and walked back to the sedan. She stood motionless watching him. He fitted the seat in place and put the key in the lock. The starter ground away, but the motor did not turn over.
He glanced back at Jenny. She was smiling inscrutably, "You see, George, you have to stay with me."
He got out of the car and moved toward her.
"I was afraid you were planning to desert me," she went on, "so I took out the distributor cap while you were getting the firewood."
He stood in front of her. Coldly he demanded, "Where did you put it, Jenny?"
She tilted her lips toward his. "Kiss and tell--maybe."
"I haven't time for games. Where is it?"
His fist shot out. Jenny sprawled on the ground at his feet. Again he saw the pain and the adoration in her face. But that couldn't be right. She would hate him by this time.
He yanked her to her feet. Her lips were still bleeding and blood came now from a wound in her cheek. Yet she managed to smile again.
"I don't want to hurt you, Jenny," he told her. "But I have to have--"
"I love you, George. I never thought I'd want to give myself to a man. All the buying doesn't make any difference, does it? Not really. And I never knew that before!"
With an unconscious movement, she kicked her train aside and he saw the distributor cap lying beneath it. He picked it up. She flung herself at him screaming. He felt the hammer beat of her heart; her fingers dug into his back like cat claws. Now it didn't matter. He had the secret; he could go whenever he wanted to. Nonetheless he pushed her away--tenderly, and with regret. To surrender like this was no better than a capitulation to the compound. It was instinctively important to make her understand that. He knew that much, but his emotions were churned too close to fever pitch for him to reason out what else that implied.
He clipped her neatly on the jaw and put her unconscious body on the ground by the fire. He left the map with her so she could find her way out in the morning; he knew it was really a very short hike to a highway, where she would be picked up by a passing car or truck.
He drove out the way he had come in--at least he tried to remember. Four times he took a wrong turn and had to backtrack. It was, therefore, dawn before he reached the outskirts of Hollywood. In any other city he would not have been conspicuous--simply a man on his way to work; only women slept late. However, Hollywood was off-limits to every male. The city was not only the seat of the Directorate, but the manufacturing center for the cosmetics industry. And since that gave women her charm, it was a business no man worked at.
George had to have a disguise. He stopped on a residential street, where the people were still likely to be in their beds. He read names on mail boxes until he found a house where an unmarried woman lived. He had no way of knowing if she had a husband on approval with her, but the box was marked "Miss." With any luck he might have got what he wanted without disturbing her, but the woman was a light sleeper and she caught him as he was putting on the dress. He was sorry he had to slug her, but she gave him no resistance. A spark of hope, a spark of long-forgotten youth glowed in her eyes; before she slid into unconsciousness.
Wearing the stolen dress, which fit him like a tent, and an enormous hat to hide his face, George parked his sedan near the Directorate and entered the building when it opened at eight. In room after room automatons demonstrated how to dress correctly; robot faces displayed the uses of cosmetics. There were displays of kitchen gadgets, appliances, and other heavy machinery for the home; recorded lectures on stock management and market control. Here women came from every part of the country for advice, help and guidance. Here the Top Directors met to plan business policy, to govern the nation, and to supervise the production of the compound. For only the Top Directors--less than a dozen women--actually knew the formula. Like their stockholdings, the secret was hereditary, passed from mother to daughter.
George searched every floor of the building, but found nothing except exhibit rooms. Time passed, and still he did not find what he had come for. More and more women crowded in to see the exhibits. Several times he found new-comers examining him oddly; he found he had to avoid the crowds.
Eventually he went down steps into the basement, though a door marked "Keep Out." The door was neither locked nor guarded, but there was a remote chance it might lead to the production center for the compound. In the basement George found a mechanical operation underway; at first he took it for another cosmetic exhibit. Conveyor belts delivered barrels of flavoring syrup, alcohol and a widely advertised liquid vitamin compound. Machines sliced open the containers, dumping the contents into huge vats, from which pipes emptied the mixture into passing rows of bottles.
The bottles: suddenly George recognized them and the truth dawned on him, sickeningly. Here was the manufacturing center for the compound--but it might just as well have been a barn in Connecticut or a store window in Manhattan. No man was enslaved by the compound, for the compound did not exist. He was imprisoned by his own sense of guilt, his own fear of being different. George remembered his own fear and guilt: he knew how much a man could be driven to make himself conform to what he thought other men were like.
His revenge was as foolish as the sham he wanted to destroy. He should have reasoned that out long ago; he should have realized it was impossible to have immunity to an addictive drug. But, no, George believed what he saw on the television programs. He was victimized as much as any man had ever been.
He turned blindly toward the stairway, and from the shadows in the hall the Morals Squad closed in around him. With a final gesture of defiance, he ripped off the stolen dress and the absurd hat, and stood waiting for the blast from their guns. An old woman, wearing the shoulder insignia of a Top Director, pushed through the squad and faced him, a revolver in her hand. She was neither angry nor disturbed. Her voice, when she spoke, was filled with pity. Pity! That was the final indignity.
"Now you know the truth," she said. "A few men always have to try it; and we usually let them see this room and find out for themselves before--before we close the case."
Tensely he demanded, "Just how much longer do you think--"
"We can get away with this? As long as men are human beings. It's easier to make yourself believe a lie if you think everyone else believes it, than to believe a truth you've found out on your own. All of us want more than anything else to be like other people. Women have created a world for you with television programs; you grow up observing nothing else; you make yourself fit into the pattern. Only a few independent-minded characters have the courage to accept their own immunity; most of them end up here, trying to do something noble for the rest of mankind. But you have one satisfaction, for what it's worth: you've been true to yourself."
True to yourself. George found a strange comfort in the words, and his fear was gone. He squared his shoulders and faced the mouth of her gun. True to yourself: that was something worth dying for.
He saw a flicker of emotion in the old woman's eyes. Admiration? He couldn't be sure. For at the moment a shot rang out from the end of the corridor; and the Top Director fell back, nursing a hand suddenly bright with blood.
"Let him go." It was Jenny's voice. She was sheltered by a partly open door at the foot of the stairway.
"Don't be a fool," the old woman replied. "He's seen too much."
"It doesn't matter. Who would believe him?"
"You're upset. You don't realize--"
"He's mine and I want him."
"The Directorate will give you a refund of the purchase price."
"You didn't understand me. I don't want one of your pretty automatons; anybody can buy them for a few shares of stock. I want a man--a real man; I want to belong to him."
"He belongs to you; you bought him."
"And that's what's wrong. We really belong to each other."
The old woman glanced at George and he saw the same flicker of feeling in her eyes. And tears, tears of regret. Why? "We have you outnumbered," the old woman said quietly to Jenny.
"I don't care. I have a gun; I'll use it as long as I'm able."
The Morals Squad raised their weapons. The Director shook her head imperiously and they snapped to attention again. "If you take him from us," she called out to Jenny, "you'll be outlawed. We'll hunt you down, if we can."
"I want him," Jenny persisted. "I don't care about the rest of it."
The old woman nodded to George. He couldn't believe that she meant it. The Director was on her home ground, in her headquarters building, backed by an armed squad of stone-faced Amazons. She had no reason to let him go.
She walked beside him as he moved down the hall. When they were twenty feet from the guard, she closed her thin hand on his arm; her eyes swam with tears and she whispered, "There truly is a love potion. Not this nonsense we bottle here, but something real and very worthwhile. You and this girl have found it. I know that, from the way she talks. She doesn't say anything about ownership, and that's as it should be. As it has to be, for any of us to be happy. Hold tight to that all the rest of your life. Don't ever believe in words; don't fall for any more love stories; believe what you feel deep inside--what you know yourself to be true.
"You men who learn how to break away are our only hope, too. Most of us don't see that yet. I do; I know what it used to be like. Someday there may be enough men with the stamina to take back the place of dominance that we stole from them. We thought we wanted it; for decades before we had been screaming about women's rights." Her thin lips twisted in a sneer and she spat her disgust. "Finally we took what we wanted, and it turned to ashes in our hands. We made our men playthings; we made them slaves. And after that they weren't men any more. But what we stole isn't the sort of thing you can hand back on a silver platter; you men have to get enough courage to take it away from us."
Her grip tightened on his arm. "There's a fire door at the end of the hall; if you push the emergency button, you'll close it. That will give you a five or ten minute start. I can't help you any more...."
They were abreast of Jenny. She seized Jenny's hand and thrust it into his. "Beat it, kids; there's a bachelor camp on the north ridge. You can make it.
"And from here on in, what he says goes," the old woman added. "Don't forget that."
"She won't," George answered, supremely self-assured.
He took Jenny's arm and, turning abruptly, they made their break for freedom. The Director managed to remain standing in the middle of the corridor, making a dangerous target of herself so that none of the Morals Squad could risk a shot at the fugitives. As the fire door clanged shut George looked back. He saw the old woman's lips moving in silent prayer.
By Betsy Curtis
She had her mind made up--the one way they'd make her young again was over her dead body!
Old Miss Barbara Noble twitched aside the edge of the white scrim curtain to get a better look at the young man coming down the street. He might be the one.
The young man bent a little under the weight of the battered black suitcase as he crossed Maple and started up Prospect on Miss Noble's side. She could see him set the case down on the wide porch of the Raney house and wipe his forehead with a handkerchief. Then she lost sight of him as he advanced to the door. He could be a visitor to the Raney's, but they were out of town on vacation. He could be a salesman.
Miss Barbara shifted her rocker to the other side of the window where she could watch without having to disturb the curtain. This second-floor sitting room made an excellent lookout. She quickly scanned the street in the other direction, but there was no sign of movement in the hot sunlight. She settled down to watch the black suitcase sitting uncommunicatively at the edge of the porch.
It must have been all of two minutes before the young man appeared from under the over-hanging roof and picked up the case. A persistent fellow. He went down to the sidewalk and approached her own house, came up on her own front doorstep, tried to set the case down on the narrow stoop, couldn't, straightened up and rang the bell. A raucous buzz filled the sitting room.
Barbara Noble leaned toward the window, pulled back the curtain a scant inch, and studied his back as he looked at the windows on the other side of the front door. Limp yellow hair and a big perspiration stain in the middle of a dark sport shirt were her chief impressions. He could be a bona fide salesman working hard at it. She wouldn't let him in, of course; but she felt a little sorry for him lugging that big case around in this weather. Then he turned and looked straight at the window behind which she was hiding, and she let the curtain go suddenly. Had he seen it move? The buzzer sounded again, imperiously.
Miss Barbara got up stiffly, moved to the big vizer screen in the nearest corner, and switched it on. The man might have something interesting and she couldn't get out to shop the way she used to. She smoothed her lilac housedress and left the room to descend the stairs to the front door.
In the tiny front hall she hesitated, then opened the door inward about eight inches. Deftly the man stuck the broad brown toe of his shoe into the opening and looked down at her. She grinned as she saw his expression of shock.
She was old, really old. Her sparse white hair was pulled so tightly into a knob on top of her head that the plentiful wrinkles on her forehead and around her eyes seemed to run vertically, giving her an oriental look. The hand she rested on the door jamb was a waxy-white claw, a blue vein standing up prominently under the skin tight-drawn over gnarly finger joints. He had probably never seen a woman much past middle age.
"Well?" Her croak was high and rough.
The young man recovered himself and began his spiel. "Madame, I represent one of the best-known and most reputable firms in the country. Our products have received three international medals for purity and effective performance. They...."
"What are you selling, young man?"
"I have the privilege of being a field representative for Taffeta Beauty Aids. Please accept this generous ten-ounce bottle of our Diamond Dew Refreshest Lotion...." He reached into his side pocket and brought it out, offered it with the most appreciative smile, his 'you hardly need this' smile.
Her hand did not reach out. "I don't want any. Goodbye!" The door tightened against his foot.
"But madame," his foot did not budge and his smile became both engaging and pleading, "all I ask is a chance to show you our line. Our products sell themselves. Besides, I'm paid on a demonstration basis--so much for every potential customer who receives our free sample and so much for every home demonstration. You wouldn't want me to lose two-fifty when it would take only six and a third minutes of your time exactly to look over one of the most amazing displays ever...."
"Well, I don't know...."
"I know you'll enjoy watching our Tissue Cleanser in action and seeing the new simplicity of our Home Re--...." (oops, he'd almost said it) "... Hair Relustrification Kit. I promise you that your few minutes won't be wasted."
"Yours would be, young man. I don't buy that stuff."
"You may be one of the lucky few women who don't need our products, but I don't think you can say that before you've seen them."
"I never did see such persistence, honest to goodness!" Her face assumed a crabbed smile. "Come along then."