I Might Be the Wife™ of My Dreams

Ellen Rhudy

For months Tana has received her assignments with increasing dread. In her journal she writes a description of each man: his name, age, height, weight, identifying features. Enough to find him in a police lineup and no more. The first time she was assigned an older husband, rather than one of the teenagers here for their government-funded maturity missions, she dismissed it as random chance. Now, though, the increasing age and girth of her assigned husbands hints at some other fate.

“We don’t like to talk about the ‘end’ of your role,” says Samantha, the HR rep, when Tana asks. “But we do want you to consider your future as a Stepmother™ , over this week with Terrance. What you might accomplish in the role.”

“You keep saying ‘we,’” Tana says. “Is there someone else making the decision, someone I could talk to?”

“No.” Samantha closes a spiral bound notebook, in which Tana has seen her write nothing. “I am the only person you should be coming to.”

Back to Terrance, then–or, as it turns out, to the empty room where Terrance should be. Terrance. A man with a fistsized bald spot on the back of his head, scalp as pale as the inside of Tana’s arm, quarters of skin scabbing loose. Gristle between his teeth regardless of whether he’s recently eaten. Buttoned shirts a size too small, revealing patches of pale skin and wiry gray hair. Tana cannot think of her husband for the week without shuddering. Not that the sixteen- or eighteen-year-olds were notably better, but they are easier. They are predictable: nervous about touching her, and then misunderstanding the power of their brief advances. They are so unformed that she can offer them each the same basic experience, moving through their weeks without thought. Terrance is less predictable, and she is anxious in finding their suite empty.

“My dear husband,” she says when he finally returns, hours later, to their rooms on the second floor of the Storybook hotel. A building made to resemble a castle, with a drawbridge lowered over the trail used by the grounds crew. At night, if she concentrates, Tana can hear First Wives™ in the other rooms, groaning with enacted pleasure for their temporary husbands.

The husbands stay for one week, Sunday evening to Sunday morning, and the Wives are allowed to gather only for the Sunday lunch between husbands. As they eat, they critique the men they’ve bade their tearful goodbyes to, who they will all forget by the time they meet their new husbands in the evening; they share new ideas and approaches to enhance the husband experience. Now, Tana finds she cannot recall even the next line she is meant to use with Terrance. This a man who could not muster the strength to act out a proper rescue scenario on their first evening, instead shouting at Tana to simply climb down from her tower–that he knew she wasn’t trapped, not truly. Now Tana lowers herself before his knees, resting her palms on the armchair he is collapsed into. She looks to his face with an expression the boys often mistake for love.

“My wife,” he says. He has forgotten her name, Tana understands. This is not a problem. She is at heart an idea, and the idea is all that matters. He takes her hand in his and they both look at it. Tana is reminded of that scene: a woman’s hand vanishing into the palm of a beast.

“I thought we should be outside together,” she says. When he agrees, she leads him to the lakeshore where they will toss bread to ducks. Other First Wives and their husbands have gathered along the shore, well-distanced. The husbands shouldn’t speak to one another, shouldn’t have to interact with anyone outside the bounds of their purchased experience. Tana sits behind Terrance and squeezes his shoulders, she pours him a glass of juice and places herself close enough to his side that he can take her hand, if he wishes.

“What do you hope for, for our week together?” he asks. He looks at Tana’s nails instead of her face.

Tana almost pulls her hand free. She almost stands and walks away. A customer asking after your own desires, wants, needs: First Wives are warned against this. A Stepmother, yes, might have her own desires to mingle with those of her husband; but she is not a Stepmother, not yet, and the thought of expressing any wish raises a dense dread through her chest. She gropes for a route out. “Why don’t you tell me what you want, instead?”

The application form, five years earlier, had enumerated the many duties of a First Wife: to smile (in a gentle fashion) at your husband; to laugh (tinkling, not boisterous) at his jokes; to be open (but never over enthusiastic) to his advances. The First Wife, the packet detailed, existed to turn boys into men, to provide them such a positive repository of memories that they would never be tempted to violence or despair. The First Wife should never challenge her husband or display acerbic wit. If there were edges to her personality, she must sand them down to ease her husband’s memory making.

Tana, by then, had attended the wifely shadowing days mandated for all high school girls. Averting eyes from her classmates as First Wives writhed and moaned on the screens at the front of the room, a microphoned woman narrating the scenes. “Write this down, girls,” she said, again and again. “Notice how the wife accedes to her husband’s wishes, there. Notice, here, how she pushes his hand awayensuring the focus is only on his pleasure.” A horrifying tableau, but when she turned nineteen with no marriage prospects, Tana told herself wifedom would be the same wherever she performed it. That to be not just a first wife but a First Wife, in the Storybook senses of the term, was a noble undertaking.

I am ready to be a First Wife, Tana wrote on her application, because the First Wife must understand, above all else, that she is meant to be a story. I have always enjoyed telling stories, and I am ready to become one myself.

Terrance is twice-divorced, with three sons. Thrice-divorced, if you count his first Storybook marriage as a teenager. “I don’t,” he says as they eat their dinner on the terrace, fireflies winking on and off before the distant shush of the lake.

Tana picks at her plate, lifting pink shards of salmon to her mouth. A First Wife has a slight appetite, enabling her to maintain her effortless figure. This is a thing she won’t miss, she is thinking. A Stepmother, if that is what she is to become, is allowed appetites in all arenas of her life. “And soon you’ll be quadrice-divorced,” she says, before setting her fork back to her plate, closing her eyes.

“I don’t,” he repeats, “count the first divorce.”

They sit in silence, Tana shifting food on her plate until Terrance is done eating. Then he tells her about his sons, born in such lockstep they are all now attending the same high school. “I know what you’re thinking,” he says, though Tana’s face is set in measured non-contemplation. “It won’t be long before they’re here, same as I was.”

“The fireworks are about to start.” Tana points where Terrance should look, the lake’s far shore. She holds her mouth slightly open and awed, eyes unblinking, as a dragon rises, tongue lashing. She feels Terrance’s eyes on her.

“Do you really like them,” he says, “or is this for me?”

A star explodes, blue and purple sparks dripping back to earth.

“For you,” she admits, and he laughs. She wonders at how easily amused he is by this minor truth. She could give him slivers of her life, of her thoughts, and please him for the next six days. She is not meant to do this–but still, she could.

“I never thought about it when I was younger,” Terrance says, “how hard this must be for you.”

Again, they have been warned against this. Against breaking any part of the illusion for their husbands, against marking themselves as people in possession of interior lives.

“Every night,” Tana says, “I get to see these fireworks. I get to walk by the lake. Every day is a sunny day.” When she brushes her hair from her face, several strands come loose. She tries to dispose of them without attracting Terrance’s notice, by fluttering her fingers between balcony railings. It is an effort to not reach again to her hair, to test its resilience. “Why don’t we go inside,” she suggests. “You only get one first night with your First Wife.”

The Founder watched over her pre-service orientation. His portrait hung between drapes at the front of the room: shoeshine black hair, cheeks suggestive of the skull beneath, lips so thin they might have been drawn by a pencil. Beneath his gaze, they memorized the biographies of the great First Wives. An easier task than Tana had feared, for most First Wives had slender histories and were most notable for their absences. Dead of the plague, crushed by a pirate ship, wasted by an unknown illness. Childbirth, shipwreck, wayward hunter.

“Don’t focus on your deaths,” instructed their trainer, a former First Wife herself. “Don’t worry about staging such a dramatic event–we can’t all be kidnapped by a Yeti.” Laughter. Instead, she said, “It’s the contours of your week, the experience you build for your husbands, that determines the success of your Death Event–that determines whether and how you are mourned.”

Whether and how–these were the words Tana remembered. The deaths weren’t real, and the marriages were shorter lived than the cardstock on which they were printed. But the memories, those might become objects her husbands would carry back. Even when they sat with their real wives, the ones they would carry through their lives, the husbands might think back to her, might tell their sons about her in some grasping attempt to reclaim their own experience. There was a power in this, Tana thought. Whether or not their trainer described it as such.

On his third morning, Tana finds Terrance at the breakfast table, a photograph of a white-veiled woman drawn loose from his wallet. “I’ve been up for hours,” he says, returning the wallet to his pocket.

“You don’t need to be so quiet.” She sits. “When you’re up, I like to be up.” The thought of him watching her sleep, hearing all her body’s exhalations and gurglings, curdles something in her. The thought that she may have been laid bare against her will.

“Today I’d like to do some exploring,” he says.

“I can show you anything you like. We can go to the waterfall–”

“On my own.”

Tana watches him drink his coffee. Bacon grease shines on his lower lip. “I will await you,” she says, as any First Wife should. It happens, sometimes, that the husbands slip away. There are difficult cases, families who hope the First Wives will redirect their boys’ amorous tendencies in what the government terms a “more natural direction.” With Terrance it is something else, a problem Tana cannot locate as she watches him leave the apartment. She stands on the balcony as he walks into the scrim of woods. “He’s gone,” she reports to HR, though she would prefer not to. There is no way this reflects well on her; as a First Wife she should keep her husband so well-entertained he doesn’t want to leave, and as a potential Stepmother she should exert enough control that he sees only the activity options she has mapped for him.

Three representatives inspect the apartment before its daily cleaning. One pinches Tana’s waist with calipers, leans so close Tana can smell the sandwich the woman had for breakfast. “An everything bagel,” Tana whispers, and the woman draws back. “Egg and cheese. Ketchup.”

“Stay here,” the lead representative tells her. “When your husband returns, you should be ready for him.”

Tana follows the representative’s instruction. She peruses her dresses and selects one of the more daring designs, green velvet with a neckline plunging to reveal the ribs etched between her breasts. There being only a single closet in the suite, Terrance’s clothes are mingled with her own, his bag tucked behind the shoe rack. She lifts the arm of his suit to her nose, smells. Selects a pair of glass slippers that are in fact plastic slippers, to lay by the chaise where she will lounge until Terrance’s return.

The other apartments are quiet. Occasional shouts rise from the lawns as men engage in their optional adventure add-ons. Pursuits of dragons, rescues of wayward Wives, all manner of mental and physical challenges imagined by the Storybook suits in their office trailers. Watching a man stumble across the lawn, play sword dragging, she feels an unexpected spark of fondness for Terrance. How he recognized, his first night, he didn’t have to play his mapped role. Lunch passes with no Terrance, Tana drapes into sleep, and when she wakes she returns to the closet and lifts free his deflated bag. The faint smell of decaying roses, clustered in their vases, weights the air.

In one of the bag’s exterior pockets is a clear plastic folder holding a booking confirmation, the business card for a Storybook representative, a Storybook brochure. Live the Life of Your Dreams With the Wife of Your Dreams, the cover proclaims. A photograph of a boy gazing at a First Wife, her face hidden by blond waves. Inside, a footnoted table prices the available services, First Wives and Stepmothers incongruously heading neighboring columns. For the Stepmothers there are more options, more prices; even their basic services rate at three times Tana’s current cost. A string of photos faces the table. One is marred by a smear of grease, which Tana rubs with her thumb. A woman with chestnut brown hair, lips rimmed in stern burgundy, broad shoulders and cinched waist.

She replaces the papers and the bag before Terrance’s return. He finds her on the balcony with a glass of wine–not her appointed position. A failing, she thinks, as First Wives should display no self-direction. Terrance’s nose and bald patch have gone so red they are almost purple.

“What did you do all day?” Her day is marked on the gown, velvet crushed and damp with her sweat.

“Exploring,” Terrance says. “Reminding myself of the place.”

His answer must be untrue, but Tana pursues it no further. At best he might embellish his lie, handing her a curiosity she can turn uselessly in her hands before reporting it to the other Wives during their Sunday lunch. “Let’s have a drink,” she says. “Let’s enjoy our time together.”

At Tana’s first annual retreat, she spent a full morning hunched over photographs of the First Wives from some other age. Most looked fine, she thought, beautiful even; but she rounded the tables, identifying minor tweaks and improvements the Wives might have made. “Her eyebrows could be darker,” she said of one Wife; or “Blonde hair would lift her face.” It was rumored the Founder would visit to personally inspect them all, so Tana, in the bathroom, tried to dab her lips and smooth her hair with the same enthusiasm as the other Wives.

After lunch the Stepmothers vanished once more to their private sessions, leaving only the First Wives to perch before light-ringed mirrors. “Think of how you might improve your own appearance,” the instructor said. Cameras were fixed at intervals along the ceiling, and Tana tried not to regard them as she swabbed foundation on and off her face, adjusted her part, sprayed her hair and urged it to more compelling heights. Somewhere on the grounds was a conference of girls on their high school class trip, learning from her, now, how to be a wife; yet Tana felt she had nothing to teach them.

“Blonder,” an assistant pronounced, standing behind her, and before Tana could protest she was seated in a foiled array with the other First Wives, a line of fire marching across her scalp. No more honey blondes, coppers, auburns, they murmured as they stepped from Wife to Wife, inspecting. “Platinum!” one stylist exclaimed.

After, rinsed and trimmed and blown dry, Tana could hardly distinguish her own reflected face. All of this, she suspected, some form of business efficiency she wasn’t bright enough to grasp. The Founder failed to appear, and she struggled not to fiddle with her brittle hair as the HR rep approached with a clipboard. Later, crossing the lawn back to the hotel, Tana could not tell her own body from those of her neighbors. When she approached her husband the next day she understood these men, too, were unable to tell them apart: the First Wives were identical, and perfect.

When Terrance disappears on his fourth day, Tana follows. Smooths her hair into a slender ponytail, tucks her legs into a pair of pants she has not worn since–well, ever. Having no suitable shoes, she tiptoes from their suite on bare feet, ducking around corners and darting across open lawns in pursuit of her husband.

Where does she expect him to go? “I had no expectations,” she would say if asked, as is correct for a First Wife. In truth, she thinks he is looking for the grease-stained woman, and she is surprised only by his scattershot and uninformed approach to surveillance. He first crosses the narrow band of woods to the northeastern edge of the property, where a one-lane road separates them from a park of office trailers. Through binoculars, Terrance watches administrators come and go until the sun is spackling the leaves’ shadows across the dirt. He scratches his scalp, jerks his hand away as if shocked. “Be careful,” Tana should call to him, in her capacity as First Wife. “Let me put some ointment on that!” But she remains silent, playing some other role now–feeling oddly and almost pleasantly undefined as she follows him along the park’s northern boundaries, westward.

The woods grow denser, vines strangling tree trunks and drooping from dry limbs. Terrance curses as he pushes through the brush, and again this urge–to tell him to relax, he is doing well, he should not be so hard on himself. It has never been stated this way, but the core of the First Wife’s role is, as Tana understands it, to speak to their husbands as they would never speak to themselves.

When the trees part, they reveal a clearing encircled by a dozen small homes, each possessing its own horseshoe drive and a balcony from which women can seek their husbands. A carriage trots up one drive and then another, on no discernible pattern. A woman with black hair, in a maroon dress, steps from one house alongside a man. Something mewls, a child or possibly a cat. Tana shimmies forward on her stomach, seeking an improved view. This is where the Stepmothers live, then; where she will live. She wishes she could review Terrance’s brochure now, looking down on these women. She is not sure she is ready to manage her own home, to perform the more complex requests and needs of grown men, to appear as enthusiastic and self-directed as a Stepmother must be in all her work. She wants to draw closer, to see if she recognizes any of these women beneath their makeup.

“Thought I smelled you back there.” Tana shifts to her elbow to see Terrance standing over her. Binoculars swing from a cracked leather strap around his neck.

“What do I smell like?”

He reaches a hand to lift her up. “Like bad eggs,” he says. “A perm.”

Sweat marks the edges of Terrance’s face, traces the lobe of his ear. His nose crackles with peeling skin. Tana shades her eyes. “You want a Stepmother, then? Not a First Wife?”

“It’s nothing like that. You’re good,” he says, “you’re perfect.”

“But here you are.”

“Come down.” He sits. He pats the ground beside him. When Tana sits, he passes her the binoculars. “There’s someone I’m looking for.”

“A Stepmother.”

“Maybe.”

Tana lifts the binoculars. Nothing is in focus, they hurt her eyes. She sets them on her lap.

“It’s more expensive,” he says, “for the Stepmothers. I don’t have that kind of money. It’s nothing against you, you know. That I’m here.” He gestures at the homes, the women.

This is a new experience. A husband trying to explain himself to her! The world, at rare moments, can still surprise Tana. She tries again to look through the binoculars, and Terrance reaches around to show her how to adjust the focus. Tana is faintly dazed by all the scenes revealing themselves to her. In this house, a Stepmother shouting at ragged children; in this house, a Stepmother on all fours, naked; in this house, a husband lifting the wig from his Stepmother’s head.

She returns the binoculars. “They tell us the men want the First Wife, more than anything. Even before I worked here that’s what they said.”

Terrance shrugs, half-gone now in his own viewing. His head shifts minutely as he gazes into one house and then the next. “There wouldn’t be any Stepmothers if men didn’t want them.”

The hill falls so sharply beneath them, all those houses, all those women. Tana cannot watch any longer. Cannot think of all these women undoing the things they have been trained to be. “I have to go,” she tells Terrance. “I’ll see you back in our rooms.” Where she finds, on her return, her feet are so crusted in dirt they cannot be scrubbed clean.

A First Wife, after being a First Wife, could be many things. All the women working in the park–the HR representatives, the trainers, the cooks, all of them–were once First Wives themselves. At Tana’s second annual retreat, before inspection, one of the HR reps stood before them. “You are part of a family,” she said. “We care for you and will be sure you are provided for with long careers.” Turning to the Founder’s portrait, she pressed her hand to heart and held his gaze for so long Tana could not help looking to the other Wives to see if they, too, found this bizarre.

No First Wife, the rumor went, had lasted past twenty-five. All those husbands weighing on a woman until she was fit for no job but glamorous paper pusher or, if she was lucky, Stepmotherdom. If she was unlucky, a return to the outside world, where no one would marry her–not if they knew the services she had performed, the number of husbands she had possessed.

At her second retreat, the inspection was almost enjoyable. Tana smiled when the representative stood before her to catalog crow’s feet and sun damage. There would be nothing to find, she knew. But then her third year came, and her fourth, and her hairdresser’s disturbing comments about the harmful effect of gravity on bleached hair. “You’re thinning out,” he declared before sending Tana to stand with her hair teased high, reluctant to move her face as yet another representative prodded her.

The women pulled from rotation were taken quietly. There was no fanfare, only their absence at the evening dinner, an open seat at training. Some of them reappeared as HR reps themselves, gloating at inspection; but most were simply gone, unremarked upon and unmissed.

Who has been made into a Stepmother, before her? Tana is surprised to realize she doesn’t know. She glimpses them at annual retreats but always averts her eyes, regarding theirs as a more shameful sort of work. She sits on the balcony with a sweating bottle of chardonnay, awaiting Terrance’s stumbling return from the northern woods. Planning how she will rub aloe on his scalp and nose, how she will soothe his failures in his mission. These are the things a First Wife does. Sipping her wine, picking at the dirt-encrusted scales on her heel, Tana cannot identify the specific lacks that have led to the end of this career. She has been supportive of her husbands, she has never guided children to a candied cottage in the woods. Only a loss of beauty, perhaps. A loss of effortless youth.

When Terrance returns, via some path that hasn’t led him before her gaze, she doesn’t offer him wine or aloe. He overflows the space with the smells of sweat and heat and unwashed clothes. Tana tilts her glass for its last drops. She pours another glass. She imagines herself as a Stepmother, almost as free as the husband beside her. To only do as she wishes, and if he tries to stop her–there is the threat of a spell, a child bewitched, an accident, to quiet his complaints. How odd, she thinks, that a man might desire these things. That he might pay more for these services.

“Who are you looking for?” This is a Stepmotherly question, a question testing the boundaries of some newly established world. She holds her glass between her palms.

Terrance doesn’t answer.

“I think,” she says, “you’re looking for your First Wife.” Sips her wine.

“You would understand if you knew her.” He hunches over his knees. That scalp will blister and lift free, she thinks, like a lizard shedding its skin. “We were meant for each other. I told her I would come back for her and then…you know how it is, when you’re back in the world. Or,” he adds, after a pause, “you don’t.”

“Almost no one gets made a Stepmother.”

“I know.”

“She couldn’t have loved you,” Tana says. “It’s only our job.”

He shakes his head. “She was different. She didn’t stay on the script. She told me about herself.”

Tana doesn’t know how to answer. To tell him that if this woman went off her script, she was only on some other script he could not see. “I have to call Park Security.”

“I know,” he says.

A gnat has fallen in her glass. Tana dips her pinkie finger in the wine, just enough that the bug can latch to her nail. “Or tomorrow,” she says, “you can leave early. A family emergency. You can review me well.” She sets the glass on the wrought iron table. Wipes her hands on her muddied pants as she stands, remembering the gnat a moment too late. “Did you see her?” she asks. “The Wife?”

Terrance shakes his head.

“She wouldn’t have meant it,” Tana says. She is not sure whether she intends this as a kindness, or a cruelty. “You should know First Wives don’t mean anything they say.”

“She had a carriage accident,” he says, as she slides the door shut behind her. “Do you know which of the First Wives liked to die by carriage accident?”

The Founder, it was rumored, launched Storybook Enterprises after the death of his own first wife. Wanting not so much the opportunity to relive their happy days together, as the opportunity to live such a diversity of deaths that any single one of them would cease to carry any meaning. Death, he believed, was an obstacle that could be overcome through repeated exposure.

This was the story Tana told as she aged in her role. In her fourth and fifth years she found herself placed in positions of minor power at the annual retreats: Group Leader, Table Captain. It was important to give the First Wives something to believe in, a way to understand their roles as being about something more than flesh. She led the newest Wives in recitation of their own creation myth: their role in keeping fantasy and play a part of the world, their role in training their husbands how to take pleasure from their future wives. “Ours is a noble undertaking,” she would tell them, and wait for this to be echoed back in a cry so strong it would etch away any doubts Tana had.

Her fifth year, the cry still echoing beneath her aching scalp, one of the new Wives found Tana as they walked the false carriageway to the hotel. “What advice do you have?” the Wife wanted to know. “How have you been successful for so long?”

“I am so tired all the time,” Tana wanted to say. “This job is nothing like I thought it would be,” she wanted to say. But she stopped walking, and turned to the new First Wife–this girl with a new-hatched face, blinking too fast at the world. “I just love the work,” she said. “If you love the work, it becomes its own reward.”

“A family emergency,” Tana tells HR, “but I want him to still get his full experience.” She goes by drowning, usually, but tells the representative they’ve agreed on a basic carriage accident. This feels like the last kindness she can offer as a First Wife, to give up her weekly plunge into the lake, arms pulsing beneath the water, lungs grasping, until she emerges on the far shore to watch her husband being led away.

She sits in the office, watching on the television as the road splits for Terrance into a familiar before-and-after. Had he paid enough, she would be in the carriage, would stumble out to him before expiring in his arms–but he has not paid enough, there will be only this empty carriage, this road, this screaming horse. Hands clasped between her knees, Tana leans forward as he runs to the carriage, pulls its door wide, falls. The speakers capture the crackling of leaves and the wind as much as his wail, rising. “Tana!” he cries, “Tana!” and she is startled to find he does know her name. Men lift him to his feet, to clear the road for its regular activities, but Terrance shakes them loose and stays kneeling. A twist of dread rises in Tana’s throat as he cries. Accidents do not always work as scripted, she reminds herself. No one could say it is her fault, if he feels too much. “I stayed on the script,” she tells herself, trying not to see Terrance’s feet dragging their path through the dirt, that blistering scalp slumped into view.

She is tempted to ask after his first First Wife–to ask for the details of her accident, for a list of services purchased in addition to the standard government-funded program. But there is so much to do. The annual retreat begins on Sunday, she has to move apartments, she has a catalog of Stepmothers to study before her training begins. The hairstylist comes to her new home and leaves Tana with a row of wigs she might shift between as her mood determines. She inspects her transforming face in the new mirror; she sits on the home’s stoop and strains to hear the Stepmothers in their neighboring houses, to locate some hint at her own future role. When she thinks of Terrance something in her clenches and refuses to release. This is a sign, as if any more are needed, that she is not prepared to be a Stepmother.

The Founder is rumored to appear at the retreat, the same as every year. But this year Tana sits with the Stepmothers, looking down at the sweating, flustered Wives, at all the women who hope this man with his pencil mustache and absent lips may find them pleasing. She feels overwhelmed as she attends seminars with the Stepmothers, wishing faintly she were in a First Wife session on the radical emancipation of solitude, or the proper application of lip liner. The Stepmothers are a riot of appearance, with their different hairs and skins and dresses, that at intervals Tana has to squeeze her eyes shut to reset her vision.

And then, at dinner–he is there, on a dais overlooking the hall. Murmurs swelling around his margin of white hair, his mustache reduced to shreds. Tana watches the First Wives as they watch him, the food cooling and congealing on their plates. She reminds herself to eat, that eating is now a thing she is allowed to do. “I first dreamed of this as a young man,” he pronounces, “and what an amazing thing, to see a dream made real.” He talks about the power of stories to shape a man’s psyche, how the appropriate feminine training might alter the course of a man’s life. “Here,” he says, “in this place we have built together, every story will be open to that young man.”

Tana holds ice cream on her tongue until it melts. The sugar such a shock she fears her heart might spring from her chest. The Founder talks and talks, about boys, and fulfillment, about peace and yearning. He talks about how Storybook is now welcoming its third generation of young men. “Yes,” he says, “this dream has now been a reality for over fifty years.” He describes Storybook’s expansion to the Canadian market, where it is rumored the government will soon begin funding maturity missions much as the United States has.

And then he comes to them, to the women. Tana licks her fingers as he leers to inspect their faces, his eyes bloodshot and their skin rifled with age. She is not concerned, she realizes. A Stepmother is allowed to be all the things a First Wife is not. For her to stand here with her lips sticky and red is, for the first time in five years, not a failing. “Our newest Stepmother,” says the representative at his shoulder, and the Founder reveals gray teeth between those damp, narrow lips.

He continues to the First Wives, their speech muffled as he makes his halting way down their line. Three Wives are marked by a faint shake of his head, and drawn from the line; and one, Tana thinks the girl who followed her a year before, is drawn forward. She watches as the banquet filters to its close, as the girl and the Founder are led from the room; she is still thinking of them that night, in her home, picturing the girl’s face swollen with the certainty that she will be one of the great First Wives. That her story will be one for the ages.

Ellen Rhudy lives in Columbus, where she’s an MFA candidate at The Ohio State University. Her fiction has appeared in Story, Split Lip, The Adroit Journal, and Cream City Review, among others. She’s currently working on a collection of stories and a novel.